15 Jul 2020

“Everybody’s life is based on chances.”


Frank Bicknell moved to St Teresa’s care home recently. He was born in India and was studying law at Oxford University when the Second World War started. Soon, he joined the airforce, where his knowledge of Russian was a plus. He was sent to the Anglo-Russian Control Commission in Finland.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Frank Arthur Bicknell. I did my term at Oxford where I studied law. I became a barrister, and worked for a short time in the divorce court. After I did all sorts of other things.

How long have you been living at Sisters Hospitallers? Are you happy? What do you like most about living here?

Not very long. A matter of months. I am very happy here. What I like most is the peace and quiet; the surroundings, the people, the equipment,….all good. For me now a normal day is sitting around, nothing special.
The atmosphere generally is nice, you know, they are very friendly and very easy going people.

Frank Bicknell.
I think everybody’s life is based on chances. Spot the chances you get and grab those opportunities.

Since the lockdown, what are you missing the most?

I can’t think of anything I’m missing. I haven’t noticed the lack of contact.

How are you keeping in contact with your family?

Very easily. They come and see me. Now I speak on Skype with my daughter.

What kind of memories do you have about being a father?

Memories, since I became a father, are the continuing lives of my children and grandchildren and observing them. I enjoy it. That makes my life.

And any special memories from when you were a child?

Nothing special. Some really pleasant memories, but nothing very special. I was born in India and lived there until I was four years old. So I have a few memories of life in India. I remember the animals and the scenery, the climate.
I’m an only child. We all moved together to England. We mainly lived in Winchester.
My father died in 1940, I was already working. I’d been living where I was working and I was abroad at that moment, I used to work abroad quite a lot. My father died in Winchester. My mother came to live in London, and I used to visit her frequently. I lived in a flat nearby.

Recently we celebrated VE Day, what did it mean to you?

Well, nothing very much. I didn’t do anything very special on the actual D-Day. I celebrated with other people, the public outdoors. I was working, so I was busy all day. I remember going to watch the crowd, but at that time I was working hard, we didn’t stop. I just went out to look at the crowd.

Could you tell us your experience during the war?

Well, I was around fifteen or something. So my experience of the war was staying at home with my parents. My father died in 1940. I was living with my mother and joined Oxford University to read law, and that was during the war. I spent half of my time doing military training. I had to wait one year before joining the forces. That was my life by then, spending half of my time training while I was studying at the university.
At that time during summer, I used to have really bad hayfever. I had a medical exam which ruled me incapable – and unsuitable for medical benefits, which annoyed me enormously because, by then, I was back to normal. So I went back and demanded another medical exam and joined the airforce because by then, I had started learning Russian privately.

Why did you start learning Russian?

I was in Oxford and I went to hear a talk given by a young Russian woman at Oxford University – there were about 500 people present. She gave the talk in Russian and only two people out of five hundred could understand a word. One of them was sitting next to me. So I said to her, ‘You obviously speak Russian, you understand everything. Can you teach me?’ and I started learning Russian with this elderly lady. It was 1944 and I continued learning Russian from then on.

I have a dedication in the War Museum for being the first person to meet with the Russians.

When the time came for me to join the airforce, I said, ‘Look, I speak Russian quite well’ They said ‘Oh, we’ve got a six-month Russian course and we’ll put you on that. So I joined the Royal Air Force and spent the first six months studying Russian with eight other people. And then at the end of the six months, they sent all eight of us to different places. And I was sent to Finland, to the Anglo Russian Control Commission, where there were 300 Russians and 10 British. We had a very busy time, but also some fun. It was a very enjoyable year.

Do you have any wartime stories?

It was 1945 and while I was at the Air Force Academy, they came and asked if they could borrow me, because they were about to meet the Russians and nobody spoke the language. I was in the frontline of the advancing Scottish regiment. We saw a man lying fast asleep in the road ahead of us, and my colleague said, ‘Go up to him, Frank, and talk.’ I went up and just touched him with my foot. He started waving a machine gun. I understood every word he said. He said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a German and he’s got a gun.’ So I replied in Russian, ‘I’m not a German. I’m a British ally. Can’t you see that? Let’s go and have a drink.’ ‘Oh, yes. I suppose you are English. Yes, indeed! Let’s go and have a drink.’ He took me back to his unit. Well, it was like any normal drinks party!
I came back pretty drunk, greeted by 20 odd colleagues waiting to speak. ‘We saw you taken off at gunpoint, Frank. We wondered what we were supposed to do’. I said ‘Just let me get in that car and go to sleep.’

I also have a dedication in the War Museum for being the first person to meet with the Russians.

What lessons can we learn from the war?

To avoid having them at all cost. Nobody benefited, it’s not fair to anyone.

It says here something we should not forget. What do you think is something we should always remember?

It’s possible to avoid war. Find a resolution, find out ways to avoid it in a peaceful way.

My advice is to remember the war and to look for possible ways of finding a way out of the war.

And would you like to say something to young people about war?

I don’t think I have much to tell them. I didn’t do any actual fighting. I was the first person to meet the Russians. That’s my only claim to fame.

Any advice on how to avoid the same mistakes again?

My advice is to remember the war and to look for possible ways of finding a way out of the war. We’ve already had two world wars. We shouldn’t have a third.

Tell us about what else you did in your working life?

I worked for MI5 and MI6 but right after the war, I went back to university and finished my law degree, I qualified as a barrister. As I mentioned before, I practised in the divorce courts. But I didn’t particularly enjoy it, I was rather bored. I thought ‘Let’s give this up’.
From there I was invited to join the intelligence service and I worked for them for four years. I enjoyed my time there and I made a lot of very good friends. I spent about two of the four years in London, and the rest in West Germany. It was very enjoyable and interesting.
Then I took a more senior job in MI5, and I worked for the Security Service, mainly sort of checking people. If you were to become a civil servant, you were investigated before you got a pass. It wasn’t very exciting. There were nice colleagues and very good atmosphere but it was boring.

Then I became a banker and worked for the Bank of London in South America. They wanted to do business with Russia and there was no one in the bank who could speak Russian. So they said, ‘Please come and join us’. I spent all my time with them either in Moscow or London talking to Russian bankers. I enjoyed my visits to Moscow. Also, I lived for two years in Moscow. It was quite an interesting experience because that was during the Cold War, just before Stalin got a grip. In fact, it was very friendly.

You have travelled a lot. Which places do you like the most?

My advice is to remember the war and to look for possible ways of finding a way out of the war. We’ve already had two world wars. We shouldn’t have a third.

You have travelled a lot. Which places do you like the most?

I’m quite fond of Sophia, Bulgaria.

Is there anything else you would like to say that you think is important?

I think I was very lucky. I think that all of life is based on chance. And in my case, the chance was that I was taught Russian. And that changed the whole of my life. But it was all based on chance. So I think everybody’s life is based on chances. Spot the chances you get and grab those opportunities.