Thames at War: Secrets, Spies and Spitfires

Story by Jack Foley

FROM the legendary Dunkirk Little Ships to soaring Spitfires, Thames at War: Secrets, Spies and Spitfires, which opens at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames on April 11, 2003, provides a fascinating insight into the strategic importance of the River Thames as a crucial line of defence, as well as the vital role played by the riverside communities during the Second World War.

The showpiece event exhibition includes details of:

l The daring Spitfire and Mosquito pilots from RAF Benson and the US Air Force bases at Chalgrove and Mount Farm. Often flying alone with no radio contact, these unarmed aircraft undertook photo-reconnaissance missions over Europe, bringing back vital images of enemy installations and activities;

l The exploits of the Upper Thames Patrol, which patrolled stretches of the Thames and whose task, if invasion threatened, was to blow up bridges to thwart the enemy. Tales of this river-based version of the Home Guard will be recounted by historian John Powell, in his fascinating talk, Up the Pub; The story of the Upper Thames Patrol, on Saturday, April 12.

l The Dunkirk Little Ships, famous for their involvement in the massive evacuation of over 300,000 British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Many of these craft were small pleasure cruisers used on the River Thames. Requisitioned from their owners they made the journey down the Thames to the South coast, before setting out on the dangerous trip across the Channel to France.

l The vital contribution to the war effort made by Thames boat builders who produced a variety of craft for the Admiralty and the RAF – from motor torpedo boats to air sea rescue launches.

l The enthusiasm of Britain's young rowers who kept the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge going for four years, the Imperial College students who braved the Tideway, and regattas which served clubs and the Services throughout the war.

l The contribution made by the large country houses along the Thames Valley which housed key military operations, such as Danesfield House, which was the Central Interpretation Unit for the RAF’s photographic reconnaissance work, and Caversham Park which was home to the BBC Monitoring Service.

l The role women played in the war effort along the river. With thousands of men engaged in warfare abroad, local women played their part, taking on vital war work in factories, joining the Women’s Land Army to work the farms and by stepping into the role of Lock Keeper at several locks along the Thames.

Visitors to the exhibition will also have the opportunity to view photos, artefacts and recordings from the period, illustrating the unique connection between the Thames and its communities in the defence of the nation.

Associated Events

There are a variety of associated events taking place during the Thames at War exhibition, including the aforementioned Up The Pub: The story of the Upper Thames Patrol, which takes place on Saturday, April 12, at 11am for an 11.30am start. This event is £6 (£5 members) and includes coffee.

John Powell has spent many years researching the story of the Thames own version of the Home Guard. During his talk, he will share his stories and pictures of the Patrol, which are featured in the exhibition.

Also taking place...
l Adult Creative Workshop: Words in the Front Line - Saturday, May 10, from 10am-12.30pm
Led by Jane Draycott, this writing workshop will look at how we find new words in times of change: words to fight back with, words to write home with.

l Henley Royal Regatta, July 2-6
There will be a display about rowing during the war, linked to the exhibition Thames at War, in the Prize Tent within the Stewards Enclosure for the duration of the Regatta.

l Summer Holiday Children’s Activities
There will be children’s workshops related to the exhibition over the summer holidays, including becoming a spy for the morning and make your own disguise!

l Dunkirk Little Ships: Visit the Museum Jetty on July 26 & 27
Some of the Dunkirk Little Ships will be at the Museum during the weekend of July 26/27. Talk to their current owners to find out more about the boats and their amazing stories.
Visit the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships website:

For further information on the exhibition or general enquiries, call the River & Rowing Museum on 01491 415 600 or visit

About the River & Rowing Museum

The Museum celebrates three themes: the past, present and future of the River Thames, the historic riverside community of Henley-on-Thames and the international sport of rowing.

Since it opened to the public in August 1998, the Museum has received numerous awards for its design and architecture, including the RIBA Building of the Year and National Heritage/NPI Museum of the Year award.

The Museum is a recognised centre for the arts and has hosted a number of high profile art exhibitions as part of its ongoing programme of special exhibitions and related talks.

The Museum, Riverside Café and shop are open daily from 10am until 5pm (5.30pm between May and August).

Admission prices: £4.95 for adults; £3.75 for children and concessions. Free parking is available for visitors.