Exploding-RatAA War Time Special Ops

Situated 12 miles North of London, on the busy A1 Barnet Bypass, near Borehamwood, stands a large anonymous Holiday Inn. It occupies the site of what was, in the 1930s, the most expensive and largest roadhouse constructed in Britain – a two storey, mock Tudor behemoth, costing £800,000 to build and featuring parking spaces for 1000 cars, a dining room with seating for 500, a huge heated outdoor swimming pool, a shooting range and to top it all, a gigantic over-arching thatched roof. The ‘Thatched Barn’, as it became known, was a favourite haunt of movie actors from the various studios spread around the Elstree area – the Pathe newsreels of the 30s frequently showing the stars frolicking poolside. Brief reincarnations followed after the war, firstly as the Building Research Station, and then as a Playboy Mansion…

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Thatched Barn’s history, however, is its clandestine use during the 2nd World War as ‘Station XV’ of the Special Operations Executive. Led by Lt. Col. J Elder Mills, a bankrupt film mogul, Station XV formed the secret headquarters and principle workshops of the SOE’s Camouflage Section, housing a staff of up to 300 skilled technicians and experts, largely drafted in from the artistic and technical departments of the film industry. Working to produce camouflaged items for special agents operating behind enemy lines, it boasted extensive studios, workshops, plaster cast courts (in the former squash courts) and, in a master-stroke of camouflage genius, an explosives compound topped with a thatched roof. Replacing sunbathing movie stars, midget submarines were reportedly tested in the swimming pool. By June 1944, Station XV was supplying 90,000 articles per year, equipping an average of 16 agents per day – the choice of devices and accessories neatly laid out in a bound directory, much like a mail order catalogue. Items available ranged from forged documents, ‘local costumes’ and replicas of foreign labels and packaging, to incendiary briefcases, radios hidden in olive oil cans and their inspirational tour de force, exploding rats…

It was within these Barnet walls that AA graduate Lawrence P Williams, a noted film Art Director, was put through his paces prior to being sent out to head up the camouflage operations for the North Africa campaign, his HQ located in Giza – or, in his own words ‘just beyond the Sphinx’. There Williams co-ordinated the production of materials for clandestine operations, his team specialising in the manufacture of, amongst other choice articles, plaster casts of camel dung, stuffed with explosives, designed to be placed on roads to disrupt conveys. Apparently fabrication was a risky business, with Williams’ recalling in an interview in 1991 how at least 6 of his men died whilst handling unstable explosives… As the head of Egyptian operations, Williams was also personally involved in the planning of the daring kidnap of the German General Heinrich Kreipe by Paddy Leigh Fermor and the Cretan Resistance in 1944 – an event later turned into the film ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ (1957), starring Dirk Bogarde, with art direction by Alex Vetchinsky, one of Williams’ classmates at the AA.

Appropriate to such underground missions, the AA’s records of Williams’ time here at the AA are now stored, together with a further 800 cubic feet of the AA Archives, in a network of Bath Stone mines at Monkton Farleigh, which during the 2nd World War was the largest underground ammunition storage in Europe and latterly formed the part of the network of caverns making up the UK’s secret Cold War Central Government Headquarters.

Edward Bottoms, AA Archivist



Originally posted on AA Conversations, May  2013.