I have a fascination with ‘secret history’, especially when it has local connections. During World War Two captured enemy spies were taken to Camp 020, located south-west of London. The Camp was a secret interrogation centre run by MI5, the Security Service. Not many people realise that Camp 020 was located at Latchmere House, quietly nestled on the Richmond and Kingston borders.
Built originally as a large private house by Joshua Field, a prosperous merchant in the nineteenth century, Latchmere had been purchased by the War Office during World War One and used as a hospital for shell-shocked officers.
Twenty years later, after the ‘Phoney War’ came to a dramatic end in spring 1940, MI5 decided that captured spies would need to be detained in a dedicated location separate from our general internment camps, where such men could be subjected to special interrogation techniques to ‘break’ them and extract as much information as possible about German plans.
Camp 020 was opened by MI5 in the summer of 1940, at the height of ‘spy fever’ in Britain. It was so secret at the time that the Home Office, after strong lobbying by MI5, did not even include it in a list of camps submitted to the International Red Cross. Indeed, MI5 argued that it was not a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp, and was therefore not subject to the Geneva Convention. It was classed as a ‘civilian’ camp. Clearly, though, Latchmere was a very different kind of place from other civilian detention camps. It was run on behalf of MI5 by an extrovert and rather temperamental former Indian Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, who was so named because of his trademark monocle.
Stephens took over as Camp Commandant in July, 1940. He ensured that Latchmere’s rooms were turned into cells, each with a hidden microphone. He also arranged for an additional cell block to be added to the House, together with a special punishment room. However, it seems Stephens was against physical torture and strong-arm measures, and much preferred what might be termed ‘non-physical’ forms of interrogation, based on ‘special methods’ and psychological pressure, such as intimidation, sleep deprivation and long periods of isolation.
In the 1990s, as part of a new openness policy, MI5 began to release some its ‘historical’ files to The National Archives. Files released included an in-house Security Service history of Camp 020, written by Stephens after the War and titled A Digest of Ham, which gave me a much better picture of the nature of Camp 020. Stephens revealed that the Camp, which operated from July, 1940, to September, 1945, saw about 480 prisoners pass through its gates. The first ‘suspects’ to arrive included some refugees, various ‘aliens’ already resident in Britain, and some key members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Stephens soon decided this first batch were mainly ‘shabby nonentities’ and all the men were transferred to other camps.
When the first actual German spy arrived at Latchmere in July, important information was quickly extracted from him about German invasion plans, which indicates that the controversial interrogation techniques favoured by Stephens were yielding some success. By November, 1940, according to Stephens, the camp had ‘settled down to its proper role’ as a detention and interrogation centre for captured enemy spies and any others who were seriously suspected of being spies.
After the War, the prison service took over the site and it became an open prison. It was closed in 2011, as part of public expenditure savings. Recently, Latchmere was sold by the Ministry of Justice to housing developers, and the plans for the site were scrutinised by both Richmond and Kingston Councils.
Unfortunately, in the coverage of this sale by the local and national press, some popular myths were reproduced about the wartime prisoners held at Camp 020. It is important that these myths are demolished. There is no evidence, for example, that the BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley was interned at Latchmere. Moreover, claims that Rudolf Hess and William Joyce (the infamous radio broadcaster ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were kept at Latchmere also have no foundation in reality. Instead, Hess, who was Hitler’s deputy, was first held at the Tower of London and then transferred to Mytchett Place, a fortified mansion between Aldershot and Camberley, in Surrey. Joyce was held at Wandsworth prison, where he was executed in January, 1946.
Although it is a challenge to disentangle myth from fact concerning Latchmere, the story of the house in wartime remains an intriguing and unique part of local history in Kingston and Richmond.
Steve Woodbridge is a Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University and specialises in the history of fascism and the secret state.