The Serendipity of Spying

It’s fascinating what you can discover when you’re not looking for it!

Just before last Christmas, I spent a few days exploring the beautiful Lake District in Cumbria and I visited the delightful Pencil Museum in Keswick, and what an eye-opener that was! Half-way around the Museum there was an unexpected but fascinating section on the art of spying and the wartime role of the ordinary pencil. During wartime the Keswick pencil factory manufactured pencils with secret compartments to contain miniature compasses and maps. These pencils were given to our forces to help them evade capture or assist their escape attempts during the war.

SOE blade concealed in pencil. © IWM WEA 4147

My curiosity piqued; I wanted to find out more which led me to buy The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith. Fraser-Smith had a varied career before WWII. He was a school teacher, a factory worker and despatch rider, as well as a missionary agriculturalist in north Africa. Obliquely, all these occupations equipped him for an extraordinary war time secret service role as an inventor at the Ministry of Supply. An undercover civil servant, Fraser-Smith spent his time reinventing hairbrushes, pencils and pipes containing maps; ink pens with secret compartments for minuscule magnetic compasses, shoelaces encompassing surgical saw-wire. He even invented the garlic chocolate – airmen who landed in France would eat the chocolate and get an instant garlic breath, the thinking behind this being they would blend into the French culinary way of life.

Whilst reading Fraser-Smith’s book I was also excited to learn that the Thames and Chilterns area was dotted with MI9 centres! MI9 was a highly secret department of the War Office between 1939 and 1945. It seems that the author of the book was regularly receiving requests to procure “Q gadgets” from Major Clayton Hutton who was based at an MI9 centre in Wilton Park, Beaconsfield. As already mentioned “Q gadgets” were things like shaving brushes, ink pens, smokers’ pipes and even buttons which had been adapted to contain secret compartments for smuggling escape equipment or secret messages. The book does mention that the author’s path crossed with that of Ian Fleming, author of the famous James Bond stories. Maybe that was where Fleming got his inspiration for the name of “Q”, the head of Q Branch (later Q Division), a fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service.

I was having fun with this line of discovery! So I took another wartime-related outing, this time to Bovingdon Green, near Marlow, during the Chilterns Walking Festival. The Chilterns Festival is a twice-yearly event where people can join guided walks and rambles around the Chiltern Hills, a chalk escarpment northwest of London which covers an area that includes Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire. I joined a small group of enthusiastic locals and a local historian, and we went on a pleasant trundle to the woods, where our historian showed us the remains of a series of trenches, dug in order to train soldiers who were about to go and fight in Flanders during WWI.

WWI training trenches in Buckinghamshire. Photo Bobbie Latter

Not far from Little Chalfont 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, amongst whom came Rudolf Hesse! Through very clever bugging devices, the conversations of around 10,000 prisoners were transcribed, 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 and a marvellous view across the Chiltern Hills. And they do a mean cream tea!

Latimer House. Photo Bobbie Latter

My quest for more spy discoveries then led me to the village of Penn, near Beaconsfield where a notorious Russian spy’s remains can be found. His name was Donald Duart Maclean and he was the privileged son of a local politician. After leaving Cambridge University, he got a job at the Foreign Office. There he met Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, and joined the spy-ring called the Cambridge Four, who successfully managed to betray British secrets to the Soviet Union during WWII and the early 1950s. Eventually he moved to Russia, dying there aged 69 in 1983; at his request, his ashes were scattered on his parents’ grave in the village of Penn.

Danesfiled Hote. Photo Bobbie Latter

One last outing that must be mentioned is Danesfield Hotel, on the road between Marlow and Henley-on-Thames. You can sit on the terrace and enjoy the gardens and maybe a nice lunch or cream tea, but while you are there, ask them about their association with MI6 during the war. The building was commandeered as 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). Using the photos for reference, scale models of the landscape, including details down to ditches and telegraph wires, were built by a team of model makers. Using these models, the aircrews, paratroopers and commandos had detailed information with which to prepare themselves for bombing or ground attacks.

And the moral of this story is, professional Blue Badge Tourist Guides never stop learning and you never know what you’ll discover when you book a guided tour with them!


About the Author

Bobbie Latter is a highly experienced  Tourist Guide, having guided in Europe for 35 years and 21 years as a Blue Badge guide in Southern England. She lives in Marlow and loves nothing more than sharing her local knowledge of the wonderful Thames and Chilterns region and beyond. Bobbie provides peerless tours in English and French and she is also qualified in British Sign Language (BSL). She is about to take her exams in German and is hoping to guide in German too in 2023. To find out more about Bobbie and to book her click here