Wartime Secret Service Stories from the Thames and Chilterns

March 2023 by Bobbie Latter Blue Badge Guide (www.bobbiebluebadge.co.uk)

Who would have thought that this blog was inspired by a visit to the Pencil Museum in Keswick?! I’m so pleased I went there, not only because it was a superb museum, but also because it hooked me into a fascinating subject: secret service activity in the Chilterns.

It was just by chance that I went there on a rainy day while on holiday in the Lake District.  Half-way around the museum I was thoroughly surprised by a jaw-dropping section on how, during the war, the pencil factory was commissioned to manufacture pencils with secret compartments to contain tiny compasses and maps.  The man who placed the orders for these pencils was Charles Fraser-Smith who wrote a book about it in the 1980s. 

Keen to find out more, I managed to get a copy of the book on ebay and whilst reading, I was excited to read that the Thames and Chilterns area was dotted with MI9 centres!

The pencil was just one of a whole host of “Q gadgets” that Charles Fraser-Smith was asked by MI9 to procure. Others were things like shaving brushes, ink pens, smokers’ pipes and even buttons which were adapted to contain secret compartments for smuggling escape equipment or secret messages. One of his contacts was a Major Clayton Hutton who was based at an MI9 centre in Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.

Not far from Beaconsfield is Latimer where you’ll find Latimer House, once used by MI5 and MI6 as a holding and interrogation centre for enemy prisoners of war.  Apparently Rudolf Hesse was one of the internees!  Although the prisoners were well aware that the British would try to bug their conversations, they never imagined the sophistication of our bugging devices, some of which were hidden in the trees outside, and were deceived to the extent that we were able to collect and transcribe the conversations of around 10,000 prisoners, which are preserved in the National Archives.  A fantastic book called “Walls Have Ears” by Helen Fry describes what went on there.

In addition to its fascinating spy stories, Latimer House is a beautiful 19th century mansion and hotel, designed like an Elizabethan manor house with splendid gardens, great hospitality and a marvellous view across the Chiltern hills.

Another wartime-related outing I made last year was to Bovingdon Green, near Marlow, during the Chilterns Walking Festival, which is a twice-yearly event where people can join guided walks and rambles around the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire.  A local historian had put together a walk from the village into the woods to see the First World War Training Trenches, a series of trenches dug in order to train soldiers who were about to go and fight in Flanders.  It was a real eye-opener to see the extensive dug-outs and learn what went on there.

One outing I’d recommend whilst in the area is to the majestic Danesfield Hotel, on the road between Marlow and Henley-on-Thames, which towers over the meandering river Thames. 

Whilst walking in their beautiful gardens or enjoying a delicious meal on the terrace, you’d never imagine that during the second World War, Danesfield was a Photographic Interpretation Unit (PIU) and known as RAF Medmenham.  Here, aerial and ground photographs of enemy locations were received from the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and transformed into scale models of the enemy landscape, including details down to ditches and telegraph wires.  Using these models, the aircrews, paratroopers and commandos were able to plan in meticulous detail for bombing or ground attacks.

However, nowadays, the only sort of attack you’ll find anyone planning at Danesfield is an attack on a delicious plate of scones, cakes and cucumber sandwiches!