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War Talk

Foreign Languages and the British War Effort in Europe, 1940-1947


Hilary Footitt & Simona Tobia


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

Hardcover. xii+222 p. ISBN 978-0230362888. £55.00


Reviewed by Alice Byrne

Université Rennes 2



War Talk is the second book in a new Languages at War series and focuses on the role of languages in the British war effort during World War Two. Its authors have mined a wide array of secondary sources relating to World War Two and the liberation of Europe as well as studies in language policy, translation and interpreting. This study is however essentially based on a thorough investigation of archives (predominantly though not exclusively at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum) and to a lesser extent on oral histories collected by the authors. Unearthing documents pertaining to language practice and policy firmly embedded in the mass of World War Two archives clearly represented a methodological challenge and led the authors to focus on a series of distinct episodes. Hence, as the authors explain, “War Talk does not claim to be a complete languages history of the British war effort in Europe, but rather a series of snapshots of the role which languages played in the key processes of British war-making” [8]. This means that although the structure is chronological, taking us from pre-war Britain up to the beginnings of the Cold War, it does not attempt to be comprehensive. It covers various forms of war-related activity, ranging from intelligence to the work of voluntary relief organisations, and thus a range of foreign languages.

Chapter One sets the scene by presenting the state of language teaching in Britain on the eve of war. The rest of the book can be roughly divided into two chronological chunks, dealing first with the prosecution of war and then with the period of the liberation and the immediate post-war. The final chapter is a case apart, concerning as it does relations with a particular country, the Soviet Union, over the whole period covered by the book.

It is no great surprise to learn that in 1939 Britain was lacking expertise in European foreign languages. Chapter One also highlights how attitudes to foreign languages and linguistic skills presented a further obstacle. The British educational system valued writing skills over oral and aural skills, which were perceived as feminine and accorded low status. This left the country ill-equipped for the linguistic challenges of war, particularly as the ‘real’ foreigners living in Britain who possessed these much needed skills were regarded with suspicion. As subsequent chapters show, these issues were to dog attempts to improve and increase Britain’s linguistic capacity throughout the war.

The interception and translation of both open broadcasts and German signals, the subject of Chapter Two, provides a neat example of this. Bletchley Park was able to recruit translators, frequently academics, using the traditional networks of the British establishment. There were not however enough of such linguists to man the listening posts which intercepted transmissions, and they did not necessarily possess essential listening skills and knowledge of colloquial German. The security implications of employing the most-qualified candidates for this task – German-speaking refugees – led the services to target women who had been educated abroad, though even British-born staff could find that the very language abilities for which they were recruited also gave them a “quasi-foreign identity” which rendered them somewhat suspect [38]. Official ignorance of the process of translation itself created further room for conflict between linguists and their hierarchy.

A similar problem arose with regard to the agents of the Special Operations Executive, who had to convince the British authorities of their loyalty and a foreign audience of the authenticity of their assumed identity. Interrogators recruited within the ranks of the military did not need to pass themselves off as native speakers but did have to be capable of extracting information effectively and rapidly in face-to-face contact. Chapter three recounts how, in both cases, the British authorities increasingly turned to foreign-born naturalised British subjects and European refugees in order to find the requisite skills.

Chapter Four deals with psychological warfare and the foreign language materials that were produced both in Britain and ‘on the ground’. Although the BBC inevitably had to work with exiled governments and émigré groups when producing radio broadcasts to Europe, it could not appear to be acting as their mouthpiece at the risk of alienating a large proportion of the target audience.  All broadcasts were supposed to adhere to a common English-written master text, with the use of native speakers and the provision of accurate information guaranteeing a degree of local authenticity. In practice, regional sections, especially the French Service, were frequently accused of ‘going native’ and thus failing to present a British point of view. Allied press and radio propaganda in Italy originally aimed at winning local support as the front continued to move forward but would subsequently be concerned with laying the basis for Italian democracy. Hence Italian-speaking Allied officers (including Italian refugees) were increasingly replaced with local Italians. The linguistic and cultural diversity of Italy made credibility particularly difficult for non-Italians to establish.

The second half of the book deals primarily with the linguistic problems encountered by soldiers, administrators and relief workers during the liberation of Europe and the occupation of Germany. The challenge here lay in face-to-face communication with foreigners. The War Office was concerned to ensure British troops behaved correctly towards civilians during the liberation campaign and produced guides with cultural information and basic vocabulary (Chapter Five). It is a shame that no concrete examples of the words and phrases supplied to British troops are given. The quotations drawn from the American Stars and Stripes [96] have also been linked by Mary Louise Roberts to the wave of rapes carried out by US soldiers in France in 1944.(1) It would have been interesting to get some impression of how British sources differed, and whether this affected troop behaviour. Yet here, as elsewhere, the actual violence of war is strangely absent. The chapter concludes that British troops in liberated Europe behaved “at best like tourists” with no discussion of what happened ‘at worst’ [115]. Readers can however turn to Footitt and Tobia’s contributions to the edited volume Liberal Democracies at War : Conflict and Representation (Bloomsbury, 2013) for a more detailed analysis of British interrogation and fraternisation policies.

The second half of Chapter Five and the whole of Chapter Six address the language capacities of Civil Affairs officers and the role of interpreters in occupied Italy and Germany. Although language skills were considered highly desirable for Civil Affairs officers, in practice linguists were perceived as lacking the military and functional skills for the job. In Germany, the official policy was originally one of non-fraternisation, which discouraged the British occupiers from engaging with the German language and culture. The majority of British personnel were forced to rely on locally-recruited interpreters whose language skills and integrity were not always satisfactory.  Chapter Six deals with the role of interpreters in the trial of war criminals, which was seen as vital to ensuring the denazification of Germany. Once again the British authorities were faced with a dearth of suitable candidates and had to accept naturalised British subjects of enemy origin. Although this experience was to lay the foundations of a new profession, the training offered was inadequate and recruits found themselves learning ‘on the job’.

Chapter Seven seeks to present a new perspective on relief operations in liberated Europe by concentrating on British voluntary organisations. Although language planning was largely absent from centrally-produced policy guides, the voluntary organisations paid close attention to the language skills of their recruits during both selection and training. This stemmed not only from their awareness of the practical needs of workers on the ground, but also from the deeper motivations which underpinned their actions. The Society of Friends, for instance, emphasised the relief workers’ role as agents of reconciliation and so gave high priority to communication skills. In addition to solving material and administrative problems, relief workers with language skills could also quite simply listen to traumatised refugees and displaced persons.

The lack of competent linguists and official distrust of those linguists that there were, were to prove particularly problematic with regards to Britain’s attempts to develop a cadre of Russian-speaking servicemen (Chapter Eight). It was extremely difficult to obtain up-to-date information about the Soviet Union, let alone first-hand experience, and the Soviets showed little inclination to help their allies learn their language. The imperatives of the joint occupation of Germany and the nascent Cold War led the British to experiment with new training schemes culminating in the establishment of the Joint Services School of Linguists, which up to the end of the 1950s trained selected national servicemen in Russian.

The virtue of the ‘snapshot’ approach adopted by the authors of War Talk is that it highlights the variety of situations in which foreign language capacity was an issue. British responses to the problems they encountered were largely ad hoc; only in the post-war era would the authorities draw on their war-time experience in an attempt to develop a more structured language policy and even then this was limited in both scope and duration. What emerges most consistently and strikingly from this history is the British establishment’s ambivalent attitude towards those with foreign-language skills and the persistent dearth of competent linguists. There are doubtless lessons to be learnt here for those involved with Britain’s language policies today.  

War Talk is a fascinating study which focuses our attention on aspects of the British war effort which had until now been almost totally ignored. In providing a broad overview it does at times pass somewhat rapidly over certain points which certainly deserve fuller treatment – the linguistic problems raised by Anglo-Russian liaison during the war, for example, are covered in just one page. It must however be noted that the research presented here is part of a wider project giving rise to a number of publications. Readers whose appetite has been whetted by War Talk will look forward to discovering other works by Footitt and Tobia, and their collaborators, who have succeeded in opening up an exciting new field of research.


(1) Roberts, Mary Louise. What Soliders Do : Sex and the American GI in World War Two France. University of Chicago Press, 2013.


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