Secret Classrooms

BlogSecretClassroomsThis book by Harold Shukman and Geoffrey Elliott is a history of the Cold War from a particular angle: the Joint Services School for Linguists.  National Servicemen were selected for special training as interpreters of Russian.  Staring with no or little knowledge of the language, it wasn’t taught in British schools, they were given an intensive course in the language and culture of Russia so that  they could listen in on the ‘enemy’.  Most of the recruits ended up at the front line of the Cold War in Germany, where they worked for the signals branch of the military.

Both Shukman and Elliott were recruits but so were famous people such as playwrights Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn and screenwriters such as Jack Rosenthal and Dennis Potter.  There were over 5000 of them during the life of the organisation, from a variety of backgrounds.  The authorities searched for recruits with potential, ‘the brightest’ to learn the language.  As Michael Frayn has said elsewhere, getting the British to speak any language is some achievement, so to get them to lern Russian was miraculous.

As the Cold War deepened, the need for British servicemen to listen to the enemy grew.  The National Servicemen were an available and ready resource from which to take the potential linguists.  The JSSL was started in Surrey, moved to Cornwall and then on to Scotland. Of course, the highly secretive organisation was known to the Soviet Union, which saw it as a spy school.

The book uncovers the history of the JSSL, concentrating more on the interpreters than the translators, mostly because they were an elite within the organisation.  It is an interesting look at the other ways in which wars are fought.

‘Secret Classrooms’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


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