Wilton Park during World War II
Information for this article has come almost entirely from Helen Fry’s excellent book entitled ‘The Walls Have Ears’. Helen gave a talk to the Historical Society in 2023 and is scheduled to give another in February 2024.
Wilton Park was one of several locations used for the interrogation of many German prisoners during World War II. MI6 spymaster, John Kendrick, was responsible for a top-secret operation which involved bugging prisoner’s rooms, recording, transcribing and interpreting their private conversations following their formal interrogation. Initially, this work started at the Tower of London, but following its success, three further sites were commissioned, Trent Park in London and, in late 1940, Latimer House and Wilton Park. This listening operation tricked Hitler’s generals into giving away vital Nazi secrets and the Allies were able to piece together a detailed and comprehensive picture of the Nazi war effort, contributing significantly to the final surrender of Germany.
Establishing Wilton Park as a ‘Listening Centre’
Both Latimer House and Wilton Park had good rail links with central London for the transport of prisoners and were well hidden to preserve their secrecy.
Wilton Park became known as Camp 300 or (because it was masking as a supply depot) No.2 Distribution Centre. A short distance from The White House, the large mansion of Wilton Park, temporary wartime buildings were constructed to form the prisoners’ compound, surrounded by a 14 ft. brick wall. There were two parallel blocks of cells, (all centrally heated and large enough to house four prisoners), interrogation rooms, an administration block, an M Room (where intelligence was collected through microphones attached to the bugging devices), a block for naval intelligence, a cookhouse and guard block, plus various Nissan huts scattered in the grounds of the Estate. In addition, there was a vegetable garden and orchard which was tended by the prisoners. The buildings had easily camouflaged roofs to remain invisible from all but low- flying aircraft. Outside the compound, the White House initially served as the Officers’ mess and living quarters and to house some Italian and occasional German generals before their transfer to Trent Park.
It took over 18 months to make Wilton Park ready for operations which finally began in December 1942 and, after D Day, greater emphasis was on housing German generals.
Whether dealing with German generals or prisoners of lower ranks, the M Room could only work to full efficiency with a combination of interrogation, bugged conversations and befriending the ‘guests’. The site had been secretly wired with minute bugging devices hidden in the walls, light fittings etc. and then wired back to the M Room where men and women listeners, many of whom had managed to escape Nazi Germany, translated the private conversations of prisoners. Prisoners were often surprised by the apparent lack of knowledge of the war effort displayed by their interrogators, and this was then discussed on the return to their cells, frequently revealing important information. Interrogation was subtle, yet sophisticated, so their subjects never realised what was happening and saw it as a feature of British eccentricity!
Interrogators also took turns to accompany a prisoner on the ‘depression trip’ around London. The aim of these visits was to undermine the prisoners’ confidence that Germany had bombed England into submission. An attractive ATS girl often acted as chauffeur, driving into large areas of London which had so far escaped bomb damage, and then on to the elegant and well stocked store of Harrods, before being taken for a meal in a good restaurant. This was part of the softening up process, as it was thought that the prisoner (normally a general) would be more malleable. Prisoners were also taken for walks around the countryside and ‘befriended’ over beer and cigarettes by the accompanying officer to encourage an exchange of information and ideas. Lower rank prisoners spoke about the severity of the German measures in Poland and other war crimes, especially during 1943, including the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Once it was felt that all useful information had been obtained, most prisoners were quickly moved to other ordinary POW camps, whilst the German generals were often moved to Trent Park.
With the end of the war Wilton Park remained an important site, as the work with the POWs was far from over. It was the subject of a compulsory purchase order to enable thousands of prisoners to go through a programme of denazification, including a large group of German generals, before their repatriation to Germany.
After this it continued to have military links, and by the 1980s had become an army language school. Today there is no evidence of the secret operations that took place during the war. The White House has been demolished and the Estate has been acquired for housing development.
The secrets of the operations at Wilton Park and the other two sites were consigned to the basement of the War Office, and it was more than 60 years before the files were released into the National Archives.