Page last updated at 17:50 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

The school leavers sent to spy on China

By Emily Buchanan

For six years from 1955 Britain ran a secretive programme to school young men in Chinese before shipping them off to the Far East to spy. Only now has their story become public.

Members of the first Chinese course in Hong Kong
Members of the first Chinese course in Hong Kong

It's the sort of adventure most ambitious school leavers could only dream about. You get called in, sworn to secrecy and tutored in a foreign language before being shipped off to exotic climes.

Yet this was no comic book adventure for about 300 National Service recruits in 1950s Britain.

Not only was it a life-changing experience for men who are now in or approaching their 70s - but as a spin-off it provided universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Edinburgh, the US, Canada and New Zealand with a generation of lecturers in Chinese.

The story starts at a time when the world was split between capitalism and communism. The rise to power of Chairman Mao in China put the British territory of Hong Kong in a highly vulnerable, yet also suddenly strategic position.

The British government decided it needed a reliable group of men, based there, who could listen in to the radio broadcasts emanating from the closed off People's Republic, next door. The problem was, how many Brits could actually speak Chinese?

Listening to China, on BBC Radio 4, is presented by Emily Buchanan
Listen to it here.

Rupert Allason, who writes about intelligence history under the name Nigel West, says the decision was taken to train people and National Service, which every fit man of 18 and over had to do, "represented a gigantic virtually free resource... these were young men who had a commitment, whether they liked it or not, for two years".

While some National Servicemen were sent to fight in places like Malaya, Korea, Kenya and Cyprus the languages courses, most commonly Russian, provided a different route for some of the brighter recruits.

But how to sift for potentially gifted Chinese speakers? The selection process was a bit of a guessing game, with no-one seemingly sure which talent would be best for learning this alien language - so classics scholars bound for Cambridge mixed with trainee accountants and those in the arts.

For many their selection came as a bolt from the blue. One found himself on the course after putting his hand up when the recruits on parade were asked if any of them had done French O level.

Chairman Mao on holiday in 1961
Chairman Mao's rise to power prompted the language course

Reg Hunt recalls how he and two others were preparing to study Russian when they were marched in to see the education officer and asked if they would transfer to to the embryonic Chinese course. "'Yes Sir!', we replied without a moment's thought. And that moment changed our lives."

Mike Wallace actively chose the course - although only because it meant staying closer to his then sweetheart (and later wife) in Cheltenham.

The new recruits knew almost nothing of China. Few had even heard the language. But after being sworn to strict secrecy the lessons began at often out-of-the-way RAF camps including Wythall in the Midlands, Pucklechurch near Bristol and Worth Matravers in Dorset.

Everything was different

David McMullen, who went on to became a professor of Chinese at Cambridge and whose twin brother James lectured in Japanese at Oxford, says the regimented way in which they were taught, he now knows, was a "language instructor's dream".

"The first two weeks were spent chanting out the sounds accurately and the tones accurately. You can't do that with undergraduates, you can't regiment them in the same way - it was a very good way of doing it."

You'd order a beer and the barmaid would mimic headphones and say 'you work on the Peak'. 'No, no no' we'd reply, but it was pretty clear.
John Norrish

But discipline is all relative. One of the course instructors, 87-year-old Flight Lieutenant Paddy Raine, a veteran of Bomber Command in World War II, said the academically bright bunch on the course "were very different from your normal" National Serviceman and enjoyed a more relaxed regime.

"There wasn't any 'get your haircut' and that sort of thing," he recalls.

The lessons continued for a full year before the members of each course flew out to Hong Kong, stopping at an enviable range of locations including Tripoli, Rome, Iraq, Karachi and Singapore.

Hong Kong was a revelation for young men from 1950s Britain. "It never seemed to close. Any time of night and day the streets seemed to be crowded. You'd go down an alley looking for a restaurant and you'd see signs up for curing the most horrific diseases, all illustrated with gory colour pictures. Everything was different - it was a wonderful exciting time," is how Mike Wallace recalls it.

Chinese characters
Mike Grindley still has his old notebooks from Chinese classes

They were introduced to their work; sitting at radio sets with headphones on jotting down whatever they heard in Chinese. With the need for 24-hour cover the shifts were long and sometimes dull, especially as they did not know the significance of what they were listening to.

But thanks to papers released at the Public Records Office - and other research by those involved - they now know that as well as recording Chinese Air Force movements and monitoring the Chinese flights into and out of Hong Kong, each of the frequent bursts of four Chinese numbers represented a character.

And while they never knew what happened to their work when they handed it in at the end of each shift, it now seems it was assessed in Hong Kong and shared with Australian and US intelligence.

Reunions growing

Thanks to the intensive lessons focusing on technical language and numbers, most were pleasantly surprised to find the work not too tough. As Mike Wallace says "some of the Chinese was so slow and clear that it appeared to be being said purely for our benefit".

John Norrish was pretty sure the Chinese knew what was going on given that they were based right on the top of the highest peak in Hong Kong alongside a huge radio mast. And experiences in the plentiful bars of Hong Kong seemed to confirm that view.

"You'd order a beer and the barmaid would mimic headphones and say 'you work on the Peak'. 'No, no no' we'd reply, but it was pretty clear."

Emily Buchanan with, clockwise: John Norrish, John Henty, Kenneth Wilson, Reg Hunt
Emily Buchanan with four graduates of the RAF Chinese course

None of those I spoke to makes grand claims about their role in the cold war but Nigel West says their work was vital in recording the day-to-day activities of the Chinese - building up a pattern so that any change to it, such as might occur before mobilisation, could be spotted.

So while it is impossible to gauge the servicemen's contribution to the vast mass of intelligence on the Communist bloc there is little doubt about the impact it had on their own lives.

The bonds formed have lasted all these years and with the help of the internet many of those involved have remained or been able to get back in touch. Reunions have been gaining in numbers as the years go by - the fifth course for instance expects more than 30 of their number to gather later this year.

Many went on to study or lecture in the language, others found their Chinese useful in business years later while still more ended up moving officially into the intelligence field.

And even those who never uttered another word of Mandarin have the sort of tale to tell about their "gap year" that wouldn't look out of place on the pages of an Ian Fleming novel.

Below is a selection of your comments.

A very honest evocation of what we did and why we did it. It was a good way to pass two years of largely much resented National Service. In my case, because of Anthony Eden's inept invasion of Egypt, I enjoyed a 7-week sea voyage to Hong Kong at public expense, and the company of great mates when I eventually arrived.
Kevin Garner, Sheffield. South Yorkshire

Don't forget James Bond claimed to be a graduate in oriental languages, perhaps he was on the hill in Hong Kong for his national service pre-Cambridge?
Ian, Romford

I studied Chinese under Prof McMullen at Cambridge and was extremely surprised to read about him in this article. A dark horse indeed!
Andrew, Hong Kong

When we had no idea of what we were hearing we wrote "xunt" = transmission untranslatable or "susp. vietnamese". I was once sent to burn the secret rubbish with a typhoon raging outside. Half the contents were sucked out of the bin and spread around the streets of Wanchai. No major conflict ensued. A friend of mine who did Russian in the Navy told of being in small boats in the Baltic getting mixed up in the Russian fleet to stir up radio traffic - in the 1950s that was scary!
Paul Kennedy, Ilkley

A friend sent me details of the programme, which I enjoyed enormously. There was another branch of the RAF spying on China at the same time, namely No. 117 Signals Unit, but in our case we used Radar to try and locate new airfields and to monitor flights. Great times.
Bob Beadman, Hong Kong

What about the contribution by regular airmen - from 1951 to about 1963 and for long after that for some, in a civilian capacity? First off - the programme didn't run for 6 years from the mid-1950s - it ran from 1951, when the first regulars attended the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, until the mid-1960s when the RAF's involvement in Chinese intercept matters came to an end. Secondly, during those intervening years, it was regular airmen who ensured continuity. After that, quite a number of ex-regular servicemen went on to work in similar duties in a civilian capacity in GCHQ and elsewhere. Later still, more civilians made their own contribution. So, please, if we're going to talk about recognition, let's not forget the scores of regular airmen who made a rather more substantial and long-standing contribution.

Sounds eminently practical to me, maybe we should consider reinstituting something similar for those on jobseekers allowance. The government seems very keen on 'practical apprenticeships' and civil service jobs, two birds - one stone surely! I also understand that the Chinese (ironically enough) operate a similar program themselves now with a whole range of languages.
'M', The South Bank, London

WOW; this story is amazing. I would've loved to be one of those National Servicemen (although I'm a woman) experience HK in the 50s would have been an absolute pleasure, and that style of teaching sounds spot on; especially for that type of language. I really want to learn an Asian language - Chinese or Thai, however I don't know where to start...all the different sounds and tones! Truly wonderful story - more of these please!
Isabel Rees, London

Excellent programme, well presented and informative. I did Chinese in the RAF from 1953 to 1955 at the School of Oriental and African Studies for my National Service and am very envious of those who had the Hong Kong experience.
John Hampson, Moreton-in-Marsh

It appears that the original Chinese linguists have been completely disregarded. I was on the first Chinese course in 1951. We had to sign on for the minimum of 5 yrs, we did our initial training at SOAS (School of Oriental& African Studies) in London & were billeted at RAF Uxbridge. It seems from your programme that the courses did not start until 1955. We were the original guinea pigs, surely we were worth a mention. I did three tours in HK 1951-1963 ( ending up at Tangmere as a tutor ) & thoroughly enjoyed it. I am still in contact with five of the original course.
John ( Ben ) H.B. Brittain, Copthorne, West Sussex

Let me get this right. We are praising those who spied on China, yet we criticise the Chinese now for spying on us. Pot, meet kettle.
Jeff, London

My former (and sadly now deceased) headmaster was trained in Russian under the same scheme and spent an extremely pleasant 3 years on Cyprus listening to Russian radio. Sure beats fighting in Korea or Malaya.
Peter, Notts

Great article and radio programme, some long overdue recognition. Find out lots more about the linguists at
James Davis, London, UK

Jeff: They weren't exactly what I would could spying - more like eavesdropping. They were (so we are told) based in Hong Kong listening to radio broadcasts and never set foot in the PRC.
Mark, London

Why are they not teaching kids a language this way now? In fact they should be doing this with English and Mathematics too... imagine the success rates.
CJ, London

This is the stuff that I dream of now. What an adventure this must have been
Paul H, Greenwich, London

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