Signals in Britain's Army
October 1944 Radio News

October 1944 Radio News
October 1944 Radio News Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio & Television News, published 1919-1959. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Special Insert: Radio-Electronic Engineering Department

Here is a good summary of where the Brits were in the way of wired and wireless telegraphy and telephony towards the end of World War II. Captain A. Reid, Signals Directorate, British War Office, provides some photographs and descriptions of the field equipment. Chief among the wired units was the long-revered Fullerphone, brainchild of Capt. A.C. Fuller (who retired as a Major General), who initially developed it during WWI as a solution to long range (up to 3 miles) secure communications. It was considered essential frontline equipment. Of course wireless gear became necessary as fighting units were dispatched farther and farther from established headquarters. Interestingly, Capt. Reid mentions the use of Lamson tubes for dispatching secret messages into and out of secure vaults. They were the forerunners to the vacuum tube system used at bank drive-up stations and within businesses for physically (no copper or ether involved) ferrying items between locations up to a few hundred feet apart.

Signals in Britain's Army

British Signals and Land-Line headquarters in the Malaya jungles during the early phase of the war - RF Cafe

British Signals and Land-Line headquarters in the Malaya jungles during the early phase of the war.

By Captain A. Reid

Signals Directorate, British War Office

Problems that Britain's Army confronted in adapting radio communications to meet the mobility and speed required in modern warfare.

The signal communications of Britain's Army have been very severely tested and extended to meet the mobility and speed of modern warfare and the vast distances over which the conflict is being waged. Radio, particularly, has been employed on a scale not hitherto contemplated.

In the field, for instance, radio communications have been provided not only for every headquarters and every fighting unit down to the infantry platoon, the tank and the armoured car; they also have been provided for the tank recovery units, the sappers and for the medical and supply services.

Special communications networks have been established for the control of air support for the Army, for initiating reconnaissance from the air and for disseminating reports of that reconnaissance. Elaborate networks have been established for the early stages of assault landings on hostile beaches. Every major development in the tactical handling of any arm of the Service has tended to increase the scale of signal communications.

Radio van in the Malaya jungles - RF Cafe

Radio van in the Malaya jungles, from which messages were sent via motorcycle carriers and pigeons. Radio has replaced many of these former methods of communications, particularly during the present phase of the war where speed is so essential.

Another problem has been that since 1940 the main theaters of the land war have never been less than 1,000 miles - and some several thousand from Britain.

Civil systems of communication either have not existed or have been unreliable or totally inadequate. The Army, therefore, has had to create, operate, and maintain its own worldwide radio chain as well as a network of line telegraph and telephone Communications.

Highly technical equipment not previously handled by the Army has had to be used for these purposes, and men who before the war were bank clerks, school teachers or shop assistants have had to be trained to use and tend it.

For communications with the Middle East and India, Britain formerly relied chiefly on the submarine cables through the Mediterranean. As soon as the Italians entered the war they cut the cables and laid minefields over the breaks. From that time until recently, when the Allies regained control of the Mediterranean, communications between the War Office in London and General Headquarters in the Middle East and India was almost entirely by means of the Army's radio system.

It was by radio, chiefly, that arrangements were made for building up the armies which were to protect the supply routes to India and the U.S.S.R. and eventually to drive westward across North Africa from El Alamein to Tunisia. The average daily traffic on the London-to-Cairo Army radio link alone amounted to 80,000 words.

The Allied landings in North Africa made it necessary to rely solely on radio communications also, for there was no adequate ready-made civil system and it was not long before the line communications between Allied headquarters and divisions in the field extended to over 500 miles. It can be imagined that this presented considerable difficulties to a force which had been landed with the minimum amount of equipment.

Wireless operator at an R.A.F. bomber station - RF Cafe

Wireless operator at an R.A.F. bomber station where planes are sent oft at two to five minute intervals.

W.A.A.F. orderly dispatches an urgent and secret message - RF Cafe

A W.A.A.F. orderly dispatches an urgent and secret message in its metal container through a Lamson tube. Here is a better version of the Lamson tube photo.

The whole of the British Army's signal communications, as well as the line communications of the Navy and the Royal Air Force when away from Britain, are the responsibility of the Royal Corps of Signals, a fully combatant corps which was formed in 1920 to take over communications work previously performed by the Royal Engineers.

All men in the Royal Corps of Signals, although armed and trained to fight, are also trained to an Army "trade," the chief trades being those of operator, electrician, instrument mechanic, lineman, dispatch rider and driver. For every headquarters in Britain's Army, from the War Office down to divisions in the field, there is a signal unit, commanded by a lieutenant colonel, with enough men of appropriate trades and enough equipment to provide the radio, telegraph, telephone and messenger services from that headquarters to the formations or units under its command or cooperating with it. (Messenger services include air courier, dispatch-rider and pigeon).

A unit known as War Office Signals operates communications from London to the headquarters of commands at home and abroad. Each General Headquarters, such as that in Cairo, has a unit to provide communications with the armies in the field, to the Royal Navy in its various ports, to the Royal Air Force and to civil authorities. Similarly, there are appropriate units at each Army and Corps Headquarters, the communications becoming less static and the equipment more mobile with each step down the chain of command.

The divisional signals unit, whether serving an infantry or an armoured division is highly mobile. It consists of over 700 men - almost three times the size of the corresponding unit at the end of World War I - and the number of its vehicles approaches 200. It is organized into companies and sections (or squadrons and troops in an armoured division) each with a particular role. There is an administrative section; a maintenance section for maintenance and first-line repairs of all signal equipment in the division; radio sections; dispatch-rider section; and cable section for laying the lines which are still used whenever possible because they can carry more traffic than radio with less risk of interception.

A separate self-contained section, consisting of operators, linemen, maintenance personnel, dispatch-riders and drivers, is also detached and sent under the command of an officer to the headquarters of each brigade and artillery regiment in the division, the role of each such section being to provide communications from the headquarters to which it is attached forward to the battalions or batteries or squadrons, as the case may be. Within those battalions and other units the signal communications are operated by the regimental signallers belonging to the unit and not by the Royal Signals.

On the Headquarters Staff of every Army and Corps there is also a Chief Signal Officer, usually a brigadier. He has a small staff of officers who are specialists in the various forms of communication and have supervisory duties throughout the Army or Corps concerned, and he himself is the adviser of the Army or Corps commander on everything to do with communications.

In a theater of war, as in the Middle East, there may be a Signal Officer-in-Chief with the rank of major-general, the highest rank in the organization of Signals in the British Army.

Signal section at work at a Brigade H.Q. near El Alemein, Africa - RF Cafe

Signal section at work at a Brigade H.Q. near El Alemein, Africa. Radio operator Corp. B. MacAlister is shown receiving wireless message, while officer towards right is operating a British Fullerphone unit.

Signal equipment ranges from the lineman's portable telephone and the infantryman's pack radio set to the 200-line telephone switchboard at Army Headquarters and the high-power mobile radio station capable of communication of over 100 words a minute half way round the world.

Between these extremes is a wide variety of equipment such as the Fullerphone, a small line-telegraph instrument for safe use in forward areas, teleprinter sometimes carried in a vehicle ready for instant connection to a line as soon as a halt is made; multi-channel equipment, which enables several telephone conversations and telegraph messages to be passed simultaneously over the same pair of wires; the 750 cwt. radio truck, the standard radio vehicle in forward areas; the 13-ton armoured command vehicle in which a divisional commander can conduct a battle while on the move, keeping in constant touch by radio with his troops and with his staff officers traveling in other similar vehicles.

There are also vehicles equipped as signal offices, cipher offices, workshops and pigeon-lofts and there are specially designed radio hand-carts for airborne signal units and beach signals who wade ashore with the first assault landings to keep communications going until the ordinary signal units get firmly established on land.



Posted March 29, 2021