Remembering Jimmy Thirsk (1914-2018)

5 July 2018

Jimmy Thirsk next to a photograph of Kellogg Honorary Fellow Joan Thirsk which hangs in the Kellogg Bletchley Park Gallery at Kellogg College. Photo: John Cairns, 2017

Kellogg Fellow Michael Smith remembers Jimmy Thirsk who died on 2nd June 2018. Jimmy was husband to Kellogg Honorary Fellow Joan Thirsk (1922-2013) and, along with Joan, was an analyst at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. 

Jimmy Thirsk, who died at the magnificent age of 104, was one of the brilliant men and women called up to help break the German codes during the Second World War. He received a standing ovation when he described his work during an after-dinner talk at Kellogg to celebrate the end of last year’s Bletchley Park Week.

Jimmy was an intelligence analyst at Bletchley Park. He and his colleagues provided invaluable information which helped the codebreakers to read the German Enigma ciphers, some of which were so high level that they revealed precisely what Hitler was telling his generals and what they told him about their plans.

When the veteran US codebreaker William Friedman visited Bletchley Park in 1943, he expressed astonishment at the amount of intelligence the young British conscripts had managed to uncover. “These amateurs have very largely surpassed us in detail, attention to minutiae, digging out every bit of intelligence possible and applying high-class thinking, originality and brains to the task,” Friedman said. Yet Jimmy was always highly modest about what he did. “A lot has been made of Bletchley being full of geniuses, but most of us were just ordinary people doing our jobs.”

Friedman’s description of Jimmy and his fellow intelligence analysts as “amateurs” was not entirely fair. They were largely conscripts into the army or its female equivalent the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), but their civilian professions ‒ they included barristers, librarians, accountants and journalists ‒ provided ideal backgrounds for the detailed research they carried out.

Jimmy was a trained librarian. He was born James Wood Thirsk in Hull where his father was a customs officer but at the start of the First World War they moved to nearby Beverley to avoid the threat of German bombs. Jimmy went to the local grammar school from the age of eight and left at 16, working in the town library. By the time the Second World War broke out, he had crossed the Pennines and was in charge of the library at Great Harwood in Lancashire.

I first met Jimmy twenty years ago when I interviewed him for a book on Bletchley Park. He was then a very youthful 83 and remained spritely right up until about a month before he died. One of his most memorable anecdotes of his time at Bletchley Park related to the end of the war, when the codebreakers began preparing for the Cold War. Jimmy and a number of his fellow analysts were shocked to be told that they would now have to work on the communications of Russia and France, two of their allies in the war on Germany.

“There was a group of us who didn’t like this at all and we had, not exactly a mutiny, but a delegation,” he told me. “A group of 15 or 20 of us went to one of the officers in charge and made our complaint and said we didn’t want to do it and he said: ‘Well if you don’t want to do this you’re redundant.’”

Jimmy married Joan Watkins, one of his fellow analysts, and returned to his civilian role of librarian. Joan resumed her studies, becoming a leading agrarian historian. She was awarded many honours, including election as a fellow of the British Academy and appointment as a CBE. She was also an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg. She died in 2013.

Jimmy Thirsk was born on 30th May 1914 and died on 2 June 2018. He is survived by a son, a daughter, four grandchildren and a sister.

Find out more about Kellogg’s link with Bletchley Park, as well as our annual programme of events highlighting the link between codebreaking at Bletchley and research at Oxford. Bletchley Park Week 2019: from codebreaking to cyber security.