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Arthur William King’s secret mission to Czechoslovakia

 An untold story in the Bren gun saga

A man poses for a passport photo with slick back hair and a shirt and tie.

Arthur William King’s passport photograph. Reproduced by permission and courtesy of the RSAF Apprentices Assocation

For every story of exceptional bravery, there are scores more that, for whatever reason, have simply never been related.  Therefore it is such a treat when one comes to the surface and can finally be told, as is the case with an otherwise normal young man from Waltham Abbey in Essex, who travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1938 on a secret mission for the British Government.

Arthur William King was born in 1904, son of William and Martha King, and spent his childhood growing up in and around Greenfield Street in Waltham Abbey.  Arthur’s father, William, worked at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, a significant employer in that area, and it was only natural when Arthur followed in his footsteps.  He served his apprenticeship in the Royal Ordnance Factories at Waltham Abbey, Enfield and Woolwich, and was promoted to foreman at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, before eventually becoming an official representative of the Chief Inspector of Armaments. His job led to him travelling both to the United States, where he acted as the British representative to the Colts Firearms Manufacturing Company, and also around Europe, which is where the story begins to get rather more mysterious.

The Road to War

Nazi Leadership stands in a row with Neville Chamberlain after signing the Munich agreement.

The Munich Agreement 1938, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173. Creative Commons.

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain travelled to Munich, to deal with the Adolf Hitler’s territorial demands over Czechoslovakia. He returned to Britain declaring ‘Peace in our time” but only after agreeing to cede the Sudetenland, the border regions of Czechoslovakia, to Nazi Germany. Shortly after this, in December, Arthur made his first trip to Czechoslovakia, spending almost a month in the country in an official capacity, though doing what exactly, remains unknown.

A page from a passport showing numerous official stamps

Arthur William King’s passport showing Nazi Stamps. Reproduced by permission and courtesy of the RSAF Apprentices Assocation

The plot thickens with Arthur’s second visit to the country, which saw him leave England on 14 March 1939 and race across Europe at the same time as Nazi Germany forces invaded Czechoslovakia, at a time when most sensible people were heading in the opposite direction, trying to flee before the advancing Germans arrived. He travelled through Vlissingen in the Netherlands, then on to Bentheim in the Reich before making his way overland all the way across Germany into Czechoslovakia, now travelling through Nazi territory on a diplomatic visa, as well as carrying a temporary German identification card. He arrived on the 15th on the same morning as the last train left Prague for Poland.

A green ID card in German from 1939

Arthur William King’s temporary ID Card. Reproduced by permission and courtesy of the RSAF Apprentices Assocation

 

The Reason

Why the interest with Czechoslovakia?  In the city of Brno, 230 miles south-east of Prague, the Czechs had designed an excellent light machine gun, the ZB vz26, which had been adopted by the British Army as the Bren Gun, and manufactured at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield Lock. The name Bren recognised the joint work done at BRno and ENfield.

Sensitive to the now occupying German forces, the British Government was keen to get a modified design of the latest Bren Gun out of Czechoslovakia while they still had the opportunity. Using his diplomatic cover, Arthur managed to smuggle the gun under the noses of the Germans into the British Embassy in Prague; however the problem remained of how to get it back to England.  This was solved by dismantling the gun and putting the various components into diplomatic bags, which the Germans were unable to search without causing an international incident.  These bags were then sent individually back to London, rather boldly via Berlin.  Parts and drawings all arrived safely in Britain where the gun was reassembled.

Above and Beyond

Arthur did not stop there, though.  He also took the opportunity, using his fluent German language skills and his natural charms, to take photographs of key buildings in Prague whilst chatting to the guards in order to gain useful information.  He also sat on a park bench with a couple of girls looking like innocent tourists whilst keeping an eye on German tanks entering the city and counting them.  Of course he was thoroughly debriefed upon arrival back in London. Incredibly, Arthur made further dangerous trips to Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation, at great risk to himself.

Three Guards with rifles guard a large building's front gate.

Photograph of German guards outside the Prague Palace taken by Arthur William King. Reproduced by permission and courtesy of the RSAF Apprentices Assocation

With the commencement of the Second World War, Arthur went to work for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and in 1942 he was allocated his own personal aeroplane and pilot.  Utilising these, he spent much of the time being flown around various RAF stations fitting new 20mm cannon to Spitfires.  He continued working for the Ministry after the war, finally retiring in 1964.  Due to the secretive nature of the work, Arthur’s wartime exploits were never officially recognised.

Those who did sensitive work during the war took their roles incredibly seriously, and many took their secrets with them to the grave, remaining forever silent.  Although Arthur spoke little of his war related adventures, what he did tell his family, coupled with a treasure trove of documents he left behind, including his passport filled with Nazi Swastika stamps and visas, gives us a glimpse into the murky world of espionage, and hints  at his unspoken bravery and total disregard for his personal safety.  Arthur William King was a truly remarkable man and an unsung hero.

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