Friday, 19th December 2014

Tale of the Cold War spy

By Seabury Salmon

A letter received by a Shrewsbury law firm has shed new light on the secret life of an unassuming town resident who died earlier this year.

To the few who knew him, HRA (Alex) Blair was a reclusive military historian who chose to live a quiet bachelor life in Monkmoor, Shrewsbury until his death in February. But a letter from Major General JDC Graham CB CBE, sent to Stuart Lister, the executor of Mr Blair’s will, reveals how the pair of them played a key part in Britain’s operations in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia.

Mr Lister, of High Street firm Linder Myers Scott Lister, said: “Major General Graham’s letter is an eye-opening tribute to Mr Blair and shows what a remarkable and dangerous time the two of them had during the height of the Cold War.”

Major General Graham describes meeting the then Staff Sergeant Blair at the British Embassy in Prague: “Inconspicuous in the diplomatic circles of that grey, bewildered, unhappy city, we were singular in that we could speak and read Czech. 

“Thus we could contribute significantly by producing facts and assessments about the Czech Armed Forces which our superiors needed to know in that era of great tension, an era when a Soviet attack on war-exhausted western Europe was thought by many to be inevitable and imminent.”

The two spent their time combing local newspapers, specialist journals, military decrees, administrative papers and listening to gossip. They undertook clandestine trips from Prague to survey the wider countryside for activities like the building of airfields, barracks and the adaptation of the Czech-gauge railway lines to take Russian rolling stock. “These discreet, cautious expeditions by train, on which we claimed to be geography students from Scotland, brought us unforgettable incidents of excitement, frustration, satisfaction, hilarity and sheer funk; the latter because we had no diplomatic immunity or protection from arrest by the ubiquitous and vigilant security agencies of the hostile Czech state.”

After that posting, Mr Blair opted for a quiet life by joining a building society in Britain and the two kept in regular touch by letter. Major General Graham concludes: “As 2008 ended, he (Mr Blair) became so weak that he had to be removed, much against his will, from his hermit-like existence into the hospice where he died. 

“Surely such an enduring and generous comradeship, born in 1949 and ending 60 years later, is rare, noble and worthy of recording. For this reason I have written this memorial to an otherwise Unknown Soldier of the Cold War.”

 Mr Lister said: “It’s very rare that we receive correspondence like this. We knew that he had been behind the Iron Curtain and that, as a non-smoker and non-coffee drinker, he used his allowance to obtain information, but we did not realise the extent of what an intriguing past he had had until this letter arrived.”