Bawden, Charles, 1924-2016

by Veronika Veit

21 Nov 2019
22 (pages 449-469)

Charles Bawden, Emeritus Professor of Mongolian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (in the University of London), was born in Weymouth on the south coast of England (Dorset), on 22 April 1924. Scholar—Poet—Man of His Word: in such terms may be characterised the three vocations which were to guide and form the life celebrated in this memoir.

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

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

As it was war time, call-up intervened, and in early February 1943 Charles joined the Royal Navy at HMS Excalibur as an Ordinary Seaman. Even before being called up, luck (in the above Charlesian sense of the word) or, one is tempted to say in this instance, ‘fate’, had once more intervened: Charles had been selected to learn Japanese. He was transferred to Bedford to join No. 4 Military Intelligence School and settled down to six months of Japanese under Captain Tuck RN and his assistant, Eric Ceadel, then a lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals and, until his early death, Librarian of Cambridge University. The group of eight young people—three girls among them—acquired a knowledge of written Japanese within the six months. Charles was then commissioned and underwent a two weeks’ OLQ (Officer-Like Qualities) course at Portsmouth. Later he joined the staff at Bletchley Park, working on decoded Japanese messages. After a few months, together with two young colleagues (George Hunter, future Corresponding FBA, and Wilfred Taylor), Charles was appointed to HMS Lanka in Colombo, where they arrived in the summer of 1944. The stay only lasted until December 1945. Charles recalls this as perhaps the most formative period of his life, giving it words in a moving testimony, both professional and personal:

It was not for us a violent period, but the experience of working on current enemy messages, always incomplete and requiring emendation, the experience, that is, of applying text-critical techniques, learned on the spot, to practical warfare, was something never to be forgotten. It was, too, a period when lifelong friendships were formed. We were a compact and harmonious group of civilians, naval officers and Wrens, and the unique association we formed then has lasted, for some of us, ever since.

With the end of the war in August 1945, the group’s services were no longer needed, and in December 1945 George, Wilfred and Charles were sent to Hong Kong via Australia. They reported to an intelligence officer, but there was no real work to do, apart from some days at the Supreme Court supervising Japanese internees who were translating depositions for a war crimes trial which was in progress. Charles writes with great sympathy of Hong Kong in those days:

Hong Kong was in those days a ravaged city. Most of the houses above harbour level had been looted, right down to the doors and window frames, apparently in the interlude between Japanese collapse and the British resumption of authority. The population was small, about half a million, and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank occupied the tallest building in the city. As well as the British occupation forces there were US Navy vessels in the harbor, thousands of Japanese prisoners of war in camps, and a somewhat ragged and uninspiring Chinese army lounging around and waiting to be sent against the communists. But even then it was a bustling business and entertainment centre, and I have always been glad to have seen Hong Kong as a Chinese city before its development into an international market-place. Wilfred and I took lessons in Cantonese from an old gentleman called Sung Hok-pang who had been teaching since the beginning of the century. As it turned out, most of the teaching was done by his daughter Katherine, while he listened to us from behind a partition.

‘I tell you two times,’ Charles was fond of recalling Mr Sung, ‘then you go and practice with my daughter!’

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

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