Eric Curwain

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Eric Curwain was the 12th recipient of the Cornwell Badge, the first in Cambridge District, receiving his award on 10th May 1918.    

During 1917 he participated in the District Fruit picking camp in Impington which comprised Scouts from many troops and gained recognition.

 ‘The tent in question (which won the wristlet compasses) had as its leader, first PL E Curwain who set a standard in this as in much besides.’

As Troop Leader he was involved in a Patrol Leaders conference in 1917 in the presence of BP, proposing “That in the opinion of this conference the chief danger which threatens the Scout movement at this moment is the introduction of too much militarism”.

Clearly a very able Scout he was again given notable credit as Patrol Leader for his influence in the 14th Cambridge in the single issue District newsletter of 1920 ‘Reveille’ (published Jan 1920).

            Eric Curwain   14th Cambridge (St. Columba’s)          ‘The Troop owes everything to Erie Curwain who won the Cornwell Badge 18 months ago’.  He was later listed as Instructor to the troop, probably on return from military service, and a Miss D Curwain of the same address was ACM for the pack. (‘Erie’ is a typographical or transcription error in the original report. It lead me astray for too long).

From the District Minutes of Feb 1918 ‘The DSM proposed Eric Curwain be recommended for the Cornwell Badge but it was decided to postpone the decision until the committee had seen the reports of independent witness.’  It was further postponed a month later ‘…the certificates produced were not adequate’.  The reason for the award is not stated in the Minutes but the Gilwell record gives a summary.

Eric’s Cornwell Badge, retained by him and his family, identified in January2023 by his nephew by marriage, the son of Eric’s wife’s (Vilma’s) brother.

In 1918 he was to join the RNAS (Gilwell Records) and was later listed as having been in the RFC and later RAF. (Royal Navy Air Service + Royal Flying Corps = Royal Air Force in April 1918) He was listed an Ordinary Telegraphist in the RFC (see obituary below). His brother Leslie also followed the same route RFC/RAF.

He was back in Cambridge in 1920 and asked to take over the Scout Club at a time when it had kicked against the ruling that all members should be a Scout within 3 months of joining (see Scout Club).

Eric was later given a Scout scholarship of £10 for two years to study technical instruction of motors.  As holder of a Cornwell Badge he was entitled to financial support to further his career. This was later altered to studying foreign languages and Eric went to the University of Strasbourg to study French and German.  He was working for a firm in Nantes in 1923 as correspondent.  In 1927 he was in Spain and calling at IHQ spoke of wishing to work as a Private Secretary for some literary person at home (in England). By this time he was fluent in German, French and Spanish. He called again at IHQ in 1941 and is listed as being ‘connected with Passport Office’. Members of MI6 were regularly employed in this role when attached to Embassys abroad.

Eric and his wife Vilma travelled to Canada on a number of occasions in the 1930’s, generally passing through the USA. He also visited Bermuda on route to Peru and Canada in 1931 and Cartagena, Columbia in 1932. In 1939 he is listed as a ‘Civil W/T Operator War Office MI6’ in Accrington, Lancashire.

The gaps in this history are partially filled by the following Obituary.

This suggests that he was an active member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in 1938 and in the field in 1939 using his radio skills.  

“Eric Curwain, the British secret agent whose radio message from a Warsaw attic told Britain that the Nazi invasion of Poland had started, died Saturday. He was 83 years old.

Mr. Curwain, who settled here after World War II, died in the veterans’ wing of a Toronto hospital.

Mr. Curwain was a linguist, athlete, writer and a retired member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. In World War II he recruited and trained Canadians for anti-Nazi radio operations in South America and enlisted Canadians as saboteurs for Tito’s forces in Yugoslavia.

In September 1939, Mr. Curwain hid beneath the rafters of the British Embassy in Warsaw and tapped out a Morse code message saying German planes had dropped their first bombs on Poland.

Mr. Curwain, whose wife, Vilma, is a former military code-breaker, was born in Cambridge, England, and served as a radio operator for the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. He joined the British secret service in Paris in 1938.

The Keith Jeffery’s History of MI6 gives few names but does record ‘ The first wireless station to prove its worth was that at Prague during the 1938 Czech crisis when it was the only effective means of communication for both SIS (MI6) and the Foreign Office.’ ‘… it became the only link through which London received news of the rapidly changing situation until the final collapse of Poland.’

The first two pictures of Eric are from 1917 and 1918 (above). The badges and neckers do not clearly match. The Impington photograph below is not identified as Eric except that it does look like the final photograph and he was the only identifiable PL in the group photograph.

The trail has not been straightforward and it is possible that I am wrong, Gilwell records are wrong or the records were deliberately befuddled.

JWR Archivist Jan 2019