Category Archives: Signals Intelligence

Guest post by Len Barnett: Learning to use Signals Intelligence in the Royal Navy up to 1915

Learning to use Signals Intelligence: The Royal Navy from the Development of Wireless to the War Years of 1914-1915

The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I

The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I from Abbot, Willis John, The Nations at War: A Current History (New York: Leslie-Judge Co., 1917). Image available in the public domain.

This monograph arose partly from my personal research into civilian mariners involved in the Great War 1914-19 and also encouragement from a friend, Dr. Marcus Faulkner. My original background had been in communications-operation in the Royal Navy, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and variously in the City of London. Although having left this field of endeavour two decades ago, I have retained a past professional interest in communications systems and their operation.

Royal Navy Radiogoniometer S25 internal_workings

Royal Navy Radiogoniometer S25 internal_workings

In reading day-to-day wartime operational records and naval staff monographs I had noticed from occasional references and snippets that Room 40’s products were more widely used at sea than has been acknowledged. This was especially so in the multifarious activities around the United Kingdom’s shores and in the North Sea.

These can be generally characterised in two ways. Firstly, there were the offensive operations carried out by forces of the regular navies of both sides. The largest of these, such as the famous Dogger Bank action of January 1915, have often had their Signals Intelligence (Sigint) aspects covered in published works: although lesser ones have not. However, with Handelskrieg mit U-booten (trade war with submarines), initially conducted by the Kaiserliche Marine in February 1915, a second struggle developed in these same waters. This was carried out overwhelmingly by submarines for the Germans; and an assortment of naval units, ranging from destroyers to a miscellany of reservist small craft and also merchantmen for the Allies.

DRESDEN (postcard)

DRESDEN (postcard): German light cruiser trapped and sunk directly through SIGINT. Image available in the public domain.

It was also known that there had been a Sigint aspect in hunting down and eventually sinking the German cruiser Dresden, in Chilean waters in March 1915. Careful reference to operational records and another naval staff monograph unearthed useful detail and further usage of intelligence material. Also, in dealing with international political affairs, particularly with the United States of America that were immensely important in the development of the war, from other sources I became aware of yet more aspects of British Signals Intelligence efforts.

Having read all the standard works on First World War Sigint I realised that none of these showed the then state of wireless communications technology though. As a past communicator, I regarded this as utterly inherent in making a proper study and so, made thorough investigations. Having done so, I noticed that my take on this was significantly different to other commentators. In one respect this was to be expected, as long experience had shown me that non-communicators tended to regard communicators either as practitioners of esoteric arts, or, unfortunately, as mere drones. (The reality, of course, has always been somewhere in between!)

As well as this, although admittedly not having used hand cypher very often (and even then, only in the FCO), I had been trained in this field. However, I found from published sources that generally I could not understand how these codes and cyphers actually worked. Therefore, I studied as many contemporaneous examples, both British and German that I could find. This practical handling allowed for greater grasp and hopefully, a clear exposition.

LUSITANIA - (postcard).

LUSITANIA (postcard). Image available in the public domain.

Finally, a word on Franz Rintelen might not go amiss. Only briefly mentioned in this monograph, the ‘Dark Invader’ as he dubbed himself in the early 1930s was a fascinating character. (For those not au fait with him, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, he published an explosive ‘biography’ in English, where he claimed that he had been a super spook-saboteur in the United States in 1915, working against the Allies. Wide-ranging investigations have shown me that his life was far more complicated than even he made out and potentially, there are some intelligence aspects that have not yet been uncovered properly. Even if a biography is out of the question for me, purely on grounds of the amount of time, money and effort required, I intend producing a monograph on him. So, it is entirely possible that more might be learned on the intercepted telegrams from 1915 that are in British naval files.

About the author: Len Barnett is an experienced freelance maritime researcher and author.  For further details of his research and work and to order Learning to use Signals Intelligence: The Royal Navy from the Development of Wireless to the War Years of 1914-1915 see his website at

British cable telegraphy in World War One: The All-Red Line and secure communications

By Elizabeth Bruton

1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson's The All Red Line - The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project

1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson’s The All Red Line – The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project (1903). Image available in the public domain.

In a previous article, we’ve discussed German cable telegraphy in World War One, and now it is time to examine British cable telegraphy in the conflict.  Much, if not all, British long-distance telecommunication relied on the “All-Red Line”, the network of British-controlled and operated electric telegraph cables stretching around the globe and so called due to the colour red (or sometimes pink) being used to designate British territories and colonies in the atlases of the period.

The origins and early history of the “All-Red Line”

The “All-Red Line” was operated through a mixture of public and private enterprise with the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) operating many of the telegraph cables in Asia, Africa, and beyond.  By the late nineteenth century, telegraphy cables from Britain stretched to all corners of the globe forming a massive international communications network of around 100,000 miles of undersea cables.

News which had previously taken up to six months to reach distant parts of the world could now be relayed in a matter of hours. In 1902 the “All Red Line” route was completed with the final stages of constuction of the trans-Pacific route and connected all parts of the British empire.

This telegraph network consisted of a series of cable links across the Pacific Ocean, connecting New Zealand and Australia with Vancouver and through the Trans-Canada and Atlantic lines to Europe. Submarine telegraph cables remained the only fast means of international communication for 75 years until the development of wireless telegraphy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Security and telegraph cables

Security and reliability were an important part of this vast international telecommunications network: there were multiple redundancies so that even if one cable was cut, a message could be sent through many other routes, operating a bit like the modern day Internet (which actually has far more redundancies built in). Further security was added in the location of telegraph line landfall: the “All-Red Line” was designed to only made landfall in British colonies or British-controlled territories although this may have compromised on occasionally.

In 1902 and around the time that the All-Red Line was completed, the Committee of Imperial Defence was established by the then British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and was made responsible for research and some coordination of British military strategy.  In 1911 and with the possibility of a war in Europe looming, the committee analysed the All-Red Line and concluded that it would be essentially impossible for Britain to be isolated from her telegraph network due to the redundancy built into the network: 49 cables would need to be cut for Britain to be cut off, 15 for Canada, and 5 for South Africa. Further to this, Britain and British telegraph companies owned and controlled most of the apparatus needed to cut or repair telegraph cables and also had a superior navy to control the seas.

British telegraph cables at the outbreak of war

As a resullt, when war broke out in August 1914 and some isolated telegraph stations such as the one at Cocos Islands asked for further security and military protection due to the risk of German attack, they got none and were left to their own devices in terms of protection.  Some of the staff on the Cocos Island station constructed a fake telegraph cable and this was one that was cut by the Germans in their attack on the island in November 1914 and so telegraph communication via this telegraph station was able to continue.

Indeed, as a result of the redundancies built into the system and British naval superiority, the “All-Red Line” – a network which was strategically important to businesses, government, and military and a keystone in British imperial activities – remained robust, secure, and essentially uninterrupted for the duration of the war.

Sources and further information

A Short History of Submarine Cables

History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Johnson, George. The All Red Line; the annals and aims of the Pacific Cable project. Ottowa: James Hope & Sons, 1903.  Available via Internet Archive.

Kenndy, P.M. Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914, The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 341 (Oct, 1971), pp. 728-752.  Available via JSTOR.

About the author: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”. See her profile for further details.

Hippisley Hut: Wireless interception at the outbreak of World War One

By Elizabeth Bruton

Update on 23/03/15: Hippisley Hut is now available for sale via Bedfords & Co at and in the meantime is available to rent as a holiday home at

Update on 29/07/14: Much thanks to Brian Austin for clarifying the details of Richard L. Hippisley and Richard John Bayntun Hippisley; the article has now been amended accordingly.

Hippisley Hut, Hunstanton, as it looks today.

Hippisley Hut, Hunstanton, as it looks today. Image courtesy of Sowerby’s.

Hippisley Hut in Hunstanton, Norfolk is now up for sale by Sowerby’s.  This ordinary wooden house near Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast is of historic interest being the birthplace of wireless interception during World War One.  So who was Hippisley and what was his role in development of wireless interception during World War One?  Why did he choose Hunstanton for his wireless interception “hut”?

Hippisley’s background and role in wireless interception at the outbreak of war

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956)

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956). Image from Mate’s County Series (1908) and available in the public domain.

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956) (known as Bayntun and referred to as such throughout this article) was born in Somerset in 1865 and was educated and trained in electrical and mechanical engineering: he was trained at Hammond College (later Faraday House), London and apprenticed at Thorn Engineering Company. In July 1888, Bayntun was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the North Somerset Yeomanry.

Bayntun Hippisley’s interest in science and technology was very much following in a family tradition. His grandfather, known as the “Old Squire”, was a member of many of Europe’s leading scientific societies and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and Bayntun inherited this interest in science. Bayntun Hippisley’s specific interest in electrical engineering and telecommunications may have been sparked by the earlier work of a relative (a half-Uncle, by my reckoning), Richard Lionel (R.L.) Hippisley (1853-1936). R.L. Hippisley was a member of the Royal Engineers and served as Director of Telegraphs in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).  In 1902, Colonel Hippisley returned to England and served as Chief Engineer (Scottish Command) of the Royal Engineers until 1910 when he retired.  In 1903, Colonel Hippisley wrote History of Telegraph Operations during the South African War, 1899 – 1902 and in 1903 and 1906 he served as one of the British representatives at the International Conferences on Wireless Telegraphy held in Berlin.

In 1908, Bayntun followed his elder relative’s path in the armed services, becoming an honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the North Somerset Yeomanry.  It was also around this time, and possibly due to his relative’s interest in wireless telegraphy, that Bayntun too began to develop an interest in wireless.  Soon Bayntun acquired a wireless license from the Post Office to operate his own wireless station, operating under the callsign HLX (later 2CW).  In 1912, he operated a wireless station in the Lizard, Cornwall and picked up messages from the Titanic.  In 1913, Hippisley was appointed a member of the War Office Committee on Wireless Telegraphy.

At the outbreak of war, many pre-war wireless amateurs including Bayntun approached the Admiralty about setting up a network of wireless stations to intercept enemy wireless traffic.  Lacking the resources and manpower to establish this network themselves, the Admiralty gladly accepted and many pre-war wireless amateurs became naval “voluntary interceptors”.

Two of these wireless amateurs who joined up had already been logging intercepts of German traffic at their amateur stations in London and Wales respectively, despite the official call to confiscate all privately-owned wireless receivers.  These two men were friends and wireless amateurs Edward Russell Clarke, (callsign THX) a barrister and automotive pioneer, and Bayntun Hippisley.

From their wireless stations in Wales and London respectively, Bayntun and Russell Clarke were receiving German naval signals from the German Navy on a lower wavelength than was currently being received by the existing Marconi stations.  They had isolated and reported a number of regular signals they believed to be from German naval wireless stations at Neumunster and Norddeich. Their report was passed onto the Admiralty’s Intelligence Division and so, along with many other such amateurs, they were sent to work for Naval Intelligence as ‘voluntary interceptors’ (VIs) and reported their signals intelligence back to Room 40. Bayntun was appointed Commander RNVR for service with the Naval Intelligence Division.

In late 1914, Bayntun and Russell Clarke were sent to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast to setup a listening post in a former coastguard station in what became known as ‘Hippisley’s Hut’.  Hunstanton was chosen because it was the highest point nearest the German coast and was also home to an existing Marconi wireless station.

Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton

The Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton was established about 1909 and the former power station is still in place today.

"Empire Series": Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

“The Empire Series”: Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909. Image courtesy of Gavin Fuller.

"Empire Series": Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

“The Empire Series”: Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

Two of the contemporary images of the Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton come from the Empire series.  The “Empire Series” (or sometimes “E.S.”) was published by the Pictorial Post Card Company which operated from Red Lion Square, London between 1904 and 1909.  They also printed view-cards, novelty cards, actors and actresses, and comic cards by Donald McGill as well as the Empire Series postcards.

Wireless interception at Hunstanton

When Bayntun and Russell Clarke arrived at the coastguard station at Hunstanton in late 1914, they found a wooden mast with no aerial but they were soon intercepting signals. The station was very successful, intercepting German naval and airship wireless signals, and led to a series of 14 wireless intercept (Y stations) being setup along the British coast as well as station in Italy and Malta.

As a result of his wartime service and successes, Bayntun was awarded an OBE (military) in 1918; this was promoted to a CBE (civil) in 1937.

Wireless Direction-Finding Station on the cliffs near Hunstanton, c. 1915.

Wireless Direction-Finding Station on the cliffs near Hunstanton, c. 1915.
Image available in the public domain.

Hunstanton was also home, at least temporarily, to a wireless direction-finding station (B station) which was used to locate the position of German naval vessels and airships by triangulating their wireless signals.

Utilising this combination of signal interception and direction-finding, the resulting intelligence came to the fore in 1916 with notable successes during the First Blitz by Zeppelins and the Battle of Jutland. By 1917 a turning point had been reached with more U-boats sunk and Zeppelins downed than any previous years mostly in thanks to wireless interception and decryption. Wireless was also successfully employed with the clearing of the Western Approaches in late 1917, a development which was credit to Bayntun himself. By 1918 the Admiralty signals intelligence (or ‘SIGINT’) guaranteed complete control of the airwaves and during the first four months of the year four Zeppelins were shot down over England and twenty-four U-boats sunk.

After the war

After the war, Bayntun returned to his family’s estate Ston Easton in Somerset and resumed his pre-war life. In 1931 he was elected a County Alderman for Somerset, and appointed Traffic Commissioner for the Western Counties. He was awarded the CBE (Civil) in 1937. Bayntun died in April 1956 at the age of 90 and his life was remembered with an obituary in the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers as well as letter in The Times from his friend Lieutenant-Colonel H.W. Kettlewell. Kettlewell’s letter in The Times praised Bayntun as “an almost unique personality … [who possessed] a most remarkable mechnical and scientific gift…” In particular, Kettlewell highlighted Bayntun’s contribution to the war effort during the First World War:

[Bayntun was] given carte blanche to select, organize and maintain throughout the war the wireless stations round these [British] isles; so secret and of such importance was his work that he could then only be communicated with through the Admiralty. Some 20 years or more I happened to meet a well-known admiral, who, when I mentioned Bayntun Hippisley as among my friends, remarked: “He was one of the men who really won the war.”

Bayntun Hippisley’s vital role in World War One was further highlighted in a 1995 article in The Times by William Rees-Mogg, “Tradition and the innovate talent”:

In Somerset we believe that Bayntun Hippisley personally won the First World War. He came from a family with an engineering and scientific talent; his grandfather had been a Fellow of the Royal Society. Bayntun was an early pioneer of radio research; in 1913 he was appointed a member of the Parliamentary Commission of Wireless for the Army . When war broke out in 1914 he joined Naval Intelligence and was made a commander. He was the man who solved the problem of listening to U-boats when they were talking to each on the radio by devising a double-tuning device which simultaneously identified the waveband and precise wavelength. That, it is said, was essential to clearing the Western Approaches in late 1917, when American troops were coming over. Bayntun Hippisley sat in Goonhilly listening to the U-boat captains as they chatted happily to each other in clear German; he told the destroyers where to find them; the food and the Americans got through.

Sources and further information

A Brief History of the Hippisley Family by Mike Matthews

Auto Biography & History Michael John Hippisley Born 18th July 1934

Grace’s Guide: Baynton_Hippisley

h2g2: Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956)

JHRB, Obituary: Richard John Bayntun Hippisley in Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol 3 No 26 (1957), 111.

Kettlewell, Lieutenant-Colonel H.W. Cmdr. R. J. B. Hippisley. The Times, 11 April 1956, p13.

Rees-Mogg, William. Tradition and the innovative talent. The Times, 5 June 1995, p5.

West, Nigel. GCHQ: The Secret Wireless War, 1900-86. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986, 33, 54.

About the author: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her profile for further details.

Guest Post by Brian Austin: Wartime Wireless Intelligence and E.W.B. Gill

A rare image of EWB Gill, taken in 1922

A rare image of EWB Gill, taken in 1922

Walter Gill (1883 – 1959) was an Oxford physicist and a specialist in electromagnetic phenomena. He was also a man with an incisive mind – though well-balanced by a ready sense of the absurd.  A likely candidate, one would have thought when war broke out in August 1914, for some useful position in the Army then assembling with much urgency. But Gill was too old, so he was told, to be commissioned as an officer and so he took himself to the recruiting office and volunteered as a private.

Following a short spell digging trenches on the Isle of Wight, Gill received a letter from the War Office reconsidering its earlier decision. He was offered a commission in the heavy artillery – his knowledge of trigonometry had clearly helped – and told to report to Woolwich. But the arsenal had no guns so, to keep its newly-created officers busy, they were lectured on the art of grooming horses, incessantly. During the time he spent there, much of which involved such seemingly pointless activities, the not-so-young Second Lieutenant Gill became acquainted with many strange military practices not least of which was the need to salute almost anything that moved.

But the war was itself moving on and soon it was realised that there was need for officers well-versed in the wireless art and especially its use for intelligence purposes. Gill was immediately transferred to the Royal Engineers in whose parish wireless had found itself.  This appealed to him for many and obvious reasons: his physics background equipped him rather better than most for such a technical task and his natural scepticism, when confronted by extravagant claims, made him the ideal intelligence analyst.

Front cover of "War, Wireless & Wrangles" by EWB Gill (1934).

Front cover of “War, Wireless & Wrangles” by EWB Gill (1934).

After the war, in 1934 in fact, Gill published a delightful book describing his wartime experiences.  Called War, Wireless and Wangles, and illustrated with some wonderful cartoons, the book recounted, in often hilarious detail, the contest between the “Teutonic mind”, as he saw the German obsession with organisation of the most methodical and precise kind and the, at times, almost shambolic British response.  As just one example, he described how the Zeppelins, those cumbersome predecessors of the bombers of the next war, were all equipped with wireless and each had a call sign beginning, shall we say, with the letter L followed by another, thus LA, LB, LC and so on.  It took little intelligence, in both senses of the word, on the British side to soon deduce that this grouping of letters was reserved for the German Zeppelin fleet and, from that, considerable operational advantage flowed. Some time later, realising this weakness in their system, the German planners changed their call signs but, in well ordered fashion, so LA became MB and so on. More was to follow.

One of the cartoons from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934)

One of the cartoons from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934).

Every hour, and almost on the hour, those Zeppelins would report their position to the High Seas Fleet under whose command they fell.  These regular wireless transmissions were a bonanza of the highest order for the listening British wireless stations with their associated direction-finding facilities.  Not only was warning given of an impending attack, several hours before they crossed the British coast, but their positions and courses were plotted as they lumbered on.

But behind the humour was much of historical value too, particularly of a technical nature.  The art of direction finding by radio came into its own during the war owing to the work of two brilliant engineers at the Marconi Company: H.J. Round and C.S. Franklin. By means of the infant valve technology of the time that provided unprecedented amplification, and arrays of antennas that produced controlled directivity, these two men gave the Army a formidable intelligence tool. But it was the Royal Navy, initially highly sceptical until they changed their view on seeing the performance of that equipment when deployed in France, that took great advantage of the technology.  In May 1916, a 1.5 degree shift in a DF bearing indicated that the German High Seas Fleet was on the move from its anchorage at Wilhelmshaven and this intelligence enabled the Navy to position its Grand Fleet for the Battle of Jutland that took place the next day.

Another cartoon from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934)

Another cartoon from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934)

Gill himself was soon on his way to Egypt. He was posted to what would become a wireless intercept station but his first task was to assemble another one on Cyprus so he proceeded thither with the four tall masts of a Bellini-Tosi DF antenna. That they fell down during the erection process was merely part of the Army’s day but all was soon well once the guys had been correctly set. By now Gill had become something of an antenna expert and his next contribution followed in short order. Back in Egypt and charged with setting up another intercept station he astounded his commanding officer when he announced that he’d found the ideal very tall supporting structure for its aerial. Since nature had provided nothing taller than palm trees in the region, the CO was naturally sceptical until Gill pointed out the Great Pyramid at Giza with a wire affixed to its pinnacle.  This aerial proved itself to be very effective: a Zeppelin, on its mission over England, was heard on the single-valve receiver of the station. No mean feat!

After encounters with Egyptian princes and British Army officers who kept pet chameleons, Gill began to acclimatise to the rather exotic way of life common, or so it seemed, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  From Cyprus he went to Salonika to take charge of one of the intelligence wireless stations in that region. This was the place, it was alleged, that St Paul only visited once. Afterwards he contented himself by writing epistles to its inhabitants.  It turned out that malaria was rife in the country and, as might be expected, the Army took this very seriously. Various deterrents were either to be swallowed or applied as medical science evolved. One day he noted that the latest approved substance bore an uncanny resemblance to gearbox grease. It was claimed to be lethal to mosquitoes. However, Gill was confronted by the regimental sergeant major just before he was due to order all his men apply the stuff to themselves. Should he first remove the mosquitoes from the tin where they appeared to be eating the grease?

Another cartoon from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934)

Another cartoon from War, Wireless and Wrangles (1934)

By the war’s end, the now Major Gill had become one of the British Army’s experts in the art of wireless intelligence both technically and operationally. The latter skill he acquired without benefit of formal instruction. When in Egypt, and the flow of intercepted German wireless traffic became a daily occurrence, the standard procedure was to send it all, by cable, to London where it would be deciphered by experts, perhaps at “Room 40” the centre where such dark arts were practised. But to a man of Gill’s intelligence and curiosity, and with the collaboration of a similarly endowed colleague, it seemed only natural to “have a go” themselves. And soon, based on little more than common sense plus the application of a logical mind, they did indeed “crack” the code. It should be said at this stage that it was by no means a high-grade cipher; more like something based on a “child’s first cipher-book”, as Gill put it. German cipher policy, it would seem, differentiated between theatres of war and clearly the further east those happened to be the lower the quality of the cipher required.

They duly sent the deciphered ciphers to London in the approved way and fully expected to be soundly reprimanded for their unauthorised efforts. However, the reaction forthcoming was precisely the opposite: their action was approved and the War Office said they would send one of their experts to Egypt to give Gill and his colleague instruction in the latest cipher-solving devices. This story has interesting repercussions soon after the outbreak of the next World War when, once again, Gill offered his services to the military. And again he found himself at the very sharp end of the intelligence war. However, this time, his indiscretion by once again breaking the German code (emanating from the Abwehr no less) had a very different outcome. That story, though, has been told elsewhere and will not intrude upon this account of his First World War service.

Walter Gill’s war ended in 1918 with him back in England and in command of the Army’s intelligence wireless stations as well as a training school. For his service he was awarded the OBE (mil.) and was twice mentioned in despatches. One of Gill’s many remarkable characteristics was his modesty. He sought no honour for himself nor even any publicity. Finding a single photograph of the man proved a major task and when accomplished it shows Walter Gill, back at Merton College, Oxford, in 1922 where he resumed his academic career until the next encounter with the Germans when he again offered his services.

This blog post is based on Dr Austin’s full-length article on EWB Gill published in The Journal of the Royal Signals Institution vol.29, No.2, Winter 2010 [pdf].

About the author

Dr Brian Austin is a retired engineering academic from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics. Before that he spent some years on the academic staff of his alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He also had a spell, a decade in fact, in industry where he led the team that developed an underground radio system for use in South Africa’s very deep gold mines.

He also has a great interest in the history of his subject and especially the military applications of radio and electronics. This has seen him publish a number of articles on topics from the first use of wireless in warfare during the Boer War (1899 – 1902) and South Africa’s wartime radar in WW2, to others dealing with the communications problems during the Battle of Arnhem and, most recently, on wireless in the trenches in WW1. He is also the author of the biography of Sir Basil Schonland, the South African pioneer in the study of lightning, scientific adviser to Field Marshall Mongomery’s 21 Army Group and director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell.

Brian Austin lives on the Wirral.

Guest post by Andreas Marklund: Female Censors at the Danish State Telegraph during World War One

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen c.1915

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen, Miss Galschiøtt and Mr. Henriksen, aiding a secret military intelligence unit called Kystcentralen, circa 1915. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

On June 1, 1918, ten “ladies” with “excellent language skills” had their first day of work as telegram censors at the Danish state telegraph. They had all been tested in foreign languages – German, French and English – by a professor at the University of Copenhagen, and all of them were quite literally daughters of the elite. The first two names on the list of employees are illuminating: “Miss INGER GRAM, daughter of the Supreme Court President, Dr. Jur. R.S. Gram”, followed by “Miss ASTRID HERTZ, daughter of the Medical Officer, Dr. Med. Poul Hertz.”

Inger Gram and Astrid Hertz, and their eight, equally unmarried colleagues, were employed by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs but their office was located at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. Here, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a unit for cable censorship, which had been in operation since November 1916. In fact, the system of censorship and secret monitoring had been up and running since August 1, 1914, when the Telegraph Directory decreed that no telegrams transmitted from Denmark should contain “sensational and false messages about Danish conditions and popular moods“. However, the system was loosely organized in the beginning of the war, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was anything but satisfied with the practical handling of censorship issues, which initially sorted under the Telegraph Directory and the so-called Ministry for Public Works. Accordingly, after a harsh debate in the Danish parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took charge of the surveillance system and established its own Censorship Office at the Main Telegraph Station, which was staffed by four external censors who had no previous connections to the Danish State Telegraph.

Yet the system remained inefficient and defective. The Ministry of Foreign Affair’s censorship director, Marinus Yde, complained in a memo to his superiors that merely 500-600 telegrams, out of the approximately 7 000 telegrams that the Danish State Telegraph transmitted on a daily basis, were handed over to his censors. Thus, there was clear lack of cooperation between the censors and the ordinary telegraph staff. In another memo, dated to 29 April 1918, Mr. Yde bemoaned this glitch in the system in a rather candid tone:

The whole mountain of telegram correspondence is thus being processed without any other control than that which is carried out by the (often very young) telegraph operators, while they are transmitting and charging the telegrams. This kind of control is of no value at all.

This is where Miss Inger Gram and her nine female colleagues entered the picture. They were definitely not the first women within the Danish telecommunications sector. The first female telegraph operator in the country, the famous author and feminist Mathilde Fibiger, had entered service as early as in 1863, and there had been women working for the Censorship Office before the summer of 1918, for instance as stenographers and record keepers. Yet the idea of employing women as cable censors was a novelty of World War One – and its origin was seemingly Swedish. In the above-mentioned 1918 memo, Mr Yde wrote about an excursion to the Main Telegraph Station in Stockholm, where female censor clerks functioned as a kind of basic control filter, by “sifting” the “whole mountain” of incoming and outgoing telegrams. And whenever they discovered a suspicious message, it was forwarded to senior (male) censors in a neighboring office.

Mr. Yde was greatly impressed by this model and recommended it with enthusiasm to his superiors. The gender aspect was explicitly highlighted: “The main work could definitely be carried out by female employees, who would be provided by the State Telegraph, thereby keeping the expenses at a minimum.” As the quotation makes clear, there was a financial dimension to the employment of female censors: qualified women with the necessary language skills were far less expensive to keep on the pay-roll than equally qualified men.

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. In the background, busy female operators are typing on their Morse apparatuses. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

So, the Censorship Office was re-organized yet again and it assumed a bicameral structure. The original censorship unit at the Main Telegraph Station was supplemented with an extra department called the Control Office, where the staff was made up by the ten language-skilled “ladies” (damer) and one man: a young PhD in philosophy named Kort Kristian Kortsen, who was affiliated with the University of Copenhagen. As in the case of the Swedish surveillance system, the mission of this office was to “carry out the preliminary, crude assessment of the massive load of telegrams, and put all those telegrams aside, that calls for a closer inspection by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ current censors.” This kind of surveillance work was labelled “control” (kontrol), whereas the senior office dealt with something called “prohibitive censorship” (prohibitiv censur).

Both offices were managed by an Official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named Lauritz Larsen, who was considered to be equipped with “exactly that interest for general patterns and small details, which is necessary for the perfect overall result.” To speed up the process and reduce the number of customer complaints, the offices were connected through a logistical device called an “electric transporter”: a cart that ran on rails in the ceiling with telegrams, censorship minutes and other kinds of messages. Yet the friction between the censors and the cable station staff remained an unresolved issue, and the system continued to be haunted by delays, misunderstandings and direct conflicts, but that is another story for another day.

Andreas Marklund is Researcher and Research Coordinator at Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Podcast from Royal Society lecture: “Sacrifice of a Genius”: Henry Moseley’s role as a Signals Officer in World War One

The podcast from our recent lecture at the Royal Society, “Sacrifice of a Genius”: Henry Moseley’s role as a Signals Officer in World War One, delivered by Elizabeth Bruton on 11 October is now available on the Royal Society website at

The podcast also incorporates the PowerPoint slides from the lecture.