Friday, October 6, 2017

OXFORD IN WW2 | Felicity Tholstrup

Third stop of the tour, on the Turl, after the Weston Library and Old Bodleian.
At the Oxford Alumni Weekend five years ago Alice and I were privileged to go on a tour of New College led by Felicity Tholstrup, a five-star Oxford tour guide.

She has been offering her "Hidden Oxford" tours since 2002.

One comment Felicity made on the 2012 tour was how long New College's treasures have survived intact. 

She noted that nothing in Oxford was damaged by the Baedeker bombing during World War 2, and Hitler appeared to have removed Oxford as a target. 
A Chronicle of Wartime Trinity
College, Oxford.

This inspired me to post a commentary on the topic that has attracted 24,000 views.

World War II at Oxford

Partly because of the strong interest in this post, I did further research. I read a book by John Harper-Nelson (Trinity, Oxon. 1940), Oxford at War (Northbridge, Western Australia: Access Press, 1996), which shows the impact of World War 2 on the author's abbreviated undergraduate life at Oxford in 1940-42, at Trinity.

With all the undergraduates joining up to defend their country, Trinity had a second-year class in 1941-42 of just 29 students. Oxford offered students a certificate after one year, allowing them to continue their studies after the war ended and they were discharged from the military.

Oxford also offered short courses for military personnel, including for Canadians from nearby bases.

So last month I jumped at the chance to go on another tour led by Felicity, looking at Oxford in World War 2.

Stop 1. Weston Library

The tour started in front of the Weston Library – what we used to call the "New Bodleian" before the building was replaced through the generosity of several large donors and many small ones. 

One of the large donors was Julian Blackwell of the Blackwell's Book Shop, whose donation of £5 million to the renovation was announced in 2008.
In St Giles, in front of St John's.

Stop 2. Old Bod

We crossed the road to see the Old Bodleian, and Felicity spoke about the Oxonians involved with the Bletchley Park research that led to the breaking of Germany's Enigma coding machine.

The most famous man at Bletchley Park's cryptography unit was surely Alan Turing, credited with inventing the modern computer. He was recruited by the first project leaders people at Bletchley Park, Dilly Knox and Tony Kendrick.

Other key leaders included Peter Twinn and Gordon Welchman.

They nabbed all the students who were studying mathematics at Oxford and pulled strings to have them shunted off the path to the infantry, to work instead on defeating the Enigma.
That's Felicity on the left, with her attentive tour group.

The project was successful as of January 1940, and for the rest of the war British intelligence intercepted many German messages, shortening the war on the European front.

(A former neighbor, the late Tom Collins, nicknamed "Sam Scram" by his British associates, was the person who accompanied the Dragon 1 
computer in 1942. This was an American contribution to the project to defeat the German Enigma machine. He stayed in Bletchley Park for a year but was not allowed to talk about his role for another 30 years.)

The Oxonians working on Bletchley Park projects included Maurice Allen, a don; J. W. B. Barns, an Oxford Professor of Egyptology, who worked in Hut 4, Hut 5 and Block A; Geoffrey Barraclough, Chichele Professor of Modern History at Oxford; Hilary Brett or Brett-Smith (Lady Hinsley), from Somerville College, a cryptologist in Hut 8; Lord Asa Briggs, member of the Watch in Hut 6, an historian elected a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford (1945–55) after the war; and Nakdimon ("Naky") Doniach, RAF, linguist (later GCHQ and Oxford).

Stop 3. The Turl. What the Oxford Staff Worked On

We moved on to the Turl and Felicity discussed what happened to the staff and some of the colleges. 

As the students went to war, one-fourth of the dons were recruited for Whitehall jobs. 

Some research was continued, some stepped up for wartime purposes: 

  • Penicillin was extracted and purified by an Oxford team (Florey, Chain and Heatley) and was then produced in the United States.
  • Penicillin was first used at a pop-up St Hugh's hospital and next door at the Radcliffe Infirmary, reducing the death rate for head injuries from 50 percent in World War I to 5 percent in World War II.
  • Neurosurgery was advanced at St Hugh's under the team of Ritchie Russell, Hugh Cairns and Freda Newcombe.
  • Another team worked on ship and aircraft radar.
  • Another worked on development of a more portable form of anesthetics for mobile operating teams.
  • Another team pioneered in use of organ transplants.

Stop 4. St John's, and How the Colleges Were Transformed

We stopped in front of St John's and the back entrance of Balliol. Here's how some of the colleges were used during the war:

Balliol was a center for research on foreign intelligence for the Foreign Office.

Brasenose's facilities were formally requisitioned for a series of government offices, and the students moved in with Christ Church. Hugh Last, Professor of Ancient History at the College, was put to work on Bletchley Park projects.

Merton was used as a center for transport administration. One of its famed history professors, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was given responsibilities for research for MI5 on radio security.

Oriel was a center for War Office intelligence.

Queen's College was dedicated to home security issues.

St Hugh's as mentioned became a neurosurgery center with 300 beds, processing 13,000 patients during the war. Patients were flown to the Brize Norton air force base and transported to St Hugh's by ambulance.

St John's was turned over to the the Food and Fisheries administration.

Hat tip to Felicity Thorstrup for helping me with details after the tour, especially information on what the colleges were doing to help the war effort.

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