What an odd title? How could these 3 things have any connection at all? Can you break the code with just this introduction?
The South Downs Way is a walking and biking trail of 100 miles from Winchester to the seaside town of Eastbourne. RAF Tangmere was a Battle of Britain Station in Sussex not far from Chichester and for that matter the relief field at today's Goodwood Motor Circuit. Camp X was the secret Special Training School No. 103 commisioned by the BSC for the OSE in Ontario Canada. Any guesses?
It seems like an eternity since I cycled the 100 miles of the South Downs Way in September 2019. It wasn't the 100 miles that was so bad, it was the 10,000 feet of climbing. Being from Canada, I had never been to the South Downs before, nor had I been to RAF Tangmere, where the control tower still sits in the corner of a farm field and next to a newer housing development. In my trip planning I had seen pictures of the Tangmere control tower, slowly decaying. Yet it is the one original airfield sentinel left of that iconic place and time in Britain's defence through to D-Day. I tried to draw attention to it along with a local group's efforts to save the Tangmere tower
. Not far off the South Downs Way, it would be possible finish the day's ride and visit.
I was very happy to have done so, and, little did I know that just a few months later after this trip, we'd all be in quarantine and flighting a global pandemic. But in those 4 days, I was able to navigate the South Downs Way hills on a mountain bike living lightly even if my pack was not so light. A long time buddy from British Columbia who was already on tour with his family agreed to join me. I mentioned we'd have a stop at RAF Tangmere, and also a pub night with author Ron Powell (RAF Group Captain, retired) later on in Chichester.
Passing farms, Iron Age forts and various WWII finds, including a few pilot tributes found unexpectedly in the woods at the height of the Downs, we felt the adventure. I remember the leg cramps on the first night, wondering how the next days would go, but it just got better and better. A few village pubs at the end the day may have had something to do with it.
Well, you now know how the South Downs is connected to RAF Tangmere, because it's nearby and we were given a hanger and museum tour compliments of the museum directors. Admittedly the connection between the two would be a hard guess unless you had read the earlier blog posts from 2019, and hats off to you if you did. RAF Tangmere is must stop for any Battle of Britain or SOE (Special Operations Executive) fan. The very first Spitfire (replica) was on display, along with lots of other aircraft, but curiously also a Westland Lysander, and that's the clue for the next part.
So what about Camp X? I've gone on a bit long so far. I had known of Camp X in Whitby Ontario, Canada for years but never really thought much about it until recently. Camp X of course was the special agent spy and commando school sanctioned by the British SOE. You can read all about it at the Camp X Official Web-site
. Wikipedia also has this to say about it.
"Camp X was the unofficial name of the secret Special Training School No. 103, a Second World War British paramilitary installation for training covert agents in the methods required for success in clandestine operations. It was located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario between Whitby and Oshawa in Ontario, Canada. The area is known today as Intrepid Park, after the code name for Sir William Stephenson, Director of British Security Co-ordination (BSC), who established the program to create the training facility."
Operated in conjunction with the Canadian military and RCMP, it also had ties to MI-6. Some say Ian Fleming visited and trained here. In fact, over 500 special operatives were trained at Camp X in the subjects of hand to hand combat, spy craft, espionage, communications and codes, languages, lock picking, subversion and sabotage.
What I didn't know is that RAF Tangmere was one of main the airfields from which many spies and agents were flown behind enemy lines in a Westland Lysander aircraft or "spy taxi". It is a short take off and landing aircraft that had slats extend on landing that would reduce it's stall speed greatly to allow it to land in darkened French fields. RAF Tangmere has a Lysander on display, which was pointed out to me on my visit. Later on that evening, one of the pub attendees was an author writing a book about some of the spies and spy stories originating from RAF Tangmere.
One typical operative story can be found on the Camp X website. For many, their chances of survival if caught were next to none, and this included Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan
http://www.camp-x.com/khan.html gives this introduction:
"Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was one of the most beautiful, exotic and unlikely spies to serve the Allies in wartime Europe. Like so many others, she perished at the hands of the SS in Dachau concentration camp.
Research in British and German archives has uncovered the full story of Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, who was born in pre-revolutionary Moscow to an Indian mystic prince and an American woman. She joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive and was betrayed with her radio as she transmitted from occupied Paris."
Hydra was another function of Camp X, the transmitters which sent thousands of signals daily between Camp-X and Bletchley Park Manor just north of London, with a relay to Washington DC.
It's a somewhat oblique connection between Camp X, RAF Tangmere, and the South Downs Way. Coded if you will, just as spies would like it.
We've covered Spitfires and pilots on the site, but there are so many other stories not too far removed. RAF Tangmere was an essential airfield in the Battle of Britain and did see it's fair share of Spits sent off. Ron Powell's book "Wings Over Summer" covers just that. But the Lysander display at the RAF Tangmere museum and related artifacts are just the tip of the SOE iceberg for those interested.
We don't have a lot of WWII sites here in Canada, whereas Bletchley park has maintained it's huts and buildings, nothing today is left of Camp X. Just like the dozens of BACTP training fields where fighter pilots once trained, nature and suburbia has taken it's course. So today Camp X gets a nod, along with memories of my trip to England some 3 years ago, when the world seemed so distantly normal and pandemic free.
Stay tuned for Kevin Charles' coverage of the IWM's Battle of Britain Airshow coming up.
A few days after the bike portion of the trip in 2019, I was lucky enough to visit the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel-Le-Ferne on the actual memorial day, Sept 15, where a service was held and a lone Spitfire flew it's graceful patterns. I left a few RCAF patches at their wall as many leave notes and relics in tribute. I met Kevin Charles here on this day, and you now know him as this site's main contributor and editor who has pieced together hundreds of pilot stories and matched their profiles to the aircraft they flew. One of his first additions to this site was his own father. Kevin is based in the UK.
And while I can't be there this fall (Kevin will), I am going to do my own ride to an English pub here in Canada where I noticed a tribute to the allied pilots in a remote corner of the pub. Look for that blog post later in September as I introduce you to the quaint and very English looking Ashton Pub.
I'll be be remembering that fantastic trip and the people I met, and of course, this seminal date in the history of the Battle of Britain.