Austin, John Langshaw, 1911-1960

by G J Warnock

02 Feb 2017
Number of pages

Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1958.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

By this time Austin was already in the Army; after a spell of preliminary training at Aldershot and Matlock in the summer of 1940, he had been commissioned in the Intelligence Corps and posted to the War Office in London. His first important employment was on the German Order of Battle, work which demanded exactly the kind of detailed accuracy which was, of course, immensely congenial to him. But in 1942 he took over the direction, at G.H.Q. Home Forces, of a small section which had recently been formed, to do the preliminary intelligence work for an invasion of Western Europe; and this was the field in which he became an unrivalled authority. His section, whose earlier days had been rather haphazard, was soon operating with method, rapidity, and a clear purpose. Though his standards were exacting, those under his command were enlivened by the confident sense of solid work getting done, of real progress being made. Professor A.J. Beattie, who served with Austin at this time, records that ‘his superiors in rank very quickly learned that he was an outstanding authority on all branches of intelligence work, and they soon depended on his advice far more than would normally have been considered proper in any headquarters’.

In the following year Austin’s section was vastly enlarged and transferred, under the name of the Theatre Intelligence Section, to 21st Army Group. Of this larger affair Austin as a Major – and later, when S.H.A.E.F. was formed, a Lt.-Col. – was of course not formally in command; but by this time his knowledge was so voluminous, his expertise so great, and his judgement so highly valued, that in practice he continued in charge of all the work. Before D-Day he had accumulated a vast quantity of information on the coast defences of northern France, on the base areas, supplies, formations, and transport system behind them, and indeed on every aspect of the German defence forces and civilian administration in that ‘theatre’. Weekly, and later daily, reports were issued recording changes in the German dispositions; and a kind of guidebook was compiled for the use of the invading troops, in whose title – Invade Mecum – those who know Austin’s writings will recognize his style. It has been said of him that he directed this huge volume of work ‘without ever getting into serious difficulty of any kind’ and, more impressively, that ‘he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day Intelligence’.

Over the same period Austin was frequently called on for advice and help with the problem of the German V-weapons. This lay rather outside his sphere, and formally was the responsibility of the Air Ministry; but he was able to contribute to the identification of launching-sites and to the solution of the problem of their intended use.

In the summer of 1944 he moved with his section, first to Granville in Normandy, and afterwards to Versailles. At this time he was not dealing, as he had been, with day-to-day developments, but with strategic intelligence directed to operations some months ahead. This work was done with his accustomed meticulous thoroughness, but he seems to have found it, in the last stages of the war, increasingly uninteresting. At the very end of the war he took part in, and was fascinated by, the interrogation of prominent enemy prisoners; but he told Professor Beattie later that, ‘if he were to become involved in another war’, he would like to be employed on problems of supply. No doubt the unlimited intricacies of the logistics of warfare tempted him as a new field to conquer, and new maze to be mastered.

He left the Army in September 1945 with the rank of Lt. Col., and the O.B.E. His work before D-Day was acknowledged by the French with the Croix de Guerre, and by the Americans with appointment as an Officer of the Legion of Merit. There is no doubt that he had rendered service of the highest value.

[J L Austin was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1958. The above extract is from the Memoir published in Proceedings of the British Academy 49. This extract was also reprinted in British Academy Review 25 (February 2015).]

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

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