Author Archives: explorabilia

Flight of the Invader

How an air crash investigation in Germany uncovered the story of one of the most secret spy operations of World War 2

A mysterious crash

In the small hours of the 20th of March 1945, Olinde Kruse woke up from the sound of a loud crash. Startled by the sudden bang, she sat up in her bed, listening on, holding her breath – but nothing further could be heard in the quiet of night. Her husband, Bauer, was still in deep sleep beside her, exhausted after a hard day’s labour in the fields. He didn’t seem to have noticed the loud noise at all. Hermann, their 6 year old son was still asleep in his bed across the room too. Olinde was very tired herself after a long day tending to the farm, and thinking it must have been the last thunderclap of the storm passing over the Schwege moors, she promptly went back to sleep.

An air photograph of the Hunteburg farmland (approx bottom right) and the south coast of lake Dümmer (top left) © Bundesarchiv

The farmstead outside Hunteburg (a small town near Osnabrück in Lower Saxony), belonged to the Kruse family for generations. It meant hard work every day, but especially in recent years, ever since all the young men who used to work for them had been called up for military service. The state had sent replacements in the form of able Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war, who now helped working the fields and tending to the animals. They didn’t speak much German, but they were capable farmers.

Ukrainian Ostarbeiter (Workers from the East) © Bundesarchiv

The following morning, Olinde discussed the curious incident with everyone at the farm. Some workers had been startled by last night’s noise too, raising further suspicions about the nature of the loud crash. In the afternoon, after the day’s tasks had been completed, Olinde, young Hermann and a Russian hand set off through the fields, heading towards what she thought was the general direction of the bang she’d heard the night before.

As they approached the lakeside of Dümmer See, they arrived at a scene of carnage : before their eyes, there was the mangled metal hulk of an unmarked black aircraft, part-buried in the marshland – and on the left side of the wreckage, lay the dead body of an airman, badly wounded in the left leg. The body of another airman could be seen in the meadow about 50 metres away. A third airman could be seen in the water, a bit further away, while a fourth member of the crew was eventually discovered at a distance of about 100m from the crash. They were all bearing US insignia.

Wreckage of a Douglas A26 Invader (not the one mentioned in this article)

On the right side of the wreckage, the Kruse family made an unexpected discovery : the body of a man dressed in civilian clothes, bearing a fatal wound on the side of his head. The papers found on the body identified him as Pawel Nowak, a Czech citizen. He carried documents from the Hermann-Göring works in Prague, recommending him for work in a factory near Mülheim in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland.

The Ruhr at Mülheim ©

The family alerted the Gendarmerie at Bramsche, about 30km away, who promptly reported the incident to the airbase at nearby Achmer. Wonder Weapon aircraft like Me262 and Ar234 operated there in the final stages of the war, and the skies over the marshland frequently buzzed with the unfamiliar sound of jet engines.

A Me 262A1a Schwalbe jet from JG7 Green 3, towed to position by a Kettenkrad in Achmer airfield – January 1944 ©

Before long, a Luftwaffe rescue contingent led by officer Ernst Grussendorf arrived at the scene, removed the bodies, and confiscated documents and other evidence from the crash site. With the help of Luftwaffe’s British and American Aircraft Identification Manual, the wreckage was identified as a US aircraft, initially thought to be a Douglas Boston. The offices posted a number of Hunteburg’s Volkssturm – the local militia – to guard the crash site overnight. A few days later, they brought in heavy lifters and removed the wreckage to the airbase for inspection.

A copy of the original Gendarmerie report of the incident.

By the end of the investigation, authorities had realized that this was a indeed a more advanced aircraft type – a Douglas A-26 Invader. The bodies of the deceased airmen were interred with full military honours at the prisoners of war cemetery close to Achmer airfield – and alongside them, the body of the civilian Pawel Nowak. For the next 70 years, the nature and circumstances of the crash remained a mystery, and so did the unexplained find of a Czech factory worker among the crew of the crashed US aircraft.

A transcript of Olinde Kruse’s statement

It’s a cold winter day in February 2015, and Gertrud Premke had been knocking on doors and accosting people on the streets of Hunteburg all morning. The freelance journalist, reporting on behalf of local media group Wittlager Kreisblatt, was an avid researcher of local aviation history. She had been following up on a cold case from WW2, the rumour of an American airplane crash in the marshland near lake Dümmer. The crash itself wasn’t unusual : the lake was a substantial body of water, and flyers frequently used it as a visual navigation point. Allied bombers flying in from Britain especially favoured it : once they trespassed into occupied Europe through the reasonably flak-free Zuider Zee corridor in the Netherlands, they would turn east by southeast at Dummer Lake. It was a manoeuvre that lined them up with targets at Hannover, Braunschweig, and Magdenburg, before reaching Berlin. As a result, several aircraft, both Allied and German, were known to have crashed in the region around lake Dummer, whether by flak, weather or accident. For her investigation, Premke had teamed up with the one person who was familiar with every single one of those incidents : Martin Frauenheim, a local aviator and aviation historian, who was also a known air crash investigation authority in the region.

Lake Dümmer in Lower Saxony, with Hunteburg farmland (approx. top right)

Frauenheim reveals : “I was born in 1947, and been married for more than 50 years. I have with two adult children and four adult grandchildren. I studied Mechanical Engineering, and worked at a machine factory for railway signaling technology – but it was aviation that fascinated me since I was a child. I have been a member of the Osnabrück-Atterheide Aeroclub since 1972, and have spent the last 60 years building a collection on Osnabrück’s aviation history, in particular the story of local rocket pioneer Reinhold Tiling. My many years of voluntary work as mayor of our municipality of Hagen am Teutoburg Forest, resulted in many local contacts, from whom I have learned a great deal about the region’s Second World War history. Through the years, I have also been involved in aviation archaeology. In addition to the numerous plane crashes recorded near our local community, crashes in the greater region have also been extensively researched and documented.

Dr Martin Frauenheim (right) with attendees at an air crash investigation lecture

I became somewhat known locally for my involvement in air crash investigation & research. So some years ago, I received a tip about a WW2 plane crash in the region – one that involved a secret agent. All experts following up that rumour up to that time considered it unsubstantiated, a cold case. But this very fact stoked my own curiosity further ! It took about a decade of meticulous research before all the facts finally surfaced. ”

After teaming up with Premke to look into the case and cross reference newly declassified documents, Frauenheim came to realise that this particular crash was different. US Air Force documents from the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaisance) recorded the lost aircraft after it failed to return from its flight. But previously unknown facts about the true nature of the activities of 25th BG had began emerging around 2010 : specifically the use of its aircraft to insert secret agents into occupied Europe, and then harvest the intelligence they transmitted via radio. Both of these missions required stealth, and so the groups “special” squadrons were equipped with the latest, fastest light bomber aircraft available to the Allies at the time : DeHavilland Mosquitos and A-26 Invaders. Painted pitch black, and bearing no insignia, the aircraft could fly deep into enemy territory at night in relative secrecy.

An A26 Invader painted in a matt black scheme. The aircraft that crashed near Dummer Lake had no insignia

Frauenheim recalls : “..the hitherto completely unexplained nature of the crash was the incentive for a detailed investigation. At first there very few clues to follow up. But then came the publication of a book – “The 25th Bomb Group (Rcn) in World War II” by Norman Malayney An aviation friend had given me a copy, and in it, I found the first references about the lost Invader mission in March 1945. Eventually I got in touch with Norman Malayney, who has kindly corresponded with a wealth of information and material on those secret missions over Germany. I am grateful to Malayney for his valuable insight – finally, some well-founded clues and hypotheses about what might have taken place that night began to emerge.”

Norman Malayney’s book and subsequent publication was a turning point in the research

The declassified manifest of the Douglas A-26 Invader as well as the missing aircraft report specified 4 crew members unaccounted for – 3 airmen and a US Marine Corps Sergeant. However, those didn’t match the German incident and eyewitness records. Those records mentioned confirmed that a 5th body had been recovered from the crash, identified as a Czech civilian, Pawel Novak. So what was the answer to that mystery ? What really happened that night ? The researchers knew that in order to answer this, they first had to locate the crash site. And sometimes, it seems, all you got to do is ask.

The declassified Missing Air Crew Report. Note how the 5th person in the airplane is not reported at all

That was the reason Premke turned up at the village that February morning in 2015, asking around local stores, businesses and passers-by about whether they had any memory or information about the airplane crash that happened near the lake in March 1945. She knew from existing archival records – Olinde Kruse’s and Ernst Grussendorf’s official testimonies – that the plane had been found near the Kruse farm, and after inquiring with a number of locals, she was directed there. As Premke reached the farm, she saw an elderly man driving a tractor, and waved him down. The elderly man’s eyes lit when Gertrud Premke revealed the nature of her visit : the 76 year old was no other than Hermann Kruse, the little boy who, alongside his mother, had witnessed the aftermath of the crash in March 1945. Kruse still lived and worked his family’s land 70 years later, and the horrific memory of what he witnessed as a 6 year old child was still very much with him. He promptly led the researchers to the brook where he remembered seeing the wreckage all those years ago.

Hermann Kruse in 2015

The dig

Frauenheim, Premke and a group of volunteers began scouring the exact spot pointed out by Kruse. Soon, the scanners began picking up metal signatures in the wider area next to the brook.

Martin Frauenheim (left) with Julia Schlöpker Os1. TV / Osnabrück Television (middle) and an unknown photographer (right) at the site of the crash

This was, beyond doubt, the missing A26 Invader that crashed in the marshes on that fateful night in March 1945. But what could have been the cause the crash? Frauenheim had already been developing a well rounded theory about what might have happened :

One of A-26’s engine RPM indicator found at the crash site

“After a lengthy search for the crash site, we finally found the exact location of the event, thanks to information provided by two surviving eyewitnesses. Although the crash site was cleared at the time, everything that penetrated the ground due to the force of the impact could still be found today by scanning and probing. The subsequent dig at the site brought extensive material to light, which enabled us to make an exact match of the aircraft involved. The discovery of the nameplate of the machine at the crash site was the highlight of the dig, and a real stroke of luck. The crash site investigation was spread over several weeks and even across seasons, due to the realities of the site being used as arable farmland. Our search could only take place after the harvest, but it resulted in the discovery of countless small aircraft parts, which I itemized and photographed meticulously prior to assigning those to the schematics and structure of the aircraft. With time, we were able to determine even specific flight instruments from the fragments found at the site.

A major find : the A26 Invader’s factory plate (as found) specified the model and serial number of the aircraft

It was hinted somewhere that the aircraft might have been unarmed. However, we found hard core 12.7 mm rounds, which could only have come from this aircraft. A contemporary witness confirmed that the entire wreckage was painted glossy black on the outside, without insignia of sovereignty. He also described how the tail rudder was made of fabric, just like the elevators, rather than aluminium – an important identifying detail. We also found a small sealed glass tube. Could it have been some form of soluble drug? I suspect that amphetamines could have been used by aircrews to keep them sharp during longer night missions. Further analysis would be required to confirm this assumption.

Alternative flight aids?

(Back then as it is today) ..every aircraft was routinely subjected to a safety check after it has been flown and used between 50 and 100 hours, and particularly crucial parts are immediately replaced when found to be defective. It was probably the same with this Invader. The aircraft should have been thoroughly checked before the mission, including the possible replacement of both engines – which could have been shot up by flak during its previous mission. But due to a confusion over its final orders on the day of the flight, there was a great deal of hectic activity, which suggests that the technical checks were carried out hastily. A test flight usually follows a technical check-up, but in this case, none of those seem to have been carried out thoroughly enough, or even at all. In addition, the crew was inexperienced, and had never flown missions together before. The pilot himself didn’t have much flight time at the cockpit of an Invader. Last, it is surprising that this flight was in our area despite the adverse weather forecast. So, hypothetically, many of the the failures that led to the crash could have been avoided.

Schematics from the aircraft’s original 1944 handbook had to be sourced and consulted to match the various part finds

The operation would have involved low-level flight at night, indicated by the matt black paintwork for camouflage. The low level flight is assumed because German anti-aircraft guns wouldn’t be able to depress their barrels enough to shoot in such a steep trajectory. But low level night flights pose particular challenges too. Eye witnesses reported that the wreckage didn’t appear to have exploded on impact, and it didn’t look burnt out either. However, we did find charred engine parts at the site. My guess is that there might have been an engine fire prior to the crash, forcing the pilot to shut down the engine and trim the aircraft for single-engine flight. But it is likely that the aircraft was flying too low to cope with the loss of one of the engines. It possibly got into an incline, and its wing caught the ground at full speed, cartwheeling sideways with the terrible consequences witnessed at the crash site. Had the aircraft been flying much higher, they could have used the parachutes (they had already been wearing) to survive..”

Crash site at the Kruse farm between Hunteburg and Lake Dümmer © Google Earth

Later revelations would affirm Frauenheim’s hypothesis to a great degree. But the mystery of the identity of the Czech civilian was soon to be revealed too. And none of this could have ever been possible if it wasn’t for more recent developments in the declassification of OSS documents pertaining to the agency’s wartime activities.

Glimmers of Light

Around 1980, the CIA transferred all Office of Strategic Services (OSS) files held in their vaults since wartime to the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), with a view to begin the process of their declassification under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The records contained detailed information on every clandestine operation performed by the OSS during WW2, including the names of the agents and personnel involved. Slowly at first, the nature and scope of OSS secret effort to penetrate the 3rd Reich was gradually being revealed.

Declassified OSS records can be accessed in various NARA locations, such as the archives held at College Park, Maryland, pictured here. Photo by Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL

In 2002, a New York lawyer named Jonathan Gould began publicizing the memoir of his father, former OSS Labour Division Leutenant Joseph Gould. The story he revealed was rather incredible : it appeared that in the final stages of the war, the OSS, under pressure to provide credible intelligence ahead of the Allied advance beyond the Rhine, had sought to train exiled German Communists for the task. The so called TOOL Missions were a fact : Lt Joseph Gould himself was the man who sought, recruited, trained, and then successfully launched those men into Germany. For his service, the OSS recommended him for the Bronze Star in summer 1945. By October that year, however, the OSS had ceased to exist, and was replaced by the CIA. With the Red Scare, McCarthyism and Cold War mistrust on the rise, intelligence work was fast adapting to a new post- war environment. At some point, someone high up in the hierarchy decided that the inconvenient details of this unholy wartime alliance with Communists should rather remain secret. So the commendation was never pursued, and Lt Gould had still not received the Bronze Star Medal at the time of his death in 1993. This injustice prompted his son, Jonathan, to make his story known, and petition for a posthumous award. After a long campaign, during which Jonathan uncovered a trove of formerly classified OSS documents about the TOOL missions (not least the original 1945 medal commendation for his father !) the well-deserved Bronze Star was finally awarded by New York Congressman Charles Rangel.

Jonathan’s efforts, however, had begun revealing much more than the story of his father. Through the archival research of declassified documents and interviews with survivors and their relatives, the stories of the men who took part in those top secret clandestine missions began taking shape, in glorious detail. As early as 2002, Jonathan published a clue about one of those men, Kurt Gruber “..killed when the US Air Force plane carrying him to his destination in the Ruhr Valley crashed in bad weather on 19 March 1945”

Lt Joseph Gould’s declassified report of the chaotic events of the eve of the flight

Martin Frauenheim recalls “The name Kurt Gruber and the “Free Germans” were completely unknown to me for a very long time. For many years I only had the aircraft’s declassified casualty report, as well as the police incident report, initially sourced by Dutch researcher Jan Hey, an expert in the field. Even him, however, could not provide further details before he sadly passed away a few years back. But I was already becoming familiar with the name of Lt. Joseph Gould, a name that kept turning up in declassified documents about the March 1945 crash. One thing led to the other : eventually I discovered the name and address of his son, Jonathan Gould, as a result of an Internet search. When I asked him about the events surrounding the crash, he immediately got in touch and provided me with further information. He was equally grateful that in this one case we were able to provide a great deal pf accurate information about the location of the crash.”

Joseph Gould, outside his flat on Mount Street in London, December, 1944. Jonathan Gould has written a book about how his father Joseph Gould recruited spies in Nazi Germany during WWII.

The publication of his (Jonathan’s) book brought many more names, dates, facts about operations over Germany at the end of World War II. His extended research revealed a host of other secret agent missions in and around the Osnabrück area, which fortunately went on without incident.

Frauenheim began corresponding with Jonathan Gould in March 2015, shortly after the discovery of the Hunteburg crash site. By that time, Gould had began turning his father’s memoir into a book, and was already in possession of substantial declassified material about the “lost” CHISEL mission. It soon became apparent that Pawel Nowak, the Czech national whose body was unexpectedly found among those lost in the fatal air crash, was the same person as exiled German dissident Kurt Gruber, whom Lt Gould had trained and instructed into an OSS agent at the Franklin Mansion in Ruislip, England between late 1944 and early 1945.

A secret 1947 report linking OSS agent Kurt Gruber with the crash near Hunteburg. The document had remained classified for six decades

Kurt Gruber had been trained to present several identities as part of his agent assignment, and that complicated my research for decades, making it hard to connect the dots. But once we had established his real name, we found the first solid traces of his identity through making contact with his birthplace at Ahlen in North Rhine – Westphalia. Kurt’s brother Karl, who was also a communist, had been murdered in a street fight by Nazi paramilitaries in 1931 under a trivial pretext – for being a protester. His funeral was attended by everyone in his town. Kurt Gruber took his brother’s death as a sign to go into hiding and begin his resistance activity. Their story stirred enduring sympathy within the local community, where he is still remembered to this day.

Article about the street clash and murder of Kurt Gruber’s brother, Karl – Ahlener Zeitung, 26 March 1931

Through my research into Gruber’s life and deeds, I became familiar with the Free Germans and their activities. Defying the Nazi regime at that time was an act of extreme courage. Joining these secret missions voluntarily shows a very clear determination to oppose the Third Reich. It would be desirable if the United States erected a memorial at the crash site. The premise of German communists supporting American clandestine operations is unique, and deserves to be commemorated. That would certainly be a difficult decision for the Americans to make, however there is merit to it since four American crew members also lost their lives.”

Martin Frauenheim (left) and Hermann Kruse (right) at Hunteburg, 2015

Special thanks to Martin Frauenheim for sharing the details of this astonishing story and his detailed research on the Hunteburg Crash. All photos and documents in this blog post, unless otherwise specified, come from his personal archive

Disclaimer : The dramatization of the night of the crash is entirely fictional, loosely based on all available data. The sole intention of this dramatization is to add flavour in the presentation of the events surrounding the crash.

The diary of an au-pair

A look at the surprising finds inside the diary of Colette Brosse, the French au-pair who stayed at the Battle of Britain House in the 60s

In September 2020, I received a communication from France. It was from a lady named Sylvie, who happened upon the website while looking for traces of her mother’s presence in Ruislip during the 60s. Little I knew then how this contact was destined to yield some of the most fascinating insight into the daily lives of those who have been at the house during that time !

Sylvie’s mother was Colette Brosse, who stayed at the mansion between 1964 and 1965. She described her year in Ruislip as “life-changing” : a year of study, work, and enjoying life at the loveliest of London’s suburbs. Colette made a lot of friends in Ruislip, such as Gordon and Zoë Long, who used to live in Ruislip a long time ago. The Longs were involved in the Chartist revival movement, and they later moved to Dodford (near Bromsgrove, Birmingham) where they were involved in a campaign that resulted in the acquisition of Rosedene, one of the original Chartist cottages, by the National Trust.

Colette Brosse returned to England later in life, this time married, with two wonderful children. Her daughter Sylvie (the girl on the left in the photo above), recalls how they spent two lovely summers visiting Gordon and Zoë Long at Bromsgrove. Gordon was a retired engineer who had worked on plane engines for Rolls Royce (or so), and she was a retired arts teacher at the time. Sylvie also recalls visiting the Battle of Britain House at least once, and thinks that this family photo is from that visit (although not 100% certain).

The diary

The story became even more fascinating when, a few months later, Sylvie contacted me again about her mother’s diary. Colette had kept a daily record of her time at the BoB House in Ruislip, and Sylvie had found it among the personal items she left behind after she passed away. And folded among the pages of her the diary, she found two intact brochures of the Battle of Britain House as a residential college :

The one-page brochure is describing what’s on offer at Ruislip College, the courses, facilities etc but also offers a description of the location – that’s not all that much different than today’s description !

The tri-fold brochure is printed in two-tone colour and has a similar content. Both items feature the work of artist Patrick Connolly, whose signature can be seen in the pictures. He has since become a wildlife artist of note, and I encourage you to see more of his work on his website . What’s more, Patrick is still thankfully around and has recently agreed to a telephone interview, where I am hoping to uncover more memories of the house from the time these drawings were made !

Collette’s Entries

Following the discovery of the brochures, Sylvie has kindly taken time to translate and reflect on the memories found inside Colette’s diary. It is a fascinating window into the past. Colette speaks to us from the past through Sylvie’s words :

“Portrait Head” a chalk drawing made by artist Toby Horne Shepherd in 1965, around the time he taught at the college

“My mother first arrived in England on the 5th of July 1964. She flew from Paris and traveled to Bath to stay with her longtime penfriend Mary Martin and her husband (they had been exchanging letters for ten years, since their school years!). She had very little idea of what she was going to do in England (and for how long), but she clearly wanted to spend some time there to work and improve her English. The day after she arrived, she mentions in her diary that she received a letter from one Stuart Walters (apparently a man she had met in her hometown of Nancy in the east of France), who was telling her about a job near London, “dans un manoir” (in a manor). She spends the day visiting the English countryside with the Martins.

On July 7th, she writes about replying to “Battle of Britain House”. Her first struggle with the language is slowly disappearing and all the vocabulary learnt at school is coming back. She finds the food (lamb with gravy, vegetables and mint sauce): “bizarre mais très mangeable” (..but very edible).

On July 20th, a note in her diary about Battle of Britain House: she got a reply: “je suis engagée!” (I’m hired).

On the 25th of July, she receives a letter from her mother: “je suis rassurée quant à tes occupations futures car tu t’en tireras très bien, avec chic, à la française.” (I’am relieved to know about your future occupation. You will be very good at it, with your distinctive French chic).

She traveled from Bath to London, and on to Ruislip on the 12th of August 1964. She is puzzled by her first journey on the Tube. “Accueil excellent dans un joli manoir, à la limite des bois et des champs.” (Very warm welcome in a nice manor, between the woods and the fields).

13th of August : “Promenade de reconnaissance aux alentours, le Lido, à 5 mn par les bois, est un petit lac, réserve destinée aux membres de la société d’histoire naturelle du MCC dont Mr Stanyon est président. Sir John Gordon chasse cependant sur notre domaine. J’ai entendu 2 coups de fusil, il a tué 2 lapins !” (Stroll around the neighbourhood. The Lido is five minutes away through the woods. It is a nature reserve opened to the members of the Natural History society of the MCC, of which Mr Stanyon is president. Sir John Gordon, however, hunts on our grounds. I’ve heard two gun-shots and he killed two rabbits!).

14th of August :Fay nous fabrique un plat indien dont je reporte la recette dans mon cahier spécial. Je tiens en effet à noter quelques recettes qui peuvent être tenues pour typiquement britannique et sont cependant… excellentes. On y trouvera des plats indiens, écossais, gallois, la maison étant fort internationale. J’aurai apparemment de l’aide de Sir John Gordon car il adore cuisiner et apprécie la cuisine continentale. Toute la maison s’est mise à l’unisson. Une découverte : la bibliothèque où je vais pouvoir puiser et travailler. ” (Fay is cooking an Indian dish for us, and I’m noting down the recipe in my special notebook. I insist on noting a few recipes that can be considered as typically British, although they are… excellent. My notebook will contain recipes for Indian, Scottish, and Welsh dishes, the house being very international. I will apparently receive the help of Sir John Gordon who loves cooking and is fond of continental cuisine. All the house is lending a hand. I have discovered the library, where I can get books and work).

26th of September : “Nous avons eu une semaine de cours d’art, des peintres amateurs, quelques-uns excellents, venus travailler sous la direction de Toby. J’ai posé pour eux et obtenu un des dix portraits. Et je suis invitée dans quatre familles. Je suis allée à Ickenham, chez Gordon et Zoë Long, un couple charmant, amateurs d’art. ” (We have had a week of arts classes with amateur painters. Some of them are extremely talented and came to work under Toby’s supervision. I posed for them and got one of the ten portraits. And I am invited by four families. I went to Ickenham at Gordon and Zoë Long’s. They are a charming couple and art lovers)”

She then gives a list of some of the courses she witnessed at the BoB House, with a brief description for each :

  • A course for college administrators : “sympathiques” (nice people)
  • Painters with Toby Horne Shepherd: posed for them and got invited in 4 families.
  • A weekend for discus-throwers: too many of them, and they were a bit rude. Graduates, local government
  • Boating trip on the Lido. Nice but not very interesting.
  • Builders: very intelligent, hard-working people.
  • A weekend of choir-singers, mainly old ladies. Two or three singers from the Salvation Army with spectacles and bow ties. A young woman who keeps feeding a caterpillar.
  • A day dedicated to social studies. English women in their fifties or sixties.
  • Several courses for foremen, builders and people working in factories. They are by far the nicest people. Very polite. They laugh a lot.
  • Youth leaders like Miss Richardson (a friend of the Stanyons’)
  • A conference for 40 scientists and chemistry specialists. Very nice people.
  • A course on the Far-East (politics and international relations) for people in the RAF and the Navy. Not nice, always late, they wouldn’t speak to anyone else.

“Food, Glorious Food !!”

There is much more in the diary, that will be translated and presented with time – each page revealing a glimpse of the Battle of Britain House in the 60s. But there was one more surprise to be had. When Sylvie looked for a recipe in an old English pastry book left to her by Colette – a family treasure – she realized that some of the names and dates in the book looked familiar :

Xmas greetings from the BoB House

It turns out that the book was given to Colette as a parting gift in Christmas 1965. It still bears the signatures of all of her friends and colleagues at the Battle of Britain House :

  • Victor & Gwen Stanyon, the owners of the College, as well as their son Roger.
  • Ian Kinnaird, the gardeners, and his wife Barbara. Sylvie remembers how her mum used to write to the Kinnairds every year around Christmas, and always received a nice card back. She wrote to them until her death.
  • Edith Danby (identified as a dressmaker/seamstress)
  • Len Rust (not sure about the surname)
  • Mabel Willis
  • Renate (?) Reeler (?),
  • Millie (has been identified as the cook or housemaid)
  • Fay

The phrase “Food, Glorious Food !!” is of course a pop culture reference to Oliver ! the 1960 musical that also became a movie in 1969. Knowing Colette’s pleasant surprise in her first encounter with English cuisine, all this instantly makes sense !

Sylvie is looking for information about her mother’s stay in Ruislip : the day-to-day lives of students and au-pairs at the Battle of Britain House, the visitors, the owners. Perhaps, some of the people she befriended might still have memories of her, and could help put together a picture of her time there. Do you recognize or have a memory of any of the names any of the names, signatures, or situations in this post? If yes, I’d very much like to hear from you – please contact me at

The Airship Journey Across London

How one of the first controlled flights in the history of aviation landed at a field in Eastcote

In and around north western London, the frequent sightings of aircraft is a daily occurrence. Whether it’s London Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest passenger and cargo airports, or RAF Northolt, with its military and special flights, the skies above the borough of Hillingdon are alive with airplanes, keeping locals looking at the skies with curiosity, awe and pride. With all that aerial buzz over our heads, one could easily overlook how, long before airports even existed, a humble field in Eastcote hosted one of the first landings for a controlled, powered flight in the history of aviation.

Otto Lilienthal flying one of his contraptions

Before powered flight was achieved in the late 19th century, our skies were somewhat quieter – although not entirely devoid of air traffic. Back then, early aviators endeavoured to conquer the skies by any means known to man. The French Montgolfier brothers achieved the first manned flight in a balloon in 1783, starting a race for aerial conquest among nations, which lasted well over a hundred years. By the second half of the 19th century, brave balloonists, aviators and parachutists had flown further than ever before, attempting increasingly bolder feats, and pushing the boundaries of manned flight further than ever before. Flying was as dangerous a pursuit as you might imagine : two Victorian balloonists, James Gleisher and Henry Coxwell, rose to an estimated height of 7 miles (11km) in 1862, miraculously surviving the cold (-20 C) as well as a deadly blackout for lack of oxygen. A Prussian named Otto Lilienthal met his death in 1896 falling from a height of 50ft (15m) and breaking his neck with one of his his experimental gliders strapped on his back. Despite the many dangers, those intrepid early aviators kept pushing the boundaries of manned flight forward throughout the 19th century.

By 1900, aviators had mastered drifting in the winds in balloons, and instead focused their efforts to achieving controlled motorized flight. The vessels they used were dirigibles – elongated, lighter-than-air blimps fitted with steering mechanisms and combustion engine driven propellers. The race for controlled flight was led by the French-based Brasilian Alberto Santos-Dumont : he was a prolific designer and daring aviator, whose hydrogen airship – after several failed attempts – finally made the first complete steered and powered return flight in 1901, spectacularly rounding the Eiffel Tower in the process, as a jubilant Parisian crowd watched and cheered in awe. For that feat, he was awarded the prestigious Deutsch De La Meurthe prize for flying innovation, albeit not without controversy : despite the success of the flight, observers complained that Santos-Dumont had exceeded the 30 minute time frame permitted toward that record. A compromise was made when the aviator agreed to give his prize to charity. That tiny irregularity, however, meant that the prestigious record for a proper controlled, mechanized flight was still up for grabs.

Stanley Edward Spencer – legendary English aeronaut

The news of Santos-Dumont’s ‘failed’ try reached the workshop of Stanley Edward Spencer in London. He was a well known English aeronaut, coming from a family of early aviators. His grandfather had flown balloons since 1836, and his father was a gliding pioneer who owned CG Spencer and Sons, a balloon factory and workshop in Holloway, London.

A contemporary newspaper advert for CG Spencer & Sons

Stanley and his brothers were all accomplished aeronauts and parachutists who frequently operated in the boundaries of physics, flirting with mortal danger. Before 1900, Spencer still experimented with balloons, having performed several daring feats such a 5 mile (8km) ascent in a hydrogen balloon, and a number of close observations of astronomical phenomena from above the clouds. He was an aeronautical celebrity who spent his time designing new flying machines, and then adventuring around the world, demonstrating their capabilities or giving lectures to curious crowds. Spencer once demonstrated balloon flight to the Mughal Viceroy of Murshidabad, who almost forbade him to fly, fearing that he might break his neck before he had sampled the exquisite harem he kept. In Punjab, a jubilant crowd followed his descent to greet him as he landed – and running off with bits of his balloon and gondola as souvenirs. On another occasion, Spencer survived a 600ft (180m) fall when his balloon collapsed in Hong Kong, narrowly escaping with just a broken leg. And he almost drowned twice ballooning in South America, losing all his belongings at sea, and resorting to handouts to get back home. He then made his way to China, at the behest of a local mandarin. Balloon ascents had never been performed in China before Spencer, whose balloon rose above the ground amidst huge crowds, causing a stampede where several people lost their lives. His second ascent in China inspired such excitement – and confusion – about manned flight in the local populace, where many began throwing themselves off their roofs to try to emulate the feat… Spencer became proficient in raising money from the sale of tickets to his lectures and demonstrations, as well as in securing funding from enthusiastic patrons around the world. He then invested it all back into his next designs and record-breaking attempts.

Daredevil, and you know it : Stanley Edward Spencer

Upon hearing the news from Paris, and seeing the photos of Santos-Dumont’s questionable attempt, Spencer immediately changed his focus from balloons to the new, up-and-coming field of controlled dirigibles. He believed he could build a superior motorized dirigible to that of Santos-Dumont, and set about launching an effort to sustain a much longer controlled flight with it. To fund his experimental flight, he entered a sponsorship deal with Mellin and Co., the manufacturer of a popular infant formula. In return for the sum of £1500, Spencer agreed to display the Mellin’s Food brand logo across his dirigible’s hydrogen envelope for the next twenty-five return flights of his dirigible.

Spencer opened a new workshop at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, and set about creating his dirigible. The 75ft (23m) hydrogen envelope lifted a light bamboo frame. The airship carried a 3.5hp Simms combustion engine that powered a forward-mounted wooden propeller, and featured a sail-like steering mechanism (for comparison, a Spitfire MkI, introduced 35 years later, poured just over 1000hp out of its Merlin engine…). There was space for just one person on the rickety flying contraption : it would of course be Spencer himself – although his wife Rose is also known to have test-flown the airship (untethered, imagine..) over the workshop.

Spencer with his wife Rose Isabel and daughter Gladys Rose by a bamboo airship frame

Spencer’s original plan was to take off from Crystal Palace, fly around St Paul’s Cathedral, and return to Sydenham – effectively doubling Santos-Dumont’s flight distance from the previous year. After a number of trials above Crystal Palace – one of which included his 3 month old daughter as a passenger – Spencer set off to break the record of controlled, powered flight on the 19th of September 1902. Here’s a contemporary account of the historic flight that took place on that day :

The Times, Monday 22 September 1902

“Mr Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut, who in Friday crossed London in a navigable balloon, informed a press representative that he had been waiting for some time past for sufficiently favourable conditions to enable him to make an extended flight in the “Mellin” airship with which he has been experimenting for the past 3 months at the Crystal Palace.

He came to the sudden determination to make the venture of Friday afternoon on finding that the wind was almost due south and that apparently fog was altogether absent. Casting off at about 4 o’clock, he rose at an altitude of at first 300ft, cleared the Palace, and headed the vessel, which was entirely under his control from first to last, in the direction of the City.

The 10ft propeller, driven by a Simms petrol motor, was working smoothly at about 200 revolutions a minute, and the rudder acted readily, but Mr Spencer found just as he was passing across Loughborough-junction that the balloon was steadily rising and that the great silken envelope above was gradually becoming more distended as the expansion of the gas increased. The vessel had never before been tested in a prolonged flight, and consequently it was a moment of anxiety for the aeronaut when he found that the safety automatic valve, which is provided to allow of the escape of the gas when it has exceeded a given limit of pressure inside the envelope, shoed no indication at first of acting. Mr Spencer was just about to open the valve at the top of the balloon by a rope from the car when the automatic valve opened and the baloon was relieved.

The “Mellin’s Airship” in mid-flight

At this juncture the aeronaut found that his further progress across the City was rendered impossible by a bank of mist, so he directed his course by two or three degrees to the westward, his vessel crossing the river at the Victoria-bridge, Chelsea. Here, for the benefit of several hundred spectators on the bridge and along the Embankment, he tested the balloon’s manoeuvring capacity by executing two evolutions directly over the river,and, continuing his hourney across the Earl’s-court Exhibition grounds, repeated the experiment.

Mr Spencer describes his impression of the spectacle of thousands of people looking up at him four or five hundred feet below in every attitude indicative of astonishment and wonder as one of intense amusement. From Ealr’s-Court, all mechanism still working smoothly, he passed on across Hammersmith, Chiswick, and Ealing, at each of which points he made short circular flights, an proceeded with a velocity of about 7 1/2 miles an hour to Acton where, as dusk was commencing to set in, he began the descent.

This, in Mr Spencer’s balloon, is accomplished by the gradual displacement of the hydrogen in the balloon by means of a species of enclosed fan, operated by a handle within easy reach of the aeronaut which pumps, under low pressure, the ordinary air into the envelope, the superfluous hydrogen being discharged at a rent in the side of the balloon. Descending by gradual degrees the vessel came to the ground in a field at Eastcote, near Harrow, and Mr Spencer terminated his remarkable journey without having sustained a single mishap or the least derangement of his somewhat delicate propelling mechanism.

He expresses himself completely satisfied as to the capacity of his vessel for successful navigation, and is confident that, given the necessary atmospheric conditions, he could reach any point over London from the balloon-shed at the Palace and return to the starting-point. The present size of the balloon allows, however of only two hours’ supply of petrol being used.”

Spencer’s further adventures

Owing to the fog rising over the City, Spencer didn’t manage to circumnavigate St. Pauls’ Cathedral on that day. In true daredevil fashion, however, he decided to push on for as much as he could instead, flying over 17 miles (27km) across London, and landing at a field in Eastcote at dusk. His flight that had lasted a record 3 hours, near the limit of his fuel tank capacity.

Spurred on by his success, Spencer continued his much publicized airship feats. On the 21st of October 1902, less than a month after his flight over London, he re-assembled his airship at Blackpool, where in front of a crowd of 13.000 people, he navigated it through strong winds, landing near Preston. The same November, he took the ship across the Irish Sea, from the Isle of Man to Dumfries. Soon, however, his relationship with his sponsor would become strained. Mellin & Co. took him to court for being unable to keep up with his end of the deal for “25 return flights”, withholding the last £500 from the agreed sum. After an argument about what constituted a ‘return flight’ for the purpose of the contract between the two parties, the court ruled in favour of Mellin & Co. This sum still seems like a drop in the ocean, given the actual cost of his many exploits was much, much greater. For comparison, the cost of his showing at Blackpool set him back circa £450, while his income from the event was approx. £200. Spencer, like many adventurers of his time, prioritized his personal quest for glory over other practicalities – such as money.

The Tatler, December 1902

Unperturbed by this unfortunate turn of events, Spencer began work on a second, larger, and more powerful dirigible. The Spencer MkII blimp was 88ft (27m) long, powered by a 35hp engine (10 times more powerful compared to the first) and twin propellers designed by Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun. The new contraption, however, crashed upon take off in Surrey, suffering a broken propeller. Spencer converted the MkII into a single-propeller craft soon after, and securing a sponsorship from the London Evening News, he attempted another circumnavigation of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral on the 17th of September 1903, almost a year after his historic first attempt. Unfortunately, that effort was also unsuccessful : beset by strong winds, the airship managed to complete half the ‘evolution’ (as he called it) around the dome before turning to the north, eventually landing near New Barnet.

It is said that Spencer planned a third, even more powerful airship. It would be 150ft (46m) long, powered by two 50hp engines, and would carry 10 crew and passengers in its gondola. But time was running out for the adventuring aviator : with his various debts mounting up, and Mellin’s Food still pursuing their claim, he declared bankruptcy in April 1904. In January 1906, Spencer was on his way back from India on the liner City of Benares, when he was taken ill, disembarking in Malta. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever, and died on the island on the 26th of January 1906, leaving his wife Rose and daughter Gladys destitute. Thankfully, the good standing of the Spencer family in the community helped young Gladys earn a place at the Orphan Asylum in Watford in 1907, where she was educated. Its notable main building is Grade II Listed, and can still be seen near the Watford Junction station, having been converted into a housing estate. Gladys passed away in California in 1993, at the ripe age of 91.

The Orphan Asylum is still a landmark at Watford

As for Alberto Santos-Dumont ? His obsession with flight and the success of the Wright brothers in taking to the skies with a heavier than air machine at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, saw him turn his attention into building his own airplane, the 14-bis. On the 23rd of October 1906, he managed to fly in a controlled manner for the grand distance of 60 metres with it, in front of a jubilant crowd : the first powered flight with a heavier-than-air aircraft in Europe. Santos-Dumont built increasingly better and more powerful machines until 1910, when he announced his retirement from aviation. What people initially thought as exhaustion, was actually depression over the onset of multiple sclerosis.

A postcard showing Santos-Dumont’s first “aeroplane”

Airships and aircraft of ever-increasing size and power would continue to improve throughout the first few decades of the 20th century. You can read a bit more about how the technological leaps made by those early aviators were eventually put in deadly use during World War I – and in every subsequent war since – in my post named To Catch a Gotha, where I present the dramatic story of the first aerial bombardments that took place during the late stages of the Great War. Alberto Santos-Dumont took his own life in 1932, depressed by his worsening illness, as well as the realization that he had helped to invent a new implement of war, prompted by the use of aircraft in his native Brazil’s Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932. The final episode of that romantic era came only a few years later with the 1937 Hintenburg Disaster, an event that irrevocably shook public confidence in blimps, signalling the end of the airship era once and for all.

The Hintenburg Disaster (1937)

Sources :

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 ©

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.


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.


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.


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…


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.