Briggs, Asa, 1921-2016

by Pat Thane

14 Nov 2017

Posted to Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, XVI

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

Briggs joined the Royal Corps of Signals, did initial training at Catterick Camp in North Yorkshire, and was then transferred to Trowbridge in Wiltshire where he trained as an interceptionist, learning high-speed Morse Code.


A friend and contemporary at Sidney Sussex was Howard Smith, later British Ambassador to Moscow then head of MI5. At the outbreak of war Smith was recruited to work at the code-breaking establishment at Bletchley by Gordon Welchman, who devised operations there. Smith recommended Briggs to Welchman and in 1942 he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps and recruited to Hut 6, run by Welchman, the hub of the Bletchley operation, working with Alan Turing, among others, ‘whom we all deferred to because he was a genius’, Briggs said later [note 15]. He was promoted to become the youngest warrant officer in the British army, helped to crack the Enigma code and worked on enemy signals from the Mediterranean, then the successful duping of the Germans into believing the D-Day landings would take place elsewhere than Normandy. He enjoyed Bletchley, appreciating its egalitarian atmosphere and the company, describing it as his ‘second university’ [note 16], making friends easily, as ever. Among other colleagues and friends was Roy Jenkins, another future Labour Minister. Like others at Bletchley, Briggs told no one, even his wife, of their activities, crucial as they were to winning the war, until the official secrets ban was lifted in the 1970s. He wrote about his experiences much later in his life [note 17].

15. To a future obituarist: Nigel Jones, ‘Asa Briggs obituary’, Guardian, 15 March 2016.
16. T. Hunt, ‘Asa Briggs: the last Victorian improver’, BBC Radio 4 broadcast, 7 January 2017.
17. A. Briggs, Secret Days: Code-Breaking in Bletchley Park (Barnsley, 2011).

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

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