Signals

Communication at all levels in the Armed Forces was obviously vital. All commanders needed a means of receiving information and issuing orders. Communications were by:

  • Lines (Field telephone, civil telephone and teleprinter)
  • Wireless
  • Visual (Daylight Signalling lamp, Morse Flag and Pyrotechnics)
  • Despatch (Despatch Rider, Runner, Aircraft and Pigeon)
    • The ordinary infantry platoon had runner and pyrotechnics and particularly isolated posts had lamp or field telephone as well.

      The company and higher formations usually had all the above means with the exception of Pigeon which was not normally provided below Brigade HQ level.

      Eastern Command established a Signal Centre at Hertford.

      Lines
      Not surprisingly, virtually all formations and units made use of civil telephone. Instructions were given for the use of civil telephone during active operations that calls should be kept as short as possible and only held when absolutely necessary in order to reduce congestion. For security, to guard against false orders or messages given by enemy agents, the normal procedure was to ring off then after a pause of three minutes ring back the officer alleged to have given the order to confirm the authority of the order.

      Field telephone was only suitable for communication over relatively short distances due to the high resistance of field cable. It was mainly used for Observation Posts, and communication between Company HQ to Battle HQ’s. Field cable used in the Army was normally D3 (either single or twisted strands of 1 tinned copper and 7 hard tinned steel). Heavier cable, such as D8, was normally used for artillery positions.

      Lines to unit and formation HQ’s were poled cable, either P.O. poles or W.D poles. In some cases, e.g. from artillery observation posts to battery positions, the cable was buried at a depth of 6”, deeper if possible in the vicinity of the observation post and gun positions. All lines, whether G.P.O. or W.D., were tested daily. If “Stand To” was ordered all lines were to be tested hourly.

      Teleprinter was used for communications at Division and higher HQ’s level.

      Wireless
      Wireless equipment varied from simple sets which could be carried on one man’s back in the forward areas to large semi-fixed stations capable of high speed working over long distances. Other sets were fitted in trucks, armoured cars and tanks to maintain communications while on the move. Wireless could either transmit a series of dots and dashes, i.e. Morse code, referred to as wireless telegraphy (W/T) or voice (radio telephony – R/T). Wireless worked best away from trees, buildings, cliffs, and power and telephone wires. During normal conditions, if considered necessary cipher was to be used for W/T. During active operations, W/T used a simple procedure, known as VE message procedure, to ensure messages were sent as simply and fast as possible; if intercepted by the enemy, he would not have time to act on it.

      In normal circumstances, wireless call signs and frequencies were changed weekly. Wireless would exchange calls one hour before sunrise then be on listening watch until sunrise. At all other times wireless silence was to be maintained unless “Action Stations” was issued, enemy landings were taking place or if line communications failed.

      In case of a breakdown in normal communications, a mobile R/T station was located at 11 Corps HQ which would broadcast orders and information to lower formations and units (Division HQ, Brigade HQ, Battalion HQ and Artillery Regts) included within a Wireless Network Intelligence Plan. These had been issued with receiving sets. The network was known by its code word, “BEETLE”. On “Action Stations”, BEETLE receivers were to listen for five minutes for the first five minutes of every clock hour.

      Emergency wireless communication (code named “PANDA”) was provided to ensure direct contact between the RAF and Army. This included any Field Forces with a role in providing airfield relief columns.

      Above:
      Left - Field Telephone
      Middle - Field Telephone, Observation Post
      Right - Portable Wireless

      Visual
      Daylight Signalling Lamp: There were two types of daylight signalling lamp – short range lamp and long range lamp. The daylight signalling lamp, short range, was readable under average conditions at a distance of two miles with the naked eye or three to four miles with a telescope. At night the distances were six miles with the naked eye and nearly twice that with a telescope. The lamp was mounted either on a stand or spike. The daylight signalling lamp, long range, was readable with the naked eye at a distance of eight miles.

      Examples of instances were lamps were to be used included:

      • Call to Naval ships for support.
      • Battery Observation Posts normally also had lamps for visual signalling with the gun positions.
      • One of the means of communication between RAF aerodromes and relief columns
        • Morse Flag: Generally impractical for field use due to the problem of concealment. It was mainly used as an alternative to the lamp if for some reason that was unavailable.

          Above:
          Morse Flag - first positions of dot and dash
          Daylight signalling lamp and stand

          Pyrotechnics: The following were the standard light signals:

          • Golden Rain – call for defensive fire. To be fired by Company HQ’s.
          • Light and sound, 3 star red – Enemy actions on land (i.e. alarm signal for enemy landings or attack of any nature). To be fired by Royal Navy, Coastal Defence Batteries, Company Commands, Observation Posts and isolated platoon and section posts. The signal was not to be repeated by a post that had not heard or seen any attack.
          • Light, 5 star green – Enemy surface vessels sighted. To be fired by Royal Navy, Coastal Defence Batteries, Company Commands and Observation Posts.
            • Army Co-Operation Aircraft also used light signals – see below.

              Despatch
              Despatch Rider: Despatch rider was the only way to carry certain orders and reports which did not lend them to telegraphic form. They could also help avoid congestion on other communication means by carrying routine orders and other administrative material which was too urgent for the post. Despatch riders in normal conditions ran up to three times daily to Company HQ’s. Despatch riders would be the only means of communication if all other methods failed.

              Aircraft: Army Co-operation Aircraft could drop messages at designated dropping stations (near Division and Brigade HQ’S). For other Report Centres, the aircraft would fire two green lights calling for the Report Centre sign; Report Centres would respond by waving a yellow flag in a full circle horizontally.

              Most Co-operation aircraft were also equipped with wireless (both W/T and R/T).

              Aircraft could also request identification by firing a series of white light signals. Troops were to respond by waving a yellow signal flag horizontally in a half circle in front of the body when facing the enemy or in the direction of movement for three minutes. Also as many troops as possible in forward areas should have a yellow identification symbol, usually sown onto the respirator, which they should hold out at arms length if the aircraft fired the recognition signal.

              Pigeon: Carrier pigeons operated in situations where it was possible to establish lofts and birds could be taken out to fixed posts from which to carry back messages to their lofts. They were essentially an emergency service, useful if the other means of communication were impractical or not possible. They had a number of advantages:

              • They could carry sketches as well as messages
              • They can travel at high speed and were unaffected by ground conditions
              • They can fly long distances
              • They can be trained to “home” to a mobile loft, provided the movement of he loft was gradual.
                • However there were a number of problems with pigeons.

                  • They would not fly at night unless specially trained.
                  • Their flight is adversely affected by bad weather
                    • Above: Left - Despatch Riders. Middle - Mobile Pigeon Loft; Right - attaching a message to a pigeon

                      On the outbreak of War, it became illegal to keep pigeons without a permit. To some extent, in a spy-conscious country, pigeons were often suspected of flying vast distances on treasonable errands! The War Office desired to clear the skies for pigeons on military business and also “call up” pigeons for military service. Such “conscripted” pigeons were enrolled in the National Pigeon Service. Probably in excess of 250,000 pigeons were used by the various Armed Forces and Civil Defence Services during the War. The biggest user of pigeons was the RAF (every RAF bomber carried pigeons in case of having to ditch) which even operated a Falcon Control Unit, with the function of destroying peregrines in a given area and a Falcon Interceptor Unit, in which birds of prey were trained to bring down suspect pigeons. Pigeons were even awarded decorations, The Dickin Medal, issued to any animal that accomplished a “gallant” act and of the 54 issued during 1943-49, pigeons received 32!

                      As it takes time to establish a loft and to train birds, there main use was to carry messages from the posts to permanent lofts in the rear in situations where other means of communication had failed or were not possible. The procedure for sending a message was normally to dispatch two birds, each carrying a copy of the message. If more than one message needed to be sent, a message carrier could be attached to each leg of the pigeon. Pigeons in the posts were kept in baskets and care of the pigeons was obviously paramount to ensure their feathers were kept pristine.

                      The message carrier was a hollow cylinder of coloured Bakelite fixed to a ring on the pigeons leg. Message carriers were coloured to denote the service on which they were employed:

                      • Green, Grey and red with coloured disc in cap– Special Pigeon Service (carried messages of the highest importance; if recovered the message should be removed unopened and sent by despatch rider to the Army Pigeon Service, London)
                      • Red (plain) – normal Army Pigeon Service (if recovered to be taken to the nearest army signal office)
                      • Blue (plain), blue with coloured disc in cap – RAF Pigeon Service (if recovered to be taken to the nearest RAF Station)
                      • Blue with white patch on side – RAF S.O.S Service (if recovered, to be despatched with instructions which would be included with the message)
                      • Black – Civil Police (if recovered to be sent to the address given on the message)
                      • Yellow – Commercial (many firms operated pigeon services e.g. Dunlop Rubber Company)
                        • Little mention of pigeons is made in Field Forces War Diary’s, although 55th Div does note that a Mobile Pigeon Loft with 80 birds arrived on 30th July 1940.

                          Home Guard

                          The collection and rapid transmission of information both to and from the Home Guard sub-units in the event of invasion was of great importance. No hard and fast rules were laid down for the Home Guard, speed of delivering the message being of paramount importance.

                          Home Guard units were to establish Report Centres on Action Stations in conjunction with Infantry units. The Report Centre was to receive and sift through information received from the Home Guard Sections and Platoons. In most cases Report Centres were connected to Higher Formations by telephone and wireless as well as being on normal despatch rider routes. Post Office telephones could also be used as an alternative means of communications. Arrangements had been made in 11 Corps area for the 13th Battalion Essex Home Guard (made up of mainly GPO personnel) to disconnect all “non essential” lines on “Action Stations”. The Battalion could also make reports to their own H.Q (in Suffolk this was in Ipswich). The Battalion had a role to maintain civil lines with linesmen. The Battalion also operated some P.O. Telephone Exchanges with special Home Defence circuits to facilitate passing on information.

                          The Civil Police also had an extensive network of direct lines between Police Stations which could be used in an emergency to pass on military information.

                          The Home Guard also had a pigeon service. There are some detailed instructions for the Home Guard Pigeon Service in the Suffolk Sub-area. In the Battalion areas, details of all pigeon fanciers were collected. Any not members of the National Pigeon Service, who were required to put their birds in the service of the Home Guard Pigeon Service, were to be enrolled as members of the N.P.S. Fanciers were then to be formed into groups with a maximum of four fanciers per group.

                          On “Stand To”, pigeons were to be distributed to the required posts, a minimum of six birds for each post. They were normally kept in these posts for three days before being replaced by fresh birds. Birds were to be trained as often as possible, by taking them to the posts and releasing them. N.P.S. members were given coupons for the feed for the number of birds they were registered to keep. For pigeons on duty in baskets, a daily ration allowance of 1 ½ ozs per pigeon per day for a period of basket duty of three days could be claimed from 11 Corps HQ.

                          If new lofts were required in the Sub-area, care had to be taken in concealment. The battleship grey in which lofts were supplied was seldom suitable – arrangements had to be made to ensure they fitted in with surrounding buildings. Paths to the lofts should be kept narrow and inconspicuous.

                          The Home Guard Pigeon Service was to be made available to any Field Forces coming into the Sub-Area on “Action Stations”.
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