History of Signalling in 100 Objects

Celebrating 100 years of The Royal Corps of Signals 1920-2020



As part of the build up to the Corps Centenary in 2020 – the Museum has worked with the Corps to identify 100 objects which have  formed part of the history of Signalling in general and the Corps in particular. Many of the objects are held by the Museum  do look out for them when you visit.

The objects are revealed on a regular basis across social media and The Wire. We will eventually include all 100 objects here.

1) No 1 Wireless Set

No 1 Wireless SetThe No 1 Wireless Set was one of a range of wireless sets brought into service following the formation of the Corps in 1920. In 1929 a new series of Army wireless sets was formulated and in 1933 the Wireless Set No 1 was introduced into service for use by Infantry and Artillery Brigades.

Early sets were manufactured by Standard Telephones and Cables and designed to be vehicle or horse mounted to facilitate mobile communications. Limitations in the original design made the set unsuitable for large scale production so in 1935 Ferranti Ltd submitted a proposal for a redesign. The revised models were tested in 1936 but proved a failure; the primary disadvantage was the limited working range and, as considerable progress had been made with the design of the No 1 set, no further orders were placed. It is estimated that overall around 1800 No 1 sets were manufactured, the last sets delivered as late as 1938.

2) Despatch Rider's Motorcycle

Flat Tank DR Bike webMotorcycle Despatch Riders were first used in World War One replacing military messengers who had hitherto been mounted on horses (or camels) or travelled on foot. Despatch Riders were used to carry urgent orders and messages which, for reasons of security or other considerations, could not be communicated by any other means. In World War One it was found that is was sometimes faster for distances up to 8 miles to use a Despatch Rider to pass messages that to encrypt it, transmit the message using telegraphic means and then decrypt it at the other end.

During World War Two Despatch Riders were referred to as “Don R’s” and although wireless communications were much more advanced large number of motorcycles – such as the 75,000+ Norton 16H models were brought into service. Following the end of hostilities in 1945 the use of motorcycle Des- patch Riders deceased as technology advanced.  By 1970 the few remaining Despatch Riders were purely symbolic and used only on ceremonial occasions

3) Pigeon 2709

History and heritage, early communications, pigeons

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages since Roman times; indeed, before the days of telegraph and wireless they were an essential method of carrying messages back to an established Headquarters from the front line.

Pigeon 2709 was a typical example of the bravery of these birds. In 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele Pigeon 2079 was despatched from the front line to carry a message back to Headquarters some 20 minutes flying time away. Shortly after setting off Pigeon 2709 was hit by enemy fire.The bullet broke a leg, passed through his body leaving the small metal message cylinder embedded in his side. Although it took him a further 21 agonising hours he successfully completed his mission only to die of his injuries the following day.

In World War Two 250,000 homing pigeons were brought into service for a variety of purposes including communicating behind enemy lines. 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal for valour including William of Orange who in 1944, when other forms of communication had failed, was released by British soldiers at Arnhem and flew with a vital message 400km back to the UK in just un- der four and a half hours. For his bravery in getting one of very few messages from Arnhem back to UK he was awarded the Dickin Medal in 1945.

4) Heliograph

HeliographThe first widely accepted heliograph was developed by Henry Mance in 1869 to utilise the light of the sun to provide telegraphic communications. First used in war during the Jowaki Alfridi Expedition on the North West Frontier of India in 1877 the heliograph really came into its own during the Second Boer War (1899—1902) when it was used by British and Boer forces alike proving to be particularly useful when telegraph landlines had been cut and no other alternative means of communication was available.

The heliograph continued in service somewhere in the world for most of the 20th Century being used by South African and Australian forces against German forces in Libya and Egypt in 1941 and 1942 and as recently as 1980 when it was used successfully by the Afghans against invading Soviet forces.

The usefulness of the heliograph was limited to daytime and strong sunlight but they were the most powerful type of visual signalling device known and depending on terrain could span distances of up to 100 miles.

5) The Fullerphone

Major GeneralACFuller( RSIJournal)A remarkable bit of lateral thinking by Captain (later Major General) AC Fuller of the RE Signal Service towards the end of 1915 led to his developing what became known as the Fullerphone. The Fullerphone was devised in 1915 as a solution to the problem of interception of messages by the enemy that had severely hindered operations in the early stages of World War One .

The Fullerphone wasn’t a telephone at all (although early models incorporated a standard telephone handset which itself was not immune to intercept; a fact staff officers had to be repeatedly re- minded of!). It was basically a DC line Morse telegraph which employed a chopping device that interrupted a
constant current at an audible frequency and was practically immune to interception. Initial issues were constructed from converted field telephone sets but these early sets were not a great success. Indeed the Fullerphone must rank alongside the armoured fighting vehicle as one of Britain’s greatest inventions of World War I. Compact and portable, the Fullerphone used a tiny amount of direct current (2 microamperes being sufficient), such that it could not be intercepted. The early models handled morse only. Later models handled voice calls, but also had a morse key allowing effective long-distance communications over bad and leaky lines. It was found by accident that the Fullerphone could even transmit morse across broken lines, provided that each broken end was touching the ground and not too far apart.

The Fullerphone worked well over Army field telephone lines, with a range of 15-20 miles. It could also be superposed on civilian telephone lines, using a superposing unit. Fullerphone and civilian telephone were able to use the line simultaneously without interference. This is similar to the modern-day superposing of broadband internet connections over an ISDN telephone line.

Fuller had seemingly thought of everything and proved ideal for use forward of brigade headquarters to battalion and company headquarters. The only drawback of the Fullerphone was that operating one was a skilled, difficult job

The Mark I Fullerphone was introduced into service in 1916 followed by the Mark II. By the end of 1916 the Fullerphonewas firmly established as the preferred method of communication in forward areas. d copied by other armies, including the Italians in World War II. The Mark III was introduced into service towards the end of the war. Following the Armistice in 1918 further improvements and modification were made. By 1918 about 23,000 Fullerphones had been issued. It was used extensively by the British, Australian and Canadian Armies in both World Wars. The Mark III Fullerphone remained in service for most of the inter-war years. In 1937 a fully redesigned set, the Mark IV, was brought into service; this and future variations were the most successful. Not only were they more sensitive than earlier models but they also had a simplified buzzer-chopper and were easier to use as it carried no telephone.

The Fullerphone was devised for static warfare but, because of its capability to work simultaneously with a telephone over the same line, and through very long and leaky lines where other means of sending telephone or telegraph traffic was impossible, it was widely used in World War Two. The Fullerphone remained in service well into the 1950’s; the basic principle of operation remaining the same throughout its 40 plus years of service.

[Additional information with thanks to the Royal Signals Winter Journal 2016]

6) Fovant Badge

Fovant Badge CentenaryThe village of Fovant lies 10 miles west of Salisbury on the A30. In World War 1 the area was the site of a huge training camp for British and Australian troops and, later, a demobilisation centre for thousands of troops returning from the trenches.

The idea of cutting their Regimental badge into the chalk hillside started with the London Rifle Brigade in 1916 and proved so successful that other units soon followed their example. Twenty badges were known to have been cut but, between the wars,
many became overgrown although some regiments, and the Australian government, paid for the maintenance of their own badges. This effort halted in World War 2 as the badges were all allowed to grow-over lest they become a landmark for enemy
aircraft and many then became too damaged to restore.

After the Second World War, local Home Guard veterans agreed to restore some of the badges and six were completed by 1949. The Home Guard Association then cut their own badge, that of the Wiltshire Regiment, in 1950 and this was quickly followed by that of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in 1951. In 1969, 3 Division Headquarters and Signal Regiment agreed to help the newly formed Fovant Badges Association, with maintenance with 30 Signal Regiment joined in the following year. As a result of the interest shown by Royal Signals, the Corps was given permission to carve its own badge to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Corps in 1970.

The task was carried out by “Charlie Two” (Radio Relay) Troop of 3 Division Headquarters and Signal Regiment with work starting in October 1970. The badge on the cover of an RSI Journal was used as the template and was “blown-up” to deliver
1.83m squares of wire and pegs covering a total area of 51.5m x 27.4m. The outline of the badge was then laid in white minetape and cut, with corrections to allow for the slope and perspective being judged from the main road. With these changes the badge’s final size was 61m (200 ft) x 26m (85 ft).

Over subsequent years, the badge has been maintained by soldiers from 3 Division, 30 and 11 Signal Regiments before being passed over to Fovant Badges Society contractors in 2009. Today, the cost of our badge’s maintenance is covered by the Royal Signals Benevolent Fund and the Corps has agreed to continue to finance this work until 2022 before reviewing this arrangement. Our badge’s 50th birthday does, of course, coincide with the Corps Centenary in 2020. All the badges are scheduled ancient monuments and recognised by the Imperial War Museum as war memorials.

7) Medaglia Civile Di Valore

The Italian Medal for Civil Valour is Italy’s Highest Decoration for Civil Bravery and is the equivalent of the British George Cross. The Corps Museum holds only one of these medals, presented by the family of the late Brigadier Russell Maynard MBE who won it posthumously on 15 July 1988 where, on a beach near Fregene, Rome. He and a Danish officer, Colonel Niels Thorn, saved the lives of several children at the expense of their own.

The citation for his award read, ‘Alerted by cries for help, he did not hesitate, together with another military officer, to dive into the sea to go to the rescue of six young people who, because of the adverse weather and sea conditions, were about to drown. General Maynard generously succeeded in saving the lives of all the young
people but, overcome by fatigue, we was himself swept away by the waves and drowned. He sacrificed his own life for the most noble ideals of altruism and human solidarity.’

Brigadier Maynard had been commissioned into the Corps in 1960 and had served in theatres worldwide including the Command of 4th Guards Armoured Brigade Signal Squadron and commander Communications in Northern Ireland where he was mentioned in despatches. He had been relaxing in a break from his course at
the NATO Staff College in Rome when this tragic incident occurred.

8) Semaphore Signalling Flags

Beacons, flares and other forms of signalling have always been used in times of war but the Army’s use of semaphore signalling with flags is a comparatively recent innovation. It followed the introduction of a signalling system devised by Captain Philip Colomb RN for the Royal Navy in about 1865. Soon afterwards the Army too began to see the potential of signalling using flags and a School of Signalling was created at Chatham. Shortly afterwards all units of the line were directed to furnish men to train as signallers. Initially a code book was used and individual signals represented code words but it was found preferable to use the telegraphic system of signalling using the Morse Code that was already in use by the telegraph units of the Royal Engineers.
Explore military communications from semaphore to cyber

In World War One signallers using flags were regularly deployed to often isolated forward positions to assist with artillery spotting and to provide information about targets. Visual signalling was quicker than sending a messenger (a skilled operator could send up to 12 words a minute) but was vulnerable to interception by the enemy and could only be used over short distances and when there was good visibility. For these reasons signalling with flags was discontinued in forward areas of the Western Front in 1916 although was it still in use away from the front line during World War Two over short distances such as between tanks when other means of communications were unavailable.

9) No 19 Wireless Set

 The No 19 Wireless Set was developed primarily to fulfil the communications requirements of highly mobile Armoured Fighting Vehicles in World War Two. It incorporated the B set and an early use of a VHF transceiver to provide inter-tank R/T communication.

Designed to War Office and Signal Experimental Establishment specifications and manufactured by Pye Ltd the Mark I was introduced into service in 1941 and used extensively in the North Africa campaign. Unfortunately, as a result of the intense heat leading to capacitor failure in the power supply unit many were soon put out of action. Replacement capacitors were obtained from the USA and flown direct to North Africa to allow the sets to be returned to service.

It was soon realised that the frequency coverage of the Mark I was too limited and a Mark II with a better frequency range was introduced into service in 1942. Further modifications were made to improve efficiency especially of CW and to reduce the drain on power and the Mark III set was introduced in 1943. Despite initial difficulties the No 19 Wireless Set gave good service and revolutionised armoured formation communications in World War Two. The Mark III set was particularly successful remaining in service until the late 1960’s and used even later by Army Cadet Force signal units.

10) Suitcase Radios

Women at WarSuitcase radios were first introduced into service in 1941. They were designed by Major John I Brown and initially manufactured by Special Operations Executive (SOE) to be carried in the Field by agents who were infiltrated into enemy occupied Europe. The set could be packed in airtight containers and dropped by parachute and were designed to be adapted to a variety of power supplies. Early sets such as the “A” Set Mk1 were based on the Wireless Set No 18 and used readily available components and had a range of over 500 miles. Between 1943 and 1945 the most commonly used suitcase radio was the Type 3 Mark II set also known as the Type B Mk II or just the B2. The B2 station was modular, and consisted of the receiver, transmitter, power supply unit and spares box. The miniature Morse key could be screwed to the lid of the spares box. Although normally carried in a suitcase it was later found that a watertight container was more suitable especially when used by Resistance groups working in the field. Despite having the disadvantage of being bulky and rather heavy the B2 was one of the most successful clandestine sets of World War Two proving reliable and highly powered.

11) Morse Key

Morse KeyIn 1836 an electric telegraph system was devised which sent pulses of current along wires which controlled an electromagnet located at the receiving end. A code was needed that used only these pulses and the silences in between them.

Samuel Morse thus developed the forerunner to the modern international Morse code. Morse can be transmitted using a key the most common of which is the straight key which is a simple bar with a knob on top and a contact underneath. When the bar is depressed against spring tension, it forms a circuit and allows electricity to flow. A highly skilled operator can send Morse at up to 30 words per minute and read incoming messages at even greater speeds. In the 21st Century Morse code no longer has any military or commercial application but it is still used by enthusiastic amateurs many of whom learnt the skill whilst training to be operators in the Royal Signals

12) Enigma Machine

WW2 communications. An Enigma Machine on display at The Royal Signals MuseumThe Enigma Machine was an electro-mechanical cipher machine designed in the early Twentieth Century and originally intended for commercial use but which was quickly adopted by the governments and military of many countries.

The Enigma Machine consists of a combination of mechanical and electrical sub-systems. The mechanical sub system consists of a keyboard, a set of rotors arranged along a spindle and a stepping component to turn at least one rotor with each key press.

The German armed forces extensively used various versions of the Enigma Machine before and during World War Two and it was potentially an excellent and virtually unbreakable system but with one major flaw. No letter could be enciphered to itself which meant that possible solutions could quickly be eliminated because the same letter would appear in the same place in both the cipher and the plain text. However although Enigma had some cryptographic weaknesses in practice it was German procedural flaws, operator mistakes and the capture of key code books that enabled Allied cryptologists at Bletchley Park to ultimately succeed in breaking the code. The intelligence gleaned and code named “Ultra” was to prove a substantial aid to the war effort.