Birley, Eric Barff, 1906-1995

by Brian Dobson

17 Apr 2016
0-19-726192-2 hbk
Number of pages

Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1969.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

War came suddenly and strangely to him. He was attending a congress in archaeology in Berlin in August 1939, where he made new acquaintances. He was summoned back by a telegram apparently from Peggy [his wife] but in reality from the War Office. He was a Territorial officer, and his interest in military matters and his command of German had been registered at the time of the Munich crisis. He left in such haste that he left his pyjamas behind with the Nesselhaufs (Herbert Nesselhauf was author of CIL [Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum] XVI, notably reviewed by Birley, and had become a personal friend). Frau Nesselhauf preserved them for him till after the war. Birley was to spend the entire war with British Military Intelligence. He was a careful observer of the Official Secrets Act, and information on his work is sparse. It was concerned with the study of the careers of German officers, and attempting to discover the reasoning behind their promotions, and with the strength, distribution, and movements of German divisions. He headed the Military Intelligence Research Section and ended the war as Chief of the German Military Document Section with the rank of Lietenant-Colonel. In The Code Breakers, cited by A. Moyes in his history of Hatfield,[19] Robert M. Slusser, an American army officer who worked in the Military Intelligence Research Section, speaks of Birley’s contribution to Anglo-American intelligence in the Second World War as of fundamental importance, and notes that he had access to the Ultra decodes from the very beginning of the war. Milton Shulman in an article in the Evening Standard (24 November 1995), who worked under him, opined ‘that Eric Birley was pre-eminent among those who gave our commanders the information needed to defeat Hitler’. This was with special reference to D-Day. He quotes Birley as writing to him: ‘My main help was that I had been used to reading German views on the Roman army. And that I suppose put me on the right wavelength. I came across sufficient captured German army documents to make me realise that they were far more valuable than MI6 reports, most of which were nonsense or works of fiction.’ Birley first went to America in mid 1943 to prepare for D-Day. By the time hostilities in Europe ended Birley was able to assemble at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, 300 tons of German military documents, including the records of the Heerespersonalamt, and a cageful of more than a hundred German officers and NCOs. He was able to check then or some other time that his estimate of German divisions in 1940, shortly before the fall of France, had been correct at 130 (actually 128 plus two Waffen-SS divisions), as compared to the French estimate of 80. To complete his military experiences the lectures he gave on Roman history and archaeology at Featherstone Park to prisoners of war, some later to become noted archaeologists, among them Professor D. Hafemann, should be mentioned. There is a description of him sitting by the Rhine with his opposite number in German military intelligence, watching the barges go by. After five or so he accurately predicted the number of the next barge, having cracked the system of numbering and the sequence. The story is not irrelevant – as Arnoldo Momigliano, the distinguished ancient historian, once observed of him, Eric Birley could reconstruct history from a pair of used railway tickets.[20] He did in fact crack the London Transport numbering system from collecting bus tickets when he was at the War Office. He was a great observer of patterns, whether in figured Samian, where he could link up a newly found piece at Corbridge with others found in the pre-First World War excavations and on widely separated parts of the site by memory alone, or in Roman and German military careers.

He received the MBE in 1943, the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1944 from the Free Polish Government, and the Legion of Merit from the President of the United States in 1947. An unwelcome legacy from his wartime experience was the wrecking of his eyesight. He had always had very low blood pressure, and the pressure of work in the War office clearly exacerbated it. At one point he had a collapsed lung. He had also lost years from his academic career, but he had acquired new insights into the way that armies worked, in selection of officers and deployment of units.

19. Arthur Moyes, Hatfield 1846-1996 (Durham, 1996), p. 206.
20. J. Wilkes, obituary in Independent, 26 October 1995.

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

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