The JSSL – A ‘School for Spies’

What was the Joint Services School for Linguists? 

In 1951 the abandoned World War 2 Walker Lines military camp in Bodmin, which had been the base for US troops leading up to D-Day in 1944, suddenly became alive with activity again. Because of the Cold War and the political uncertainty between the West and Soviet Russia, it had been decided that National Servicemen should be taught Russian so that, should it be required, they could undertake monitoring and espionage work. Students were taught Russian very intensively and learnt many military terms alongside the more common day-to-day vocabulary, so that they could listen in on Russian conversations.

This Russian language training had already started in London and Cambridge but to increase the amount of men that could be taught, new camps were opened at Bodmin and Coulsdon in Surrey. These sites formed the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL), and thousands of men were to pass through their gates to be taught Russian.

The men, some of them as young as 17, were recruited to the JSSL after enlisting for their National Service with the Navy, Air Force or an Army regiment and having completed their basic military training. Men selected were those deemed to have an aptitude for language or sometimes, if the commanding officer did not want a man serving in his regiment for some reason, they could be selected to move to the JSSL.  

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Training at The School for Spies

Young men doing their National Service who were sent to the JSSL would have had a long period of very intensive study ahead of them.

Their time at the JSSL would have included:

a. A two-month probationary period to see if they were up to the challenge!

b. Then, depending on performance during probation:

  1. A further 10 months at the school to get to Second Class Translator standard.               Those in the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force may have left a little earlier to complete specialist language training for specific jobs.
  1. Better students were then transferred to university for a year’s course to qualify as either a First Class Translator or an Interpreter. This also required a final 6 months back at the JSSL for specialist training.
  1. Those who weren’t so suited to learning the Russian language were then posted to other branches in the Armed Services 

A Home from Home?

“The first sight of the JSSL at Bodmin was pretty depressing” Mike Gerrard, Royal Navy JSSL Intake, February 1955

National Servicemen arriving at Bodmin for the first time, many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to get there, would have found the bleak landscape a shock to the system. Coming from all over the country, including large cities, the remote location of JSSL Bodmin would have been a learning experience for more than just the Russian language.

They were housed in Bodmin’s Walker Lines military camp which had been built during WWII and housed American troops training for D-Day. By the time it became the home of the JSSL, Walker Lines camp, with its very basic hut accommodation, had seen better days.

The extensive site was next door to the barracks of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry which became a handy source from which to steal coal on chilly winter days. 

The huts which formed the sleeping quarters and classrooms of the JSSL left a lot to be desired, with a 200-yard dash from the huts to the latrines.  Not only would their living quarters have been something of a shock to the system but so would the strict regime which marked each day.

Get up at 6.30 to wash and dress which involved fighting over the sinks, as there were only half as many of them as there were men. Assemble at 8.30 to march down to the classrooms to begin the teaching day. Classes of 30 would then be separated in to smaller groups, to ensure men of similar ability learnt together.

The day would then go as follows:

1 hour practicing grammar

1 hour of being taught grammar

45 minutes of practice of Russian speaking and reading 

Short Break

45 minute session translating from English in to Russian

45 minute session translating from Russian in to English

Lunch (including Russian dictation)

30 minute lecture in Russian

90 minute session translating Russian into English

Session learning 30 new words (each day!)

From Russia with Love

In order to teach Russian to the thousands of National Service Men who walked through the gates of the JSSL, a large number of staff were needed. Many of these were native Russian speakers who had left their countries in times of conflict and settled in England. 

At one stage the staff at JSSL Bodmin was made up of: 

8 service officers, 8 British civilian teachers, 22 of Russian or Soviet origin, 15 Poles, 6 Latvians, 2 Ukrainians, 1 Estonian, 1 Lithuanian, 1 Czech, 1 ‘Stateless’

To The Coast in Clapped Out Cars

In time off from furiously learning Russian, the men of the JSSL took advantage of their rural home. Pooling their money (after spending a little to learn to drive!) they would buy cheap cars to take them around the Cornish countryside and off to the coast.

Evenings spent watching a performance at the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, were ended sleeping in a parked-up Great Western Railway carriage.  They  would be woken by a friendly railway employee with a cup of tea, before they trundled their way back to Walker Lines (if their cars made it that far).

Those who stayed closer to Bodmin could enjoy all that the town had to offer. They could spend an evening at the cinema, or make a night of it with a trip to the pub. With 11 to choose from, they weren’t short of a hostelry to socialise in. 

Back at base there were card games in Russian and the camp cinema, which showed Russian language films… but was free which had its appeal when money was short!

From Vodka to Viola

When the JSSL opened at Bodmin in 1951, it was the largest influx of visitors to the town since the Second World War.  The residents of Bodmin were quick to respond to the tastes of this new population, even going so far as to start serving vodka in the pub, which was unusual at the time.

When they were off-duty, the men of the JSSL took trips to the coast or imbibed a tipple or two in one of the local pubs.  They also provided some entertainment for the town, with some of the more artistically-inclined producing and performing a host of plays. 

These were most often produced, directed and scripted in Russian by two of the Bodmin JSSL staff, Dmitri Makaroff and Vladimir Koshevinikoff (known as Kosh).

The performances, including Shakespeare plays and religious plays featuring St Petroc, were in Russian. The theatre for these performances was usually St Petroc’s Church, with a local audience, as well as those from further afield, forming the audience.