This Rare Footage From The ’40s Shows What Life Was Really Like At A Top-Secret WWII Headquarters

In grainy footage shot long ago, a group of women sun themselves while men play cricket nearby. To the casual observer, it seems a snapshot of a bucolic and innocent past. But these people are far from carefree civilians. They’re staff at a top-secret intelligence facility, in fact, and the horrors of World War Two are in full swing. At the time, they could tell no one about their important work – but now, decades later, their secrets have at last been revealed.

A picturesque rural mansion constructed during the early 19th century, Whaddon Hall lies a few miles from the much grander estate of Bletchley Park. But while the latter is now famous for its role as a code-breaking center during World War Two, the more modest property in Buckinghamshire, England, has remained comparatively obscure.

Whaddon Hall was formerly the residence of an upper-class British family that descended from a politician who’d served under King William III. As the struggle against the Axis powers intensified, though, the manor came to take on a very different role. For years, its spacious rooms and elegant grounds were filled with men and women conducting top secret operations. And, ultimately, this unlikely corner of England would help to win the war.

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Today, the British countryside is still littered with numerous grand manors and country estates, each with their own checkered and fascinating past. And with the outbreak of World War Two, many of these properties were taken over by the government. As a result, before long the homes of the aristocracy had been converted into everything from schools to hospitals.

Moreover, there was another way in which England’s manors were repurposed in order to assist the war effort. Shortly before the conflict began, a senior intelligence officer named Hugh Sinclair purchased the 18th-century Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. Apparently, he suspected that a war might be coming and wanted somewhere to serve as a base for the Secret Intelligence Service, which was also known as MI6.

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With its central location in the heart of the country and good nearby transport links, Bletchley Park must have seemed like an excellent choice. And there was another bonus to creating an SIS headquarters in this slice of Buckinghamshire countryside. It was located on a railway known at the time as the Varsity Line, which provided a direct connection with the historic universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

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According to records, this connection was especially important as Sinclair also hoped to create a home for the Government Code and Cyber School, or GC&CS, at Bletchley Park. Established back in 1919, this department focused on devising codes for the British authorities, as well as cracking those intercepted from other nations. And with the war looming, Sinclair hoped to attract the country’s best and brightest to do this vital work.

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In August 1939, just a month before the outbreak of World War Two, the GC&CS set up its offices in Bletchley Park. Located on the mansion’s first story, they were split into groups dedicated to air, military and naval operations. Meanwhile, on the building’s upper level, rooms were prepared for the arrival of MI6.

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At the very top of the mansion, inside a converted water tower, intelligence operatives established a radio center known as Station X. Used to communicate with allies in mainland Europe, the equipment required the use of lengthy cables that originally trailed from the roof right down to the grounds. However, Bletchley Park personnel soon realized that this arrangement was far too conspicuous.

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So, in order to avoid detection, it was decided to find a new home for Station X. And in February 1940, the facility was relocated to Whaddon Hall, another manor house located just a few miles away. By that time, the war was underway, and a military officer named Brigadier Richard Gambier-Perry had been put in charge of the site.

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To begin with, the team at Whaddon Hall was only in contact with a few select field operatives. Despite the limited scope of the work initially, though, it still encountered a big problem. As they had seldom if ever used wireless transmission before, these agents in Europe were in the habit of broadcasting for far longer than they needed to, which put the entire facility at risk.

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While Gambier-Perry and his team were working to rectify these issues, agents at Bletchley Park were tackling a different sort of challenge. Back in 1919, a Dutch inventor had patented an encryption device known as the Enigma machine. And since 1926 the German armed forces had been using it to send clandestine radio communications that, even if intercepted, were impossible to decipher.

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In the early 1930s Polish cryptographers had made the first steps towards cracking the codes used by the Enigma machine. But by the time that World War Two broke out in 1939, the encryption technique was still a vital asset to the forces of Nazi Germany. So, at the outset of the conflict, Polish researchers shared what they knew about the device with the authorities in the U.K. and France.

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And in Britain, the job of breaking the Enigma machine fell to the GC&CS team at Bletchley Park. There, World War One veteran codebreaker Dilly Knox established an investigation team and began working alongside mathematicians Alan Turing, Peter Twinn and Gordon Welchman. Then, at the beginning of 1940 they had their first success.

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That month, the team at Bletchley Park cracked their first Enigma code. Their work was far from over, however. Indeed, as the war progressed, Nazi Germany introduced increasingly more complex ways of encrypting their military communications. But each time, the boffins at GC&SC were able to work out the key.

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Once decoded, these messages revealed vital information about Nazi Germany and the movements of its armed forces. And as such, they had the power to greatly influence the outcome of the war. Dubbed Ultra, this intelligence was treated with the utmost secrecy.

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However, this information was of limited use in Britain itself, and the military needed a way to communicate the details to officers on the front line. That’s where the operation at Whaddon Hall came in. Via the Station X facility, Gambier-Parry and his team were tasked with relaying the secrets discovered by the Enigma codebreakers to agents working in Europe and beyond.

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Before long, Ultra intelligence had begun to have a decisive impact on the war. In 1941, for example, information gleaned through code-breaking activities helped to turn the tide of the conflict in North Africa in the Allies’ favor. And that same year, it also aided the British Navy in emerging victorious from the Battle of Cape Matapan against German U-boats.

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The following year, Ultra intelligence helped to uncover a mission to smuggle Nazi agents into Egypt, which was held by the British at the time. And in 1943 it was integral to British success at the Battle of the North Cape. During the long Battle of the Atlantic, information from codebreakers was also vital to locating and destroying U-boats before they could sink Allied vessels.

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While all this was going on, the team at Whaddon Hall had been steadily upgrading its radio transmission capabilities. Indeed, by 1943 a new system was in place that meant Gambier-Parry and his staff could remain in contact with MI6 operatives across the continent. And as the war entered its final years, the efforts of the codebreakers grew ever more important.

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Then, early in 1944 a new type of decryption machine made its debut at Bletchley Park. Known as Colossus Mark I, it was the first digital electrically powered computer in the world that could be programmed. Months later, during the summer a Colossus Mark 2 would also begin operations at the GC&CS. And by the end of the war, ten of these impressive machines were cracking codes throughout the facility.

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On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces invaded France, a successful operation that paved the way for their ultimate victory over the Axis powers. However, it may not have happened at all were it not for the work of operatives at Bletchley Park and Whaddon Hall. Thanks to the codebreakers, intelligence operatives were able to glean vital knowledge about Hitler and the Third Reich in advance of the landings.

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Ahead of the Normandy invasion, for example, the Allies had sent out misinformation suggesting that the invasion was planned for Calais, some 200 miles to the north of the intended landing sites. And thanks to the work of the Colossus machines, they knew that Hitler had fallen into their trap. In fact, Ultra intelligence had identified the whereabouts of almost every German division immediately before the operation.

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Today, the exact impact of the work carried out at Bletchley Park and Whaddon Hall is difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, most historians agree that the facilities played a significant role in bringing World War Two to a close. And while the Allies may still have won the conflict without breaking the Enigma machine, it would likely have dragged on for much longer.

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As such, those who worked at Bletchley Park and Whaddon Hall have often been credited for preventing a vast number of fatalities. But due to the confidential nature of their jobs, little is known about the people behind this impressive achievement. Now, though, footage has emerged that offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the men and women who helped to win the war.

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After the codebreakers left Bletchley Park, the estate was occupied by the Post Office and subsequently became a training center. However, planned building work in the 1990s attracted the attention of those keen to preserve this unique slice of British history. And in 1991 a safeguarding body was established to help protect the complex from being knocked down.

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Thankfully, these efforts were successful, and today the site is open to the public as a museum. In the same huts and rooms that once housed top secret intelligence operations, visitors can learn about the people and technology that helped to crack the Enigma code. Nonetheless, up until recently, a little imagination has still been required in order to conjure up the world of Bletchley Park.

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But all that changed in April 2020, when the custodians of Bletchley Park made a startling announcement. According to a statement, an unidentified individual had presented the facility with a reel of film shot there during the war. Still in the same container it had been placed in during the 1940s, the clip showed something that had never been seen before.

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In the footage, men and women from MI6 can be seen going about their daily lives at Whaddon Hall. Believed to have been filmed at various points during World War Two, it lasts for a little over ten minutes and shows the staff at the facility relaxing off duty as well as in uniform. And as such, it really is one-of-a-kind.

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“The Whaddon Hall film is a really significant addition to our collection,” the museum’s head of collections and exhibits, Peronel Craddock, explained in the statement. “Not only does it show us the place and people in wartime, but it’s the first piece of film footage we’re aware of that shows any of the activity associated with Bletchley Park at all.”

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For many, viewing the footage – which was filmed both in color and black and white – has been a fascinating journey through time. In it, the men and women working at Whaddon Hall can be seen laughing and smiling as they pose for the camera. But perhaps most fascinatingly, it hints at what these vital wartime personnel got up to in their spare time.

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In one scene, for example, the men are shown enjoying a casual soccer match. And in another, a group of women can be seen relaxing in the sunshine and playfully pulling faces at the camera. Elsewhere, there’s footage of a cricket game and of the local Whaddon fox-hunting group.

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According to officials at Bletchley Park, the footage shows both Whaddon Hall and Whaddon Chase, a nearby area that contained the lodgings of some personnel. However, they’re stumped as to who might have been behind the camera. In fact, it may well have been the only time that anyone managed to film either there or at Bletchley Park.

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Whatever its origin, though, the footage has proved invaluable to those who have dedicated their lives to studying the past. In a short documentary produced by Bletchley Park to accompany the footage, Dr. David Kenyon explained. “For me, as a historian, when I spend most of my time in typescript, reading documents at the National Archives, dealing with official materials… something that’s completely unofficial, and probably actually would have been frowned upon at the time if anyone had known about it… really gives an extra layer to it.”

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Thankfully, experts believe that whoever was behind the camera wasn’t at risk of exposing the top secret activity at Whaddon Hall. In the statement, Kenyon stated, “The footage doesn’t give away any state secrets or any clues about the work the people in it are doing. If it fell into the wrong hands, it would have given little away, but for us today, it is an astonishing discovery and important record of one of the most secret and valuable aspects of Bletchley Park’s work.”

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Moreover, after viewing the footage, the team at Bletchley Park hoped to be able to identify some of the people featured in the decades-old film. But in view of the amount of time that had passed, how many of the operatives would they be able to name? For assistance, they turned to Geoffrey Pidgeon, a veteran of World War Two who’d been assigned to Whaddon Hall when still in his teens.

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Pidgeon hadn’t been the only member of his family at Whaddon Hall, either. In fact, he’d worked alongside his dad, Horace, who supplied field operatives with transmission apparatus during the war. And while Pidgeon was watching the new-found footage, the now elderly man spotted his father smiling back from the screen.

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“I’d never seen my father on a cinefilm before,” the statement quotes Pidgeon as saying. “I was very surprised and moved to watch it for the first time. It’s a remarkable find.” Moreover, the team at Bletchley Park were able to identify three other men in the footage. In addition to Gambier-Parry, they spotted Ewart Holden, who worked in the stores at Whaddon Hall, and an engineer named Bob Hornby.

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In a further attempt to bring the footage to life, Bletchley Park officials also employed the services of a professional lip reader. And by studying the film, they were able to identify snippets of speech – such as one man enquiring after the time of an upcoming get-together. There’s much more to learn about this discovery, of course, and the team is asking to anyone with further information to come forward.

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In the meantime, the team at Bletchley Park have uploaded some of the footage to YouTube, along with an accompanying documentary. In an April 2020 interview with The New York Times, Craddock summed up the significance of the find. “These young people were doing extraordinary work under conditions of complete secrecy,” she explained. “We know of the vital importance of their work from official records, but the film gives a rare glimpse into the lighter side of their wartime life – playing sport, enjoying the outdoors and joking around with friends.”

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