National Servicemen preparing for
war as Russian linguist
by Dennis Mills
The communications intelligence work of Bletchley Park and its Y
stations during the 1939-45 war is deservedly well known, but
what happened next in relation to the threat from the Soviet
Union has received much less attention. Even as early as 1944
the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Chiefs of Staff had
begun to consider the gross shortage of Russian speakers in
Britain, and by 1948 British intelligence operations, having
been run down after the war, were expanding once more. The
communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, Hungary in 1949.
The exploding of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 caught
Western intelligence by surprise and the Korean war began in
The first large scale initiative in language training was a
response to the need for about 200 Russian interpreters to join
the staff of the Allied Control Commission in newly occupied
Germany. In 1945-46 Professor Elizabeth Hill ran some six-month
courses in Cambridge for these servicemen. Small numbers of
interpreter students were also taught during the same period at
the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the
University of London, when 24 service personnel, 20 men and four
women, attended part-time courses. A similar scale of activity
carried on into 1950-51 when there were 39 service students
including two women learning a range of east European languages
on a part-time basis.
In 1949 an inter-service committee under the Ministry of Defence
began to study ways and means of setting up courses for very
much larger numbers of national servicemen. As a consequence of
the outbreak of the Korean War, an extension of the National
Service Act was rushed through Parliament in September 1950 to
increase the period of training from 18 months to two years. A
long period of Russian language training then became possible,
followed by some useful intelligence work by those who qualified
as translators. The committee's objective became the creation of
a reserve of men who could be mobilised in case of hostilities,
and in November 1950 a target of about 4,100 by 1954 was
Meanwhile an initiative by the Air Ministry in 1949-52 comprised
four one-year courses for 30-40 regular, as opposed to
conscript, servicemen at RAF Kidbrooke, in south-east London.
The students were mainly airmen, both officers and men, but also
a few from the Army and he Navy. Some were already experienced
W/T (wireless telegraphy) operators.4
Students of the autumn 1951
intake. Photo taken at JSSL Bodmin, summer
1952, oral group, instructor
Dani Bondarenko, Ukrainian, courtesy of John
Miller (Army), on the far left.
Navy students all belonged to the
purposely-formed Coder Special
This photo is taken from
All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the
Evening, 2010 (Kingston-on-Thames,
Hodgson Press), p.23.
In March 1951, after much debate the inter-service committee
started to take executive action, leading to the commencement of
courses in October 1951. They had in mind lower and higher grade
linguists corresponding to the terms 'translator' and
'interpreter', the former to be perhaps 65-75 per cent of the
total. Joint Services Schools for Linguists run by the Army were
established at Bodmin in Cornwall from October 1951 to Easter
1956; at Coulsdon Common near Croydon from February 1952 to
August 1954; and at Crail in Fife from Easter 1956 to March
Evidence has been found of 24 intakes altogether from 1951 to
1959. Bodmin and Coulsdon started by taking in 300-360 men at
three points in the year, approximately 1 October, 1 February, 1
August, with roughly equal numbers from each service. Among the
national servicemen in these early courses there was also a
scattering of RAF regulars. Owing to Treasury economies, the
pace had to be slackened in 1954 when one intake was probably
abandoned altogether and the intake size was reduced to about
100-150 until the summer of 1956. Following this, there was an
intake of the original size at Crail in November 1956, but the
levels fell again in 1957. The last five intakes, after the Navy
had stopped sending men, were down to only about 25 men, a dozen
or so each of soldiers and airmen.
Bodmin 1954, with two
instructors, Brian Hawkins on the left and
Josef Godlevski, Polish. Hawkins
went on to be a long standing instructor at
JSSL Crail, later at the
Defence School of Languages at Beaconsfield.
Courtesy of John Mitchell
extreme left second row.
The exact number of students sent to JSSLs has possibly not
survived, but some estimates are available, starting with the
'upwards of 5,000' suggested by Elliott and Shukman.6
The present author has used two different but broadly congruent
methods to offer an alternative suggestion of rather more than
4,000. Tentative use of planning sources in the National
Archives indicates 4,182, very close to the original target;
whilst a combination of the more reliable of the figures in
those sources and a consensus of student recollections leads to
a figure of 4,270. Both of these numbers look exact, but they
are nothing of the kind, yet both point to the conclusion that
Elliott and Shukman's figure is much too high and 'about 4,200'
is probably a better estimate.
It is more important to say that the planning target was
eventually reached before the abolition of national service
would, in any case, have forced a different strategy on the
services. Had Crail closed two years before its demise in 1960,
in terms of numbers it would have made little difference, but in
terms of cost it would have supplied the Treasury with the best
possible economy measure. In this late period Crail was also
running Polish and Czech courses, but only for a handful of
students. Interpreter JSSLs were set up at the University of
Cambridge, administered for service purposes by the RAF, and in
the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the
University of London, administered by the Navy. Unlike the
service-run JSSLs, however, they were run academically by
civilians, Professor Elizabeth Hill at Cambridge and Dr George
Bolsover as principal of SSEES, with Ronald Hingley as the
course director followed by Bryan Toms. In October 1951 these
schools both took men straight from initial service training on
to Course A lasting one year, followed by a military Russian
course at Bodmin lasting about five months. For subsequent
interpreter courses, men were selected at the first major
progress test after 6-8 weeks of tuition in the service-run
JSSLs. Course T, which started in October 1957, was the last
interpreter course. 7
The supplementary group of
students at Crail, December 1957, with (L-R)
Mr V Diakovski (Russian),
Commander Maitland-MakGill-Crichton (i/c,
Navy students) and Prince (knyaz =
lord) Volkonski (Russian).
By this date coders were
dressed as seamen, and this group had been
promoted to leading
coder special. After passing the course,
promoted to midshipmen.
Courtesy of David Talks,
with glasses on
These courses have often been described as superior to the
contemporary degree courses so far as linguistic knowledge was
concerned, leaving aside the study of Russian history,
literature and culture, although these aspects of Russian
studies were by no means neglected. Oral proficiency was
particularly high. At the end of their courses most interpreters
obtained Civil Service Interpretership certificates. After that
the Army probably sent most of their interpreters to the
Intelligence Corps depot at Maresfield in Sussex to take the
course on interrogation techniques. Some of them finished off
their national service as privates in the units from which they
had gone to JSSL, but at least one became a sergeant in the
Intelligence Corps. In their 'spare time' up to demobilisation,
some of the Navy interpreters also went to Maresfield and/or on
to a variety of jobs for a few weeks or months according to how
long after call-up they had gone to JSSL. Some of these jobs
were quite unrelated to their interpreter training. The scanty
evidence available suggests that the RAF did not give their
interpreters further training after the Civil Service exams, but
were promoted to Pilot Officer on demobilisation.
The JSSLs were very successful despite tensions between the
military commandants at the service-run schools and the academic
staff, especially in the early years. Many of the translators,
who received all their language training at a service school,
gained A levels in Russian, frequently finding the language
papers much easier than the service end-of-course exams.
F Course at JSSL Cambridge, central part of the
photograph of staff and students at our 'Passing
Out' ceremony, held indoors at the Mill Lane lecture
theatre owing to bad weather, April 1954.
Front row (L to R):
Brigadier E K Page (principal at Coulsdon 1954,
Bodmin 1954-56, later at Crail) Wing Commander
Edgar J Harrington (principal at Bodmin
1951-c.1953), Flight Lieutenant A Heath-Bullock,
Professor (later Dame) Elizabeth M Hill (principal,
JSSL Cambridge), and Marshal of the Royal Air Force,
Lord Tedder (Chancellor of Cambridge University).
Row 2: Dr Jan Horvath,
Princess Natasha Naumova, Mr Alexei Plyushkov, Mme
Alexandra Hackel, Mr Vladimir Saulius.
Row 3: Mme Chernysheva, 2nd
Lt L Gemson (instructor, passed C course), Mr
Goodliffe, Mr Boris Ranevski, Mr Cameron, Ms Doris
Mudie (Liza Hill's companion), Mr Courtney Lloyd,
Princess Elena Lieven (later Lloyd).
Courtesy of Peter Robbins
There was enough drop-out in the first three intakes to have
caused the inter-service committee to revise its target date.
However, the overall drop-out rate on translator courses was
probably below five per cent, about level with university first
degree rates in the same period.8
The interpreter courses were much more demanding, even allowing
for the higher marks obtained by their entrants at the first
major progress tests. Interpreter drop-out rates were
substantial at first, for instance, 17 out of 60 entrants to the
London course in January 1953, but also appear to have improved
over time, and the overall rate may not have exceeded 10 per
The success of the JSSLs might be ascribed to four main factors.
Firstly, the selection procedures, amateurish, haphazard and
chaotic as they were, succeeded in finding among the mass of
national servicemen a sufficient proportion of intelligent young
men, usually with good linguistic qualifications at O level or
equivalent, but more often at A level as well. Many were to go
on to university after national service and a significant
minority had already taken first degrees in various subjects
Coulsdon 1953, a grammar
class of the fourth intake outside a double
teaching hut, with 20
students present and their civilian
instructor, Mr Sandon.
To distinguish Army from RAF students look
for the khaki shirts
- they are the soldiers. Anomalously, the
were wearing Army gaiters on the orders of
Black, the commandant.
Courtesy of Bill Musker
Secondly, high levels of enthusiasm for their work among the
many east European instructors were often combined with charisma
acquired during their previous lives in Tsarist Russia or the
Soviet Union. Typically, they were newcomers to Britain, but had
been jobless and dispirited and were willing to work for the
mean rates of pay of temporary civil service posts. Thirdly,
their students responded with a keenness reinforced by a strong
desire not to be returned to their units (in the case of the
Army and RAF students) or re-categorised to another branch (in
the case of the Navy students). They had looked forward somewhat
miserably to a largely wasted two years, but instead found
themselves being taken into an almost entirely unknown, exciting
intellectual world. Frequent progress tests were also important
incentives to do one's homework thoroughly.
Fourthly, but most importantly, inspirational leadership by Prof
(later Dame) Elizabeth Hill is to be applauded. It was she who
understood from pre-war experience in Cambridge the importance
of oral practice. She also had enough contacts in the Russian
and related diasporas to find appropriate instructors and
possessed the organisational skills to deploy them to the
greatest advantage. In her 1945-46 courses she divided the
students into classes of 25-30 in which they were taught by a
relatively small number of British graduates in Russian studies
combined with native Russian speakers or bi-linguists who had a
good knowledge of grammar and perhaps some teaching experience.
Coulsdon, 1953, oral group,
instructor Oleg Kravchenko, Ukrainian. This
group was part
of a grammar class taught by Peter Meades,
who had been on Liza Hill's 1945-46
Cambridge course as
an artillery sergeant, later in Germany
using his Russian.
Courtesy of Laurie Fox
middle of front row.
An equal amount of time was spent in smaller groups of eight or
nine students (sometimes less) led by fluent Russian speakers
who, strictly speaking, were never supposed to address their
groups in English. Reading aloud, question-and-answer work,
dictation and written interpretership were all practised in the
service-run JSSLs, often complemented by singing, the recitation
of poems and the telling of colourful stories from their former
lives. The Cambridge method was adopted to great advantage in
all the JSSLs, with variations on the original according to
local and personal circumstances. In particular the allocation
of 50 per cent of contact time to oral work was strikingly
different from the usual way of teaching a foreign language at
this time. There was healthy competition between the JSSLs at
Cambridge and London, as SSEES had also acquired considerable
expertise in its field. After the national service courses
finished, interpreter courses for regular servicemen at defence
establishments kept up the supply on a lesser scale for various
languages. One such establishment is that at Beaconsfield
(Bucks) which later became known as the National Defence School
of Languages and recently (2012) has been scaled down and has
become part of the UK Defence Academy.
Translators who passed their courses were then trained for
monitoring Soviet military radio traffic, mainly from locations
in West Germany.10
The Government Communications Headquarters trained the Army
personnel, whilst the Navy personnel joined their RAF colleagues
in secure accommodation at the Applied Languages School.
Initially this was located at RAF Wythall near Birmingham,
moving first to RAF Pucklechurch in Gloucestershire, later to
RAF Tangmere in Sussex.
When JSSL Crail closed, at least some of its equipment and staff
was transferred to Tangmere, where the unit was named the Joint
Service Language School (JSLS). There regular personnel of the
RAF and Navy received both their general language training and
related radio training. The RAF had been anticipating such a
transition for at least a couple of years by encouraging or
requiring those who volunteered for the JSSL courses to take
three-year regular engagements instead of doing two years
R. J. Aldrich,
The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret
Intelligence, 2002 (Woodstock and NY, Overlook Press)
passim; and his GCHQ.The Uncensored Story of
Britain's Most Secret Intelligence Agency, 2010 (London,
Harper Press), especially pp.68, 100, 103, 107-8; also Peter
Hennessy, The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War,
2002 (London, Allen Lane Penguin Books), chapter 1.
In the Mind's Eye: the memoirs of Dame Elizabeth Hill,
1999 (Lewes, The Book Guild Ltd) pp.230-36; James Muckle, The
Russian Language in Britain: a historical survey of learners and
teachers, 2008 (Ilkeston, Bramcote Press), pp.120-21. This
is an excellent general survey, pp.12036 in particular,
including further information on pre-JSSL initiatives. My thanks
to Lesley Pitman, Librarian at SSEES, for the London data.
Surviving minutes of this committee are in the National
Archives, TNA/ADM 6331-34. See Tony Cash and Mike Gerrard,
The Coder Special Archive: the untold story of Naval national
servicemen learning and using Russian during the Cold War,
2012 (Kingston-on-Thames, Hodgson Press, available online) and
Dennis R. Mills, 'Signals Intelligence and the Coder Special
Branch of the Royal Navy in the 1950s',
Intelligence and National Security, vol. 26 (5), October
Much information of this kind has come from about 100 former
Russian linguists of all three services and many different
intakes, to whom the author is most indebted. Some of the RAF
personnel are members of the RAF Linguists' Association,
On Crail see Graham Boiling,
Secret Students on Parade: Cold War Memories of JSSL,
2005 (Crail, Plane Tree); on Coulsdon see Maurice Berrill,
'Moscow in Surrey: Recollections of Coulsdon Common Camp and the
not-so-secret classrooms of the Joint Services School for
Linguists.' Bourne Society, Local History Records
(journal of the Bourne Society), vol. 68, August 2011, pp.2-15
and Dennis R. Mills, 'The training of linguists for war.'
Local History Records, part I in vol. 73, November 2012,
pp.3-13 and part II in vol. 74, February 2013, pp.3-12. No
comparable account has been found in print about JSSL Bodmin,
but John Miller included his own recollections of being in the
first intake there and of intelligence work in the War Office in
a book that is mainly about his life as a journalist in Moscow
over many years: All Them Cornfields and Ballet in the
Evening, 2010 (Kingston-upon-Thames, Hodgson Press,
G. Elliott and H. Shukman,
Secret Classrooms: a Memoir of the Cold War, two
editions, 2002, 2003 (London, St Ermin's Press), p.42 of the
The interpreter courses, especially from the perspective of the
Army and RAF students, have been well described by Elliott and
Some problems at Coulsdon were recorded on pp.216-17 in Donald
MacDonell, From Dogfight to Diplomacy: a Spitfire pilot's
log, 1932-58, edited by Lois MacDonell and Anne Mackay, 2005
(Barnsley, Pen and Sword Aviation). MacDonell's remarks about
poor teaching and high drop-out support the recollections of
some Navy students of the August 1952 intake. This book is the
only memoir of a JSSL principal so far found.
Russian Language in Britain, pp.178-81 and information
from Robert Avery, Principal Lecturer in Russian.
10 See for the Army, Jeremy Wheeler's History project on
(chapter 10); for the RAF, Leslie Woodhead, My
Life as a Spy, 2005 (London, Macmillan) and for the Navy,
Dennis Mills, "One third of us might have been Wrens",
East-West Review (journal of the GB-Russia Society), vol. 11
(2), 2012, pp.5-9.
I found out fairly recently about my late father - Dennis Joseph Whelehan who began his National Service with the Armoured Corps in 1950-51 and then was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and attended the JSSL in Bodmin,Cornwall, I know he was later posted to Graz,Austria where he was based at the Palais Maran. I wonder if anyone on this website remembers my father, he was originally from Liverpool.
My father, Nicolaj Suslin, taught Russian from the early 50s to the mid 60s. One of his ‘reforms’ was to access current Soviet magazines & newspapers, arguing that language evolves & no use teaching students to talk like Czarist officers. Would love to hear from anyone with memories (good or bad!) of him.
There is a reference to the Black Watch which may give the impression that it was the only Army unit represented at the JSSLs. When at JSSL Coulsdon as a naval rating I noticed many different shoulder flashes on soldiers' battle dresses. After they had completed the language course they were all transferred as privates to the Intelligence Corps. They seem to have remained as privates for the rest of their national service, whereas we went up to leading coder special, equivalent to corporal ... Read More
There is a reference to the Black Watch which may give the impression that it was the only Army unit represented at the JSSLs. When at JSSL Coulsdon as a naval rating I noticed many different shoulder flashes on soldiers' battle dresses. After they had completed the language course they were all transferred as privates to the Intelligence Corps. They seem to have remained as privates for the rest of their national service, whereas we went up to leading coder special, equivalent to corporal (and on the appropriate pay for a leading hand). The RAF linguists werer also elevated enough to get a pay rise to about 12s 6d, compared with our 17s 6d a day, and abut 5s for privates!!
This brings back some happy memories. I was at Crail in the RN in 1956/57 - 28th intake - and later at RAF Wythall, Kiel and RAF Pucklechurch. Any survivors I wonder. Get in touch if you would like to !
Glad to see you are still alive and well, Dave. I've been giving my I WAS A COLD WAR SPY quite successfully over the past year and attended the Coders Reunion in London last October and the FRINTON Lunch in May. Sadly Bill Stafford and Steve Tendlow died last year but I'm still in touch with Ted Tyler who now lives in Tasmania. Keep well.
That's my dad in the 1953 RAF photo. Front row far left. He loved hos time in jssl he spoke fluent Russian to the day he died and loved his time studying in Cambridge. Was a happy time for him and even happier when I married a Russian girl from Vladivostok and took his Anglo Russian grandson home and my Dad saw his surname in Cyrillic in his grandson's passport. History had gone full circle and changed for the better. His grandson now lives in China and speaks mandarin also.
Yes, I think they were the Black Watch (and my fellow Scots). They adopted an extremely hostile attitude to us students (mostly RAF) and took every opportunity to try to bully and intimidate. Fortunately, we managed to keep out of their way most of the time.
For a time, in the late '50s, when I was there, the JSSL Crail was administered by a thuggish Army unit which regularly imposed a mindless draconian discipline. Two good mates of mine ended up doing time in Perth military prison after a drunken skirmish with some goonish MP's outside the local hostelry. Fortunately, they survived, albeit embittered. The quality of tuition was patchy, and some of the so-called native-speakers were dodgy, to say the least. A major exception was the ... Read More
For a time, in the late '50s, when I was there, the JSSL Crail was administered by a thuggish Army unit which regularly imposed a mindless draconian discipline. Two good mates of mine ended up doing time in Perth military prison after a drunken skirmish with some goonish MP's outside the local hostelry. Fortunately, they survived, albeit embittered. The quality of tuition was patchy, and some of the so-called native-speakers were dodgy, to say the least. A major exception was the excellent grammar teacher, a Mr Sternberg, who was a rather sinister 'Balt' but drilled us well. I later sailed through the A-level. All in all, the JSSL experience was not exactly pleasant but, even so, it was better than being bored brainless in some pointless NS drudgery.
Hello, Roger: I've just received a message that you would like to contact me. I was at the JSSL Crail, 1958/59, with the RAF and subsequently worked at the RAF Digby Signals Unit in Lincs. Later, I taught Russian language, literature & history at university. Now comfortably retired in Queensland, Australia. Happy to hear from you at any time. Best wishes, JOHN.
Interesting article. I was at jssl Bodmin November 1951 to august 1952. The article does contain one omission. While we were very happy with the language training we were all very unhappy with the camp administration in particular the catering section. For a long period we were being starved and most of us only survived by means of food parcels sent by generous relatives spared from their own rations. After we left the camp in 1953 several of the civilian cooks employed were sent to prison for ... Read More
Interesting article. I was at jssl Bodmin November 1951 to august 1952. The article does contain one omission. While we were very happy with the language training we were all very unhappy with the camp administration in particular the catering section. For a long period we were being starved and most of us only survived by means of food parcels sent by generous relatives spared from their own rations. After we left the camp in 1953 several of the civilian cooks employed were sent to prison for stealing our rations which is why we starving. In fact the only really good meal we had in the nine months i was there was the day we had an A.O.C's inspection.