Our wartime heroes at RAF Tempsford and Bletchley Park

I walked along an airfield runway yesterday once used by planes carrying our bravest wartime agents, including Violette Szabo, immortalised in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.

I was with the Cambridge Rambling Club and our route passed a barn in the middle of a field. I stepped inside (there is no door!) and was astonished to see an extraordinary memorial for our wartime heroes who flew from there during WW2, many never to return, and you can the pictures above in my slideshow.

I had no idea about the existence of this this extraordinary site known as Gibraltar Farm Barn, based at  RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire, and regarded as the most secret Royal Air Force in WW2. It was used by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and it was from here that underground agents and their supplies were flown, and dropped into enemy occupied Europe. The station was home to “Special Duties” 138 and 161 Squadrons flying Whitley, Hudson, Halifax and Stirling bombers and also Lysanders. Over 80 aircraft were lost from Tempsford during the war, with many of their crews being killed.

The barn has been recently restored, and inside poppy wreaths and written tributes are displayed on ledges. It is a shame though that many of them have been left to gather dust, cobwebs and pigeon droppings, and that the writing is sometimes too faint to read, but in a way, all this adds to its sense of history and the secrets it holds from 1941-45. Some of the tributes have faded with the passage of time, and I feel there needs to be a more weather-proof way of saving these heroic memories.

Gibraltar Farm Barn was built deliberately to look like a normal farm barn to fool German air-reconnaisance was where agents were supplied with their equipment and their poison pills, in case of capture.  Hitler knew of its existence and said, “find this viper’s nest and obliterate it”.  Around the barn memorial trees have been planted by the Czech, Norwegian and Polish underground resistance and others planted in memory of individual aircrews who never came back.

As soon as the war was over, the true activities of this airfield began to leak out. But as much of what took place from Tempsford has been cloaked under the Offical Secrets Act, (and some still is), tales of many of the events have taken a long time to be released (The latest release under the 50 year secrecy rule was in July 1998). Some aspects remain Official Secrets to this day, so the full extent of the bravery of these agents and the pilots who flew them, will probably never be fully known.

 

A dedicated website has been made about the unique and special history of Tempsford Airfield. It includes details about some of its very brave agents, including a Frenchman codenamed Morlands, whose real name was Francois Mitterand, and who went on to become the President of France.

It is a private airfield and as such not open to the public. The website says that where possible, small groups of visitors may be allowed access but only by prior arrangement. I was not aware of this at the time when we stumbled across this barn, so please read their website for contact details if you wish to visit yourself.

*As I drove to meet my walking group, I listened to a podcast I very much wanted to hear recorded by the Cambridge-based Business Hub started by my friend Ian McKendrick, a social networking strategist, with veteran radio broadcaster Mark Peters. They broadcast a weekly Sunday morning radio show to inspire local businesses – soon to be extended throughout East Anglia, and hopefully the rest of the country by next year – and have had some terrific interviews. Because of my fascination with espionage, I wanted to catch up with a previous episode I missed about Bletchley Park, where the incredible work carried out by our codebreakers has been credited with bringing the war to an end two years earlier, saving millions of lives..  I was fascinated by the interview with Dr Susan Black who describes how she used Twitter to persuade Stephen Fry and other celebs to raise its profile and raise much needed funds. She is also a leading light for an organisation called BCS Women which supports women working in IT. You can also hear it by downloading the podcast here. I have a feeling Dr Black would make a great codebreaker herself….

Update, 3 December 2013: Prince Charles visits RAF Tempsford. Cambridge News report here.

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