Extract relating to military intelligence work:
He went up to Christ Church in 1940 and read the shortened course for Classical Honour Moderations. ...
After completing the first part of the course there was no point in waiting to be called up and he volunteered to join the army, being one of a group of Oxford classicists who had done well in recent examinations and were recommended to the authorities by A. D. (later Lord) Lindsay of Balliol (some others, less carefully selected, came from Cambridge). There was an urgent need to find people who were likely to be capable of learning Japanese quickly. They were sent to Bedford for an admirably organised course lasting four months, followed by a few weeks in London at the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Economic Warfare; nearly all of them were then assigned to work at Bletchley Park, but Hugh was one of three sent to India. Before leaving he had a lucky escape; he and his friend Walter Robinson, who after the war married Hugh’s sister Barbara, arranged to collect their belongings from Bedford in two days time, but their landlady altered the plan and asked them to come one day earlier, which they did; the following day a bomb fell on the house, killing two children.
Hugh was to work at the Wireless Experimental Centre just outside Delhi, where the most important cryptographic operations were conducted, and for this purpose he had to be an officer. Until the commission came through he enlisted as a private, but soon after arrival in India was promoted sergeant. By Christmas 1942 his commission arrived; he had to be interviewed by a major-general in Rawalpindi, who asked him what he had been doing before he joined the army, and on hearing that he had been studying at Oxford asked ‘What college?’ To the reply ‘Christ Church’ the general merely said ‘Ah, my father was there. Well, what regiment do you want to join?’ That was the end of the interview.
This anecdote comes from a memoir Hugh composed recounting his wartime experiences. I quote a few key passages.
‘In 1943 the pacific Gandhi tried to organise disorder in order to support the Japanese. For some time each bus going from our camp had to contain an officer with a rifle. A bus that I was on was threatened by a group of rioters just outside the gate of our camp, and a woman seemed about to hurl a stone at it. I pointed the rifle at her, although if I had fired I should certainly have missed, and she dropped her stone and fled and the group rapidly dispersed. Gandhi’s movement did not last long.
‘Early in 1945 I was concerned in one piece of work which had a definite, though a very limited military effect. Mainly owing to the work of Robinson, we were in a position to read messages in a code used by the enemy at corps level, and it was necessary to dispatch a party to the north of Burma so that messages should be handed without delay to those in action. About seven officers and fifteen other ranks were flown to the headquarters of 33rd Corps, then encamped at Yazagwo, just east of the native state of Manipur. Our camp was in the jungle. Not long before we arrived a soldier had gone out to relieve himself, and while doing so noticed an enormous tiger casually strolling down a path that led in his direction. Luckily he was too scared to move, and the tiger slowly walked past him, casting him a glance of unutterable contempt. In a miserable shack not far from our tents a Buddhist priest was intoning sutras with endless repetition; it was known that he had been there three weeks before, when fighting was going on not far away.
‘Another officer was supposed to share the work of translation with me, but I found that he was useless. Luckily I outranked him, being a captain and the second in command of our party, so that I was obliged to insist on doing all the work; this meant that I got very little sleep. But being excited I did not become exhausted. The enemy seemed to have no idea that their signals might be being read; from time to time a cipher clerk would forget his duty and send a message in clear. On one occasion a message indicated that a force whose number it conveniently gave was to move down a particular road at a particular time; the day after we had dealt with this, the Director of Intelligence came in person to thank us for having made possible an ambush by Gurkhas hiding in the bushes. The troops at corps headquarters, who called us “the backroom boys”, were friendly and helpful, and we were given 33rd Corps flashes.
‘At one stage the corps headquarters moved south from Yazagwo to Kalewa. Our forces were pursuing the Japanese down the road going southwards level with the coast; since the enemy had no aircraft left, their retreat down that road had been conducted under unremitting fire. We moved at night, and each vehicle had an officer with a rifle sitting next to the driver. The jungle came right up to the road, close to which lay numerous wrecked enemy vehicles and innumerable corpses of enemy soldiers. Since the flesh of their faces had been eaten by the vultures, their bones shone brightly in the moonlight.’
Hugh’s task had not been to break the codes but to translate the deciphered messages. At times there were not many messages coming in, and he had time to keep in touch with friends in England, especially his former headmaster’s family. Frequent air mail letters were sent; on one occasion eleven arrived all at once. Unexpected and eccentric presents to the Christie daughters included a whole coconut with name, address and a stamp on the outer shell. One amusing moment in his office is on record. An Indian clerk when signing letters regularly added after his name the letters FBA. Hugh asked him ‘Mr. X, may I inquire what the meaning of the letters FBA is?’, to which the reply was ‘Sir, they signify “Failed BA”.’ One more remark in his memoir is worth quoting: ‘It seemed certain that after the war independence would not be long delayed, but I could not help doubting whether this would be for the good of the majority of people in the country.’