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Sawston Village History Society

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About SVHS
The Sawston Village History Society normally meets on the second Thursday of every month (see diary for upcoming meetings). There's a wide range of speakers and subjects related to the history of Sawston and Cambridgeshire.

The next meeting, on Jan 9th, will be a talk on Life in Tudor Cambridge given by Honor Ridout.

Check out our FAQ for more information
SVHS notices:

Obituary: Bruce Milner

Comments from visitors

Geoff wrote: I looked up your site after seeing an old newsreel from 1925 about the pea custom. I just thought I would drop you a line with the link in case you don't already know of it. As it may be an extra weapon to help you fight the bureaucracy that is threatening the event. British Pathe film of Sawston Peas.

Dot wrote: I am trying to trace the Samuel family for a friend. James Samuel lived in Great Shelford and was a miller and I believe there was a steam flour mill there. His children moved to Sawston and also became millers and one ran the pub in Sawston High Street. Could you tell me please - are you aware of any flour mills in Sawston? I have seen mention of the Dernford one and wondered if they ran that? Thanks for a wonderful site.

Can any of our readers and members help Dot? We look forward to publishing any of your contributions. Our thanks to Geoff for pointing us towards the fascination film - a real window on our past. Ed

The Sawston Community Archive Group (SCAG) now has a strong nucleus of members drawn from the Society, but is also open to non-SVHS members. Our mission (as they now say) is to create a digital archive of anything relating to Sawston, under the auspices of the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network (CCAN), web site: We usually meet at the Sawston library (for times please contact Liz Dockerill on 835127) for on-line archiving sessions

An archive of former notices is available.

Recent Meeting Reports
November 2013 Meeting Report

Gordon Bell on Central England in WWII

A fully illustrated talk with slides was given by Gordon Bell, and covered various military intelligence and spying activities during World War II in our region. Most were organised by the SOE or Special Operations Executive which was the British Intelligence Service, together with the American organisation, known as the OSS or Office of Strategic Services.

The main thrust of the talk was a virtual tour of local sites that made important contribution to the wartime spying and espionage by both the British and Americans.

Gordon opened his fascinating talk with a survey of the vital code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park, where, amongst many other talented people, worked the famous Alan Turing and lesser-known Gordon Welchman. The German Enigma encoding machine was explained in some detail. It was produced in a number of different versions, which had four or more rotors to encipher messages. Having been encoded, the messages were then sent out in morse code. The key code was changed daily at midnight, which meant that there were many thousands of possible new codes to be broken every day. To aid in solving this serious problem, a new device known as a Bombe was produced aiming to simulate 12 Enigma machines. It was made by the British Tabulating Company at Letchworth.

There was also an encoding machine with 12 rotors known as Lorentz, and to decode it a special code-breaking machine, called Colossus was designed by the Post Office Research Dept. at Dollis Hill. Colossus machines were mostly operated by Royal Navy Wrens, and proved to be very effective in code breaking.

Gordon went on to talk about various sites where intelligence and other military activities were located. Included in these sites were Rothamsted Manor, Bedford Corn Exchange where the BBC were based during wartime, the Old Sugar Loaf in Dunstable which was an assessment and interview centre, RAF Chicksands, a Y station, and RAF Cardington where barrage balloons were produced. Many forged documents for spies were printed at Waterlows of Dunstable. The English School of Cryptography was based in Bedford, and in Sawston, of course, Sawston Hall was the operations centre for the American air force in the region. One curiosity referred to was the bus shelter in Wingrave that contains a plaque commemorating the presence in Wingrave of the Czechoslovak Government during the war.

For photographic reconnaissance a modified version of the Spitfire was used. The main aircraft used for dropping agents behind enemy lines were the B24 Liberator flown at low level by the Americans and the Lysander for British operations, which often actually landed in occupied Europe to deliver or collect agents. To speed up such a transfer process, Lysanders were sometimes fitted with ladders to ensure quick landings and take-offs.

Tempsford Airfield was frequently used as the UK base for this work, and here too was Gibraltar Farm Barn where the agents were issued with their equipment. Agents who passed through this barn included Violette Szabo, a widely revered spying heroine, and two French agents who later became Presidents of France, namely, Auriol and Mitterand. Gordon ended his very informative talk with tributes to Alan Turing and Violette Szabo.

Alan Turing was a brilliant Cambridge mathematician whose work in code-breaking at Bletchley Park is widely recognised. Sadly he committed suicide in 1954 largely due to his homosexuality, which was then illegal. However, he was pardoned in 2013.

Violete Szabo, who was only 23, was awarded the George Cross for her spying activities in wartime Europe, but she was caught and later executed by the Nazis. In tribute to her, Mary Dicken was asked to read out a very moving short poem written by Leo Marks of SOE. It is repeated below.


The Life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

The sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pain
For the peace of my years in the long green grass,
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Jim Wilson

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