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Museum’s New Exhibition Puts the Spotlight on Wartime Secret Agents

Published on: 7 Nov, 2023
Updated on: 10 Nov, 2023

A new exhibition at Guildford Museum focuses on Second World War secret agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and some very local connections of where they undertook their training.

Some readers may have heard of famous agents such as Violette Szabó and Odette Hallowes. However, this exhibition tells the stories of more of those brave secret agents.

Wanborough Manor (left) as it looked in wartime and (right) little changed today. Photos: Wanborough Great Barn management committee and Paul McCue.

Find out about the agents who trained at places including Wanborough Manor and at Winterfold, near Cranleigh.

Yvonne Cormeau, one of the most successful wireless operators.

Characters include Captain Willie Grover-Williams, a Grand Prix champion who had raced at Brooklands. Yvonne Cormeau, one of the most successful wireless operators. She sent more than 300 messages from occupied France, and Brian Stonehouse, an artist who survived five concentration camps.

The exhibition has been curated by the Secret WW2 Learning Network in partnership with the museum.

It features fascinating artefacts as well as photos and plenty of details.

Brian Stonehouse. Picture: TNA-topaz-denoise-faceai.

Executive trustee Paul McCue of the Secret WW2 Learning Network has answers some questions The Dragon put to him…

How did you first become interested in the SOE and the people of it?

“I wrote SAS Operation Bulbasket many years ago and an SOE agent, Major Amedee Maingard appeared in it. I subsequently wrote his biography and ever since have developed my interest in SOE’s activities across the globe.”

How long have you been researching the SOE and its links to the Guildford area?

“I started researching Wanborough Manor about 10 years ago, Winterfold five years ago, and Tyting House near Guildford and Gorse Hill at Wormley only in the last year or two.”

Tyting House near Guildford in 1938. Picture: National Collection of Aerial Photography, Historic Environment Scotland, EPW058959.

Have there been many surprises during you research?

I’ve discovered a bigamist; an agent executed in the field, on his circuit leader’s orders, for having gone ‘rogue’; and a story, subsequently covered by the BBC, of an agent’s engagement ring which was handed to a fellow-prisoner in a concentration camp just before the agent was hanged.

“The ring remains in the museum of the former Buchenwald concentration camp.”

Paul has also supplied some details of Wanborough Manor…

In January 1941 Wanborough Manor became the Preliminary School for F (French) Section of SOE, training secret agents to be sent to enemy-occupied and Vichy France.

The first course of trainees arrived in February 1941 for elementary military training and assessment. The subjects were physical training, fieldcraft, weapons, explosives and demolitions, signalling and communications, report writing, map reading, driving and French language.

Courses lasted two weeks, later extended to three or four weeks. Groups of trainees were initially all-male, but from January 1943 women trainee agents also attended STS 5. Trainees were of several nationalities, e.g. British (including several from Mauritius), French,  Belgian, Swiss and Canadian. A number of American trainees, from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS),were also trained at STS 5 for service in France.

From July 1943, SOE’s training regime was re-organised and Wanborough Manor became a holding depot, providing refresher training for agents waiting to depart on missions.

From the summer of 1944 Wanborough Manor helped train agents codenamed BONZOs – men recruited by SOE’s X (Germany and Austria) Section from prisoners of war captured while serving in the German Army.  Several of these anti-Nazi agents were parachuted into Germany and Austria in 1945.

SOE left Wanborough Manor in June 1945 and the building is now divided into three private residences, there is no public access.

Winterfold as it looks today. Picture: Gareth Hayton.

And of Winterfold…

Winterfold, now four private residences but originally one property, stands on a hill just outside Cranleigh. In January 1941 it was requisitioned as STS 4, the Preliminary School for T (Belgium) and N (Netherlands) Sections of SOE.

Secret agents who were trained at Winterfold were sent to Nazi-occupied Belgium and Holland to support resistance groups and to undertake sabotage in preparation for the invasion of Europe.

The first trainees arrived in April 1941. Preliminary training typically lasted for two to three weeks. Language skills, health, driving ability and physical fitness were assessed and training then consisted of fieldcraft, weapons training, explosives and demolitions, signalling and communications, map reading and sketching.

As well as Dutch and Belgian personnel, Winterfold welcomed SOE’s British staff for instruction and an occasional trainee from Italy and the former Yugoslavia.

From July 1943, SOE’s training was re-organised and trainees came to Winterfold, renamed STS 7, for up to a week’s initial assessment at a newly-created Students’ Assessment Board (SAB). Belgian and Dutch trainees continued, joined by a wider range of nationalities, including a sole Dane and British, French, Polish, Canadian and American trainees. The latter were seconded to SOE from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

The SAB reports on trainees consisted of general agent grading, intelligence rating, the use of Morse code, mechanical aptitude and instructional ability. Attendees included women, mainly from F and RF, two of SOE’s sections operating in occupied France.

STS 7 closed in November 1944 as the advances of the Allied armies across Europe reduced the need to recruit more secret agents.

The exhibition, Secret Guildford: Locations and secret agents of the Special Operations Executive in World War Two opens at Guildford Museum, Quarry Street, this Saturday, November 11.

Entry is free and the museum is open Wednesday to Saturdays, noon to 4.30pm (last entry 4pm).

The exhibition is supported by the Friends of Guildford Museum.

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Responses to Museum’s New Exhibition Puts the Spotlight on Wartime Secret Agents

  1. Bernard O'Connor Reply

    November 8, 2023 at 8:54 am

    Excellent. Well done for shedding more light on the clandestine work done by British Intelligence during WWII.

  2. Mark Insoll Reply

    December 15, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    An interesting and very poignant exhibition.

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