The Secret War of Wireless

Have you ever wondered what your value as a Radio amateur is to your community even to your country?

Let me tell you true stories of your importance during WW II.

You have probably all heard of  Bletchley Park – the home of the Code Breakers. It is located NW of London in the county of Buckinghamshire. It was established by MI6  (Military Intelligence Division 6) and, prior to WWII comprised a small wireless section for communicating with overseas operatives and a group known as the Government Code & Cipher School. (GC&CS).

At the outbreak of  WWII the communications department was moved to Whaddon Hall (also in Buckinghamshire) and Bletchley dedicated itself to Code Breaking, The entire operations now became known as Section VIII. There is a Trilogy that needs to be appreciated.

(a) Obtaining the coded message
(b) Breaking the code into intelligence and
(c) Distributing the intelligence to those concerned.

It is (a), Obtaining the messages, where the Radio Amateur played a very important role, At the outbreak of war, all Radio Amateur transmitters in the U.K. were impounded but not the receivers. Wireless communications in these times were strictly telegraphy and anyone having ‘Knowledge of Morse code was immediately seconded.    All Radio Amateurs knew Morse code as it was a requirement to obtain a licence Across the ,board you had young Amateurs who were -ready to be conscripted into the military, those that were in reserved occupations and, of course the “golden oldies”‘.

Those ready, to be conscripted were sent to Section VIII, the remainder were broken into various divisions around the country and asked to monitor certain frequencies and pass the messages they received to a designated address in London. These people were known as Voluntary Interceptors (VI’s) under a section called Illicit Wireless Intercept Organisation (IWIO).

Their initial task was to ‘listen on designated frequencies looking for enemy agents that may have landed in the UK. They never ever found any and were soon given, other tasks to listen to and record. (Did enemy agents ever land in the UK? – As far I can find out they were captured on arrival, and some turned to use their capabilities to assist the allies. There is a story of one notable agent that was dropped by parachute near Aylesbury in England, on landing he was knocked out by his radio that landed on his head!).

As far as I can determine from reading various books, over 1,500 Radio Amateurs were used for intercept work. Incidentally the IWIO name was changed to the Radio Security Service (RSS) and the operators where known as “Y” operators.  Where did the “Y” come from – typical government – the words Wireless Intercept (WI) was too much to write!  There were quite a few incidents with the VI’s, especially with their neighbours who were reporting them as spies. Eventually they all carried special documents that explained that they were on special duty.

One of the problems realised was the equipment the VI’s were using was not efficient and in many cases the receivers were of their own construction. Section VIII went to the USA and purchased a multitude of HRO’s, some SX 28’s and a few AR 88’s: Not just for the VI’s, but for their entire operation. Incidentally, in 1942 an HR0 cost $US360 each. “Y” stations and D/F stations were scattered around the world. In 1943 Beaumanor in England was the largest “Y” station, employing 900 ATS and 300 civilians manning five set rooms. Most operators had two receivers.   This was necessary as not every group of stations they listened to was on the same frequency!   In the UK alone Section VIII had 5 major communications centres with over 120 listening post supported by 9 active D/F stations.

As well as recording the coded messages they also became familiar with the various operators.   As if we all have different voices, so did the German operators have different fists for sending Morse code. Consequently these operators could be followed as they moved around Europe.   This today is known as “finger printing” and Voice recognition.

Those Radio Amateurs that were conscripted into the services and sent to section VIII to work were given special privileges and were not just on the basic military pay.   Although they wore the uniform of the Royal Signal Corps, there was really no rank or direct military discipline forced upon them.   Some Amateurs were involved with the mobile units known as SCU’s.   These mobile units were initially built in Packard sedans.   They travelled in reasonable comfort!   These units were used as forward listening posts and in many cases, employed overseas in such places as North Africa.   Many Amateurs were responsible for designing and constructing the various “spy” transmitters and receivers used by agents.

Most of these were crystal controlled and with  power outputs of just a few watts. You can imagine an agent, surrounded by the enemy, having to put up an antenna, then transmitting as fast as he could before the enemy D/ F got them. There were terrible fatalities. The most saddening story was in Holland where the Germans had turned the agents and 47 of the 51 agents dropped were executed as well as members of the Dutch Underground. 12 aircraft and 84 crew members that flew the special missions were also lost.  However, back to the Section VIII. You may be interested to know that in 1941 decrypts rose from 30 to 70 a day. By December 1942 to 260 and in May 1944 it peaked at 282. A total of 268;000 RSS decrypts were made during 39-45.

There are many stories to be told.    For those of you interested in this great story, you will find most of what is written above in a wonderful book “The Secret Wireless War”, the story of MI6 Communications 1939-1945 written by Geoffrey Pidgeon. .ISBN 1-84375-252-2  Did “Y” work carry on after the war. Yes, but that’s another story.   Think about it. In a time of hostilities you could be of extreme value to your country. Keep the Morse up,  it’s another language that, in time, only the elite will be able to read !

Extracted from the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society magazine “Newsletter”.

By David A Pilley (VK2AYD)  RNARS # 0013 – January 2006.


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