By Ian Langworthy Historian and Battlefield Guide
Regular readers of the column ‘Its History Actually’ will know that we try to bring in a local element into each article, This month we are reviewing a book which is as close as you could get to local history. The book is ‘Godmanchester at War’.
You don’t need to live in Godmanchester to be interested in this book since it is much more than just about the town. Yes there are lots of local interest stories but also matters of national and international significance
as well. It really is amazing just what was going on in Godmanchester and as a result of work being done there. The chapter order has been done very thoughtfully and as the author says it is fitting that the first chapter should be dedicated to recording the details of those listed on the towns war memorial as having died in World War II and one other name no less deserving.
Chapter 2 comprises the memories of local Godmanchester children growing up during the war, what it was like for them and the memories of that time that have stayed with them. Equally interesting are the recollections, recorded in chapter 3, of the children from major cities evacuated to Godmanchester, some of whom stayed, married and made Godmanchester their home. The book is not without humour and the next few chapters contain stories worthy of an episode of ‘Dads Army’ the BBC series about the Home Guard and the problems of dealing with local ‘jobs worth’ officialdom.
The aptly titled chapter ‘Brief Encounter’ tells of the love story between Eric, a New Zealand airman, and local girl, Rose. The story is based on letters found when Rose died many years later. The letters from Eric to Rose (her letters to him did not survive the war) show that they were in love and making plans for the future. Unfortunately Eric was killed in 1944. Rose kept his letters and they were found when she died but no mention of him had been made to her subsequent family.
Up to now these stories are similar to those which could be found in the history of any small town or village during World War II but now the book comes to events which cannot be replicated anywhere else! The work
of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) at Farm Hall in Post Street. Here agents were trained and operations mounted with agents literally leaving Farm Hall to be taken to a nearby aerodrome and parachuted into German occupied Europe. You read of the work of Squadron Leader Cautley Shaw and Wing Commander Bruce Bonsey (known as Bonzo). They were leading the teams of men and women planning and directing operations from Farm Hall. Some famous and some very brave people (some dying in the process) worked from there.
The foreword to the book is written by the actress Virginia Mckenna who played the agent Violette Szabo in the film ‘Carve her name with Pride’ and a dedication is written by Violettes daughter so be in no doubt about the authenticity of the information.
Having been aware of some of the SOE activities it was the content of Chapter 15 which really grabbed my attention. This the story of Operation Epsilon and the detention at Farm Hall of 10 German nuclear scientists. Towards the end of the war many German scientist in the field of rocket science and nuclear physics were captured by the Allies. (As you may know many of the rocket scientists ended up working for NASA in America). The intention was to try to find out in the calm relaxed indeed relatively luxurious (and monitored) surroundings of Farm Hall what progress the Germans had made towards making a nuclear weapon. By ‘bugging’ the conversations between these scientists much useful information was obtained not least about their views on Nazism. The book even gives details of what happened to each of them after their release from captivity.
It would take a book to do justice to all the information in this book but that is all you need to do; buy or borrow this book and read for yourself. ‘Godmanchester at War’is available to buy at Cliffords Chemist, the Broadway Godmanchester, Niche Comics in High Street Huntingdon and from the author himself at [email protected]