Don Shirreff: Intelligence officer dismissed for his anti-nuclear stance

Tam Dalyell
Wednesday 16 June 2010 00:00

On 6 April 1956 the intelligence officer Don Shirreff was dismissed without pension rights because of his fierce protests about performing work for the identification of targets in the Soviet Union for nuclear attack. He complied, but his anger was deemed to be politically incorrect and hence he lost what had been a distinguished career during the war and post-war on a matter of principle. Shirreff, a man of huge integrity, became a prominent member of the Council for Nuclear Disarmament and a Labour Party activist.

Francis Donald Shirreff was born the son of Alex Shirreff, district officer in the Indian civil service and later financial advisor to the governor of the United Provinces. In 1926, aged eight, he was sent home from India to spend five years at the Langton Matravers prep school before going on to Marlborough College, where he got the top open scholarship and spent five years from 1931-1936. At Oriel College, Oxford he was a senior Classical Scholar.

On the outbreak of war he was called up for training in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and in 1940 transferred, on becoming an officer, to the second special wireless group of the Royal Signals. In March 1941 he arrived at Heliopolis, which was a junior equivalent of Bletchley Park outside Cairo.

That summer he spent in the western desert with the mobile sections of 30 Armoured Corps, where he remained until the end of the war. He was involved in the battles of Alamein, the pursuit to Julius, landing in Sicily, and Salerno. He was called home to take part in the Normandy landings and ended his war in the battle of Arnhem.

Returning to Oxford, he left Classics for Philosophy, Politics and Economics and in 1947 joined the intelligence division of the Control Commission for Germany. He was involved in de-nazification duties and was a prominent member of the documents research team, editing reports by German experts on Russian industries, oil, railways, education, military engineering. Their reports formed the basis of a book published by Joint Intelligence, which was influential in Truman's Washington.

From 1951-53 Shirreff was a member of a small research team working on espionage and security cases, real or more often alleged, in which they collaborated with MI6 and MI5. In 1954 he was made head of an interrogation team debriefing late returnees from the Soviet Union as a result of Chancellor Conrad Adenauer's visit to Moscow in 1954.

It was in 1956 at the headquarters of the Intelligence Division that he was ordered to compile a list of bombing targets in the USSR, chosen on account of his work between 1948 and 1950. Shirreff, ever willing to speak his mind, harangued his superiors on the wickedness of what they were asking him to do. Such was his language and forthrightness that he was dismissed without pension rights.

This left a bitterness which was with him until the end of his life, but ever resilient he became a teacher at Milton Abbey School for boys, specialising in Latin and German. Because he had won a half blue at Oxford for athletics and cross-country he became a vice-president of the Dorset Amateur Athletic Association and was welcomed as the schoolmaster/coach.

In 1966, after becoming involved in the Swindon Labour Party, he began 18 years in the state sector. He told me: "I came to the sad conclusion that in areas of social deprivation, in the parts of Swindon where I taught, that GCEs and GCSEs were often a waste of time, and that any efforts to encourage athletics or indeed other school activities were more likely to succeed."

In his retirement he wrote extensively on the way in which Germany was coming to terms with the Russians and added his voice to arrangements so that the Germans would feel less threatened. He and his wife visited the author of an article in Der Spiegel which he discovered was written by a man who was in the Afrika Korps opposite him in North Africa. They became firm friends, and Shirreff did translations for him – his work was taken seriously by the German general staff and historians.

In the evening of his life Shirreff was an active member of Wanborough Parish Council and Devizes Constituency Labour Party, for whom he was a delegate at two Labour Party conferences, proposing motions in favour of the nationalisation of banks and building societies, and proportional representation. He was active in the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and treasurer of the Swindon and North Wiltshire group.

Francis Donald Shirreff, intelligence officer and teacher: born Nainital, United Provinces 4 June 1918; Oriel College, Oxford 1936-1939, 1945-46; Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry Royal Signals served 1939-45; Intelligence 1947-1956; teacher, at Milton Abbey School 1956-66; Swindon state schools 1966-1984; died Swindon 26 May 2010.

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