Posts Tagged ‘real’

Inside the real life Dad’s Army training camp

February 3rd, 2016

Faced with all these leaderless recruits, the newly launched news magazine Picture Post decided to take matters into its own hands. Along with the rest of the media, it was forbidden by the Ministry of Information from reporting on almost anything directly related to the war. So, in the spirit of trailblazing tabloid journalism, the Post decided to make the news itself. In the process, it showed the War Ministry what it really ought to be doing – and set up an amateur training school for the eager volunteers and, years later, provided Jimmy Perry and David Croft, co-writers of Dad’s Army, with the storyline for the “Battle Camp” episode.

The Post set up its battle camp in the grounds of Osterley Park, a large Georgian estate to the west of London, funded by proprietor Edward Hulton, where volunteers could be trained in what editor Tom Hopkinson described as “’do-it-yourself’ war”.

As de facto guests of the estate owner, the Earl of Jersey, and unattached to the official war effort, they could be easily – and exclusively – photographed for the magazine. Hopkinson later recalled: “Hulton phoned the Earl and he came round at once. Yes, of course we could have his grounds for a training course; he hoped we wouldn’t blow the house up as it was one of the country’s showplaces and had been in the family for some time.’’

Trainees, or “first-class irregulars”, were instructed in the use of guns and grenades, camouflage, scouting, stalking and patrolling, self-defence and “ungentlemanly warfare”, such as attacking people from behind. The structure of the school was deliberately democratic. It provided a few hours of training a week for anyone prepared to learn the essentials of street fighting and guerilla warfare. There was to be no compulsory uniform, rank, parades or drill, no bayonet practice – and no living in.

The teaching staff were equally irregular. Camouflage techniques were taught by Roland Penrose, the surrealist painter, while Stanley White, leader of the Boy Scout’s Association – who had himself been taught fieldcraft by Robert Baden-Powell – gave instruction in “confidence and cunning, the use of shadow and of cover”. Bert ‘Yank’ Levy taught knife-fighting, while Hugh Slater, the man responsible for shooting practice, “when not fighting wars, is a painter and journalist”. Future Labour MP Wilfred Vernon was, “a mixer of Molotov cocktails, inventor of new bombs and rather mad”, according to Slater’s wife Janelia.

And, for three months, it really worked.

“The response was instant and fantastic,” wrote Hopkinson. “Our school could have been filled three times over.”

Naturally, Osterley also provided the Post with plentiful copy. Interspersed with photos, staff profiles and passionate op-eds were instructions on “Making Your Own Mortar for 38/6”, and the advice that “since powder taken from fireworks is not reliable”, they wrote, “we made our own gunpowder”.

As for weaponry, the Post again took matters into its own hands and arranged for a consignment of arms to be sent from the United States. “A shipload of assorted guns, revolvers and ammunition arrived for us in Liverpool,” said Hopkinson, “varying from gangsters’ tommy-guns to ancient buffalo guns and long rifles from the Louisiana Civil War of 1873. They even included ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt’s favourite hunting rifle.”

Captain Mainwaring will be played by Toby Jones

As a Quaker, Roland Penrose was a pacifist, but when he was approached by Hopkinson to teach disguise and camouflage techniques, he was happy to agree. “For two years, I was occupied playing boy-scout games with the Home Guard, giving lectures and demonstrations all over England and Wales in preparation for the invasion that never came,” Penrose wrote later. He put his experience to good use, writing the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage pamphlet which was later handed out to all army trainees on enlistment and contributed to the eventual redesign of military dress.

One of his best-known camouflague experiments involved his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. On a warm summer’s day, Miller and Penrose went to see their friends, the Gorers, in Highgate, north London, taking with them a large tub of olive-green ointment.

As he later wrote: “Lee, as a willing volunteer, stripped and covered herself with the paste. My theory was that if it could cover such eye-catching attractions as hers from the invading Hun, smaller and less seductive areas of skin would stand an even better chance of becoming invisible.” A photograph shows four characters splayed on a hot summer lawn, Penrose bare-chested, the Gorers uncomfortable, and Lee, naked, olive green and covered in shrubbery.

“Osterley’s greatest legacy was not the skills it taught, but the material it provided for British comedy”

The school was headed by Tom Wintringham, a veteran of the International Brigade who like many of the staff had direct combat experience from the Spanish Civil War and who was practiced in guerilla warfare techniques. He was also a bona fide Marxist, whose explicit aim was the overthrow of democratic government and its replacement with a Communist state.

In the end, the War Office solved the ‘Wintringham problem’ by taking over the school itself and building on its early successes. After three months of prominent coverage in the Post, and having trained several thousand volunteers, Osterley had done its job.

And that might have been that, if the strange history of the Picture Post battle school had not been spotted by a couple of foraging scriptwriters a few decades after the end of the war. As it turned out, Osterley’s greatest legacy was not the skills it taught, but the material it provided for British comedy. Those few vital months gave the Home Guard a kick-start – and Dad’s Army its inspiration.

• Bella Bathhurst is author of The Long Shot: The Story of the Picture Post. Dad’s Army is released on February 5


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Don’t Panic! Real Dad’s Army was ‘ruthless guerrilla force’ say historians

January 29th, 2016

The BBC television series and other depictions have done a disservice to the real Home Guard, which was composed of deadly serious volunteers who believed invasion was imminent.

Many of the guard were in fact fit young men in reserve occupations which meant they could not join the regular forces, Dr Peter Johnston, collections content manager at the museum said.

He said: “I think the popular culture depiction has done them a little bit of a disservice. In a lot of cases, it was more a lads’ army, than a Dad’s Army.”

Documents and artefacts outlining the reality of the Home Guard will go on display when the museum reopens in November after a two year refurbishment.

Records show half of some units were aged in their mid-20s or younger. Of the older men, a significant proportion had combat experience from the First World War.

Dr Johnston said: “These were very serious people and these were very serious times. It’s easy to look back and laugh now at people making their own weapons, but it was a desperate time in 1940.”

The Home Guard, which was originally called initially the Local Defence Volunteers, was formed on 14 May 1940. By the end of July there were more than a million volunteers.

With regular forces taking priority for equipment, the Home Guard volunteers were at first poorly armed with their own weapons or obsolete firearms. The original idea was that the guard would act as a secondary defensive force behind the Army, guarding roads, canals and airfields.

But they were soon converted to a more aggressive role to deal with a potential German invasion, Dr Johnston said.

The German invasion plan ‘Operation Sea Lion’ called for a landing force of 67,000 German soldiers along with an airborne division to parachute in land beyond the British beach defences.

The German forces planned to push north and encircle London. The German plan estimated that if they advanced as far as Northampton, the UK would surrender.

If the Home Guard were to stand and fight well-trained and well-equipped German troops who had pioneered and mastered Blitzkrieg warfare, they would suffer enormous casualties for little gain it was decided.

So the guard was reimagined as a guerrilla force that would limit the German advance.

Dr Johnston said: “They would be a secret army, sabotaging and attacking the enemy from the rear, slowing them down to buy time for the regular Army to regroup further inland and re-establish defensive positions.”

The Home Guard drilled twice a week, took part in regular camps, and was trained by the regular Army. Within a short space of time it was probably the equivalent of today’s Army Reserve, he said.

Life in the Home Guard was also dangerous with 1,206 members being killed in the war.

Though the invasion never came, the Home Guard remained active in British defence and manned anti-aircraft guns. The Home Guard was stood down in December 1944.

Dr Johnston said: “Had the invasion come in the summer of 1940, the Home Guard would undoubtedly have fought with great commitment but probably been able to accomplish little. But the longer the delay in the planned German invasion went on, the stronger the Home Guard, and British forces overall, became, and better able to resist any prospective assault. They were a vital part of Britain’s defences throughout the war.”


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The Imitation Game: who were the real Bletchley Park codebreakers?

November 14th, 2014

As the war progressed, Station X became a hidden city of 10,000 people working in hastily constructed “huts”. Many of the codebreakers were tweedy, pipe-smoking Cambridge mathematicians, both dons and recent graduates, but some were recruited because of their linguistic skills, knowledge of hieroglyphics, or brilliance at chess. All were expected to be able to solve the Telegraph crossword in less than six minutes. Many were eccentric. One boffin would pace around the lake drinking coffee as he pondered, and when he had finished his cup he would look at it in surprise, as if unsure how it had got into his hand. He would then toss it over his shoulder in to the lake.

At the end of the war, Churchill ordered that all records of the place be destroyed in a huge bonfire. Had one former employee not written a book in 1974 about his work there, we might have remained in the dark about Bletchley to this day. As it was, the world was astonished.

Indignant too, because Alan Turing, the genius who did most to crack the German Enigma codes and shorten the war by at least two years, was treated appallingly after the war, on account of his homosexuality. He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” in 1952 and given hormone treatment – “chemical castration” – which led to his suicide two years later. He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.


The Bletchley story is told in new film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing

A critically acclaimed new film, The Imitation Game, celebrates his work at Bletchley Park. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch (in what is being tipped as an Oscar-winning performance), Turing is revealed as an insensitive narcissist who found eye contact difficult, but who was very much the right man at the right time. Apart from saving millions of lives, he also had a hand in the invention of the world’s first programmable computer at Bletchley, a giant machine called Colossus that enabled him to crack codes quickly, by a process of elimination.

Everyone has heard of Turing now, and rightly so, but, as this film reminds us, he was part of an extraordinary team, some brilliant, others unprofessional, one treacherous. So who were they? Well, the second most important person at Bletchley was Hugh Alexander.

Hugh Alexander (played by Matthew Goode) – British chess champion

Hugh Alexander; Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander in The Imitation Game

Like many of the codebreakers, he had a first in mathematics from Cambridge, but he found himself in Hut 6 in 1940 thanks to his brilliance at chess. Twice British chess champion, and an International Master, he made important contributions to two classic chess strategies: “the Dutch defence” and the “Petroff defence”. Had he been allowed to compete in the Soviet Union during the Cold War – the authorities here thought the contents of his brain too valuable to allow him to go anywhere near there – he may even have become a world champion.

He was known in print at Bletchley as C.H.O’D – his full name was Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander – which sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. Perhaps not quite as dashing as the actor Matthew Goode who plays him in The Imitation Game, Alexander nevertheless had a reputation for urbanity and charm. In 1941, he was transferred to Hut 8 and became Turing’s deputy.

The great man would tease Alexander for being almost, but not quite, his intellectual equal.

According to a memoir written by one of his colleagues: “We all thought Hugh was crazy. Tall, blond, huge blue eyes, never stopped talking, a terrible energy.” And in the words of another: “We worked [at Hut 8] through the war on a continuous three-shift basis. The night shift was not generally popular because everybody quickly became tired through lack of proper sleep in the day; but Hugh had a strange passion for working at night and used to put himself on nights for weeks on end. This did not prevent him working much of the day as well – he seemed to thrive on this strange regime.” Alexander’s admiration for Turing was conditional – he found him annoying most of the time – and he eventually engineered a friendly coup against him to become the head of Hut 8. He did this because he rightly saw that Turing’s gifts were being wasted on the admin side of running things: he needed thinking space. It was Alexander, more than anyone else, who recognised Turing’s genius for what it was.

Station X was run in quite an amateurish way by MI6. Such was the lack of professionalism, in fact, Alexander and Turing broke with protocol and went over the heads of their MI6 superiors to make a direct appeal to the Prime Minister, requesting more equipment and personnel. Churchill responded instantly, agreeing to the requests and notifying his Chief of Staff. His memo was stamped with that memorable phrase of his: “Action This Day.” When the Germans introduced a “super enciphered” method of transmitting the day’s settings to their Enigma operators (using bigram tables), Alexander helped Turing develop a technique for breaking them called Banburismus, because it involved “punched holes on long sheets of paper printed in Banbury”.

Alexander also introduced a pneumatic tube system for transferring files and documents between huts. He had borrowed the idea from his pre-war job, working as the chief scientist with the John Lewis chain.

After the war he became head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ. He died at the age of 64 in 1974 and there has been speculation that the stresses caused by the mental demands of his career led to his early death.


The Colossus computer at Bletchley, used to decode Nazi messages. Photo: Alamy

Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) – female codebreaker who became engaged to Turing

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game

Joan Clarke, by contrast, was a much calmer, less intense character, which is perhaps why she lived until 1996, long after she retired from GCHQ. Like Alexander, she had a first in maths from Cambridge; unlike him, when she was recruited to Bletchley Park she was told that her work there wouldn’t really require mathematics.

This turned out not to be the case. After a period of clerical work with “the girls”, her mathematical gifts led to her becoming the only woman among a team of nine Banburists. And according to her boss, Alexander, she was “one of the best Banburists in the section”. Clarke wasn’t as glamorous as Keira Knightley, who plays her in the film, but her character is captured well by the actress. Records describe her as “congenial but shy, gentle and kind, non-aggressive and always subordinate to the men in her life”. Her enthusiasm and energy were legendary. She would often be reluctant to hand over her workings at the end of her shift and instead continue to see if a few more calculations would produce a result.

A pay rise was arranged to recognise her contributions to the team and she was promoted to “Linguist” even though she spoke no other language. She delighted in answering a questionnaire with “Grade: Linguist. Languages: none”.

In the spring of 1941, she developed a close friendship with her Hut 8 colleague Turing. For a time, they became inseparable, with Turing arranging their shifts so they could work together. One day, in his awkward way, he proposed marriage to her and when Clarke accepted he added, “But don’t count on it working out as I have homosexual tendencies.” The romance continued regardless, unconsummated, until they called it off by mutual consent a year later.

Clarke became deputy head of Hut 8 in early 1944 and, after the war, she married an Army officer she had met when working at GCHQ.

Decoder Wrens working in Huts 6 and 8 at Bletchley Park during the Second World War

Stewart Menzies (played by Mark Strong)

Stewart Menzies (Photo: Getty); Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies in The Imitation Game

Arguably, the next most important figure at Bletchley was Stewart Menzies. His grandfather was a wealthy whisky distiller and his parents were friends of Edward VII, who was rumoured to be Menzies’s real father. At Eton he was sporty but never academic, and he didn’t go to university afterwards but joined the Life Guards instead.

At the start of the war he became “C”, the head of MI6. Churchill was initially sceptical about whether Menzies was up to the job, but he eventually made him part of his inner circle and Menzies would report to him daily.

Though not a codebreaker himself, it was Menzies who was in overall charge at Bletchley, and it was he who introduced what was called Ultra. If too many of the intercepts from Bletchley were acted upon, the Germans would get suspicious that the Enigma codes had been cracked. Menzies therefore introduced a system that meant only a certain percentage of the intelligence gleaned from decoding would be passed on to the British Army, Navy and RAF.

In addition to being married three times, he had a long-term affair with his secretary. He retired with the rank of major general.

John Cairncross (played by Allen Leech) – loner later revealed to be part of the Cambridge spy ring

John Cairncross; Allen Leech as John Cairncross in The Imitation Game

It is implied in the film that Menzies knew exactly what the spy John Cairncross was up to at Station X. An intelligent, spiky man, Cairncross was described by his colleagues at Bletchley Park as “a bit of a loner”.

This was an understatement given that he was the Fifth Man in the Cambridge spy ring. He knew Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, but didn’t like them much.

He admitted to spying in 1951 when Guy Burgess fled to Moscow and MI5 found a handwritten note from him in Burgess’s flat.

Cairncross arrived at Bletchley Park in 1942 and went to work in Hut 3 on Germany Army group communications. Unusually for a codebreaker, he read languages at Cambridge, rather than mathematics.

Throughout the war, Cairncross passed documents through secret channels to his KGB handlers, who gave him the code name Liszt, because of his love of music. He smuggled the decrypts out of the hut in his trousers, transferring them to his bag at the railway station.

But the truth is probably more ambiguous than this summary of his treachery allows. The Allies wanted the Soviets to know about certain German battle plans, just not where the intelligence came from. They were our wartime allies, after all.

Given the tight security at Bletchley, there is speculation that Menzies arranged things so that Cairncross was fed with documents that he wanted the Soviets to see. It seems the only explanation for why only the most relevant decrypts were left conveniently lying around, and why Cairncross was never searched as he left Bletchley.

Peter Hilton (played by Matthew Beard) – maths genius and inventor of one of the world’s longest palindromes

Peter Hilton; Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton in The Imitation Game

Our next notable Bletchley figure could not have been more different from prickly Cairncross. Unusually for a Bletchley Park mathematician, the precocious, sweet-natured Peter Hilton had studied at Oxford rather than Cambridge. He was recruited in 1942 at the tender age of 18 because he also knew German (a language he had taught himself in a year). He worked alongside Turing in Hut 8 on Naval Enigma and, thanks to his extraordinary powers of visualisation, he was able to unpick in his mind’s eye streams of characters from two separate teleprinters – a feat of mental gymnastics that proved vital when the Germans introduced a new system of teleprinter ciphers produced by a much larger and more complex machine than Enigma.

Many years after the war, this was revealed to be a Lorenz SZ40 encoder, but, at the time, staff at Bletchley Park called it “Tunny”.

In his off-duty hours, Hilton (played by Matthew Beard in the film) earned a reputation as a convivial companion.

He was a regular in the bar of the Bletchley pub that was subsequently renamed The Enigma, and often attended dances at nearby Woburn Abbey, where Wrens were billeted. He also became a renowned exponent both of bawdy songs and dirty jokes and once spent a sleepless night composing one of the world’s longest palindromes: DOC, NOTE: I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

After the war, Hilton became a professor of mathematics at Cornell University and helped create a new discipline, homology theory. Once the Official Secrets Act was lifted in the Eighties, his lectures about the years at Bletchley Park became highly popular at venues all over the world.

“For me,” he recalled in one of them, “the real excitement was this business of getting two texts out of one sequence of gibberish. I never met anything quite so exciting, especially since you knew that these were vital messages.”

Jack Good (played by James Northcote) – once cracked a code in his sleep


Jack Good, right, once cracked a code in his sleep. Photo: Des Good

And so we come to our final unsung Bletchley hero. Jack Good was a slender, good-humoured, bushy-moustached mathematician (Cambridge) who worked closely with Turing in Hut 8 and was prone to having catnaps on the floor of the hut, especially after a long shift. This was just as well because he broke one vital code in his sleep, with the solution coming to him in a dream. In it he wondered whether the dummy letters German telegraphists had to add to their messages in order to transmit them were random, or whether there was a bias towards particular letters. After inspecting some messages that had been broken, he discovered that there was a tendency to use some letters more than others. This being the case, all the codebreakers had to do was work back from the indicators given at the beginning of each message, and apply each bigram table in turn. The bigram table that produced one of the popular dummy letters was probably the correct one.

When Good (played by James Northcote in the film) mentioned his discovery to Turing, the genius felt embarrassed, and said, “I could have sworn that I tried that already.” It quickly became an important part of the Banburismus procedure.

After the war, Good became a professor and worked as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick on the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He never guessed Turing’s sexual orientation in all the time they worked together, and neither did the Bletchley Park authorities. “Otherwise,” as Good noted matter-of-factly, “Turing may have been driven to kill himself earlier, and we might have lost the war.”

The Imitation Game is on release now


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