During World War II, Woburn Abbey was the billet for many of the Naval Wrens working at the top-secret code breaking centre at Bletchley Park. The operation at Bletchley was key to the success of the Allies during the invasion of Europe that began on D-Day, 6th June 1944. This week marks the 70th anniversary of this critical turning point of World War II.
In the run up to D-Day false information was being fed to Germany giving erroneous invasion sites but no-one was certain whether this ‘Double Cross’ system was working. The Abwehr Enigma was far more complex than the standard version but the team working at Bletchley Park cracked it, allowing agents to confirm that the Germans believed the phoney intelligence.
As well as being a billet, Woburn became the largest Satellite Landing Ground for the RAF. The airstrip had been previously used by the 11th Duchess of Bedford, Mary, who had flown from about 1926 until her death in 1937. The airstrip ran uphill from the area North West of the Abbey and across the road (which is today a public road through the park). At 1,400 yards it was one of the longest grass airstrips and the old hanger was used as a maintenance shed and offices. Lettice Curtis, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, recalled always taking off south to north and seeing a hut to the left that she took to be the hanger. On arrival, pilots were required to taxi their aircraft under the trees (many of which have now been removed from the park). In June 1943 there were 36 aircraft parked at Woburn, including Tiger Moths, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Wellingtons. Some large four-engined bombers such as Lancasters were also seen.
In April 1944, Stirling bombers began to arrive for conversion in order to tow gliders during the forthcoming allied invasion of Europe starting with D-Day. By June, some 200 are said to have been stored under the trees on alert ready for delivery to operational squadrons. Civilian technicians joined the small RAF team to help in the fitting of yokes and release gears for the gliders.
The deer who resided in the park caused problems for the pilots. Sometimes the pilots would have to wait for the deer to move off the airstrip before taking off and on several occasions a deer didn’t move in time and was hit by an aircraft. As a result a series of fences were erected to keep the deer away from area used by the RAF.
Some of Naval Wrens from Bletchley Park, who were billeted at Woburn Abbey, took to sunbathing on the Abbey roof in the nude. This was stopped because it was said to be causing a distraction to the pilots!