The common in question is Wandsworth Common, home to the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, previously the Royal Victoria Patriotic School (RVPS) and wartime location of MI5’s London Reception Centre for the security screening of almost all foreign nationals who had escaped enemy-occupied Europe.
The sell-out audience (the room held 50 and 20 applicants had to be turned away – perhaps the O2 next time?) heard how many allied agents were talent-spotted, both at the RVPS on the Common and its women’s section nearby in Nightingale Lane, Balham, SW12.
The latter site, thanks to Secret WW2'’s prompting and detailed research in 2015, already has a blue plaque to Denise Bloch, Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment who were cleared there, recruited by French Section SOE, and subsequently caught and executed after serving in occupied France.
Paul’s talk on the RVPS concentrated on some of the staff/visiting officers, including Oreste Pinto and Airey Neave, and the various services that had sections there - MI5, SIS (MI6), MI9, MI19, and SOE. The more high-profile ‘names’ that were processed at the RVPS included -
François Mitterand of the BCRA and later President of France; SOE FANY Ensign Brunita Josepha (Jos) Mulder-Gemmeke, the most highly-decorated woman in the Netherlands; Norwegian Lt. Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg who served on the interrogation staff at the RVPS before taking up a more active role and leading the successful OPERATION GUNNERSIDE raid against the Norsk Hydro heavy-water plant in February 1943; and Captain Robert Benoist, a pre-war Grand Prix and 24 Hours Le Mans winner, already a household name in France, yet chosen by French Section SOE to go back to France as a hopefully-secret agent.
The presentation also covered the enemy agents uncovered by the screening process at Wandsworth. The RVPS is credited with uncovering six such agents, three of whom – Alfons Timmerman and Franciscus Winter (both Belgian) and Johannes Dronkers (Dutch) later returned to Wandsworth for their executions at Wandsworth Prison – on the edge of the Common.
Timmerman, Winter and Dronkers were three of a total of nine enemy agents executed at Wandsworth and Paul also covered these men briefly, the remaining six being Jose Key, Werner Walti, George Armstrong, Karel Richter, Karl Drucke, and Duncan Scott-Ford. Other Wandsworth Prison inmates touched on were -
Josef Jakobs - the very first German spy captured in England. From Luxembourg, of German parents, Jakobs was a professional intelligence agent in that he was an Abwehr officer. But he broke an ankle on parachuting from the ‘plane that brought him to Britain and damaged a leg on landing, in Huntingdonshire, on the night of 31st January/1st February 1941.
Captured after only a couple of days, he was held at Wandsworth Prison, charged there under the Treachery Act 1940 and tried by a military court at Duke of York’s HQ, Chelsea.
Unusually, (the Army did not, by then, like providing firing squads and spies’ executions were normally carried out by hanging in the civilian prisons of Wandsworth or Pentonville) Jacobs was shot by firing squad in the Tower of London – the last person to be executed there.
Arthur Owens, a Welsh Nationalist and regarded as the first MI5 double agent of WW2. Owens had first worked for SIS (MI6) in 1936, was recruited by the Abwehr in 1938 in return for money and ‘women’s favours’ and issued with a radio for transmitting to Germany. In 1939 he offered his services to Special Branch, but was instead ungratefully detained in Wandsworth Prison.
Recruited there as a double agent, SNOW, by MI5, his radio was returned to him and he attempted transmission from the prison to his Abwehr handlers in Germany.
He was subsequently released, travelled to Belgium and Portugal on behalf of MI5, but was suspected of being a triple agent and was eventually imprisoned in 1941 in Dartmoor for the war's duration.
A slightly tangential finale saw the evening rounded off with mention of two others executed at Wandsworth for treason during WW2: John Amery in 1945 and William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) in 1946 and Paul’s assertion that, despite many rumours to the contrary, Rudolf Hess did NOT grace either the RVPS or HMP Wandsworth with his presence.