Some years ago BBC television showed a documentary about young National Servicemen who were selected to be trained as translators of Russian. Their role was to listen in to radio broadcasts of the enemy, this being the Cold War, and listen out for information that would be helpful. It was seen as a plum job in the army, who wouldn’t want a job that had perks?. However, it was also a job that was only available to the young men who could complete the course.
This book by Leslie Woodhead covers the same ground as his television programme. He tells the story of his recruitment into the lucky band of soldiers, sailors and airmen and his time on the course. National Service was a grim prospect for the young man from Halifax so his Russian course was a type of refuge into a world where his classmates were equally bookish.
Leslie Woodhead is a film- maker so his experiences made a good documentary. His experiences of RAF camps play a bigger role in the book but both cover the rigours of life in the Joint Services School of linguistics. He ends up serving in Berlin at the front line of the Cold War where the major task seemed to be listening in on Russians who were listening in on Germans.
To reach the heights of this service he had to learn Russian. Although the move to the JSSL was welcome, the pressure came from trying to stay in. There were endless tests and it was demanding to become proficient in Russian in such a short time.
As for many of his contemporaries on the course, Leslie Woodhead was left with a fascination with life on the other side of the Iron Curtain or what is now Eastern Europe. His films have covered many subjects but included several about life behind the wall.
As well as giving his life story, this book is a short history of an enterprise of the British in the Cold War; training military personnel to speak the language of the ‘enemy’ is a little explored aspect of military history.
‘My Life as a Spy’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?