Member’s Lunch Meeting – Wednesday 5th September 2018


Secret Classrooms- a Window on the Cold War a talk by John Lyon.


John  was an Intelligence Corps officer who  learned Russian in the Army  before going up to Oxford and the talk covered this period in our history when there was a real fear that the Cold War would develop into a new war. While his talk was originally designed as a piece of history which  after embargo only became public a few years ago, events in  Eastern Europe- the Crimea, Ukraine etc. –  give a new relevance on the need  not to be caught again,   when we had only one Russian speaker in MI6 at the end of the war and now have  only 16 Russian speakers in the Army.


To meet the deficiency in knowledge of the Soviets’ armed forces  the Government  in the late 1940s set up the Joint Services School for Linguists  to train translators, interpreters and intelligence officers to meet the threat in Europe  of a sudden attack. John  was lucky enough to be chosen to go on the course, isolated  in Bodmin in Cornwall, which was described by Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s Foreign Minister,  as “A school for spies”. It  produced some famous alumni such as Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn,  Bank of England  Governor Eddy George, historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Peter Hall , Dennis Potter,  film-maker Jack Rosenthal and a whole slew of future professors and ambassadors. The course was really a revival  and development of the war-time Y Service which  tracked  enemy Morse Code traffic and conversations and fed them in to Bletchley Park.


The course was featured by BBC 4 which devoted a whole programme to the course and it   featured in Stella Rimington’s – former head of MI5- TV programme “Watching the Russians” .   One of Frederick Forsyth’s novels – The Devil’s Alternative” features Bodmin where his hero Adam Munro goes to learn Russian. The talk covers the  total immersion courses where we had to reach O Level Russian in 6 weeks , the fascinating  émigré lecturers  with stories to tell of cannibalism in Leningrad, seeing the dead Tsar’s body  in Ekaterinberg, the KGB officer who escaped because he could no longer stand the murders and torture  and the pilot of the Tsar’s personal aircraft. I  cover the strange military set–up in Bodmin, where, rather like in the prisoner of war camps  during  the war we made our own entertainment with Russian choirs,  camp theatre shows in Russian- we put on The Cherry Orchard-  produced a camp magazine –The Samovar-, edited by Michael Frayn, card playing in Russian etc.  The difference of course compared with the war  was that if we left the camp in the evening we didn’t get shot!

After the initial course graduates either went on  as translators to monitor Soviet military broadcasts  and conversations or,  as in my case, as interpreters, after  a time attached to the School of Slavonic Studies in Cambridge.   After this   we worked  and trained in the Intelligence Corps HQ in Sussex including training on the finer arts of interrogation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: