Watt, William Smith, 1913-2002

by R G M Nisbet

03 Feb 2017

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

Watt was rejected for military service because of a defective eye and continued teaching till 1941. ...

In May 1941 Watt joined the Inter-Services Topographical Department, then based in Oxford, as a temporary civilian officer, Admiralty; the department had been set up by Admiral J. H. Godfrey,[3] the Director of Naval Intelligence, who had been appalled by the lack of geographical information in the bungled Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940. It was the duty of the civilian officer to coordinate and edit the data about beaches, roads, and possible airfields collected by the representatives of the three services. Watt commonly worked a twelve-hour day, and sometimes into the night as well when information was needed for plans that were not necessarily executed (perhaps they included some of Churchill’s rasher inspirations). Classical scholars were thought suitable for such research as they were used to collating defective scraps of evidence, their pedantic exactitude was seen to be worthwhile when lives were at stake, and they had a reputation at that time for writing concisely and clearly; among Watt’s colleagues were such scholars as W. S. Barrett, F. H. Sandbach, and A. F. Wells. Watt played a particular part in the preparation for the landings in North Africa in November 1942 (‘Operation Torch’); Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the naval commander, and General Eisenhower, the supreme commander, expressed their appreciation of the department’s work, and Admiral Godfrey minuted to the Board of Admiralty ‘I doubt if a commander of an operation has ever before been given his intelligence in so complete and so legible a form’. Later he gave Watt a testimonial saying that he possessed ‘remarkable practical and intellectual ability and phenomenal staying power’, qualities that his later pupils and colleagues will recognise.

In July 1944 Watt married Dorothea (Thea), daughter of R. J. Codrington Smith, the area manager of Cable and Wireless in Cyprus. She was then a junior commander in the ATS and attached to the Inter-Services Topographical Department; they first met when she disturbed him by drilling her young women outside his window. Their happy marriage was to sustain him for fifty-eight years.

3. See Patrick Beesly, Very Special Admiral: the Life of Admiral J. H. Godfrey (London, 1980), p. 205.

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

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