St Ermin’s Hotel – Spy Central

The statues at the entrance are wearing masks because of Covid 19, not as a disguise although this is the place where all the secret service bureaux crossed paths during WWII. My interest in spies began during my guide training course in Bordeaux. I conduct a walk there based on the 1940s Nazi Occupation. Among other things, I talk about the resistance groups and their links with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The St Ermins hotel claims to be where Churchill came up with the idea of a group of agents who would use guerrilla tactics in occupied countries. For a few months their HQ was in the hotel.

There is a fascinating exhibition about these saboteurs in the hotel lobby with some of the James Bond style gadgets they used. What I was really excited about was a piece of silk cloth that had letters printed on it (bottom right). This was used as a one-time pad for agents sending coded messages from enemy territory. The letters on the silk save the agent having to memorise anything because the keys to the code are printed on it. After sending their message they simply cut off and burn the used coding from the cloth. The inventor of this technique, Leo Marks wrote a book, Between Silk and Cyanide which I enjoyed and it was a thrill to see the printed cloth for myself. I was surprised how small the letters are, about the size of newspaper print. The silks helped agents work faster but they still had to pay careful attention to their work especially in dim light because the print is so small.   

Different secret service groups hired apartments or hotel rooms for meetings with outsiders rather than their own offices. No-one was supposed to know they existed let alone where they were based. All the secret services of WWII met at this hotel. It is very close to the wartime headquarters of MI6, Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms and Downing Street.  One person who would have held meetings here is Ian Fleming, a member of the Naval Intelligence Division.

I took lots of photos with the kind permission of the hotel and I would like to thank the staff for their help.

Covid 19 has not been good for business but is has given me time to do research and to learn how to present tours on line. I’ve finally had the time to get a grip on when the various British spy networks began and how they fit together. I’ve also found out more about the relationship between Britain and France in the lead-up to the second world war. How the idea of colonialism, thankfully gone now on both sides of the channel, influenced the politicians of the day.  The result is two webinars: Top Secret London, a history of Britain’s spy networks and much darker, Espionage, the French Connection. If you are interested in knowing more Contact Me.

About the author: Gail Jones