DOWN MEMORY LANE Secrets of spy hostess revealed in new book

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Many years later, when it was safe to tell the tale, Barbara Bertram did so with a vengeance, becoming a fixture on the WI lecture circuit.

More than 500 times she told her story, and what a story it was.

For three years, in the dark days of the war, Barbara was hostess and housekeeper to literally hundreds of special agents at her farmhouse in Bignor.

It was Barbara who gave a last taste of home comfort to scores of French Resistance workers before they flew out from Tangmere, many of them tragically never to return.

Once in occupied territory, capture was an ever-present danger; capture invariably meant torture and eventual execution.

Barbara’s grimmest task – for those who wanted it – was to offer a way out, sewing cyanide pills into the cuffs of the men and women she so doughtily looked after.

Barbara told her story in 1995 in a book called French Resistance In Sussex; now her great-nephew Edward Wake-Walker – seven years after her death at the age of 97 – has told her remarkable story in much greater detail.

A House For Spies is newly-published by Robert Hale (ISBN-13: 9780709090151, hardback £19.99, web price: £13.99) – a fascinating tale indeed.

In all, well over 200 agents passed through her doors between 1941 and 1944 – men and women of the French Resistance who, acting as intelligence agents for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), were flown by moonlight in and out of Tangmere aerodrome by RAF Lysander pilots.

Their work was vital. The networks they formed were responsible for providing detailed information to the allies on much of Hitler’s key weaponry, including U-boat and battleship movements, Normandy defences and the V1 and V2 flying bombs.

Barbara’s husband was a conducting officer for the SIS and his house, Bignor Manor, was deemed to be the perfect undercover stopover for agents waiting for their flight into occupied France.

“They had to pretend, obviously. I am sure people locally did suspect, but if they did, they certainly never showed their interest. The cover story was she was taking in wounded soldiers who had come to recuperate. All time they were staying they wore uniforms as part of the cover, but there must have been an awful lot of coming and going in the night.

“She was obviously extremely reliable and extremely hard-working. She had to do everything. She had no help with all the cooking and all the bed-making, but she was a tremendous hostess. She was a very bouncy, bubbly character. All the agents that recall their stay there remember her as an extremely welcoming hostess who managed to maintain their morale.”

It goes without saying that these were nervy days. The agents had to wait until exactly the right conditions in which to fly; if the conditions were wrong, they sat it out at Bignor with Barbara.

“The greatest number she had at once there was 21 people.” For each agent there was a driver and a conducting officer: “If you had one agent, you had at least two or three people there, and often she would have five or six agents at a time.”

Among her duties was to maintain a special cupboard where all the kit was kept – coshes, revolvers, maps printed in silk. She also had to make sure there was absolutely nothing – labels whatever – English about their clothing.

And underlining the extreme peril into which her charges were flying, it was Barbara who sewed the cyanide pills into the cuffs of those who wanted an instant way out should it all go horribly wrong.

Inevitably, given the nature of her work, it was years before Barbara was permitted to speak about it, recalls Edward, who lives in Dorset.

“But when she could, she certainly enjoyed talking about it. She delivered more than 500 talks to WIs up and down the country.”