Fairlie, Alison Anna Bowie, 1917-1993

by Malcolm Bowie

17 Apr 2016
0-19-726149-3 hbk
Number of pages

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

The years 1940-2 saw Alison back in Oxford, finishing her D.Phil. dissertation. From September 1942 for two years she served as a Temporary Administrative Officer with the Foreign Office, spending most of her time at Bletchley Park. Alison remained on terms of firm friendship with a number of her Foreign Office colleagues, and it was one of the most valued of these, Leonard Forster, later to be Schröder Professor of German at Cambridge, who read the following portrait of Alison at Bletchley to the memorial meeting of her friends held in Girton on 6 November 1993:

‘Alison Fairlie joined us at Bletchley Park in 1942. It is now no secret what went on there, thanks not least to the recent book Codebreakers by Hinsley and Stripp. This book contains an account by Vivienne Alford of Naval Section VI, to which Alison was assigned. It existed , as Vivienne Alford wrote, “for the purpose of solving obscurities in the text of decrypted and otherwise translated naval messages. ... Most frequently it would be a reference to a component of some new weapon, such as a heat-seeking torpedo, limpet mine, or direction-finding device”. These matters were pursued under the inspiration of a remarkable polymath, Geoffrey Tandy of the Museum of Natural History, South Kensington, and Commander RNVR. Alison came to us with her head filled with Leconte de Lisle’s poems about the barbarian races, about which she had just completed her Oxford D.Phil. thesis. She herself was not the most practical of people, and her acquaintance with technological matters went no further than the ability to drive a car and work a record-player. And yet she soon became outstandingly successful at the new work.

‘The questions the section existed to solve were questions of fact; we had a good library of reference works, trade or service or captured, to help us answer them. By the end of the war we were using practically the same reference books as the enemy. The problems presented themselves of course mainly in German and Italian, but also in Japanese and in due course we became responsible for other languages too, especially Spanish. We also kept indexes. Profound linguistic or technical knowledge was not always required; the real technical experts were elsewhere. What was needed was acquaintance with the techniques of research and skill in applying them. This is what Alison had; she was on the top of her form after a successful period of intensive research work. The method which succeeded with Leconte de Lisle was equally applicable to U-boat engines: Leconte de Lisle was a learned poet who went out of his way to deal with unfamiliar subject-matter and his poems teem with references which need to explained; it had been Alison’s job to identify them and explain them and she had developed the technique for doing so. It was not difficult to transfer it to differential material in a different language. Sometimes Leconte de Lisle came up trumps. When we began to be interested in Spanish Alison was the one who knew that an alferez was a junior officer in the Spanish navy; Leconte de Lisle had used the word and Alison had long ago tracked it down and identified it. And so in other fields too. Alison in later years would never willingly confess to a knowledge of German, but what she brought with her from school and subsidiary university work, combined with her undoubted flair for the job, was sufficient in the event.

‘Her attitude to Bletchley Park as a whole was one of cool detachment – unlike Carmen Blacker’s open dislike or my own rather naive devotion. She saw it as just another large bureaucratic organisation with the peculiarities such organisations have. This was the impression she conveyed to her family, and she could be very amusing about it. So much so indeed that her young brother Robin, then nine years old, wrote a piece about the place where his sister worked. In a crazy sort of way it conveyed the atmosphere of the office rather well, especially a certain sense of hectic disorder which appeals to young people of that age. The central figure was a startlingly life-like character called Professor Piffle whom we all felt we knew. ... After the war was over, we were all asked to write accounts for posterity of what we had done. Alison added Robin’s piece to her account as an appendix, to illustrate the impression we apparently made on the outside world. And she may well have been right; perhaps the world outside really did see us as just another relatively innocuous piece of inflated Government bureaucracy; the Germans at any rate had no interest in us. Had they known what went on there they could easily have bombed us to pieces; the aircraft that destroyed Coventry went right over our heads and we heard them coming and going. And so Professor Piffle still leads a shadowy existence somewhere among the files of the Public Record Office.

‘One of the contributors to the book by Hinsley and Stripp, Derek Taunt of Jesus College, Cambridge, writing as a mathematician, said: “Characteristics which were in demand at BP were a creative imagination, a well-developed critical faculty, and a habit of meticulousness”, to which one might add: the ability and readiness to work until you dropped. Alison, as we all know, possessed these characteristics in a high degree.’

[The full version of the obituary, which can be downloaded, provides Alison Fairlie’s own dramatic account of her escape back to Britain after the fall of France in June 1940.]

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

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