‘Secret Army’ recruit was code sender then university lecturer

Oxford Mail: Ann Bonsor worked for MI5 at Blenheim Palace Ann Bonsor worked for MI5 at Blenheim Palace

A SECOND World War secret service recruit and Oxford University lecturer has died, aged 90.

Ann Bonsor worked for MI5 at Blenheim Palace during the war and later joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army”, or the “Baker Street Irregulars” – after the errand boys for fictional detective Sherlock Holmes – as a wireless Morse code operator.

Formed in 1942, the SOE’s mission was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Nazi-occupied Europe and help create pockets of resistance. It was also directed to plan for guerrilla war in the event of a German invasion of Britain.

It employed about 13,000 people, a quarter of whom were women.

Miss Bonsor would later serve in Algiers, North Africa, as well as Bari, and then Siena in Italy, with her role involving “imparting culture” to the army.

Ann Elizabeth Bonsor was born in London on September 22, 1923. Aged seven, she and her sister moved to live with her uncle and aunt, Sir Reginald and Lady Bonsor, in the Bedfordshire Elizabethan manor Liscombe Park.

There she fostered a love of the arts and literature, preferring them to traditional country activities such as hunting.

She attended primary school in London before heading to Langford Grove boarding school in Essex.

In 1942 she left school to work for MI5 at Blenheim Palace.

The British domestic intelligence service had been relocated to the estate in 1940 after its Wormwood Scrubs prison headquarters were bombed during the London Blitz.

She lived out of rooms at Keble College and caught the bus to work where she mainly carried out administrative tasks.

During her time at Keble, she made friends with the warden of the college and his wife, Harry and Urith Carpenter.

She would later befriend their son, Humphrey, a friendship which would lead to regular broadcasting jobs at BBC Radio Oxford in the 1970s. She joined the SOE in 1943 and was trained in wireless and Morse code.

Working from a radio station codenamed Massingham in Algiers, she worked alongside agents being sent into occupied Europe, whose messages she would receive and decode over the radio.

That sometimes meant hearing them go off the air and signing “bosch” – the code for capture and probable death.

There was some relief in the base’s location, by the sea, where a lack of baths could easily be replaced by night time bathing sessions in the ocean and she celebrated her 21st birthday party on the beach. After 15 months she was posted to Bari and then Siena, Italy, where she trained at the Army School of Education.

At that time she was told to apply to Oxford University, which she did successfully in 1946 to read English language and literature at St Anne’s College.

A tutor of hers was Hugo Dyson, an author of the time alongside JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

After returning to Oxford she became involved with the Convent of the Incarnation in Fairacres, Parker Street, and rekindled friendships made during her time at Blenheim. She bought a house in Observatory Street in the early 1950s.

Upon completing her degree she stayed on at St Anne’s to teach her subject to undergraduates and exchange students for 20 years.

She also reconnected with Humphrey Carpenter, who joined BBC Radio Oxford, and he was to give her many commissioned broadcast jobs, interviewing people about Oxford’s eminent authors and eccentrics.

In her later years she maintained a host of close friends around the city and was a regular member of the congregation of St Mary Magdalen’s Church.

Ann Bonsor died died peacefully at Oxford retirement development Pegasus Grange on April 25.

Miss Bonsor did not marry. She is survived by her three nieces.

Her brother, Michael, died before her. Her funeral will take place at St Mary Magdalen’s Church at 11am on May 21. All who knew her are welcome.

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