Exploding rats and secret cellars

By Richard Moss
a pssport page with the photograph of Adolf Hitler in the top corner

Left: master forgers working for British Intelligence practiced their skills on Adolf Hitler. Picture courtesy Public Record Office.

As the secret war against the Nazis progressed, demand for special equipment and materials to support secret forays into Europe increased. Every time an agent was dropped into German held territory he or she had to be equipped with authentic documentation and clothes.

Items were painstakingly created to blend in with the people and customs of the country where they were to operate; shoes and clothes had to look worn and authentic, cigarettes and other personal effects had to be correct, passes had to endure very close inspection.

The secret battle against the Nazis also led to the production and development of a more sophisticated and sometimes bizarre type of gadgetry. Under the leadership of a man called Charles Fraser Smith (often cited as the blueprint for Ian Fleming's James Bond creation Q), SOE had a section known as Section XV whose job it was to create special tools for very secret work.

Right: The exploding rat one of the devices developed by SOE to help set Europe ablaze. Picture courtesy Public Record Office.

The results of this section are now legendary. Most notorious was the exploding rat. It was, naturally enough, a rat carcass hollowed out and filled with plastic explosive. The inspiration behind this volatile but seemingly innocent rodent was its ability to be slipped into railway coal piles which, when shovelled into the furnace of steam railways, would blow the whole train sky high.

Other direct methods were utilised such as exploding coal and incendiary cigarettes and soon Section XV was producing everything from fountain pens that shot tear gas to deadly shoelaces that could garrotte.

There are various locations where these devices were created, and mystery still surrounds what went on in some of these secret settings. One such place was the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Little is actually known about what went on there, but there is purported to have been a room known as 'the toyshop' situated in the southwest basement area.

Left:now a computer centre for kids, part of the basement of the Natural History Museum was once a top secret laboratory for special weapons. Picture Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum.

The Natural History Museum was also the venue for another SOE secret research laboratory known as Station IX. Originally located in an ex-hotel called the Frith at Welwyn Garden City, the laboratory moved to the first floor of the Natural History Museum providing SOE with a lecture hall and exhibition room in central London.

Other secret research and development centres included Station XII, a centre for the production of sabotage and subterfuge devices conceived at the Frith Hotel. A similar area was said to exist in another cellar location, this time at the 'thatched barn' on the Barnet bypass.

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