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Beaulieu's World War II 'spy school' remembered

The highly secretive Special Operations Executive was based at Beaulieu

"It was a life of lies", says a World War II agent who was trained in the heart of the New Forest.

Noreen Baxter-Riols was part of the Special Operations Executive based at Beaulieu.

The country estate was used for training spies before they were deployed behind enemy lines in occupied Europe - but none of the villagers knew what was happening on their doorstep.

Even those recruited were not told the bigger picture of what they were being trained for.

Undercover operations

The list of activities undertaken at Beaulieu reads like a James Bond adventure. The agents were trained in planting explosives, burglary, forgery, sabotage and silent killing.

More unusual techniques included planting bombs inside dead rats. Other spy gadgets, now housed in the Beaulieu museum, included compass and map hidden in a hairbrush, and a lethal blade concealed in a shoelace.

Experts were brought in from around the world to pass on expertise in specific areas.

Hong Kong police experts developed a special type of commando knife, even King George VI's gamekeeper provided instruction on living off the land.

Historian John Smith said: "Churchill wanted a 'fourth force' alongside the army, navy and air force. A group that would act to frustrate and annoy the Germans and enhance the chances of the allies. The SOE certainly did that and that was an important role."

Personal sacrifice

It was incredibly dangerous and risky work - the operatives knew if they were caught behind enemy lines there was no chance of rescue.

Violette Sarbo
Violette Szabo was captured and tortured by the Nazis

At one stage, radio operators were only surviving for an average of six weeks. They were given the "L pill" - a suicide capsule which caused death within two minutes.

Noreen Baxter-Riols said: "They were very brave people who knew the risks - there was a 50% chance of coming back."
Tania Szabo, the daughter of one of the spies, returned to Beaulieu for BBC One's Inside Out.

She wanted to see the places where her mother, Violette Szabo, was secretly trained before working as a spy in northern France.

Ms Szabo said: "She came back with information about V1 rockets and in addition managed to get a viaduct blown up."

Violette Szabo operated successfully behind enemy lines in France before eventually being captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis in the aftermath of D-Day in 1944.

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