Feb 1941 — Balham, London, England
In early 1941 (when I was 18 years old) I was working in a radio factory, Radio Transmission Equipment in Balham, London. My job was aligning and testing radio communication receivers for the British Army.
One day in February 1941 I was peacefully eating my lunch in the firm's canteen (no air raid warning had been sounded) when suddenly there was no lunch and I was lying on top of a young lady covered in plaster dust, broken glass and money! A bit frightening. I got up and then helped the young lady up. She had been in a glass kiosk taking money for the canteen, which had smashed, leaving shards of glass all over the floor. Neither of us appeared to be hurt, so I helped her to search for money amongst the debris.
What had happened? A small bomb had exploded in the drawing office next door killing two draughtsmen. Although the bomb expoded only about 15 feet from where I had been sitting, luckily there was a brickwall between me and the small bomb. The blast had blown me off my seat and smashed me right through the glass of the kiosk. Anyway after we found as much money as we could I went back to work for the rest of the afternoon from 1.00 to 6.00pm.
Eyewitnesses in the street said that a small aeroplane, with French military markings, had dropped about half a dozen small bombs on Balham. This had happened without any warning being given.
At 6.00pm I left for home via the Tube (Underground trains), followed by a short bus-ride. My mother took one look at me and said "You're filthy, what have you been doing?" I told her that there had been a bomb at work. She wasn't very impressed because at that time many people had similar experiences. "Get in the bath and clean yourself up!" Then I had another shock, for my underclothes were covered in blood - mine! Very frightening for an 18 year old lad. Started sponging myself in the 5 inches of water that we were allowed, and found that the dried blood all over me was soon removed leaving quite a few deep scratches. Then another problem. My back seemed to be sort of bumpy, so I called to my mother to take a look. She said "You've got chunks of glass sticking into your back" and started to pull them out. Well, I screamed because it really hurt . For five hours at work I hadn't noticed any problem!
As a result of this experience, all of my clothes including my shoes, had to be destroyed because, on inspection, there were lots of little glass shards imbedded in them.
A few months later I left that firm and joined Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company in Mitcham, Surrey. Here, the working week was 6 days, with Saturday off one week and Sunday off the next. My work here was finding electrical faults on a radio receiver being produced in the factory. The set was used by the Royal Air Force for high frequency communication and fitted in their bomber aircraft. It was known as the R1155 receiver.
I became very friendly with a colleague who had been a pre-war amateur radio operator, Eric Taylor (callsign G3FK) with whom I had many chats about amateur radio, because I hoped to obtain a transmitting licence after the war had ended. Already I had built myself a superhet radio receiver equipped with a circuit enabling Morse code signals to be made audible. At that time I was a member of the Home Guard (formerly called the Local Defence Volunteers). This I hated. To be marched up and down the street for no apparent reason, to be shouted and sworn at - this was not me. The worst occurred one Sunday night when the Home Guard had an "exercise". This started about 10.00pm and lasted until 6.00am the next morning (Monday). We were out in pitch dark (no lights because of the black-out) pouring rain, slithering about on our stomachs in puddles, mud and wet grass for hours. God only knows what we were supposed to be doing - I certainly didn't. About 7.00am I got home and had to have a bath to get rid of the mud which had soaked right through my uniform and underclothes. No time for breakfast because I had to be at work by 8.00am. So, when I got to work, my friend Eric said "What's the matter with you? You look terrible!" Well, I told him what I thought of the weather, the black-out, the exercise and the Home Guard in general finishing up with "And on top of all that I've had no breakfast and I'm bloody starving!" After a little time in the firm's canteen I quietened down and told him all about the exercise. After a pause he said "Perhaps there is something better that you could do to help the war effort without so much discomfort". "Yes, what is it?" from me. "Can't say anything right now" he said.
Then a couple of days later he asked me if I knew anything about the Morse code and I told him that I had taught myself the code when I was 14 years old, but had never used it. He then brought into work a Morse key, an audio oscillator and a pair of headphones. During our lunch breaks (no bombs!) he sent me Morse copied from a newspaper and I listened and wrote down as much as I could. He said that I was to write everything in capital letters. To my surprise (and possibly his too!) after a few weeks I was copying at around 20 words per minute.
"I think you'll do" he said. Naturally enough I asked "Do for what?" "Well, I can't tell you right now, you'll have to wait and see". Very intriguing! Nothing happened for a week or two, but then one Saturday morning when I was at home, somebody appeared at the front door. Well he would have appeared at the front door, but a land-mine exploded the previous night just opposite us and blew in all the front windows and blew the door off its hinges. Any way, there he was, black bowler hat, dark suit and rolled-up umbrella - asking for me. My parents were agog! What has their little boy been up to?
He wanted, no - demanded - to see me alone. So we went into the parlour and he shut the door. On the table he placed a piece of paper, but covered whatever was written there with his hand so that I couldn't see it. "Sign there!" he said. Well, I felt very intimidated and just a bit frightened, so I signed my name. "You have signed the Offical Secrets Act of the United Kingdom, so anything that is said here must not be repeated to anyone!" What ever have I let myself in for? He asked me questions about my parents and grandparents and suddenly barked at me "What political party do you belong to?" I replied that as I was only 19 years old and would not be able to vote until I was 21, I didn't belong to any political party. After a few more questions which I've since forgotten he said, "Thank you, that's all I want to know" and he started to leave. A bit worried, I asked him if he would have a few words with my parents before he left. Then, within my hearing he said to my Mum and Dad, "In the future, your son might be doing work of very great national importance". What was this all about?
The next day, Sunday, I mentiond to my friend Eric that I had been visited by a man who asked me all sorts of questions. "Don't worry about that, just forget it" was all I got from him. Nothing happened for a week and then I received a parcel via the post. Inside was a covering letter from "P O Box 25, Barnet, Herts." telling me that I been recruited into the Radio Security Service as a Voluntary Interceptor. I was to do 'General Search' (whatever that was!) covering the radio frequency band from 7000kc/s (now called kHz) to 7500kc/s. Also in the parcel were a number of pads entitled "SIGNALS HEARD" with columns for entering date, time (GMT), frequency, signal strength, callsign of station, etc. Several MESSAGE FORM pads for writing the coded messages as received, some intriguing envelopes printed SECRET in red, some slightly larger plain envelopes, gummed labels printed with P O Box 25, Barnet, Herts., and finally a whole sheet of postage stamps. What was I supposed to do with this lot?
The next morning I thought I would have a word with Eric as I felt sure that he had had something to do with it. When I told him that I had received the parcel he took me outsidewhere we wouldn't be overheard and said "Welcome to the Radio Security Service, you're a Voluntary Interceptor, a VI now". Well I knew that from the letter in the parcel, but what did it mean? He told me that I was to listen for Morse code signals and start writing them down on the log sheets. "What am I supposed to listen for?" I asked him. "I don't know, they didn't tell me anything either!" was his reply.
So for five nights a week, Monday to Friday, between 8.00pm and 10.00pm, I tuned up and down my allocated band and listened for Morse signals. There were plenty of them and I wondered which ones sounded "suspicious" enough to copy. In the end I just wrote down any signal I heard and after a week or two I discvered that some signals were alsways on the same frequency using the same callsign and so I forgot them and listened for other weaker signals. I told my girl friend (who I married in 1946) that I would only be able to see her at weekends. This didn't go down very well with her at all, but I said that I didn't want to arrange a date and then find that I had to work late and so let her down. Remember, very few people had telephones then, so I would not be able to let her know if I had to work late.
Of course, the inevitable happened and she appeared one Wednesday night at my front door with a girl friend of hers. Unfortunately, my parents (who really had no idea of what I was doing) let the two girls in. Then all hell broke loose, my girl friend Barbara saw what I was doing and shouted "You're a spy. I'm going to get the police!" I had to think quickly! So I said "I'm not a spy! I just had to bring this set home to do some tests that I couldn't do at work". One look at her and I knew she didn't believe a word of it. Anyway, she appeared to accept my story and went off with her friend. (As an aside: I married Barbara in 1946, but was not able to tell her what I was really doing that night - until 1980!).
Continued to listen for any "odd" sounding Morse signals, sending in my logs and messages to P O Box 25 the following morning after my previous night's radio watch. The use of the letters "i i" often appeared whilst a message was being sent and I realised that it meant that the sender had made a mistake. He then sent "i i" followed by the last correctly sent group (usually the messages were sent using groups of 5 letters). Discovered that this was the method used by German operators to correct mistakes.
Many stations that I copied used 3 letter callsigns and usually appeared at the same spot on my tuning dial, i.e., they were transmitting on the same frequency, and quite often were at the same time (GMT). After 1980, I learned that these particular signals that I had been intercepting were from the German Secret Service and Gestapo network, mostly in communication from Berlin and Hamburg to the German Embassies around the world.
The night before D-Day, June 5th 1945, the usual cacophony of dits and dahs was gone. What had happened? Was there a fault on my receiver? No, the set was operating normally - there were just no signals! I had no idea that anything unusual was happening of course, but I couldn't find anything to copy. The next morning the invasion was announced on the BBC News. Why had there been radio silence the night before? As far as I could tell this silence applied not only to Allied networks but to enemy stations as well! Never found out why that was. The night of June 6th, radio signals completely filled my band making copy quite difficult because all the stations were interfering with each other. I never discovered whether other VIs had the same experience.
For several years, until November 1947 (even after my marriage), I continued to keep a radio watch on my bit of the radio spectrum although there was not a lot to copy.
I had never heard of Bletchley Park until 1980. This place was the very secret establishment responsible for deciphering messages which been encoded by the now famous Enigma machine. For several years I have attended annual reunions of the Radio Security Service at Bletchley Park. The Park is now open to the public every day, except Christmas and New Year, and I think everybody should try to visit the place at least once (if possible, of course) just to see the huts where the decoding staff worked. Unfortunately the whole area is starting to fall to pieces because there are insufficient funds available for the necessary maintenance.
To conclude, there was a time when the R.S.S. was very nearly exposed. It was on February 14th 1941 when the British newspaper, "Daily Mirror" published an item entitled "SPIES TAP NAZI CODE", by a Special Correspondent. Oddly, the Germans do not appear to have seen the article (most newspapers were available in neutral countries such as Portugal) or they would have very soon changed all their encoding procedures.
That's all until I remember some more!