Espionage and intrigue that touched the lives of two Sussex women

Right: Bignor Manor House in World War II was a secret base for Allied agents awaiting flights to clandestine landing fields in occupied France. Barbara Bertram was the building's housekeeper who later recorded her experiences in a book 'French Resistance in Sussex'. SUS-190227-132457001
Right: Bignor Manor House in World War II was a secret base for Allied agents awaiting flights to clandestine landing fields in occupied France. Barbara Bertram was the building's housekeeper who later recorded her experiences in a book 'French Resistance in Sussex'. SUS-190227-132457001

The uncovered mosaics of a Roman villa at Bignor in West Sussex attract many visitors. However, the village also looms large in our county’s much more recent history.

The uncovered mosaics of a Roman villa at Bignor in West Sussex attract many visitors. However, the village also looms large in our county’s much more recent history.

Bignor was not far from RAF Tangmere where a squadron of Lysanders was stationed. The aircraft were ideal for flying two or three agents at a time into or out of France. Tangmere pilots are pictured in front of a Lysander.

Bignor was not far from RAF Tangmere where a squadron of Lysanders was stationed. The aircraft were ideal for flying two or three agents at a time into or out of France. Tangmere pilots are pictured in front of a Lysander.

Major Anthony Bertram was the tenant of Bignor Manor House during the Second World War. The French-speaking intelligence officer thought his secluded family home would be ideal for hosting Allied spies and saboteurs awaiting flights to German-occupied France.

MI6 took up Bertram’s subsequent offer. So it was that his wife Barbara became housekeeper for the hundreds of personnel who stayed at Bignor Manor between 1941 and 1944. Barbara proved temperamentally well suited to her hostess role and became very popular with her charges.

Nevertheless, she knew for certain that agents faced torture and likely execution if caught by the enemy. Imagine how hard it must have been to maintain a cheerful morale-boosting demeanour knowing of this grim reality? One of her tasks was to sew cyanide capsules into the clothing of agents who would rather kill themselves than be captured.

The flights to France were made in Lysanders operating from RAF Tangmere, some 11 miles from Bignor. These light aircraft flew at low altitude by night to land on short stretches of rough grass marked out in lights by the French Resistance. In just a few minutes, passengers and their equipment were disembarked and returning agents emplaned for the homebound flight.

The cover story for the comings and goings at Bignor Manor was that wounded or shell-shocked servicemen and women went there for rest and recuperation. The house was far enough away from Tangmere for this explanation to be plausible and the MI6 connection was never compromised. The agents themselves never learnt the precise location of the house so could not give it away even under the harshest Gestapo interrogation.

French Resistance networks undertook vital work in identifying German strong points and troop movements. Early in 1944 they were also crucial to pinpointing the coastal launch sites being prepared for the German V1 flying bombs. Though the “doodlebugs” (and later the V2 rockets) caused great damage and many civilian casualties in England in the second half of 1944, good intelligence followed by accurate Allied air strikes led to the destruction of scores of targets.

Barbara could never tell of her invaluable work until long after the war. In 1995 she published her story in a book called “The French Resistance in Sussex”. She died in 2004 aged 97.

We know that Barbara Bertram’s role in espionage happened exactly as told in her book and related in over 500 well-attended talks she gave to WI gatherings in the years after the Official Secrets Act embargo expired. But there is at least one other Sussex spy story concerning another remarkable woman that is not so easily verified.

Christened Violet Elizabeth Mildred Dayrell in 1879, “Milly” was the daughter of a Welsh clergyman. She had a brother, Frank, who seems to have been over indulged by their father despite the young man being something of a wastrel. This may be why Milly left home as soon as she could and pitched up in Sussex at Marigolds Farm near Hellingly.

She displayed an eccentric talent for chickens and soon amassed a collection of rare breeds. She sold produce at markets in Lewes and Hailsham. Milly is also credited with inventing an artificial incubator for eggs. Known as the “Hen Combination Foster Mother”, the contraption won her a Bronze Medal at the Great National Poultry, Pigeon and Rabbit Show at Crystal Palace in 1905.

Later she moved to Hale Green, Chiddingly, and branched out into cattle breeding. She found time to travel extensively to Europe’s mountainous regions. In World War II she served as an ARP Warden. She was variously active with the local horticultural society, WI, church and local politics. Milly also became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Clearly indefatigable, she was not much slowed down even after being grievously hurt with two broken legs caused by one of her prize bulls. Spooked at a show, the beast had bolted, dragging poor Milly along as she stubbornly clung on to the restraining stick and chain. On another occasion, the bees in one of her hives swarmed upon her inflicting over 100 stings. Such mishaps didn’t stop her living to the ripe old age of 89.

Now for the espionage connection. Author Sharon Searle features Milly Dayrell’s life in her 1995 book “Sussex Women”. She relates how at one time in the Great War Milly was sitting in her house when she saw a blue flash go up from the middle of her cornfields. She alerted the military and subsequently “they apprehended a German spy”.

Sharon adds: “Milly, as always ready to add drama to her stories, later described the spy as a terrifying creature dressed all in black, his head covered by a black hood.”

It’s a puzzling anecdote. Why was the spy signalling from a remote field in Sussex? There’s no mention of an enemy aircraft overhead. Radio transmitters of the time were primitive and very bulky and hard to conceal. But most tellingly I can’t find any corroborative record of this event outside of Sharon’s book. Sadly for Milly, I must conclude the story is most likely a colourful figment of her late-life imagination.