Tag Archives: wireless

Guest post by David Barlow: Wireless announces the outbreak of war

By David Barlow, Lizard Wireless Museum

Message sent from the Marconi long-distance wireless station at Poldhu on 5 August 1914 using the callsign ZZ for communicating with ships and received by merhcant vessel SS Calgarian, later HMS Calgarian.

Message sent from the Marconi long-distance wireless station at Poldhu on 5 August 1914 using the callsign ZZ for communicating with ships and received by merhcant vessel SS Calgarian, later HMS Calgarian.

Early on the morning of 5 August, a wireless message was sent by the powerful long-distance Marconi wireless station at Poldhu (callsign ZZ) on behalf of the Admiralty to all British merchant vessels. The message was the first public announcement of war and warned British merchant vessels not to go to German ports.

On the previous day, 4 August 1914, the German Army had crossed the Belgian border on their way to France and hence ignored Belgian neutrality. As guarantors of Belgian neutrality, Britain was obliged to declare war upon Germany and her allies. Reports differ as to the actual time that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith declared war against Germany as it was a Bank Holiday. The following morning, newspapers varied in their times between 7pm and 11pm with the official time of declaration of war between Britain and Germany was probably midnight.

As well as warning British merchant vessels, the Admiralty had to, of course, advise ships of the Royal Navy that war had been declared as soon as it was announced. This would have been done both by landline and using its network of shore stations to advise ships at sea. Merchant ships also had to be advised both of the outbreak of war and not to go to German ports. This was done by not only sending the message to the Post Office run coast stations which were in contact with merchant and passenger ships but to ensure it was received out in the Atlantic it was sent to the high powered station at Poldhu in Cornwall.

Marconi wireless station at Poldhu, c.1910.

The Marconi wireless station at Poldhu, c.1910, taken from from Salmon, Arthur L. The Cornwall
Coast (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910), 137. Photograph by Gibson & Sons. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia.

The connection between the Admiralty and the Marconi Company – first established as the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 and later renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900 – dated back to 1896 when Marconi gave early demonstrations of his wireless system to officers from the Royal Navy including one Captain Henry Jackson. Jackson had been experimenting with wireless telegraphy himself and was probably the first person to signal from ship-to-ship using wireless telegraphy. Jackson advised Marconi on adapting his wireless system to make it more suitable for maritime use and supported the integration of Marconi’s wireless system into the Royal Navy, in parallel with the development of his own system.

The Marconi Company sent wireless telegraphy apparatus out to South Africa for use by the British Army in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Atmospheric and geographical conditions as well as the relatively experimental nature of the wireless apparatus meant they were unsuitable for use on land but the wireless apparatus was adapted by the Royal Navy for use at sea and was used to support the naval blockade of Delagoa Bay. This was the first use of wireless telegraphy under wartime conditions.

In part as a result of these successes, in 1901 the Admiralty signed an agreement with the Marconi Company to supply wireless telegraphy apparatus for Royal Navy ships and to set up coast stations to receive signals from the ships. This contract was further extended in 1903 and in 1904 the Royal Navy began to use the Marconi wireless system exclusively. By 1908, the importance of Admiralty wireless messages was acknowledged in the “Handbook for Wireless Operators” which noted that distress calls had priority followed by Admiralty messages and then safety messages, also known as danger messages, which were preceded by the Morse code signal TTT.

Meanwhile, coastal wireless shore stations selected included “Telegraph Tower” on the Isles of Scilly as well as Culver Cliff, Dover, Portland, Spurn Head and Languard in England, St. Anne’s Head in Wales and Roche’s Point and Bere Island in Ireland. The Admiralty also had hub stations in major locations such as Gibraltar & Malta with a central station in London called “Whitehall Wireless.” In 1911, the central Admiralty wireless station in London was moved to the Admiralty buildings in Whitehall and this was probably used as the communications and receiving centre for “Room 40”, the Admiralty’s centre for naval intelligence including signals intelligence during World War One.

To mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and to highlight the role of wireless in alerting the world especially shipping to the outbreak of war, a special callsign GB100ZZ has been allocated to a wireless station at Poldhu, near to the former site of the Marconi long-distance wireless station. GB100 callsigns are rare and are only given to mark centenary national events.

GB100ZZ Station Details

Active from Poldhu home of GB2GM from 3-30 August 2014.

QTH – Poldhu site where declaration of war was transmitted on night of 4 August 1914.
Station organised by the Radio Officers’ Association to honour the Wireless Operators who gave their lives in the Great War on both sides of the conflict.  This event will be run by the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club from the site of the Marconi Centre.

QSL – e-qsl ONLY (unless a sponsor can be found).

Locator io70ia

For full details, see www.500kcs.org

British Pathe wireless films from World War One

The entire British Pathe archive of over 85,000 films is now available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe

This collection includes some wonderful wireless-related films, see https://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe/search?query=wireless

Two particular films of interest are:

Arriving For Instructions In Wireless – Telegraphy At Marconi House (1919) which opens with a scene of army wireless operators arriving at Marconi House in London for training

Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918) which shows a wireless mast being installed on top of a stopped train.

It was the latter of film which was of particular interest – the description below the video stated that the location of events was unknown and that the nationality of the soldiers were not absolutely certain but might be Belgian.

Screenshot of wireless mast being put up from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

Screenshot of wireless mast being put up from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

An answer came via one of our subscribers and Len Blasiol on the Modern Conflict Archaeology Facebook group that the soldiers were definitely French officers and men:

The helmets look a bit like those of Poilu although it’s difficult to tell with certainty whether they have the metal ridge. However, there are two officers in the scene. One leans out of the railroad car at two points, and the other walks up near the end. Both of them have a quatrefoil on the top of their kepi.

Screenshot of group of soldiers beside the train from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

Screenshot of group of soldiers beside the train from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

So this rather begs the question: why and how were they using a wireless system on a stopped train and where and when might this film be from?

Please answer in our comments below!

Update: Chris Phillips from the University of Leeds, an expert on the logistical administration, in particular trains, of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, suggested that this might be an advance headquarters.  For example, Haig had a train advanced headquarters but Chris was unable to comment on how common this might have been in the French Army.

Might anyone be able to provide any further information?

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 Keith Thrower: Army radio communication in the Great War

Prior to the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914 many of the techniques to be used in later years for radio communications had already been invented, although most were still at an early stage of practical application. Radio transmitters were predominantly using spark discharge from a high-voltage induction coil. The transmitted signal was noisy and rich in harmonics and spread widely over the radio spectrum.

The ideal transmission was a continuous wave (CW) and there were three ways of producing these: by an HF alternator, a Poulsen arc generator or a valve oscillator. The first two of these were high-power generators and not suitable for battlefield communication. Valve oscillators were eventually universally adopted. Several important circuits using valves had been produced by 1914. Predominant amongst these were the amplifier, detector and oscillator. The oscillator, apart from its use as a CW generator for radio transmitters, was also used in radio receivers in a heterodyne circuit and the resulting beat note produced an audible tone of the Morse signal in the headphones.

Valves at this time were still at a primitive state of development. Those available were: The Fleming diode, the de Forest audion triode and the C and T triodes designed by the Marconi engineer Henry Round. All these triode valves were gas-filled to improve their sensitivity but had erratic performance.

Both the C and T valves were used in the Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver. This radio, however, would not have been robust enough for use under battlefield conditions. The C valve, however, was used by the army in direction finding stations.

Early army radios

At the start of the war the only radios available were a few 500-watt and 1500-watt spark transmitters and their crystal-detector receivers. The 500-watt pack sets were used with Cavalry Brigades and the 1500-watt wagon sets with Cavalry Divisional Headquarters and General Headquarters.

The principal method of communication by the British army, up to late 1917, was by cable for speech and Morse transmission. Initially, a single cable was laid above ground and the earth used as the return. However, the cable was vulnerable to damage by enemy fire and by the passage of tanks across the battlefield, a problem not solved even when buried cable was used. Very often communication was not possible, particularly when troops were moving rapidly forward or in retreat. During the course of the war tens of thousand miles of cable was laid and, at times, there was an acute shortage of replacement cable.

It was found that the Germans were able to listen in by picking up earth currents or tapping into the cable. This was not realized at first but, when discovered, it was necessary to limit the number and content of the message and, where possible, to use codes or encryption. A solution to this was the Fullerphone, which made the signal immune from eavesdropping, but it could not be used for telephony.

Other non-wireless means of sending messages that were used with mixed success during the war was by runners, dispatch riders, pigeons, lamps and flags.

Up until the end of March 1918 the Royal Flying Corp was part of the army and experimental work on aircraft radio communication was carried out at Brooklands and later at Biggin Hill. The development group, headed by Major Charles Prince, also worked on the development of CW voice transmission. This culminated in mid-1916 with the successful demonstration of ground-to-air speech communication. However, it was to be a further two years before suitable equipment was incorporated in aircraft. Consequently all the early radios were spark transmitters fitted in the aeroplanes and crystal receivers on the ground.

No 1 Aircraft Spark

Amongst the earliest radios to be used in aeroplanes was the 30‑watt, No 1 Aircraft Spark (Figure 1), powered from an accumulator. The set was designed in 1914 and fitted to approximately 600 aircraft during 1915. It was used for spotting enemy artillery and reporting back to ground by Morse code. There were several variants of the set and, altogether, nearly 4000 of these were manufactured.

Unlike with the RFC there was a general lack of enthusiasm in the army for using radios, particularly during the first two years of the war. There were several reasons for this: the equipment was bulky; the accumulators needed frequent re-charging; and there was a genuine fear that the enemy would be able to intercept the messages.

This situation was to change later in the war when radio had proved to be the only reliable way to communicate, particularly when troops were on the move.

The BF Trench Set

One of the earliest radios to be used in the trenches was the 50-watt Trench Set, also known as the BF Set (Figure 2) which was used for communication from Brigade to Division. This went into action in the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and in the first Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. The transmitting portion of set was based on the design of the No 1 Aircraft Spark set. The receiving portion used a carborundum crystal detector. It was powered from an accumulator and also required dry-cell batteries for biasing the carborundum crystal and an internal test buzzer.

Its range was 3.7km with aerials mounted on masts but this reduced to 1.1km when the aerial was run close to the ground.

Careful planning of frequencies was required in order to minimize interference from neighbouring spark transmitters, a problem much simplified when CW sets came into use.

The BF set was used extensively during the second half of the war and approximately 1200 were manufactured.

130-watt Wilson Trench Set & Short Wave Tuner Mk. III

The Wilson Transmitter was used primarily for Division to Corps communication and Corps Directing Station. This set came into service about the same time as the BF Trench Set. It had a fixed spark gap with a motor-driven, high-speed interrupter rather than the slower magnetic interrupter. The greater number of sparks produced a musical note in the headphones, making the Morse signal more easy to hear through interference. The transmitter had the same frequencies as the BF set and the higher power meant that the range was up to 8.3km. The set was supplied by an accumulator.

Tuner Short Wave Mk. III*

The Mk. III version of this tuner was introduced in 1916 and the Mk. III* in 1918. Its prime purpose was to receive Morse messages from aircraft flying over the trenches but it was also used with the Wilson Set. The receiver used a crystal detector and there was a buzzer for calibrating and testing the tuner. Total production was 766 transmitters and 6595 receivers.

Later valve Developments

Towards the end of 1915 an entirely new type of valve was developed under Colonel (later General) Gustav Ferrié who was in charge of the French Military Telegraphic Service. The construction was very simple: it had a straight tungsten filament, a spiral grid and a cylindrical anode. It was evacuated to a low pressure and during the manufacturing process the glass and metal parts were heated to a sufficient temperature to release occluded gases. The valve, known as the TM, was immensely successful and widely used throughout the war, over 100,000 of which were made by the two French companies, Fotos and Métal. By 1916 it was being manufactured in Britain as the R-valve.

There were many variants, including the Air Force C and D, and the low-power transmitting valves B, F and AT25. Two higher power transmitting valves, introduced in late 1917, were the T2A and T2B which had 250 watt dissipations. These were used by the RFC (later RAF) in ground station CW transmitters.

One problem with the TM and R-valve was the high capacitance between the anode and grid. This made its use as an RF amplifier very difficult because energy fed back from the output of the valve to its input was liable to cause unwanted oscillation.

To overcome this Round of the Marconi Company developed the type Q in 1916 which featured small size and low capacitance. It had a straight tungsten filament terminated by the two pointed metal caps at each bend of the bulb. Both the anode and grid connections were taken to two further caps near one end of the tubular glass bulb. The Q was primarily intended as a detector but it was also used as both an amplifier. It overall length was 73mm and the bulb diameter 16mm. Later in the war Round designed the V24 which was better suited as an RF or AF amplifier.

Later army radios

Valve radios first made their appearance in 1916. One of the earliest was the Tuner Aircraft Valve Mk. I but this was not made in significant numbers.

W/T Set Forward Spark 20 watt “B”

This set came into service in 1917 and was also known as ‘The Loop Set’ and was used for forward communication. There were both Rear Stations and Front Stations sets, with two versions of each. There were also separate receivers for the Rear and Forward Stations. These receivers had two valves which were either the French TM or the British R.

The transmitter had a fixed spark gap powered directly from an induction coil operating in a similar way to the BF Trench Set. The power for the stations was supplied by an accumulator and a 32-volt HT battery.

Approximately 4000 of the transmitters and receivers were manufactured.

W/T Trench Set Mk. I 30-watt

The first CW sets for field use were made in 1916 and used a single valve for both the transmitter and receiver circuits and was used for forward communication by ICW. The Mark 1* version came into service in 1917 and incorporated a high-speed interrupter to modulate the transmission.

W/T Set Trench CW Mk. III*

This (CW) set comprised a transmitter and a heterodyne receiver in separate boxes. It came into service in 1917 and was used for forward area telegraphy.

The transmitter was rated at 30-watts and had a range of 3.7km. It utilised two valves which were either the type B or AT25.

The receiver had two R valves. The first of these was used in a heterodyne circuit and the second as an audio frequency amplifier for the Morse signal.

The complete set also included a heterodyne wavemeter, Selector Unit and Rectifier Unit.

Total production was a little under 3000 for both the transmitter and the receiver and approximately 400 of the Selector Units.

Telephone Wireless Aircraft Mk. II

The Telephone Aircraft Mk. II came into service in 1917. It had two B or F valves, one being used for control and other an output valve. An accumulator was used to supply the valve’s filaments and the HT was derived from a wind-driven generator. It had a range of 3.2km to other aircraft and 2km to ground stations.

The aerial was a trailing wire of length 100–150ft with a lead weight at the end.

Earlier attempts to fit radio telephones in aircraft had been hampered by the high background noise from the aircraft’s engine. This problem was alleviated by the design of a helmet with built-in microphone and earphones to block much of the noise.

A typical receiver for use with this transmitter was the Tuner Aircraft Mk III which had three R valves, one for the detector and two for low-frequency amplification.


The army was very slow to adopt wireless for communication on the battlefield and relied too much on communication by cable. There was a genuine fear that wireless would be intercepted by the enemy but this was also true with cable. The cable used was being constantly severed by shell fire and the passage of tanks across the battlefield.

Apart from a few high-powered transmitters that played a minor role in the war, the first wireless transmitters were fitted in aircraft during 1915. These were used to communicate with crystal receivers on the ground to direct artillery fire.

The first trench sets went into service towards the end of 1915. From this time onward the army came slowly round to realizing that wireless communication was a more reliable way to communicate than by cable, particularly when troops were moving rapidly forwards or backwards.

The most significant technical breakthrough came following the development of the TM valve in France. This, and its many derivatives, enabled reliable valve transmitters and receivers to be produced from 1916 onwards. It now became possible to make CW transmitters, which were far superior to the spark sets.

By mid-1917 the army at last accepted that radios were the best way to communicate and increasing numbers of these came into service in the final year of the war.


I should like to thank Nick Kendall-Carpenter and his archive staff at the Royal Signal Museum, Blandford, Louis Meulstree and John Liffen of the Science Museum for their valuable assistance.

About the Author: Keith Thrower OBE is author of British Radio Valves: The Vintage Years – 1904-1925 and British Radio Valves: The Classic Years 1926-1946.

This article is based on the paper Keith gave at “Making Telecommunications in the First World War” in Oxford on 24 January 2014. See our events page for full details including the abstract, PowerPoint slides and full version of Keith’s paper.

(left) Commercial version of Fleming diode; (right) BT-H version of the de Forest Audion triode

Fig. 1 (left) Commercial version of Fleming diode; (right) BT-H version of the de Forest Audion triode, a ‘soft’ valve erratic in operation.

Marconi-Round C and T valves of 1913

Fig. 2: Marconi-Round C and T valves of 1913. These were both ‘soft’ valves. The C was a receiver valve for use as a detector or RF amplifier. The T was a transmitter valve.

Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver

Fig 3: Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver. This set used a C valve in the receiver, connected as an RF amplifier with regenerative feedback to increase its gain and provide improved selectivity. Detection was by a carborundum crystal. For transmission there was a single T.N. valve (seen mounted in the frame) and this was connected as an oscillator. It is believed that Marconi used this set for CW voice trials in 1914.

Marconi 1.5 kW spark generator of approx. 1911 design

Fig 4: Marconi 1.5 kW spark generator of approx. 1911 design. Note the rotating spark gap seen at the front.

Marconi 1.5 kW spark Pack Set

Fig 5: Marconi 1.5 kW spark Pack Set showing the operating cart with the crystal set receiver.

No. 1 Aircraft Transmitter Spark

Fig 6: No. 1 Aircraft Transmitter Spark. 30-watt input. Note the spark gap on the top right inside the cabinet with the adjustment for the gap at the front.

W/T Trench Set 50 Watt D.C. (Also known as the BF set)

Fig 7: W/T Trench Set 50 Watt D.C. (Also known as the BF set) The spark gap is clearly seen at the bottom.

W/T trench Set 130-watt Wilson

Fig 8: W/T trench Set 130-watt Wilson. Transmitter only; used with Tuner Short Wave Mk. III.

Tuner Short Wave Mk. III*

Fig 9: Tuner Short Wave Mk. III*. This receiver has both a carborundum and a Perikon detector.

French TM and Osram F valve

Fig. 10a & 10b: French TM and Osram F valve. The TM was a general-purpose valve used mainly as a detector or an AF amplifier. The F was a low-power transmitting valve similar in construction to the TM.

Top Q, bottom V24

Fig. 10c & 10d: Top Q, bottom V24. The Q went into production at Edison Swan in 1916 and was used mainly as a detector. The V24 probably went into production at the end of 1917 or early in 1918. It was used as both an RF and an AF amplifier.

W/T Forward Spark 20-watt “B” transmitter

Fig. 11: W/T Forward Spark 20-watt “B” transmitter.

Fig. 12: W/T Forward Spark 20-watt “B” receiver.

Fig. 12: W/T Forward Spark 20-watt “B” receiver.

W/T Trench Set Mk. I

Fig 13: W/T Trench Set Mk. I. Combined transmitter & receiver.

W/T Receiver Short Wave Mk. III**

Fig 14: W/T Receiver Short Wave Mk. III**.

W/T Trench Set Mk III* transmitter

Fig 15: W/T Trench Set Mk III* transmitter.

W/T Trench Set Mk III* receiver

Fig 16: W/T Trench Set Mk III* receiver.

Tuner Aircraft No. 9

Fig. 17: Tuner Aircraft No. 9. This went into service in 1916.

Telephone Wireless Aircraft Mk. II

Fig 18: Telephone Wireless Aircraft Mk. II, complete with remote control and headphones.

Guest post by Brian Austin: Wireless in the Trenches: The tale of BFJ Schonland OBE (mil.), a colonial wireless officer

Second Lieutenant Basil Schonland R.E.

Second Lieutenant Basil Schonland R.E. Image available in the public domain.

No Corps of Signals existed in those days. Signalling was very much the province of the Royal Engineers and specifically its Telegraph Battalion and it was they who attempted to use wireless for the first time in a military conflict during the Boer War in South Africa. But it was not equal to the task and it was left to the Royal Navy to show the way. And show it they did during the blockade operation they were mounting in Delagoa Bay, Portuguese East Africa. Wireless proved itself at sea; it was still to do so on land.

In 1908 the Royal Engineer Signal Service came into being and it was this body of men, plus their horses, cable carts and much other paraphernalia of war that provided the British Army with its signalling capability during conflict that broke out in 1914.

By now wireless equipment suitable for use by soldiers and rugged enough to be hauled about on carts and on the backs of men was slowly becoming part of the Army’s inventory of equipment. And the officers and men were being trained to use it. Amongst that group was a young South African by the name of Basil Schonland. During the summer of 1915 he completed Part 1 of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge and immediately set his sights on serving his adopted country. Even whilst a schoolboy, and then an undergraduate in his home town of Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, Schonland was a loyal subject of the King and, along with many of his fellow South Africans, he saw it as his duty to fight for King and Country.

Schonland was commissioned as a second lieutenant in August 1915 and immediately began training at the Signal Depot in Bletchley. In October he was given command of 43 Airline Section with 40 men, their horses and their cable carts and in January 1916 he led them into France where they joined the Fourth Army then being formed under Sir Henry Rawlinson.

It was the Battle of the Somme that saw wireless equipment pressed into service in earnest. Though hundreds of miles of telephone and telegraph cables had been laid only those buried at considerable depth had any hope of surviving the onslaught of almost incessant artillery barrages. Visual signalling by flag, heliograph and lamp was perilous in the extreme for the operator who raised himself mere inches above the parapet of a trench: wireless became almost obligatory. And Schonland, whose skills had already been noted, was soon to become a W/T officer in the Cavalry Corps. None was more enthusiastic.

Map showing the deployment of the wireless sets near the front line in September 1916

Map showing the deployment of the wireless sets near the front line in September 1916. Image available in the public domain.

This new technology caught the imagination of a young man for whom science, and especially physics, was of almost overwhelming interest. He threw himself into mastering the wireless equipment and of passing on his knowledge to his men. The three trench sets with which Schonland became so familiar were the BF Set, the Wilson Set and the Loop Set. The ‘BF’ presumably meant “British Field” but to those who used it in earnest its eponymous letters had another meaning entirely! Like most of the equipment in use at that time the BF set had a spark transmitter and carborundum crystal detector. It radiated signals over a band of frequencies between about 540 and 860 kHz at a power of some 50 watts. The Wilson set was more powerful and used a more sophisticated method of generating its spark. The frequencies (or wavelengths in those days) that it covered were similar to the BF Set. Both were used extensively from within the trenches during First Battle of the Somme in September 1916.

In 1917 a new wireless set was introduced. Called the W/T Set Forward Spark 20 Watt B it soon became rather more familiar by the less wordy name of the Loop Set. The loop in question was its peculiar aerial (or antenna) which consisted of a square loop of brass tubing 1m per side that was mounted vertically on a bayonet stuck into ground. The Loop Set’s other great claim to fame was that it was extremely simple to use even for an inexperienced operator. Morse code was the mode of transmission and that skill was fundamental to all who served in the R.E. Signal Service, officers included. Of particular importance, especially to the technically-minded such as Schonland, was the much higher frequency on which the Loop Set worked. It could be tuned to transmit and receive between 3.8 and 4.6 MHz and was claimed to have an effective range of 2000 yards. And though the transmitter still used a spark, the receiver contained two thermionic valves – an astounding technological leap at that time.

By then Schonland had left the front line and was instructing at the GHQ Central Wireless School at Montreux where he was also promoted to lieutenant. It was there that he and another South African by the name of Spencer Humby conducted their own ‘researches into wireless’ which they published in a scientific journal soon after the end of the war. “The wavelengths radiated by oscillating valve circuits” became an important paper in the field of wireless communications that flowered in the 1920s.

But Schonland was not only a competent physicist; he also wielded an educated pen and his most lasting contribution to wireless communications during WW1 was his four-part series of articles published in 1919 in The Wireless World. They appeared under the title of this article and described the use of wireless in the trenches and were possibly the first such articles to tell how wireless was used during the war by the R.E. Signals Section. The Boy’s Own Paper had nothing on them for verve and excitement! Take this passage in which the young Schonland describes an attack during the battle of Arras in which a key hilltop position had been captured by the British Army. However, the enemy was re-grouping below and a counter-attack was imminent.

Owing, however, to the speed of their advance our troops were out of touch with the higher command, and the guns behind them. Out of touch, did I say? What is this queer mast affair some sappers are rigging up in the garden of what was once a pretty cottage? Up go the small steel masts in spite of the shells streaming into the village … The aerial up, it is not long before they have installed their tiny set in the cellar and are ‘through’. R9 signals each way. Just in time too, for the Boche at the foot of the hill shows signs of counter-attack. “Get at the guns, Sparks, get at the guns!”. And Sparks bends to his key …

By the war’s end Basil Schonland had been promoted captain and was in charge of all wireless communications of the British First Army. Under him he had thirty officers and more than 900 hundred men, along with over 300 wireless sets. And soon, after the end of hostilities, strenuous efforts were made to retain his services as Chief Instructor in Wireless in the British Army. But Schonland was intent on following a career as a scientist and he returned to Cambridge to work under Lord Rutherford at the famous Cavendish Laboratory. However he was not lost entirely to the colours for a mere twenty years later he was back in uniform and served throughout the second great conflict with distinction, ultimately as scientific adviser to Field Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.

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.