Paul provides GCHQ linguist support to keep deployed forces safe in Afghanistan

Last Updated: 17 Mar 2016
In our Cheltenham office, the quiet hum of air conditioning and computers was pierced by the abrupt ringing of the telephone. "The operation is on!" 


Civilian Camp Bastian
© Crown Copyright 2014

Our forward-deployed military liaison officer spoke heatedly as he detailed the requirements for me and my small group of military and civilian linguists called in during the early hours of a weekend morning. The message of a substantial threat to troops on the ground in Afghanistan was relayed in an anxious yet deliberate manner. Making note of the tasks required, I hung up the phone and turned to the eager eyes of my team, waiting patiently for their instructions. As I briefed the message passed from the dusty heat of Afghanistan, the atmosphere changed. A frenzy of activity commenced.

The team did their duty, almost silently, donning headphones and facing flickering computer screens. The occasional exchange of glances and passing of messages, busily checking dictionaries to ensure accurate translations of material. An occasional interruption of demanding telephone calls from our Afghanistan-based colleagues left us with no doubt of the need for the most up-to-date information. "Do you have the translation yet, the commander here is on my back, he needs it now! His guys are about to get on the helicopter". I was handed a piece of paper enthusiastically from one of my military colleagues, immediately relaying the message content over the phone, the response "Awesome! Thanks guys," followed by the abrupt end of the call. Another vital piece of information passed to the military commanders who needed it.

This was but one incident in our long campaign, supporting allied forces in Afghanistan. The often speedy pace of daily work, providing almost constant streams of translations to the combat zone was sometimes surreal. Both military and civilian, side by side, clicking on computers, typing frantically. Headphones being passed around, "Can you check this, mate", the looks of satisfaction as another piece was completed and sent forward to our liaison officers. The vital work of the joint military and civilian linguist teams always made me feel proud to be part of the critical support to military operations that GCHQ provided. Whether a normal working day, or called in during the night or at a weekend highlighted the importance of our work and the real value of our contribution that was felt by our civilian and military colleagues deployed in a war zone.


Memories of deployment 

At the heart of GCHQ's support to the Military are our staff. It is a team effort to gather, analyse, translate and report intelligence, but when it comes to keeping the Military safe in warzones, the delivery of intelligence is often done by a single person.

Putting a Signals Intelligence expert in the field can both improve understanding of what the Military need, whilst protecting the use of intelligence. This is a lesson learned in World War One, and it is still valuable today.

In recent conflicts, GCHQ's staff have volunteered in numbers to deploy to warzones to help keep the Military safe. 90 GCHQ staff have received the medal for service in Iraq, and 156 for service in Afghanistan.