Firth, Raymond William, 1901-2002

by J H R Davis

03 Feb 2017

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

In 1939 (having failed to get funding for research in China) the Firths learned Malay and arrived in Kelantan via Penang in August. They stayed in the fishing village of Pernpok until the fall of France, when they returned to England via Australia, New Zealand, Panama and Halifax. Crossing the Atlantic their convoy was attacked by the German pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer. The sole escort vessel Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser, conducted a heroic diversionary action and was sunk with the loss of 190 men. But during the battle, as night fell, most of the rest of the convoy managed to escape; and, although the Rangitiki had been reported lost with all hands, they arrived eventually at Milford Haven.

Firth moved at first to Cambridge, where LSE [London School of Economics] had removed to safety, but in early 1941 he joined the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence division, producing the Handbooks for the Pacific Islands. He also went to the United States in 1942, to assist in the American effort to map and describe the new theatre of war. At this time he prepared Malay Fishermen, their Peasant Economy for publication. He turned to London and to Naval Intelligence at Chatham House in 1943, maintaining some academic activity. In June 1944 he was appointed secretary to the new Colonial Social Science Research Council (CSSRC), set up following the Hailey Report of 1938 to provide an empirical basis of knowledge for colonial development after the war. He was employed half-time by the Colonial Office and half-time by the Admiralty.

Later that year he was offered the chair of Anthropology at LSE, in succession to Malinowski, and accepted pending the end of the war.

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

Sign up to our email newsletters