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Soe's Secret Weapons Centre
By Des Turner
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Des Turner
All rights reserved.
The First CO's Story
Lieutenant-Commander A.J.G. Langley was the first commanding officer at Aston House, having arrived with the initial party from Bletchley Park in November 1939. He invented the time pencil fuse and was also the first person to purloin and experiment with plastic explosive as a sabotage weapon.
John Langley was born on 9 September 1899 at Frogmore Farmhouse in the village of Sixpenny Handley, Dorset. While he was still young his parents emigrated to Canada, but later John was put on a ship back to England to get an education. At the age of thirteen he became a cadet at the Royal Naval Colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth and in 1915 he was assigned to HMS Lord Nelson as a midshipman. The ship joined the fleet that attacked the Dardanelles. John helped to operate a 9.2-inch gun inside its enclosed turret and suffered a permanently injured eardrum caused by the continuous explosions. When he was fifteen he experienced his first burial at sea, an event that soon became commonplace. Many of his fellow midshipmen were killed in the first attack on enemy positions at Gallipoli.
Promoted to sub-lieutenant, he was appointed first officer of HMS P 59, a small torpedo boat engaged in the antisubmarine campaign in the English Channel and in July 1918 he was appointed to HMS Tenacious, a large destroyer escorting convoys in the North Sea. Promotion to lieutenant in 1920 enabled him to serve on the battleship HMS Benbow. But alas, four years after the First World War, the Navy was forced to make financial cutbacks and Langley was very disappointed to find himself axed from the service that had become his whole life. He returned to Canada in 1923 and studied for a science degree at McGill University, Montreal. During his holiday break he worked with a survey party at Climax, on the southerly branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway in western Saskatchewan, surveying virgin prairie from Climax in the west to the White Mud River in the east, a distance of some fifty miles. After graduation John worked his passage back to England as a stoker on SS Metagama. Back in London he was awarded a fellowship at the Institute of Physics and learned to fly in his spare time, gaining a pilot's licence in 1931, but he still longed for the sea and adventure and accepted an invitation from the Oxford Exploration Club to join them as mate on the schooner The Young Harp for a three-month voyage to the Canadian Arctic. It was a difficult and dangerous expedition that resulted in recognition, albeit many years later, by the Canadian government, which honoured Langley and his colleagues for the valuable work that they had done in the area by naming geographical features after each of them.
In 1936, Langley was back in London working at the Admiralty. He married 'Toni' Antionette M.P. Viguie, his French sweetheart of many years, and together they built a house in Kent and raised two children. This idyll was not to last long for Langley would soon be called upon to serve his country in naval uniform again, but this time his ships would be landlocked country houses. After the Second World War he established the Scientific Intelligence Section at the Defence Research Board in Ottawa, and later became a director of Computing Devices of Canada. He died in 1979, and his wife in 1983, they are survived by three daughters and nine grandchildren. This is Langley's description of the changing times:
It was early in 1938 and I was frustrated. Not long previously I had spent a short holiday in Italy and Germany. In Italy Black Shirts were everywhere. In Germany Brown Shirts. Both countries were obviously being converted into efficient war machines. The dictators of both of them were clearly not doing that for fun. In 1936 the Italians had conquered Abyssinia; Hitler was already, in 1938, making threatening gestures towards Czechoslovakia, and Mussolini towards Albania.
Any innocent tourist – as I was – could see with half an eye that trouble was brewing. I hadn't an idea of what our high-priced ambassadors and military attachés were reporting to London; if they had any grains of common sense, their reports must have been completely ignored.
When I got back to my London office I found the government continuing to lull the population into a spirit of comfortable complacency. The ship of state seemed to be calmed in the doldrums where it drifted about listlessly. There was little enthusiasm for anything to be found anywhere.
Much of the research being sponsored by the Admiralty was long-term; its results, if any, would not bear fruit for years. I am sure my chief was worried, but there was not much he could do about it. I tended to lose interest in it; my work seemed to me to be irrelevant to the tense situation on the continent. I grew restless. Surely somewhere, somehow, such capabilities as I had could be put to better use? I was accordingly in a receptive mood for suggestions when I received a rather strange telephone call.
'This is Slocum calling; you may remember me; we were together at the Naval Gunnery School after the war.'
'Why, yes. What the hell are you up to now?'
'I was axed as you were; I'm in the War Office now.'
'An ex-naval officer in the War Office?'
'Well, it's a civilian department concerned with future planning. Lord Hankey thinks the future is not too bright.'
'I couldn't agree more.'
'Anyway, I've a friend who wants a scientifically minded chap to do a bit of future planning. I've heard about you; how would you like to do a little research on what might happen if war breaks out? It could be a bit risky in the present climate of pacifism.'
'Count me in; I was in Italy and Germany not too long ago; I'm certain that trouble is brewing.'
'All right. I thought you'd be interested. I want you to see this friend of mine who would like to meet you. Can you be in the lobby of the St Ermin's Hotel next Thursday at 10.30 a.m.?'
'He's a tall, thin, good-looking chap who will be wearing a carnation in his buttonhole. Keep all this under your hat.'
The proposition put to me by the tall man sporting a carnation in his buttonhole [Major Laurence D. Grand] was staggering, at any rate for me. I said I'd call him tomorrow morning to let him know my decision. I had to think of my family, my future, my pension, but I knew from the moment he shook my hand that I had met a man I would be proud to serve.
Thus it came about that I slipped quietly into the British Secret Service. I had been doing some temporary work for the Air Ministry that I could easily relinquish without causing the smallest flutter. My chief in the Admiralty accepted my resignation with a smile. 'You are a lucky chap', he said, 'I'm sure we'll meet again when war breaks out.' I hadn't said a word about where I was going, but he, I'm sure, sensed that I wasn't taking up a post in some ivory tower. To my friends I was still a minor civil servant who, as the saying went, emulated the fountains in Trafalgar Square by 'playing from ten to four'. I continued to catch the same train to London and the same train back home I had always taken. But now it was no longer play for me. It was all rather exciting in a James Bond-ish sort of way. (The James Bond stories were not written then but when they were I realised that their author had been one of my colleagues. No doubt his association with the SIS [the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6] had some influence upon his tales.)
The conditions of employment with SIS were simple. One was not officially employed by anybody. One was paid in cash; there was no security, no pension or health plan. One did not render any income tax return. Officially one had ceased to exist. An assignment would be given to fulfil as best one could, usually outside the law; if one was caught either by the police of one's own country or the counterintelligence organisation of another, one would be officially disowned. The conditions were not too comforting when one had a family to think of, but I was convinced that a European war was not far off and, when it broke out, everyone would be in much the same boat. I did take one precaution, though. I went along one day to a wholesaler in the City of London and bought a dozen fifty-pound cases of corned beef and half a dozen sacks of green coffee beans. With that and the large vegetable garden we had at home, I felt the family could tide over any drastic food shortages which might occur in the event of war. Of course the local villagers got to know about my purchases when the stuff was delivered; they thought we were crazy but a year later they abruptly changed their minds, and every now and again some friend would call diffidently on my wife to enquire whether she could spare a pound of coffee.
In London I was given a tiny office in an elderly, unassuming building on an elderly, unassuming street, ostensibly concerned with government statistics. It was one of the camouflaged SIS hideouts; there were others, I suspected, but where they were and what went on in them I never enquired. The less one knew, the safer one was. Secrecy is always difficult to maintain. Most people are so proud of having a deep secret that they almost invariably give away by one hint or another the fact that they are 'in the know'. After that it does not take a counter-intelligence man long to nail them down. Stalin is alleged to have said that the only man who could keep a secret was a dead one; if he discovered someone on his staff who was in the least indiscreet, he had him bumped off or sent to Siberia. In more democratic countries the treatment for breaches of secrecy cannot be so drastic, the best one can do to guard against them is to confine secret plans to the fewest possible people, preferably chopping the plan up into small components and allowing each person concerned to know only one facet. In that way, if the person is caught, only a small piece of the whole is blown and the damage can probably be repaired without either the complete plan being abandoned or the other participants in it being discovered.
In those days I thought the Secret Service was rather old fashioned. Hardly any of the personnel I met had any technical or scientific knowledge; the sort of intelligence it gathered seemed to me to be very similar to that collected in World War I, if the account of its operations given by Somerset Maugham in his fascinating book Ashenden was any guide. I only saw the chief of the service [Admiral 'Quex' Sinclair] extremely rarely but I could not help but be reminded of the chief described by Somerset Maugham. However things were starting to change. My own chief [Major Laurence Grand], a brilliant engineer, had been recruited. The service had also taken on another outstanding executive engineer who, at that time, was busy having our embassies abroad fitted with radio communication facilities much to the disgust of some of the older ambassadors who were still living in the horse and buggy age and preferred to send their dispatches by courier rather than make use of these new-fangled gadgets. Nevertheless, change was in the air. When I joined in 1938 I could sometimes sense a feeling of veiled resentment at this 'nuts and bolts' character who had been thrust upon the service; by mid-1939 that attitude was rapidly changing. I am sure that the service was receiving more and more requests from the defence ministries for technical information about the latest Nazi weaponry; many such technical queries were unintelligible to the traditional intelligence officers who had to sink their pride and come along for advice from the despised 'nuts and bolts' section.
To begin with I had to adapt myself to a totally different world inhabited largely by rather strange people. Some were experts in this or that area; others had odd international connections, unspecified of course. They would occasionally disappear from their offices and reappear again as mysteriously as they had gone; sometimes they never reappeared. No one ever made any comments; no one asked any questions. Eventually a new face would appear in the vacant office and we would guess that he had the job of rebuilding the 'X' intelligence network, the previous one presumably having been 'blown' and the agents concerned having been quietly liquidated, perhaps after having been tortured to obtain confessions from them.
My own assignment was not too risky provided its objects could be kept secret and I didn't do anything stupid if I had to go abroad. The objectives were probably inspired by Lord Hankey, a far-sighted statesman who felt sure Hitler would try to destroy us and would employ every subversive trick to do so. The tricks I was to study first were the sabotage attacks made, mostly against our shipping during the First World War, by German agents in foreign ports who concealed incendiary bombs with time-delay fuses in ships leaving for Britain, mixed high explosives in cargoes destined for Britain, usually arranged to go off when the cargo was discharged so that the wrecked ship would block the port, and so on. The examples were very varied. Having found out what they did twenty years ago, I had to imagine how they would update their sabotage weapons and what the latest models would be like. Finally one was asked to devise effective counter-measures.
I remembered a wise remark I had heard years previously: if you wish to defend yourself successfully, you must know how you are going to be attacked. Clearly, the heart of nearly all sabotage attacks is a time fuse that can be set to go off after an interval from half an hour to half a month. It must preferably be very small, easy to operate, easy to make, silent (no ticking from a clock), immune to vibration or bumping about, unaffected by changes of ambient temperature (to function equally well in the Arctic or tropics), have a good shelf life, be safe to handle and, finally, be constructed of common easily available materials in wide supply with no identification marks on them, so that if found by an enemy he would not be able to prove where it was manufactured.
That presented an interesting problem. I first of all researched everything I could find about what the Germans had used in World War I then what guerrillas had used in South America and the Middle East. I had to be most circumspect. The very word 'sabotage' was anathema to most respectable citizens in those days, even outwardly bloodthirsty military people would, at the slightest hint of anything of that sort, edge away muttering 'Gad, sir, the fellow has no idea of Marquess of Queensberry rules.'
My own small office had no place in it to carry out experiments except an old fireplace. After much trial and error I evolved a little time fuse about the size of a pencil. It could set off incendiary bombs or high explosives. For its time delay it depended on a corrosive solution eating through a fine steel wire. I was desperately in need of some chemist who could experiment with solutions of the different strengths required for eating through the wire in different times. The date was now early 1939. The world still thought that Hitler could be peaceably restrained. Morally I was in the position of an anarchist wishing to blow up the Houses of Parliament and having to seek the help of some innocent academic who would more than likely report me to the police as soon as he realised what I was up to ... then suddenly I remembered a professor of chemistry in the University of London whom I had met when I was doing some minor research work there. He'd been in World War I; he was a realist; he had a wry sense of humour and of adventure. Surely I could try him out very tentatively. My chief agreed.
And so it happened that, in an obscure corner of a university laboratory, thin steel wires were stretched in corrosive solutions of differing strengths to find out how long it would take for them to break. And then the solutions were doctored so that the time did not vary much when the solutions were at different temperatures. I never knew what the professor's students thought he was doing; no doubt just another eccentricity of the old so-and-so.
By mid-1939 we had accumulated a good general grounding in sabotage methods and possible modern sabotage weapons. If I, with my meagre resources, working in a generally hostile environment, had been able to dream up better weapons than the Germans had twenty years ago, there was every reason to suppose that the Nazis would have done equally well if not better when working with enthusiastic official backing. We found out later that they hadn't. That was probably because they had not worried about what to them would have appeared an utterly insignificant phase of warfare. You do not waste time on feather dusters when you are busy making sledgehammers capable of crushing entire nations at one blow. [Poland was crushed in eighteen days. A year later France was crushed in a month.]
Excerpted from Soe's Secret Weapons Centre by Des Turner. Copyright © 2011 Des Turner. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by M.R.D Foot,
1. The First CO's Story,
2. The Second CO's Story,
3. The Scientific Officer's Story,
4. The Laboratory Assistant's Story,
5. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Story,
6. The Secretary's Story,
7. The ATS Driver's Story,
8. The Workshop Engineer's Story,
9. The Storeman's Story,
10. The Craftsman's Story,
11. The Design Office Story,
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