Langley Park School teacher turned spy to be celebrated in Imperial War Museum exhibition
PUBLISHED: 15:30 10 July 2013 | UPDATED: 15:30 10 July 2013
The Second World War saw many ordinary people do extraordinary things, and Harry Rée, a teacher at Langley Park School for Boys who became a spy, was undoubtedly one of these.
Now a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum opening later this month is uncovering the secret work of spies like him.
Born in Manchester in 1914, Rée began his teaching career after graduating from Cambridge University.
He started working at Langley Park – then Beckenham and Penge County School for Boys – in 1937, and taught French and German there until 1940, when the war effort began in earnest.
Langley Park’s history society recently held an exhibition delving into the school’s past, and teacher Rachel Allan said Rée was one of the first names that cropped up, along with his colleague there and during the war, Francis Cammaerts.
Rée’s leftwing political leanings developed while at Cambridge led to his original intention to conscientiously object to the war.
However, as he learned more about the ideology of Nazi Germany, he decided it was worth him fighting.
It was while looking after wireless operators that he decided an active role in the Special Operations Executive – SOE – was for him.
In April 1943 he was posted to France, specialising in sabotage operations with the codename ‘César’ as part of his work to support existing Resistance groups in Montbéliard, close to the German border.
It was a member of one of these groups that led him to perform perhaps his best-known wartime feat – the blowing-up of the Sochaux Peugeot factory, which was being used to make German tanks, to demonstrate to the RAF the efficiency of such inside jobs over Allied bombing.
This was undertaken at great personal cost to all involved through Rée’s connection, via aforementioned group member, to Robert Peugeot.
After being injured at the end of 1943, and with the Germans trying to capture him, Rée returned to the UK.
The Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition, Horrible Histories: Spies, is based on Terry Deary’s popular book of the same name from the bestselling series.
Exhibition curator and historian Amanda Mason says much of the work undertaken by spies like Rée is still coming to light now: “Even after the war, they were often reluctant to talk about it, as the nature of secrecy becomes very ingrained. We’re still finding out new things even now, and people are fascinated by it.”
Amanda details how after departing with his first baby due, the Allies used the BBC’s French service to transmit a code message to Rée, letting him know whether he had fathered a boy or a girl.
After the war, Rée resumed teaching, his leftwing ideals seeing him advocate passionately for comprehensive education and oppose the Conservative reforms of the 1980s.
His impact at Langley Park is evidently still felt, and Rachel reflects after the exhibition: “It’s been really exciting to find out about him, and just goes to show how talented teachers can be.”
A former pupil of his, Peter Pickering, reminisces about the help Rée gave him at school and after.
“He was a wonderful teacher; inspirational. Being taught by him was life-changing; we really clicked. As a self-pitying adolescent stuck in a job I hated after I finished school, I would write to him, and he replied, and got me my first job in the film industry while he was working for the SOE!”
Through his extraordinary actions, Rée became an extraordinary man, and his death in 1991 meant he enjoyed only 11 years of retirement, at the end of a lifetime disregarding personal risk in order to do what he felt was right.
Horrible Histories: Spies is on at the Imperial War Museum from July 29 until January 4, 2015.
To book tickets call 020 7416 5439 or visit www.iwm.org.uk