Bruford, Walter Horace, 1894-1988

by Leonard Forster

18 Apr 2016
0-19-726107-8 hbk
Number of pages

Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1963.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

He seemed predestined for a career in comparative philology under the influence of E. C. Quiggin of Caius. Meanwhile however the [First World] war had changed everything. Bruford was short-sighted and unfit for military service so he went back to his old school to teach and replace masters who had volunteered. Quiggin had gone in Naval Intelligence, the celebrated Room 40 which broke German Naval and other cyphers.[3] Remembering Bruford’s gift of linguistic analysis and synthesis he arranged for him to be offered a post there too. He must have been the youngest officer in the unit. He found there not only Quiggin and a fellow Cambridge Mancunian, Gilbert Waterhouse, but also Edward Bullough, ‘our chief guide to modern German literature at Cambridge’, an inspiring teacher of great originality of mind and range of interests whose lectures at Cambridge Bruford later said had been the only ones worth going to. ... It was surely thanks to him that when the war was over Bruford transferred his main interest from philology to literature. He always acknowledged his debt to Bullough.


In 1939 Naval Intelligence claimed him again; he went back to the Admiralty[9] and then on to Bletchley Park, the centre of cryptographic intelligence. Although work on German communications was dominated by the Enigma machine there was still important material which could be attacked by what was later described as ‘steam methods’ (compared with the electronics needed for the Enigma). Bruford’s skill had not deserted him and it is on record that he broke the German Merchant Navy traffic ‘virtually single-handed’.[10] This, like the rest of his work, was unspectacular (movements of German merchant shipping were of less operational consequence than the movements of U-boats), and many of his associates did not fully realise its importance. When he returned to Edinburgh in 1942 he had done what he could and nobody spoke of it. And so for 15 years he could devote himself to theatre, drama and audience in Goethe’s Germany in all their aspects.

In his spare time at Bletchley he had been reading intensively in Russian as a relaxation from demanding cryptographic work. Indeed he had been heard to say that he was coming to regret having devoted so much time to German literature when he might have been spending it on Russian!

3. P Beasley, Room 40 (London, 1982), with a photo of young Bruford at p. 242.
9. N.I.D. was already working three shifts in September 1939. Bruford with characteristic generosity and absence of fuss took my night watch so that I [Leonard Forster] could get married.
10. Christopher Morris, ‘Ultra’s poor relations’, Intelligence and National Security, 1 (1986), p. 116.

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

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