Comment: Clamping down on espionage activities

High Street, Stony Stratford.
High Street, Stony Stratford.

DUE to the revelations about Bletchley Park, this region is renowned for covert operations during World War Two.

Yet during the First World War there were also espionage activities and this article tells something of this lesser known story.

Concerns about spying had been heightened in early 1909 when a mysterious airship was seen by many people over all parts of England. Torpedo shaped, with two powerful searchlights, the vessel was glimpsed only at night, but according to the authorities; ‘In view of recent German activity in aerial navigation, it has been suggested that the airship is one from across the North Sea...’

In fact tensions between the two nations had been increasing for many years and in the world of covert activities it had been known from at least 1909 that the Germans were trying to establish a system of espionage in Britain.

Thus as a direct consequence the Secret Service bureau was established and the role of Vernon Kell, who in retirement lived at Emberton, has been previously covered. As a precaution against spies, by the passing of the Aliens Restriction Act, the Home Office, as also the police, were given stringent powers to deal with aliens – especially enemy aliens – who could now be stopped from entering or leaving Britain.

Proprietors of cars for hire were not to let them to any ‘suspicious stranger of foreign aspect,’ and certainly not to the three men who, near Woughton, were seen early one morning apparently making a sketch of the Three Arches railway bridge. Not surprisingly it was rumoured in Bletchley that they were spies, who had been detailed to blow up the bridge, and in view of such concerns barriers were erected at the canal bridge at Fenny Stratford.

Thereby only one vehicle would be let through at a time and although during the day vehicles would be only observed by the police constable, at night all vehicles were to be stopped and papers inspected.

Later there was more excitement in the town when a rumour arose that German spies had been arrested. During the afternoon two of the suspected men had visited the Bletchley Road Post Office and because one of the men remained outside his presence attracted the attention of Mrs Chadwick, who was in her garden.

Curious as to what the men were doing she went into the Post Office and found one man apparently in the act of walking round the counter, while the other was talking to the assistant.

However, as Mrs. Chadwick approached both men walked out and the police were called. After a search they found the men sitting on a gate near the Eight Bells Hotel and on being taken into Mr Clarke’s shop they were subsequently interviewed.

Yet all that was found were season tickets between London and Brighton, and a considerable amount of notes and gold. Describing themselves as travellers in jewellery and antiques all the men were English and left Bletchley by the next train for London.

Due to the war the dependents of internees could often suffer hardship, as in the case at Great Woolstone of the British born wife of an Austrian. She found that her nationality prevented her gaining employment, meaning that she had to exist on parish relief.

Throughout Britain, by the Defence of the Realm Act stringent security measures were afforded and police constable Miles was the armed escort when a German named Alfred Jahr was taken into custody at Castlethorpe, and transferred to His Majesty’s Concentration Camp at Newbury.

The police and special constables were becoming increasingly vigilant and especially against any suspicion of possible signalling to the enemy. Thus three men appeared at Stony Stratford Petty Sessions for having been in charge of a motor car ‘with a searchlight able to be manipulated from the driver’s side.’

One of the men said he was born in England, and his German father had taken out naturalisation papers about two years ago. The man was duly fined and although the other two were discharged the car was confiscated, to be subsequently used for police duty by the Chief of the North Bucks Divisional Constabulary.