Elizabeth Ashford-Russell - Telegraph Elizabeth Ashford-Russell, who has died aged 88, spent half the war in Africa and Italy working for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – better known as MI6) and later, as the wife of a British diplomat, travelled extensively in Latin America. Published: 6:22PM BST 17 Jul 2009 When, in 1947, she was suggested as a possible number two in one of the SIS sections in Italy, Elizabeth Ashford-Russell encountered an implacable hostility to women officers, and reconciled herself to an inevitably supporting role in diplomatic life. She did so with great energy and few complaints, while ensuring that she could lead a separate life away from the cocktail and dinner party circuit. She was born Elizabeth Catherine Todd on January 18 1921 at Ootacamund (now Tamil Nadu) in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, where her father, who was based in Madras, was a member of the Indian Civil Service. Sent to England while still a young girl, Elizabeth lived with her grandparents before being placed in the care of a retired Irish officer and his wife, who neglected her and her sister and applied the funds set aside for the children's care to their own wellbeing. Her parents eventually returned, but Elizabeth's experiences fostered a mental toughness and emotional containment that endured throughout her life. Educated at Southlands School, Exmouth, she passed her Oxford entrance exams in the spring of 1939, and spent the summer in France, taking a job teaching English to the daughters of a French family near Pau. But with France mobilising and conscripts on the move, she became stranded and only got back using a third class railway ticket aboard one of the last boat-trains to England. With war imminent, she decided to postpone going up to Oxford and instead found a job for eight months decoding telegrams at the Office of Censors before starting a secretarial course. By the spring of 1941, her course completed, she was presented with the choice of working in Churchill's office or accepting an apparently more mundane – but much better paid – job at the Passport Office. Subsequently she was embarrassed to admit that the extra £2 a week won her over and she reported for work at 54 Broadway, St James's Park. There was indeed a passport office on the ground floor, but this proved merely to be a convenient front for what was, in fact, the main office of the Secret Intelligence Service. Elizabeth Todd's role was to act as third secretary to Colonel Claude Dancy, the deputy head of SIS. Such was his importance that she saw a regular procession of prominent figures passing through the office, including General de Gaulle, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Calthrop, SIS's liaison officer with Special Operations Executive (SOE), and the later-notorious Kim Philby. But the greatest anticipation was reserved for an envelope that would arrive each day marked ISOS, and which contained decoded information from the Enigma intercepts at Bletchley. Although possessed of remarkable qualities, Dancy was a man of his time and strongly believed that, while women might be acceptable as junior staff, they were not suited to being SIS officers. In an attempt to find some additional responsibility, Elizabeth Todd obtained a posting in Algiers where she worked for the head of the SIS's Italian section, liaised with a number of the senior Free French, and immersed herself in the local culture. From there, in October 1943, she was sent to Bari in southern Italy, a place (she recalled) of flat landscapes, grey skies, fascist sympathisers and endless troops in transit. The SIS station to which she was sent was in a mess, lacking focus, agents or good officers. But over the next nine months it was transformed by the arrival of a number of people whose lives shaped her own. First came an eccentric half-Jewish, trilingual 40-year-old code breaker from Bletchley called Sheridan Russell. He was followed by Brian Ashford-Russell (no relation), who had been sent out to rebuild and run the section. Over the next 18 months, agents were recruited, trained and dropped by submarine or Lysander behind the retreating German lines. The section and its agents included several individuals who became prominent in postwar Italy, including Sandro Pertini, who rose to be the country's president. A number were uncovered and shot by the Germans, while others were sent to concentration camps. At first Elizabeth Todd's role was largely organisational, but it evolved to include developing cover stories for agents, working with document forgers and pinpointing drops and pickups for the Lysander pilots and Falucca crews. For this work and for some other more covert operations, she was mentioned in despatches, something to which she never subsequently made any reference. With the Germans retreating northwards through Italy, the Bari operation moved to Rome, where she remained for the rest of the war, frequently travelling north to debrief agents or comfort the families of those missing. In mid-1945 she finally returned to England and prepared herself to go up to St Anne's College, Oxford, to read History. She and Brian Ashford-Russell, 14 years her senior, married in 1946. A mistake on her tutor's part meant that she had just two years instead of three in which to complete her Oxford degree. But she immersed herself in her subject and, guided by Marjorie Reeves, a mediaevalist who became one of her mentors, gained a very good second. Had she had the extra year, Marjorie Reeves thought Elizabeth Ashford-Russell would have gained a first and, on this basis, recommended her for a research degree. But by then, her husband had been offered the post of consul in Bari. The diplomatic life on which she embarked for the next 20 years took her from Bari to Paris, then to Rome, Mexico, New York, Argentina and South Africa before finally returning to Rome. She took the opportunity to travel extensively and adventurously, particularly in Latin America, and to pursue her interests in art, architecture, drama, music or food. For seven years after her husband retired from the Foreign Office, she became director of studies at The Cygnets, an old-fashioned finishing school in London. In 1980, when she retired from her last job as editorial assistant at the Architectural Review in Queen Anne's Gate, she was amused to rediscover a secret tunnel that she had first walked through 40 years earlier to the neighbouring wartime premises of the SIS. Elizabeth Ashford-Russell, who died on June 11, is survived by three daughters and a son; her husband died in 2003.