Archive for October, 2014

For valour

October 31st, 2014

The Queen met winners of the Victoria Cross and George Cross this week. In 1956 she had reviewed a gathering of VC recipients in Hyde Park for the centenary of the highest military decoration. There is a touching continuity in this – all the more so since one of the VC holders in Hyde Park was Khudadad Khan, who 100 years ago today became the first Indian awarded the medal. Khan belonged to the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, made up of Muslims from across India. Khan performed his deeds of astonishing valour at Hollebeke, near Ypres, continuing to work a machinegun though wounded, while all around had been shot or bayoneted. He was left for dead, but managed to crawl back to his unit. We can only marvel at such courage and ensure that our children know of this shared history.

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Rationing in World War 2 increased intelligence of Britons

October 30th, 2014

Previous studies have suggested that the nation’s IQ rises by around three to four points per decade, a phenomenon known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, driven by increased prosperity, nutrition, hygiene and safety.

But researchers were astonished that the jump was so pronounced between the 1920s and 1930s.

“When you consider the life experiences of the two groups, those born in 1921 experienced the depression as teenagers and then World War Two,” said lead researcher Dr Roger Staff.

“Those born in 1936 were children during the war and experienced food rationing. Although rationing meant that the food was not particularly appetising it was nutritious and probably superior to the older group. In addition, post war political changes such as the introduction of the welfare state and a greater emphasis on education probably ensured better health and greater opportunities.

“Finally, in their thirties and forties the 1936 group experienced the oil boom which brought them and the city prosperity. Taken together, good nutrition, education and occupational opportunities have resulted in this life long improvement in their intelligence.”

The University of Aberdeen team examined two groups of people raised in Aberdeen, one born in 1921 and one born in 1936. These people are known as the Aberdeen Birth Cohort and were tested when they were aged 11 and when they were adults after the age of 62. The study consisted of 751 people all tested aged 11 and who were retested between 1998 and 2011 on up to five occasions.

Researchers compared the two groups at age 11 found an increase in IQ of 3.7 points which was marginally below what was expected but within the range seen in other studies. However, comparison in late life found an increase in IQ of 16.5 points which is over three times what was expected.

Professor James Flynn, who discovered the Flynn effect said; “The study is very interesting. It should raise our estimates of British adult gains in intelligence.”

Before the war, more than two thirds of British food was imported. But enemy ships targeting merchant vessels prevented fruit, sugar, cereals and meat from reaching the UK.

The Ministry of Food issued ration books and rationing for bacon, butter and sugar began in January 1940.

One person’s typical weekly allowance would be: one fresh egg; 4oz margarine and bacon (about four rashers); 2oz butter and tea; 1oz cheese; and 8oz sugar.

But it was the MoF’s Dig For Victory campaign, encouraging self-sufficiency, which really changed how Britain ate. Allotment numbers rose from 815,000 to 1.4 million.

Pigs, chickens and rabbits were reared domestically for meat, whilst vegetables were grown anywhere that could be cultivated. By 1940 wasting food was a criminal offence.

As sugar was in short supply, sweets were rationed from July 1942 to February 1953.

It is known that despite the stress of the war, the health of the lower classes improved as they were encouraged to eat vegetables, beans and fruit. Access to cigarettes and alcohol was limited.

“These IQ gains are probably not unique to Aberdeen with similar with similar environmental changes being experienced across the UK,” Dr Staff added.

The research was published in the journal Intelligence.

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Holocaust survivor: ‘I did my best acting during the war – it deserved an Oscar’

October 29th, 2014

Ruth, 84, is acting out the story of how she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto.

She lived there with her parents, and tells me: “The unfortunate story is that my father wanted to save me.”

Her father helped Ruth and her aunt – whose two children had already been killed by the Nazis – get a job working at a leather factor outside the ghetto. He also managed to acquire false passports for the women, giving them Catholic names and identities.

The plan was for the pair to escape during one of their regular trips to the bathhouse, where workers were taken weekly.

“We were marched with guards on each side and marched back again,” explains Ruth. “On one of those events my aunt had the false passports. She explained to me, ‘this is my chance’.”

The two of them managed to run out of the bathhouse and on to the Aryan side of the road. “It was sheer luck. It was always, you might be lucky and you might not be. But it was worth taking that chance.

“Like a cat, I have many lives, I think.”

‘My life in Poland was finished’

Ruth aged nine

For the next year or so, Ruth and her aunt pretended to be Catholic. It wasn’t as challenging as it might have been for others. Ruth did not ‘look Jewish’ and her not particularly religious family had already assimilated to Polish life.

Ruth’s parents were tragically taken to Treblinka, the concentration camp, where they died. She believes that they always had plans to follow her, but were deported before they had a chance to put them into action.

The rest of her story is not told in the play.

When she was 13, Warsaw was evacuated and Ruth was moved to Germany.

“We were taken as prisoners of war to Germany, but not as Jews. As Christians,” she tells me.

“It was very very cold in the winter and we had to clean the snow away from a railway. This was kind of my school. It wasn’t as bad as being in a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka, where my parents died. But you know, it wasn’t a piece of cake. We weren’t tortured, we were not beaten. But the circumstances were not easy.”

When the war ended, she went to England and has lived here ever since. Her aunt eventually returned to Poland but Ruth decided not to follow.

“My life in Poland was finished,” she says. “There was no one left for me.

“I was asked what I wanted and I said that I wanted to be schooled. My schooling had been totally disrupted. Of course I didn’t speak a word of English. But I was still young so I learnt quite quickly.”

That was also when Ruth started to deal with everything that she had gone through.

“When I came to this country at the tender age of 16, one goes through different emotions. There’s a bit of, ‘I survived and I feel a bit guilty because everyone is gone’. But at that age you actually want to put the past away from you and move forward.

“I didn’t want to be a victim and I didn’t want to be different from anyone else.”

‘Your best acting? That was in the war’

Ruth dancing on a beach in Tel Aviv

“I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to learn the language as fast as I could and be a teenager like everyone else. The only thing that distinguished me from others was that I was a bit more serious.

“I wasn’t looking for boys and flirtations – but I made up for it later in life.”

Ruth went on to become one of the first members of the London Contemporary Dance Company, where she worked for 17 years. She met her husband Mike at a tea dance there and went on to have a son – who sadly died at the age of 37.

Then, during her forties, she made the switch from dance to drama.

She told her aunt about this decision. her reaction? “’I thought you already did your most wonderful performance, you’ll never match that.”

Ruth laughs: “She referred to the fact that I had to keep changing my character [during the war], and that was my best performance, my best acting, for which I should have got an Oscar.”

She went on to have a successful acting career, but this is the first time that Ruth is acting out her own story on stage. She has played Holocaust survivors before, but never herself.

So how does it feel to relive those memories in such a public way?

‘I didn’t want it to be a public confession’

“The idea was very strange and I wasn’t ever sure I wanted to do it,” she says.

“Initially I just thought ‘I’m not really interesting enough’. Give me a character I can hide inside of – it’s much more comfortable than revealing my own experiences. But actually it’s proving to be incredibly satisfying. It’s kind of getting rid of the onion skin and getting to the core of something.

“I didn’t want it to be a public confession and make people feel sorry for me because I was the victim of the second world war. I didn’t want that. You can’t recollect all the memories and indulge in them. It has become something that is your text and you’re dealing with it now as an actor. You know what you’re revealing but you sort of have to distance yourself from it, or it will be confessional self-indulgence.“

This refusal to be the victim seems to sum up much of Ruth’s survival instinct. She refuses to do so in her art, she hated doing it as a teenager coming to London, and she clearly differentiates between being a victim of a personal tragedy, and one of history.

“I often think about this. I was not a victim of personal family problem.

“I’m a product of the tragedy of history – I think it’s much more difficult when you’re the victim of a personal tragedy.

“I was part of six million others. It wasn’t happening only to me. The basis of my life that I remember was a happy childhood. That’s why I’m not bananas.”

‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ is on at the Southwark Playhouse from 29 October to 15 November

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‘British Schindler’ Sir Nicholas Winton honoured for saving children from Nazi death camps

October 29th, 2014

Following the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, Winton arranged transport for 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia through Germany to Britain ahead of the outbreak of World War II.

The first transport left on 14 March 1939, the day before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A final train load of 250 children, due to depart on 3 September 1939, was prevented from leaving when Poland was invaded.

The children were taken by train to foster families in England who were willing to put up the then-huge sum of 50 pounds sterling and had agreed to look after them until they were 17.

Sir Nicholas was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003.

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Sir Nicholas Winton: Britain’s Schindler honoured by Czech Republic

October 28th, 2014

An estimated 6,000 children around the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.

Speaking at the ceremony, with members of his family looking on, he was typically modest about his role in history. “I thank the British people for making room for them, to accept htem, and of course the enormous help given by so many of the Czechs who at that time were doing what they could to fight the Germans and to try and get the children out,” he said.

“In that respect, I was of some help and this is the result.”

Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued from Czechoslovakia

President Zeman said he was ashamed that Winton had waited so long to receive the honour, but added: “Better late than never.”

Sir Nicholas’s actions came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who owed him their lives on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life!

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme before the ceremony, Sir Nicholas said he was saddened by the state of the world today.

“We have made a mess of it,” he said. “I don’t think we ever learn from our mistakes of the past. I don’t think we have learned anything.

“The world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been, and so long as we have got weapons of mass destruction nothing is safe any more.”

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Look inside Benito Mussolini’s secret bunker as it opens to the public

October 27th, 2014

Secret underground bunkers and an anti-gas chamber built by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II under his 19th-century villa in Rome, will be opened to the public for the first time.

Villa Torlonia is now a popular park where Romans gather to picnic, jog and enjoy the views, but between 1925-1943, Mussolini lived there with this wife and children.

He built the underground chambers to protect himself and his family from possible air raids and gas attacks.

Two underground structures, built in great secrecy, cover more than 2,000 square feet and include an anti-gas chamber with air ducts and showers for decontamination, all protected by a double set of airtight doors.

“Of course Hitler had his bunker, Mussolini couldn’t have anything less. The truth is he was always against the use of a bunker during the bombings – or so he claimed,” said Laura Lombardi, a historian working for the Rome Underground association.

“He always said ‘I’ll wait for the bombs to come on my balcony, I’ll never go underground’. In fact we know that when there was an airstrike in Albania, at the very first sound of a bomb he went to seek shelter in a bunker!”

The building of the bunker took sometime and it remained incomplete after his death.

By the time air raids hit Rome, “Il Duce” had been deposed and was leading a puppet state in northern Italy under Nazi protection.

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Holy Mowers prevent Devon village war dead fading from memory

October 26th, 2014

Donaldson was in all likelihood killed while riding one of the horses towing a gun carriage, and without the intervention of Mr McNab and his friends his name, and that of the other fallen, risked fading into obscurity.

Another of the village’s dead was Major AA Cordner, of the Royal Marines Light Infantry, killed on St Georges Day, 1818, at the age of 28, when his ship HMS Vindictive took part in the Allied raid on Zeebrugge.

Mr McNab, 82, said: “It became obvious two years ago that the lettering of the names on the War Memorial had faded to such a degree that the young Army cadets who read out the names of the fallen in both wars on Remembrance Day could barely decipher them. I just decided we needed to do something about it to make sure the names could be read and that the individual sacrifice of those men would continue to be remembered.”

But the group’s efforts did not stop at simply renovating the memorial’s lettering.

Mr McNab and his friends, Rob Rawlings, Peter Heaton, Robert Clifford and Tim Clifford – collectively known as the Holy Mowers – decided to apply for a grant from the War Graves Commission. With the £750 they received they undertook a complete restoriation of the granite memorial cross and its surroundings in the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Whitchurch.

For several years the Holy Mowers had been cutting the grass and weeding the area around the cross and the nine war graves which surrounded it – some dating back from the 1860s, with another four from the 1914-18 conflict and two from the Second World War.

Now, with the War Graves Commission Grant, they set about repairing the paths around the memorial and cleaning up the cross itself.

“It was apparent that the area surrounding the granite memorial was in an horrendous condition,” said Mr McNab, who served with the Black Watch during the Korean War and in Kenya, followed by 17 years in the Royal Marines. “Working on Saturday mornings we dug the site over and cleared it of weeds, rocks and old tree roots.

“Then we boarded the sides of the site, laid a membarne down and began laying down the gravel – carting it onto the site in 72 barrel loads in one day.”

Finally the memorial’s facing was cleaned and the names re-painted, with the work completed in time for the site to be re-dedicated and ready for next month’s Remembrance Day service.

To keep costs down the Holy Mowers carried out the work themselves, allowing them to spend the grant – and an additional £150 they raised locally – on the necessary materials.

Mr McNab said: “We’d work for two hours and then retire to the local inn for an hour to refresh our ancient bodies. Most of us don’t attend church, but we firmly believe that the churchyard needs to be maintained and the men of the village remembered.”

One recent episode served to illustrate the importance of the group’s labours.

While he was crouched over the memorial, repainting the names of those lost, Mr McNab was approached by a Canadian family.

They had travelled to the village in the hope of finding the resting place of a distant family member, killed in action overseas.

“The family couldn’t find the grave – it’s whereabouts aren’t known – but they did see their relative’s name on the memorial. I fact I’d just been painting that section and they were delighted to see how much care was being taken of the war graves and the memorial itself”, said Mr McNab. “It was a very moving moment.”

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What does a spy actually do?

October 25th, 2014

Intelligence services working against the UK tend to focus on gaining a number of different types of secret information say Mi5.

Military secrets

Industrial secrets

Political secrets

Lenin and Trotsky made their homes in the UK because of our long tradition of political tolerance.

How do they do it?

An intelligence officer is a person who is a member of an intelligence service. An agent is an individual who provides information to an intelligence officer.

Confusion happens when different countries use the terms in different ways. In the US an agent is a member of an intelligence or security agency such as the FBI or CIA.

The methods used often evolve around the latest technology which can help the agent eavesdrop, tap telephone calls and communicate secretly.

Cyber data presents a new way for information to be gained and the amount of information is limitless in this area.

Where does the law fit in?

Under the 1911 Act, a person commits the offence of ‘spying’ if he, for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State;

(a) approaches, inspects, passes over or is in the neighbourhood of, or enters any prohibited place,

(b) makes any sketch, plan, model, or note which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy; or

(c) obtains, collects, records, or publishes, or communicates to any other person any secret official code word, or pass word, or any sketch, plan, model, article, or note, or other document which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.

Mi5′s role

A dedicated branch look after counter-espionage and countering cyber threats. Their main concern is the protection of national security.

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Celebrated British warships being stripped bare for scrap metal

October 25th, 2014

But having stripped the wrecks of those components, the scavengers have now started to take other ferrous metals, primarily brass and copper, as well as large chunks of steel, such as the propellor shafts, and high-grade aluminium.

“There are no longer any propellors or shafts left on either of the wrecks and there are now a number of locations on both ships that have been extensively damaged by the use of explosives,” Mr Shaw said.

In a video taken as recently as May of this year, a propellor shaft is clearly visible on HMS Repulse, with the White Ensign of the Royal Navy – placed by divers as a mark of respect to the dead – floating in the current in the background. Both have since been removed.

Video footage of the wrecks shows some of the damage – including thick steel plating peeled outwards under the force of detonations within the hull. Coffee tins are packed with explosives by scavengers and forced into cavities in the vessels’ hulls.

“Up until this salvage work began, the wrecks were in fairly good condition,” Mr Shaw said. “But now there is a lot of loose plating and many areas where all the rivets have been blown out.”

While Mr Shaw and the recreational divers who have visited both ships do not enter the wrecks, it is likely that blasting the bottoms out of the vessels will expose the remains of their crews. Some 508 officers and men went down with HMS Repulse, while a further 327 were killed aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which sank just a few miles away.

The destruction of the vessels – just days after the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor – came as a major blow to the British in the Far East as they attempted to resist the invasion of Malaya and, ultimately, the occupation of Singapore and Indonesia.

Identified as Force Z and comprising the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, which had been launched in 1916, and four destroyers, the flotilla had been dispatched to intercept Japanese invasion convoys in the South China Sea.

Critically, they put to sea without air cover and the fleet was attacked by waves of land-based aircraft on December 10, with eight torpedoes striking their targets.

The Prince of Wales and Repulse became the first capital ships to be sunk solely by air power on the open sea, rewriting the military tactics of the day.

HMS Prince of Wales

Both ships turned over as they sank, with Repulse now at a depth of 183 feet and the Prince of Wales in 223 feet of water. The wrecks are still Crown property and designated as a Protected Place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

The bell of the Prince of Wales was removed in 2002 by a team of Royal Navy divers because there were fears that it would be stolen. It is now on display in the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.

“We have twice turned up at the Repulse at around 7:30 in the morning to find what looks like a fishing boat moored up, but they don’t have fishing nets on board,” Mr Shaw said.

It appears that the crews of the smaller boats are placing charges on vulnerable parts of the wrecks and, once a sufficient amount of salvageable metal has been broken off, a larger vessel with a crane arrives to collect the debris.

“They have always seen us coming and managed to cast off and make a run for it before we get close enough,” he said, adding that he has to bear in mind the safety of his customers and crew – “And I’m pretty sure these guys will be armed.”

Some men survived the sinking. James Wren, a former Royal Marine, clung to a piece of flotsam until an escort ship picked him up. He said that protecting the wrecks was a “a vast job”.

“It’s very distressing to everyone but there’s very little we can do about it,” said Mr Wren, who was 21 when the ship sank in 1941 and is now one of only a few remaining survivors.

“We could do with more protection out there but you just can’t have someone sitting there 24 hours a day.”

Maurice Pink, another Repulse survivor, was just 19 when he was plucked out of the water by a British destroyer. He is now chairman of the Force Z Surivivors Association.

“You just can’t stop it unless you patrol all the time,” said Mr Pink.

“You can turn round and say it’s a grave for the people that gave their lives for the country. It’s alright saying that but people aren’t interested in words.

“If they want to dive down and pinch something they are going to. You can’t prevent robbers robbing a bank if there’s no one there to stop them.”

Given the large number of military maritime gravesaround the world, the Ministry of Defence does indeed have a vast job on its hands. There are 60 wrecks designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act, 12 of which are ‘controlled’ – meaning that diving them is strictly prohibited – and 58 which have the lesser designation of “protected”, including the Repulse. These sites can be dived under a “look but don’t touch” policy.

Short of actively patrolling the wrecks the MoD, which owns them, can only attempt to prevent the sale of salvaged items.

In May this year, it confiscated a number of parts stolen from the wreck of the Repulse – including the ship’s Morse telephone – from an Auction in Australia and returned them to the British High Commission.

A spokesman for the MoD said it works closely with foreign governments and others “with the aim of preventing inappropriate activity on the wreck of HMS Repulse”.

The Malaysian authorities have intervened in the past to stop wrecks being pillaged, but with hundreds of sunken vessels in thousands of square miles of the Pacific to monitor, it faces the same problem.

“We are very concerned to hear that the wrecks are being plundered by scrap metal merchants and I have asked for a plan to be drawn up for a survey of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales,” Rossid bin Musa, director of the Marine Department of Malaysia, said.

“Our department cannot carry out patrols as we do not have the vessels, but I have asked the Coast Guard and the Maritime Enforcement Agency to provide assistance and to patrol the area,” he said.

But any scavengers who are caught are likely to get off with minimal fines. A charge of violating Malaysian maritime laws and operating without a permit usually incurs a fine of around GBP19,100, according to the Malaysian newspaper The Star, while the cost of stealing from a wreck is just £191.

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Seven things we learn from the latest MI5 declassified files

October 24th, 2014

2. The US feared Robert Oppenheimer would ciprofloxacin 500 mg defect to the Soviet Union on a trip to Britain

Robert Oppenheimer (AP)

Oppenheimer, the US physicist and a “father of the atomic bomb” was closely monitored by MI5 on a trip the UK in 1953 over fears he would defect to the Soviet Union.

A cable sent the MI5 by the US Embassy said: “Information has been received that Oppenheimer may defect from France in September 1954. According to the source, Oppenheimer will first come to England and then go to France, where he will vanish into Soviet hands.”

3. MI5 put Julius Nyerere under surveillance despite having “no credible evidence” linking him to subversion

Julius Nyerere (AP)

The security service began monitoring Nyerere, leader of the independence movement in Tanganyika and later first president of Tanzania, during independence negotiations in London as a result of a request by the Colonial Office.

“The alarmist case for a Home Office Warrant on Nyerere made by successive Colonial Secretaries and accepted by successive Home Secretaries now appears flimsy,” Prof Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian, noted in an analysis of the files.

“There was no credible evidence linking Nyerere to subversion. On the contrary, the evidence in his file shows him to have been a devout Catholic as well as a popular leader, profoundly opposed to violence, striving to create a non-racial society.”

4. Eric Hobsbawm was monitored by MI5 for more than 20 years

Eric Hobsbawm (Rex)

The security services opened the Marxist historian’s letters and bugged his telephone calls and meetings, learning that he was in contact with leading members of the now defunct British Communist Party.

Among his associates were James MacGibbon, a wartime British intelligence officer who passed secrets to the Russians, and Alan Nunn May, the British atomic scientist who had been convicted as a Soviet spy

A member of the now defunct British Communist Party since 1936, Hobsbawm had unsuccessfully fought to see the files before his death in 2012.

One report noted that Hobsbawm “dresses in a slovenly way”, while another reported that he was “in difficulties” with his wife, “who does not consider him to be a fervent enough Communist.”

5. MI5 came close to capturing the commander of the Greek-backed Eoka guerrilla movement

Georgios Grivas (Getty Images)

Files on Georgios Grivas, the Cyprus-born general of the Greek Army who led the Eoka guerrillas fighting for union with Greece, show that he was almost captured by MI5’s leading officer in Cyprus, Brigadier Bill Magan.

Magan, who died in 2010 aged 101, did not go ahead with the move for fear it could jeopardise the negotiations which led to the creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus in 1959.

Grivas’s files contain a lengthy profile of him by Magan, who noted that his report could be considered “a trifle colourful for an official paper”.

6. The “genius” MI5 agent who smoked out British Nazi sympathisers was a bank clerk

Eric Roberts (AP)

The identity of the MI5 spy who posed as a German agent to infiltrate the ranks of British Nazi sympathisers is revealed as Eric Roberts, a bank clerk and father-of-three who lived with his family in Surrey.

Files released in February had disclosed the existence of the so-called “fifth column” case. At the time King was thought to be John Bingham, the MI5 officer who partly inspired John le Carré’s character George Smiley.

The latest disclosure shows that King’s true identity was Roberts, who worked at the Euston Road branch of the Westminster Bank in central London.

The file shows that Roberts’s employers were confused after receiving a letter requesting his urgent service for a special task of national importance.

In a letter dated June 11 1940, RW Jones, the bank’s assistant controller, said: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance which would take him away from his normal military call-up in October?”

7. A future Israeli deputy prime minister worked for British intelligence during the Second World War

Abba Eban (Srdja Djukanovic/The Telegraph)

Abba Eban, who was born in Britain, appeared to have a career as a brilliant academic ahead of him before the start of the war.

However the files show that he went on from a research post at Cambridge University to work for British intelligence, including in the Intelligence Corps and SOE, the Special Operations Executive.

He went on to become deputy prime minister of Israel and the country’s ambassador to the USA.

His files include copies of letters sent to Eban and his wife Suzy while they lived in Highgate, north London, sent by his father-in-law in Cairo, and a report on his appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the US.

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