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Published: 25 June 2009
A painting of Athlone House during the war
A painting of Athlone House during the war
How Athlone helped defeat Hitler

Historic mansion facing redevelopment was base for RAF intelligence work

THE secret role played by Athlone House in defeating Hitler was revealed this week – as a planning application to demolish the home is about to be lodged with Camden Council.
The New Journal has learned that the Victorian mansion in Hampstead Lane, which the government officially maintained was a hospital for injured Second World War officers, was actually a top-secret intelligence base for the Royal Air Force.
A dusty archive held in the public records office at Kew has come to light after 60 years, and shows that during the war, Athlone House was a training centre for thousands of intelligence officers.
RAF historians say Caen Wood Towers – as it was then known – was the RAF’s version of Bletchley Park, where the code-cracking Enigma machine was based. The house was used to train the staff who shaped RAF campaigns and helped servicemen survive capture.
The officers who featured in the film The Great Escape, based on the true story of prisoners who dug their way out of the Stalag Luft III camp, would have been trained in Hampstead Lane.
RAF historian Flight Lieutenant Dan Marshall uncovered the story when he found a mysterious badge for a unit no one knew about. It showed a Sphinx and a sun, with the Latin motto “Praemonitus Praemunitus” – which translates as “Forewarned is Forearmed”.
FL Marshall said: “Nobody in the RAF knew about it. I did some research and we now know Athlone House played a key role in the RAF’s history.”
He came across a document that had been declassified in the late 1990s.
Known as a Form 540, it was a log filled out by units detailing their work. This was for a previously unknown unit called RAF Highgate, and it outlined the day-to-day life of Caen Wood Towers.
FL Marshall said: “This was an official secret for a long time.”
The documents reveal it was also a base for the top secret unit M19, which taught “escape and evasion” techniques.
When planes were shot down, crew relied on training devised at Caen Wood and they would have used Hampstead Heath to sharpen their survival skills, building bivouacs and hunting rabbits.
After the war, the house was used by the NHS, before being sold in 2001 to a developer.
They were granted permission to build luxury flats in the grounds, but a legal condition was added stating that the House, dating from the 1870s, had to be restored, triggering a planning row that will reach its climax this week.
“We are delighted that the secret has been uncovered,” said Jeremy Wright, a member of the Athlone House Working Group – made up of representatives from the Highgate Society, The Heath and Hampstead Society and the conservation area advisory committee.
“It gives an even greater reason why this house must be restored, perhaps listed, and given blue plaque status.”
He criticised the new owners for their attitude towards the home: “The owner is flouting a legal agreement,” said Mr Wright. “Such a cavalier approach to planning law will not be tolerated. Camden Council must urgently enforce compliance.”
Planning lawyer David Cooper is representing the owners, who have not been named.
He said: “Its history as an RAF place is irrelevant.
“This is a dreadful fuss about nothing. It was a gothic monstrosity. It has been messed around and would cost tens of millions to put it right.”
Mr Cooper said the legal agreement would not be honoured by the new owner: “The agreement can be removed if we appeal against it. If we win permission, it will not make any difference.”
Mr Cooper said the owners’ proposals would create a “magnificent” new landmark, adding: “It will cost Camden tax-payers a fortune if the scheme is dismissed.”

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The Escape and Evasion unit was MI-9 (Military Intelligence Nine) rather than M19.
R. Tell


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