Author Archives: explorabilia

A walk with Miles Gillman

My phone rang one day last March. I didn’t seem to recognize the number. These days, I tend to communicate via email, social media and a multitude of internet messengers, so receiving a direct call is a bit unexpected. And when I do, it’s usually wrong numbers, cold automated calls, or bad news…

But I was soon delighted to find out it was none of that – at all. The caller was Mr Miles Gillman of Northwood, a Friend of Ruislip Woods and trustee of the Ruislip Woods Trust. Having just read through a recent article of mine about the Battle of Britain House that went out with the RWT Newsletter, he went on to congratulate me about the write, and the renewed interest it has sparked over the history of the ruined mansion in Ruislip Woods. He also seemed eager to share his own experience of the site, as well as a very interesting theory about the mansion : for he had reasons to suspect that an underground Cold War bunker may have existed nearby.

“Will you show me?!” I asked, instantly hooked on the prospect of peeling back more layers of the history of the mansion. We promptly set up a meetup at the woods for late April.

What lies beneath ?

The meetup

I met Mr Gillman, Miles, at the mansion’s steps on a sunny Saturday morning. He was in great spirits, and happy to be back to Ruislip Woods after quite some time. I was equally delighted with the opportunity to meet him and record his story. I was in for a treat !

We proceeded to a clearing next to the mansion and its car park. It is an area as big as an average garden, and reasonably flat. Miles remembers the existence of a hut there : he describes it as a cabin with a lower and an upper level, and perhaps a balcony. I am instantly reminded of the Annexe, an outhouse which used to accommodate the students, au-pairs and other guests that lodged at the Battle of Britain House :

“There still remained another newer building in the grounds which had been used as a
dormitory and not touched by the fire, but in spite of being boarded up it was eventuallyvandalised and had to be demolished”

Colin Bowlt
Ruislip, Northwood & Eastcote Local History Society 2011 Journal
An artists’ impression of the Annexe from a 1960s leaflet

This Annexe was clearly a later building, possibly post-war. It would have been erected during a time when the mansion was transitioning to its new utility as a residential college. And then Miles dropped a proverbial bomb : he maintains that the Annexe might have been a cover for a Cold-War era ROTOR Station.

ROTOR and the Cold War

A few words about ROTOR (which as far as I’m aware is a code name, rather than an acronym). In the early days of the Cold war, one of the the greatest threats posed to Britain was from Soviet bombers performing a potential sneak nuclear attack. The Soviets had acquired U.S. long range bomber technology since 1945, when on four separate occasions, B-29 Superfortress bombers crash landed in Siberia on their return from bombing raids over Japan. The Soviets surveyed the wrecks and proceeded to reverse engineer an exact clone of the B29 into what would become their own Tupolev Tu-4 in 1947. By 1951, the Soviets had also being successful in detonating an air dropped nuclear device, code named RDS-3. It was nearly 3 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Uncanny similarities (photo sources here and here)

This was the threat the ROTOR system was meant to counter. It utilized elements of the existing Chain Home early warning system, consolidated and upgraded with the latest Radar technology, a new command and communications structure, and all new, nuclear bomb-proof installations that comprised an underground bunker with a distinctive bungalow on top to serve as living quarters for the operators. The ROTOR bunker hut’s design was very distinctive, probably the outcome of a common blueprint.

The ROTOR hut at Kelvedon Hatch vis-a-vis the Annexe at Ruislip Woods

There certainly are differences and similarities here, but it’s difficult to establish a match as the Ruslip Woods hut is now long gone. What remains, however, is the wide flat area where the Annexe once stood, which still remains mysteriously clear from the large trees and thick foliage of the area immediately surrounding it. So could there be something underneath?

It’s difficult to tell. Miles has visited the site a number of times with friends from Subterranea Brittanica , a well known project that have been charting Britain’s underground heritage for decades. They also speculate that the Annexe may have resembled a typical ROTOR hut. Yet there should have been other visible clues, like ventilation shafts or solid bases for Radar dishes and other above ground elements – but there are none visible. Although maybe these are still around, somewhere out of sight. Or maybe they have been removed, or covered by nature over the years.

ROTOR guard hut at RAF Goldsborough, Yorkshire / image © from OneLife – 28 Day Later

Today, the location of every ROTOR site in Britain is public domain, but as you might expect, Ruislip Woods doesn’t feature. So was there ever anything there, after all? Miles suggests that metal detectors or a ground penetrating radar might be the only way to answer that question. And I have some eyebrow-raising questions of my own. For someone has told me in confidence how there has been top secret training taking place at the Battle of Britain House well into the 60s, and it had to do with radar technology… And another testimony has emerged, vividly describing the gruff looking military men who attended courses at the mansion during the same period… I will be relating these stories in detail on future posts. All will be revealed !

In the end, the post-war technology race saw the Soviets and the Western Allies constantly vying to top each other. Faster, jet powered nuclear bombers were being built, prompting the need for earlier warning and better radars to upgrade ROTOR with. By 1959 the Soviets had successfully launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile, soon to be armed with nuclear weapons. This new technology, and the proliferation of nuclear armed missiles that came with it changed the strategic defense outlook dramatically. There was no point in maintaining a complex system to warn about a bomber – or ten – entering one’s airspace. If there was an attack, the Soviets would do well to throw everything at it, every bomber and every missile, eventually overwhelming the defenses. So the new doctrine aimed to detect missiles at launch, and hopefully prompt an immediate retaliatory response within the 15 to 25 minutes it’d take for the Soviet blow to land. So in the 60s, the ROTOR system was abandoned in favour of airborne and over-the-horizon radar systems that could detect a missile launch thousands of miles away.

The Ice House

We now found ourselves walking along the old driveway towards the Ducks Hill road gatehouse, talking excitedly about rumours and possibilities. I felt compelled to ask Miles whether he might know what those mysterious stone walls built against and earth bank were, so close to the old gatehouse and driveway? He believes those are the remains of an Ice House that may have existed here. (I regret that for all the times I’ve seen the remains of those stone walls, I couldn’t find a single picture in my collection – but I promise I will as soon as I visit the site again).

Ice House at Ruislip Woods / Battle of Britain House
The Ice House. Maybe.

Before the invention of refrigeration, people depended on ice houses to preserve perishables. Those were underground stone or brick chambers packed with ice brought in from frozen lakes or rivers in the winter, or sometimes imported from as far as Scandinavia. The thick walls of the structure coupled with the lower underground temperature meant that ice could last from winter to winter before it needed replenishment, providing businesses and important households with adequate refrigeration all year around. There are still many surviving examples in the UK.

A typical ice house at Eglinton Country Park, Scotland / image source : Wikipedia Commons

So could these indeed the remains of an Ice House? Perhaps. The mansion was a stately home, and a farmhouse before that. Ruislip Woods were famed for the game that could once be hunted there, particularly pheasants, that may have been hunted there up to the 1930’s. So it is possible that a cold storage might have once existed, at least until there wasn’t a need for one anymore. At any case, it is great to finally have a working theory about the mysterious stone wall next to the driveway.

Ice House at Ruislip Woods / Battle of Britain House
The Ice House. Maybe.

The Shooting Range

Our next stop is the part of the woods adjacent to the Battle of Britain House, roughly between the ruin and Poor’s Field. Soon, we come across a sizable horseshoe-shaped mound. It looks like what it might have been : a firing range for the agents who trained in Ruislip Woods during the war.

The firing range

I’d seen photos of it through the years, but never got to see it in person before today. And it is surprising that I’ve missed it, having unknowingly walked next to it several times ! Firearms training would have been integral to the agents’ preparation for para-dropping into enemy territory. Their weapons of choice would be the British Sten gun or its US counterpart M3 (often referred to as the Grease Gun). Miles showed me one of the spent cartridge cases that have been found in the vicinity of the range.

A spent cartridge case from Ruislip Woods

It is an amazing find that demonstrates the possible use of this area for discharging firearms. I’ve read that metal detectorists have found a fake hand grenade that would have been used for throw training in the same vicinity a few years back.

A spent cartridge case from Ruislip Woods

I am not an expert, but at first glance it looks like a rimmed cartridge case (meaning without a characteristic flange around its base). This fact might limit the search for the weapon type drastically, but corrosion didn’t help in this case, since the cap markings are totally illegible. If you know of an expert who can identify the cartridge case, please do ask them to get in touch.

The Pumping House

And there were yet more discoveries to be made. In the near distance, past a picture-perfect bluebell clearing, I could see the outline of a brick structure. Getting closer, it was evident that this wasn’t a living space : it looked rather like a workshop or machine room. Miles believes that this used to be a Pumping House, possibly to mechanically draw water from a nearby source.

Miles Gillman exploring the Pumping House

And there is mention of such a venture in local history groups – one that has led to misadventure, so to speak. In 1942, the Colne Valley Water Company (the precursor to Three Valleys Water) committed to establish a water well in this part of the woods. The drilling was successful, but didn’t yield the expected amount of water. Towards the end of the war, it was decided to bore an additional tunnel which roughly followed the contour of the Northern side of the Ruislip Lido reservoir into Poor’s Field. A pumping station was built to aid in the extraction of water from the well.

A crank shaft cradle? at the pumping station

However, the water yield from the well remained unsatisfactory, despite the mechanical aid. And to make things worse, mysterious swallow holes began appearing close to the Ruislip Lido. According to geologists, these dangerous holes were a result of the collapse of the layers of chalk under Poor’s Field. There were 6 or more such collapses between 1944 and the early 1960s’, all in connection to the operation of the well and the changes it brought about to the geology of the woods. That fact and the low yield eventually led to the well being abandoned.

An underground chamber filled with water and debris

Today, the abandoned pumping station is testament to this failed effort to extract water at Ruislip Woods. It is an interesting ruin, especially once one becomes aware of what it represents. It is quite possible that the underground opening may lead to a tunnel under Poor’s Field – however I would absolutely not recommend trying to explore it. No-one knows what dangers may lie down there, not least the danger of collapse which I have already mentioned.

The way back

Our one-hour was up, and we started making our way back to the car park. But Miles Gillman’s storytelling didn’t abate. Inspired by the stories of bunkers and tunnels under the woods, we discussed about other local rumours and landmarks, such as the (now permanently closed) Pinner Chalk Mines as well as other known or suspected tunneling and mining efforts under our feet here in Hillingdon. It’ll suffice to say that some of us might have tunnels running under our gardens – about which we have no idea about ! It was a great discussion that certainly merits its own dedicated post and research.

As we went past the mansion on our way to the car park, Miles produced another interesting item : fragments of china recovered from the woods near the Battle of Britain House. These were probably part of a platter or dining plate, but otherwise difficult to tell how significant they were, or even whether these belonged to the crockery of Battle of Britain House. Miles remembers how in the days before recycling, it wasn’t uncommon for households to dispose of broken household items near their gardens. It is another interesting theory, and if it’s true, then there must be a potential treasure trove of fragments and other items close to where these were found! It’s yet another fascinating avenue of exploration that may yield more insights into the past of the ruined mansion at Ruislip Woods.

I am grateful to Mr Miles Gillman for being generous with his time, and for the interesting stories, artifacts and locations he shared.

For those interested in further detail, the story of the Ruislip Woods water well and pumping house has been described in great depth on the 1998 Ruislip, Northwood & Eascote Local Hisotry Society journal.

A new audio tour, and some thoughts about the de-evolution of leisure

Between October 2020 and March 2021, I developed an audio tour about the history of the Battle of Britain House in Rusilip Woods with the help of Voicemap, a GPS driven audio guide app. The tour costs £5 / $6.99 per device, and you can pick it up here. I am delighted to share this with you, and I’m taking the opportunity to reveal a bit more about where I come from, why am I doing what I’m doing, and some of the thought processes that went into creating this audio walk.

Exploring bomb craters in Ruislip Woods, winter 2020

Why make an audio tour about the Battle of Britain House ruin, or even at all

The easy answer is that I loved hosting the first guided walks in the woods in summer 2020, and so I thought I’d commit the story to audio as well. I wanted to use a new format to reach a broader audience. There were many who didn’t get the chance to join physical walks on weekends because of other commitments, and there are those who preferred to remain distanced from a group. Then there are others, including myself, who just enjoy a radiophone or podcast-style delivery. First I toyed with the idea of making this an online experience, like a zoom tour. But then I realized that in the course of the last year, so many of us were already stuck living out great parts of our lives in front of a screen, doing most of our socialising online, or taking part in numerous zoom calls about this and that. So what I really aimed for was creating something that didn’t just relate a noteworthy story in a refreshing way, but also urged people to get off their seats and enjoy nature, and the great outdoors.

But there were more complex reasons for creating a tour in this new format. Reasons that didn’t have to do with the global health situation per se. In recent years, I have arrived to the belief that the way we’ve been doing leisure is past its due date, and dying fast. Travel and leisure across the planet in the last 70 years has become a mass manufacturing process, standardised, packaged, and plastic. Looking beyond the immediate benefits to the economy, people people have started waking up to the detrimental effects travel has and leisure on local communities, the environment, and ultimately our psychology. Coming from a 15 year career in travel and leisure, I was directly involved in the inner workings of package travel, and grew disillusioned by the ways we do leisure, and what it has come to mean to us.

Exploring bomb craters in Ruislip Woods, winter 2020

There’s a need to go back to basics

Armed with an inquisitive mind and a philosophical mood, I began looking for alternative, more individual, and ultimately less intrusive ways to approach travel and leisure. The quest became a rabbit hole : to places I’d never been before, to perspectives that were alien to me, and straight to the heart of our very thought processes as human beings. I began looking at the ways our perceptive and psychological mechanisms affect our need for leisure and wanderlust. Soon I understood the basic mechanisms, and arrived at the realisation that we don’t make the most of our capacity to experience when we’re crammed like sardines inside venues and resorts. The breakthrough came when I was acquainted with the work of Agoraphobic Traveller, which kickstarted an extraordinary 18-month philosophical exchange about what is a travel experience, after all. For those of you who’d like to find out more, I have committed these thoughts and discussions in a long read called The Drift : an interview with the Agoraphobic Traveller

While I was in the midst of this process, the new decade started in style with a huge global challenge : the outbreak of disease, forcing upon us isolation, social upheaval, financial and psychological pressure . Adding the heart-breaking death toll of Covid 19 to that, we are admittedly living through a multitude of stacking, universally experienced hardships such as the world hasn’t seen since World War 2 – as some world leaders put it. A pleasant thought is that mankind, for once, aren’t at each others’ throats in anger (well, mostly anyway). The global effort to find a cure to the malady is progressing, while governments and organisations around the world are releasing, to the best of their ability, unprecedented support to alleviate the impact of this crisis and ensure that livelihoods aren’t in immediate danger.

A beautiful Cedar of Lebanon at Watford’s Cassiobury Park

Each one of us will have a story to tell once this is over. My story is that the major plans I had for Explorabilia my small tour company in 2020 had to be put on hold. None of my painstakingly researched, lovingly crafted weekly guided walks and monthly international adven-tours took place, leaving me with a hole in my pocket, and also another one in my heart. All the excitement that comes with a new venture and doing what I love most had to be put on hold – indefinitely.

I know I am not alone in experiencing this, and that gives me courage, and perspective. One of the benefits of the situation, is us witnessing and participating in a massive cultural shift in our travel and leisure habits. I found that this situation validated my existing thoughts about the changing ways we experience the world. Homeworking. Video calling. Non-commuting. Spending more time with those closest to us, in non-commercial spaces, in the park or in the woods. And there have been ample opportunities to change some of our deep-rooted habits, and somewhat forcefully, embrace change. Given, it’s not ideal for everyone, but most of us have had the time to develop new approaches, or change our perspectives on how we live our lives, how we get things done, and what really matters. A lot of this change, in my mind, is for the better, especially when it comes to realising how we want to spend our precious leisure time. I, for one, have enjoyed my freedom from shopping malls, multiplexes and resorts, and poured myself into experiencing the best my immediate environment has to offer. I guess I’m just lucky it’s Ruilsip Woods !

Admiring oak trees at dusk : a new form of leisure ?

I have the certainty that much of this fundamental shift in how we experience our lives is here to stay. Working from home, less commuting, breaking our routines with new experiences and venturing outside our routines and comfort zone might become part of a new, post-Covid19 way of life. Subconsciously, many of us might still want to stay away the crowds, enjoy more peaceful lifestyles and remain open to new perspectives and pursuits. It’s been a tough period, but if that’s the silver lining, then I’ll be almost glad it happened by the time it’s all over. Hopefully soon.

Globetrotter : the World of Meyer F. Kline

Occasional global pandemic aside, travelling around the world doesn’t pose much of a logistical challenge in our day. There’s an abundance of flight options, efficient train networks, powerful cars to take us over vast distances safely – in much less than Phileas Fogg’s proverbial 80 days. What’s more, going from A to B has become reasonably affordable : most of us will plan a longer annual trip whether for holiday, meeting friends and family, or expanding our horizons.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, round-the-world travel was a much more challenging affair. Aircraft were still a new fad at the time, and commercial flights didn’t “take off” until the late 1920s. Extensive train networks existed, especially in Europe and the United States, but ambitious transcontinental projects were still a dream – such as the ‘Cape to Cairo’ project to connect Africa from north to south (whose insurmountable technical and political challenges meant that it still remains incomplete to this day). Reasonably powerful motor cars did exist, as well as their intrepid drivers, committing to improbably long expeditions. But cars weren’t nearly as available as we might think, and road trips largely remained the domain of daredevils. In the improbable 1908 New York to Paris race – a 17.000 km race across North America, and onward via the Bering Strait to Russia and Europe – around 300 cars took part, and that was basically every car in New York at the time. So In the early 20th century, the most reasonably safe and enjoyable way to see the world was aboard a ship.

A 1930 poster advertising round the world service aboard the Buenos Aires Maru of the Osaka Shosen Kaisha

Our hero, Meyer Franklin Kline, was one of those dreamers : a globetrotter from a very early age. Born in Tennessee, raised in Los Angeles, he was just 18 in year 1900, when he rode the 4.600 km between L.A. and Montreal – on a bicycle. He then got on a boat to Europe, where he attended the 1900 Paris World Fair. Soon after, he began his career in editorial work on behalf of various newspapers in Portland and Seattle.

Osaka Shoshen Kaisha and the Official Shippers Guide

Despite settling down in the Eastern US for a few years, Kline had been irrevocably gripped by wanderlust, and kept dreaming of more travel : ‘How fine it would be if I could get up some sort of a guide book so I could get expenses paid for a trip around the world’ he reminisced much later, in a 1935 interview with the LA Times. Sure enough, 1913 found Kline across the world, employed at the Japanese firm Osaka Shosen Kaisha (O.S.K.) – also known as the Osaka Mercantile Steamship Company Ltd. The company began as a conglomerate of 55 ship owners comprising 93 vessels – some of whom were managers at Osaka’s powerful Sumitomo zaibatsu, one of Japan’s family controlled monopolies that defined the country’s business and industry between 1860 and 1945. By 1919, the O.S.K. had become a global player : its ever-expanding shipping lines connected Japan to busy international ports like Adelaide, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Genoa, Marseille, and New York – to name a few. By 1935, their fleet had grown to 116 owned vessels plus 65 chartered, with another 7 under construction. The O.S.K. was active in both cargo and passenger shipping, and its modern steamers soon acquired a fame for luxury and comfort.

A 1921 O.S.K. promotional calendar

Kline’s role was the quintessential dream job : to travel around the world sponsored by the O.S.K., and then consign his travel memories into an annual luxurious volume called the Official Guide for Shippers and Travellers to the principal ports of the World on behalf of his employers.

The Official Shippers Guide could be found in each cabin of every O.S.K. ship, and also at the offices of the company and those of all its subsidiaries and representatives around the globe. As suggested by its name, it contained a wealth of up-to-date information about the major ports of the world, as well as the company’s ships, routes and activities. And so Kline travelled non-stop, in a seemingly never ending Grand Tour, visiting each place, and writing about its history, sights, and places of interest. He also used his own photography and poetic prose to bring each port to life for his readers :

“Across the boulevard from the Manila hotel is the Luneta, the favourite short evening walk. And well it might be, for Manila harbour presents a beautiful spectacle, especially at sunset. After the last vestige of the often peculiar and indescribably beautiful sunsets have gone from the skies and the fresh evening breezes set in, on come the lights, myriads of them. When the fleet is in, powerful searchlights throw their white beams slowly back and forth across the sky, and the riding lights of swift-moving harbor tugs, together with the brilliant flood lights of cargo vessels working overtime and the lighted portholes of the many passenger vessels, all contribute to the beautiful lighting effect”

Manila / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)
Kline’s photos of Sydney from the 1936 Official Shippers Guide

Alongside his wonderfully descriptive travelogues, Kline worked meticulously to gather and analyse news, rumours, figures and data, then compiling it into business briefs for global shakers and movers :

“There are hopes of Cotton in South Manchuria – a fertile field for this fibre only a century ago; There’s a project for cotton growing in Siam, largely because Siam is tired of buying from Japan without selling to her ; and there’s a similar project in the Philippines”

Aspects of Japan’s Textile Trade / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)

Above all, the Official Shippers Guide afforded an excellent opportunity for business advertisement, which would have been an excellent additional source of revenue for Kline. Between his employment at the O.S.K. and the rights to his annual publications, Kline managed to make a fortune out of his travels.

“A glance at our Index to Advertisers reveals a very impressive list, and this is our best endorsement. That many of these organisations have been advertising with us since the very beginning is elegant tribute to the advertising value of our pages. This in no small measure is due to our Distribution”

Foreword / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)
A typical 2 page spread with advertisements on the 1936 Official Shipper’s Guide.

1916 trip to Japan

In 1916, while employed by O.S.K., Kline and his wife Mildred (the first of four wives, I believe) embarked on one of his typically long journeys from London to Japan. For that trip, Kline chose to bypass war-torn mainland Europe, taking instead a northerly route.

A 1916 Map of Europe and Asia showing Kline’s approximate route

His passport, preserved at the National Museum of American Diplomacy, shows that the adventurous couple made their way from London to Newcastle sometime in June 1916, where they sailed to Haparanda at the Swedish border with the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. From the Finnish town of Tornio across the border, they entered the Russian Empire in Beloostrov outside St. Petersburg, and then made their way to Moscow, where they – very likely – boarded the newly completed Transiberian Railway that took them across the steppe to Port Arthur (today’s Dalian) in the Yellow Sea. From there, they would have sailed to Japan, maybe even directly into Osaka where he was employed, as the O.S.K. ran a direct daily route between Osaka and Dairen (the Japanese name for Dalian). There are stamps on their travel documents that mention all of these stops, plus additional extensions for travel to Norway, the Straits Settlements of Malaya, India, along with a stamp from a colonial Secretary in Hong Kong authorising a travel permit for as far as Australia for November 1916.

It’s difficult to tell whether the Klines visited all these additional places they had permits for, or whether they had to change their route as circumstances around them changed. This trip presented a considerable amount of additional risk beyond what was inherent to early 20th century global travel, since Meyer and Mildred Kline skirted a dangerous warzone along their route : they crossed the North Sea in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Jutland, perhaps indicating that they rushed for the post-battle lull to sail the dangerous waters to the Kattegat, and then on to the top of the Gulf of Bothnia. It goes without saying that the rest of their Transiberian trip was as arduous and challenging then as it is today. The whole venture shows Kline’s ambitious globetrotting scope, fuelled by his indomitable spirit of adventure, and enabled by the freedoms and income afforded through his relationship to the omnipresent O.S.K. :

“To the executives and employees of the Osaka Shosen Kaisha, in all parts of the world, whether on land or sea, the Editor acknowledges with deep appreciation the many kindnesses bestowed upon him”

Foreword / from The Official Shippers Guide (1936)

In Ruislip

Circa 1920, Kline purchased the lease for a house in Ruislip Woods (in Middlesex, UK) known as Horsens. The lease previously belonged to Joseph Conn, a farmer of Danish or German origin who is rumoured to have been compelled to leave the property at the outbreak of the war. Kline, who had previously resided in the American East, would now take another residence at the mansion in the outskirts of London, bringing along with him his private collection of Asian objects collected during his trips. He soon began upgrading and expanding the existing residence into a luxurious mansion, which he renamed to Kokyo after the name of the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo, thus highlighting his ever strengthening involvement with Japanese business and culture.

  • Battle of Britain House, Ruislip, UK
  • Battle of Britain House, Ruislip, UK

Kline is known to have salvaged the entire state room from one of the O.S.K. older luxury steamers before it went to the breaking yard, shipping it over to be installed at the Kokyo mansion. The luxurious suite is said to have included lavish wood panels, ornaments and associated furnishings. Other objects included the bronze-cast Chinese lions and other animals in the mansion’s garden, seen in photos from summer 1962. These art objects have survived in sketches and photographs, or described by eye witnesses with many remaining in place well into the 80s before the summer blaze that consumed the mansion.

Meyer F. Kline posing for an interview with Los Angeles Times, 1935

Kline will “reside” at the mansion for the next 20 years. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, since he was known to be out travelling the globe for 11 out of 12 months in a year. Sometimes he’d spent the first half a year travelling the North Hemisphere, and the second half of the year travelling the South. During that time, he went through 4 marriages, a possible side-effect of his constant travels. Rumour has it that his last wife caught him in bed with one of the maids, upon which she proceeded to burn all of his travel photo albums along with the negatives.. a monumental act of revenge for sure, befitting a traveller of such distinction.

“I once crossed the meridian on July the 4th on board of one of the Empress liners out of Vancouver. The British master took a cruel enjoyment out of the fact that the calendar jumped from the 3rd to the 5th of July. ‘Here’s one time you Americans won’t celebrate’ , said the captain”

In an interview for The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) Thu 19 Sep 1935

A lot of sightings and stories about Kline appeared on global English language newspapers during that period. His extensive trips along with the stories that came with these were ideal matter for catchy, titillating news articles. Each brief sojourn seems to have borne a report or a mention in the local press. In these, he tended to cultivate an image of a cosmopolitan, yet down to earth man of the world, a situation which without doubt added to his legend as a dashing travel writer, and was a boon to his business advertising revenues.

The Singapore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser, 30 June 1926

One of the weirdest newspaper mentions was that of a court appearance in Singapore as the plaintiff in a 1926 action against Frank H. Buck, a hard-nosed, well travelled Texan who became infamous in the 1920s as a controversial wild animal collector. Like an original Joe Exotic would, Buck started off by winning $3500 in a poker game, which he invested on a trip to the Amazon rainforest. Making a tidy profit in New York by selling the exotic birds he brought back with him from that trip, Buck soon built a fortune by roaming the jungles of Asia and Latin America, bringing back wild animals for sale in the U.S. He somehow wrangled himself to a surprising appointment as the first director of San Diego Zoo, a tenure that was beset by several counts of mismanagement, corruption, animal cruelty, and frequent clashes with the local Zoological Society. Nevertheless, at the time of the action, Frank H. Buck was an established, infamous personality, considered by many as the foremost animal collector in the world. One can only guess at the sort of dealings that could have brought the two globetrotting celebrities to clash at court in Singapore. It is an interesting mystery I’ve yet to uncover fully, but nevertheless the story gives us some further perspective into the character of Kline.

The downfall

By 1935, Kline appears to be sharing his precious free time between Washington D.C. and Ruislip, boasting about how he was 22 days younger than everyone else on the planet, since he had circumnavigated the globe 22 times, always in an easterly direction, ostensibly gaining a day each time he crossed the International Date Line :

Article on the Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia) Sun 4 Aug 1935

There’s a flurry of newspaper articles, interviews and listings about Kline in 1935. Most of these are repeats of the same motifs : Klein having travelled 1,225,000 miles, Klein being 22 days younger, etc It appears that Klein might have been compelled to pay for these entries to boost his profile, and consequently, that of his business venture. The 30s were a difficult time for the US and global economy : between 1929 and 1933, the financial crash and Great Depression that followed put incredible strain on the global financial system. The Osaka Shosen Kaisha posted two consecutive years of losses in 1930 and 1931, slowly recovering from 1932 onwards. All of this pressure must have affected Klein’s fortunes in ways we can only surmise. What is known is that during that period, he renamed his London mansion from Kokyo to Franklin House, apparently to honour the newly elected US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his sweeping New Deal reforms that paved the way for the recovery of the U.S economy. Markedly, this was also Meyer F. Kline’s middle name, who seemed to favour wordplays about Japanese emperors and US Presidents for his fabulous mansion in Ruislip.

An O.S.K. Line flyer from 1933

However, the dark clouds of the next big war kept gathering in the horizon. The Empire of Japan, long harbouring expansionist ambitions in Asia, had embarked on an aggressive political and military programme, invading Manchuria in 1931, attacking China in 1935, and skirmishing with the USSR in 1939 – a terrifying prelude to the all out Pacific War that followed against the USA and its allies. It is entirely plausible that a keen traveller and geopolitical analyst such as Kline was would be able to experience the rise of fascist rhetoric and the undisputed horrors of Imperial Japan’s interference in Asia, and could foretell the impending reversal of his fortunes. Kline is known to have vacated Ruislip’s Franklin mansion between 1938 and 1939, possibly heading back to the United States. It remains unknown whether his nearly 3 decades of dealings with the Japanese raised questions back home, but it is a plausible expectation.

Arizona Maru as an IJN Air Defence Transport ship in Guadalcanal, 1942

At the outbreak of World War 2, the Osaka Shosen Kaisha paused trading as a shipping company, and most of its ships were requisitioned into the Imperial Japanese Navy. Its largest cargo ship, the 9,600 ton Arizona Maru, once transporting cargo to ports like Seattle or Montevideo, was pressed into service – first as a hospital ship in 1937, then fitted with AA guns and quarters for troops and horses, and designated an Air Defence Transport Ship in 1940. She participated in the Invasion of the Philippines and the Battle of the Java Sea. On 14 November 1942, the Arizona Maru was attacked by 8 SBD dive-bombers from USS Enterprise while attempting to reinforce Guadalcanal, and sunk about 80 miles NW of the island.

The Rio De Janeiro Maru shipwreck © Scubadivingearth.com

The 9,600 ton Rio De Janeiro Maru, once ferrying passengers in luxury as far as Galveston or Cape Town, was converted into an auxiliary IJN Transport and Support ship. It survived being torpedoed twice, in two different actions, in the space of two months, by two different US submarines in 1942. In 1943 and 1944, it carried armaments, food, mail and prisoners of war to Batavia, Surabaya and elsewhere in the Pacific. It met its demise by dive bombing while at station inside the Truk lagoon, where it still rests on its side, 500 yards from shore. Here’s a video of what remains of Osaka Shosen Kaisho’s passenger flagship ! I’d like to think that Meyer F. Kline might have been on board the Rio De Janeiro Maru on one of his many trips.

During the war, the O.S.K. lost two thirds of its ships to allied action, but managed a miraculous recovery post war. The company went on to become the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which is one of the largest shipping companies in the world today. You are certain to see their cargo ships around major ports in your country. As for Kline, he vanished from the world stage and little is known about what happened to him during or after the war. He passed away at 82 in 1964, and is buried in a family plot at the Home of Peace Memorial Park in Los Angeles. He remains one of the most colourful and interesting residents of Ruislip’s Battle of Britain House, and the person behind its transformation into the lavish mansion in the woods that still lives in the memory of local residents.

Chisel the life and death of Kurt Gruber

CHISEL : The life and death of Kurt Gruber

Miner, Communist, OSS Agent : the short life of the Free German who trained in Ruislip during WW2

A cold wind sweeps over the vast war cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz outside Liege. Snow twirls, teeth rattle and hearts groan in the vast field where 5300 young men are buried. Many of them are men who fell during the bitter fighting in the last winter of the war in Hürtgenwald, or the Ardennes, or crossing the Rhine into Germany. Over half of them are U.S. airmen, brought down from the skies during the bombing campaigns that devastated the Reich in its final days. The cemetery has 11 cases of brothers who died side by side in the fighting… among the endless array of crosses, blocks, and stars of David, one can find the graves of Kurt Gruber and the fateful crew of the secret CHISEL mission that was lost over Germany in March 1945.

Germany

The story of Kurt Gruber begins in the coal mining town of Ahlen in Westphalia. Its major colliery and proximity to the Ruhr industrial area saw Ahlen grow rapidly in the early 20th century, attracting a diverse, multicultural worker population. By the 1920s, bad working conditions, low social status, and poverty, had become common sources of discontent among Ahlen’s miners. Then, a serious accident at Westfalen colliery’s shaft 2, cost the lives of 14 miners. By 1929, following a decade of demonstrations and strikes, the local branch of the German Communist Party (KPD) had become the dominant political force in the city’s council, with 24% of the vote.

The now abandoned ‘Westfalen’ Coal mine, Ahlen, Germany . Photo by Jens Flachmann (2000)

The young Gruber brothers, Kurt and Karl, were Ahlen miners and active members of the local KPD. By 1930, however, the Nazi party had become the second largest in Germany, amidst the rampant financial and social crisis that characterised the Weimar Republic. Thriving in that environment of discord and political uncertainty, Nazi militias began to take law in their hands. On March 24th 1931, during another meeting engagement between Nazis and Communists in the streets of Ahlen, Karl Gruber was shot, and killed. His funeral was attended by 3000 people, nearly the entire miner population of the town, and was the largest demonstration Westphalia had ever seen. In February 1933, four months after Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor, the Reichstag is mysteriously destroyed by arson. Hitler points the finger at the Communist party, and the persecution of KPD intensifies.

Kurt Gruber

Gruber’s anti-fascist activity has also intensified in the aftermath of his brother’s death, and his KPD membership and involvement in various acts of civil disobedience has made him a target for security services. In 1935, the Party helps Gruber emigrate to Prague, where he continues to resist as a courier for confidential communications to Berlin – a trip he appears to have undertaken at least 10 times, putting himself at great risk. On his last trip as a courier, he reportedly

stepped off the train in pre-war Berlin only to be confronted by wanted posters with his face on them all along the platform.

Realising that Gestapo officers were waiting at the exit, he ran for his life – only escaping after a tram driver who witnessed the chase slowed down enough for Kurt to jump aboard and then sped off, leaving his pursuers behind.

Michael Alexander, The Courier 08 Jun 2019

Soon after the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Gruber manages to escape to Glasgow, with the intention to continue his political activity and resistance there.

Scotland

After a period of internment on the Isle of Man, Gruber was allowed to resettle in Glasgow, where he continued to work as a miner, joining the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers. During his time in Scotland, Kurt Gruber authored a pamphlet called “I am a German Miner” which was published with a foreword by trade unionist Abe Moffat, leader of the Scottish Mineworker Union and a leading figure among British coal miners.

My rare copy of I am a German Miner by Kurt Gruber

Kurt Gruber found solidarity in Scotland, and also found love. Jessie Campbell Leith was a Scottish woman who after leaving school at 14 worked as a secretary. She was subsequently involved with the local Communist party, where she met Kurt Gruber during anti fascist campaigning in Glasgow.

As far as I know Kurt and my mother fell deeply in love with each other

Catriona Joyce (Jessie Campbell Leith’s daughter from another marriage)

In 1944, Gruber was approached by the OSS to participate in a top secret infiltration mission into Nazi Germany, an opportunity he found hard to decline.

Jessie Campbell Leith in 1943

Kurt and Jessie married in a civil ceremony in Glasgow before moving to London to be closer to where OSS was based, in preparation for the mission. His recruiting officer would be Lt Joseph Gould, an American labour law expert from New York with proven experience in trade unions. Gould had been assigned to the Office of Strategic Services’ Labour Division. It was an office dedicated to the recruitment and training of dissident workers, trade unionists, and other civilian anti-fascist collaborators for deployment in a variety of stealth operations.

London

According to Lt. Gould’s memoir, Kurt Gruber was part of the small cadre of volunteers recruited among London’s Free Germans to be trained by the OSS at Franklin mansion in Ruislip (later known as the Battle of Britain House). They were men with similar background as Gruber : workers, trade unionists, and socialists : all united by their hatred against Nazis, and ready to risk their lives behind enemy lines. They also had the advantage of being native German, and by virtue of their OSS training and forged paperwork, would be able to mingle with the population at their point of insertion. Sure enough, Kurt Gruber was assigned to the mission codenamed CHISEL. The mission brief was insertion into the Ruhr Valley, where Gruber was to put his miner background to good use by reporting on the status of German industry and troop movements in the area. By March 1945, the Allies have already reached the Rhine at Remagen, facing fierce resistance – including wonder weapons such as V2 rockets and Arado 234 turbojet bombers, the likes of which have never been seen before ! The situation beyond the Rhine was completely unknown. Local intelligence was needed urgently, and therefore CHISEL got its go ahead for the night of the 19th of March 1945.

A gloss black A26 Invader, suitable for night missions over Germany (USAF Museum)

Final flight

A Douglas A26 Invader light bomber was tasked for CHISEL, and a US Marine Sergeant called Fred Brunner was assigned as Kurt Gruber’s OSS jumpmaster. The rest of the crew were pilot Oliver Emmel, Navigator John Walch, and bombardier Edward Tresemer. They flew out of Harrington airfield, which had previously hosted Operation CARPETBAGGER, a series of successful supply missions to the aid of resistance fighters over occupied France in the prelude to D-Day. This is the story of what happened that night :

The drop date was set for 19 March. Lieutenant Commander Simpson was having trouble with the Air Corps, but his difficulties appeared to be waning. The problems with the Air Corps were largely those of coordination. The 492nd Bomb Group had thought it would be given a chance to fly regular bombing sorties after it had finished supporting the maquis in France. Agent dropping was both dangerous and unglamorous. Or so it seemed, until he learned that the plane scheduled to fly CHISEL was badly in need of repair and carried a faulty radio.

Usually OSS was placed in the position of asking the Air Corps to fly deep missions, but on this occasion the roles were reversed. Simpson wanted the flight scrubbed, but the Air Corps opted to “get it over with.” The aircraft was A-26 #524.. This plane had carried out the OSS HAMMER mission to Berlin some days earlier. Now it was sitting on the tarmac at Harrington with both engines torn down. Additionally, a storm was brewing and weather all the way to the target was forecast to be marginal.

The crew assigned to fly CHISEL had never worked together.

Lieutenant Emmel, the pilot, was not fully “checked-out” in the A-26. Nevertheless, a desk-bound colonel decreed that the mission would go.

At 2230 on the night of 19 March 1945, the glossy black bomber roared into the rainy sky and turned east. Its motors quickly droned into the blackness, and in a few moments, all that was left was the sweep of the wind and the splattering of rain drops on the oil-soaked parking stands. There were four crew members and the agent aboard. None was ever heard from again

Herringbone Cloak/GI Dagger: Marines of the OSS by USMC Major Robert E. Mattingly (1979)

Today we know that CHISEL went down in the early hours of the 20th of March 1945, after having encountered bad weather over Germany. The bomber crashed slightly NW of its indented target, somewhere in the marshes near the Westfalian town of Schwege, and just outside the farm of the Kruse family. Witnesses that have since passed away, reported that

the bomber hit the ground at a shallow angle around 1 o clock that morning, overturning several times until it hit a small stream. Five torn bodies were scattered near the wreck. The agent and a crew member were lying close to the hull, one body 50 meters away in a meadow, another was swimming in the water-soaked moorland. The fifth man must have been thrown away by the impact.

The crew of the plane that crashed wore military identification tags, while agent Gruber in civilian clothes carried a passport with him that identified him as Pavel Nowak with Czech nationality. Nowak had forged letters of recommendation and documents from the Hermann Göring works in Prague, which were supposed to take him to a factory in Mülheim.

After the crash, the police provided papers, templates, headphones and the microphone of a special miniature radio set, as well as 7000 Reichsmarks and a smaller amount in British pound notes. They turned the body over to the secret police.

Martin Frauenheim, German aviation expert an article by Westfälische Nachrichten, 09 Oct 2015
Missing Air Crew report of the CHISEL flight. Kurt Gruber is not listed among the missing in action…

Aftermath

The CHISEL flight never returned, and by 06.30 that day it was presumed Missing In Action with all crew and passengers. Kurt Gruber was never mentioned in the official MIA report.

Back in London, Jessie was not told about Kurt’s disappearance until after the end of the war, presumably due to the secrecy of his mission. Her daughter Catriona recalls her mother’s regret about how “deep sorrow and distress” at the news of the disappearance of her loved one made her suicidal, and depressed. Around VE Day, as the rest of the world celebrated the end of war in Europe, Jessie suffered the miscarriage of her child with Kurt Gruber.

In January 1946, the US War Department acted upon a previous recommendation of the (by that time, dismantled) Office of Strategic Services, awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Kurt Gruber. There was no ceremony offered, and none required :

The last episode in her story with Kurt that my mum described to me was of being escorted by the OSS to a black car, blindfolded and driven to a gracious but stuffy room where the blindfold was removed and she was presented with Kurt’s American Medal of Freedom and a citation noting his bravery.

We no longer have them. My mum always said that Kurt would have handed it back

Catriona Joyce (Jessie Campbell Leith’s daughter from another marriage)

Special thanks

  • Michael Alexander of The Courier (Dundee) for Jessie’s story found in German anti-Nazi spy during the Second World War
  • Eduardo Da Costa for his amazing photos from the Ardennes American Cemetery
  • Jonathan S. Gould, son of Lt. Joseph Gould and author of German Anti-Nazi Espionage in the Second World War: The OSS and the Men of the TOOL Missions (Routlege 2018)

Some basic background information on ie Westfalia, the rise of the Nazi party, Trade Unionism in Scotland etc has been sourced on Wikipedia

Conservation, health, and safety at Ruislip Woods

A Visitor’s Guide

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of exchanging correspondence with Mr Richard Hutton, Woodland Officer with the Borough of Hillingdon. I have contacted Mr Hutton with a view to find out more about the former mansion site’s accessibility and other best practices, as well as discuss the possibility of signposting the location with a view to enhancing visitor experience. Mr Hutton confirmed that ‘they are intending to produce a heritage leaflet of the woods, which will include this site as well as bomb craters and earth banks’ . This is very exciting news, and ties well with the forthcoming Woodland Centre exhibit at Ruislip Lido to highlight the historic importance of the Battle of Britain House.

As the number of people who visit the Ruislip Woods is set to increase in the future, it is important to remember that the former mansion site rests inside the boundaries of a woodland conservation area. Mr Hutton authored the most recent Ruislip Woods Management Plan 2018 -2022, outlining the council’s conservation considerations and strategy for Ruislip Woods. It is useful to familiarise with this document before visiting the woods, particularly where it sets out the best terms for public access, as well as what is at stake.

Why should it matter how I visit or use Ruislip Woods?

Ruislip Woods in general, and the area around the site of the mansion in particular, is home to uncommon plants and rare reptiles that should be preserved. The woods are a protected ecosystem with a carefully managed equilibrium comprising flora, fauna, the weather, the natural environment, the soil, and of course us as responsible visitors. In addition to ecological considerations, we have to be aware that the abandoned mansion site is dotted with various hazards, such as broken steps, holes, branches, glass and metal shards, among others.

Stick to the footpaths, in good weather !

What are the best practices for visiting the woods ?

When at Ruislip Woods, you are encouraged to stick to statutory footpaths and well trodden trails, and avoid disturbing plants, trees or animals with your presence. Yes, it is entirely possible to make most of your visit by using the beaten paths, and entirely possible to make the most of your visit without disturbing the woodland. If you are uncertain as to which footpaths are statutory, there are maps that outline these at the entrances to the woods. Google Maps on your phone is also a great resource, and I notice all statutory footpaths are marked with dotted lines mostly matching the council’s maps (if uncertain, please prioritise the information on the council’s maps). Last, there are wooden posts at most junctions marking footpaths you should ideally be using.

In addition, please exercise caution when visiting the woods, especially if you happen upon the ruins. Please try to not use the steps, as they are broken and an accident risk. Needless to say, please beware of glass and metal shards, as well as stubs, holes or stones set in the ground. Last, please avoid visiting the woods on rainy days altogether, as it tends to get very slippery. All of these considerations are important for your health and safety.

I trust we will all remain sensitive to the environment during our visits to the woods.

“Overrated” : Historic fact and fiction in the age of social media

The sensational title of a BBC News article about the role of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers has taken social media by storm. What’s that all about?

The headline ‘Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 ‘over-rated’ flashed across my screen earlier today, bringing a large part of my understanding of WW2 down like a house of cards. For all the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched, the fabulous TV series, the visits to my beloved Bletchley Park – has the story the Enigma Codebreakers been nothing but an overrated fluke, after all?? ??!!

Beware of clickbait

This is an imaginary reaction, by the way. But it could have been anyone’s reaction to today’s BBC News article . As I write this post, I witness an army of anonymous and eponymous trolls attacking the work of Professor John Ferris, who in his recent book, Behind the Enigma, challenges the established assumption that Bletchley Park’s codebreaking shortened the war by 2 to 4 years :

Overrated. What’s in a word? this is a rather unfortunate, even misleading title from BBC News. To begin with, Ferris was invited by the GCHQ to write the new, authoritative history of Britain’s foremost intelligence agency. He is a well regarded author and historian with the University of Calgary, and was given unparalleled access to GCHQ resources, working closely with them along the way. So what gives?

Sir Harry Hinsley OBE

In the heart of the matter lies the origin of the widely popularised conclusion that Ferris challenges : the legend of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers shortening the course of the War by 2 to 4 years comes straight from the mouth of Sir Harry Hinsley, a cryptanalyst who worked at Station X, and author of the previous Official History of British Intelligence. However, Hinsley’s account of the breaking of the Enigma code has come under scrutiny for its lapses & inaccuracies, most notably by Marian Rejewski and Gordon Welchman, two mathematicians and cryptologists that worked with him at Bletchley Park. It appears that it was Hinsley who first proclaimed the “2 to 4 years” conclusion in a 1993 lecture :

Now the question remains how much did it shorten the war, leaving aside the contribution made to the campaigns in the Far East on which the necessary work hasn’t been done yet. My own conclusion is that it shortened the war by not less that two years and probably by four years – that is the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Sir Harry Hinsley (1993, amended in 1996)

Hinsley does go on to explain how he came to that conclusion, albeit with a great deal of what I call authoritative conjecture – the fallacy of authors who despite (or perhaps because of) their immense knowledge on a subject, forget due process, and enter the minefield of careless speculation. In other words, this claim was probably just his personal view, rather than a carefully researched conclusion. Arguably, Hinsley’s wanting performance as the authoritative historian on British Intelligence coupled with the mystique of the branch and sensitive character of the data pertaining to the subject matter, are the factors that gradually led to gross misinterpretations of the intelligence work that took place at Bletchley Park. This includes popular films such as U-571 (2000) in which various Enigma fables are presented to the general public as facts – even prompting a response from Parliament – or Enigma (2001), where Hinsley’s fable is again perpetuated. And the rest is, well, ‘history’

A more rounded opinion on the ‘over-rated’ codebreaking controversy

To put this into perspective, we have to accept that we live in an age of internet-fuelled fallacy, where likes often matter more facts, and where fake news and outlandish conspiracies beset us at every turn. But for those who can see beyond BBC News’ sensational headline (tut tut), will realise that Professor Ferris did what he was actually hired to do : provide us with a meticulously researched, scholarly historic account, which is no less than what Britain’s foremost intelligence agency deserves.

Professor John R. Ferris (©2020 Laura Johnston/Laura Grace Photography)

Those who will read his revision will surely realise that Ferris never set out to diminish GCHQ’s contribution to the war effort – he does, however, set out to establish its true proportion. Isn’t the pursuit of facts, after all, the mantra of every intelligence agency? I have no doubt that John Ferris’ revised history of the GCHQ will be truer to the agency’s core values. And it will also honour the legacy of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, whose degree of accuracy was often the only difference between life or death for the millions of servicemen fighting the war on land, at sea and in the air.

The Enigma memorial at the former RAF Eastcote

(I am writing this article as a mental note to self. Even an amateur history researcher has a moral obligation to support their conclusions with credible sources and evidence and avoid presenting hypotheses as facts)

Battle of Britain House and The Secret War

Battle of Britain House and the Secret War

Secret agent training, the TOOL Missions, and Cold War mistrust : The latest revelations about the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods.

Abandoned signs of past existence always fascinated me. First the excitement of discovery, then the mystery, and ultimately the revelation that comes with meticulous research. Suddenly, out of a tiny part, comes an astonishing whole, and the past reveals itself to us in glorious detail. When I first happened upon the ruins of Battle of Britain House in 2018, it was just a pile of rubble in the woods. But today, it feels like a site of significant (if overlooked) historic importance, with a story whose fascinating details can be traced from our local Ruislip Woods to the last days of the 3rd Reich in Berlin, from Canadian internment camps to South Virginian top secret facilities, from cosmopolitan interwar Osaka to the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Wealthy heiresses, globetrotting playboys, Danish farmers, health & wellness pioneers, secret agents – the Battle of Britain House has truly seen it all.

Among those intertwining stories, perhaps the most fascinating narrative is the one about the role of Ruislip’s (then called) Franklin Mansion during the War. Requisitioned by the Ministry of Works at the outbreak of World War 2, the mansion would become a training centre where the tactical aspect of the new collaboration between the British Secret Intelligence Service and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later CIA) would take place. Many aspects of this intelligence relationship still remain a mystery nearly 80 years on. The declassification of top secret files under Freedom of Information legislation is a gradual process. But each time a file, a photo or a record comes to light, a new aspect is revealed, and previously unheard stories emerge from the Fog of Time.

One of the earliest revelations of Ruilsip being used for the training of OSS agents came in Joseph E. Persico’s 1971 Piercing the Reich. It was one of the first books to describe the formative days of the OSS and the giant steps it took with the help of the SIS here, in London. Persico extracted rigorous detail from the available data and first person accounts, even revealing the daily lives and practices of the agents training for those seemingly impossible missions.

Battle of Britain House Ruislip Woods
London’s Area F (perhaps for Franklin) has since been identified by some authors to be the mansion known as the Battle of Britain House

As more and more records are revealed, researchers are enabled to access and evaluate the records , furthering our knowledge about what took place at the mansion in Ruislip Woods during the war. One of the most important breakthroughs happened in recent years with the publication of the memoir of Joseph Gould, an OSS officer who arrived to London shortly after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. His orders were to recruit and train agents for top secret missions behind enemy lines, a need that became even more pressing after the massive German counterattack called the Battle of The Bulge in December 1944, when the Allies realised they were heading into Germany with little or no intelligence to support their operations. What was the actual strength of the Nazi Army, after all? What was the state of their industry? How was the German people’s morale and their will to carry on? Were rumours of a National Redoubt at the Bavarian mountains true, and did Hitler have more Wonder Weapons up his sleeve?

With the entire Allied effort at stake, Joseph Gould was sent incognito to London, tasked with locating and recruiting … Germans. Yes, London during the war had become a hotbed for German dissidents who had escaped Nazi Germany in the late 30s. Artists, homosexuals, trade unionists – many of those who didn’t fit Hitler’s terrible vision and had managed to escape via the so called Czechoslovak Corridor found refuge here, organising in societies such as London’s Free Germans. They were an assortment of secretive groups that met, discussed, and planned for Germany’s day after. It was among German Socialist workers that Gould found his cadre of recruits : ordinary, working class people with no prior military training. The daring plan devised by the OSS was for those men to parachute into Germany using false identities, mingle with the population, gather intelligence using the techniques learned at Franklin House, and report back via the cutting edge (for the time) technology provided to them.

Joseph Gould and TOOL agents in Rusilip, UK
Joseph Gould (Left) with TOOL mission trainees at Franklin House, Ruislip

The TOOL missions were codenamed after, well, tools : There was BUZZSAW, HAMMER, JIGSAW and so on. The Free Germans were to be paradropped into their hometowns in places like the Ruhr Valley, Leipzig, or Berlin, and report back with local intelligence. Many of them never made it through, neither the air crews that transported them. Some others were captured by the Soviets, their fate remaining unknown until after the Cold War ended in 1991. But some of them were successful, returning to a blacked-out, besieged Berlin like revenants one night in March 1945 after a decade of absence – to the disbelief of their relatives.

Sadly, the TOOL missions men who readily risked their lives to help the Allied effort didn’t fare very well after the end of the war. Being staunch Communists, they became unwelcome in Great Britain and other allied states as Cold War paranoia intensified. Most of them found their way to East Germany, where they were also treated with mistrust, having previously associated themselves with the OSS and SIS. Their effort and sacrifice remains largely unrecognised to this day. We are very lucky to know their story, including evidence of their presence in Rusilip, by virtue of the memoir of Joseph Gould named An OSS Officer’s Own WW II Story: Of His Seven German Agents and Their Five Labor Desk Missions into Warring Germany which was recently published by his son.

Gould’s memoir is a fantastic primary source, but there’s further testimony to the story of the Free Germans and their activity in the UK. Not least their extensive, and now declassified intelligence files, pieced together by reports from the Metropolitan Police and Secret Service who tracked their activities (along with those of all foreign nationals originating from enemy countries). Much of my expansive archive of the Battle of Britain House can be accessed and downloaded in the Members Area which is expanded & updated frequently.

Where’s Fischer? A declassified 1950 Home Office memo in reference to the whereabouts of Werner Fischer, one of the TOOL agents that paradropped into Germany. The Special Branch confirms they’ve lost track of him, and he’s presumed to be in the USA . The truth about Fischer’s whereabouts was very different, and was only revealed after the end of the Cold War in 1991.

It is said that the use of the mansion for military training may have have continued into the Cold War. There are claims (..which I cannot confirm or deny..) that secret allied technology training took place there around the early 60s. Maybe another story to write about after its declassified ! Until that time comes, I welcome you to join me for a deep dive into the astonishing history of the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods by joining me on one of my regular walks, available to book on this page and/or join the Facebook Group dedicated to the history of the mansion.

Bomb Craters in Ruislip Woods

Bomb crater hunting in Rusilip

An astonishing 579 bombs hit Hillingdon during the Blitz. Hunting for those craters is a fantastic way to experience the area.

Some of you may know Bombsight , a great website mapping out the locations where bombs, incendiary devices, doodlebugs and other airborne implements of war dropped from the skies over London, courtesy of the Luftwaffe. In recent years, I found myself using it a fair bit, locating the craters left behind, and thinking about the ways Blitz marked London’s soil, as well as the lives of Londoners.

In the built up areas of central London such craters have since been filled in, the visible marks of war smoothing as time went by. In Hillingdon, however, blessed with fabulous rolling countryside and woodland, the marks of war are still visible. All it takes is getting up and getting out, armed with a map, good shoes, and some patience.

Hunting for craters is a great excuse to get out of the couch and into the streets and woods of the neighbourhood. For me, it justifies my strolls – I just can’t stand walking around aimlessly just to take in the fresh air. I need goals. So chasing after old WW2 craters and other historic landmarks is my way to keep fit and healthy, know my neighbourhood better, and satisfy my need for experiencing history !

Recently, I was made aware of a very special piece of kit : it is a detailed map of all bomb crater locations in Ruislip Woods. This is actually much more than dots on a map There is a expansive legend featuring numbered locations, paths, landmarks, even crater diameters to bomb types – an excellent and informative companion for your next walk!

The high quality map was created on behalf of the Hillingdon Athletic Club as an orienteering checklist. I am making it available for download here courtesy of its creator, Mr Nigel Ealand – with special thanks to Mrs Suzy Nowlan for bringing this to my attention. Download it as a .pdf using the link below :

Mr Ealand further explains : “If you have wondered why some of the craters are quite small the answer is the Germans never had a heavy bomber. The Dornier Do-17 was a two engine bomber and nicknamed the “Flying Pencil”. It could carry a payload of 1000Kg. It had four bomber racks and was configured to carry either two 500Kg or four 250Kg bombs, but the weight limited its range. The alternative was to carry half the payload of ten 50Kg bombs. There is only one Do-17 left in existence and it was recovered from the Goodwin Sands on the 10 June 2013 and is now exhibited at RAF Cosford . I had the pleasure of organising the BBC News coverage of the raising.”

Here’s the new coverage about The Last Dornier 17 :

I hope you’ll enjoy many interesting walks in Ruislip Woods using this excellent map! Send in your pictures of any bomb craters you spot, and I’ll be delighted to add you to a new Ruislip Bomb Crater Gallery I’ll be putting together in the next few weeks.

Battle of Britain House, Ruislip

The Battle of Britain House : Exploring the ruins of a secret agent training facility

Discovering the remains of a mansion that served as a top secret training facility for OSS Operatives during World War 2.

This article originally appeared on www.explorabilia.co.uk in January 2019

We often aspire to travel to the most faraway places to satisfy our wanderlust. But trust me when I say this : some of the most astonishing, and frequently overlooked places to discover, are right at your doorstep.

EPW059065
The Battle of Britain House in 1938

Well, my doorstep is currently at Ruislip, Middlesex. And my very neglected gem close by was the mysterious Battle of Britain House, a local wartime legend. Elder neighbours sometimes referred to it while reminiscing of the past. They talked about a beautiful old mansion nearby, where people used to attend residential courses, such as beekeeping, music, or art.

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Mr Stanyon (r) with guests, date unknown. (From the archive of Mr Sid Owen)

On further investigation, I found some local publications and memoirs referring to it as a local college operating after 1948. Records show that it was managed by Victor and Gwendolen Stanyon, a local artistic couple who organised the various art courses offered by the college. For a time, the Ruislip and District Natural History Society was also headquartered at the mansion.

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Mrs Stanyon (r) with staff, date unknown. (From the archive of Mr Sid Owen)

On a dry summer day in August 1984, a sudden blaze devoured the mansion, rendering it beyond repair. But still, people talked of a stately home with grand spaces, lavish furnishings, a well stocked library, and decorations commemorating the Battle of Britain, including a memorial plaque and the blazons of RAF squadrons adorning the walls. Apparently, the house had been purchased on the initiative of a local appeal, shortly after the war. They wished, and succeeded to opening it as a youth and learning centre, commemorating the R.A.F. pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. But such was the scale of devastation on that fateful August day, that what remained of the once grand mansion had to be razed to the ground, never to be restored to its former glory again. 

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The rear of the Battle of Britain House (south side), date unknown. (From the archive of Mr Sid Owen)

But for me, the most intriguing part of the Battle of Britain’s House legend was its colourful ownership history, as well as it’s alleged wartime usage. I have found out that certain owners had been compelled to relocate from the mansion under difficult circumstances, and this happened twice ! And what’s more interesting, the wartime Ministry of Works seems to have requisitioned the building at the outbreak of World War 2, and later permitted its use as a secret training facility for US personnel based in England. Operatives from the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to modern CIA, were apparently based there during the war, preparing for secret missions into occupied France !

Stories of the mansion’s past owners

The story of the site begins circa 1905, when Josef Conn – a German immigrant – and his wife Emily, obtained a 99 year lease for the Duck’s Hill Plantation in Ruislip. This included permission to improve the existing buildings into their house, which was named Horsens upon completion. However, the finished structure was apparently much criticized by locals, and only a few years later, just as the First World War broke out, Conn was accused to be a sympathizer on the basis of his German origin, and was subsequently interned for a period of time. Upon his release, which appears to have happened around 1916 – before the war ended – the Conns moved away from the area, leaving Horsens forever.

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Happy times (© Unknown)

During the 20s, the house became the property of  Meyer Franklin Kline, a well travelled American. A colourful and interesting character, Kline made his fortune as a travel journalist who spent most of his life creating, compiling and editing the Official Shipper’s Guide, a periodical journal sponsored by the Osaka Merchantile Shipping Company. Due to his business and personal connection with Japan, he renamed Horsens to Kokyo, the name of the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo. He is then known to have re-decorated the house in accordance  – Kline’s Kokyo was furnished with luxurious pieces from a luxury ocean liner’s state room, perhaps a consequence of his shipping industry connections. He is also known to have improved the mansion’s grounds significantly during the same period, including the two oriental lions once adorning the pillars of the rear garden steps.

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Meyer Franklin Kline holding a copy of the Official Shipper’s Guide, 1935 (© Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection)

The Official Shipper’s Guide became a definitive guide book for travellers in the 30s : original, leather bound copies of it can still be obtained through reputable antique book merchants. It looks great, a book I’d love to own for my library one day. But beyond his love for travel and writing, Kline was also known to have loved women. Perhaps a bit too much… he married no less than 4 times, and as rumours go, when his last wife caught him with the housekeeper, reportedly she proceeded to burn the entirety of the photos and films Kline had accumulated during his travels ! This is a terrifying story.. and a very dear price to pay for infidelity.

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Franklin House in 1938

Kline eventually renamed Kokyo to Franklin House at some point after 1933. Franklin was his middle name, but he is said to have also named it so in honour of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. During the same period, he appears to have leased the home to an unknown German national, shortly before the outbreak of the 2nd World War.  But the new leaseholder was forced to abandon the lease, as stipulated by wartime regulations in force at that time. He was, so to speak, the second German to be driven out of the property as a consequence of Britain and Germany being at war ! By some other accounts, there was “a woman of German origin” who lived in the house at the time, a “Mrs Hertog”. She was said to have been related to the Van Der Bergh family of margarine magnates from the Netherlands. 

Circa 1962 – Photo Courtesy of Mr Sid Owen

My research shows that she could have been Rica Hartog, the daughter of Hartog Hartog and Maria Anna Van Den Bergh. The Hartogs and Van Den Berghs were among the most important Dutch industrialists of the late 19th – early 20th century – indeed they were the kings of margarine ! The two families, among other important names in the Dutch margarine trade began as competitors, but didn’t hesitate to become partners when things got tougher during the 1920s. To remain afloat and continue enjoying a strong market position, they gradually entered agreements and formed pacts, pooling resources, brands and distribution networks over a period of years. This network of Dutch alliances, interests and dependencies eventually branched out across the Channel to involve British companies, and ultimately leading to the formation of Unilever in 1937, which remains a widely recognized international brand to this day. So with their businesses intertwining over several decades and spreading towards the UK, it’s no surprise members of their families ending up tying the knot too at some point, and perhaps finding themselves living in this wonderful mansion in Ruislip. So Mrs Rica Hartog is my best guess : she fits the event timeline, and had ancestry from both families. The only problem that remains was that both the Hartogs and the Van Den Berghs were Dutch, and indeed Jewish families. Rica Hartog was born in Brabant, much as the rest of her siblings, so it’s rather unlikely that she would be evicted for her origin, or even accused of sympathising. The truth is that I can’t know for certain, and more research would be required to establish the story of the mansion’s last tenant.

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Leaflet map showing the location of the Battle of Britain House

What is absolutely certain however, is that the outbreak of WW2 finds the mansion in the hands of the Ministry of Works, and soon, through them, it will be leased to its new foreign residents, the fearless men and women from the Office of Strategic Services.

The OSS in Britain

The US Intelligence apparatus was severely lacking at the outbreak of World War 2. Indeed the majority of information they collected at the time came in via their British counterparts : the Secret Intelligence Service (known as MI6) and their Special Operations Executive (SOE) branch, the so called “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, a nickname alluding to the covert nature of its activities. The Brits were well ahead in the spy game at the time. They were active since summer 1940, performing intelligence and counter-intelligence activities, and conducting actual operations inside Nazi occupied Europe as early as 1941.

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OSS wireless antenna installation demonstration (© Unknown)

By autumn 1941, the fledgling OSS had established a permanent mission in London, at a building in 70 Grosvenor Street, Mayfair. The purpose of this overseas presence was the sharing of information and expertise, as well as agent training and exercises for field operatives. Americans with European backgrounds and a cool head  were preferred, and after training in various locations in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, were sent into the field, for missions in countries where their accents would help them blend in successfully.

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OSS operatives poring through gathered intelligence in London (© Unknown)

The Franklin House was one of those secret locations. OSS agents would train in hand-to-hand combat, explosives, communications, as well as the latest spy gadgets : Lightweight sub-machine guns, silenced pistols, compasses disguised as buttons, playing cards doubling as maps, and even cannabis extract-laced cigarettes to induce incessant chatting. Because remember – Loose Lips Sink Ships ! Beyond the seriousness of their mission and the real dangers involved, the young men and women of the OSS must have enjoyed the adventurous character of their training thoroughly.

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OSS firearms training (© Unknown)

This joint allied intelligence and special branch effort culminated in Operation Jedburg : Small teams consisting of 3 agents each paradropped behind enemy lines on the 5th of June 1944, the night before the Allied landings in Normandy. These were no ordinary grunts : They were by now highly trained agents from the OSS and SOE, with elements from the Free French, Dutch and Belgian armed forces. They were tasked with infiltrating deep inside occupied territory, conducting sabotage and guerilla operations and directing and organizing the Resistance ahead of the main Allied advance. I tend to think that some of those clandestine men and women who took part in Operation Jedburgh, whose names and identities were declassified only recently, might have trained and prepared at the Battle of Britain House, ahead of their paradrop.

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Jedburghs in front of B-24 just before night at Area T, Harrington Airdrome, England (© The National Archives and Records Administration)
Exploring the Battle of Britain House today

There’s not much left from the Battle of Britain House today. After the devastating fire in August 1984, the mansion was deemed irreparable, and its charred walls were razed to the ground. None of the lavish furnishings, books and RAF memorabilia survived the blaze, and council lorries soon moved in and removed any of the reusable materials. After a number of failed attempts to invite re-development, the council decided to abandon the project in 1993, and agreed to allow the space to be reclaimed by nature, thus returning it to its original state. Electricity pylon

Visiting the site today is a reasonably easy and fun challenge. Trying to locate the remains of the stately home through dense woodland, using contemporary photos and maps offers a pleasant pursuit for the budding archaeologist. I have discovered the more modern vehicle access gate and driveway, including a small pumping house and a road sign from the 80s. Further, one can see the remains of railings, electricity pylons and drains. Eventually, one reaches an open plateau, in what once was the beautiful gardens in front of the house. There, one can still see the main steps leading up to the mansion, which is perhaps the most significant relic on site. Turning east, one can find the remains of two outhouses, perhaps one was a storage shed and the other a greenhouse, judging from the amount of broken glass still there. There’s not much present testimony to the house’s wartime usage, although metal detector enthusiasts are known to have unearthed a number of interesting items, including a fake firearm used for hand-to-hand combat training. Here’s a short video of the site when I visited in January 2019 :

I have visited the location a number of times, and it is unfortunate to see less and less artefacts.  There was much more to see in older photos, but it appears that irresponsible people have been removing any amount of scrap metal they could get their hands on. There was much more to see as evidenced in photos from about a decade ago, but unfortunately the non-protected status of the site means that it will continue to suffer from vandalism, until one day the forest will swallow it entirely,along with any sign of its presence. The legend of the Battle of Britain House, however, will remain – and I hope I have somewhat helped to preserve it for future generations.

All colour photos and videos in this article © explorabilia except where stated otherwise.

Except where expressly indicated, all non-attributed photos are public domain, to the best of my knowledge. If you own the rights, or have further information on any of the material in this article, please contact me – I will be delighted to attribute provenance or ownership, and relate your story.

References :

  • Genealogieonline for Rica Hartog’s family tree
  • The formation of Unilever – Info Guide No.4, Unilever Archives and Records Management
  • From Horsens to Ruislip College : The story of Battle of Britain House – Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote Local History Society Journal, April 1985
  • http://www.wikipedia.com (various articles)
  • The Home Front : Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote in Wartime – Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote Local History Society, 2007