Hughenden's Second World War story

Hughenden was home to a map-making operation in the Second World War, so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a chance encounter. Requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1941, Hughenden, codenamed ‘Hillside’, played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the war.


Visiting the house

Entrance is allocated at the house on showing a valid visit ticket or NT member card. Numbers are limited for safety and on a first-come first-served basis, so a visit ticket does not guarantee entry to the house on busy days.

The need for target maps

Warfare moved into the skies on an unprecedented scale during the war however only a small proportion of bombs were falling on target due to a lack of accurate maps. Hughenden was requisitioned to become the map making operation for Bomber Command.

Hillside personnel

Around 100 men and women were based at Hughenden, both RAF and civilian personnel. Civilian recruits included people who had been artists, cartoonists, architects and graphic designers. Their skills, including a meticulous attention to detail, were essential for the hand drawing work needed in map making.

Recruits often arrived at Hughenden not knowing where they were going, or the job that they would be doing, all part of the efforts to keep Hillside top-secret. Many were billeted in nearby High Wycombe and travelled to the manor on bicycles. Only Sergeant Hadfield, in charge of security, lived in the manor with his wife and two children.


Secrets of Operation Hillside revealed

Hughenden in Buckinghamshire was home to a secret map-making operation in the Second World War, so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a chance encounter one of our house volunteers had with a visitor. In this video, Hughenden volunteer Bernie Knill tells us about Operation Hillside and, how Disraeli's former home played its part in ending the war in Europe.

The map making process

Hillside was part of a chain of intelligence, aerial reconnaissance photography and mapping operations.

The Control Unit at Hughenden would collate the information and allocate each job to a particular map maker who worked in painstaking detail to hand paint target maps. Only features that would aid the pilots, such as woods, roads, rivers and lakes, were included. The work was so intricate that the mapmakers could only produce around two maps per week. Often, they did not know the names of the locations they were drawing.

Hughenden's Second World War mapmakers
Historic image of Hughenden's secret Second World War mapmakers
Hughenden's Second World War mapmakers

The target maps were then printed using only black and magenta ink, with various techniques such as stippling enabling features to appear in white, grey, dull magenta and bright magenta.  This made the maps easier to see in the dim amber light inside the aeroplane.

Vital intelligence information was placed with the final target maps into sealed dossiers and passed to the Motor Transport Team, based in Hughenden’s stableyard. The unit delivered the dossiers under cover of darkness to nearby Bomber Command HQ. The maps were then distributed to around 60 RAF airfields, and to the American Airforce.

The bombing raids

Bombing raids on both sides of the war targeted cities and residential areas as well as factories and infrastructure, in the belief that this would weaken public morale and force the enemy to surrender sooner. The work of the Hillside mapmakers increased the accuracy of bombing missions but the technology available at the time still made precision difficult. The targeting of cities helped bring an end to the war; however, the moral questions raised at the time are still being debated today.

" With our paintbrushes we had helped to kill people we did not know."
- Kathleen Hudson, Hillside Mapmaker

Uncovering the Hillside story

Hughenden’s crucial role during the second world war remained a secret for decades. All evidence of the operation had been removed by the Air Ministry at the end of the war, and those who had worked here were bound by the Official Secrets Act.

In 2004, that all changed when a National Trust volunteer overheard a visitor telling his grandson about his time at Hughenden during the war. Years of detective work began, which included media appeals, interviews with mapmakers and their relatives, and archive research. Slowly, the story of Hillside began to emerge.

The story of Hughenden’s role in the war is today told in the rooms once used to produce the target maps. Our new permanent display has been supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.