Wanstead schoolboy who spied on Chinese soldiers from Hong Kong mountain
- Credit: Archant
Kamikaze pilots, fierce Russian soldiers and mountain top Hong Kong military posts would all make for staple elements in any James Bond film.
But for one Wanstead High School pupil, these were regular scenes during his national service with the RAF - helping keep the Cold War cool by monitoring the Chinese military movements.
Terry Joyes, a proud Old Heronian, volunteered to learn Mandarin as part of his RAF conscription in 1956, leading to intense eight hour language sessions five days a week until he was fluent enough for his post in Hong Kong.
Now based in north Dorset, Terry has been joined by fellow linguists in documenting his time in Asia for a book called ‘Chinese Whispers - Listening to China’.
“I had just been called up when a group of us were asked if anyone had a high school grade in French. I put my hand up and immediately thought ‘what have I done?’
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“He then asked if I’d like to learn Chinese. I said yes and everyone laughed.”
A year long course followed before Terry, who grew up in Roding Lane, Woodford, was flown out to Hong Kong from Stansted, which at the time was “just a runway”. The journey took a week, even by air, and soon Terry and his classmates round themselves based at the pinnacle of Victoria Peak.
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Terry said: “We monitored the movements of the Chinese military, we monitored Russian pilots training the Chinese pilots to fly and we also used to hear the Taiwanese pilots taking off at night and dropping leaflets over north China.
“It would become quite hairy when we’d realise the Taiwanese pilots had flown too far, and wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it back to their base. Those were suicide missions.”
The linguists would spent shifts taking endless shorthand notes and reporting back to HQ. Terry remembered pulling a 36 hour shift when typhoon meant transport couldn’t relieve him of his duties.
“36 hours without sleep is a long time”, he said. “Once I was picked up, I slept in the back of the jeep for about 11 miles - I must have been bouncing all over the place, but I was exhausted.”
Though times were sometimes tense on Victoria Peak, Terry says he found the odd moment of relief - such as when British intelligence asked him to step being quite so literal with his translations.
He added: “When the Chinese pilots weren’t picking up their lessons from the Russians too quickly, there used to be a lot of swearing.
“We got a message from HQ asking us not to translate so literally because the young ladies taking it down weren’t used to the foul language.”
The former Redbridge pupil believes he may have been the first Wanstead High School alumni to learn Mandarin, and has issued a challenge to anyone who prove otherwise.
Though his family remained in Woodford until the early 1990s, Terry went into teaching and has lived all over the UK in areas such as Derby and Longleat.
His Chinese has been used sparringly since his time posted in Hong Kong, but he still regularly gets together with his old classmates - with whom he contributed to the new book.
“We have around four reunions a year”, he said. “We wanted to put the book together for those who come after us, and for those in the future for whome the cold war will have little meaning.”
For a copy of ‘Chinese Whispers - Listening to China’, call 01628 484 323 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.