Joint Services School for Linguists

The Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) was founded in 1951 by the British armed services to provide language training, principally in Russian, and largely to selected conscripts undergoing National Service. The school closed with the ending of conscription in 1960, after which the services made their own provisions as they had prior to the opening of the school (and, to some extent, even during its operation).

The founding of the school was prompted by the need to provide greater numbers of interpreters, intelligence and signals intelligence officers due to the Cold War, and the Korean War which had started the previous year.


Training in Russian had been conducted by British forces long before JSSL, such as an intensive course for regular Army officers run at King's College London and SSEES, followed by a four-month stay with emigre families resident in Paris or a Baltic State.[1] and an 'Inter-Services Russian Course' between 1945-46.[2] However, these efforts were mostly small-scale and largely not co-ordinated, with their organisation being described as a 'mosaic'.[3]

Training and accommodation locations

What has been described as "the first building block in the JSSL structure", was a school for Russian linguists in RAF Kidbrooke, southeast London, which opened in 1949.[4]

The establishments which operated under the official JSSL name operated from a large number of different sites during its history. This was partly because the course had two distinct elements; an initial 'linguists' course, and a subsequent, and more advanced, 'University' element to produce interpreters.

Two of the school's sites — at Walker Lines, Bodmin, Cornwall, and Coulsdon, near Croydon - opened in September 1951.[5] The Coulsdon site closed in 1954, and Bodmin in 1956. These sites were replaced by a single unit at a former airfield near the fishing village of Crail on the east coast of Scotland.[6]

Interpreter students were initially housed at RAF Waterbeach and RAF Oakington. Student accommodation subsequently moved to Newmarket, near Cambridge, and from where students were bussed daily into Cambridge while they studied at the University. Subsequently, a former maternity home in Cambridge, as well as an eighteenth-century house, were leased for student accommodation in Cambridge itself. Finally, Foxton Hall, a "featureless Victorian Pile" 12 miles south of the City, was leased (as the 'Officer Cadet's Mess') until the Cambridge programme ended.[7]

Whereas linguists were accommodated at the same military sites on which they were trained, University-taught 'interpreter' students were not. Those interpreter students studying in London were accommodated variously in properties in Sussex Square and Queensgate Terrace. The latter property was renamed as the stone frigate HMS President.[8]

For a time in the early 1960s the school (renamed the Joint Services School for Linguists) was based at RAF Tangmere near Chichester in Sussex, where Mandarin, Polish and Czech in addition to Russian were taught.

Training system

The JSSL system was rigorous. It pioneered the application of intensive language training techniques which involved eight hours a day, five days a week staff-student contact, with regular after-hours homework. Lectures on the formalities of basic Russian grammar were followed by practical small-group tutorials which made frequent use of timed dictation exercises (диктовка). The later courses also pioneered the use of tape-recorders. A special 'JSSL Training Manual' was compiled and systematically employed in classes. In addition, lengthy vocabulary lists were issued and tough weekly tests set. Two consecutive fails could mean expulsion from the course. However, fails were surprisingly uncommon, perhaps because failed students were immediately posted to less desirable duties and locations.

Selection criteria

Teaching staff

Russian tutors tended to be a mixture of White Russian émigrés and carefully vetted Soviet defectors. Among them were some odd and colourful figures, including an aged, wooden-legged "colonel of cavalry" who claimed to have lost his leg while fighting against the Reds in the Russian Civil war. Another, a mysterious 'Countess', always dressed from head to toe in black, "in permanent mourning' for the tsar and his family". One set of statistics from Bodmin listed the teaching staff as comprising:[9]

Status Origin Number
Military British 8
Civilian British 8
Civilian Russian/Soviet 22
Civilian Polish 15
Civilian Latvian 6
Civilian Ukrainian 2
Civilian Other 4

Probably the most important member of the teaching staff was Professor (later Dame) Elizabeth Hill, who was director of the JSSL through its period of existence.[10]

Non-training staff

Syllabus and training tools

One major teaching tool was the Anna H Semeonoff Grammar textbook, informally known as Semyonova.[11] Other teaching materials included comprehensive vocabulary lists, a reading primer called Ordinary People, and a textbook by Pears and Wissotsky's titled Passages for Translation.[12] Literature published in Russian, such as Crime And Punishment, was also used.[13]

Assessment systems

The attraction of avoiding normal military training and threat of being "returned to unit" if the weekly test was failed tended to make for attentive students. Students who successfully completed the JSSL course had the option of taking the GCE examination in Russian at 'A' level. Many did so.

Alumni and legacy

Aside from their military contribution, many of the estimated 6,000 trainees continued to use their skills in their subsequent civilian life in translation, business, education and cultural life. Notable alumni of the school include former Governor of the Bank of England Eddie George, playwright and novelist Michael Frayn,[14] actor and writer Alan Bennett,[15] dramatist Dennis Potter,[16] and former director of the Royal National Theatre Sir Peter Hall.[17] The Soviet spy Geoffrey Prime was also a graduate of JSSL[18] at Crail. The industrialist John Harvey-Jones graduated from an early version of the JSSL course in 1945, during the period it was run from Cambridge.[19]

Another alumnus, D. M. Thomas,[20] has argued that as well as the school's stated aim of producing linguists for a military purpose, it also 'created a generation of young and influential Britons who had generous, respectful and affectionate feelings for Russia — the eternal Russia of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Pasternak'.[21]

Extent of interest in the JSSL by the Warsaw Pact

For various reasons, the JSSL attracted significant interest from Soviet intelligence, and at one time the Cambridge Five spy ring member Guy Burgess was tasked with obtaining information on it.[22] One reason for this interest was the correct belief that many of the JSSL students would eventually work in obtaining and processing Soviet SIGINT. The Soviets also (incorrectly) believed that the school's students included a number of Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) Officers. Further, the Soviets would have noted the links between Elizabeth Hill and a General Miller, a former Tsarist general.[23] There is, however, no evidence that the School as an organisation or any of its students was ever successfully penetrated by Soviet intelligence.[24] Even so, in the late 1950s, the SIS was so sensitive about security at the JSSL that they pursued a young Royal Navy cadet who, in a published article, had publicly revealed some minor inside information about the work done there: in what was seen by many at the time as a gross overreaction, he was charged and convicted under the Official Secrets Act and, as a result, spent time in prison. Subsequently, security files were opened on everyone, staff and students who had passed through a JSSL course.

See also


  1. Elliott & Shukman, p. 18
  2. Elliott & Shukman, p. 21
  3. Elliott & Shukman, p. 21
  4. Elliott & Shukman, p. 29
  5. Elliott & Shukman, p. 39
  6. Elliott & Shukman, p. 40
  7. Elliott & Shukman, p. 40-41
  8. Elliott & Shukman, p. 41
  9. Elliott & Shukman, p. 68
  10. Elliot & Shukman, p. 4
  11. Elliott & Shukman, p. 30
  12. Elliott & Shukman, p. 69
  13. Elliott & Shukman, p. 70
  14. Elliott & Shukman, p. 3
  15. Elliott & Shukman, p. 3
  16. Elliott & Shukman, p. 193
  17. Elliott & Shukman, p. 222
  18. Elliott & Shukman, p. 211
  19. Elliott & Shukman, p. 23
  20. Elliott & Shukman, p. 52
  21. Elliott & Shukman, p. 5
  22. Elliott & Shukman, p. 18
  23. Elliott & Shukman, p. 18
  24. Elliott & Shukman, p. 208-209


  • Elliott, Geoffrey, & Shukman, Harold. Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War, St Ermin's Press, 2003. ISBN 1-903608-13-9

Further reading

  • Boiling, Graham. Secret Students on Parade: Cold War Memories of JSSL, CRAIL, PlaneTree, 2005. ISBN 1-84294-169-0
  • Woodhead, Leslie. My life as a spy, Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1-4050-4086-6
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