Wartime plots and spy intrigue are not just reserved for our television screens and novels. Sometimes, extraordinary heroes can be found much closer to home than we realise, as writer and actress Helen Lederer discovered.
Having acted in BBC shows such as Absolutely Fabulous, Lederer takes on other identities for a living. But it was not until the death of her grandfather that she became aware of her family’s rich history of donning disguises.
In 1941, her grandfather, Ernst Lederer, was conscripted into the Home Guard, and given the task of patrolling Hampstead Heath. “The family saw him leaving home every day in his Home Guard uniform and thought nothing more of it,” says Lederer.
Decades later, after his death, they discovered that he was really heading off each morning to a top secret site at Trent Park, a huge mansion near Enfield in north London.
Ernst Lederer had a double life: he was one of the spies working at the stately home that had been taken over by the Intelligence Office during the Second World War.
Within the walls of this grand country house, key wartime revelations, including information on German U-boat tactics and Hitler’s atom bomb programme, were disclosed by German officers and generals held there as prisoners of war.
There, Lederer would spend his days listening in to the conversations of Hitler’s top generals.
Ernst Lederer came to England in 1939 as a Jewish refugee after fleeing his home in the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia that was invaded by Germany a year earlier.
A fluent German and Czech speaker, his talents were noticed by the British Government. He was then recruited by MI9, a department of the War Office that existed between 1939 and 1945, a secret that Lederer carried to his grave.
Not only was he responsible for tapping the conversations of Hitler’s generals after they had been captured on the battlefields of North Africa and France, Ernst Lederer was also tasked with befriending these men.
He and other refugees of German origin pretended to be fellow Nazi officers confined in Trent Park, and befriended the captive generals, tricking them into revealing national secrets and war strategy.
The generals were completely unaware of their real identities, or the fact that every part of their luxurious prison had been bugged, from the lampshades to their billiards table.
Reminiscing about her grandfather (her “Big Baba”, as she used to call him), Lederer admits to being completely unaware of his real job. “I simply can’t get my head around the stress he must have had to endure – having to pose as a German officer and engage on intimate terms [with Nazis], sufficient enough to extract key facts, all without blowing his cover,” she says.
Lederer now has a collection of letters and medals from her grandfather’s secret second life.
“He signed the Official Secrets Act, and never told a soul – not even my grandmother,” she adds. “Big Baba was known for his charm, and I can see that his infamous affability would have been useful when it came to leading and goading information out of the incarcerated generals.”
Lederer was researching her grandfather’s role in espionage during the Second World War for the BBC programme Home Front Heroes. She says she found it emotional finding these new documents and photographs.
The discovery was especially poignant as her mother was decoding secret messages in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park at the same time.
“It was very moving to stand where my grandfather would have stood, both in the basement where they tapped the conversations, and around the grounds, where the Nazi prisoners were teased into revealing crucial facts about the war, as they were lured into a false sense of security by those posing as German officers,” says Lederer.
“I was immediately impressed by Trent Park, with its faded grandeur; the symmetry of the architecture and the beautiful brickwork.”
Trent Park is soon to enter the next stage of its history, as Berkeley Homes starts work on its development of 250 new homes set within its 413 acres of parkland, a former medieval hunting ground.
The jewel in the development’s crown will be the conversion of the Grade II listed Mansion House.
The main building still contains microphone wires and alarm tripwires from its spying days. It will be converted into 15 apartments on the upper floors, while the downstairs will house a museum about the history of the building that will open in 2020.