An enthusiastic party of ten assembled on a Sunday morning at the White Hart pub on the green at Pirbright, Surrey, the sound of live firing from the ranges of the nearby Army Training Centre providing a somewhat appropriate backdrop to the start of the day.
Glorious sunshine meant that introductions and conversation were shared in the pub’s garden, the group being an eclectic mix of historians, writers, former military types and those with just an interest in matters SOE.
First stop was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Brookwood Military Cemetery, on the outskirts of Pirbright village. There the main purpose was to look at the French Section SOE names on the Memorial to the Missing, these being the agents with no known grave and chiefly having been executed in concentration camps.
The likes of Violette Szabo needed little introduction, but two lesser-known names, of André Dubois and James Menzies (formerly Jean Mennesson), were given detailed coverage by The Secret WW2 Learning Network Trustee Paul McCue, with handouts describing their life, service and death.
The story of Captain Menzies was made all the more poignant by the presence in the group of Anna Menzies Caldwell, his daughter. The father she never knew (her mother was an SOE FANY) was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in March 1945. Paul’s research to date on the French Section names on the Memorial was added to by contributions from Nick Fox, another French Section expert in the group.
From the Memorial to the Missing, a short walk took the group to a brief stop at the Free French section of the military cemetery where Paul outlined the 161 (Special Duties) Squadron tragedy on the night of 16/17 December 1943. Flight Lieutenant Stephen Hankey was returning from the pick-up of two BCRA agents, Albert Kohan and Jacques Tayar, from France, only to find his home base of RAF Tangmere fogged in on the Sussex coast.
Attempting to land instead at nearby Ford, he found the weather conditions there equally treacherous and crashed on the approach, one of two Lysanders from his squadron to suffer the same fate while trying to land at Ford that night. Hankey and his two passengers were killed and while Hankey was buried in Sussex, Kohan and Tayar were eventually interred at Brookwood. Sadly, Kohan is buried under his false identity of Lt-Colonel Albert Berthaud.
The group’s convoy of six vehicles then went on to Wanborough Manor, known to many as SOE’s Preliminary Training School, STS 5. The occasion there was a Heritage Open Day for the Manor’s Great Barn, dating from 1388 and believed to have been used for wartime storage by SOE.
While access to the Manor itself was not possible (it has been divided up into a number of private residences) the group was able to go right up to the front door of the house, look into the gardens and see the site of the disused quarry just beyond the Manor’s garden, reputedly used for grenade throwing practice by trainee agents.
A short talk on the SOE history of The Manor was given by Patrick Yarnold, local volunteer for the Heritage Open Day and author of Wanborough Manor – School for Secret Agents which was on sale in the Great Barn. Some of the group attended a presentation on the history of the adjacent Domesday church of St Bartholomew, said to be the smallest church in Surrey.
The church has a memorial plaque to the SOE trainees and could be accessed by a passageway (looking out into the Manor’s gardens) from the Manor. This provided another pause for remembrance when Anna Menzies Caldwell stood in the church where her father, who trained at Wanborough as a member of Party 27B in February 1941, almost certainly worshipped.
The afternoon was rounded off by refreshments in the neighbouring community hall, prepared by an impressively busy cadre of volunteers from the village.
The Network’s thanks go to Carol Browne for help with the transport shuttle to and from Guildford railway station and also to Patrick Yarnold and his fellow-volunteers from the locality who manage the Great Barn.
A return visit to both Brookwood (covering the 23 SOE names added last year in respect of Operation Boatswain, following determined efforts by Martin Sugarman) and Wanborough Manor is to be programmed in 2017… watch this space …