Author lifts lid on privy’s wartime secret

08:42 18 August 2014

Axminster auithor Captain Hugh May with his new book - the true tale of  a wartime wireless station hidden beneath an outside toilet. Photo by Chris Carson

Axminster auithor Captain Hugh May with his new book - the true tale of a wartime wireless station hidden beneath an outside toilet. Photo by Chris Carson

Archant

WW2 radio station was concealed beneath an outside loo near Axminster - its only access by lifting the toilet seat

Looks like a normal toilet - but there was more to this outside loo.Looks like a normal toilet - but there was more to this outside loo.

It could be a scene from Allo Allo - a secret wartime radio station hidden beneath a privy whose only access is by lifting the toilet seat.

But this was no TV farce – the elaborately concealed underground hideout, with its unusual entrance, really did exist - designed for a deadly serious purpose.

It was constructed on a lonely site in East Devon, to help co-ordinate resistance after a Nazi invasion.

Now Axminster historian Captain Hugh May (RN) is set to lift the lid on the remarkable tale of the Bewley Down spy network in his new book Chirnside 1.

The toilet seat is raised to reveal a ladder leading to the secret wartime radio stattionThe toilet seat is raised to reveal a ladder leading to the secret wartime radio stattion

It was in July 1940, under the threat of a German invasion, that the Army set up a secret resistance organisation called Auxiliary Units to train and prepare civilians as spies and saboteurs in threatened coastal areas.

Some 120 spy networks were set up, each with about 30 specially vetted civilians, trained to observe the invader or to deliver intelligence reports via hidden dead letter drops to concealed wireless stations – from where the reports would be transmitted out of the area under Nazi occupation to the nearest military HQ.

Chirnside 1 is a detailed study and survey of one such underground wireless station, still in remarkably good condition at Bewley Down, between Axminster and Chard.

It was cleverly concealed in a chamber excavated by soldiers under a privy with the access shaft beneath the seat.

The construction of the station and the elaborate layers of access security have been painstakingly researched by a multi-skilled team of professionals. Their studies delved into the history of this lonely site, the clandestine “Special Duties” organisation it was part of and Douglas Ingrams who lived there.

Douglas operated the wireless, code name Chirnside 1, which was an outstation on the Chirnside wireless network. He was also the mystery ‘Key Man’ with links to MI6 which recruited and ran a spy network covering Axminster, Chard and Stockland while still managing his smallholding.

Discoveries on the site include aerials under the bark of trees and a pipe in an adjacent spinney into which runners dropped their messages in split tennis balls, without knowing that they would roll down into the wireless room in the ground beneath them.

The book has detailed diagrams, plans and copious photographs of this unique site.

The extraordinary lengths the Army went to build conceal and protect this wireless station from discovery, give clear indications of the importance of these spy networks to British resistance.

Bewley Down is undoubtedly the best preserved of a few surviving after the war and now, through this book, the most thoroughly documented.

“Chirnside 1” is an A5 softback book and contains 120 pages lavishly illustrated with 97 colour and 23 black and white images with a foreward by Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh CBE.

It will be formally launched at Membury Village Hall on September 27 between 11am and 1pm at which a video of the site restoration project will be shown.

The book is also available from Dudfield Publications, Green Down House, Axminster EX13 7TD, price £16.50 plus postage and packing.

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