CABLE COMMUNICATIONS IN WAR

Strange tales are told of cable capers during World War II. Here are three...


 

UK-Netherlands

Here's an excerpt from the THG magazine (issue 35 of 1999):

John Trenouth, senior curator of television at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, tells how his father was dropped by parachute into the occupied Netherlands during World War II to examine German radar equipment. Domiciled in Leyden with a Dutch resistance family, as they all sheltered in the cellar one night, he was asked: "Does your wife have a telephone at home?"

When he answered yes, his hosts immediately arranged a phone call for him-something theoretically impossible as all undersea cables had been severed by the belligerents. Yet he did make that call, even though it was very brief; all he could say was that he was safe and couldn't disclose where he was. Apparently the Dutch resistance had re-connected one cable, unbeknown to the German occupiers.

After liberation John's father was one of a party detailed to examine an underground German communications centre in Rotterdam. The visit to this telephone exchange was hindered by the darkness below ground. Although they had torches, they really could have done with proper illumination. They discovered a generator set and several minutes were spent trying to get this working but to no avail.

This, they soon found out, was extremely fortunate. A few doors down the corridor they found a room stacked with several tons of Cordite—and neatly wired into the light bulb socket was the detonator! Talk about booby traps.

 

UK-Denmark

The following lifted from the Bletchley Park list might be of interest..

Another astonishing feat of which I am certain was the establishment, under the eyes of German Signals technicians working in the Copenhagen Repeater station, of a clandestine telephone circuit between the Danish Resistance and Sweden via the submarine cable, using a superphantom circuit operating at very low level.  The Germans knew that news was flowing from Denmark to the UK and frantically tried to locate a radio transmitter which never existed!    They never discovered the telephone circuit. [reported by Robert Philpot]

 

The Door

It was 1978. I was working at a factory in West London when a general conversation about my interest in things underground prompted a college to tell me a fascinating story that was to shape the next ten years of my life. His tale is related below as it was told to me then…  

In the early 1970s a friend purchased a large detached house in Hamilton Road, Ealing Broadway and set about re-decorating the property.  Months passed and his plan of work had progressed to making the basement room in to a small workshop.  He experienced some difficulty in putting up shelving because the walls were so hard and difficult to drill.  So it was odd then, when drilling in to one particular wall, that the drill bit sank easily in to what was only soft plaster.  Investigating this anomaly revealed that the plaster was a fašade covering a metal structure.  When the plaster was removed the original wall was uncovered and this was set with a heavy metal door that had no visible means of gaining entry.   So what do you do when you stumble upon a secret door in your basement?   The owner consulted his estate agent, wrote to his solicitor, spoke to the neighbours, checked with the local planning office and even featured his find in the local newspaper.  All this revealed nothing.

Then there was an apparent breakthrough.  A man who purported to have information about “The Door” contacted the owner.  He needed to see the basement for himself and made an appointment to visit.   Two men kept the appointment and despite making several measurements and taking a photograph, they gave nothing away that would shed light on the mystery.  They left and were never seen or heard of again.  Next day, however, a courier delivered an enveloped marked: “On Her Majesty’s Service” . 

The owner of the Hamilton Road house discovered that his property was now the subject of a compulsory purchase order.   The money offered by the Crown was, apparently, very generous.  On the advice of his solicitor the owner accepted the order, without appeal, and moved out leaving the property empty for some months.  Later the house came back on to the market and was sold to private ownership.   The friend of the storyteller never discovered what lay behind “The Door”.   I was left both tantalised and yet frustrated.  Should I accept the tale to be true?  I decided after some soul searching that it was worth investigating and I embarked upon a hunt that was to last ten years. 

I visited Ealing Broadway and found that no one knew about the door.  I then continued the quest by examining records in Britain and the United States. I read about tunnels and bunkers, I examined maps and plans, I dragged myself around many potentially “secret” sites, I met others who were similarly interested or were just weird.  I heard more stories about hidden places and strange goings on but none to match the allure of Hamilton Road.   In those ten years I learned just how much of Britain’s recent military history lay buried and hidden from view.  The thousands of homeless that worked in the wartime Royal Dockyard, at Portsmouth, and yet lived in miles of chalk tunnels to the north of the City.  The hidden location of the last resting-place of Bletchley Park’s most senior code breaker: Dillwyn Knox. The manufacture of aircraft parts in a myriad of subterranean factories. How to deny an enemy access to oil stored in vast underground caverns.  To know when a covered water reservoir was in fact employed for other uses. The wartime communications bunker beneath Wentworth Golf Club and its odd landline link with “St. Moritz, Windsor”.  I evidenced the operation of the old telephone preference system, that was later confirmed in Duncan Campbell ’s book War Plan UK, plus many other fascinating and sometimes unbelievable facts, half-truths and, inevitably, the endless speculation.

So, in amongst all this diverse information, did I actually find out what lay behind the basement door in Ealing Broadway?   Ten years after hearing the Hamilton Road story I had almost given up on the possibility of ever solving the mystery of the Door.  Then, out of the blue, a line in Nigel West’s book GCHQ the Secret Wireless War 1900-86 revealed what lay hidden in that protected basement room in Ealing Broadway.  Added to West’s description of how the basement of Electra House, in London, was used to access overseas cable traffic was the revelation that behind the basement door at 12 Hamilton Road was a “standby cablehead and radio  station”.  He notes that this secret facility was called in to service only once, on 16 August 1940, after the main eavesdropping site had been bombed. There is, unfortunately, no explanation as to how it came to be hidden behind a plaster fašade and forgotten for the next 30 years.   So, if you need to sell your home quickly, better take another close look at the basement.   [Neil Conlon]

 

The concealment of wartime additions in the story above has a parallel in the following...

BBC planned planned secret radio network in case Germany invaded Britain

Just how close Britain came to defeat during the second world war has been revealed by recently discovered plans for a secret radio network by the BBC and the Government to broadcast messages of defiance to organised resistance groups.

In May 1940 Britain was all but defenceless against German forces massing in northern France. Invasion seemed certain and plans had been made to take the Royal Family and senior politicians to North America.

Plans for Operation  Stronghold came to light only after the sale of the archive of Britain’s first television producer, D.H. Munro. Once the most important man in the BBC’s fledgling service, his archive was a treasured memento of a career that ended after a nervous breakdown in 1948. With television work suspended by the outbreak of war, Munro’s technical knowledge was put to use by the BBC’s studio equipment committee, from where Operation Stronghold was planned.

It was among his papers that that a blueprint for a network of guerrilla radio stations was discovered. It now belongs to a collector of early television technology, Michael Bennett-Levy, who said: “The committee’s job was to set up emergency studios fully equipped and ready to operate at any moment. In the event of invasion the idea was to put well-known voices on the wireless. People like Alvar Lidell and J.B. Priestley would have given instructions to the population, whether to resist, what to sabotage and so on.

The minutes of the meetings Mr Bennett-Levy uncovered show in minute detail plans for broadcasters and technicians to fall back to secret radio stations as fighting raged in the streets.

In London, Broadcasting House was to be abandoned for the basement of Selfridge’s department store at 200 Oxford Street before the broadcasters fell back to a private house in Maida Vale. In the North, broadcasts were to be made from a Methodist church in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Midlands would hear a voice from a bunker at a house in Kidderminster. In Wales, at the Constitutional Club in Aberdare, and in Scotland at 11 Newbattle Terrace, studios were created from nothing.

The records show how the new stations were requisitioned and fitted out, before being returned to their original condition at the end of the war. Mr Bennett-Levy said: Nobody knew about this at all; it was kept hush-hush. No-one would ever admit the possibility of being invaded and conquered was very real. All these studios were meticulously returned to their original condition, so no clues were left that these studios had ever been made up.”

  • Adapted from an article in The Independent dated 2nd May 2000 and information supplied by Mr Bennett-Levy.

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