Wednesday, 8 September 2021
Secret Wartime Britain
Speaker: Colin Philpott
The guest speaker at the August U3A meeting was Colin Philpott, a journalist and author. His subject was ‘Secret Wartime Britain’. He began saying that the ‘secret’, or rather ‘secrets’ would only remain as such by the population knowing very little of what was going on throughout the country and keeping what they did know to themselves.
The first ‘secret’ factory mentioned is near Leeds/Bradford airport. Nearby storage and warehouse premises was once the ‘Avro’ factory, producing 695 Lancaster bombers. An employee once saw a German plane fly over without dropping a bomb. After the war, he met the pilot, who had no idea that the factory was there.
Colin went on to speak about the city of Coventry. He told us about the use of ‘shadow factories’ each of which was a copy of another, with all the equipment and facilities to resume production if and when one of them was bombed. There were 60 ‘shadow factories’ in Coventry, that city suffering 47 major air raids. Despite this, the effect on production of war supplies wasn’t greatly affected, but around sixty thousand people in Britain lost their lives due to bombing by the Luftwaffe.
Colin told us about ‘The Paddock’, in Dollis Hill in London, beneath a building used by the post office as it’s research laboratory. The Paddock, an exact copy of Churchill’s war room, was part of the plans to have somewhere to relocate the whole government to if needed. Apart from two cabinet meetings the Paddock was never used, but was staffed throughout the war. Winston Churchill referred to it as a ‘Useless Folly’.
Colin remarked on the number of replacement buildings created during the war, the majority of which were never used, pointing out the similarity to the ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ built at the start of the Covid19 pandemic.
Not far from the Paddock, the ‘Battle of Britain’ bunker was built beneath RAF Uxbridge. There was always an armed guard on duty and, said Colin, someone was once actually shot – but by accident. A second, identical, bunker was built at Leighton Buzzard.
Colin spoke about Bletchley Park. During the war, around eleven thousand people worked there, or at one of its satellite establishments. They had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and the real story of what was done there was not made public until 1975.
Some establishments were used for more sinister purposes, such as the London Cage. Prisoners of war were brought here to be questioned. There are allegations of torture, including sleep deprivation and starving of prisoners taking place. Similar practices were alleged at another establishment, known as ‘Camp 020’ which might have continued into 1946, and mentioned by ex P.O.W’s at their subsequent trials for war crimes.
Colin’s tour of Britain then took us to Rhydymwyn, Wales, where it is believed that chemical weapons had been made, and stored, since the 1920s. There were plans to ‘lace’ beaches in Kent with chemical weapons if an invasion happened. There are also records of chemical weapons being brought back by soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk. An ex-employee interviewed had no idea of what was being made – an example of the people knowing only what they were supposed, and allowed, to know.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Colin said that it was impossible to guard and protect all of the secret locations in the country, and the reason that most of them remained undamaged was because of the population keeping their secrets, along with the skills of many people in disguising and camouflaging the buildings.
The meeting ended after a vote of thanks to our speaker.
The next Todmorden u3a meeting will be on Thursday 16th September, at 1.45pm. The guest speaker will be Joseph O’Neill, whose subject is ‘Jerome Caminada - the Real-life Sherlock Holmes’
Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report
Previous U3A reports on the HebWeb - click here