Fife's 'secret' Cold War era camp that taught Russian to British military personnel

It was a matter of national importance that saw hundreds of Britain's Cold War service personnel descend on Fife's East Neuk coast amid real fears of nukes from the east.

For almost four years, the camp, located just miles outside the peaceful fishing village of Crail, discreetly trained up willing translators and interpreters to listen in on the 'Red Menace' and interrogate Russian spies.

Established in Easter 1956, nearby RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw) airfield housed the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL), a top secret Russian language school for some of the military's finest minds.

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Secret agent missed his stop on the Cold War Express
Wartime buildings stand in a dilapidated state at Crail airfield. Picture: cc-by-sa/2.0 Copyright Jim Bain/Geograph.org.uk

It's estimated that between 5,000-7,000 students passed through the three JSSL sites from 1951 until Crail's closure in 1960, coinciding with the end of National Service.

Spending up to two years immersed in Russian language and literature, students were housed and educated in disused buildings that had been constructed during the two world wars.

They were given weekly exams and faced being booted out and reassigned to lesser-desired roles if they failed to achieve significant pass marks.

Many graduates would go on to become Cold War translators or interpreters, listening out for important communications from the Eastern Bloc and carrying out other vital tasks in the interests of national security.

The Fife airfield was home to the linguistics school in the latter half of the 1950s. Picture: East Fife Mail

Among East Neuk's many notable former students was eventual investment banker, Geoffrey Elliott, who recalled his time spent there in his book, Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War.

Speaking in 2011, Geoffrey said: ​“My first views of the East Neuk were from a slow train that ran from Edinburgh through, I seem to recall, Pittenweem and Anstruther. 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.”

Mr Elliott added: “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. More than half a century later, those abandoned classrooms and dormitories were rather forlorn and much smaller than I remembered.”

English author Michael Frayne was taught Russian at the Crail linguistics school.

Additional languages such as Polish, Czech and Mandarin were also taught at Crail, but only to a handful of students.

The majority received intensive Russian courses and were taught by a mixture of Russian natives and carefully vetted Soviet defectors.

Other prominent JSSL alumni include author Michael Frayne, actor Alan Bennett, and documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead.

Writing in the Evening Standard, Woodhead reflected on his days at Crail, recalling some of the camp's rather eccentric-sounding Russian tutors.

He wrote: "I travelled up to Scotland to begin my Russian training on the night the Soviets invaded Hungary. The camp, near Crail in Fife, was transformed into a Hogwarts for junior spooks and our days were a surreal cocktail of arms training and Russian lessons.

"Over seven months we were coached intensively by an exotic bunch of teachers including Mr Makaroff from the monastery, Prince Volkonsky with his gold-tipped cane, and Colonel Godlevski, who had drunk champagne from ballerinas' slippers. To this day I can remember the Russian for "My undercarriage is down and locked."

Not surprisingly, the Fife school attracted the attentions of the Soviets, who, rather correctly, made the assumption that linguists were being educated with a view to listening in on confidential Warsaw Pact communications.

And while the JSSL system was successful in training a generation of British servicemen how to intercept and translate Russian communications, it was not without its controversies.

The famous spy Geoffrey Prime, convicted of espionage in the 1980s after years of leaking information to the Soviets while working for the RAF, was an alumnus of Crail.

Visual remnants of the JSSL camp survive at Crail airfield to this day, though the former accommodation and classroom buildings stand in a dilapidated state.

In a nod to the site's military heritage and even echoing its Cold War link, competitive team shooting firm Fife Wargames host their airsoft games within the airfield grounds, taking in many of the abandoned former JSSL camp and its buildings.