Thirsk, Irene Joan, 1922-2013

by Christopher Dyer & Paul Slack

14 Apr 2016

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

She had an aptitude for modern languages, and was drawn to study German and French. While still at school, having been awarded a London County Council scholarship to acquire language skills abroad, she found herself on 3 September 1939 in Berne, and made the journey back to London with some difficulty. In the following two years Camden School was relocated in a succession of East Midland towns: Uppingham, Grantham and Stamford, where Joan cycled around a part of the country that would later play an important role in her professional life.[6] She chose languages as her university subject and in 1941 embarked on a degree in German and French (with some Spanish) at Westfield College in the University of London. She had applied to women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, but while they could offer a place, this did not come with financial support. In any case she found herself in Oxford because Westfield moved to the safety of St Peter’s Hall (now St Peter’s College).

After their first year, wartime students were offered a choice: to continue with their degree, on condition that they became school teachers or interrupt their studies by making themselves available for national service. Joan did not wish to teach, so she enrolled in 1942 in the ATS (women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) attached to the Intelligence Corps. After a period of training (including a course in signals and communications at Beaumanor in Leicestershire) she was posted to Bletchley Park (Buckinghamshire). There she eventually rose to the rank of subaltern.[7] Until the 1990s Joan would refer enigmatically to her war service with the phrase ‘when I was in the army’, but after a long interval many other inmates of Bletchley Park felt that they were no longer bound by the Official Secrets Act and a growing number spoke about their work in breaking codes and reading enemy radio messages. Joan’s husband has joined those who have written books about the whole extraordinary episode.[8] She remained quite reticent about her wartime years, but we know from her husband’s book that she worked in the Fusion Room as part of a team which studied decrypted German messages in order to reconstruct the location and strength of the German army throughout Europe and for a time in North Africa.

In the unique environment of Bletchley academics, mathematicians, students (such as Joan) who had acquired language skills, archivists and librarians all contributed to a huge exercise in the accumulation and interpretation of data. They needed to squeeze the last drop of meaning from terse and sometimes fragmentary documents, which was excellent training for a historian. Many of those at Bletchley leaned towards the left. Joan had already encountered left-wing politics at Oxford in 1941, where she had attended meetings of the Labour Club. Prominent members were such lively anti-establishment intellectuals as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Iris Murdoch, and a future FBA, the medieval historian James Holt.[9] Joan became involved in discussions among her colleagues at Bletchley about the need for an allied invasion of occupied Europe which would relieve the pressure on the Red Army, and she remembered almost sixty years later visiting Collett’s bookshop in London to buy pamphlets supporting the ‘second front’ campaign.[10] She also pursued her historical interest, and in particular remembered the profound effect of R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in its Penguin edition which she read and reread, appreciating the interweaving of religion with economic and social themes.[11] Bletchley was a social as well as an intellectual community, where lifelong friendships were formed, and not a few marriages. Joan met Jimmy Thirsk, a librarian in civilian life, in 1944 (he was analysing intercepted enemy radio traffic in hut 6) and they were married in September 1945.

Her war service completed, Joan Thirsk, as she was now called, resumed her degree at Westfield, but she changed her course from languages to history. She later gave practical explanations for the conversion, such as the difficulty of developing her proficiency in the spoken language in Germany when that country lay in ruins, but the combination of experiences at Bletchley must have convinced her of the importance of a subject in which she had already developed an interest at Camden School.

6. James Thirsk, Bletchley Park. An Inmate’s Story (Hadlow, 2008), pp. 57–8. We are grateful to Helen Wallace for showing us a copy of this book.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Joan Thirsk, ‘Nature versus nurture’, History Workshop Journal, 47 (1999), 273–7.
11. Ibid.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

Sign up to our email newsletters