From first appearances Hughenden Manor in High Wycombe has all the major hallmarks of a typical National Trust property. The manor is a splendid piece of Victorian architecture surrounded by woodland and gardens including a Parterre, with plenty of walking trails and opportunities to spot wildlife. While the view of the Chilterns is also pretty spectacular.
It’s also well-known for being the former much-loved home and private retreat of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli from 1848-1881. Considered one of the most charismatic characters in British politics during the 19th century, he became a firm friend of Queen Victoria, who erected a memorial for him in the church as Hughenden after he passed away.
So visitors going to Hughenden learned all about the Disraeli connection and how, before being entrusted to the National Trust, the Air Ministry was the Manor’s last occupants during World War Two.
But in 2004, something remarkable happened which was to unveil as 60 year secret…
The truth revealed…
It was a chance conversation that led to a huge secret being discovered after a room guide overheard a gentleman telling his grandson that he was once stationed at Hughenden during the war. Keen for more information, the room guide asked him to share his story, which then lead to a local appeal.
Soon, more people who were involved in a top-secret war operation came forward to share their memories – and gradually these combined to give a clear picture of events, while photographs and documents from military archives corroborated the story.
Code-named Operation Hillside, Hughenden was the true location of a secret map-making base and was on the top of Hitler’s hit list. And because it remained undiscovered, the operation was pivotal in shaping the outcome of the war.
Why Operation Hillside?
Germany had deliberately stopped making maps at the beginning of 1930, which caused huge problems for allied forces in planning military operations. A fleet of British planes were sent off to Germany to take aerial photographs which were then sent to Hughenden. It was here over 100 cartographers, designers and surveyors were recruited under secrecy to draw detailed maps of Germany and occupied Europe for nearby Bomber Command at Naphill.
Hughenden was the perfect place for the operation – hidden away by woods, and hard to spot from the air, there were not military personnel stationed there, either, which is why Hitler was unable to locate Hillside’s whereabouts.
This quote from Victor Gregory, who was the youngest RAF member of the RAF team and a cartographer, just goes some way in explaining how Operation Hillside remained a secret for six decades.
‘It was so secret that when we were picked up to be taken to a meeting, the driver couldn’t tell us where we were going! Information falling into the wrong hands could haven been devastating!’
The Hillside operators produced over 1,000 maps which were vital to the RAF bombing campaign including the Dambusters Raid of the Ruhr Valley Dams, D-Day Landings, and the destruction of the German warship Tirpitz.
In Operation Foxley – a plan to assassinate Hitler, Victor was assigned to draw a map of Hitler’s retreat, The Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps. But while bombs destroyed a good deal of the dictator’s mountain home, Hitler has already fled to his Berlin bunker much to the disappointment of British forces. Hitler committed suicide five days later…
Head to the cellars
The exhibition about Hillside and all the amazing work the mapmakers did can be found in Hughenden’s cellars and Ice House Bunker. It’s a fascinating piece of history and still unbelievable to think that every person involved kept it a secret for all those years.
Here you can see World War Two memorabilia as well as some of the intricate maps that were made. There are also interactive displays and eye-witness accounts. Even Monkey was pretty impressed by it all after we explained to him how important the maps in front of him were.
Best of the rest
While we enjoyed immersing ourselves in Hugheden’s amazing wartime past, we still had time to explore the grounds and the house – full of Disraeli’s items, such as his library and the chair where Queen Victoria sat when she came for lunch in 1877.
The children were enamoured by the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party event going on and even got to meet Alice in Wonderland and the gang.
The walled garden also proved a big hit. Monkey grabbed a wheelbarrow and explored the different plants and vegetables, as well as finding the bug house.
There isn’t a play area but Hughenden have cleverly added a wooded activity trail that covers the distance from the Manor to the carpark – which makes the walk much more interesting for little ones.
Normally when we visit a National Trust property we spend the majority of our time outside – but for once, at Hughenden, we were so captivated by its secret wartime history that the story took hold of our imaginations and we felt honoured to be able to learn more about it. Just think, if that room guide hadn’t eavesdropped on the visitor’s conversation, would Operation Hillside still be a secret now?
* Hughenden, Valley Rd, High Wycombe HP14 4LA Entrance fee: Adult, £10.90; Children £5.45
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