Hughenden Manor: Winning the War in the Icehouse

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Who was the man getting the surprise ice-water bath above, and what did he have to do with victory in World War II? One day in 2004, a National Trust guide at Hughenden Manor overheard an intriguing conversation.  An old man was very quietly describing to his grandchild how he had once worked in the very room they were standing in.  Hughenden Manor was the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister and friend of Queen Victoria.

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The house was a dusty relic of Victorian times. But it turned out that the house played a pivotal role in the Second World War, totally unknown to anyone except the 100 or so people who secretly worked there in the 1940s.

When the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz ended in late 1940, Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF, had overcome all the odds and held off the German Luftwaffe. Adolf Hitler had believed that the British would fold under heavy bombing, negotiate a peace treaty, and become his allies.  How wrong he was. About 3,000 young pilots, averaging 20 years of age, did battle daily over the Channel, outnumbered by 5 to 1 in both equipment and flyers. They were not all British; some of them were Polish, Czech, Belgian and French.  According to the RAF, 544 of them were killed in the Battle of Britain, and another 814 died later in the war. Winston Churchill famously summed up the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  To this day, pilots who fought are referred to as “The Few.”

But the war was just beginning. It was necessary for Allied forces, soon including the United States, to knock out German infrastructure. The only maps available at the time were made for tourists. They showed roads, cities, railways and sightseeing destinations like castles and cathedrals. Bombers needed detailed maps to accomplish their missions of destroying armament factories and other strategic targets.

Hughenden Manor became a secret command center for the vital mission of creating detailed maps for bomber pilots to use.  British Spitfires and later Mosquitos were dispatched across the Channel with automatic cameras in their gun bays.  Since the gun bays had no guns, the planes had no protection.  The pilots, as brave as any of The Few, flew thousands of surveillance missions over Germany. Over the course of the war, they took 36 million photos. The camera film was carried by courier to Hughenden Manor, where the 100 or so top-secret mapmakers went to work.

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The old Hughenden icehouse was the darkroom.

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Mapmakers were on duty at all times; someone always slept in the icehouse.

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Inside, mapmakers worked day and night, translating the surveillance photos into maps for bomber pilots. Target maps were drawn by hand, with the target in the middle, surrounded by concentric circles one mile apart.

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Today, the visitor can try out the equipment, which in its day was high-tech. Completed maps, thousands of them, were sent seven miles up the road to Bomber Command.  Often, couriers used bicycles, so as not to draw attention.

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The entire map-making operation was a military secret, protected by the Official Secrets Act.  People who worked at Hughenden, military and civilian, took an oath to keep the operation secret for their entire lifetimes.  When the National Trust accidentally learned a little about the amazing World War II history of Hughenden, they went to Parliament and eventually received permission to make the secrets public.  Today, the icehouse and the basement of Hughenden hold an enthralling museum of this vital part of victory for the Allies in World War II.

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Veterans of the secret operation were tracked down and interviewed on video, before their stories were lost forever. People sent in their personal diaries and photos. The almost-lost history came alive.

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And the man getting the surprise ice bath?  Newbies were invited into the icehouse to have a wartime picture taken, to send to the folks at home (of course, the location was always kept secret). The helpful icehouse staff posed the unsuspecting person under an icy water outlet in the brick ceiling.  Someone pulled a lever at the exact moment the camera snapped.  Everyone, including the victim, laughed uproariously.

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The result was a nice wartime keepsake, and a personal reminder of undaunted British spirit when the odds of victory seemed slim.  British self-deprecating humor and camaraderie were a big part of that spirit.

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I’d recommend a visit to Hughenden Manor. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

 

 

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