The only thing that ever really frightened Churchill – The Battle of the Atlantic

What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.

A German U-Boat commander tracking a British merchant ship through his periscope during an attack on a convoy, 10-20 June 1942. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194304

The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. Copyright: © IWM. object/205194526

The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.

A seaman on watch at sea. Copyright: © IWM. object/205139887

Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.

Anti-Submarine Weapons: A Mk VII depth charge being loaded onto a Mk IV depth charge thrower on board HMS DIANTHUS. Copyright: © IWM.
object/205194536

It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.

On board a destroyer on escort duty Copyright: © IWM. object/205139891

The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.

28 NOVEMBER TO 10 DECEMBER 1941, ON BOARD THE DESTROYER HMS VANOC. (A 6633) The officer of the watch dressed for the weather during an Atlantic winter. Copyright: © IWM. object/205140741

Allied losses during the Battle of the Atlantic

36,200 sailors killed
36,000 merchant seamen killed
3,500 merchant vessels sunk
175 warships sunk
741 RAF Coastal Command Aircraft lost in anti-submarine sorties

1943 (AX 44A) The Dutch tug ZWARTE ZEE tows back to harbour a blazing American freighter, probably the SS FLORA MACDONALD which had been torpedoed by a U-boat in the Atlantic during a convoy from Marshall, Liberia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 May 1943. Copyright: © IWM. object/205133324

Bibliography

The Battle of the Atlantic by Andrew Williams

Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-boat School by Mark Williams

In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic by Spencer Dunmore

The Battle of the Atlantic by Macintyre, Donald.

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Life or death communications – the use of codes by Britain’s spies in the Second World War

Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:

UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*

Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.

Samuel Morse

Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call    . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.

But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.

Leo Marks

The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Violette Szabo

Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.

Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.

As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.

So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.

*My code de-encrypted: SHALL WE GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW

Recommended Read – At Break Of Day by Elizabeth Speller

In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.

Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.

Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.

Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.

Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.

Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.

1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.

Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.

Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.

The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.

At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.

At Break Of Day can be found on  Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Children at war- ‘And when did you last see your father?’

Many of you will recognise this painting; it is called ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ and was painted by William Frederick Yeames in 1878 (oil on canvas). It is a painting which I have always found fascinating as there is so much going on. With the deftly painted depictions of people and emotions you can’t help but be drawn into the story, in fact I have seen this work of art used by school teachers as an introduction to the topic of the English Civil War. So, what exactly is going on here, and how does it fit into this period of our history?

The scene depicts events in a Royalist household when a young boy is questioned about when his father was last at home. The house has obviously been captured by Parliamentary forces as can be seen by the central figure lounging in a chair – he wears the military clothing of a Roundhead cavalry officer, including long riding boots and orange sash.

The young boy and the females are all dressed in Royalist style; the young girl who is crying appears to be next in line for interrogation whilst the mother, and possibly elder daughter, watch.  The man with his arm around the shoulders of the young girl is carrying a halberd which identifies him as a sergeant; it is likely that his role was to arrest the family and bring them before the Parliamentarian questioners. Amongst the other characters in the painting are a clerk who is making notes and bringing the air of a courtroom to the proceedings, and two Puritans (wearing the tall black hats and white collars) who appear stern and obviously pleased to have another dangerous Royalist within their grasp.

Most people believe that this is a fictional scene although John Adair, who wrote ‘By the Sword Divided’, says that it depicts what happened to the family of Bulstrode Whitelocke whose house at Fawley Court near Henley was ransacked by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces during the war. I suppose we will never know whether this painting is a depiction of a real event or pure fiction, but for me at least that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the quite accurate glimpse which it gives into a conflict which tore England apart in the seventeenth century, dividing people on grounds of politics and religion. It is interesting to note that although the painting depicts a frightening time for the Royalist family it is not overly aggressive. One can almost imagine the sergeant has placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder to comfort her, and the lead questioner appears to be leaning sympathetically towards the little boy. But that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, or the conflict which the child faces. A young boy in his position would have had the ideal of honesty instilled into him from an early age, and he would know that he should not tell a lie. Yet, on the other hand, to tell the truth might put his father’s life in danger. What should a small boy do? How would he respond to such pressure?

My admiration for this beautiful piece of art, and the way it fired my imagination as to ‘what happened next’, led to my writing a particular scene in The Cavalier Historian where the young hero of the novel is questioned about his father’s whereabouts as things begin to look increasingly bleak for the followers of the King…

Civil War in England – the raising of the King’s Standard

375 years ago saw the start of the last civil war to be fought on British soil when King Charles I raised his royal standard in Nottingham on 22nd August 1642. But what had led a ruling monarch to declare war on his own people?

Charles I

Charles I was a complex man who, like most people, had his good and bad points. He was a principled and conscientious ruler, believing he had been divinely appointed by God and therefore had a duty to rule for the good of the people. Yet he was also reserved, stubborn and politically unskilled. Charles believed that everyone was subject to his will, all his actions were for the good of the people and he could do no wrong as God’s chosen king. Such a belief made the need for deft political intrigue totally irrelevant in his eyes.

Charles had been crowned king in 1626, and it was not long before many of his subjects began to feel uneasy about his religious beliefs and policies. England had been a Protestant country since the time of Elizabeth I, and many of the more zealous Puritan Christians were afraid that the King planned to overthrow their faith and restore Catholicism as the state religion.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

In 1633 King Charles sent Thomas Wentworth to Ireland as his Lord Deputy to ‘civilise’ the Irish and force them to conform to the Church of England. The titles of Irish landowners were challenged and many old plantations taken over or new ones set up with English landowners in charge. Charles had hoped that this would isolate the Catholics, but what he didn’t foresee was that the Protestant ruling elite would feel alienated too. Similar problems arose in Scotland when Charles tried to ‘manipulate’ land titles there, and things finally came to a head when he tried to introduce a version of the English Book of Common Prayer into that country, provoking riots and leading to the drawing up of a National Covenant to demand immediate withdrawal of the offending book. The Covenant was a hard-hitting tract against the authoritarian rule of Charles and tacitly implying that revolt against him would be justified.

King Charles believed that the Scots had no right to oppose him and tried to crush them by force, with disastrous results. The ‘Covenanters’ overwhelmed the poorly trained English army which had been sent against them, and the king was forced to sign a peace treaty at Berwick. Charles was even more desperate to crush the opposition after this humiliation and so he summoned the English Parliament in October 1640 to ask for more funds. Unfortunately for him, Parliament took the opportunity to complain about his policies and refused to grant him funds until he had dealt with their complex grievances, some of which dated back to the beginning of his reign. Charles was furious and dissolved Parliament. The Scottish Covenanters invaded northern England again and, lacking funds, it was another poorly trained and poorly-equipped army which Charles sent north. Unsurprisingly, it was soundly beaten once again.

John Pym

The embattled and embittered king was forced to recall Parliament, once again leaving himself open to attack by the politicians who opposed him. The Catholic Irish and Scottish Covenanters also took the opportunity to work together and put pressure on Parliament to impeach Wentworth (who had been created Earl of Strafford by the King) because of the trouble he had caused in Ireland. The leader of Parliament, Pym, helped to organised the opposition to Stafford who was tried, found guilty, and executed.

If problems in England weren’t bad enough for Charles, the Catholic Irish decided to take advantage of the situation and rebelled against their Protestant English rulers in 1641. Many Protestant English and Puritan Scottish settlers were killed and panic began to spread in England yet, rather than unifying people, it only emphasised their religious differences and the two camps – Puritan and Royalist – became even more sharply divided. Charles and Parliament argued about who should be put in charge of the army which was to be sent to crush the Irish rebels. Parliament would not agree with the king until he had addressed their grievances but Charles, believing in his divine right to rule, would not allow them to bully him and decided to raise an army himself. He believed that the Members of Parliament had tried to humiliate him once too often and needed to be put in their place; on the other hand, Parliament believed that the King would never accept their input into his rule which, in their eyes, made him a tyrant. Both sides were entrenched and there was no going back. England was irrevocably divided and embarked on the final descent into civil war.

Raising the King’s Standard

Recommended Read – First Of The Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Jasper Tudor, son of Queen Catherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor, has grown up far from the intrigue of the royal court. But after he and his brother Edmund are summoned to London, their half-brother, King Henry VI, takes a keen interest in their future.
Bestowing Earldoms on them both, Henry also gives them the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort. Although she is still a child, Jasper becomes devoted to her and is devastated when Henry arranges her betrothal to Edmund.
He seeks solace in his estates and in the arms of Jane Hywel, a young Welsh woman who offers him something more meaningful than a dynastic marriage. But passion turns to jeopardy for them both as the Wars of the Roses wreak havoc on the realm. Loyal brother to a fragile king and his domineering queen, Marguerite of Anjou, Jasper must draw on all his guile and courage to preserve their throne − and the Tudor destiny…

First Of The Tudors’ is a sequel to two novels about Catherine of Valois by Joanna Hickson (‘The Agincourt Bride’ and ‘The Tudor Bride’), but you do not have to have read these to enjoy ‘First Of The Tudors’ which can be read as a stand-alone novel. The author cleverly interweaves the backstory of Jasper Tudor and his family into this captivating and exciting novel to give a full understanding of previous events without slowing the pace of the story.

As with all good historical fiction this book weaves together historical figures and fictional characters to give a rich tapestry of life in another time and place. Ms Hickson accomplishes this by the clever use of two narrators – Jasper Tudor and his mistress Jane Hywel. Although Jane is a fictional character it is known that Jasper had children and so the creation of a mistress who cares for the young Henry Tudor is not unbelievable. In introducing Jane into her novel the author brings a balance between court life and intrigue, the domestic life and childhood of the young boy who was to grow up to be Henry VII, and how the events which led to the Wars of the Roses impacted on both spheres of Jasper’s  life.

Ms Hickson  peoples her novel with many historical figures from Jasper Tudor, the little known figure behind the rise of one of the greatest dynasties in British history, to Margaret Beaufort who enters the novel as an innocent and vulnerable girl yet grows to be a strong and influential individual capable of clever political manipulation to protect her beloved son, Henry. Henry VII is often overshadowed by his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I so it is interesting to see how, as a boy, he was shaped by his situation, his mother, and his uncle into a young  man who would be able to go on to found a dynasty; I look forward to finding out more about his life in the sequel to ‘First Of The Tudors’, which is due to be published next year.

First Of The Tudors’ is a character driven novel which paints a totally believable picture of life in the fifteenth century thanks to the meticulous research of the author. Her language is free-flowing and emotive, and her descriptions of place clearly recognisable to anyone who has visited any of the locations mentioned (Pembroke Castle, for example). It is the mark of a good writer of historical fiction that Ms Hickson is able to present a totally believable interpretation of a known historical story by the inclusion of fictional characters and speech without detracting from the facts as they are known. I found it interesting that the author chose to present this story through the eyes of the enigmatic figure of Jasper Tudor, a man who is rarely studied yet played such an incredibly important role when he became protector of his young nephew Henry VII at a time of incredible danger for the Lancastrians, and continued to lend advice and support for many years to come.

If you enjoy a multi-faceted view of history which brings to life people and places which have, for many years, been left in the shadows, then ‘First Of The Tudors’ is the book for you.

First Of The Tudors is available on Amazon

You can find out more about Joanna Hickson here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

A life on the line – SOE radio operators in the Second World War

England. June 1940. Things looked bleak for the Allies after the fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, Britain was on the defensive and most people believed that the invasion of England would soon begin. In an effort to take some of the fight to the enemy Winston Churchill authorised Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to set up a clandestine organization to help form, supply and run resistance movements in occupied countries. This new Special Operations Executive (SEO) was to be responsible for recruiting and training agents who would then be sent behind enemy lines. (The work of the SOE). One of the most difficult roles which members of the SOE undertook was that of wireless operator.

The early equipment needed by radio operators was cumbersome – a short-wave morse transceiver (capable of both sending and receiving messages) weighing a hefty 30 pounds along with a flexible aerial 70 feet long – all of which had to be concealed in a suitcase 2 feet long. It was hard to be inconspicuous and not act suspiciously whilst carrying such incriminating equipment in enemy held territory. The SOE realised how important the correct equipment would be for the survival of their agents and began to design their own lighter and more portable sets. The culmination of this work was the Paraset, a major improvement as it weighed just 9 pounds and was small enough to carry in a small attache case yet powerful enough to send and receive messages over distances in excess of 500 miles.

Paraset Mk II, 1943

An SOE wireless operator had to know the area they worked in intimately. It was vital that they transmit from a different place, and only very briefly, each time they made contact with base as it was estimated that, in an urban environment, the Germans were able to track down a transmitter in around half an hour. Agents also had to create schedules for their transmissions which did not involve making contact on the same day of the week or at the same time of day, as any sort of pattern which could be identified by the Germans would be disasterous. The ideal for an agent was to set up, transmit, dismantle and get away within a maximum of 20 minutes to avoid capture and torture. To be found transmitting would almost certainly mean death to the operator, but it could also be devastating to the resistance group they worked with. If the enemy captured a transceiver and code books they would try to use them to trap the rest of the grouup. To try to prevent such deceptions each wireless operator was instructed to spell certain words incorrectly – if a transmission was made with the word spelt correctly the handler back in England would know that the operator had been compromised and, hopefully, have time to warn field agents in time for them to make good their escape.

Noor Inayat Khan, a member of the SOE who was executed by the Germans

The majority of radio operators sent behind enemy lines by the SOE were women as it as believed that they would be able to move around with their equipment without drawing as much attention to themselves as a man would. After all, it was quite common for women to be out shopping with a bag during the day whilst a man in a similar situation would be much more conspicuous. The women who signed up to do this work were under no illusions as to the importance, and the danger, of what they were committing to – the life expectancy of as SOE wireless operator working in Occupied France was just six weeks. (The Women Who Spied For Britain)

Some resistance groups were set up by the SOE whilst others were formed by locals with SOE support, yet regardless of how they began all groups received their instructions directly from England (or one of the subsidiary bases in other theatres of war, such as Cairo). The wireless operator in the ‘circuit’ lived in isolation with only brief contact with a single member of the group. It was a lonely existence in order to protect the remainder of the group. A wireless operator would not take part in operations such as sabotage, their only role was to be responsible for transmitting orders, or arranging the transport of agents and drops of supplies. In the early days all transmissions went through the radio station at Bletchley Park but the SOE later had its own stations at Poundon and Grendon Underwood – messages from the field would come in there to be forwarded to SOE HQ in London by teleprinter.

Security was vital in this clandestine world, both for the agent in the field and the information being transmitted. One way of ensuring security was by having an agent who knew how to transmit safely and securely, but the use of codes was also incredibly important. To begin with insecure poem codes were used, but these led to a number of disasters and so Leo Marks was made chief cryptographer. As part of his role Marks helped to develop single use ciphers printed on silk in an effort to save agents lives. The reason for such an expensive material was simple – it didn’t make a rustling sound like paper so, once concealed in the lining of clothing, it would not be detectable during a casual search.

Wireless operators who served behind enemy lines played an incredibly important role during the Second World War, particularly in the weeks leading up to the D Day landings in June 1944. Without their courage and sacrifice the war could have dragged on for months longer, and many more lives been lost. In my novel, Heronfield, one of the characters is a young woman who places her life on the line to be an SOE wireless operative in St Nazaire. My creation is an amalgamation of many women who served, and is my tribute to them all.