OBITUARY: Edward Thomas

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The Independent Online
Edward Thomas worked for British intelligence in different capacities but with equal distinction throughout his life, during the Second World War as a naval intelligence officer and at Bletchley Park, afterwards at the Joint Intelligence Bureau, and latterly on the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War.

At Bletchley in 1942 to 1943, he joined the naval component of the 24- hour watch which, working in shifts, translated and annotated German and Italian signals from the Western Desert and the Mediterranean and transmitted them to the Admiralty and to the naval, army and air commands in the Middle East. This service was among Bletchley's most important contributions to the Allied war effort; it was directly instrumental in first delaying and then defeating Rommel in the desert, and was valuable, if less decisive, during the Tunisian campaign.

Thomas was born in 1918, and educated at Portsmouth and Guildford Grammar Schools and then, from 1937 to 1940, at King's College London. In 1940, having joined the RNVR, he was posted as a naval intelligence officer to Iceland, where his duties included the management of the station that took direction-finding bearings on the radio transmissions of German U- boats. In February 1942 he was transferred to Bletchley Park, which was then experiencing a great surge in the its decryptions.

At the end of the war in Africa, in May 1943, Thomas was posted as intelligence officer and adviser on signals intelligence to the Commander- in-Chief Home Fleet. In this capacity his knowledge of the German navy's signal routines and of Bletchley's cryptanalytical procedures was called upon during many operations off the Norwegian coast and on the Arctic convoy routes, and not least during the operation in which the Home Fleet destroyed the battle cruiser Scharnhorst in December 1943. He once said that he would never forget the terrible sight of the Scharnhorst glowing red-hot throughout, from stern to stern, in the Arctic darkness in the minutes before she sank. It was after this engagement that, on the recommendation of the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, he was awarded his DSC.

In 1946 Thomas joined the Joint Intelligence Bureau, which was then replacing the wartime Joint Intelligence Committee as the agency for Central Intelligence analysis. He served in this until 1970, when he took early retirement to pursue his other interests. These were many and varied. Effective and enthusiastic in all he did, he was an expert gardener - so expert that on a visit to Malaysia, he discovered the plant named after him, Fiffistigma Thomasii - and a fine musician, the life and soul of more than one local orchestra. The nephew of the poet Edward Thomas, he was an attentive guardian of the memory of his uncle's life and works as co-President of the Edward Thomas Society. From time to time he translated a German book for British publishers. Above all, however, he loved his family and cherished his friends; and his friends were legion for, just as he did not accept fools gladly, he excelled in keeping old friendships and making new ones.

Despite the call of these other interests, his early retirement did not succeed in extricating him from the world of intelligence. In 1971 he became a founder member of the team that was being appointed to produce the official history, British Intelligence in the Second World War, a project with which he stayed till the publication of the fourth and penultimate volume in 1988. His dedication to this work over so many years was indispensible to its progress; and as the volumes he helped to produce were without precedent and without parallel, in that no other government has sanctioned so full and frank an account of its most secret activities, they form a fitting memorial to his many talents.

He married in 1964 Ruth Dyson, till recently Professor of Harpsichord at the Royal College of Music. She survives him together with his son and daughter from an earlier marriage.

Edward Eastaway Thomas, intelligence officer: born Walton-on-Thames 16 May 1918; DSC 1945; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Dorking, Surrey 22 January 1996.