History of the Royal Signals

A journey through time

Certa cito

A combat support arm

Formed in 1920

Royal Signals are responsible for installing, operating, maintaining and running telecommunications equipment and information systems.

Warrant signed by Winston Churchill

A Royal Warrant was signed by the Secretary of State for War, the Right Honourable Winston S Churchill, giving the sovereign’s approval for the formation of a ‘Corps of Signals’. Six weeks later, on the 5th August 1920 His Majesty the King conferred the title ‘Royal Corps of Signals’.

WW2 losses

World War Two saw 4,362 members of the Royal Signals give their lives. We will remember them…

The Work of The Corps 

First in, last out

Formed in 1920 the Royal Corps of Signals is frequently among the first in to conflict. The modern signaller is an intelligent soldier with the technical and tactical skills to provide and operate Field Headquarters, and to ensure commanders have battle-winning information.

The Corps’ professionally trained specialist soldiers, from the most junior signallers (‘Siggies’) to the most senior officers, are responsible for installing, operating, maintaining and running telecommunications equipment and information systems as well as support that is essential to all military operations – on and off the battlefield.

 

Supporting humanitarian missions

Problem solving, team-work, tactics and technical skills

Royal Signals are among the first to support humanitarian missions – restoring and maintaining lines of communication and setting-up essential, secure Headquarters – to ensure help and support is efficiently dispatched to where it is most needed.

Medals uniform Royal Signals Museum, Blandford

Combat Support Arm

Protecting the British Army’s weaponry from attacks

As a combat support arm The Royal Corps of Signals largely controls the means by which intelligence is passed to the decision makers and the mechanisms by which decisions and orders are communicated. They fight alongside front-line troops, control and resource operations and understand, assimilate and respond to the pressures and urgent needs of commanders and staff.

Within the modern-day electronic battlefield, with its increasingly complex, sophisticated and often hidden enemy, Royal Signals soldiers and officers are responsible for ensuring the British Army’s sophisticated weaponry and command and control systems are protected from cyber, nuclear/ non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and other attacks.

When required Signals’ specialists will conduct electronic warfare – intercepting and jamming enemy communications.

 

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

Royal Signals continue to support operations at home and worldwide. 

A video showing Corps training of yesteryear.

14th Signal Regiment in Afghanistan

Royal Signals support the Army’s battle with cyber and information assurance

Pre 1920

The Royal Engineer Signal Service

 

From the beginnings of human conflict, communication between and within fighting forces has been paramount. Signalling – smoke, mirrors drumbeats and the like has been around for centuries. Signallers didn’t officially make an appearance until the 1700s but Primitive tribes could communicate over hundreds of miles via secret codes and sophisticated strategies.

 

The option to form a Corps of Signals was rejected

In 1908 a plan was made for the formation of the Royal Engineer Signal Service. Following a review by a War Office Committee in 1909 (chaired by the then Brigadier General Sir Archibald Murray) which explored four options for army communications – including the formation of a Corps of Signals – it was agreed the best option was the Signal Service formed from Royal Engineer soldiers and officers. However it was not until 1912, as a result of a further committee that met in 1911 that the Signal Service was officially recognised and its activities regularised by means of Army Order 309.

 

Signals replace Telegraph

With the formal recognition of the Signal Service, the old Telegraph units were abolished and the term ‘telegraph’ replaced by ‘signal’ which was now the recognised term when reference was made to communications in the army.

The Signals Service provided communications during World War 1. At this time the Dispatch Rider (DR) came into prominence and wireless ‘sets’ were introduced into service. Wireless communications were provided in France and Flanders and also in the campaigns in Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamia

The Royal Engineer Signal Service was made responsible for all forms of signalling; visual, telegraph, telephone, signal despatch and later wireless communications from HQ down to Brigades, and for artillery communications down to Batteries. Throughout most of The Great War the primary means of communications were visual, telegraph and despatch – with most despatch was either by runner, horseback or motorcycle.

In 1910 a signal service was established in India from Bengal Sappers and Miners; this was followed a year later with the founding of C Telegraph Troop, Royal Engineers commanded by Captain Montague Lambert RE.

 

Growth of the Signals Service

From 6,000 to 70,000+

Despite the growth in size and importance of the signal units, in the field they remained subordinate to Royal Engineer commanders who had more responsibilities.

At the outbreak of WW1 (1914) there were fewer than 6,000 in the Royal Engineer Signals Service. The Royal Engineers Signal Service comprised 12 companies, with the regular Signal Companies supported by a single motorcyclist section of the Special Reserve and by 29 signal companies of the Territorial Force. By 1918 (the end of WW1) the service was made up of 589 companies the majority of which were with the BEF in France and Flanders, Some 65 units were based in Palestine and Egypt with 42 in Macedonia and Greece, 17 in Italy and 24 in Mesopotamia.

By the end of WW1 there were some 70,000 signallers. In 1918, at the Battle of Amiens, trench warfare was largely replaced by the birth of modern warfare.

 

Artillery increases need for Signals

The extensive use of artillery produced a further demand for dedicated signal sections, including liaison with spotter aircraft, while extensive line of communication required numerous units to facilitate the movement of men and supplies to the Western Front. Concurrent with this expansion was the introduction and success of electronic warfare thanks to the work of Signals Intelligence and the Wireless Observation Groups.

 

Scaleybacks

Members of The Royal Corps of Signals are often referred to as Scaleybacks. No-one is sure of the origin of this nickname but various theories abound.

A popular idea is that during WW1 lead acid battery packs were carried by signallers, these would often leak and scar the backs of the operatives. A more palatable theory is that when The Corps was formed all those who transferred in were paid on Scale-E. Other theories: a Signals unit was billeted in a fish canning factory during WW2. They would sleep on the factory floor alongside discarded fish-scales. The final theory comes from ‘Scaleyback’ a colloquial term for a disease in horses caused by ill-fitting harnesses and saddles. The Corps last used horse-drawn cable layers in 1937 and no-one is sure if the horses used did indeed suffer scaley-back.

Whatever the reason – we’re pretty sure the term scaleyback will remain as a nickname for many years hence.

Pictured above is Leonard Wilsden born 1901. A soldier who saw service with both the Signals Service (RE) and the Royal Corps of Signals. He left the Corps in 1926 when he moved to Liverpool from Kent to work on the Railways. At the start of WW2 he tried to re-enlist but aged 38 and in a protected employment he was refused.

Decades later his grandson, Steve (Scouse) Hall (pictured below) joined the Corps, serving in both regular and reserves. One of many ‘Corps families’. Indeed the bond with the Corps often continues post-service. Steve (Scouse) is one such example as he now heads-up the RSA Riders Branch (formed in 2018 and now the largest RSA branch) and is a frequent fundraiser for the Royal Signals Charity (RSC).

Royal Signals Museum Corps History
Royal Signals Museum Corps History
Royal Signals Museum Corps History

Formation of the Corps 1920

 

 New warfare demands sophisticated comms

Towards the end of WW1 the face of warfare evolved from trench warfare to a new warfare, a carefully coordinated attack – involving infantry, armour, cavalry, artillery and aircraft – resulting in the Germans’ most significant defeat since the outbreak of the war. This new warfare required increasingly sophisticated communications from ever more technically astute, competent and specialist soldiers and so the decision to form the Corps of Signals was taken. Due to various policy delays the formation of the ‘Corps’ was delayed until 1920.

 

Formation of The Corps…

The Corps of Signals was formed on the 28th June 1920 when a Royal Warrant was signed by the Secretary of State for War, the Right Honourable Winston S Churchill, who gave the sovereign’s approval for the formation of a ‘Corps of Signals’.

 

….And the Royal Corps of Signals 

 

Six weeks later, on the 5th August 1920 His Majesty the King conferred the title ‘Royal Corps of Signals’.

 

The Indian Signal Corps

The Indian Signal Corps was also set up in 1920 with British officers and ranks from the Royal Corps of Signals working alongside Indian Signallers; between 1920 and 1940 one third of Royal Signals personnel were serving in India.

Museum exhibits include a 10 inch Heliograph which is the largest used by the British Army and was only used in India.

 

Formation of The TA

When the Territorial Army was formed on 1st October 1920 its territorial signal units became part of The Royal Corps of Signals. 

Cap badge 1920 – 1946

The inter-war years

The Royal Corps of Signals at Home and Overseas

 

During the years between the two World Wars the Corps grew in strength and had personnel serving in various overseas stations – Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Egypt, Jamaica plus many other ‘out – posts of the Empire’. The largest portion of the Corps was based overseas with one third concentrated in India. In Britain the most innovative area for regular signals units related to the establishment of armoured forces. The provision of more specialised signals units remained the province of the Supplementary Reserve and the Territorial Army, which formed and supported units for GHQ troops, lines of communication for air force liaison and anti-aircraft units. A key weakness of the British Army Order of Battle remained the lack of Signals units at corps level, this changed during WW2.

World War Two

We will remember them

 World War Two saw 4,362 members of Royal Signals give their lives.

Throughout World War Two (WW2) members of the Corps served in every theatre of war. By 1945 The Corps had expanded to a serving strength of 8,518 officers and 142,472 soldiers; more than today’s entire British Army.

 

Hitler attacks Poland

On 1st September 1939 Hitler launched a ferocious, unannounced attack on Poland. He destroyed the Polish Airforce in two days and enveloped and destroyed the Polish Forces in just 18 days.

 

Britain declares war on Germany

Days earlier the Anglo-Polish Treaty of mutual assistance had been signed and so on 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. At this point, It seemed, despite earlier assurances, no-one was coming to Poland’s aid. In fact a party of 12 Royal Signals had been despatched to Poland prior to the outbreak of WW2 to see what could be done in the event of an attack.

 

Signals soldiers arrive on day war is declared

False passports and improbable occupations

The Royal Signals’ soldiers arrived in Poland on the day war broke out and so became the first British unit to see action in the Second World War. They had been given false passports and improbable occupations – including a Captain described as a ‘musician’ who could not play a note!

With Poland divided the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939 stated Poland was to be partitioned between the two powers thus enabling Germany to attack Poland without the fear of Soviet intervention. The Signallers – caught-up in this – destroyed their equipment, split into groups of two and three soldiers and escaped travelling through Europe and Africa in a bid to return home. In Romania one hotel they stayed in was being used as a Gestapo HQ. Rather than stay to uncover German plans they fled to Egypt.

 

Lessons learned

Throughout the process the Signallers learned much about the patterns of modern war – pinpointing that mobility was crucial to success. All their wireless messages were transmitted during darkness, using hand-operated morse keys to send encoded intelligence reports. They always moved before first-light to ensure the Luftwaffe could not determine their position. They also learned not put too much trust in supplies. Even to Special Operations teams such as themselves equipment was heavy, complicated and often wrongly packed with key components missing..

Monty’s Armoured Command Vehicle on display in The Museum

The Willys MB (Ford GPW) . Commonly known as a Jeep. A four-wheel drive utility vehicle manufactured during World War II. Over 300,000 were produced. This one is on display in the Royal Signals Museum, Blandford.

Monty and his troops 1945

Phantom

Phantom

Phantom/GHQ Liaison Regiment In a war of rapid movement, it is vital for higher command to know the exact whereabouts of the front lines of all Allied troops at all times. In WW2 this role was carried out by Phantom, or GHQ Liaison Regiment, who listened into both...

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Special wireless groups

Special wireless groups

During WW2 Signal intelligence was crucial to the Allied victory with a number of Special Wireless Groups established prior to and during this period.

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Women, secrets and signals

Women, secrets and signals

Women were not part of the Royal Corps of Signals during WW2 but a number of women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) with special skills were selected for training as radio operators.

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1943 5th Army Italy Inzio Bridgehead Line Patrol

Pictured – a Japanese Prisoner Of War. Eric Lomax, a royal signals soldier and Japanese PoW, was forced to work on the Thai-Burma ‘Death railway’ during WW2. The Museum tells his story with clips from the film The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth.

Royal Signals Museum Medal Gallery

The Museum is home to a medals gallery which includes WW2 campaign medals

 

Campaigns of the second world war

Royal Signals were involved in most of the WW2 campaigns with a significant presence in France and Belgium 1940, Norway 1940, Western Desert 1940-1942, Tunisia 1942-1943, Italy 1944, 1945, 21st Army Group, North West Europe 1944-1945.

Post war – End of the British Empire, start of the Cold War

With the arrival of peace in Europe it was reasonable to expect that bloodshed would end, but since 1945 Royal Signals personnel have participated in all conflicts involving the nation. The Corps has provided Communications and Information Systems (CIS) for all three British Forces, United Nations, Allied Troops and NATO forces. Sadly a number of personnel have been killed or seriously injured in post war conflicts.

The post war period was characterised by the gradual withdrawal from the British Empire and a number of small-scale conflicts and the onset of The Cold War, with the latter determining a significant proportion of Corps roles and deployments. A major consequence of the post-war decolonisation was a reduction in the number and variety of local employed personnel (LEP). One exception to this was the growth of the Queen’s Gurkha Signals, the units of which are treated as a component of The Royal Signals.

Until a substantial armoured force was established in Germany in 1951-1952 post war units allocated to tasks such as headquarters, line of communication or air formation outnumbered field force units. The most significant organisational change in the immediate post-war period was the establishment of signal regiments (consisting of squadrons and troops) in recognition of the increased size of field force signal units.

In the immediate post-war period, the Corps played a full and active part in numerous campaigns: Palestine (1945 – 1948); the long campaign in Malaya which lasted from 1949 until 1960; the Korean War; the various operations in Cyprus, Borneo, Aden, Arabian Peninsula, Kenya and Belize. Throughout this time until the end of the Cold War, the main body of the Corps was deployed confronting the Communist Bloc forces and manning some of the worlds most sophisticated communications systems from satellites to extensive area systems.

Since 1980, members of the Corps have spearheaded operations including the Falkland Islands campaign, the peace – keeping force in Lebanon and supervising the peaceful transition of Namibia to independence. 

 

Corps history – post world war two deployments

Members of the Royal Signals have recently been active in every theatre of British military involvement. These include Kurdistan, Bosnia, Croatia, the Western Sahara, Cambodia supporting the United Nations, Rwanda, Angola, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003 more than 3000 Royal Signals personnel were involved in, and made a major contribution to, Operation TELIC in the Persian Gulf.

Integrity, intelligence, innovation, information – all in the name of sophisticated communication

Continually at the forefront of modern military communications and information systems technology the Corps strives to ensure it lives up to its motto: ‘Certa Cito’, which freely translated means ‘Swift and Sure’. 

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

Kit used in Northern Ireland on display in the  museum

Part of the museum’s exhibition of the Falklands War

Royal Signals soldiers continue to be deployed on operations around the globe

Images from the Gulf War

 

The Gulf War  – led by a US coalition, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – ran from 2 August 1990 to the 28 February 1991  with Operation Desert Storm the combat phase running from 17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991.