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Enoch Powell - Intelligence Officer

Private soldier to Brigadier

By Paul Croxon


The sixteenth of June 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most contentious, loathed and yet revered members of the Intelligence Corps. Enoch Powell was born in Stetchford, Birmingham where he lived for the first six years of his life before moving to Kings Norton in 1918, where he lived until 1930.


He was the only child of Albert Enoch Powell (1872-1956), a primary school headmaster, and his wife, Ellen Mary (1886-1953). Ellen was the daughter of Henry Breese, a Liverpool policeman and his wife Eliza, who had given up her own teaching career after marrying. The Powells were of Welsh descent, having moved to the Black Country during the early 19th century.

Powell was a pupil at King's Norton Boys' School before moving to King Edwards School, Birmingham where he studied classics, which undoubtedly was the source of his infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech (an allusion to a line from Virgils Aeneid - 'As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Romans, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood')  He went on to study at Trinity College Cambridge from 1930 to 1933, during which time he fell under the influence of both A.E Houseman, then Professor of Latin at the university, and of the writings of the German philosopher, Nietzsche. Surprisingly, he took no part in politics whilst at university.


While at university, in one Greek prose examination lasting three hours, he was asked to translate a passage into Greek. Powell walked out after one and a half hours, having produced translations in the styles of Plato and Thucydides. He was awarded a double starred first in Latin and Greek, the highest degree possible and extremely rare.


As well as his education at Cambridge, Powell took a course in Urdu at the School of Oriental Studies, perhaps the first indication of his own vision of his destiny. He felt that his long-cherished ambition of becoming viceroy of India would be unattainable without the knowledge of an Indian language.

After graduating from Cambridge, Powell stayed on at Trinity College as a fellow, spending much of his time studying ancient manuscripts in Latin and producing academic works in Greek and Welsh. In 1937, he was appointed professor of Greek at Sydney University, aged 25 (failing in his aim of beating Nietzsches record of becoming a professor at 24).

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Powell immediately returned to Britain, but not before buying a Russian dictionary, since he thought Russia would hold the key to our survival and victory, as it had in 1812 and 1916.

During October 1939, almost a month after returning home, Powell enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In later years he recorded his appointment from private to lance-corporal in his 'Who's Who' entry, on other occasions describing it as a greater promotion than entering the cabinet. Early in 1940, he was trained for a commission. On several occasions he told colleagues that he expected to be at least a Major-General by the end of the war. He passed out top of his officer training.

He was commissioned on the General List in 1940 but almost immediately transferred to the newly formed Intelligence Corps. He was almost immediately promoted to captain and posted as GSO3 (Intelligence) to the 1st (later 9th) Armoured Division. During this time he continued to teach himself Russian as he was convinced that Germany would eventually invade the Soviet Union. He attended the Staff College at Camberley.

In October 1941 Powell was posted to Cairo and transferred back to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. As Secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee, Middle East, he was soon doing work that would normally have been done by a more senior officer and was promoted to Major in May 1942 (backdated to December 1941). He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in August 1942, telling his parents that he was doing the work of three people and expected to be a Brigadier within a year or two, and in that role helped plan the Second Battle of El Alamein having previously helped plan the attack on Rommel's supply lines.


Powell and his team would begin work at 0400 hrs each day to digest radio intercepts from Ultra and other intelligence data (such as estimating how many tanks Rommel currently had and what his likely plans were), ready to present to the Chiefs of Staff at 0900 hrs. The following year, aged 30, he was honoured as a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his military service.

It was possibly whilst in Algiers that the beginning of Powell's dislike of the USA was planted. After talking with some senior American officials, he became convinced that one of America's main war aims was to destroy the British Empire. Powell's conviction of the anti-British attitude of the Americans continued during the war. Powell cut out, and retained all his life, an article from the New Statesman of 13 November 1943, in which the American Clare Boothe Luce, who would go on to be
the USA's first woman ambassador to a major country said in a speech that Indian independence would mean that the "USA will really have won the greatest war in the world for democracy."

Powell desperately wanted to go to the Far East to help the fight against Japan because "the war in Europe is won now, and I want to see the Union Flag back in Singapore", before, Powell felt, the Americans beat Britain to it. He attempted to join the Chindits, but his duties (being privy to Ultra secrets) and rank, precluded the assignment.  

He was eventually posted to Delhi in India as Lieutenant-Colonel in Military Intelligence in August 1943, having declined at least two jobs carrying the rank of full Colonel in the, by then, moribund North African theatre and having offered to drop in rank to Major in order to get a posting to the Far East. Powell soon became Secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee for India and Mountbatten's S.E Asia Command, involved in planning an amphibious offensive against Akyab, an island off the coast of Burma.


Orde Wingate, also involved in planning that operation, took such a dislike to Powell that he asked a colleague to restrain him as he was tempted to "beat his brains in."  Powell had continued to learn Urdu, consistent with his ambition of becoming viceroy of India and, when Mountbatten transferred his staff to Kandy, Ceylon, chose to remain in Delhi. He was promoted to full Colonel at the end of March 1944, as Assistant Director of Military Intelligence in India, giving intelligence support to General William 'Bill' Slim.

Having begun the war as the youngest professor in the Commonwealth, Powell ended it as a Brigadier. He was given the promotion to serve on a committee of Generals and Brigadiers to plan the post-war defence of India; the resulting 470-page report was almost entirely written by Powell. For a few weeks, he was the youngest Brigadier in the British Army, and he was one of only two men in the entire war to rise from Private to Brigadier (the other being Fitzroy Maclean of SOE and SAS fame). He was offered a regular commission as a Brigadier in the Indian Army, and the post of assistant commandant of an Indian Officers' Training Academy, which he declined. He told a colleague that he expected to be head of all military intelligence in the next war.

Powell never experienced combat and felt guilty for having survived, writing that soldiers who did so carried "a sort of shame with them to the grave". When once asked how he would like to be remembered, he at first answered, "Others will remember me as they will remember me", but when pressed he replied, "I should like to have been killed in the war."

Data sources include Wikipedia.

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