Our Secret WWII
"Spooks, Spies & Videotape"
BackgroundIn recognition of the 70th anniversary of the disbanding of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Legasee joined forces with oral historian Martyn Cox to capture 70 remarkable interviews with men and women who played vital roles in the clandestine operations of the Second World War.
Secret agents, coders and radio operators - men and women who worked on the home front or behind enemy lines spoke with us about their personal experiences, and Legasee has donated copies to the ‘Archive of Resistance Testimonies’ at the University of Sussex for further study.
We also created a mobile phone App where you can learn about the “secret war” history of some of the buildings and streets of our capital city which played a central role in the organisation of all clandestine operations. Called ‘Spooks, Spies and Videotape - London’s Secret War’, it is a free download on both Android and Apple phones.
Legasee worked with pupils from St Marylebone C of E School who were able to meet and interview Secret War Veterans, and create their own exhibition. Local volunteers contributed their time and expertise to the project, working alongside our staff, veterans and school pupils. Legasee is especially grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for enabling us to bring this project to life, and to the many veterans who shared their stories with us.
“This amazing oral history archive holds testimonies from men and women who carried out numerous acts of bravery behind enemy lines, acts that historians now fully acknowledge to have decisively contributed to the final outcome of the war. The University is delighted to serve as a repository for the digitised films". Chris Warne, Senior Lecturer, Sussex UniversityThe interviews of the Veterans are available to view in our online video archive.
“We used to write, ‘take that Hitler’ and ‘balls to you Goering’ and we used to get into terrible trouble for it, we had a crusty old Commander at the base, and he used to say who wrote this, and we never confessed…” Antoinette Porter, WREN Talking about Operation Outward Bound
London was the organisational hub of Britain’s Secret War.
As part of the Secret War project, Legasee created a mobile phone App which enables the public to learn about the “secret war” history of some of the buildings and streets of our capital city. Called ‘Spooks, Spies and Videotape - London’s secret War’, it is a free download on both Android and Apple phones.
Many of the buildings we pass, visit and use every day were requisitioned and played vital roles in clandestine operations throughout Europe and the wider world.
The veterans interviewed recalled memories of their work in some of these buildings, including the Shooting Range at Baker Street Underground station, the Headquarters of Marks and Spencer, and St Paul’s Church in Knightsbridge. In total, we feature 28 locations, some of which have since been demolished and disappeared.
Each location reveals interesting factual detail on their specific use and many feature video of the veterans who worked there. We have also included documents and audio recordings from the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.
Designed for both Apple and Android mobile phones, geo-mapping ensures that users are alerted when they are near specific locations, and you can save visited locations and share details about the App with friends.
“A must have. My 11 year old son and I have been on this all evening. Thank you.” Andy Wood, Review “Great learning resource for researchers, teachers, and anyone with an interest in WW2.” Andrew Smith, Review
Who is Bill Taylor?
Neither the name nor the question conjure up much mystique and intrigue, but the background to the question is extraordinary.
We came across “Bill Taylor” on a bronze plaque engraved on a granite outcrop, above the village of Bareges, not far from the Col de Tourmalet in the Hautes Pyrenees. His was one of 10 names engraved on the rock. The others comprised 8 French and 1 Spanish.
Why were they there and what did they do to deserve everlasting recognition in a place of such breathtaking beauty and remoteness?
First, we need to explain why Legasee was there in 2015...
In 1942 the Nazis decided that “Vichy France” needed to be brought under control, which resulted in some of the most secretive, dangerous and unrecognized acts of heroism imaginable taking place in the Pyrénées. The “secret war” which MI9 had been fighting since 1940, was now combined with trying to ensure that their operatives, as well as those of their French Resistance allies, could escape when their cover was blown. Failure to do this would inevitably end in their either being shot for treason or taken back to Germany to work as slaves for the enemy. The chosen escape destination was neutral Spain which meant crossing the mighty barrier of the Pyrénées via a labyrinth of “lines” known only to the local guides and shepherds.
We wanted to know more about these unsung heroes and heroines, who had risked their lives and their families’ lives almost daily to keep the escape routes open and the escapees’ passage safe. So with the help of two remarkable local guides, we set about learning and then trying to emulate one of the “impossible” escape routes across the Pyrénées. We met Philippe Trey who has been a guide for 50 years following in the footsteps of his father, who himself had been a guide for the escapees. We followed in their footsteps for 4 days and 3 nights across the Pyrénées, traversing 9 cols of 2500 metres, and 1000 metre wide scree fields with 45-degree slopes. We could only imagine feebly what it must have felt like when the escapees’ lives would have been hanging by a thread. Capture would mean almost certain death, as would falling in the black of the night which was almost always the essential time of travel, but death could also come from malnutrition or exposure, bacterial infection from drinking impure water or losing touch with the guide, or simply dying of cold in the rain and snow. When we finally crossed the border into Spain, tears of joy filled our eyes. It’s impossible to put into words what that moment must have felt like for the WW2 escapees involved in this “Secret War”.
“With the help of a remarkable local guide, Rob Mason and his encyclopedic knowledge, we ourselves became “escapees”.
And Bill Taylor? We never found out. Some of the descendants of the French family names on the plaque still live in the local villages today. Are there any left now who could help to re-tell or re-write history? Will we ever find out who Bill Taylor was and why he is remembered there? Was the British military working with MI9? Whoever he was there is no doubt in our minds that he deserves his place in history, and Legasee is proud to have witnessed his name engraved forever along with his fellow heroes of the Secret War on that granite outcrop in the Hautes Pyrénées.
Can you help?
Does this sound like someone from your family’s history? Have you heard a story which sounds like it could be Bill’s? If you are a budding investigative historian why not start your own inquiries and see what you can find out. It’s a mystery that Legasee would love to solve – with your help, maybe we will.
EDUCATIONAL VIDEO PROJECT SEEKS OUT THE SURVIVING VETERANS OF BRITAIN'S SECRET WAR
The team behind a unique, filmed oral history project – Spooks, Spies and Videotape: London’s Secret War - is launching an appeal aimed at tracking down men and women involved in classified or clandestine World War II operations so that their stories can finally be recorded for posterity.
These filmed interviews will be added to an already unique collection to form an archive of at least seventy interviews with men and women who played vital roles in the Secret War, and which will be made available online as an important learning and research resource.
This innovative project is being launched by the Legasee Educational Trust, in partnership with oral historian Martyn Cox and with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the support of the University of Sussex, to coincide with the 70th anniversary year of the end of the Second World War.
From secret agents and the aircrews who carried them on clandestine missions, to RAF evaders saved by the resistance and secret listeners and code-breakers who helped shorten the war, these veterans’ recollections on video will represent a significant new strand of WWII oral history. At the time their roles were so secret that even their closest family members couldn’t be told about them and in some cases their experiences or exploits details would not emerge for several more decades.
Martyn Cox has already filmed the memoirs of sixty remarkable men and women who took part in undercover operations during WWII and now, thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, at least ten new ‘secret war’ interviews can be filmed, with the entire archive then placed online for study and research.
“The remarkable men and women who worked in such secrecy during WWII played vital roles in the detection and undermining of enemy activities which helped lead to the Allied victory,” says Martyn Cox.
“Oral history interviews are far more revealing when filmed, and when it comes to WWII veterans who took part in any kind of secret work these can be particularly engaging and revealing, not to mention inspiring; and so we’d very much like even more ‘secret war’ veterans to finally share their stories. We hope their family members and friends will encourage them to come forward because this project is unique in its approach and wholly dedicated to them.”
Many of Martyn’s past interviews were conducted with men and women who worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service specially created in 1940 to encourage, support and supply resisters in occupied countries. SOE requisitioned buildings and estates all over Britain as training schools or as clandestine wireless stations, but its secret headquarters was London’s 64 Baker Street.
The Our Secret War interviewees also include Y Service ‘secret listeners’ who had not only provided the crucial wireless intercepts that made Bletchley Park’s code-breaking possible, but also gathered other vital intelligence. These top secret installations were scattered far and wide but the intelligence gathered was collated and analysed in London before its dissemination to the appropriate Allied commanders.
“Wherever they’d worked and whatever they did these unassuming people are seen by many to be the unsung heroes of World War Two,” says Legasee Founder Martin Bisiker.
“Seventy years later we’re concerned that even now there may still be veterans who’ve continued to believe they cannot reveal what they did. This is why we’re urging people to come forward in order for their personal stories to finally be recorded for the benefit of generations to come.”
The Our Secret War interview collection will be digitized for online access via a specially created new section of Legasee’s website, and also kept as an academic resource by the University of Sussex at The Keep, the historical resource centre near Brighton.
Meanwhile the Legasee Educational Trust is working with pupils from St Marylebone C of E Secondary School in London to produce lesson plans and an interactive app about London’s Secret War, which will combine geo facilities with text, audio and video content, to enable users to immerse themselves in the clandestine world of wartime London.
If you were, or know of someone who was, part of the Allied ‘secret war’ effort please contact Martin Bisiker at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information go to staging.legasee.org.uk/oursecretwar Press contacts: Beverley Wilkins (email@example.com, 07525 042572) or Fiona Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org, 07734 113624)
Notes to Editors:About Legasee Educational Trust
Legasee Educational Trust is a charity set up to record the experiences and observations of all veterans of conflict from WWII until present day. ‘To create the largest online film archive of this aspect of our social history that can be used for education, learning and better understanding for today’s generation and many generations to come’. Legasee’s film archive is well regarded and used to support articles written by respected publications like the Guardian newspaper educational supplements.
Heritage Lottery FundThe project has been supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £63,300.
From the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife, HLF uses National Lottery players' money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about. www.hlf.org.uk.
MEET THE VETERANS FROM THIS PROJECTSEE ALL VETERANS
Irene Bellamy provides an entertaining and detailed account of her service in the WRENS. Before D-Day had even taken place, she was typing up...
Harriet Wright gives a great account of her time as a Siganller in the Wrens. Stationed in Ilfracombe she would receive signals from North Africa...
Colette Cook gives an entertaining account of her time as a Wren. She had a few scrapes and went on to become a Bombe operator...
Joyce Aylard was stationed at HMS Pembroke V in North London where she worked on the bombe codebreaker machines trying to decode German Enigma...
Jean Argles worked as a Cipher Operator in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). In this fascinating and detailed interview
Jean Watson gives a good account of her time in the Women’s Royal Naval Service [WRNS]. She worked in Supply at Naval bases in Scotland and Ireland.
Patricia Davies provides a great interview detailing her work as a Special Duties linguist in the WRNS.
Walter Marshall was a submarine intelligence officer who, prior to D-Day, spent time on the Normandy beaches carrying out intelligence.
Hugh Verity flew the Westfield Lysander aircraft on numerous covert operations into Europe.