A Scenic Tour of Wartime Britain's Five Intelligence Hubs

By Bulent Yusuf on at

There were many fronts of battle in World War II, and military intelligence had a part to play in all of them. Scattered all over the country were bases and labs where spies, analysts and technicians feverishly worked on cracking codes, studying photos, making maps and designing weapons. Here's a list of the five most important:

1. Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was famously the centre of a code-cracking operation in World War II. Using the fabled Enigma machine, German coded messages were intercepted and unscrambled, and gave Britain a critical advantage in planning wartime strategy. Bletchley Park was bought by the government in 1938 for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, later known as MI6).

Today it's located in Milton Keynes (the town which sprang up around Bletchley Park in the 1960s), and engaged in a fundraising drive to convert it into an education and heritage centre. Google has donated £550,000 to the project. [Official Site]


2. The Central Interpretation Unit

Historians reckon that aerial analysis -- the study of aerial photographs for enemy locations and activity -- might have been responsible for up to 80 per cent of Britain's wartime intelligence. The bulk of that work was done at RAF Medmenham, a country house on the banks of the River Thames, where the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) was set-up in April 1941. Reconnaissance planes flew out of Benson, Oxfordshire, and the photographs they took were interpreted and mapped at the CIU. While the code-breakers at Bletchley Park are routinely celebrated for their work, the CIU's operations in the war were of equal significance, not least when guiding the raids of the Dambusters in Operation Chastise. [Image credit: History Today]


3. Hughenden Manor

Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire was an RAF intelligence base, codenamed “Hillside”, where maps were made for critical raids and operations. These included the sinking of the Tirpitz and the bombing of Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s bunker at Berchtesgaden. It was also the base of operations for over 100 intelligence staff, all of them secretly plotting Hitler's downfall. The strategic importance of Hughenden Manor was relatively unknown until recently, where National Trust researchers marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II made a surprising discovery; it was once at the top of the Fuhrer's hit list when planning bombing raids on the UK. [Image credit: Stonemole]


4. The Ministry of Defence Department MD1

Because of a propensity towards developing unusual bombs and weaponry, the Ministry of Defence Department MD1 was given the nickname "Churchill’s Toyshop". Based in The Firs, a large country house in Whitchurch, they devised and produced weapons like the Sticky Bomb, Blacker Bombards and the PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank). Conveniently, it was located near to Chequers, the Prime Minister's country retreat, which meant that Churchill would regularly drop in for a demonstration of the latest gadgets. More details here. [Image credit: Life magazine]


5. Cabinet War Rooms

This was Churchill’s wartime bunker in the heart of London, an underground warren of rooms that were constantly abuzz with plotting, scheming and strategising. Open today as a tourist attraction, visitors can explore places like the Transatlantic Telephone Room, where Churchill was in regular contact with US President Roosevelt, or the Map Room, an information hub of colour-coded telephones, books, documents and wartime maps. Churchill's office/bedroom is also the place where he made four of his wartime speeches, including an 11th September 1940 speech warning of Hitler’s plan to wage a war of terror against the United Kingdom. [Official Site]