The beautiful Grade II listed mansion and heritage grounds at the heart of Trent Country Park (North London), used in WW2 by British Intelligence spies for its secret war against Nazi Germany, was recently purchased by the Berkeley Group and looks set to become a housing development within the Green Belt. Its future as a public asset is uncertain.
After the First World War Sir Philip Sassoon, then owner of Trent Park, concentrated his efforts on reconstructing and redesigning the interior of the house. On the front lawns he planted a million daffodil bulbs, known as “The Daffodil Lawn”, now a protected area. During the 1930s, he hosted parties for some of the most famous guests of his era: Winston Churchill who painted the Blue Room whilst staying there, Charlie Chaplin, Lady Cynthia Asquith, Stanley Baldwin and Mr and Mrs Neville Chamberlain. The house also became one of the secret weekend retreats for Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson before their relationship became public knowledge. With so much history behind it, Trent Park was about to make history again when during WW2, from January 1940, it was taken over by British Intelligence for one of the longest deceptions of the wartime involving human espionage. The house, and even the trees in the grounds, were fitted with bugging devices so that ‘secret listeners’ in the basement of the house could bug the conversations of the German prisoners-of-war.
From May 1942, the first German Generals arrived from the battlefields of North Africa and were escorted to Trent Park. Here, they ran the show like a ‘gentleman’s club’ – all designed to soften them up. Their unguarded conversations meant that British intelligence discovered some of Hitler’s mostly closely guarded secrets. At Trent Park, little realising their conversations were bugged, the Generals spoke of the ‘secret weapon’ – V1, V2, and eventually V3. Here too, we tracked the progress of Hitler’s atomic bomb programme. By the end of the war in May 1945, Trent Park was housing 59 of Hitler’s top Generals with astonishing results for the outcome of the war. The story of this unit is told in Helen Fry’s book “The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis”. Providing a detailed, oft humorous, insight into life of the Generals in captivity, the book shows the farcical ‘stage-set’ in which they found themselves. But against this backdrop, the secret listeners overheard military and naval secrets, but also admission of war crimes and terrible atrocities against Russians, Poles and Jews; as well as new revelations of an SS mutiny in a concentration camp in 1936, and Hitler’s human ‘stud farms’. The intelligence was shared with Bletchley Park at the highest level and with other intelligence departments.
Trent Park was never referred to as a prisoner-of-war camp but as ‘Cockfosters Camp’ or ‘Camp 11’. Like Bletchley Park, the fact that its existence remained unknown for decades, and is still largely unknown today, was a testament to its success.
Today, Trent Park is at risk of total development into luxury flats. A campaign has been mounted to save the ground floor and basement of the mansion house as a museum to the secret war that, along with Bletchley Park, shortened the war by up to 4 years and brought about the defeat of Hitler and Nazism. Please sign the petition:
Subject of a major BBC interview April 2016: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35978418