An Aularian Double Agent 1 by Tony Cash
John Bayliss and I were among the first alumni2 of the Joint Services Schools for Linguists to study at Teddy Hall. We came up in September 1954 at the age of 20 having just completed our compulsory two-year stint in the armed forces. The JSSLs had been set up three years earlier to train specially selected national servicemen in the Russian language. By the end of the decade some 4500 soldiers, airmen and sailors had passed through their portals. At the height of the Cold War the government had deemed it necessary to have a cohort of interpreters at the ready in the event of hostilities with the Soviet Union breaking out. However, the majority of kursanty, as course students were called – around three quarters of us – were trained in the dark arts of signals intelligence to listen to, log and record Russian military radio traffic for onward transmission to GCHQ in Cheltenham. Keeping a 24/7 watch on the disposition of Soviet air, land and sea forces would give the West advance warning of any hostile developments – that was the rationale.
Though John and I had served in the Royal Navy at the same time we hadn’t known each other. He’d become an interpreter and was commissioned as a midshipman. I’d been a ‘siginter’ with the rank of Leading Coder (Special), the equivalent of an Army or RAF corporal. What brought John and me together at SEH was not so much our naval experience or that we’d both opted to read French and Russian, but our love of jazz, particularly the New Orleans variety. We enjoyed the same Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bunk Johnson recordings. I played the clarinet, and was very soon a fixture in the Oxford University Jazz Band. John was just beginning to grapple with the trumpet. He would have been the first to admit, however ruefully, that he was more proficient jiving to the music than actually creating it.
Naturally, John helped me choose the discs for and generally organise my 21st birthday party which fell in November 1954. Lack of funds necessitated our holding it in Hall, which meant in those days that come a certain hour all guests would have to be ushered off the premises. Well before midnight, just as the main gate was closing on the last of them, a large vintage Austin 12 arrived bearing four close friends of mine from Leeds, my home town. John showed them the clandestine route in – via the graveyard of St Peter in the East. His bedroom window overlooked the tombstones, and he was in the habit of leaving out a looped hawser, which served as a makeshift ladder. The two late female arrivals proved as adapt at climbing in as their male companions. Had our drinking not carried on further into the night, I doubt I would have had the courage to solve one couple’s accommodation problem in the way I did. I suggested they sleep under my bed, where, it was hoped, they would be unobserved if the scout should come in before any of us awoke. Discovery could easily have led to my being sent down. Fortune favoured us. John awoke as early as I did, and was on hand to provide Margaret (I believe that was her name) with a large, British Warm-style overcoat and hat. Semi-surrounded by three males she was able to stride manfully through the quad and into Queen’s Lane without rousing suspicion.
It wasn’t only alcohol that had lulled my inveterate caution. Feeling the need to match John’s willingness to take risks had been a factor too. The chancer in him contributed, I’ve no doubt, to his success at tennis: he played for the university. If rumours were true, this character trait may also have led him to dabble with the headmaster’s daughter, when on graduation he took up a teaching post at Rugby School – a very short-lived one. By this time John had succumbed to the blandishments of the security services, and not just our own.
In 1957 he inveigled his way into the Soviet Union, one of the first former JSSL students to do so. He tagged along with the Bruce Turner Jazz Band having offered to act as their interpreter at the Moscow International Youth Festival. It’s now generally agreed that this student shindig was the first significant thaw in relations between the USSR and the West since the Cold War began. Khrushchev wanted the world to believe that the Soviet Union was a changed country after the demise of Stalin whom he had so roundly condemned in a secret speech the previous year.
Since most of the 30,000 or more young festival guests from abroad were fairly carefully vetted before being allowed in, it may be assumed that they were broadly sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Bruce Turner, a talented reed player, who excelled with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band was himself, at least for a period, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. If John, on the other hand, had political opinions, I never heard him express them: his taste in music apart, all his natural inclinations seemed conservative. In any event, it wasn’t anything he said that got him into trouble in Moscow. I vividly recall his account of falling foul of Soviet officialdom. He’d taken up with an attractive young Russian woman, but after the authorities conveyed their disapproval of the relationship they resorted to secret meetings in the Moscow Underground. John let drop hints to me that his dealings with Soviet functionaries had developed beyond his being the passive butt of their displeasure. But I only learned the fuller story in 2011, a decade or so after his death, while I was researching our recently published book, The Coder Special Archive, a history of the Coder Special branch of the navy. Penny Bayliss, John’s widow, revealed to me that he was caught selling a pair of jeans to a young Muscovite, in contravention of a law specifically prohibiting Soviet individuals from any form of private enterprise. Hauled in to account for himself, John was told that if he went along with a certain proposal all charges against him would be dropped. He therefore agreed to supply his interrogators with information from the UK. Returning home he immediately divulged all to the security services, and was effectively recruited by our spooks to feed stories to the Soviets, as well as make occasional visits to foreign countries to check on specified individuals. Penny recalls one such visit to Yugoslavia, possibly in 1968.
She claims he was pretty well paid for his trouble.
We don’t know which agency John was working for, whether MI5 or MI6; it might even have been naval intelligence, which had an autonomous existence until 1964. Unfortunately, the security services are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, so we may have to wait a while before discovering the whole truth. Yet John could not have been very active as an agent, since for most of his postgraduate life he was in full-time employment as a teacher in public schools, with a final, decades-long stretch as head of modern languages at St Paul’s School, London.
Yet John did have one significant break from teaching, when in 1964 he travelled to the Soviet Union with author Douglas Botting, also a Teddy Hall contemporary who had read English. They were there for more than four months, mostly in Siberia, eventually reaching Arctic territory unvisited by free Westerners since 1917. John acted as interpreter and assistant cameraman for the documentary film on Siberia they’d been commissioned to shoot for the BBC. It was transmitted in 1965, the same year which saw the publication of Doug’s One Chilly Siberian Morning, an intriguing, often hilarious account of their journey.
The travelogue reveals no action on the part of Bayliss, or indeed Botting, that could be interpreted as spying, though it’s possible John was keeping his eyes peeled to report back in London any signs of military installations. A postcard written jointly by the two men and the reply from London must seriously have perturbed Soviet securocrats, and caused their Russian minder–interpreter, Vadim, a good deal of heartache. On 4 June 1964 they heard a cuckoo in the region of the permafrost city Yakutsk, more than 3,000 miles east of Moscow. Believing this to be the bird’s first outing that year at latitude 129′E., longitude 62′N., they thought the editor of The Times should be informed – the newspaper’s willingness to report these events being such a time-hallowed tradition. Several weeks later, back in Moscow, Vadim confronted them with a letter he said had come to his office for them, and which he’d felt it necessary to open in case there was anything urgent in it. Reading it aloud, he enquired the significance of one passage. It was a slight variation of the standard reject letter from The Times, thanking them for the information, which was of:
… great interest to us and though we will not make immediate use of it, we will keep it on our files for future reference. Please do not hesitate to send us any further information you may obtain.
They tried to explain the joke, but typically Soviet, literal-minded Vadim had great difficulty in understanding why obviously intelligent, highly educated Brits could be engaged in so bizarre an activity.3
When I recounted this Siberian episode in The Coder Special Archive last year, I took the cuckoo story at face value. Since then, doubts have crept in. Was Vadim perhaps more perceptive than Doug’s anecdote suggests? Maybe a reader can shed light.
TC Sept 2013
1 – The article is based on a passage from The Coder Special Archive: The Untold Story of Naval National Servicemen Learning and Using Russian during the Cold War, by Tony Cash and Mike Gerrard with a foreword by Alan Bennett, Hodgson Press, 2012, available at £12.99 on several Internet book sites.
2 – The 1954 intake to Teddy Hall was highly unusual. It contained ten freshers who were forces-trained Russian linguists: David Thompson (army), Michael Bourdeaux (air force), Frank Abel, John Bayliss, Tony Cash, Mike Duffy, Brian Featherstone, John Lowe and Ron Truman (all six navy), and M. H. P. Webb (service unknown). Bourdeaux and Webb can be seen on YouTube singing with a choir of former Russian course students at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEYsHm0KoMA. Douglas Botting. One Chilly Siberian Morning, Hodder and Stoughton, 1965 pp. 120-121 and 177-178.