Cold War Era 1947-1991

Since 1945 Royal Signals personnel have participated in all conflicts involving the nation.

The end of World War Two (WW2) did not bring universal peace. Mutual distrust between the Soviet Union and the remaining Allies was already apparent in 1945 during negotiations over the joint occupation of post-war Germany. Germany was split into four zones of occupation administered by the Soviet Union, USA, France and Britain. In turn, the German capital, Berlin, which was deep inside the Soviet zone of eastern Germany, was itself split into four sectors, a decision that would lead to escalating tensions and human tragedy over the next four decades.

Occupied Berlin

[By Stefan-Xp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]

Rising tensions

The likelihood of a collision between Soviet communism and Western capitalism was increased by the Soviet Union’s determination to prevent any future invasion by building a buffer zone between its own borders and Western Europe. Not only had Russia – and then the Soviet Union – suffered the most appalling losses in two world wars, but the spectre of the Napoleonic invasion of the previous century still loomed large in Moscow. The West, in turn, deeply feared the threat of communist expansionism into vulnerable post-war nations such as France, Italy and Greece.


The Iron Curtain

By the time Winston Churchill asserted in 1946 that an ‘Iron Curtain’ had descended across the Continent, the West was embarking on a policy of communist containment, whilst the Soviet Union continued to tighten its grip on Eastern Europe by installing or supporting pro-communist regimes. There followed a period of mutual antagonism, characterised initially by intense political manoeuvring, propaganda and the creation of new military alliances, but escalating into a series of terrifying arms races and global proxy wars.

The Berlin Airlift

Soviet Union blocks the Allies’ access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control.

The first crisis of this ‘Cold War’ unfolded in the summer of 1948 with the Berlin Blockade. The British, French and American zones of Germany had been united as ‘West Germany’, with the three corresponding West Berlin sectors also united inside the eastern Soviet zone. When the western allies then introduced a new currency, the Soviets condemned the move and retaliated by cutting off all rail and road links into West Berlin. Perceiving this as an attempt to take overall control of the city, the western allies undertook to supply West Berlin by air and continued to do so very successfully for almost a year until the Soviets finally abandoned the blockade.

Everything, including food and coal, had to be flown into Berlin and a huge number of aircraft were involved. The Corps played a major role in the success by providing and maintaining the airfield communications infrastructure necessary to co-ordinate the operation in West Berlin and in the UK.

The damage had been done: in 1949 communist East Germany was proclaimed officially as the German Democratic Republic, whilst Britain together with eight other European countries as well as Iceland, Canada and the USA became members of NATO, agreeing to provide mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic warhead in the same year, ending America’s technological monopoly, and in 1950 communist North Korea, led by a Soviet-installed leader, invaded US-supported South Korea to spark a three-year conflict. Political posturing had turned into outright proxy war.

Closing the inner German border

In 1952 the ‘Iron Curtain’ became permanent when the Inner German Border (IGB) between East and West Germany was officially closed, with a barbed-wire fence preventing migration westwards. Britain, along with France and the USA, had kept an army of occupation in Germany since 1945. This was the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).

From 1954, with the agreement of the government of the newly formed Federal Republic of West Germany, it remained as an army of defence and deterrence. After West Germany joined NATO in 1955 the Soviet Union formalised its own Eastern bloc coalition with the signing of the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War continued until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Prepare for action Austin K9 Loadstar Royal Signals Museum

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

In the 1970s Cold War tensions eased then intensified again with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During the 1980s the increasing urbanisation of north-western Germany meant that NATO tactics changed. The potential battleground had been transformed from open tank country to a network of small settlements from which overlapping anti-tank weaponry could be brought to bear on an attacker.

If NATO could count on timely and accurate information, it could then deploy resources to key areas, improving considerably the chances of halting or significantly delaying an attack. This increased the importance of systems that channelled intelligence data back to the decision makers and of other systems that helped make sense of the data. This was the start of a major change in the role and skill sets of the Corps.

By the mid-1980s the Soviet Union – suffering at home from low oil-export prices, the deep unpopularity of the Afghanistan War and the stagnation of its political leadership – began ushering in its own form of liberalisation (‘glasnost’) and restructuring (‘perestroika’). The start of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan followed in 1988.


The fall of the Berlin Wall

The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (left), announced in June 1989 that
the Soviet Union would not interfere in the internal affairs of Warsaw Pact countries. By the end of 1989, Poland had elected its first non-communist premier, while communist regimes in Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania had all been overthrown. On 9 November 1989, crowds started to demolish the Berlin Wall which had begun in August 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The wall cut-off West Berlin from East Germany and East Berlin. Prior to the wall being built it is thought that approximately one in six people would leave the Soviet sector for the West in what was referred to as the brain drain. The purpose of The Wall was to keep people in.

Symbolically, in 1991 a newly reunified Germany passed a resolution to move the seat of government back to Berlin from Bonn.

Zeitgeist by Stuart Brown was commissioned to commemorate the Corps’ period of service in Germany and shows the evolution of the communications systems used in BAOR. Artistic licence has been used to include iconic landmarks and equipment.

Fall of the Soviet Union

Soviet internal reform was weakening the Soviet Union’s own Communist Party and Gorbachev himself. Soviet republics, including Russia, began to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Communist hardliners and some KGB units attempted a coup in August 1991 in the hope of reversing the reforms and regaining central power. The coup failed, with resistance spearheaded by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but the Soviet Union had been dealt a mortal blow: on 25 December 1991 Gorbachev resigned, handing over all powers to Yeltsin and effectively dissolving the Soviet Union. In 2005, Yeltsin’s successor and KGB veteran, Vladimir Putin, described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century.

Many people regarded the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union as the end of the Cold War. Others saw these events as just further ‘readjustments’ in an evolving struggle. As both sides turned their attention towards dominating cyberspace in the coming decades, it was unlikely that the game was over.

A substantial part of the information on this page is taken from the Corps book ‘Roger So Far’.

Roger So Far

The Corps Centenary book ‘Roger So Far” celebrates many of the Corps’ achievements during its first 100 years.

This hardback, illustrated coffee table book is packed full of stories about people, units and events in the context of campaigns, technologies and equipment. RRP £30 with discounts for Regular, Reserve and Retired Corps members.

Buy now from the Royal Signals Museum Shop


The strength of BAOR for most of the Cold War was about 55,000, supported by strong elements of the RAF and 3,000 troops in Berlin. In the 1950s 1 (BR) Corps included three armoured divisions (equipped with tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs)) and one infantry division but in the 1960s this was reduced to three combined divisions. Then, in 1976, the brigade level of command was disbanded and units, called task forces, were commanded directly by four divisional HQs.

In the early 1980s the brigade commands were back and there were three much stronger, armoured divisions, two with three armoured brigades and one with two armoured brigades and an infantry brigade stationed in the UK. A fourth division comprising one regular and two Territorial Army (TA) infantry brigades was based in the UK and would move to Germany on mobilisation to provide security in the Corps rear area. This frequent reorganisation had a significant impact on the Corps, who had to reorganise with each change in order to provide the necessary command and control systems and services (COM).


Alongside the Royal Signals’ core strategic roles of developing and safeguarding BAOR’s communications systems and seeking to master those of the opposition, the race was on to provide high-grade tactical intelligence to anticipate and respond to any incursion westwards across the North German Plain.


SIGINT Principles

The basic principles behind targeting and intercepting military communications between individuals (COMINT) and electronic signals from radars and weapons’ systems (ELINT) were already well embedded by the beginning of the Cold War: first, identify the networks and work out the hierarchy within them; next, gradually build up a picture of everyday routine so that any anomaly is immediately obvious; finally, never alert the opposition to your eavesdropping activities, because continuity is key.



Experienced SIGINT eavesdroppers who knew their target networks and units inside out also became adept at recognising when the Soviets were in ‘dezinformatsiya’ (disinformation) mode and fully expecting their communications to be intercepted. Often it came down to nothing more than a gut feeling, demonstrating that SIGINT analysis was an art as well as a science and that intelligence from a single source should always be treated with extreme caution and a healthy degree of scepticism.



From 1947 personnel and equipment were transferred to Cyprus from Palestine and Iraq. Up to 1,000 British radio operators and technicians were stationed in two sites in Cyprus, living in tents in the early years. SIGINT and ELINT were collected during the Arab–Israeli War, the Suez Crises and the Cypriot EOKA campaign.


Soviet activity

Of major SIGINT interest were the periodic river crossings by the Soviets of the River Elbe. It was vital to determine whether these were exercises or preparations for an attack, so activity on the Elbe heralded a flurry of intense SIGINT activity. Regular Soviet artillery range activity was also of high interest; SIGINT linguists became well-drilled in taking down, at speed, endless streams of Russian numbers relating to various technical parameters. This was often monotonous and difficult work, especially in poor audio conditions, but any changes logged, however minor, could prove invaluable in identifying the introduction of a new weapon and its capabilities.


Land Rover

During WW2 the Army had used and been impressed by the US Willys Jeep and this inspired the design of the Land Rover. Production began in 1948 and the first military versions were built in the same year. The Army traditionally used the short-wheelbase version because of its manoeuvrability. Fitted for radio (FFR) versions of the Land Rover, Jeep and Austin Champ came into service with racks for radio, limited battery- charging facilities and attempts to reduce interference from the vehicle electrics. By the end of the 1950s the Land Rover was the sole survivor. In the 1960s a need was identified to lift vehicles by helicopter and in 1968 the Half-Ton Rover Air Portable or Lightweight came into service. The Land Rover FFR remained a valuable communications facility throughout the Cold War and beyond.


Cold War Linemen

Throughout the 20th century the role and responsibilities of the Lineman (a Royal Signals trade) evolved in line with changing technologies. The Lineman developed the skills necessary to lay, test and repair fibre optic and coax cables as well as the ubiquitous D10 twisted cables.

During the Cold War, the Soviet army became proficient at locating and destroying the sources of radio transmissions. British field HQs were therefore separated from the ‘radio villages’ and ‘antenna farms’ from which radio transmissions were made. Linemen had the task of laying the long lengths of cable which connected these to the HQs. HQs moved every few hours keeping Linemen extremely busy.

The formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact

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