Allen, William Sidney, 1918-2004

by Sir John Lyons

03 Feb 2017

Sidney Allen. Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1971.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

Sidney’s career was interrupted by war service, as was that of so many young men of his generation, including several of his future colleagues in London or in Cambridge. In his case the circumstances were unusual. In the summer of 1939 he had gone to Iceland with two college friends. He himself was motivated, in part, by what he was to describe later as a ‘marginal interest’ in Icelandic, which in the ‘Group-E’ reading he had been doing was reputed to ‘have remained virtually unchanged for a millennium’. While they were exploring one of the remoter parts of the island, war was declared. It was with great difficulty that they managed to get back to Britain, via Norway, just in time for the beginning of the Michaelmas Term.

Sidney was already a member of the Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) and within a month or so he was called up. In May 1940 he was commissioned and posted to a battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment. It was at this point that his trip to Iceland the previous year proved, in retrospect, to be a decisive factor, not only for the rest of his time in the army, but also, indirectly, for part of his academic career after the war.

As someone with a knowledge of the country and also to a certain degree of the language, he was interviewed about this at the War office and after a period of training in London was set as an intelligence office to Iceland, which had been occupied by the British after their defeat in Norway. He spent the next year travelling around the island on reconnaissance and then, after a further period of special training, as an instructor in ‘winter warfare’. In later years he could be quite amusing about his experiences in these two roles. (He could also be critical, whether justifiably or not, of what he regarded as incompetence in some of his superiors.) What is relevant in the present context about this part of his war service is that it confirmed what subsequently became a life-long interest in Iceland and Icelandic: it initiated the ‘Icelandic connection’. It also provided him with some considerable practical knowledge of map reading and cartography.

His knowledge of the principles of cartography was further refined when, having returned to Britain in the spring of 1942, he was given command of a photographic intelligence unit involved in the planning of the Normany landing. Shortly after D-day he himself joined the British Second Army as it advanced through Northern France, Belgium and Holland and, after the hard-fought and critically important ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in the Ardennes, crossed the Rhine and moved on in the spring of 1945 as far as Lüneburg Heath, where the ‘armistice in north-west Europe was signed’ and ‘[his] active war came to an end’. He was demobilised, after six years of war service, just in time for the beginning of the academic year.[2]


2. ‘One of the more interesting of the jobs’ that Sidney was given while he was awaiting demobilisation ‘was to organise the escorting of sixteen German generals to London for interrogation.’ These included, most notably, Hasso von Manteufell, the charismatic young commander of the 5th Panzer Army in the Ardennes, who had previously distinguished himself in North Africa and on the Eastern Front and then surrendered to the British with all his men.

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

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