Foxon, David Fairweather, 1923-2001
by Nicholas Barker & James McLaverty
- 31 Jan 2017
Extract relating to military intelligence work:
It [Kingswood School] also had an outstanding headmaster in A. B. Sackett. Foxon was sixteen when World War II broke out, and it was clear that if the war continued he would be called up for active service when he was eighteen. Sackett, knowing and understanding Foxon’s scruples, recommended him to the Government Code and Cypher School. At the outbreak of war this had moved from London to Bletchley Park, whither he went in 1942, after getting a classical scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Bletchley Park was a crucial experience for Foxon, socially and intellectually. He met a variety of gifted academics, some eccentric, mostly from Oxford or Cambridge, at an early age; it gave him training in codebreaking; and it introduced him to his future wife, June (‘Jane’) Jarratt. After five weeks in Aberdeen with the Gordon Highlanders (in theory those at Bletchley were seconded from their units), Foxon was sent to Bletchley, where, after training, he eventually took over from Sydney Easton in charge of a small section deciphering Italian submarine codes; his future wife was a member of the unit. Intercepted messages were translated and then passed on to naval intelligence, which plotted the subsequent movements. The work was not exciting but the training was significant for Foxon’s later career; he learned the habit of looking for minute but tell-tale traces of evidence and unexpected connections between them. A relish for puzzles (and for setting up puzzles), the ability to recognise and interpret patterns, the habit of working from established knowledge (a code book captured on a commando raid) to gain new knowledge, and the sense of intellectual activity as a cooperative venture, all stayed with Foxon and influenced his subsequent work. Coincidentally, across the Atlantic, Fredson Bowers, Charlton Hinman, and William H. Bond were members of a naval communications group engaged, as Foxon was shortly to be, in cracking Japanese ciphers.
His transfer to Japanese intelligence came after the fall of Italy. The major tasks in this operation fell to the Americans, with the British in a supplementary role, but one of the British responsibilities was an intercept station in Ceylon and Foxon was sent out there in the summer of 1944, just before D-Day. His was essentially a desk job as coordinator of cryptographic intelligence received largely from the Americans. During his time in Colombo, problems with Foxon’s health that had plagued him at school resurfaced. He was capable of working very intensely for short periods but he rapidly became exhausted; it was as though he had difficulty in sustaining the high levels of energy and activity that demanding work generated in him. Although various specialists had been consulted, there was no diagnosis, and Foxon had to learn to manage his energies and ration their output. This was a matter of serious sympathetic concern to Hugh Alexander, later director of GCHQ at Cheltenham, when he came out to Ceylon on a visit in 1944, but there was no solution to the problem, and these periods of exhaustion continued throughout Foxon’s working life, resisting treatment through drugs or psychoanalysis. Only in the mid 1980s, after Foxon’s retirement in 1982, did a research programme incidentally reveal that he had an adrenalin abnormality, exceptionally high levels of adrenalin accounting for both the periods of high level activity and the subsequent exhaustion.
Colombo also allowed Foxon to develop his interest in music. Although never a star performer, and untrained in musical theory, Foxon had developed his enthusiasm for music at Kingswood School and played the piano as a relaxation. When the War made the piano inaccessible, he bought a Dolmetsch treble recorder and took it with him to Ceylon. In Colombo, Ronald Johnson, later head of the Scottish Office, had become the focus of musical activity among local musicians and service personnel, and, through his friendship with Johnson, Foxon became involved in chamber music, lieder singing, and choral music. In particular, he was able to develop his interest in music of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (especially Purcell and Handel), which was particularly suited to his new recorder. Music became a life-long love, and recordcollecting Foxon’s major hobby. He returned from Ceylon at the end of the War, and in 1946 began a shortened degree course at Oxford where Jane Jarratt was already part of the Bletchley diaspora. The friendships made during the War continuing to exert an influence for the next ten years or so, not least through Theo Chaundy, Reader in Mathematics and Student of Christ Church, who had been part of Bletchley’s reserve force. With Chaundy’s son, Christopher, Foxon experimented with electronics and built his first loudspeaker in the Chaundys’workshop, establishing an interest in hi-fi that was to last until his death.