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Latitude: 51.9149 / 51°54'53"N
Longitude: -1.1445 / 1°8'40"W
OS Eastings: 458941
OS Northings: 224387
OS Grid: SP589243
Mapcode National: GBR 8X4.ZDC
Mapcode Global: VHCX4.34TC
Entry Name: Building 50 (Decontamination Centre)
Listing Date: 1 December 2005
Source: Historic England
Source ID: 1392760
English Heritage Legacy ID: 500285
Location: Caversfield, Cherwell, Oxfordshire, OX27
Civil Parish: Caversfield
Built-Up Area: Bicester
Traditional County: Oxfordshire
Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Oxfordshire
Church of England Parish: Bicester with Caversfield
Church of England Diocese: Oxford
1714/0/10017 SKIMMINGDISH LANE (SW)
01-DEC-05 RAF Bicester: Domestic Site
Building 50 (Decontamination Centre)
Decontamination Centre (DC). 1939. By J.H Binge of the Air Ministry's Directorate of Works and Buildings, to drawing number 6224/37. Reinforced concrete walls and roof, faced with Flemish bond brickwork above earth levels. Two-stage reinforced concrete roof separated by a cavity which is filled with a layer of sand and a layer of shingle. In the centre of the upper roof is a protected water tank house containing four 500 gallon tanks.
PLAN: The plan and intended purpose of this building is fully described in Francis (1996, 59-61). Entrance through earth bank leading to undressing area. Air-lock connecting with bleaching room, clean clothes store, dressing room, and exit via an air lock. An AC plant and boiler room is located at the rear. It principally comprises undressing, showering and clean clothes sections. It has its own water tanks above the flat roof, and for protection from bomb blast has traversed blast walls.
EXTERIOR: The decontamination centre is partly concealed by earth blast protection, with plain walls above to flat parapet; tank housing a hipped metal-clad addition.
INTERIOR: Decontamination Centre retains all plain spaces and original plant and fitments to original plan form, and retains steel-shuttered openings for discarding contaminated clothes outside.
HISTORY: This Decontamination Centre comprises an unusually complete example of a highly specialised type of structure developed by the Air Ministry in response to the then widespread fear of gas attack.
The use of gas in war was outlawed by the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 (both Britain and Germany were signatories), but not its production and development. As a result the British Government, with its previous experience of the ease at which signed agreements were broken during hostilities, decided to develop gas weapons and design methods of protection against their use. This included the construction of specialised buildings, so that in the event of such an attack, personnel who became gas casualties could receive first-aid treatment and get decontaminated. The decontamination building is therefore, designed to deal with all types of gases developed during World War I: lachrymatory agents; respiratory agents and blister agents.
It was possible to protect oneself from many of the gases by wearing a respirator. Some had distinctive odours which gave sufficient warning of the presence to allow personnel to take cover inside a building or shelter. However, mustard gas has only a faint smell of garlic and its symptoms are not always apparent until some time after the attack, especially the worst effects of the agent. In liquid or vapour form, mustard gas can be absorbed by the skin without being detected. By the time irritation is noticed, the agent has penetrated the surface of the skin and started to cause serious damage. Therefore, special warning posts with metal plates coated with detection paint that changed colour when exposed to mustard gas, were placed at intervals along pathways connecting with buildings. The idea was to get out of all contaminated clothing, dispose of it, wash thoroughly and change into fresh clothing as soon as possible. If all this could be achieved within 20 minutes of the initial contamination, serious injury could be avoided.
As one of the symptoms of exposure to mustard gas is blindness, guard rails or projecting covered entrances guided injured personnel through a foot-bath of bleach solution, on their way to the undressing area. Patents on entering the reception and undressing area, removed their clothes which were placed through special openings on an outside-wall where they were collected inside bins for de-cleansing by boiling. An air-lock was then used to get access to the bleaching room where decontamination could take place. Showers were often arranged in two groups with a space between so that a person could wet themselves under one, move into the space to use soap and then move under the next shower cubicle to wash off the soap. It would have been routine procedure to wash out the eyes in warm water. After a thorough wash, treatment of the affected areas could begin. The antidote to mustard gas is bleach and a specially prepared paste would be rubbed into the damaged area and then wiped off within 2 minutes. Next came the dressing and waiting area, leading to an exit via another-air lock. The plant equipment supplied clean, filtered air and in a gas contaminated environment, raised the internal air pressure to seal the building to prevent gas entering. This enabled the building to be used during a gas attack. All doors had rubber seals which formed a perfect seal when shut. The undressing room has pressure stabilisers on an outside-wall to release the pressure as necessary.
Bicester is the best-preserved of the bomber bases constructed as the principal arm of Sir Hugh Trenchard?s expansion of the RAF from 1923, which was based on the philosophy of offensive deterrence. It retains, better than any other military airbase in Britain, the layout and fabric relating to both pre-1930s military aviation and the development of Britain?s strategic bomber force - and the manner in which its expansion reflected domestic political pressures as well as events on the world stage - in the period up to 1939. It was this policy of offensive deterrence that essentially dominated British air power and the RAF's existence as an independent arm of the military in the inter-war period, and continued to determine its shape and direction in the Second World War and afterwards during the Cold War. The grass flying field still survives with its 1939 boundaries largely intact, bounded by a group of bomb stores built in 1938/9 and airfield defences built in the early stages of the Second World War. For much of the Second World War RAF Bicester functioned as an Operational Training Unit, training Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders as well as British air crews for service in Bomber Command. These OTUs, of which Bicester now forms the premier surviving example, fulfilled the critical requirement of enabling bomber crews - once individual members had trained in flying, bombing, gunnery and navigation - to form and train as units.
For further historical details see Building 16 (Officers' Quarters and Mess).
(Dobinson,C: Airfield Themes (Report for English Heritage), 1997; Francis, P: British Military Airfield Architecture, 1996; Francis,P: RAF Bicester (Site Report for Cherwell District Council), 1996)
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