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From brains to potatoes - the war-role of the Oxford College

Magdelen College

Under the archway of the Founder's Tower in St John's Quadrangle of Magdalen College is a plaque surmounted by the badge of the Royal Air Force:

"During the Second World War the headquarters staff of No.43 Group, Royal Air Force, were accommodated in this College. They leave this tablet in gratitude for the good fellowship they enjoyed and for the privilege of being allowed to worship in the College Chapel.

1st February 1941 to 30th April 1945."

Mansfield College

1942 The College was occupied by the Codes and Cyphers department of the Foreign Office for the final three years of the Second World War.

Somerville College

Somerville was converted into a hospital during World War I — Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were patients there. Sassoon’s Siegfried's Progress opens with a reference to the college.

St Hugh’s College

The Combined Services Hospital for Head Injuries at St. Hugh's College, Oxford ('The Nutcrackers Suite' ) became a neurological unit of first importance. Plans were complete when war was declared in September 1939, and the Hospital opened in February 1940. It became the training school for a generation of neurologists and neurosurgeons and treated no less than 13,000 service men and women in the five years of its existence.

Its leader and founder, Hugh William Bell Cairns, realized that, in order to save the lives of the greatest number of soldiers suffering from head wounds, they should be treated in the field by specialist neurosurgical teams. He devised and brought about the formation of eight mobile neurosurgical units. These units treated more than 20,000 patients in North Africa, Italy and the other European theatres of was as well as in India, and their formation was one of Cairn's greatest contributions in the field of military medical care.

St Johns College

From 1940 to 1945, part of St John's College was taken over by the Ministry of Food as the headquarters of the Potato Marketing Board.

The episode is recorded in gold lettering on a large green notice-board half way up the stairs leading to the buttery. Nothing so vulgar as a potato is mentioned in the stylish Latin inscription:

Sciant praesentes et futuri quod in his cameris almi collegii D Jo. Bapt. per sex annos tribulationis MCMXL - MCMXLV multi tam viri tam feminae provisioni et distributioni ciboru.m ad sustentatlonem populi grato animo vires intendebant.

Fecerunt bona in malo tempore et speraverunt in periculoso

(Let present and future generations know that in these rooms, thanks to the generous hospitality of the College of St John the Baptist, many men and women devoted their energies to the provision and distribution of food for the support of the people during almost six years of crisis, 1940-1945.

'They did good in a moment of evil and preserved hope in times of danger'.)


(With thanks to