The Wartime History of Abbots Cliff House

As featured on BBC One’s ‘Inside Out’ – Three Veterans, who served as special duties linguists for the Women’s Royal Service in WW2, were based in Abbots Cliff House in the build up and around D-Day.

For the first time in 75 years, and now in their 90’s, the ladies return to Abbots Cliff House and are supplied with some of the old Y station equipment used at Abbots Cliff in their secret interception work.

  

The women reminisce about the old watch room, D-Day, their roles and the ‘bomb’. Find out more about the three women below….

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If you asked them what they done in the war – they wouldn’t tell you and that’s because they signed the ‘official secrets act’, but now the rules have changed and they’re free to tell us all about the Y station of Folkestone.

These days, Abbots Cliff is a rather grand holiday home near Folkestone, but very few people know its wartime history. Up until now, the work carried out here by a group of women in the 1940’s has remained a secret.

BBC’s Inside Out invited the three women back to Abbots Cliff to recount their memories of their time at Abbots Cliff – returning for the first time since 1944. Being all ends during world war two, the three women all lived and worked here.

Pam Harding - “We were special duties linguists, and our job was to intercept German traffic, many German Naval Traffic.”

Abbots cliff was one of 18 listening posts, called Y Stations, based around the South and East coast. Overlooking the English Channel, this was one of the busiest and most important monitoring stations. 

The women listened into the enemy from the watch room at Abbots Cliff House.

Pam Torrens - “We sat at radio sets which had a dial on them and we travelled from 1 end of the 20 megahits to the other and then we went back again and we investigated any signal we came across.”

“You had to keep twiddling, as we were called ‘twiddlers’… You’d go back and forth and if you found a signal you’d try and home into it to get the strongest signal. If you find an interesting signal then you’d immediately tell the standby and say, “I think I’ve got traffic up on such-and-such frequency.”

The ladies were chosen because they could speak fluent German, but they had to learn German naval terms, code names and additional secret codes.

“I remember the codes so clearly, and I will never forget it – I don’t really know why because god knows that it has been well over 70 years since I’ve used it, but it must be written on my heart, I think”

But as the women got on with their work, there was always risk of attack.

“And then the V1 started, the doodle bugs, you could hear it coming and coming, and when it cut out you went under the bench with earphones because you knew it was going to explode”.

 “We weren’t really frightened, it was just normal life… The fact you were listening to the enemy when you’re 18 years old - you think how exciting, I’m almost a spy..”

The women were keeping a close ear on the German motor-torpedo boats, known as E-boats, which were trying to attack our domestic coastal convoys.

“The Germans didn’t break radio silence until they were actually starting an operation because they would lurk in the little bays or against cliffs so that radar couldn’t pick them up easily but if they broke radio silence, then we could pick them up.”

In amongst all the German military communications were personal messages from one crew to another – one of Pat’s colleagues eves-dropped on a German signalman talking about a boat, which was captained by Bobby Fimans.

Pat Davies - “They got a message from a motor-torpedo boat – saying did you know that all of Fimans crew are going on leave next week… and the other receiving signalman responded ‘yes, they’re all going to make children’ and even that bit of information was quite useful because it meant that Bobby Fimans boat wouldn’t be operating for the next week.”

“We actually heard the war from the German side more than we did in some ways from the British side, and this seemed rather an odd situation.”

Inevitably the women of the Y station became involved in story of the enigma code machines and the top-secret code breakers of Bletchley Park.

“The other half or more of what we got were enigma code messages and I don’t know if anyone even said the word enigma to us, but we knew that we had to write down absolutely accurately these coded messages, and send them to what we knew as Station X – which we all now know as Bletchley Park.”

The years of secret work went by and then a big day arrived on the 6th June 1944, a date which had it’s own code name ‘D-Day’.

“I was on night watch and it suddenly filled with an enormous number of high ranking naval officers – which was quite extraordinary and quite unprecedented – and eventually we were told yes it’s on – it’s started…’

“My future husband was in prison war in Germany and I looked across and was saying to myself “it’s nearly over dear, we’re coming to get you!””

This house has changed as have the lives of the women who once worked here, but what’s clear is that the bonds forged in this place in the 1940’s are still strong and the memories created here are still sharp after 73 years.

“Seeing it again it is exactly how I remember, looking out at the watch room. Quite amazing’ and it’s magical to come back.”

The Three WWII Veterans:
Pat Davies, Pam Torrens and Pam Harding