SERVING THE MARINER SINCE 1920 - A FRIENDLY VOICE ON MANY A DARK NIGHT
The war years saw a great amount of activity and change at Portishead Radio. Commercial traffic ceased, as for a ship to transmit a message would invariably release its position to the enemy by direction-finding apparatus. Activity at Portishead and the coast stations was therefore confined to Admiralty traffic and the handling of distress calls and enemy position reports. These included news of the North Africa landings and the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Monitoring of the various clandestine stations from Europe was also undertaken, which ensured that the station was kept busy. In addition to the maritime services, a special aircraft section was constructed for communication with patrol aircraft in the North Atlantic.
During 1941, arrangements were made for certain long range naval services to be worked from Portishead Radio, and a naval officer, with eighteen naval telegraphists, were added to the staff of the operating station at Burnham. The Naval and Post Office telegraphists sat side by side, two to a point, each pair searching a particular wave band. If either heard a ship call, the operation was conducted by the naval operator if it was from a warship, or by the Post Office operator if it was from a merchant ship. The Admiralty expressed satisfaction with these arrangements and stated that they have resulted in a marked increase in efficiency in their communications with distant ships, especially warships.
A paper entitled War-time Development and Services (written in 1946) gives an excellent insight into the role of both Portishead and the various UK Coast Stations during the conflict. It reads;
“During the war, considerable use was made of the Post Office Wireless Service and its personnel. Advantage was taken of all-round adaptability and the high degree of initiative which required in wireless operating. The following statement will give and indication of the varied tasks undertaken;
The opening of hostilities saw the cessation of ship-to-shore working for commercial purposes and “silence-at-sea” was observed. The operators were required to maintain a vigilant watch during long periods of wireless inactivity; the operator had to be prepared to receive distress signals, signals concerning the approach of enemy aircraft, signals warning of the approach of enemy submarines, and any indications of illicit transmissions. To meet difficulties in connection with submarine activity in the Atlantic, stations were opened in the Isle of Lewis, Isle of Tiree and Cape Wrath. These stations were remotely situated and their success depended on the adaptability and efficiency of the staff. Engineering or operating assistance was not easily obtainable. A station was opened at Stonehaven to cover the area off the East coast of Scotland. When the all-out air offensive on the continent was begun it was assisted by the opening of a station at Ormesby for the major purpose of receiving signals from airmen brought down in the North Sea. Accurate figures as to the number of airmen rescued as a result of distress signals received at Post Office Wireless Stations are not known, but it is thought that many hundreds were saved. To assist in handling difficulties for ships entering Liverpool, a station was opened at Lytham St. Annes.
Post Office Personnel were used both at Burnham and at a temporary station to work alongside Navy personnel and maintain contact with both naval and merchant vessels. Operational messages of the utmost priority were dealt with in a manner evoking warm commendation form the Naval authorities.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, a station was opened in Hertfordshire, and was staffed entirely by Post Office Wireless personnel. This station subsequently formed the basis for four other stations employing a total staff of approximately 600. The whole of the preliminary operating work in building up this highly secret organisation was undertaken by the Post Office, and was both highly skilled and requiring a considerable concentration and intelligence. The received signals were both ‘aural’ and ‘high speed’. In the case of the ‘aural’ signals they were in many different languages, as well as in code. They were transmitted on frequencies not intended for this country, and were often intentionally jammed by a broadcasting station. Despite these difficulties, and the inability to ask for repetitions, a very high percentage of messages was received. Perhaps it is of equal importance that a large number of ‘operators remarks’ were intercepted. The skill of the Post Office operator was demonstrated in his ability to read the particular characteristics in the types of Morse sending, and in his ready understanding of the language abbreviations used for ‘telegraphist’ conversations. The ‘high-speed’ aspect of this work required an ability to tune in high-speed stations frequently transmitting in a direction to make reception in this country difficult. the messages were received on an undulator and had to be transcribed into type. The effectiveness of this work, and the ability of the staff, were commented on by Mr W.S. Morrison, Postmaster-General, and Mr. Alab Chapman, assistant P.M.G., and brought a personal commendation from Mr. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister.
To meet possible invasion, the United Kingdom was split into zones and linked by an Emergency Wireless Service. The initial training and opening of stations was undertaken by Post Office Wireless staff.
In the event of bomb damage to a Coast Station, two mobile stations were held ready. The periodic testing was undertaken by Post Office Wireless Staff.
With the invasion of the Continent by the B.L.A., the Post Office Wireless Service handled press traffic from War Correspondents. In its early stages, this meant ‘aural’ reception of very weak signals transmitted from the Normandy beachhead. later it involved the opening of a special station to handle thousands of words and after transcribing, retransmission on the teleprinter.
This vast development which finally brought in hundreds of loaned and temporary staff had, as its basis for efficiency and acceptance of responsibility, the one hundred established Post Office Wireless Telegraphists.
An interesting document sent from the Post Office Ship Inspection service to all UK Radio companies dated June 1941 gives full details of the Portishead Radio Short Wave communication service in use at this time. The opening paragraph shows a little frustration at the inabililty of some vessels to maintain a regular contact;
“The wireless silence enforced on merchant ships since the opening of hostilities appears to have resulted, on occasion, in difficulty in establishing contact on short waves with Portishead Radio. The matter is viewed with some concern, and in order to improve the position, arrangements have been made whereby ships may, when permitted to do so by the Naval authorities, send practice messages to Portishead on short waves.
The scheduled hours of watchkeeping of Portishead Radio as published in official lists have been modified, and are now as follows;
18 metres – open for service from 0400 to 2000 GMT.
24 metres – open continuously.
36 metres – open continuously.
Ships should use the following frequencies for calling Portishead Radio:-
18 metres – 16560 kc/s (18.12m). GKS answers on 16845 kc/s (17.81m)
24 metres – 12420 kc/s (24.15m). GKA answers on 12367 kc/s (24.26m)
36 metres – 8280 kc/s (36.23m). GKT answers on 8220 kc.s (36.50m).
Before leaving United Kingdom ports, ships equipped with short wave apparatus should have their transmitters calibrated to each of the three calling frequencies (16560, 12420 and 8280 kc/s). Portishead Radio will assist, when possible, in this calibration. For this purpose ships should call Portishead (GKT) on 8280 kc/s (36.23m) using the callsign GTST. Portishead will reply on 149 kc/s (2013m). To enable ships when at sea to ascertain the most suitable frequency for calling, Portishead Radio emits the call signs GKS, GKA and GKT on the associated frequencies from 30 to 35 minutes past each hour. (The GKS call sign is emitted only during the watchkeeping period on this band – 0400 to 2000 GMT). the call sign which is best received will indicate the waveband on which communication could most probably most readily be established. Ships transmitters should be adjusted hourly at –35 to the calling frequency in the waveband thus determined, and therefore be available for instant use in an emergency.”
An updated notice was issued in November 1941;
“Arrangements have been modified and are now as follows;
Hours of watchkeeping;
18 metres - Open for service from 0400 to 2000 GMT. Ships call, and are answered by GKS on 16845 kc/s (17.81m).
24 metres - Open continuously. Ships call, and are answered, by GKQ on 12685 kc/s (23.65m).
36 metres - Open continuously. Ships call, and are answered, by GKY on 8290 kc/s (36.19m).
The arrangements whereby ships were permitted under certain conditions to send messages for exercise have been cancelled. Portishead Radio will assist as hitherto in the tuning of ships’ transmitters to the new operating frequencies. Signalling incidental to tuning must be kept to a minimum, and permission of the Naval authorities obtained beforehand”.
It would appear from other associated documents that the war was nothing more than a minor irritation for the Ship Inspection service; expense claims, stationery orders and travel documentation continued as if nothing had happened.
All British Coast stations were issued with official documentation with regard to wartime processes, involving such items as intercepting traffic from foreign coast stations, the set up of reserve and emergency stations, air raid precautions, and various security-related procedures. Many of these were obviously of a common-sense nature, but other instructions, especially to do with the interception of traffic, were somewhat involved. Basically, these instructions gave details of the type of traffic which would be of interest to the UK authorities, and the type of codes being used. For example,
“Traffic consisting of German nouns and proper names grouped together in an apparently meaningless fashion is urgently required”.
The ‘Passau Interception Service’ also required details of coded messages transmitted by the German authorities on various medium and short wave frequencies, although the need for these ceased on 17th May 1945.
As many ‘new’ wireless telegraphists were being employed at Post Office coast radio stations, a guidance booklet was issued to each person giving details of communication procedures, log-keeping and the various “Q” and “Z” codes commonly in use, together with a basic guide to radio propagation.
Signalling both to and from ships during the wartime period was, by necessity, kept to a minimum. To ensure this, a new method of message handling was needed and subsequently adopted; this method became the fore-runner of the Commonwealth 'Area scheme'. By necessity, ships' callsigns had to be changed to secret 'wartime' callsigns, which helped to protect the identity of each vessel.
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