CRAIL’S role in a vivid period of 20th-century British history is being recalled once again with the reissue of a Cold War tale.
The East Neuk airfield housed a joint services school for linguists (JSSL) in the years following World War Two, where National Service conscripts with an aptitude for language were trained swiftly and intensively to become fluent in Russian.
With the Eastern European nation considered a prime potential enemy in the emerging nuclear age, it was considered vital for military personnel to speak the language if secret spy missions were to succeed.
Although an important role, it was seen by some as a ‘cushy number’ compared with direct combat in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya or Suez.
Two alumni, Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman, wrote a book about their experiences entitled ‘Secret Classrooms’ which, nearly 10 years after its original publication, has been revived.
Geoffrey Elliott (71), a retired investment banker who has lived in Bermuda for 25 years, told the Mail he had fond recollections of his time in the East Neuk, where he spent a year or so around the late 1950s.
A Londoner, he was sent from the Intelligence Corps Depot in Sussex, after applying for an Arabic course.
“My first views of the East Neuk were from a slow train that ran from Edinburgh through, I seem to recall, Pittenweem and Anstruther,” he said. “Learning how the latter was pronounced was an early linguistic achievement.
”Distance probably lends enchantment to the view but I remember bright blue skies, seals on the rocks and squadrons of seabirds.”
Geoffrey said much of the Russian he learned was still “hard-wired” in his memory, thanks to the “discipline and passion” of émigré Russians and Poles who taught him – each with his own complicated and often sad life history.
“I have been back twice – once when the former school was being run as a pungent pig farm, then to help make a BBC4 documentary,” he told the Mail.
“More than half a century later, those abandoned classrooms and dormitories were rather forlorn and much smaller than I remembered,” he added.