There we were stood in a line clutching our photo ID and faced with an armed military guard. A less likely looking bunch of terrorists you could hardly imagine but rules are rules especially when you’re visiting the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre. It was October 6th and we’d arrived at Chicksands, just south of Bedford, formerly an RAF station. Our none too secret mission was to view the Medmenham Collection kept there. This covers the history of military aerial photographic interpretation and imagery analysis from the time of World War One up to the present day. Most readers will be familiar with the vital wartime role performed at what is now the Danesfield House luxury hotel and was once RAF Medmenham. The importance of the work that was undertaken there has achieved greater public awareness since the showing of the BBC’s recent documentary called Operation Crossbow.
I was surprised by the scale of the well-displayed exhibition, filling as it did two rooms plus the obligatory shop where one publication described how Bedford became the intelligence capital of the country in WWII. While our main purpose was to view the Medmenham Collection, the wider tale of aerial photography and its uses was fascinating. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the earliest attempts at aerial photography from the balloons which the American Samuel Cody first introduced in this country for military observation moving on to the perilous attempts by the pioneering pilots leaning out of their flimsy planes using plate cameras over the Western Front. We learned that even pigeons with miniature cameras strapped to their breasts had been pressed into service (see below).
The existence of the Medmenham Collection is due substantially to the enthusiasm of Medmenham Club members which comprises serving and retired personnel associated with this discipline. We were well served by our guide, Mike Mockford, who’d worked himself at RAF Medmenham in the post-war years. In April 1941 a RAF photographic interpretation unit moved to Danesfield House at Medmenham as its previous location at Wembley was short of space. During 1942 and 1943 the unit gradually expanded and was involved in the planning stages of practically every operation of the war and in every aspect of intelligence. By 1945 the daily intake of material averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints. By VE-day the print library, which documented and stored worldwide cover, held 5 million prints from which 40,000 reports had been produced.
The development of the technology was well illustrated. Central to the success of the unit was was the stereoscope, a simple Victorian invention which brought the enemy landscape into 3D. 3D photography was achieved by each print taken overlapping the next frame by 60%. The results when viewed by stereoscope allowed the photographic interpreters (PIs) to measure height, especially of unidentified new structures – such as rockets and their launch sites. This technique was to prove decisive and saved thousands from the V missiles barrage at the end of the war. The V1 – known as the doodlebug – first landed in London in the summer of 1944, bringing terror to the capital. The Germans were using less conspicuous launch sites, and brought missiles out at the last moment. But these sites were identified by PIs who spotted scarring on the land caused by the jets’ booster motors dropping off. These sites were targeted in what was called Operation Crossbow and the doodlebug barrage was limited. The day after the last V1 landed on 7 September 1944, however, the first V2 crashed in west London. Because it was silent, offering no warning, there was no defence against it. Since the V2 was mobile, bombers directed by RAF Medmenham attacked the supporting infrastructure, such as roads and railways. In the end, the advancing allied armies over-ran the launch sites. It has been claimed that should Hitler’s revenge weapons and their more advanced jet technology not have been countered then the story of the end of the Second World War might have been very different. Medmenham also contributed to the mass bombing raids that brought Germany to its knees. Prints were taken to nearby Hughenden Manor – codenamed Hillside in the war – where Air Ministry staff created maps for bombing missions, including the famous ‘Dambusters’ raid. RAF Medmenham played a central role in countering Germany’s military capacity and its achievement should rank alongside that of its sister organisation, Bletchley Park, with its code breaking operation.
A large number of photographic interpreters were recruited from the Hollywood Film Studios, American personnel having provided an increasing element of Medmenham’s staff as the war advanced. One of the American forces staff was Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, son of the USA President. Among the British personnel, the actor Dirk Bogarde was employed in the Army reconnaissance section. Two renowned archaeologists also worked there as interpreters: Dorothy Garrod, the first woman to hold an Oxbridge Chair, and Glyn Daniel, who went on to gain popular acclaim as the host of the television game show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Up to 150 women were also employed as PIs including Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the wartime Prime Minister who visited her from time to time at Medmenham. It was Constance Babington Smith, the journalist and writer, who was credited with the discovery of the V1 at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany.
One completely unsuspected spin off of Medmenham’s work was the construction of scale models. On the walls of the museum were two large models of the D-Day landing beaches, aids which were vital to the Allied invasion of Europe.
This was not the only treat this day. Leaving Chicksands we drove to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. After decades behind virtually closed doors, its treasures overgrown and largely unknown, English Heritage has revived one of Britain’s largest and most important ‘secret gardens’. It offers a wonderful 90-acre historic landscape, a French-style mansion, impressive garden statuary, a large central water feature and miles of reinstated historic pathways. We saw it at its best on a warm, sunny day. To anyone who like me had never even heard of Wrest Park, I urge you to drive around the M25 to visit this delightful garden.
Our visit to these two attractions was superbly organised by Mike Hyde as a fund raiser and promotion event for the Marlow Museum (now open Sundays 2-4pm till March) which needs the support of all of us concerned with our local heritage.