A full house of over 120 greeted Historian Dr Helen Fry, the speaker at The Beaconsfield Society’s 2015 AGM, eager to hear her talk entitled ‘Bugging the Nazis: the secret history of Wilton Park and Latimer House’. They were not disappointed. Helen gave a fascinating talk on the vital, clandestine work that took place at these two sites. She told their wartime story with great enthusiasm and humour. Author of over 25 books, she is always searching for more information and was keen to find out from the audience if they had any connections with Wilton Park. She was rewarded with many interesting contributions and questions from the floor.
The Secret Listeners
During WW2, Wilton Park at Beaconsfield and Latimer House near Amersham became highly significant sites in the ‘secret war’ against Nazi Germany, their existence as totally hush-hush as Bletchley Park’s. It was here, under the overall command of Colonel Thomas Kendrick, an MI6 spymaster, that British Intelligence bugged the conversations of German prisoners-of-war to glean information that they would not offer during interrogation.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill granted Kendrick an unlimited budget to fit out the two locations, and in mid-1942 they opened ‘for business’. The cost was £400,000, a fortune then and equivalent to at least £20 million now.
Both Wilton Park and Latimer House hosted a number of clandestine operations that have barely been acknowledged in the public domain – all under the auspices of MI9, a branch of MI6. The cells were fitted with the latest bugging devices from America and, from a secret room ‘The M Room’ (M for ‘miked’), a team of listeners monitored and recorded the prisoners’ conversations from the moment they woke until the time they went to sleep, every day of the year, including Christmas Day.
So protected was the secret work there that one intelligence officer was handed a pistol by Kendrick on arrival and told that if he ever betrayed the work there, he should ‘do the decent thing’. And if not, Kendrick, would.
The importance of Wilton Park & Latimer House
The sheer volume of military, naval and air intelligence gained changed the course of the war. I was here in 1943, for example, that British Intelligence learned of Peenemünde, where Hitler was developing his deadly ‘secret weapon’ – the V1 and V2. This discovery led to the RAF bombing of Peenemünde that set back Hitler’s weapon programme by nearly six months – enough to buy time for the Allies, and without the discovery of which, it is doubtful they could have successfully mounted the D-Day landings the following year. One former interrogator at the site was told by his commanding officer that their work shortened the war by four years. Lieutenant Colonel St Clare Grondona (Kendrick’s deputy) later wrote: ‘Had it not been for the information obtained at these centres, it could have been London and not Hiroshima that was devastated by the first atomic bomb.’
Dr Fry’s talk underlined how important it is to raise awareness of Wilton’s Park secret history. Most of the Wilton Park site is soon to be demolished, replaced by a development of 350 new houses. Most of the WW2 buildings have already gone. But the site’s internationally significant history deserves proper commemoration. The Beaconsfield Society is seeking to find fitting ways of doing so, before this part of our town’s heritage is lost to view. Your support will be vital.
Committee member and talk organiser.
You can find out more about Helen’s research by clicking on her website, Helen Fry.