The Special Operations Executive and the making of 'Q'
Extract from Volume 2 of the biography of Dudley Newitt, which can be downloaded in pdf form here>>
In December 1939, with war just declared, Dudley had been asked to be an Associate Member of the Ordnance Board, an advisory body dealing with matters related to artillery, located in the Ministry of Supply. The war government already had him in its sights. In 1941, at the age of 47 and while still waiting to be called up to serve in the RAOC, Dudley was asked to head the research wing of what was then known as the Inter Services Research Bureau (ISRB).
This name provided a false front for a rapidly growing clandestine operation which was part of the secret SOE, the Special Operations Executive. Since his adventurous career in Mesopotamia and Palestine Dudley had spent twenty years as a research scientist,always working with men who were leaders in their field. During this time he had not only become an expert in the field of high pressure science but had taken over control of the high pressure laboratories at Imperial College. He had been a founder member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and had been active in its affairs. However, his appointment as Director of Scientific Research for SOE was the first time he found himself in charge of a major organisation which soon came to employ over 600 people.
It is not clear why Dudley was selected or if there were other possible candidates. His appointment must have been made on recommendations from within the scientific community and his name came forward because of his acknowledged expertise in the field of high pressure work (including the management of explosions). His previous military career was an added recommendation because it was thought to give him a perspective on the needs of the soldier on active service. Colonel Tommy Davies, a director of Courtaulds, had been appointed to be head of SOE’s Research, Development and Supplies. To head the ‘Research’ component “Davies sought a scientist who could visualise SOE’s needs and gather round him a team of the best minds, skills and knowledge. The organisation had to have a degree of flexibility which would attract original and inventive types.” Those working in the secret services were always referred to by initials, never by name. From this time Dudley was officially known as ‘DSR’.
In 1943 Dudley was granted the honorary rank of Lt Colonel. Colonel Kennedy making the request explained, “uniform and title would only be used on certain occasions which can be defined as (a) when he visits mili- tary stations or (b) when he accompanies operations overseas. It is especially important to provide for this latter contingency in case such an operation met with unfortunate results, particularly in regard to possible capture by the enemy”. Copies of the formal correspondence relating to Dudley’s appointment have survived among his papers. The formal offer of a post that “we agreed should be termed ‘Director of Scientific Research’” was made 29 May 1941. In this letter there is a mysterious reference to “the charter you have described” and to the fact that events may not “permit of a rigid application of your theories”. He was to be paid £1250 (the equivalent in 2015 of £62,000). His letter of acceptance was dated 3 June. Notifying Imperial College of his appointment, he wrote that, “the post would be practically whole time, although I have stipulated that I be allowed to supervise work I have going on here...and should probably be able to carry out my normal lecturing during next session”. The Acting Secretary of Imperial College, H.T. Ellingham, responded warmly on 4 June saying that the Rector accepted the secondment, adding that “if the job is what he thinks it is, someone has made a first rate choice.”
Douglas Everett remembered Dudley as he was at the time of his appointment.
“Newitt’s tenacity of purpose and resolution were major factors in his leadership of SOE’s technical development. His training in chemical engineering and his military experiences in the First World War meant that he was in a good position to make realistic assessments of proposed projects and to curb some of the more fantastic ideas that were propounded from time to time. He was outgoing, clubbable and his good sense and natural kindliness ‘tinged with a delicious sense of irony’ made him a notable leader. His slightly twisted yet disarmingly friendly smile usually meant he was about to fire a challenging ques- tion to which he expected an equally incisive reply. There were those, it is said, who looked upon him as a typical absent-minded Professor. If that was how he appeared to some, then it was almost certainly a deliberate pose concealing his efficiency. The energy and drive he put into his job gave little support to this view”.
The main purpose of the Stations under Dudley’s overall direction was to provide the full range of technical support for SOE agents operating in enemy controlled territory. When Ian Fleming came to write his famous series of James Bond novels he introduced the character of ‘Q’ – the director of the department that designed gadgets and secret weapons for Bond and his fellow agents. It is not known if Fleming had any particular individual in mind when he created ‘Q’ and it has often been assumed that the character was modelled in some way on Geoffrey Boothroyd, a firearms expert Fleming had met. Another candidate who has been advanced as the inspiration for Fleming’s ‘Q’, is Charles Fraser-Smith. However, Fraser-Smith always portrayed himself as a lone individual working in secret, while the ‘Q’ of the Bond films is the head of a technical research section working specifically to support secret service agents. In the early Bond films ‘Q’ was memorably played by Desmond Llewellyn and was the person who provided Bond with equipment ranging from his famous Aston Martin car to briefcases containing golden guineas, and watches with geiger counters. In the process of being kitted out Bond witnesses a wide range of experimental gadgetry in the process of development by Q’s technical team – including the levitating tea tray that can decapitate the unwary at a tea party.
In the Introduction to the reprint of The British Spy Manual, Sinclair McKay brings the fictional world of Bond close to the real world of the SOE research operations of Station IX. He refers to SOE’s “quirky and ec- centric genius that later found its mass entertainment expression in Ian Fleming’s Major Boothroyd, better known as ‘Q’. In the Bond films the visit to the gadget laboratory was always a moment of light relief; the audience were invited to laugh at some of the boffins’ excesses. Yet in the real world of SOE, ingenious contraptions were deadly serious.” It is also worth noting that Paul Dehn, one of the scriptwriters for the early Bond films, had worked at the SOE training station at Beaulieu. Q’s position in the operations of the secret service was exactly the position occupied by Dudley between 1941 and 1945 and the range of explosive and technical gadgets developed by Dudley and his teams were precisely of the kind that ‘Q’ made available for Bond before he set out on his various adventures. Without a doubt, DSR (Dudley) was the real prototype for the famous ‘Q’.
Dudley gives an interview
The description of Dudley as the “absent-minded professor” may have been derived from the only interview Dudley is known to have given about his SOE work. In 1976 he met Stella King who was engaged in research- ing a biography of Yvonne Rudellat, an SOE agent code-named Jacquelline. She assured him in advance that her manuscript would be vet- ted by the Ministry of Defence. After the interview she wrote, "I had not realised the scope of your activities in SOE - far beyond those of which I have already heard". She also thanked Dudley for being "kind enough to check the manuscript when I have written the draft" which suggests that what she wrote was accurate enough as far as Dudley was concerned. In her book a whole chapter is devoted to the 'SOE Boffins'.
The chapter begins: "In the carpeted third-floor executive offices at Spe- cial Operations Executive headquarters worked a man in his late forties. His name was Dudley Newitt but almost everyone up there called him 'the absent-minded professor'“. His absent-mindedness, she wrote, was "because his mind so concentrated on the work on which he was engaged, that to him nothing else seemed as important or worth remembering. 'Have I had my tea today?' he would ask, ten minutes after he drank it. And frequently he forgot his hat, or his umbrella or his overcoat. All of them insignificant items. For never did he forget anything connected with the ultra-secret department he directed from 64 Baker Street; though, to tell the truth, he was rather annoyed at being taken away from his peace- time job at the Imperial College".
According to King, Dudley had first been "seconded to the War Office, where he played a major part in helping Colin Gubbins's Secret Army and, like Gubbins, was then transferred to SOE. There, from his Baker Street office, he was to build up an anonymous high-powered task force of around 500 brilliantly clever, secretive, unsung and sometimes astonishingly brave scientists. Yet so self-effacing was Dudley Newitt that many of those who worked for him throughout the war remained unaware of his identity. He had the same gift of anonymity as Yvonne Rudellat."
SOE and the Inter Services Research Bureau
Dudley briefly described his appointment and the work of SOE in his Memoirs. In 1941 I was called up and appointed Director of Research to the Inter Services Research Bureau, a branch of SOE. This was one of the very secret organisations set up by the Foreign Office, and charged with organising and carrying out subversive warfare in enemy and enemy occupied countries. Many books have now been written describing some of its activities, but no single one of them covers the whole gamut of operations carried out in the field by propaganda, sabotage, organized guerrilla warfare and other less reputable forms of mayhem. Our agents were active in all countries which were directly involved in open warfare or were sus- pected of aiding the Axis countries. The general pattern was to establish cells of resistance in occupied territory, maintain wireless contact, and provide the means for carrying out sabotage operations. Agents, trained in this country, would be parachuted in and, in due course, brought home again by carefully planned night operations. The Gestapo were very alive to these activities and many of our cells were located and picked up, and a fresh start had to be made. We had to deal with agents and double agents, with partisans, with French and Polish refugees and with an unprincipled body of misfits who cared not one straw for either side but were dedicated to feathering their own nests. All these had to be carefully screened and given a security rating.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) had come into being in July 1940 through the mergers of three earlier organisations which were involved in clandestine operations. It was a secret organisation and many of those who worked for it in some capacity or other had no idea of its existence. Its activities were hidden behind the facade of a non-existent body, the Inter Services Research Bureau. SOE’s remit covered the recruitment, training and equipping of agents to carry out sabotage and subversion in enemy held territory, the organisation of secret operations and the gathering of intelligence. As its activities expanded, it had operatives in all the major theatres of the war and at home had as many as 70 Stations for re- search, production, distribution and training purposes.
From the start it was seen to be important that SOE should have its own research and development organisation to design and produce the range of weapons and equipment needed for its operations, an organisation which would allow it to act independently of the three Services. A number of semi-secret research and development operations were already in exist- ence. One of these was the so-called Section D of MI6 under Major Lawrence Grand which had recruited a team of military men and some scientists to carry out some initial work on explosives. Meanwhile the War Of- fice had established Military Intelligence (Research), or MIR, with Major Colin Gubbins in charge of research into the techniques of guerrilla war- fare and Colonel Tommy Davies in charge of ‘facilities’. These units were all brought together in SOE. At first SOE was under the Ministerial control of Hugh Dalton and was headed by Sir Frank Nelson who held the position until May 1942 when he was succeeded by the banker Sir Charles Hambro and in September 1943 by Gubbins. Fredric Boyce and Donald Everett commented, in their book SOE The Scientific Secrets, that “at this stage, with the exception of a few Regular Army Officers, the whole staff was amateur. Mercifully, the organisation was free from the minor bureau- cracy of a Government department... SOE was financed by secret funds from the Ministry of Economic Warfare and for some time... its officers were paid monthly in crisp, white £5 notes – until the Inland Revenue be- came aware that some people were not paying income tax.” In February 1942 Lord Selborne took over Ministerial responsibility. Dudley seldom spoke about his SOE work but occasionally indulged in wicked reminis- cences, one of which concerned the use of some land belonging to Lord Selborne for testing incendiary devices, with unfortunate consequences when some of these were eaten by his lordship’s cows.
Dudley’s comments on the organisation in his Memoirs are revealing. The organisation of my own branch of SOE was curious. At its head was Sir Frank Nelson, an industrialist, supported by a staff of civilians drawn from industry, the banking world, and seconded naval and military offic- ers. Amongst them were Sir John Hanbury-Williams, T. Davies and George Courtauld – all directors of Courtaulds Limited - Sir Charles Hambro of the well known banking firm, Maurice Lubbock a son of Lord Avebury, Lord Bearstead, an oil baron, and in charge of finances, John Venner, a member of a firm of Chartered Accountants. There was an air of amateurism about the whole outfit; no one knew quite what was the role of SOE in the general war strategy. We were regarded with intense suspicion by the three Services. At times I had the feeling that we were playing a complicated game, dangerous and irresponsible. At others there did seem to be an underlying serious purpose to our activities.
According to the unpublished ‘History of the Research and Development Section of SOE’, “the duties of DSR were to be a) chief advisor on all scientific matters b) to initiate and plan research on all mechanisms and chemical devices c) to participate in short or long term planning where technical matters are involved”. Dudley’s first task was to rationalise SOE’s research and development activities and to separate the R & D work from Production and Supply. The former was to be located at Station IX (The Frythe) and the latter at Station XII (Aston House). Camouflage, which at first was also located at Station IX, was later moved to Station XV. In 1943 a Headquarters Research and Production Committee was es- tablished to have general oversight of the activity of the Stations. Both Davies and Dudley were members of this Committee, but Boyce and Ev- erett concluded that it had “no great influence on the day-to-day running of the DSR section” where Dudley ruled supreme.
Although Dudley’s headquarters were initially at 64 Baker Street, he later moved to Station IX where the major part of the research activity was based and which was located at the famous Frythe, a country house near Welwyn in Hertfordshire. Under Dudley’s overall control there were four sections – Headquarters, Experimental (also called the Physico-Chemical section which had sub-sections dealing with explosives, incendiaries, fus- es and small mechanisms, and physiological matters), Operational Re- search and Trials, and Engineering. Dudley described in his memoirs how we took over an old country house – The Fryth – situated near Welwyn, and set up laboratories and workshops well equipped for our purpose. Given a free hand and a highly qualified staff, the Fryth soon became a centre of great activity. New ideas, ingenious new devices and improved equipment poured out in a constant stream.
Dudley’s other immediate task was to recruit scientists to work in the vari- ous fields of expertise that were required. Here his wide connections in the scientific world were employed to good effect and among those recruited were six future professors and Fellows of the Royal Society, among them Douglas Everett, who co-authored the book SOE the Scientific Secrets, Gordon Cox, A. G. Ogston, W. J. Cruickshank, K. Callow and C. H. Bamford who was co-author with Dudley of two scientific papers published after the war. “In one way at least”, wrote Stuart Macrae, “ SOE was like a club, for membership was by invitation only”. To have selected such a team of high-flying scientists was in itself a considerable achievement but, as well as academic scientists, Dudley recruited many brilliant, inventive but frequently distinctly amateur and unlikely technicians, including spe- cial effects experts from the world of film.
The Research Department, of which I was now the director, consisted of a small group of scientists and engineers, unorganised and without clear directives. E. C. Bailey, a lecturer from University College, was in charge of the scientific side; John Dolphin, a young engineer, fertile of ideas and with plenty of initiative, was in charge of the equipment side; Leslie Wood, a Director of Bells Asbestos Company, had charge of production. Later I appointed N. Wills a one time film director and an instructor in the camouflage school, to set up a camouflage unit. This proved a great success in that Wills recruited a number of interesting types from the film industry and established a bohemian atmosphere of complete irresponsibility in the midst of our more serious deliberations. On my staff were also M. B. Donald, later Professor of Chemical Engineering at University College, Fran- cis Freeth from ICI, A. Meek an explosives expert from Waltham Abbey, Gordon Cox, later Secretary to the Agricultural Research Council, and Paul Haas, a biochemist from University College.
In this final report written in 1945 and entitled The Organisation of Re- search & Development to meet the requirements of Subversive Warfare, Dudley wrote the following about the selection of personnel.
“Selection was on the basis of qualifications, age and physical fitness, particular attention being paid to the applicant’s capacity for hard and sustained effort and originality of outlook. Post graduate students of Chemistry or Physics with one or two years experience of research proved in many cases very well suited to this type of work. Much more difficulty was experienced in obtaining good development engineers and design draughtsmen; and at no stage was the Drawing Office sufficiently staffed to enable it to keep pace with the work of the Engineering shops. On the Engineering side, therefore, exacting demands were made on the mechanics, instrument makers and other craftsmen in producing prototypes from rough sketches, wooden mock-ups and verbal instructions.”
DSR at work
The work of Dudley’s research teams has been described in detail by Boyce and Everett in their book SOE the Scientific Secrets. This book was carefully researched using official documents released by the National Ar- chives and benefiting from Douglas Everett’s own memories and private papers. The account that follows here makes full use of Boyce and Everett’s work, supplemented by Dudley’s private papers which have not been used by any historian of SOE. Extensive use has also been made of Dudley’s Memoirs. However, these were written in 1964, when close secrecy about SOE’s activities was still being maintained, which means they are not as informative as they might have been.
Among Dudley’s papers are a record of his engagements in 1942 and his diaries for 1943 and 1944. These show the range of meetings he had with his academic contacts, with senior figures in the government and armed Services and with those responsible for various research projects. In January 1942, for example, he had meetings with Sir Henry Tizard “re B.W.”; Commodore de Burgh calls “re destruction of maps in aircraft”; he visits Porton Down; has a meeting with Colonel Charly “re fire caused by pock- et incendiary”; visited Dr Perron “re uranium and heavy water”. As the year proceeds he has meetings with various people on “shipping”, “fragmentation”, “non-disturbance fuze”, “Welman project”, “Butterworth gun”, the Porton “kummerbund project”, “parachutes”, “welgun”, and “air conditioning of tanks”. He meets with Tizard, Lord Rothschild, Lord Bearstead, Lord Selborne, Duff Cooper, Admiral Renny, Professor Blackett and a whole host of others, often lunching at Claridges, the Savage Club or Lansdown Club. He also receives visits from many different people who come to see Station IX.
From these diaries it is clear that Dudley’s role as Director of Research was not just technical. He had to maintain a wide range of contacts in government, the academic world and the Services and much of his role was to bring (or keep) important and influential personages ‘on side’. In October 1944, for example, he arranged a visit to Station IX for Lennard-Jones of the Armament Research Department. In his letter of thanks Lennard-Jones invited Dudley to visit ARD and said, “I was most impressed with the many lines of activity which are being developed and congratulate you on having built up such a successful and thriving organisation in such a short time”. In February 1943 Dudley also had cordial meetings with Combined Operations Head Quarters, with an invitation from his contact to ”show you my workshop and the things we have been doing there”.
Dudley invited his contacts to visit Station IX and kept the letters of appreciation that were sent to him afterwards. The range of these letters sug- gests that he was very successful in convincing his visitors of the energy and efficiency of the research teams at work at Station IX and by the end of the war he had established his reputation as an effective director of scientific research establishments. One notable letter was written by H. J. Gough, Director of Scientific Research at the Ministry of Supply, who had visited Station IX in February 1942.
"In my time I have acquired an intimate knowledge of a good number of research and development establishments and may have become blase; In any case, one expects efficiency, especially in war-time. But I was really most impressed with what I saw yesterday. There was evident throughout exactly the best spirit of keenness and interest in the work and its objects, coupled with energy and drive in getting things done and results achieved. The results themselves and the rapidity with which they had been obtained showed clearly the scientific and technical competence of the staff and the excellence of the manner in which their efforts were directed and co-ordinated. I came away with the impression not only of performance of first class work but of the presence of a team spirit and clear direction of an unusually high order. All concerned with the planning, direction and operation of the Establishment have good cause to be proud. It is a damned good show."
In his Memoirs Dudley summarised his work, and that of SOE more gen- erally. It was here [The Frythe] that the Corgi motor cycle, a vehicle designed to be dropped by parachute, was first produced. We built large numbers of one man submarines, a range of silent weapons, improved time fuzes, limpets for scuttling ships, devices for derailing trains, knock out drops and poisons for our agents, invisible inks and a host of other devices useful for sabotage. We [here he is speaking of SOE more general- ly] also took part in the training of teams detailed for special operations. We organised the big raid on shipping described in 'Cockleshell Heroes', the demolition of the Norwegian Heavy-Water plant, an attack on the Bis- marck [he means the Tirpitz] and many other operations of a varied and minor character. The reputation of our station [Station IX] became such as to attract a host of visitors from America, Russia and some of the occupied countries desirous of setting up resistance groups of their own. Earl Mountbatten insisted on piloting a one man submarine on one of the large reservoirs at Staines. Churchill inspected an exhibition of sabotage devic- es at Kensington and Duff-Cooper, Hugh Dalton, Lord Hankey and other ministerial big-wigs gave us their blessing. We had many training centres in requisitioned country houses in various parts of the country, one of them being Audley End and another at Gorhambury near St Albans. We also had a station on the Helford River where we maintained a fleet of fishing vessels for landing agents on France. Amongst interesting people I met at this time were Nevil Shute, Nigel Balchin, Malcolm Campbell the racing motorist, Gladwin Jebb, later our ambassador in Paris, and Samuel Courtauld.
Work carried out at Station IX
Fundamental to the work of the research teams at Stations IX and XII was the development and preparation of explosives for use in sabotage opera- tions. Work was done on the development of Plastic Explosives and on Limpet Mines with experiments carried out on the magnets used and on nail guns for attaching them to wooden hulls. Detailed specifications for the Nail Firing Gun, including test reports, are in Dudley’s papers. Dated August 1944 it was concluded that “the device has reached such a stage of development that it can be handed over for User Trial...to enable a Mark I device to be put into production”. Special explosive devices were devel- oped to burst tyres and to damage rails and it was estimated that on the single night of 5/6 June 1944 there were 950 interruptions to trains in France due to sabotage. Materials to sabotage rolling stock were also de- veloped, in particular substances to cause the overheating of axles and bearings. These became very effective in hindering German operations after the D-Day landings.
Photograph - The Frythe in 2006 From a photo by Des Turner
Photograph - The Frythe.Under reconstruction 2015
A paper from Dudley, headed Most Secret,described SOE's contribution to the destruction of the dock gates at St Nazaire on 28 March 1942 - "The greater part of the work of preparation had to be undertaken by Station XII who worked long hours over a period of several weeks". An official minute scrawled on the paper says: "This has been good work". There was also the Mobile Mine - “these are the ‘man-handled’ torpedoes produced by Station IX and under the wing of Professor Newitt...” - and the Sounding Mine which, if the Admiralty wanted, “DSR has undertaken to make a pilot model”.
Special work was undertaken to perfect light and weight sensitive switches and the Imber switch for the delayed blowing up of trains. Experiments were carried out to improve Time Pencils and in the end 12 million of these were produced by Station XII where production was concentrated. Among the detonators developed were wireless detonators and an ‘air leak’ detonator which, according to Boyce and Everett, “Newitt thought... might be the ultimate answer for the need for a temperature-independent time-delay”. Among Dudley’s papers is a little loose-leaf booklet entitled ‘B.L.O.’s Pocket Book’ which contains detailed diagrams of mines, switches, detonators and means for industrial demolition.
Large numbers of incendiary devices were developed. Several million ‘pocket incendiaries’, including incendiary cigarettes, were produced based on petroleum gel ignited by a Time Pencil. In Dudley’s papers there is a report headed ‘Instruction for Use of Magnesium Matchhead as a Small Incendiary’ and according to M. R. D. Foot, “Newitt’s chemical ingenuity...devised an ‘incendiary block’ a brick-shaped object that not only generated heat, but emitted oxygen, so that a fire once started in a con- fined space...could be refuelled at source till it grew strong and took hold properly”. An exploding briefcase was produced and special containers for secret documents that would self-destruct if any attempt was made to open them. Boyce and Everett record that Lord Rothschild asked to see one of the prototypes because he did not believe that it could not be opened. Later it was reported that the briefcase had burnt a hole in the floor of his office. A report by the Ordnance Board was circulated to various units ex- pressing alarm at the problems that might be caused in transporting this device if it should spontaneously ignite, for example in a civilian aircraft, and recommending that it should never be carried in a submarine or under- ground train. The range of experimental devices also included a clockwork mechanism to release the harness of dogs dropped by parachute; a device to aid climbing a half inch rope; platinum ‘pills’ for insertion into subma- rine batteries; explosives disguised as lumps of coal (three and half tons were made) and dead rats; a device for cutting telephone wires; substances for etching glass; and sandals with specially designed soles which left the impression of a naked foot or a Japanese military boot. It has been claimed that “nine Belgian factory boilers were put out of action by rat bombs”.
Dudley kept examples of some of the equipment manufactured for SOE (illustrated on the back cover) – the knuckle duster, the commando knife and a particularly nasty example of a flick-knife. There is also a beautifully made and deadly sharp arrow, short like a crossbow bolt. This has seldom been mentioned in the books on SOE but it seems that Station IX in- vestigated the possible utility of the old fashioned bow and arrow and among Dudley’s papers is an article on the ‘Physics of Bows and Arrows’ reprinted from the American Journal of Physics (August 1943) with ‘For DSR only’ typed at the top.
In 1943 the possibilities for disrupting the German submarine campaign were explored in detail, with SOE being called on to suggest ways of sabotaging the manufacture and supply of the submarines. DSR produced a report on the potential for damaging torpedoes and contaminating batteries and fuel oil, on the camouflage of devices and on ways of interfering with submarine crews. These included adding laxatives to food supplies and itching powder to be sprinkled into consignments of clothing and onto condoms and is known to have been used to infect enemy uniforms. The itching powder was derived from beans of the plant Mucuna Pruriens (apparently also used as either a coffee substitute or an aphrodisiac in Denmark). More controversially Station IX worked with Porton Down on various aspects of biological warfare, always defended on the grounds that it might become necessary “to make provision for a possible extension of SOE activities should the enemy infringe international law in the use of poisons, gases and bacteria”. Dudley’s diaries show that he was in regular touch with Porton Down.
Photogrph - A map of Italy printed on silk (from Dudley’s collection)
A whole section devoted its efforts to various types of camouflage, disguise and forgery. Experts replicated various types of continental clothing and in 1944 alone 90,000 articles were issued and 300,000 fake ration cards were dropped into Germany. The most bizarre attempt to sow dissension in Germany was the issue of postage stamps showing Himmler’s head instead of Hitler’s. The idea was to give the impression that a coup against the Fuhrer either had taken place or was about to take place. The only result was to create a rare, and much sought after, specimen for keen philatelists to collect. Agents were trained in ways to disguise their per- sonal appearance and there was a photographic section at Station IV which produced over 275,000 microfilmed documents. Dudley was not closely associated with much of this activity though, according to Boyce and Everett, “Newitt also had a small facility [for forgery] at the Imperial College of Science”.
In April 1943 an agent was killed when his parachute failed to open. A memo was circulated (a copy is in Dudley’s papers) recording the equip- ment he carried and which was now in German hands. This included “ ‘K’ Tablets, camouflaged as ‘volcase’ pills. ‘B’ Tablets, camouflaged as ‘Veinotrope’ pills. ‘Wonder’ torch battery, with two false cells containing letters of recommendation” and “an ancient-type oil stove in the interior of which a large sum of money (practically 5 million francs) had been concealed”. The B Tablet was benzadrine used to stave off tiredness, the K Tablet was a morphia-based sleeping pill which could be administered in lethal quantities. There was also the L Tablet which was a cyanide suicide pill.
Meanwhile the most serious (and in the event the most controversial) work was carried out by the Engineering Section. This section worked throughout the war on specialised boats, guns and motor vehicles, sometimes in co-operation with similar units in the armed Services but often pursuing its own research to the point of production. The devices and machines produced all had the prefix ‘Wel...’ after Welwyn where the Frythe was located. Dudley’s papers contain numerous photographs of the ex- perimental devices developed by the Engineering Section along with a detailed paper on “The Destruction of Shipping in Enemy Occupied Harbours”, classified as Most Secret.
Among the experimental devices carried out were the Welbike - a collapsible 98cc motor cycle with a top speed 30 mph and a range of 90 miles which could be dropped together with its paratrooper rider. A report show- ing paratroopers using this vehicle appeared in the Evening News 10 November 1943 and details were published in the journal Motor-Cycling. Two days later Dudley wrote a memo pointing out that no reference was made to the fact that this had been designed by a Government Department (ie Station IX) and that although it was called the Excelsior, the Excelsior Company had nothing to do with the design. Indeed, after testing the pro- totype in May 1942, the Managing Director of the Excelsior Motor Com- pany described it as "the neatest job he had ever seen" and said that he "would adhere strictly to the prototype which he did not think could be improved". Some 4000 were manufactured in Birmingham and, although used in the Arnheim campaign and the Normandy landings, most were exported to the USA after the war. The Corgi Scooter was developed from it, 27,000 of these being manufactured between 1947 and 1954.
The Welman was a 20ft one-man submarine with a top speed of just over 2 knots and a range of 33 miles. It had a delayed action, 425 pound charge of Torpex explosive in the bow. The massive water tank used to test it was built into the Frythe's terraces and was still there in the 1970s. About a hundred of these midget submarines were built by the Morris car company in Oxford, and used by the Special Boat Service. In Dudley's papers there is a copy of a letter he wrote to Winston Churchill on the Welman project.
"I think you will be interested to see photographs of the Welman, the one man submarine that has been evolved at the SOE workshops. The trials have been so successful that the Admiralty have ordered 150 of these, which are, of course being separately manufactured.
Certain Ideas which I believe are new to submarine construction, partly borrowed from the technique of blind flying in aircraft, have been evolved in its construction by an engineer and a scientist in SOE respectively and appropriately named Dolphin and Newitt. The idea is that the Welman can be carried by a submarine or flying boat
Photograph - Welbike demonstration (from Dudley’s papers)
Photograph - Welgun
to within twenty miles of, say, the Tirpitz and that she will then pro- ceed to place a charge of 580 lbs of HE on the bottom of the enemy battleship at the spot immediately below where the magazines are believed to be. The charge is then operated by a time fuse. The Welman actually succeeded in doing this in a trial against HMS Howe for which purpose she had to go through and under nets, and every other form of anti-submarine protection including all the latest detec- tion apparatus. After placing his charge, which adheres by magnetism, the operator either returns the way he came or sinks the Welman in a nearby fjord, and then makes his way by rubber boat to the shore where SOE pick him up. If you would be interested to see the Welman, I hope you will come and watch some trials in Staines res- ervoir which is within three quarters-of-an-hour's motoring of Downing Street and almost on the way to Chequers. I need hardly say it would give me and SOE very great pleasure to show it to you at any time."
Although it is not known if Churchill accepted this invitation, the prime minister remained throughout the war a staunch supporter of SOE and its work.
From the very beginning the development of the Welman had been carried out in close co-operation with the Admiralty and a submarine officer had been seconded to Station IX to advise. Boyce and Everett, writing about the Welman, concluded that, however well-meaning the project, “it cannot be denied that the design was carried out by a team of enthusiastic ama- teurs in the environment of a research establishment.... It was the Royal Navy who had the experience of submarine design...and closer co- operation between them and SOE in the conceptual stages might have resulted in a more effective weapon”. After a failed attack on the floating dock in Bergen, one was captured by the Germans and developed into the Biber midget submarine.
Among other developments to come out of Station IX were the Welfreighter, a small submarine freighter that could carry up to a ton of supplies to agents; the Sleeping Beauty, a submersible ‘canoe’, which
Photograph - The Welman submarine being launched (from Dudley’s papers)
Photograph - The Welfreighter (from Dudley’s papers)
went into operation under Admiralty auspices, and the Weasel which was a vehicle for use in snow and which was later developed into the snowmobile. The Welrod was a pistol used by the resistance in Denmark after the German invasion (and rumoured still to be in use today). The Welgun was a compact, lightweight 9mm submachine gun, intended for use by air-borne troops. It was manufactured by BSA, but never replaced the Sten gun although Boyce and Everett claim that it performed every bit as well in trials. Later Station IX worked on a 'silenced' version of the Sten gun. Other guns included the Sleeve gun (or Welwand) and the Spigot gun which was an anti-tank weapon. Experiments with a single shot firearm, suitably disguised, led to the production of the Welpen, the Welpipe, the Welcheroot and the Welwoodbine. A gun disguised as a safety razor was also produced, useful Stella King observed, if the agent could "manage to persuade a would-be captor to let him shave before being arrested." To assist frogmen to approach their target, Station IX developed an electrical device called the Welbum, a name which gives some hint of the schoolboy culture that surrounded some of the weird experimental work that went on, and which Dudley up to a point encouraged.
It has often been asserted that the 'boffins' of Station IX were not aware of the practical needs of agents in the field. On this matter Boyce and Everett wrote:
“When Newitt was appointed Director of Scientific Research in Jan- uary 1941 he soon recognized the need for an Operational Research and User Trials Section staffed by scientifically or technologically trained people. At an early stage in his thinking Newitt had consid- ered the possibility of including a technically trained observer in actual operations but this was considered inappropriate for SOE activities. Newitt set up the Operational Research Section to test equipment before issue to agents.”
However, it was only in August 1943 that a formal Trials Sub-section’ was established to test prototypes against specifications after which a decision was made by DSR [Dudley] on whether to proceed to further development. Devices were tested for safety, silence, rough treatment, water proofing and tropical storage, severe weather conditions and operation in the dark or in gloves. Boyce and Everett record that the Sleeve gun was tested in a bar with a shot being fired at a sandbag in a corner. So silent was it that no one in the bar noticed that the sandbag had been murdered.
SOE was often criticized for undertaking tasks (including Dudley’s research) that was the domain of one of the Services. In the early days of the war, when SOE was still finding its feet, the RAF was very reluctant to provide aircraft needed to supply agents in the field. As the require- ment for supplying agents gradually increased, SOE created an Air Liaison Section and this required Dudley’s Station IX to produce a range of special equipment including light weight containers, water proofing of containers, roller conveyors for despatching from aircraft, reception committee lighting, methods of locating containers in the dark and parachute delay opening devices. Research was also carried out into devices for identifying dropping zones for parachuted supplies and personnel. These included torches, short wave radio, mirror-based devices and smoke sig- nals. Containers and panniers for supplies had also to be developed, one of them, the K-type Container was originally designed for use in Denmark and, when dropped on a lake, sank to the bottom to be retrieved days later by fishermen. Locating parachute drops was always a problem and Station IX’s attempt to find a solution included experiments into luminous clouds, bells and radioactive discs. Research was also carried out into dropping of supplies from high altitudes and without parachutes. The Army School of Dogs contacted Station IX to develop a container to drop dogs safely, while experiments were also carried out on picking up humans from the ground without landing the aircraft.
Until 1942 SOE’s communications were dependent on SIS (later M16) which was able to control the issuing of wireless sets and eavesdrop on SOE’s activities. In order to develop an independent capability SOE ex- perimented with suitcase wireless sets made by its camouflage section and the development of battery recharging devices including a pedal op- erated recharger. According to Stella King there was another gadget, "a 'necklace' strung with large and small brass beads. If placed in the right order and stroked by hand, it was capable of transmitting - or 'squirting' - the dots and dashes of morse at 600 words a minute instead of twenty- five".
Monitoring the enemy
As well as developing equipment to meet the needs of SOE agents, Dud- ley was also consulted on German and Italian scientific and technical experiments. In 1941 he was in close touch with G. A. Saunders of City and Guilds College who was working on nitro-methane as a fuel. In August Saunders wrote, “I find it freezes at 13 degrees C which rather rules it out for the Messerschmidt.... Also I gather it is very unstable and detonates by violent shock. Would this rule it out?” The reference to the Messerschmidt (a German aircraft) suggests that this research was also to assess German capability to find alternative fuels. In 1942 when a limpet mine attached to a ship in Gibraltar failed to explode, details were sent by the Navy to DSR.
Measures to counteract German sabotage also came within his re- mit. Among his papers are printed booklets detailing German and Italian sabotage equipment and a specimen of a German propaganda leaflet, list- ing allied shipping losses, that was dropped over Britain in a canister that failed to open. There are also letters from Lord Rothschild, one suggesting that small depth charges might be a way of discouraging German divers from sabotaging shipping. In 1943 Lord Rothschild sent photographs of a German explosive device disguised as a lump of coal, complete with an X -ray, and asked Dudley's advice on how to simulate an explosion on board a ship to deceive the Germans into thinking that the lump of coal had in- deed exploded.
Debriefing Mario Martini
As the war progressed Dudley was copied into papers on a wide variety of matters. Because of his technical expertise and that of his team he was sent the detailed reports prepared at Farnborough on the experimental V-2 rocket which fell in Sweden at Backebo in June 1944 and on the propul- sion systems for the rockets. In October 1943 he received a copy of a report on the information provided by Major Mario Martini, an aeronautical engineer who had defected to the Allies. This included details of the German 'Fernbombe' on which Martini had worked and the radio controlled athodyd bomb. Martini also provided information on German aircraft pro- duction, problems with the factory labour force, which was mostly made up of foreigners and prisoners of war, and information on Goering's air campaign against Britain and the misleading information disseminated in Germany about British losses.
Liaison with the United States
One of Dudley's tasks was to liaise with security organisations in the Unit- ed States. In 1943 I paid a short visit to America to contact the OSS, an organisation similar to SOE and presided over by Big Bill Donovan, a tough and belligerent character. We travelled to New York on the Aquitan- ia, without convoy, and without incident, and later spent some time amongst the racketeers, politicians and military types which then infested the capital city. I returned on the Queen Elizabeth, then fitted out as a troopship. She was crowded with American troops, many of them raw re- cruits from the Middle West who had never seen the sea before this trip. Only one meal a day was served and during the rest of the time the troops sat around playing cards and drinking coca-cola. When it was rough, a row of dustbins was ranged along each deck, into which they vomited by platoons.
In November 1944 Dudley again visited the US (his diary is blank be- tween 7 November and 3 December) and met representatives of the National Defence Research Committee and the Office of Scientific Research and Development, organisations which had a direct role in war time scien- tific research, including the development of the atom bomb. Minutes of a meeting held in Washington on 30 November show that Dudley was rais- ing the question of intelligence operations and subversive warfare in the post-war period.
Life at Station IX
In February 1943 Dudley's wife, Jane, wrote to her sister-in-law Bonnie, "Your distinguished brother is getting spoiled by this war. He was staying at some port in Scotland the other week, sleeping on land but spending his days out on a destroyer and a minesweeper. His billets were 'manned' by WRNS. They waited on him hand and foot, polished his shoes, brushed his clothes and said Aye Aye Sir to everything (take that last remark how you please). He comes home and expects Nannie and me to do the same".
One aspect of Dudley's 'reign' at Station IX was the good humour that pre- vailed. Dudley was excellent at personal relations, and persuading so many eccentric egos to work together in relative harmony needed talents little short of genius. There are numerous testimonies to this aspect of life at Station IX. In a letter dated April 1943, for example, Peter Kemp wrote, "I have seldom met such a congenial and hospitable crowd as I did in your mess". That there was a slightly schoolboyish tone in some of the banter is obvious - as though the Frythe was a public school or Oxbridge College - but this clearly worked. According to Stella King, Dudley told her of an occasion when "he once came down to breakfast one morning to be served with a plate of bacon and egg and a cup of coffee; only to find when he tried to put a fork in the egg that the whole lot - coffee, plate, cup and sau- cer included - was made of plastic explosive."
Among Dudley's papers is a small official envelope headed 'Most Secret. To be Opened by DSR. Not to Pass Through the Registry' and stamped 'Top Secret' with 'Urgent' in pen. It contained birthday greetings from five women who worked at the Station in the form of a piece of verse, so bad that it deserves quoting in full.
"Three cheers for the Prof., who looks so benign, But cherishes schemes Machiavellian at Nine.
For production of 'Freighters and Beauties he battles With resolute heart, and with gusto he rattles
The sabre of war in the teeth of our foes
In a valiant defence of the sweet English rose.
The DSR chariot sweeps up at a run,
With hard on its heels the staunch Colonel Munn;
The galaxy of talent at H.Q. and Nine
With Spigot and sleeve Gun, Delay Switch and Mine. To back up the leader's the aim of the team
And to win back the peace which is every man's dream.
So the best we can wish for your anniversary Is peace in the lab. and peace in the nursery
By this time of year; a trip at your leisure,
Then happy return to the work of high ? pressure.
On the other hand a security report dated January 1945 mentioned that re- ports of 'petty pilfering' at Station IX was causing concern and suggesting that "strong action be taken to prevent the continuation of this nuisance".
The Normandy landings and the Invasion of France
On arriving home [from the US in late 1943], preparations were in full swing for the invasion of France - our agents were briefed and alerted. Immense quantities of sabotage material were dropped by air and money and materials were sent to resistance groups in Greece, Jugoslavia, Italy and France. On 8 June, two days after the Normandy landings, Dudley was asked to go into France to investigate some captured German installa- tions. He recounted this exploit in detail in his Memoirs. Aerial photographs had revealed a number of vast concrete structures in Brittany, the Purpose of which was unknown. They were immensely strong and quite impervious to bombing. They were constantly attacked by our bombers without visible results and there were many wild speculations as to the kind of weapons they housed, and when these weapons would come into use.
Our landings on the French coast and penetration inland put a stop to all these air attacks based on launching sites in Brittany. I went over to France on D+2 day to examine the concrete structures referred to above. It was an interesting experience and in some ways reminiscent of 1914. We crossed from Southampton in a troop carrier, crammed with reinforcements, most of them suffering from the lavish hospitality of well-wishers ashore.
Arriving near the French coast, we were transferred in batches of about 100 to small landing craft. The sea was rough and these light craft tossed about like corks, the troops still suffering from hang-over, capitulated to the elements. Heavy spray rained down on them but did nothing to relieve their misery. They poured their immortal souls overboard and when eventually the craft beached, they had to be dragged ashore like a lot of sodden sacks.
We had landed on an American sector which was still under heavy bom- bardment. The beaches were cluttered with equipment of all kinds and, on going inland, most of the troops seemed to be engaged in road making. Huge excavators and steamrollers were shifting mountains of earth and rubble - apart from the uniforms we might have been on some vast build- ing site in times of peace.
I was billeted in an old Normandy farmhouse and took my meals In an American mess. A noticeable feature of the first few weeks following the landings was the inability of the American troops to improvise and make themselves comfortable. Most of the rations were tinned and were eaten straight from the tins, without warming or preparation of any kind. There were no organised camps. Dotted about were huge containers full of chewing gum, coca cola and cigarettes from which one helped oneself. Not far away was a British contingent which presented a remarkable contrast. Tents were laid out in regular lines, field kitchens were preparing hot meals, the troops were smart in appearance and were regularly paraded, and everywhere was an air of orderliness and purpose.
I managed to acquire a jeep with driver and set out to discover and ex- amine the concrete emplacements which had so long puzzled us. Away from the beach head no one could give us any information as to the situa- tion at the front and the location of enemy forces. We had, therefore, to gamble on finding an unopposed route amongst the sand dunes and country lanes leading westwards. It was an exciting and sometimes hair raising experience. We seemed to be travelling most of the time in no man's land, at intervals under heavy machine gun fire from both sides, and occasion- ally presenting a target for the attention of enemy artillery. The jeep performed miracles of acceleration and speed over rough roads, it skirted shell craters and jumped ditches, it got tangled in barbed wire and brought to a standstill amongst the ruins of deserted villages.
We arrived safely at our journey's end and I spent some days examining and reporting on the installations. Their purpose appears to have been to house gigantic guns designed to bombard London and its neighbourhood. The project was later abandoned in favour of the V1 and V11 missiles.
Among Dudley's papers are his Embarkation Card, issued by the Special Force Headquarters, to join the 21 Army Group to carry out "Operational Research" and an envelope to 'Joris de Keyser, Feldpost nummer 41639W, St Malo', picked up on the battlefield near Caen - apparently the only 'souvenir' he brought back from this visit.
Evaluating the work of 'Q'
The work of Stations IX and XII is mentioned in almost every study of SOE, along with their Director of research, though SOE the Scientific Se- crets is the only study devoted solely to the Station IX's work. Most writers have come to similar conclusions. The work carried out at the Stations was extremely diverse and inventive, much of it highly ingenious. Sweet- Escott in his book Baker Street Irregular describes Station IX as "very high powered" and Sinclair McKay in the Introduction to The British Spy Manual (the catalogue of SOE equipment issued in 1944) wrote of "that element of ceaseless ingenuity" and "the quirky and eccentric genius" that was displayed. All this was undoubtedly down to Dudley's supervision, his selection of brilliant people to work at the Stations and the encouragement he gave to what today would be called 'lateral thinking'. The range and variety of what was produced was extremely impressive. Station IX had an answer, it seemed to every problem encountered by secret agents and resistance organisations, ranging from one man submarines, to collapsible motor-cycles, various types of firearm, explosive devices and fuses, itching powder and suicide pills, camouflage and much more. These inventions were not all used in the field for various reasons but all were well designed and produced - they all worked - and very large quantities of supplies of every description were manufactured and sent to agents and resistance movements in every theatre of the war.
As Dudley's papers make clear, he was also a very effective diplomat on behalf of his Stations and SOE in general, not only getting his odd assort- ment of individual scientists and designers to work together but smoothing over relations with government departments, the Services and other research establishments. In the end this ability to 'get along' with those who did not necessarily have SOE's best interests at heart was not the least of his qualities. Peter Danckwerts, who worked at Imperial College before becoming professor of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge, commented after Dudley's death, "Newitt had a schoolboyish enthusiasm (which I shared) for guns and explosions. He had a splendid time devising demolition devices, booby traps and even devices for disabling time bombs. I was in the latter business myself and took a poor view of his method of stopping clockwork fuses by firing bullets into them at the right angle. This led to the destruction of a very expensive house in Park Lane".
Criticisms have been leveled at the work of Station IX. The men who worked there have been described as 'amateurs' who strayed into areas where the expertise of the Services should have prevailed. The Welman submarine has often been cited as an invention that exceeded the remit and capacity of the Station IX designers, though M.R.D.Foot in his book SOE the Special Operations Executive states that "Mountbatten and the Admiralty were both keenly interested". By implication, it is implied that the work of Station IX overlapped unnecessarily with work being undertaken elsewhere. In March 1943 there was a meeting at the War Office chaired by Brigadier Mitchell with Davies, Wood (head of Station XII) and Dud- ley present. "The committee came to the conclusion that co-ordination and liaison had been complete with all services, the MAP and the Ministry of Supply with the exception of liaison regarding design of weapons and am- munition including grenades". Davies commented afterwards that this had been satisfactory for SOE.
In his final report Dudley addressed this criticism directly.
“The maintenance of an effective liaison with other Service Research Departments is an important function of the Operational Research Section, both from the point of view of preventing overlapping and of making use of their facilities and equipment for certain types of investigation. Throughout the war SOE received valuable assistance from ARD (Explosives), DNC (under water explosions), SMD (mines and fuzes), DMWD Porton (chemical warfare), Longmoor (derailment trials), Enfield (small arms silencers), MRC (physiological tests, rations), Admiralty Research (infra-red equipment), RAE (air dropping) and others.” Dudley also explained why he thought it right to have allowed his scientists and designers free rein.
"In only a few instances do standard Service stores meet the require- ments of subversive operations; and at the outbreak of the present war, and during its continuance, it was and has been necessary to develop as speedily as possible alternatives. In principle it should be possible to have such development work carried out by existing Service research establishments and to arrange for subsequent production through normal channels. In practice, however, a difficult question of priorities arises and there can be little doubt but that any organisation directing subversive warfare must have its own research and development station and must be prepared to make its own ar- rangements for production."
In the National Archives there is a note on Dudley's work drawn up by some official on the occasion of his leaving his post in 1945.
"Under his guidance, a large variety of most valuable weapons have been devised. It is certainly not an exaggeration to say that the special weapons designed for and used by SOE have been far superior to similar weapons produced by other countries. The problems involved in designing such weapons which must be small, light, reliable and easily disguised have been varied and complex. The Group of Scien- tists under Professor Newitt have solved these problems and this has been in a great measure due to Professor Newitt’s guidance and in- spiration. In addition to his leadership of his own Research Team Professor Newitt has been able to assist SOE by using his many valu- able contacts in the Scientific World through the Royal Society of which he is a Fellow and this has undoubtedly proved a fact of importance in the provision of the numerous scientific appliances and methods which SOE has employed.”
It is not difficult to hear these words as somewhat lukewarm. More gener- ous was H. J. Gough who wrote to Dudley in May 1945; "You will cer- tainly return to College with the knowledge that you have rendered first class service to the Country during this most critical period and carrying with you the deep respect and affection of many with whom you have been associated during that period."