The real-life Q branch – remembering Welwyn’s secret Second World War station
- Credit: Supplied
Deep in the peaceful countryside near Welwyn was a country house known as The Frythe. It may have looked like just another decadent rural home, but it was once the site of a secret Second World War base described by many as a real-life James Bond Q branch.
Built in 1846 by Great Yarmouth MP William Wilshere, the gothic mansion passed down through the family before being taken over by British Military Intelligence upon the outbreak of war in 1939.
Just under a year later, The Frythe became home to the Secret Operations Executive, or SOE, and was renamed Station IX.
The SOE was formed at the behest of Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he looked for ways to take the war to the Axis powers, with the country under threat of invasion as the Battle of Britain raged.
While the service was responsible for running agents and supplying resistance movements behind enemy lines in both the European and Pacific theatres, Station IX was home to a real-life Q branch, creating innovative, secret weapons that Bond himself would have been proud of.
Run by Chief of Scientific Research Professor Dudley Maurice Newitt, and Major John Dolphin, himself a scientist, the base tested, discarded and retested machines and weapons for the SOE.
From 1940 to the last days of the Second World War, Station IX churned out plenty of equipment to be used by the service, with many of them named using the first three letters of Welwyn, the base’s home.
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The most 007-style weapons were designed by one of Station IX’s best regarded employees, Major Hugh Reeves.
He created the Sleeve Gun, a silenced tube containing a .32 calibre round that an agent could conceal up a shirt or jacket sleeve. When they needed to use it, the agent simply slid it into their grip and pressed a button to fire the bullet, before slipping it back up their sleeve.
Although the Sleeve Gun has become almost fictional due its frequent use in films, it was a real weapon designed in Welwyn, rather than a creation of Hollywood.
For agents who didn’t mind being a bit more brash with their work, Major Reeves created the Welrod, Station IX’s most notable export and a now iconic piece of British military design.
A silenced pistol firing either .32 or 9mm rounds, the Welrod was used from 1943 onwards and was still in service during the 1982 Falklands War when it was carried by British Special Forces.
Around 2,800 Welrod’s were made, with users lauding its reliability and near-silent operation.
Major Reeves also designed a silencer to be used on the STEN submachine gun, a weapon widely used by the British Army during the Second World War and the Korean War.
As well as weapons, Station IX also created transport perfect for agents and soldiers operating behind enemy lines.
One of those was a Major Dolphin invention, the Welbike. Designed to fit into a parachute canister for use by the Airborne, it weighed just 71 pounds, had a top speed of 30 miles per hour, and an incredible 90-mile range.
3,641 Welbike’s were produced, with the vehicle seeing action during the Battle of Anzio, D-Day and Operation Market Garden, while some were used by SOE operatives.
Station IX specialised in submersible craft too, although many of these didn’t see service.
In 1941 the Welman Midget Submarine was created, a 20 ft long craft that carried a 425-pound high explosive charge that could be stuck to the hull of an enemy warship. Despite showing early promise and being used on a single mission, the sub was deemed too risky for service.
A year later, the Welfreighter was produced, a submersible that had the appearance of a boat. Like its predecessor, it carried a high explosive charge as well as mines, but with war coming to a close by the time it was ready for service and highly-trained crews needed, it never saw action.
Sleeping Beauty, a motorized submersible canoe was also designed, but this never saw action either despite planned use during Operation Rimau - the Australian raid against Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour - with the military preferring to use collapsible canoes.
Four months after the end of the Second World War in January 1946, the SOE disbanded and Station IX closed down.
Those who played their part in designing the station’s innovative and top-secret weapons, including Major Dolphin and Major Reeves returned to designing products for civilian life.
As for The Frythe, it became a testing facility for ICI, Unilever and Glaxo Smith Kline, before being sold to a property developer in 2010. It was then converted into a dozen luxury apartments and is in the centre of an exclusive gated housing development called Wilshere Park.
The Frythe, Station IX and those who worked there should be remembered for their impact on the war and genius design work.
It really was Welwyn’s own real-life Q branch.