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Army's spy museum revealed

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. What was the first example of aerial reconnaissance? Was it in the First World War perhaps? It’s true …

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. What was the first example of aerial reconnaissance?

Was it in the First World War perhaps? It’s true that the Royal Flying Corps took cameras aloft, with pilots flying 800 feet (240m) above the ground while the observer leaned out of the cockpit taking pictures - despite Field Marshal Haig’s view that this wasn’t a gentlemanly way to fight a war. But that’s not the answer.

Hot air balloons maybe? As early as 1858 balloonists would snoop on and snap what was happening on the ground below. But, no.

Give up? Well, according to Sally Ann Reed, curator of the Military Intelligence Museum at Chicksands, Noah was the first to use aerial reconnaissance. “He sent out a dove to find land,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek.

The dove’s near relation, the pigeon, was no slouch either. In 1903, Julius Neubranner developed a harness by which he could attach a tiny camera to carrier pigeons. At the museum there are displays of all this kind of sneaky beakery. This year is the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Army Intelligence Corps:

Before World War One, spying was not seen as the gentlemanly thing to do,” says Sally Ann. “Of course intelligence was always gathered in wartime, but there was no central, dedicated organisation.

As soon as the conflict was over, those gathering intelligence would be disbanded. It was only in the Second World War that it was decided that building up a permanent capability was a good thing, and the Corps was formed.

Much of the museum, which is housed at the Corps’ training base in Chicksands in Bedfordshire, is dedicated to artefacts and stories from the Second World War, which is when the principles of intelligence gathering were formally established. They have not changed much in the decades since, even if the technology has.

The museum has gadgets to astonish and excite. Everyday things, such as shaving brushes and door keys, are not necessarily what they seem, concealing compartments in which microfilm or secret messages could be hidden. A short saw blade is not just a mundane workman’s tool; in the right hands it doubles up as a compass. However, it is the ingenuity with which these objects were put into use and the courage of those who wielded them that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Here you can learn about the heroism of Englishman Captain Pierre Le Chene (codenamed Gregoire) who ran a number of intelligence cells in France. Eventually he was captured and interrogated by Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon. Barbie subjected him to extreme torture but he never cracked:

We don’t have lots of vehicles or big guns here to show off,” says Sally Ann (although they do have a couple of Walther PPKs).

A lot of intelligence is about people, and what they carry in their heads. It’s not just about things.

But there are, in fact, plenty of fascinating things to see. Periscopes used to see over the tops of trenches, a German Enigma code machine, and a superb display of the paraphernalia of aerial photography and image analysis, including the UK’s first aerial digital camera, which was used as early as 1976.

Because the museum is within a high security Army base, you need to arrange your visit in advance. Each year around 3,500 people do just this:

We get the Women’s Institute, groups of Scouts and the polished faces of recruits and trainee officers from Sandhurst,” says Sally Ann.

One of the undoubted stars of the exhibition is an interactive database of Intelligence Corps members who died on operational tours of duty, which contains personal details of many of those who served. There are war records, letters, citations and photographs:

If I know a widow is coming I can make sure there is no-one else around, so they can have a little time in private if they need it,” says Sally Ann.

A favourite with the kids is a Special Operations Executive display. Two agents are seen emerging from woodland unpacking a large canister of equipment which has been parachuted into occupied France in the middle of the night.

There are sounds of feet running towards them and flashlights scan the trees. Are these the signs of friendly Resistance agents, or has the drop been discovered by the enemy?

Sally Ann says:

School kids love this. When they leave there are always sticky fingerprints all over the glass. Which is great, it shows they’re interested.

If you would like to leave some sticky fingerprints of your own, call 01462 752896 or e-mail Entry is free and the museum is open Monday to Thursday between 1000hrs and 1400hrs.

This article by Ian Carr was first published in the October 2010 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

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Published 23 September 2010