A closer look at the Secret Army Exhibition at Beaulieu

PUBLISHED: 12:13 09 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:13 09 September 2019

Visitors can see many artefacts used by the SoE during wartime

Visitors can see many artefacts used by the SoE during wartime


Used to train thousands of special agents ahead of their daring missions behind enemy lines, Beaulieu’s secret World War II spy school saved countless lives across occupied Europe. Viv Micklefield goes undercover to find out more

A late summer wander through the Beaulieu Estate will bring you past families out enjoying a picnic beside the river or to crowds thronging one of the famous autojumble, or classic car shows, hosted by the National Motor Museum.

These scenes couldn't be further removed from the clandestine activities of up to 3,000 brave men and women, preparing to spearhead espionage missions during World War II. Yet that is exactly what the estate played host to during the conflict.

In 1940, as Hitler's troops overran swathes of Allied Europe, Churchill's need for a 'Secret Army' to support local resistance groups intensified. Refugees who had escaped here from Norway, Holland and Spain were recruited as agents, with British spies from both civilian and military backgrounds swelling their ranks.

Beaulieu was chosen as one of several training centres, in part on the recommendation of Brigadier Gerald Buckland, an estate resident who worked for the recently formed Special Operation's Executive. It was a common joke at the time that SOE stood for "Stately 'omes of England". But the dangers these individuals were being prepared for was no laughing matter.

"The beginning of 1941 was when the first trainees arrived, and then they came regularly until the centre closed in 1945," says Susan Tomkins, Beaulieu's archivist.

"A lot were brought in by train to Beaulieu Road station at night. They arrived here in covered wagons so they'd no idea where they were. This meant that if captured in occupied territory, there was limited information they could give. Individuals were given also 'training names' so that, later, they couldn't betray anyone else.

"Some were here just for a few days, others a maximum of three weeks depending on operational needs."

Beaulieu was designated a Group B school, for the essential security training required to live deep behind enemy lines without raising suspicion or blowing the cover of the agents already there.

"Two of the 11 estate houses requisitioned - The Rings and The House in the Wood - were used for administration and for the officers' mess," says Susan. "The rest were where the students had both their accommodation and teaching. Some houses, we know, were already empty. Some part-furnished, the owners being away doing war service."

The dark arts of warfare included lock-picking, burglary, safe breaking, forgery, sabotage, unarmed combat and silent killing. Some of the ingenious decoys displayed in Beaulieu's permanent exhibition would make James Bond's Q proud - hollowed-out hairbrushes where a map could be hidden; pen caps capable of holding a compass; and even a shoelace that concealed a lethal blade.

Nearby towns were used to simulate tailing suspects and arrange covert rendezvous. The estate's woods provided the perfect camouflage to master more spycraft. Letters later discovered, Susan says, make for interesting reading.

"Captain Wignall, the then estate steward, writes on one occasion to the commanding officer about trees being cut down for an exercise. And 'Nobby' Clark, who was George VI's gamekeeper, in wartime turned poacher by teaching the would-be agents to live off the land, which brought him into conflict with Wignall, as they were taking the Montagu family's birds".

The current Lord Montagu's aunt remembered coming across their instructors from time to time. According to Lord Montagu some of the period's minutiae remains to this day: "At Inchberry, on the Exbury side of the river, there's the message 'dirty washing here' daubed on a wall in Polish. And The House on the Shore has hooks still hanging from the SOE's time here."

Palace House was never requisitioned, yet family rumours abound of unofficial exploits: "The story from my grandmother is that some of the agents broke into Palace House and to prove they'd been inside, took a cheque out of her cheque book," says Lord Montagu.

"It must have felt so strange to know that in a matter of days or weeks they would be risking their lives, which must have needed such confidence not to lose your nerve. Of the Dutch SOEs who were here, almost all of them who went back in were killed. Some were very skilful yet, despite this, unlucky."

A glance at Beaulieu's Roll of Honour reads like a Who's Who? of some of the war's most famous spies. They include Joachim Rønneberg, who successfully parachuted onto a glacier then blew up a power station being used for atomic bomb research, a feat retold in the cinema classic The Heroes of Telemark.

Female agents are also remembered within both the exhibition and the SOE memorial erected in the Abby Cloisters. As Susan Tomkins observes: "Most of the SOE were men, but it was much easier for a woman, and especially if you were in your 20s or 30s, to be undercover in occupied France. A man of the same age was expected to be away fighting and would have drawn attention to themselves."

Nancy Wakes, known as the 'White Mouse' by the Germans, led around 7,000 fighters in guerrilla-style warfare and went on to become the most highly decorated woman in World War II. Christine Granville operated in Poland, Hungary and France, providing vital information about tank movements that helped predict Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Despite being captured and interrogated, some agents audaciously outwitted the enemy - Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom earned a reprieve after 'revealing' they were related to the British PM.

However sharp shooter Violette Szabo was captured during her second tour of duty and executed. Sadly as many as 50 per cent never returned, with radio operators rarely surviving more than six weeks and suicide capsules routinely issued.

"My father hosted a number of reunions for people who trained here," says Lord Montagu, "And quite a lot of the former agents came to these."

Susan Tomkins adds: "Certainly, a lot more information has come out within the past 20 years because, at the time, the agents would have all signed the Official Secrets Act.

"As the National Archives started releasing the wartime papers, so people began talking to their families because they wanted to tell their own story.

"Most of the information in our exhibition, which opened in 2005, came from Government files and from Cyril Cunningham, our exhibition advisor. But more has emerged since."

Records show that having completed their security training, the Beaulieu Aerodrome was used to parachute agents into Europe. Others embarked aboard motor torpedo boats from the Beaulieu River. And while these events happened more than 70 years ago, their daring is undiminished.

"We have a lot of grandparents with their grandchildren visiting the exhibition, who come out talking so enthusiastically about what they've seen. It's another layer of Beaulieu's story."

The Secret Army Exhibition is included within Beaulieu's admission ticket. Opening times can be found at beaulieu.co.uk


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