Most people have no idea that in the 1930s and early-1940s there was what has been called a ‘spy-psychosis’ or ‘Fifth Column neurosis’ in Britain. Many of the most popular films were spy thrillers. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Night Train to Munich (1940) were all box-office hits.

Films released in 1939 included Spy for a Day, The Spy in Black, Spies of the Air and Traitor Spy. Beloved familiar characters of the time such as Inspector Hornleigh got in on the act by capturing spies on an express train in Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1940). Cottage to Let (1941) included fifth columnists and secret inventions. In low-budget comedies, Arthur Askey and George Formby would foil the plots of swarms of German spies as well as unmask quislings and traitors, and everything would turn out nice again. All these films reinforced the Government-endorsed message that not only did careless talk cost lives; anyone could be a spy and a traitor.(1)

Camp 020, Latchmere House near Richmond, where 480 enemy personnel were interrogated during the war, including most of the saboteurs sent to Britain. (Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

There were rumours of Nazi agents disguised as nuns operating from a disused London Underground station. The population was encouraged to report any suspicious activity, especially by foreigners, to the police. Lt General Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, claimed to be able to identify German agents from the way they walked, but only from behind. General Sir Walter Kirke, Head of the Home Forces, claimed that ‘the gentlemen who are the best behaved and the most sleek are the stinkers who are doing the work and we cannot be too sure of anybody.’(2) There was a fear that enemy agents were using carrier pigeons to send their messages.

In January 1939, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued an ultimatum to the British government to withdraw all their troops from Ireland or they would launch a sabotage campaign against Britain. When their ultimatum was ignored, the IRA started attacking targets in London and other major British cities.

What was not realised at the time was that the Nazis were providing financial and technical support to the IRA, promising them independence for Ireland in return for helping their plans for a British invasion. German saboteurs were involved in the campaign with their bomb attacks being attributed to the IRA. These attacks continued throughout 1939 and after war broke out in September, the Security Forces started finding evidence of Nazi involvement. The British Government began to be seriously worried that the Nazis were supporting the IRA and planning to sabotage important military, industrial and communication targets before invading Britain.

Up Britain
Waterpiplines leading to HEP station at Fort William. Target for James Walsh, Irish agent. (Courtesy of Martin Briscoe, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

The Government initiated a widespread counter-sabotage programme. You may well have read books or watched films about the sabotage attacks undertaken by British or British-trained agents in enemy-occupied Europe; how they destroyed aeroplanes, trucks and trains with plastic explosives; how they blew up canal lock gates, railway lines, electricity power stations, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts and tunnels; how they sank ships with limpet bombs and halted production at mines, engineering works and factories; how they brought down pylons, telegraph poles and cut cables with strategically placed and often cleverly camouflaged explosive devices. But where are the stories of the IRA’s sabotage attacks? Where are the stories of the German-trained agents infiltrated into Britain to attack important targets? Where are the documentaries? Where are the films?

I researched Station 17, Brickendonbury Manor, the requisitioned country house outside Hertford, Hertfordshire, where overseas ‘students’ were trained as secret agents for my book Churchill’s School for Saboteurs. Later the house was used to provide agents with specialist courses in industrial sabotage before being infiltrated to undertake attacks on targets across Europe. Before researching sabotage in Poland and Italy, I got waylaid by writing an account of the women involved in deception schemes during the war.

I spent several years poring over and transcribing secret agents’ personnel files and mission papers from the National Archives in Kew, downloading files from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s website, trawling the Internet for details, reading biographies, autobiographies, newspapers, history books and journals, and writing numerous accounts of top-secret sabotage operations during the Second World War. I discovered that the IRA and the Nazis made numerous attempts to sabotage targets in Britain and that the British Intelligence Services made concerted efforts to stop them. This book provides a detailed account of their successes and failures.

Ronnie Reed, ZIGZAG's case officer in front of the transformer house at de Havilland Factory, camouflaged to look as if it has been sabotaged. (TNA KV 2/458, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

I have to acknowledge the research done by Rupert Allason, Mary Berbier, John Bowyer-Bell, Giles Colchester, Terry Crowdy, T. Ryle Dwyer, Bryce Evans, Lalislas Farago, Thomas Hennessey, Mark Hull, John Humphries, Tommy Jonason, David Johnson, Ben Macintyre, John Masterman, David O’Donoghue, Eunan O’Haplin, Simon Olsson, Terence O’Reilly, Adrian O’Sullivan, Frank Owen, Günther Peis, Lee Richards, Mike Scoble, Adrian Searle, Claire Thomas, Des Turner and Charles Wighton.

The staff at the National Archives in Kew and the CIA online archives need especial thanks for generating a searchable catalogue and allowing many of the documents I found to be downloaded. The staff of the Lancashire Archives also helped provide access to their files. Steven Kippax, Phil Tomaselli, Stephen Tyas and fellow members of the Special Operations Executive Yahoo user group have been particularly helpful in providing files and answering my many queries.

Martin Briscoe kindly provided photographs of the Fort Willliam hydroelectric power station, Mal Durbin the photograph of Cray Reservoir and David Howard the photograph of 35 Crespigny Road. I acknowledge with gratitude a number of websites on which I found other illustrations.

Trying to provide a detailed account of what were considered at the time to be top secret activities over a six-year period has been a challenge, based as it is on often redacted transcripts of interviews, memoranda and correspondence. There may be gaps; there may be errors, but this book is more the work of an archaeologist than a historian. It is an attempt to piece together bits of information so that they tell a human story, one which I hope will not only give you fascinating details about little-known aspects of British wartime history but also an insight into the mind-set of the people involved in the British and German Intelligence Services, the saboteurs and the counter-saboteurs.

Bernard O'Connor's new book Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain is available for purchase now.


  1. http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A87786102
  2. TNA INF 1/264-8