IT’S the accepted wisdom that just prior to the outbreak of World War One all the German spies in Britain were rounded up, in an operation masterminded by Vernon Kell whose retirement to the village of Emberton was the subject of a previous article.
However, this may not be strictly true, for many years after the war a well known resident of Newport Pagnell recounted how he had played a prime role in the detection of a previously unknown enemy spy ring.
Sworn to secrecy at the time it was only many years later that he revealed the details and the following are extracts told in his own words: “I was in a gentleman’s house not many miles from Wolverton discussing a matter of business with the owner. As I was preparing to leave the daughter of the house came running up to me and said, ‘Can you tell us, if there are any anti-aircraft guns kept at Wolverton?’
“I replied I did not know, but I said, ‘You need not be afraid, the enemy airships won’t come to an isolated place like this.’ They said, ‘Oh, we are not afraid in the least but we do so want to know.’
“I then thought they knew some young aircraft gunner. I said: ‘If you will tell me his name I will try and find out.’ ‘We don’t know anyone at all in it, but we promised to find out if there are any aircraft guns kept there’.
“I said I had some friends in Wolverton, and I would enquire. Then, to my surprise, they said, ‘What we promised particularly to find out was, are there any soldiers guarding the bridge that crosses the river.’ I said, ‘Do you mean the viaducts?’ ‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘do find out and let us know how many in the day time and how many at night.’
“I said, ‘Before I go to all that trouble you must tell me why you want this information.’ The reply was, ‘We promised not to tell anyone.’ I said, ‘Then if you don’t tell me I shall not make enquiries.’ ‘Well, if I tell you, you won’t know who it is – a particular friend of ours up in London.’
“I said, ‘Ask your father; he can find out.’ ‘Oh, we promised not to mention it to him.’ I thought there was something very unusual and suspicious about these enquiries and I thought I would report it. Then I thought after all it is perhaps only a mare’s nest.
“However, I saw the housekeeper, who did not know anything of our conversation, and asked her if she could tell me where the young ladies had been staying. She readily gave me the address. I then thought I would go up to London and see if I could find anything out intending to go and ask the trades people and shopkeepers if they could give me any information about the people at that particular address.
“But when I got there it was a residential neighbourhood, with good, large expensive houses. For a minute I was nonplussed. Then suddenly I thought I could go to the rating office and ask the rateable value of this particular house. This I did.
“The official turned over the papers and said it was rated so much gross and so much nett. I thanked him and, in an offhand way, said, ‘Can you tell me anything about the people living in it?’
“He replied, ‘I cannot, but perhaps the rate collector could give you some information.’ I said, ‘You can tell me if they have been there long?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ and he turned back in the book; ‘They have been there four or five years, and by-the-by, they are Germans.’”
Reporting this to the authorities the resident then returned to Newport Pagnell where two days later a special messenger arrived and swore him to secrecy. Within two hours the house had been entered and in the wake of arrests evidence was found that the persons were communicating with the enemy.
A chain of espionage was discovered of which the authorities knew nothing. Evidently the Germans were intent on sending aircraft to not only blow up Wolverton Works but also the bridge over the viaducts spanning the Ouse and with this being one of the vital points on the LMS railway it would, with no possibility of a loop line or a detour being made, have taken longer to repair or reinstate than any other section of the line.