Category Archives: Guest posts

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

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

Guest post by Keith Thrower: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1, part 3

Summary: This paper summarises the factors that affected the development of CW radio communication during the period up to 1918. It shows that most of the important circuits had been invented by 1914. The major technical factor affecting the successful development of CW radios for battlefield communication was the unavailability of robust radio valves: these did not become available until late in 1915 with the introduction of the French TM valve. Up until that time almost all radios were spark transmitters and crystal detector receivers.

Full version of the paper: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1 [pdf] Part 1 Part 2

Circuit development up to 1914

  1. Oscillator

Several people have claimed the invention of the valve oscillator but priority was given to Meissner who took out a German patent in April 1913 [21, 22]. Two important by-products of this invention were the heterodyne circuit and regenerative feedback (sometimes called reaction).

Significant improvements in oscillator design were made by Hartley and Colpitts, both working for Western Electric.

  1. The heterodyne

The heterodyne receiver was patented by Reginald Fessenden in 1901 [23]. The patent shows the use of two alternators at the transmitter connected on a common shaft and differing slightly in frequency. The outputs from these were each connected to separate antennas. At the receiver there was, likewise, two antennas and these were connected to coils wound on an iron core with a telephonic diaphragm at one end. In 1905 Fessenden applied for a further patent where he used one alternator in the transmitter and one in the receiver, the two frequencies being adjusted to produce an audible signal in the headphones [24].

A further improvement was made by Lee and Hogan in November 1912 when they used an alternator (or arc generator) in the receiver and a crystal detector [25].

The advantage of the heterodyne receiver was shown in the US naval trials from the Arlington station to the USS Salem, which commenced on 15 February 1913 [26, 27]. The trials compared the performance of the heterodyne receiver against that of a conventional crystal receiver and one using a ‘ticker’ to break up the incoming CW signal into short bursts.

A further improvement was made by Henry Round of the British Marconi Company with the invention of the Autodyne receiver which he patented in December 1913 [28]. The Autodyne was a self-oscillating mixer where the frequency of the oscillator was adjusted to differ slightly from that to the incoming signal. The valve used was the Marconi type C, soft triode.

  1. Regenerative feedback (reaction)

Edwin Armstrong had been seeking means to improve the sensitivity of the audion receiver which he had built as a student at Columbia University. He achieved this by regenerative feedback from the anode circuit to the grid circuit, the feedback being adjusted to just below the point of oscillation. This form of feedback became known as reaction. His circuit was witnessed by a notary on 31 January 1913.and he applied for a US patent later that year [29].

In Britain the Marconi engineer Charles Franklin patented his regenerative receiver circuit on 12 June 1913, four months before Armstrong. Franklin, it would appear, was the first person to note that the regenerative action increased the input impedance of the valve and thereby reduced the loading on the tuned circuit [30].

  1. RF amplifier

Although the triode valve had been invented by Lee de Forest at the end of 1906 it was not used successfully as an amplifier until 1911. The earliest recorded amplifier using the audion valve would appear to be that of Otto von Bronk, a Telefunken engineer who applied for a German patent on 2 September 1911 [31]. The circuit shown is of an RF amplifier (without grid blocking capacitor as used by de Forest in his detector and early attempts to produce an amplifier). The output from the valve is shown connected by an RF transformer to a crystal detector and telephone earpiece.


  1. Before the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914 many of the circuits to be used in later years for CW radio communications had already been invented, although most of these were still at an early stage of practical applications. These circuits include the radio wave detector, the oscillator, the heterodyne, the RF amplifier and regeneration.
  2. The British Marconi Company embodied all of these in the Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver which was produced in 1914 and used on ship-to-shore trials.
  3. There were few valves available in 1914 for use in radio equipment. The de Forest audion was erratic in operation, fragile and had a short filament life. The Marconi soft valves, the C and T, were produced in 1913 and used in the radio mentioned in the previous paragraph. The C was a receiver valve and the T a transmitter valve. Both of these were difficult to manufacture and not suitable use on the battlefield. Apart from this the T valve required a power of 6-volts, 4-amps for its filament which meant very frequent replacement of the storage battery. Also an HT of several hundred volts was required.
  4. One important application of the Marconi C valve was in direction finding receivers and these continued to be used throughout the War until suitable hard valves became available from 1916.
  5. Until more robust valves became available the only way to communicate by radio from the trenches was by spark transmitters and crystal detector receivers. The transmitted signal from the spark transmitters was noisy and rich in harmonics which were spread over a wide spectrum. This meant that the radios had to be widely separated to prevent mutual interference.
  6. Even so it might have been possible to deploy a small number of an improved version of the Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver for use in Headquarters and some vehicles, but this did not happen.
  7. The situation changed dramatically with the introduction of the French TM valve in the early months of 1916. These valves were not well suited for use as RF amplifiers, except, maybe, at frequencies below 600 kHz. They were, however, well suited for use as radio detectors and audio amplifiers, not just in radios but also for the amplifiers required for the power buzzers. A valve more suitable as a detector and, possibly, as an RF amplifier was the Marconi Q. However, this valve proved difficult to manufacture in large quantities.
  8. It is well documented that there had been a reluctance in the Army to adopt radios and there was too much reliance on line communication, even though the cables were being constantly destroyed. Some of this reluctance was probably due to the problems of using spark transmitters in the trenches which were cumbersome and required skilled operators for the Morse transmissions. Their aerials also marked the position of the radios for enemy gunfire.
  9. The most obvious places for CW radios were in aeroplanes, motor vehicles and tanks and there should have been a concerted programme to design and manufacture radios for these.
  10. For use in trenches the requirement would have been for portable radios and these would have been required in large numbers during the last two years of the War.
  11. It is difficult to assess how many radios could have been produced by the British and French in the last two years of the War. The manufacturing companies would have been short of skilled labour and engineers because of the enormous toll of lives that had taken place, particularly of those men in the Signal Service.

21. Tucker, DG, ‘The history of positive feedback’, The Radio & Electronic Engineer, 42, No. 2, February 1972, pp.69–80.
22. Meissner, A, German patent, appl. 10 April 1913.
23. Fessenden, RA, US patent, 706,740, appl. 28 September 1901.
24. Fessenden, RA, US patent, 1,050,728, appl. 27 July 1905.
25. Lee, JW & Hogan, JL, US patent 1,141,717, appl. 16 November 1912.
26. Howeth, Capt. LS, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy. Washington; 1963, pp.182–4.
27. Hogan, JL, ‘The heterodyne receiving system and notes in the recent Arlington-Salem tests’, Proc IRE, 13, July 1913, pp.75–102. (Note: Hogan worked for Fessenden at NESCO).
28. Round, HJ, British patent 28,413/13, appl. 9 December 1013.
29. Armstrong, EH, US patent 1,113,149, appl. 29 October 1913.
30. Franklin, C, British patent, 13,636/13, appl. 12 June 1913.
31. Von Bronk, Otto, German patent, 271,059, appl. 2 September 1911.

Guest post by Keith Thrower: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1, part 2

Summary: This paper summarises the factors that affected the development of CW radio communication during the period up to 1918. It shows that most of the important circuits had been invented by 1914. The major technical factor affecting the successful development of CW radios for battlefield communication was the unavailability of robust radio valves: these did not become available until late in 1915 with the introduction of the French TM valve. Up until that time almost all radios were spark transmitters and crystal detector receivers.

Full version of the paper: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1 [pdf] Part 1 Part 3

Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver

Marconi Short Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver

5. The Marconi Company

The Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company (MWT) never manufactured radio valves. All the valves that they used up to 1919 were either manufactured by the Edison Swan Electric Company (Ediswan) or by the Osram-Roberson Lamp Works of the British General Electric Company (GEC).

In 1919, Marconi’s and GEC decided to set up a joint company for valve design and manufacture that could benefit from their pooled know-how and valve patents. The company was incorporated on 20 October of that year and was originally called Marconi-Osram Valve Co. Ltd., but the name was changed in the following year to M.O. Valve Co. Ltd. (MOV). Production was at the Osram-Robertson Lamp Works and included many of the types previously manufactured by Ediswan.

6. The Marconi-Round ‘soft’ triodes

Towards the end of 1911, Henry J Round of the Marconi Company commenced the design of a diode valve. Because of other commitments, however, this activity was suspended until November 1912, when Round extended his earlier work to include both diode and triode valve development. There is good reason to believe that the design of these valves was influenced by the soft valve development of von Lieben, Reisz and Strauss, as a result of a technology exchange agreement between the Marconi and Telefunken companies.

The first successful soft valves of Round were manufactured by Ediswan in 1913. Amongst the earliest of these were the type C, a receiver valve, and the type T, a transmitter valve, both of which were used in World War 1 in various items of radio equipment (see below). The type C had a platinum wire filament, which was oxide coated; the grid was of fine mesh nickel wire that fully surrounded the filament, and the anode was a solid nickel cylinder.

A distinctive feature of the C valve (and indeed of most of the other Round soft valves) was a glass extension tube at the top of the bulb which contained a wad of asbestos. As time progressed, the gas pressure in the valve tended to fall, resulting in a loss of sensitivity. In order to raise the gas pressure to an optimum value, it was necessary to heat the asbestos, either electrically, or by holding a lighted match close to the extension tube, which released occluded gas into the enclosed glass bulb.

The type T transmitter valve had three filaments of tungsten or platinum wire. According to Picken ‘Although usually classed as a soft valve, it was actually exhausted as thoroughly as its construction and vacuum technique available permitted. The pellet at its extremity was inherited from its prototype, the soft receiving valve, and was an unnecessary appendage’ [14]. Some of the valves were manufactured without an extension tube at the top; instead they had a metal cap which was used as a top support

The type TN was introduced in 1914. This valve, together with the type C, was used in the Marconi Short-Distance Wireless Telephone Transmitter and Receiver (Early in 1914, the two Marconi engineers, Round and Tremellen, used the type T valve to transmit voice signals over a distance of 70km, probably using equipment similar to this.) [15].

According to Dowsett the TN was a soft valve and fitted either with two lime-coated platinum filaments or plain tungsten filaments. This meant that a comparatively high anode current could be obtained without using a very high anode voltage.

Other soft receiving valves made for the Marconi Company by Ediswan were the types CA, CT, D and N. Amongst the small transmitter valves, apart from the Type T, there were also the LT and TN.

There is little doubt that the Round soft valves were very difficult to manufacture, but during the early years of World War 1 there were no suitable alternatives. To quote from Round [16]:

It was probably fortunate in the first year of our work that we used the soft valves because no hard valve had been constructed which can compare with these ‘C’ type tubes as high-frequency magnifiers. These necessitated, however, trained men in their manufacture, and trained operators for their efficient use … Again and again we lost the knack of making good tubes, owing to some slight change in the materials used in their manufacture. A thorough investigation was impossible, as all hands were out on the stations. On several occasions we were down to our last dozen tubes.

The principal use of the C valve during WW1 was in a single-valve direction-finding equipment where its sensitivity was equivalent to three of more of the French TM valves in cascade. (See next section of this paper.) These DF receivers were mainly located around the south and east coasts of England and some were also located on the European mainland.

The T valves was used in some radios of the Royal Flying Corp but little information has been found on these. The equipment identified were a W/T 120-watt ground set covering the wavelength 600 to 1000m and used as a tonic train transmitter. There was also another ground station version of this which was used for wireless telephony. Dates of installation and quantities produced are unknown but there would have been used in small numbers, probably from 1916.

7. The French TM triode

One of the most important of the early European triode valves was a device developed under Colonel (later General) Gustave Ferrié who was in charge of the French Military Telegraphic Service during World War 1. The valve, which came in two slightly different constructions known as the ‘S’ and Métal, was developed from an audion sample that was brought to France in August 1914 by Paul Pichon [17]; it had a straight tungsten filament of length 21mm, a spiral grid with 11 or 12 turns made either of molybdenum or nickel of length 16mm by 4.5mm diameter, and a cylindrical nickel anode 15mm long by 10mm diameter. The filament rating was 4-volts, 0.65-amps. A patent application for the valve was taken out in October 1915 [18]. It was immensely successful and widely used during World War 1, during which time over 100,000 were manufactured by the two French companies, Fotos and Métal.

The TM was a hard valve, evacuated to a low pressure, and during the manufacturing process the glass and metal parts were heated to a sufficient temperature to release the occluded gases. An interesting feature of the valve was the use of a four-pin base, which later became a standard throughout Europe, including Britain. The electrodes were mounted on a glass stem inside a spherical glass bulb. At the top of the stem the glass was formed into a ‘pinch seal’. From here nickel support wires went to the electrodes, and at the bottom of the seal copper wires connected to the external pins. The airtight seal was formed by small pieces of platinum wire welded to the pieces of copper and nickel. Platinum was chosen because its temperature coefficient of expansion matched that of the glass. The base (or cap as it was frequently called) consisted of four pins mounted in an insulating material and surrounded by a metal shell.
With the introduction of the French valve it now became possible to manufacture reliable and robust CW radios for wireless telephony and telegraphy. The first equipment using this new valve came into use early in 1916.

8. The British R valve

By 1916, the French TM valve was being produced in Britain where it was known as the R-valve. Amongst the first manufacturers were BT-H and Ediswan. During World War 1, it was also produced by Cossor, Cryselco, the Osram-Robertson Lamp Works of GEC, Metropolitan Vickers, Stearn and Moorhead Laboratories of San Francisco.

It is interesting to note that the R valve was not manufactured by Osram until September 1917.

9 The Q valve

The principal disadvantage of the TM and R valves was the high internal capacitance between the grid and anode which restricted its use as an RF amplifier to frequencies below 600 kHz.

A partial solution to this shortcoming was the design of a quite remarkable valve by Capt. Henry Round of the Marconi Company in 1916. This, the type Q, featured small size and low capacitance.

The valve was made by Edison Swan for the Marconi Company, but production was transferred to MOV in 1919 following its formation. (This last statement needs checking. MOV replaced the Q valve with an improved detector, the Qx, in 1921.)

The valve has a straight tungsten filament terminated into pointed metal caps at each end. The grid is a nickel wire gauze and the anode a nickel cylinder. Both the grid and anode connections are taken to two further caps near one end of the tubular glass bulb. Physical details are as follows:

Overall length: 73 +/- 2mm.
Bulb diameter: Approx. 16mm.
Overall width: 26 +/- 1.5mm.
Anode: Nickel sheet bent to a complete cylinder; 18mm long, 14mm diameter and 0.05mm thick.
Grid: Mesh of 0.07mm nickel wire welded to a nickel frame, 28mm long and 6mm diameter.
Filament: Drawn tungsten wire of length 23mm and diameter 0.043mm, held by nickel supports at each end. 5-volts, 0.45-amps.

The valve has a very high value of anode resistance (150kΩ), which results from the large spacing between the anode and grid electrodes. For this reason it was not particularly suited for use as either an r.f. or a.f. amplifier, its main use being as a detector. Nevertheless, three Q valves were used in the Marconi Field Station Receiver Type 38a—one as a detector and the other two as ‘note magnifiers’ (an old name for audio amplifier stages) [19]. More usually the Q valve was used in conjunction with the V.24 (see below).

10. The V24 valve

Like the Q valve, the V.24 was designed by Capt. Henry Round of the Marconi Company. The design probably dates from 1917, with production in 1918. Manufacture was initially undertaken by Ediswan, but was transferred to MOV in 1919. It continued to be manufactured into the late 1930s. The type reference V.24 was chosen because the valve was intended to operate from an h.t. supply of 24 volts, which was the standard battery in use by the British armed services.

The V.24 was used in a wide range of early Marconi receivers including the Valve Amplifier Type 55 (6 x V.24 plus 1 x Q); the Marine Portable Telephony Set Type 11 (5 x V.24 plus 1 x Q); the Direction Finder Type 11a, a variant of the Type 11; the Amplifier Type 71 (3 x V.24—later 2 x V.24 plus 1 x QX); and the Local Oscillator Type 123 (a single V.24).

During the last year of WW1 the prime use of the V.24 was in direction finding receivers, such as the Type 55 used, principally, by the British navy.

11. Other British valves

By 1917 many other valves were being manufactured for use in military equipment. Those produced specifically for the Navy will not be covered here but a detailed description of these can be found in a paper by Gossling [20].

The type B was a higher power version of the R with a 6-volt, 0.84-amp filament and was rated as a 30-watt transmitting valve. This, and the R valve, were also manufactured in the US by Moorhead. The Osram-Robertson Company first made the B valve in November 1917.

Two other transmitting valves were the T2A and T2B, introduced by Osram-Robertson in August 1917. Both of these valves were rated at 250 watts.

Two other low-power transmitting valves were the Types AT25 and F. Some higher power valves were also made for the Navy.


14. Picken, WJ, ‘Wireless Section Chairman’s Address’, JIEE, 88, Pt 1, 1941, p.39.
15. Picken, ibid, pp.38–46
16. Round, HJ, ‘Direction and Position Finding’, JIEE, 58, March 1920, pp.224–57 (see pp.232–3).
17. Tyne, Gerald, FJ, Saga of the Vacuum Tube. Indianapolis: Howard W Sams & Co: 1977,
18. Peri, M & Biquet, J, French patent 692,657, appl. 23 October 1915.
19. Dowsett, HM, Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony. London: The Wireless Press Ltd; 1920, pp.135–8.
20. Gossling, BS, ‘The development of thermionic valves for Naval Use’, JIEE, 58, 1919–1920, pp.670–80.
21. Tucker, DG, ‘The history of positive feedback’, The Radio & Electronic Engineer, 42, No. 2, February 1972, pp.69–80.
22. Meissner, A, German patent, appl. 10 April 1913.

Guest post by Keith Thrower: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1, part 1

Summary: This paper summarises the factors that affected the development of CW radio communication during the period up to 1918. It shows that most of the important circuits had been invented by 1914. The major technical factor affecting the successful development of CW radios for battlefield communication was the unavailability of robust radio valves: these did not become available until late in 1915 with the introduction of the French TM valve. Up until that time almost all radios were spark transmitters and crystal detector receivers.

Full version of the paper: Technical factors affecting CW radio communication in WW1 [pdf] Part 2 Part 3

Valve development to 1918

  1. Fleming diode

The diode valve used as a radio wave detector was patented by John Ambrose Fleming in October 1904 [1]. This had the important feature of a solid cylindrical anode that totally enclosed the carbon filament. In 1908 Fleming took out a patent for a tungsten filament [2]. However, the technique had not yet been perfected for ductile tungsten and the filament became brittle after being heated to incandescence.

The Fleming diode only had limited usage and was quickly superseded by the crystal detector which was far more reliable and didn’t require a lead-acid battery to power it. However, the carborundum crystal did require a small bias voltage for optimum sensitivity but this was supplied by a small dry-cell battery. Other crystals, such as the Perikon, did not require a bias but they required frequent re-adjustment.

  1. De Forest audion

The US engineer, Lee de Forest, believed he could make a more sensitive detector than the Fleming diode. After several unsuccessful attempts the decisive and historic step was made at the end of 1906 when, on 31 December, de Forest inserted a third element, shaped like a grid iron, between the filament and plate. Thus was born the grid audion, a triode valve with an internal control electrode. A patent application was made early in 1907 [3].

The first grid audions had a carbon filament; both the grid and anode were made of nickel and the glass envelope was spherical. As further valves were made, however, the manufacturer, McCandless, used a variety of materials and there were great variations in the constructional methods and their dimensions. The carbon filament was replaced by tantalum, but this was found to warp. In about 1908, tungsten became available for use in electric lamps. As mentioned above, at the time, the manufacturing process had not been perfected and the material became brittle at the temperature required for incandescence. Tungsten had the advantage that it could provide a higher emission than tantalum, which gave rise to a suggestion made to de Forest by Walter Hudson that he should construct his filaments from tungsten wrapped with fine tantalum wire, a process later modified to cover the tungsten with a tantalum paste. This simplified the manufacturing process and, in this form, the Hudson filament, as it became known, was used for many years by de Forest.

When first produced, the audion valve had many shortcomings, because the technology used for its manufacture was new and poorly developed. Particular problems were the use of unsuitable materials in its construction, a short filament life and poor evacuation of gas from the sealed bulb, resulting in a soft vacuum.

For several years, from 1907 to 1913, the audion was only used as a radio detector, as its conduction mechanism and general principles of operation were not understood. De Forest carried out some experimental work on low frequency amplification for telephone repeaters, but his early efforts were not successful. This was probably because he used r.f. instead of a.f. coupling and did not correctly bias the valve.

The basic problems of the audion were eventually overcome by the industrial laboratories of AT&T, (Western Electric) and General Electric, both companies working independently. The driving force for AT&T was the need to develop a reliable amplifier for their telephone repeaters to improve long-distance telephony. For General Electric the driving force was to provide a speech modulator for their high-frequency alternators, as this would then make radio telephony a practical possibility.

(Note: The BT-H company manufactured the audion valve in 1916 and pumped it to a high vacuum to overcome some of its erratic performance. It was used for a year or so by the Navy in one-valve heterodyne receivers.)

  1. Valve improvements at AT&T

AT&T had recognised the importance of an amplifier for use with their telephone circuits as early as 1910. Work was carried out by Harold Arnold in their subsidiary company, Western Electric, during 1911 to 1912. The device developed was a mercury vapour discharge tube using magnetic control of the ionised current. Although some success was achieved, the device was never put into production because it was superseded by the possibility of using the de Forest audion valve as an amplifying device.

In January 1912, Fritz Lowenstein demonstrated to Bell staff an amplifier contained within a sealed box. (This box was lead-lined to prevent X-ray photographs being taken.) The performance of the amplifier was erratic and because Lowenstein would not disclose details of his device, there was no way that the Bell Company could judge its suitability. Matters were thus allowed to rest for a while. Later in 1912, John Stone Stone, an ex-employee of the Bell company in America, had seen a demonstration by de Forest of the audion and recognised its potential as a telephone amplifier. At the end of October 1912, he arranged for de Forest to demonstrate the circuit to Bell staff, with a full disclosure of the circuit used. The performance, as with the Lowenstein demonstration several months earlier, was erratic. Nevertheless, the Bell staff were impressed and they arranged for a development project to be undertaken by Western Electric to investigate the audion device and its suitability as an amplifier in telephone circuits [4].

Within a short period of time, Arnold, van der Bijl and other engineering scientists of AT&T had turned the primitive audion of de Forest into a reliable telephone relay amplifier. Their main improvements were:

  1. The production of a high vacuum device, where the conduction was governed by electron current rather than ionisation. This high vacuum was achieved by the use of the Gaede molecular pump that was introduced from Germany in April 1913.
  2. A more reliable filament. This was made from a strip of platinum coated with barium nitrate to improve emission and thereby allow a lower temperature to be used. The coated filament was a direct development from the pioneering work of Wehnelt.
  3. A stronger internal construction to support the electrode assembly.

One of the first valves to go into production at Western Electric was the Type A. The first telephone repeater to use this valve went into service on 18 October 1913 and this provided the necessary amplification to achieve long distance line communication. By 1915, improved valves were produced which were claimed to have a filament life of 4500 hours.

AT&T bought the de Forest audion patent for a total sum of $390,000, but this was made in three separate payments. Initially, in 1913 for $50,000, they bought the rights in all fields except wireless telegraphy and telephony. Then in 1914, for $90,000, the company bought a non-exclusive licence in the wireless telephony field. Finally, in 1917, AT&T paid $250,000 for an exclusive licence to all remaining rights.

The amplifier that Lowenstein demonstrated to the Bell staff in January 1912 was later shown to be an audion valve without a grid blocking capacitor, but with negative grid bias. Lowenstein took out a patent for this method of bias in 1912, which he subsequently sold to AT&T for $150,000 [5, 6]. In later years the negative bias patent assumed great importance and was the subject of much litigation.

The most important requirements for repeater valves was long life and constancy of their characteristics. Manufacturing costs was of secondary importance. The valves were used in the benign environment of telephone offices and would not be subject to severe shock, vibration or extremes of temperature.

With the possibility of the USA entering WW1, Western Electric began the development of valves for military use and these had to be mechanically robust, have a reasonable life and withstand extremes of temperature.

America entered the war in April 1917, 22 months after the British and 19 months before the armistice which brought the war to an abrupt end.

Two of the valves mass-produced by Western Electric were the VT-1 and VT-2. The VT-1, was a general-purpose triode for use in radio receivers as a detector, amplifier or low-power oscillator. Initially, the valve was deemed too fragile for use under battlefield conditions but over the ensuing months there were significant structural changes. The VT-2 was designed as a 5-watt transmitting valves and became available in 1917.

The following is an interesting abstract from A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System. The Early Years: 1875–1925, p.368:

The War came to Europe before the vacuum art had been applied to telephony and as a consequence the vacuum tube received only limited use in the European nations and only for radiotelegraphy. In the United States it was possible to continue peacetime development for several years after the war began and as a consequence this country’s technicians were in a much better position to apply radiotelephony to the war effort.

  1. Valve Improvements at General Electric

General Electric became interested in the audion valve through the desire to provide speech modulation for their high frequency alternators. The company was a major manufacturer of electrical equipment, including large power generators. Their interest in high-frequency alternators was stimulated by Reginald Fessenden, a brilliant, enigmatic engineer who headed a small company called NESCO (National Electric Signalling Company). Amongst his many inventions was the heterodyne method of reception, whereby the incoming radio frequency signal was beat against a local oscillation to give a low, audio frequency that could be applied directly to headphones (described later in this paper).

Fessenden was one of the pioneers of radio telephony and his ideas were many years ahead of the time. His earliest attempts to transmit voice signals were in 1900 when he used a microphone to modulate a rotating spark generator, although articulation was poor. He was aware of the work of Elihu Thomson and Nikola Tesla with high frequency generators. However, with these, the frequency achieved was no higher than 5 kHz. In 1900, Fessenden wrote to Charles Steinmetz, the consulting engineer of General Electric, enclosing a specification for a high-frequency alternator. The first machine, produced by Steinmetz in 1903, had an output power of 1kW, but the maximum frequency was only 10 kHz, making it unsuitable for direct transmission purposes.

The second G.E. machine for Fessenden was designed by a young Swedish engineer, Ernst Alexanderson, who had recently settled in the United States. This machine, delivered to Fessenden at his Brant Rock radio station in August 1906, could generate a modest output power of 500W at a frequency of 76 kHz. Initially, the range achieved for telephonic signals was only 11 miles, but in July 1907, speech was transmitted between Brant Rock and Jamaica, a distance of nearly 200 miles [7].

Over the next few years, Alexanderson developed larger h.f. alternators capable of delivering several hundred kilowatts at a frequency of 100 to 200 kHz [8]. For wireless telephony applications, these alternators required a high power modulator. There were two possible approaches: one was to modulate directly with a microphone, but this resulted in excessive power dissipation (specially cooled microphones were developed for this purpose). The second approach was to insert an amplifier between the microphone and the alternator. In 1912, Alexanderson developed a magnetic amplifier with some success, but he was not entirely satisfied with its performance.

Two of Alexanderson’s h.f. alternators were delivered to John Hammond Jr at his Massachusetts laboratory in 1912. Whilst there, Alexanderson was told of the audion valve. In spite of its inherent weaknesses at that time, he thought it might be adapted into an amplifying device to overcome his modulation problem. General Electric were ideally equipped to develop the primitive audion valve into a robust product. They were a major manufacturer of electric lamps and had extensive research and development facilities. Amongst the staff at that time were many brilliant engineering scientists, including Coolidge and Langmuir (who in 1932 received the Nobel Chemistry Prize). Coolidge had recently perfected a process for manufacturing ductile tungsten for use as filaments in electric lamps, which gave a greater light output per watt and was also more reliable [9, 10]. The task of developing the audion into a satisfactory device was given to Langmuir, assisted by William White.

Langmuir recognised that one of the main limitations with the audion was its poor vacuum; this was quite contrary to the strongly held view of others at that time. He was familiar with the work of Richardson, Fleming and other leading scientists of the day, and he immediately set out to understand the operation of thermionic emission.

In 1913 he published an important paper in the Physical Review in which he verified Richardson’s equation for emission from a hot cathode, but also showed that as the cathode temperature was raised, the increased emission of electrons gave rise to a space charge that formed between the cathode and anode [11]. This had the effect of repelling the electrons back to the cathode. Thus, when the space charge was present, the actual current that flowed to the anode was less than that given by Richardson’s law. This current was found to be proportional to the anode voltage raised to the power of 1.5. Langmuir established that this relationship between anode current and anode voltage was true irrespective of the shape of the electrodes: a similar result had been found by C.D. Child in 1911 for the flow of positive ions between two parallel plates [12].

Langmuir expanded on this work in his famous paper of 1915, ‘The Pure Electron Discharge’ [13].

According to White in an unpublished document, dated 1 March 1929:

‘Until the outbreak of War [presumably April 1917], all work on tubes was almost entirely of a research and experimental nature. … Prior to the War, owing to the patent situation, there was no commercial outlet possible for receiving tubes.

…The coming of the War changed this because it was early recognized by the Signal Corps of the Army that vacuum tubes would probably play an important part. [This is a 60-page document and makes very interesting reading, particularly the sections covering tube development for the Army and Navy, together with the manufacturing problems and how these were overcome].

This lengthy discussion so far has been to show how all the fundamental problems associated with the de Forest audion, with its poor vacuum, erratic performance and fragility had been solved by the two US companies, Western Electric General Electric by 1916.

1. Fleming, JA, British patent 24,850, appl. 16 November 1914.
2. Fleming, JA, British patent 13,518, appl. 25 June 1908.
3. de Forest, Lee, US patent 879,532, appl. 29 January 1907.
4. Aitken, Hugh GJ, The Continuous Wave: Princetown University Press; 1984, pp.246–7.
5. Lowenstein, US patent 1,232,764, appl. 24 April 1912.
6. Ref 4, p.228.
7. Fessenden, RA, ‘Wireless Telephony’, Proc. AIEE, 27, 1908, pp.1283–58. (See p.1309.)
8. Coursey, PR, Telephony Without Wires. London: The Wireless Press; 1929, p.195.
9. Coolidge, William D, US patent, 1,082,933, appl. 19 June 1912.
10. Hammond, JW, Men and Volts. New York: JB Lippincott Co.; 1941. See Ch. 37 ‘The Taming of Tungsten’.
11. Langmuir, Irving, ‘The Effect of Space Charge and Residual Gases on Thermionic Currents in High Vacuum’, Phys. Rev., 2, 1913, pp.450–86.
12. Child CD, ‘Discharge from hot CaO’, Phys. Rev., 32, 1911, pp.492–511.
13. Langmuir, Irving, ‘The Pure Electron Discharge’, Proc. IRE, 3, September 1915, pp.261–93.

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 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.

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.

Guest post by David Underdown: Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM RE, Dorking

This is a guest post by David Underdown and is a revised and updated version of an article which first appeared in The Ringing World on 19 October 2012, pp1102–1104, 1106–1107.

Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers First World War Roll of Honour – Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM RE, Dorking

Peal band at Farnham, 25 May 1910, muffled peal of Bob Major to mark the funeral of King Edward VII that day.  Russell is in the doorway at the back of the group.

Peal band at Farnham, 25 May 1910, muffled peal of Bob Major to mark the funeral of King Edward VII that day. Russell is in the doorway at the back of the group.

A couple of years ago I begin to research the 152 men named on the Surrey Association’s roll of honour for the First World War.  Of these, 24 died during the course of the war, the rest survived.  The roll contains the names of a number of high profile ringers, but also many lesser known.  A few names continue to defy all attempts to identify them in censuses, army records etc, but I’ve uncovered a number of interesting stories.  In terms of his war service, perhaps the most interesting of them is the man who appears on the roll as J Russel of Dorking, but various clues soon led me to realise that he was in fact John William Russell.  A simple gardener before the war: he would end it a lieutenant and holding one of the nation’s second highest awards for gallantry, the Distinguished Conduct Medal; two of the third highest decorations, both the Military Cross and the Military Medal; and was also Mentioned in Despatches.  He served throughout with the Signal Service of the Royal Engineers.

John William Russell was born at Mickleham, Surrey, on 10 August 1887.  The family must have moved to Ewhurst quite soon after, by 1891 they were living there, at Coneyhurst Lodge, and the census lists his 2-year-old sister, Catherine Annie as having been born in Ewhurst.  His parents were John (28 – a gardener, born Tydd St Mary, Lincs) and Catherine (29, born Elgin, Scotland), John William often appears in ringing records as W Russell, suggesting he may have been known as William, so Catherine Annie may likewise have been known as Annie.  He was educated at Ewhurst National School, but by the time of the 1901 census, he was 13 and working as a garden boy.  By then the family had grown further, to include Ruth (9), Caroline Jane (7), Charlie (6) and Jessie (5).

It’s not clear exactly when Russell learned to ring, but he seems to have been elected to the Winchester Diocesan Guild in 1905, first appearing in the 1906 Annual Report as W Russell, Ewhurst, Guildford District.  He is listed again as a Ewhurst ringer in 1907.  He’s first mentioned in the ringing press in connection with ringing for the visit of the Bishop of Dorking to Ewhurst on 15 December 1907.

The next item to appear in Bell News didn’t mention Russell directly, but had considerable influence on his life and ringing.  On 18 January 1908 the paper carried an advert by Charles Edwards for two men to work in his plant nursery at Frensham Hill, Surrey.  Edwards was a Herefordshire man, but had moved to Surrey in 1905, and seems to have quickly started shaking up ringing in Farnham and the surrounding area.  He was also particularly associated with Frensham: the bells there had been augmented to six for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but it was only when ropeguides were fitted around 1907, and he began teaching some of the locals, that it became a strong band.

The advert which appeared in Bell News, 18 January 1908, p 519

The advert which appeared in Bell News, 18 January 1908, p 519

It appears that the first journeyman position was taken by Frederick Walter Elliott (standing to Russell’s left in the photo at the head of the article).  He rang a farewell peal at Little Munden, Hertfordshire, on 30 January, with a footnote saying he was moving to Frensham.  His later Central Council biography matches this, and gives his occupation as gardener (also confirmed by the 1911 census).  Edwards wrote to Bell News to thank those who had applied, and subsequently only the second part of the ad appeared.  Russell rang at Frensham at the start of February 1908, and possibly this was also in the nature of a job interview.  The ad reveals something of a large hurdle in his obtaining the job though – Edwards was looking for a man of 25-30 and Russell was just 20.  However, I initially had trouble finding Russell in the 1911 census as he was listed as being two years older than his actual age, this gives a possible reason for that discrepancy, and it’s also instructive to compare his appearance in the 1910 photo with that of George Upshall, the only one of the men without a moustache, and actually two years Russell’s senior!

Russell is first mentioned ringing at Farnham at the beginning of March – though the 1908 WDG Annual Report still lists him as a Ewhurst ringer.  He rang his first peal, of Bob Minor, at Frensham on 21 March, the first peal on the bells.  The pages of Bell News show a large amount of activity for the rest of 1908: at Farnham and Frensham, and trips to other local towers.

1909 began with another peal at Frensham.  This and the previous year’s peal are recorded on a fine peal board at in the tower there.

Frensham peal board

Frensham peal board

The rest of the year also followed a fairly similar course to 1908: various ringing at Farnham and Frensham, and trips elsewhere in the local district.  His recorded ringing in 1909 concludes in October, when it appears he made a visit home, attending practice at Ewhurst on 15 October.

1910 saw a distinct drop in Russell’s recorded activity.  In the first half of the year he rang in two half-muffled peals at Farnham, the first, of Grandsire Triples on 19 February, in memory of the well-known ringing cleric theRevd F E Robinson.  The second, that of Bob Major on 25 May for the late King, following which the peal band was photographed for posterity.  This was noted as being the first peal of major by an entirely local band since 1806, and was accorded a fine entry in the tower peal book.  This is his last recorded ringing at Farnham.

Farnham Peal Book entry

Farnham Peal Book entry

The Winchester DG Annual Reports for 1910-12 note Russell as a compounding (i.e. non-resident) member, living at Standen, Sussex. On 6 November 1910 he rang a peal for the Sussex County Association at Crawley, having been elected to the association before the start of the peal.  The 1911 census (taken at the start of April) shows him as the head of the household, living at Stone Farm Lodge, Standen, with two other gardeners.  As mentioned earlier, his age is shown as two years older than his actual age, and since he was the head of the household we can be reasonably sure he completed the form himself – the writing also appears similar to later army forms.  Stone Farm was one of three farms purchased by James Samuel Beale in 1890 to form a country estate he named Standen, now a National Trust property.  Beale’s wife, Margaret, was a keen gardener.

It appears that Russell moved back to Surrey sometime in 1912, probably to work in Abinger.  One of the referees on his application for a wartime commission was Lady Mirrielees, who lived at Pasture Wood, Abinger.  The membership records of the Ancient Society of College Youths record that John William Russell of Abinger was elected a member in 1912 (  He visited old haunts at the end of August, finally scoring a peal at Bentley.  On 6 November he rang in a College Youths’ peal of Stedman Triples at Ashtead, Surrey (his first of Stedman); on 19 December he rang a peal of Grandsire Triples at Dorking, this commemorated the laying of the foundation stone for a new chapel.  This chapel seems to have proceeded rapidly; on 14 March 1913 there was another peal of Grandsire Triples to celebrate its dedication.  This is the last record I have found of Russell as an active ringer, though a letter of his published in The Ringing World during the war suggests he had continued involvement in ringing until going overseas.

Russell joined the Royal Engineers at Aldershot on 11 September 1914, just over a month after the outbreak of war.  He had been medically examined two days previously, reverting to his correct age, given as 27 years and 1 month.  The medical officer described him as being 5’8¼” – relatively tall for the time, having a 36” chest (with 2” expansion) and weighing 156 lbs, with dark hair, a fresh complexion and blue eyes.  When signing up, he described himself as a fitter, rather than a gardener, but this seems to have been another attempt to improve his chances, there is no sign in his papers that he was given a trade test, and he was given the rank of pioneer initially, indicating that the army did not view him as a skilled tradesman (who were ranked as sapper).  In his subsequent application for a commission, he once more describes himself as a gardener.

Official records do not give much information as to Russell’s initial training, however, The Ringing World published regular updates on ringers serving with the forces, and the issue of 9 October 1914, p199, listed “J. W. Russell of Ewhurst, Surrey, Royal Engineers, now at Chatham” – Chatham has been the home of the Royal Engineers for centuries.  After his training, he was transferred to 24th Divisional Signal Company (signals had not yet been established as a separate corps, and were an RE responsibility) on 22 October 1914.  24th Division was one of the divisions of Lord Kitchener’s New Army – virtually all the men and officers had to be trained from scratch.  The bulk of the infantry battalions making up the division were recruited from the South East and East Anglia, men Russell would have felt at home with.  The signal company was divided into four sections, one with divisional HQ, and one each which of the three brigades it comprised.  Russell was in the section attached to 72 Infantry Brigade (72IB), the other two brigades were 71 IB and 73 IB.  Russell himself seems to have taken full advantage of the opportunities this situation gave to hard-working men: he was appointed lance corporal on 21 November 1914, then promoted second corporal on 10 December, corporal on 6 January 1915 and serjeant on 2 March.  Page 143 of the 15 March 1915 issue of Ringing World tells us “J. W. Russell, of Abinger, Surrey, and formerly of Farnham, has had rapid promotion, and has now gained the rank of sergeant.”  The division had initially been based along the south coast, principally at Worthing and Shoreham, but in June 1915 they moved to the Aldershot area – familiar territory for Russell.

His personal life was also about to undergo a big change, sometime during this period (presumably) he met Rosetta Pickard, and they married in her home church of St Michael, Tilehurst, near Reading on 19 August 1915.  The same day, most of the division was being inspected by Lord Kitchener at Chobham, and formal orders for France were received from the War Office.  King George V carried out another inspection the following day.  On 30 August, the signal section boarded a train at Farnborough for Southampton, and thence Le Havre, and he was in France on the following day.  By this time, planning for a major British offensive around the northern French mining town of Loos was well under way: despite the fact the British high command were aware that they were short of men, heavy artillery and shells; the politics of the alliance with France made it imperative that a “Big Push” was launched.  24th Division was in reserve for the opening of the offensive on 25 September, having spent several days marching up from positions behind the lines.  From the early hours of 26 September, they made their way up to the front lines, and were committed to action around 8am.  By now German forces were already preparing major counter-attacks.  The fighting dragged on until 18 October, but in reality – after some missed chances on the opening day – the British were never going to reach their objectives.  The four infantry battalions in 72nd Brigade:  8th Royal West Kents, 8th Buffs (East Kents), 9th East Surreys, and 8th Queen’s (Royal West Surreys) had casualties (killed, wounded and missing) of respectively: 556 other ranks, 24 officers; 534 other ranks and 24 officers; 455 other ranks, and 22 officers; and 427 other ranks and 12 officers; each having committed around 670 men and just under 30 officers.  In all, 50 battalions lost over 300 men, and 23 more between 200 and 300.  In the midst of this baptism of fire, Russell had a vital role to play in attempting to keep communications flowing from 72nd Brigade up to the Divisional HQ (and vice-versa).  He described a little of his own experiences in the battle in a letter which formed part of an article in The Ringing World of 15 November 1915, p 219:


Writing from “somewhere in Belgium,” Sergt. J. W. Russell, Signal Section 721 B [sic – should be 72 IB], formerly of Dorking, and a member of the Winchester Guild, says, in a letter to Mr. F. E. Dawe [presumably Francis Edward Dawe of Woking, a Past Master of the College Youths, and first Hon Sec of the Central Council, and conductor of Russell’s College youths’ peal in 1912], that since he left England on August 31st he has spent a lot of his time in travelling up and down the western front. “My first action,” he continues, “was what is known in the papers as the ‘great advance,’ and since that we have been in a different part of the front altogether. Of course you must understand that we do not spend the whole of our time in the trenches. Personally, I have only spent two whole nights in them during the whole time, although some of my men are in the trenches throughout the period we are ‘up,’ as it is called. I spend more of my time, nights especially, at headquarters, although even there we are often in the danger zone, especially if the enemy gets ‘jumpy ‘ enough to let loose his heavy artillery- then the safest place is a dug-out.

“It is difficult to describe the amount of damage done to t he country by heavy gun fire. In some places whole villages are practically levelled to the ground, just a base wall standing here or there, but no semblance of a house, and of course the ground around it is nothing but a series of holes that may be anything from 2ft. to 30ft. in diameter and up to 10ft. in depth. Undoubtedly the enemy’s guns are capable of doing an enormous amount of damage, although I think that now we have just about got their measure in that respect, and can hold our own easily.

“How is ringing progressing? I suppose it is as quiet, as ever. One thing I am pretty certain of and that is that a good many of the good bands will never meet again. I am afraid I am getting quite, an outsider now, for I haven’t seen a. ‘Ringing World ‘ since coming out.

“We had his Majesty the King to visit us one day recently. I was lucky enough to be in the guard of honour. I thought he was looking very well indeed, considering the weight he has to carry just now. The Prince of Wales is making good out here.”

He had evidently done his job well, as it was in Field Marshal French’s despatch covering this action that he received his first gallantry award, a Mention in Despatches, which appeared in the London Gazette on 1 January 1916.  This may have been the reason he was chosen to form part of the King’s guard of honour.  The ceremonial inspection took place at Reningelst, Belgium (approximately 5km SSE of Poperinge and 10km WSW of Ieper/Ypres) at 11:30am on 27 October.  They had been pulled out of the Loos area on 27 September and sent north to Belgium to refit.  71 Infantry Brigade was replaced by the regular army 17 Infantry Brigade (though of course by this time few of the pre-war regulars remained), and one battalion each of 72 and 73 Infantry Brigades was then exchanged for a regular battalion from 17 IB.

He continued in the same vein, receiving the DCM in the King’s Birthday Honours gazetted on 3 June 1916, though the citation was not published until 21 June: “For conspicuous and consistent good work on his system of telephone lines.  He has shown tireless energy and resource, besides great gallantry, under fire.”  In addition, though he received no further promotions, signallers could obtain increased pay by improving their skill in their designated trade, Russell’s record shows he was rated “proficient” on 20 September 1915, “skilled” on 20 March 1916 (and would ultimately be rated “superior” on 20 September 1916).  The division had spent this entire period in Belgium, much of it around the Ypres Salient.  Though there were no major battles, there was constant shellfire, and some fairly serious poison gas attacks by the Germans.  Telephone and other communication cables were frequently broken and had to be repaired quickly, even if the shelling hadn’t stopped.

In mid-July the division returned to France, ordered to the Somme to relieve the units which had begun the battle there on 1 July.  They fought in the Battle of Delville Wood, and the last German forces there fell back on 3 September after a long fight, and 72 IB was involved to the very end.  The Division then took part in the subsequent Battle of Guillemont which helped to stabilise the British hold on the area.

Russell was hospitalised from 23 February-6 March 1917, no reason is given in his records – the company war diary shows 13 men were admitted to hospital in February 1917, and four were still there at the end of the month; most of the month was spent in training, so it is unlikely it had anything to do with enemy action.  After returning to his unit, Russell was granted home leave from 16-26 March – this was presumably the first time he had seen his wife in 18 months.  By now, planning was well under way for another major offensive in the Arras area.  The task of taking the strategically important Vimy Ridge had been allocated to the Canadian Corps who had been training for months, and under the ground was a maze of tunnels.  The attack was due to be launched on Easter Day, 8 April 1917, but in the event was delayed by a day at the request of the French, who were to launch another attack further south, one purpose of the British attack being to draw in German reinforcements and thus weaken the defences in the area the French were to attack.  On 9 April, 24 Division was holding the trenches from which the Canadians launched their attack, and so suffered badly in the German counter-bombardment.  The initial few days of the offensive were a great success, but momentum gradually slowed.  By 13 April the division was slightly further north, almost on the same ground as they had fought over at Loos on their first arrival in France.  At 2.55pm on 13 April, Divisional HQ signalled to 72 Infantry Brigade that the Germans seemed to be making a full-scale withdrawal.  Over the next few days, the division moved forward to take over the old German trenches.

It was probably for actions at Arras that Russell recommended for the Military Medal, which was gazetted on 21 July.  No citations were published for these awards, and unfortunately the company war diary never mentions any of Russell’s awards while he was a serjeant, though some awards to other men are mentioned, so it’s impossible to be sure, but the rule of thumb among WWI researchers is that medals followed around three months after the action concerned. By then the division was back in Belgium and had fought in the Battle of Messines from 7-14 June, preparations for this action had begun over a year earlier with major mining operations, the attack opened with one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, when explosives packed into the tunnels were set off immediately under the German frontlines. Early in July, Russell’s company commander recommended him for a commission.  Russell was interviewed by the Deputy Director of Signals, Second Army (a full colonel) on 10 July, who approved the application.  On 31 July the Third Battle of Ypres began (better known by the name of one of its sub-phases, Passchendaele).  The division was involved in the Battle of Pilkem from 31 July to 2 August, and then the Battle of Langemarck from 16 to 18 August.

Inevitably there was a fair amount of paperwork to sort out before the commission became official.  Applicants were also expected to give two character references, in this case Lady M Mirrielees of Pasture Wood, Dorking (the family also owned Goddard’s at Abinger Common) and the Revd A E Clark-Kennedy, the Vicar of Ewhurst.  Formalities complete, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant on 2 September 1917, continuing to serve with 24th Divisional Signal Company.  The division’s final major action of the year was at the end of November, defending against German counter-attacks in the Battle of Cambrai.

Officers are generally named more frequently in unit war diaries, but Russell still rarely appears.  However, we can be reasonably sure that the actions for which he won his final decoration, the Military Cross, took place during the German Spring Offensive, launched in March 1918.  The British Army went into full retreat, and nearly broke, leading to Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order, but in the end the line was stabilised – though significant territory was lost to the Germans.  The MC was not gazetted until 16 September 1918, the citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations lasting for several days, when he was continuously out laying telephone lines from divisional advance headquarters to brigade headquarters, frequently under heavy fire. On one occasion, when one of the brigades was nearly surrounded, he, although under heavy machine-gun and shell fire, succeeded in keeping through telephonic communication to the brigade, which greatly contributed to the ultimate success of the operation.

24 Division played a heroic part in the defence, particularly in and around the town of Le Verguier (about 20km west of Péronne) on the opening day of the German offensive, 21 March, here there is a street named after the division, Rue de la 24éme division Britannique.  Even more unusually, the division is named on the town’s own war memorial.

That was the German’s last attempt to win the war, begun in the knowledge that US forces were building up in earnest, and that they had to try and strike a decisive blow before the strategic advantage changed hands.  Soon the momentum was with the Allies who begin a steady advance during the “100 days” which finished the war with the coming into effect of the Armistice at 11:00am on 11 November 1918.  This did not bring Russell’s service to an immediate close, as 24th Division formed part of the Army of Occupation which was sent into Germany and remained there until the end of May 1919.  Even then, Russell continued to serve at home, perhaps he actually considered taking a permanent commission, but it seems that ultimately he either found peacetime soldiering dull, or there simply wasn’t the requirement for a ranker officer in the reduced army.  On 12 May 1922 he relinquished his commission.  His discharge documents show he gave his permanent address as Coneyhurst, and despite calling himself a “fitter” when he originally joined up, here he states his occupation as “Landscape Gardener”.  His final posting had been with a signals unit of Southern Command at Portsmouth, he remained a Royal Engineer, but was attached to the brand new Royal Corps of Signals on its formation.  Another possible reason for his deciding to leave the army was the birth of a daughter, Olive Betty, whose birth was registered in Portsmouth in the third quarter of 1921.

Russell’s contact with the War Office had not quite ended.  He was entitled to a war gratuity for the period he served in the ranks, but owing to his late demobilisation, and confusion with another J W Russell he had to fight to receive it, the Royal British Legion having to step in on his behalf.  The correspondence in his service file relating to this shows that by 1923 he was living in Ringwood, Hampshire.  It appears his wife died in late 1926, aged just 41, in the Bournemouth area.  I have not been able to much information about his life in Hampshire:  he does not re-appear in the membership lists of the Winchester DG prior to the Second World War, so he probably did not return to ringing at this time.  Local directories from 1930, 1934 and 1945 give his address as Grange Estate, St Leonard’s (the first of this actually states Mrs J W Russell, presumably a typo).  Local ringing records do show a J Russell ringing the tenor to a touch of Stedman Doubles on 19 March 1946.  It seems likely this is the same man, but there is no definite proof. Russell died, sadly, on Christmas Day 1946, aged 59.  The causes of death are given as (a) cerebral embolism and (b) mitral disease [of the heart].  Olive was present at the death, which took place at Grange Estate, St Leonard’s and St Ives Rural District (near Ringwood).  His occupation is recorded as “Contractors’ Foreman (Engineer)”.  He was buried at Ringwood Cemetery on 28 December 1946 in grave D/D 249.  The burial records describe him as “Clerk of Works, retired”.

Probate was granted in London on 4 June 1947, to his executor, Douglas George Oliver, a market gardener.  He left an estate of £990 6s 6d (equivalent to around £134,000 today, as a share of GDP).  His will, drawn up in 1938 makes prominent mention of Daisy Elizabeth Dymott, given her choice of ornaments and furniture, a joint share of the house with Olive (unless they decide to sell it, in which case Olive would get all the proceeds), and to act as Olive’s guardian had Olive still been under-age.  Daisy appears never to have married, also born in 1881, the 1911 census records her living with her parents in Southampton and employed as a geological examiner.  She probably simply helped to look after Olive after Rosetta’s early death.

Olive seems to have married Ernest C White (a civil servant) in 1953 and lived in Wimborne Minster until her own death in 1960 aged just 39, even younger than her mother.  A Rosemary A White, with a mother’s maiden name of Russell, was born in the Poole registration district (which then included Wimborne) in 1957.

The four gallantry awards he received make him comfortably the most decorated member of the Surrey Association to have served during the First World War.  He may well be the most decorated ringer of the war – one ringer, Serjeant William Johnson of Worksop Priory, is known to have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and a few others received the DCM or MM and Lt-Col Charles Frederick Jerram, Royal Marines Light Infantry was Mentioned in Despatches five times, awarded the DSO and appointed CMG (and awarded the French Croix de Guerre), largely for staff work, but I have not seen any other with so many gallantry decorations.  I was able to photograph Russell’s service record, the images can be seen at

I am grateful to the librarians of the Winchester DG and Sussex County Association, Bruce Purvis and Stella Bianco, for checking annual reports; Alan Baldock the Sussex peal secretary for details of Russell’s one peal in Sussex; Paul Whewell and David Munro of Farnham and Frensham respectively (and the other ringers there) for providing photos of peal records, and the photo of the man himself; and Christine Wright of Ringwood for information from local directories, tower records, and the burial records.  Apologies if I have omitted anyone who provided me with information.