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A small community hall in the Buckinghamshire village of Whaddon was the scene of a remarkable use of broadband technology recently. A satellite connection was pressed into service to connect the village to the town of Châteauroux in France for a commemoration of the first wireless communication sent by the MI6-led underground Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1941.
Whaddon, which is only about a 10-minute drive from the more widely known Bletchley Park, played an equally pivotal role during the war in supporting the code-breaking work carried out by Station X, but is often overlooked – to the annoyance of those who worked there.
From February 1940 onwards, Whaddon played host to MI6 Section VIII (Communications), the wireless transmitting and receiving functions of Station X, which played a crucial role in the sending of Ultra intelligence gathered by the women of Bletchley Park to SOE agents underground in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The function was moved to Whaddon because of the fear that the long radio aerials might draw enemy attention to Bletchley Park.
The village was effectively taken over by MI6 during the war, with Whaddon Hall serving as the main headquarters of Section VIII, surrounded by wireless transmission stations, workshops and barrack huts, the foundations of which can still be seen today.
The village hall itself served as a mess hall for the wireless operators, while the Navy Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) – which oversaw aspects of life such as troop entertainment and the supply of luxuries including cigarettes and chocolate – was located in what is now a pub car park.
The first message
With Station X up and running, on 9 May 1941, the unit received its first message from occupied France, transmitted by a man named Georges Bégué.
Bégué, who died in 1993, was the first SOE agent to parachute into France on 5 May 1941. After making contact with socialist politician Max Hymans, Bégué based himself in a safe house at 14 rue des Pavillons in the town of Châteauroux, from where he began transmissions.
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Over the coming months, before his arrest by the Germans, Bégué played an instrumental role in establishing and co-ordinating a network of resistance agents and saboteurs, and became the main point of contact back to MI6. It was also his suggestion that the British use the BBC’s French-language propaganda service, Radio Londres, to send coded messages to the resistance.
Today, the safe house is home to a small private nursing business. But for the 75th anniversary commemoration of Bégué’s first message this year, the local amateur wireless club was able to set up a vintage SOE suitcase radio set at the property using the call-sign TM75SOE, for a link-up with Whaddon, where the Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society set up their wartime receiving equipment, using the call-sign GB1SOE.
To support the re-enactment of the historic transmission in May 2016, event organiser, oral historian and co-founder of educational charity The Secret WW2 Learning Network, Martyn Cox, tracked down the last living SOE wireless operator in France, 94 year-old Marcel Jaurant-Singer, to take part in the event.
To enhance the event, Cox also planned to establish a video link using Skype so that attendees in Whaddon and Châteauroux could see and hear the old transmission sets in action, and talk to one another without resorting to code books. However, at this point he hit a snag.
Digital black hole
Although Whaddon is well-served by broadband operators – residents can receive BT Infinity as a high-end option delivering download speeds of up to 76Mbps – the village hall itself was a digital black hole. “When we recced the hall, we realised there was absolutely no internet there,” says Cox. “It’s usually coffee mornings and amateur dramatics, so why would there be?”
Cox, who lives in rural France at the end of a long copper phone line, turned to his internet service provider (ISP) for help. For a year or so he has been a customer of satellite broadband ISP Europasat because he wanted a reliable backup connection should his landline-based broadband service go offline.
“The nearest house [in Whaddon] belonged to an elderly couple and they didn’t have broadband either. So I contacted Europasat and asked them about loaning us a satellite dish for the weekend,” recalls Cox. “A couple of staff there got interested and they agreed to help out.”
Besides residential services the supplier also has expertise at dealing with large-scale outdoor temporary network deployments, particularly for television companies that need live event feeds. Earlier in 2016 it supported a marathon 17-hour broadcast on Irish network RTÉ, covering the Irish General Election results from locations around the country.
It is also involved with the government’s scheme to provide subsidised satellite broadband connections to homes and businesses in parts of the country that have been left out of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme.
Europasat hooked up the village hall with a temporary dish supplying a 22Mbps broadband connection directly into the building.
“Having satellite broadband at Whaddon’s village hall meant I could actually interview Marcel live from Buckinghamshire with his image on a big screen for everyone there to see and hear,” says Cox.
Besides the live link-up, the inhabitants of Whaddon had an extra surprise up their sleeve for their French counterparts, a performance of the French resistance anthem ‘The Song of the Partisans’ by the village choir.
“I’ve since heard there wasn’t a dry eye in the Châteauroux safe house, and so Europasat’s satellite connection really did make the day for all of us at the British and French ends of these events,” says Cox.
“It was fitting although slightly ironic that state-of-the-art satellite technology had enabled us to commemorate that first transmission sent on such crude portable equipment. The combination of new and old technology meant we had a unique, and never to be repeated glimpse of wartime history in action.”
The life and times of Marcel Jaurant-Singer
In 1941, at the age of 20, Marcel Jaurant-Singer was introduced to the resistance by his father, and worked at first as a messenger relaying information between Lyon and Paris.
He escaped France in August 1943 via Spain and Gibraltar, and was taken to London, where he joined SOE and was trained in clandestine operations, radio operation, Morse code and parachute jumping.
In March 1944, three months before D-Day, he returned to France with the codename ‘Shareholder’, where he played a key role in setting up and operating secret transmission stations around Chalon-sur-Saône. These transmission stations were constantly moving around and changing their frequencies to avoid detection.
On 6 June, D-Day, he unwittingly found himself leading a group of 300 or so untrained locals who had decided to join the fight. Left on his own with no help from London, he lead his motley band of guerillas into a nearby wood, where someone promptly tripped, discharged his firearm, and wounded himself and another man. A total of 12 men were captured and executed by the Nazis, and Jaurant-Singer had to hastily disband the unit.
During the summer of 1944 he conducted a number of sabotage operations and participated in the liberation of Chalon-sur-Saône in September, before returning to London. He left the services at the end of 1945 and went on to study economics and law.