29 May 2013
AA Archives, London
Situated 12 miles north of London, on the busy A1 Barnet Bypass near Borehamwood, stands a large anonymous Holiday Inn. It occupies the site of what was, in the 1930s, the most expensive and largest roadhouse constructed in Britain – a two storey, mock Tudor behemoth, costing £800,000 to build and featuring parking spaces for 1000 cars, a dining room with seating for 500, a huge heated outdoor swimming pool, a shooting range and to top it all off, a gigantic over-arching thatched roof. The ‘Thatched Barn’, as it became known, was a favourite haunt of movie actors from the various studios spread around the Elstree area – the Pathé newsreels of the 30s frequently showed the stars frolicking poolside. Brief reincarnations followed after the war, firstly as the Building Research Station, and then, after something of a nip and tuck, as a Playboy Mansion.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Thatched Barn’s history, however, is its clandestine use during World War II as ‘Station XV’ of the Special Operations Executive. Led by Lt. Col. J Elder Mills, a bankrupt film mogul, Station XV formed the secret headquarters and principle workshops of the SOE’s Camouflage Section, housing a staff of up to 300 skilled technicians and experts, largely drafted in from the artistic and technical departments of the film industry. Working to produce camouflaged items for special agents operating behind enemy lines, it boasted extensive studios, workshops, plaster cast courts (in the former squash courts) and, in a master-stroke of camouflage genius, an explosives compound topped with a thatched roof. Replacing sunbathing movie stars, midget submarines were reportedly tested in the swimming pool. By June 1944, Station XV was supplying 90,000 articles per year, equipping an average of 16 agents per day – the choice of devices and accessories neatly laid out in a bound directory, much like a mail order catalogue. Items available ranged from forged documents, ‘local costumes’ and replicas of foreign labels and packaging, to incendiary briefcases, radios hidden in olive oil cans and their inspirational tour de force, exploding rats…