Wanborough Manor and the SOE

 

Did you know that during the Second World War, Wanborough Manor about half a mile away from the vineyard on the north side of the Hog's Back served an important but secret training camp for the French section ("F Section") of the Special Operations Executive ("SOE").

 

The SOE was established by the British Government shortly after the fall of France in Summer 1940 and was a secret part of military intelligence charged with subverting and sabotaging the enemy overseas. In effect, this meant working with the local resistance in occupied countries to help disrupt the Germans. The SOE trained agents and landed them in occupied territory. Trainee agents passed through a number of specialised training camps, including Wanborough, before being sent into the field. Their missions were extremely dangerous and a very high proportion of SOE agents did not return. If captured , they were treated as spies (rather than soldier) and generally were tortured by the Gestapo and eventually executed. Its is estimated that about half of the SOE agents who passed through Wanborough and went into the field did not survive making this one of the most dangerous active assignment during the Second World War. From 1942 the SOE was allowed to recruit women agents and a significant proportion of the SOE agents were women, making this one of the very few areas that women could serve on the 'front line'.
 

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Wanborough Manor (John Salmon)

It is very hard for us today to appreciate the courage that these brave women showed in volunteering for duty where it was more likely than not that they would not survive. The story of the SOE is also not one that is well known - Government papers relating to its activities were either destroyed by fire shortly after the War or were kept secret until the mid-1990s.

In order to celebrate this little-known piece of local history, and to honour all the Wanborough agents, we decided to commemorate these heroines by creating and naming some of our wines after a few of these amazing women. The first such wine is Noor.

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Noor Inayat Khan, c.1943.(Russeltarr)

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan (codename Madelaine)

Noor was born in Moscow in 1914, the daughter of a Sufi teacher and his American wife. Her family lived near Paris until shortly after the fall of France in 1940 when they escaped to England. Noor joined the WAAF where she trained as a radio operator and was spotted by the SOE and went to Wanborough for training. She was send to France in June 1943, however, her mission went disastrously wrong and she spent several months on the run from the Germans. In mid-October she was betrayed, captured and imprisoned at the SS headquarters in Paris. After several escape attempts, she was transferred to a prison in Karlsruhe, Germany. In September 1044 she was taken with three other women agents to Dachau concentration camp and shot.

She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest award for gallantry for a civilian and the Croix de Guerre by the French Government. Over the years she has also been commemorated by a statue in Gordon Square Gardens in Bloomsbury London, a postage stamp in 2014 and was even portrayed in an episode of Doctor Who !

Most recently in 2020 she was also honoured by a blue plaque outside her last residence before departing for France, the first blue plaque commemorating a woman of south-Asian descent.

 

Acknowledgements

 

We are kindly indebted to local historian and author Patrick Yarnold, whose intricately researched and detailed book on the SOE at Wanborough Manor (see below) opened our eyes to this amazing chapter in local history and inspired this project. Thanks also to local historian John Owen-Smith for his contribution to local history. He has either authored or help publish a plethora of local history and guide books and his website www.johnowensmith.co.uk is definitely worthy of investigation.

 

There is a further link between the vineyard and Wanborough Manor - during the 1960s both the Manor and Greyfriars House (the vineyard was originally part of the Greyfriars House estate until the 1980s) were under common ownership by the Turner family.

 

Sources

 

If you are interested in learning more about the SOE and its wartime operations and its heroes and heroines, we would recommend the following:

 

  1. Wanborough Manor : School for Secret Agents by Patrick Yarnold. Hopfield Publications (2009)

  2. SOE in France by M.R.D Foot (1966). Part of the UK Government Official History series originally published HMSO under a series initiated by Harold Wilson. A very comprehensive book published while the official records were still closed, but the author had free access to all relevant material in the official archives.

  3. Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu (2006). A biography of Noor

  4. Called to Spy, Netflix movie (2019). A somewhat fictionalised account of three women SOE agents, including Noor.

  5. Odette by Jerrard Ticknell (1949). The story of Odette Sampson, GC another SOE heroine who didn’t pass through Wanborough but did survive capture and imprisonment by the Germans. Also made into a film starring Anna Neagle and Trevor Howard. Hilary went to school with her grand-daughter.

  6. Carve Her Name With Pride by K. J. Minney (1955). The story of Violet Szabo who was captured by the SS shortly behind enemy lines shortly after D-Day and subsequently executed. Also made into a film in 1958 starring Virginia McKenna in the lead role. Although the film suggests she passed through Wanborough, in reality she didn’t. Violet’s daughter Tania continues to lecture on her mother’s amazing story to this day and if you get the chance to hear speak, grab it.

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