Valve & Vintage: WWII Morse Code and Y Stations
John Adams G3ZSE tells the untold story of William Blundell, a pioneer on gathering and using signal intelligence in WWII, which, of course, played a large part in the success of Bletchley Park.
William Blundell was my grandfather on my mother’s side. Born in Queen Victoria’s reign, he saw two world wars, making a significant contribution to the new ways of gathering and using signal intelligence in World War 2, which, of course, is part of the back-story of the success of Bletchley Park.
He was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire to John and Emily Blundell on July 13th 1888, and was one of four children. Before his fifth birthday the family was thrown on to hard times when his mother died in May1893 at the age of just 36. His sister, Annie, was also to die young, some years later, at the age of 19 from TB. Unbelievably today, young William entered a job in the shoe trade at the tender age of nine. Luckily, a philanthropic factory owner kindly allowed him a day’s schooling each week, which gave him a basic education, allowing him to progress as he grew up. There was talk of him wanting to run away to sea in his early teens, but in the end he signed up for the Army in Northampton, despite being under age at the time. He was originally enlisted into the 2nd Battalion of The Loyal North Lancs. Regiment. He was probably sixteen then, but his age was increased by two years, either by himself or the Army. At some point a little later on he became involved in telegraphy and Morse code and was posted to India. It is unclear exactly when or why, but certainly in India he became known as ‘Pop’, and this name stayed with him through the whole of his life.
Pop remained in India with the Army before, during and after WW1, and became part of the new Royal Signals, which was formed in 1920. He certainly progressed through his Army life in signalling proficiency and could read and send Morse code very fast. The British Army had used wireless telegraphy since about 1903, but WW1 had shown that signals had to be carried out by dedicated units. He gained rank, had a trip back for leave in England in 1921, and met May Fitch through his brother Bert. They became close and later that year Pop sent for May, and they were married at Colaba, near Bombay, on November 4th 1921. In the next few years they had two daughters, the first of whom was my mother Cynthia. With promotions Pop enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in Jubbulpore, and my mother always remembered her Indian ‘ayah’, or nanny. In 1926 Pop left the Army as a warrant officer − Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant (RQMS) − and returned to England by sea with his family on His Majesty’s Troopship HMT Nevasa. The family then settled in a house in Northampton, where Pop found work back in the shoe trade. Sadly, their younger daughter fell ill and died shortly after arriving back in England.
Within a few months Pop was approached by the War Office (now the Ministry of Defence) and invited to join them in the new, and secret, undertaking of intercepting potential enemy wireless signals. Pop had obviously been noticed in the latter stages of his Army service as someone who could be very useful! He was made aware that because he had been a civilian for less than six months, they had the power to recall him anyway – so Pop volunteered! It was clear then that Britain had to be war-ready for when the inevitable second big one came.
The family moved to Chatham, so Pop could work at Fort Bridgewoods, an old Victorian fort near the village of Borstal in Kent. (The original Borstal Institution was nearby.) Fort Bridgewoods was completed in 1889 and was built as part of Palmerston’s plan for four forts to defend The Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham and the principal River Medway crossing at Rochester.
Fort Bridgewoods gatehouse (credit: the Admiralty)
There was a new baby daughter in the family too, but, again tragically, six years later she too was taken ill and died in hospital. Pop’s new position was a civilian post, in a group known as Wireless Interception, or WI. This was pronounced ‘why’ and hence the term ‘Y’ station. At about this time Fort Bridgewoods disappeared from Ordnance Survey maps. This new group answered to the old Military Intelligence section MI1b, part of the relatively new Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which itself later grew into GCHQ. This was the Army’s prime WI facility, although the Navy and RAF also had WI establishments, and all of these were built up and added to during the 1920s and 1930s.
Fort Bridgewoods was certainly a very secret establishment, and to this day is still missing from various lists of wartime Y stations. Nobody that worked in them in any capacity gave away any indications of what they really did, either at the time or for many years afterwards. Pop was one of five Experimental Wireless Assistants (EWAs), all reporting to Lieutenant Beale of the Royal Signals as the officer-in-charge. So, he was one of only six people in at the start of this exciting new venture. The General Strike of 1926 resulted in all of the six being temporarily relocated to Chelsea Barracks to ensure Government communications could be secured during a time of national unrest. Receiving equipment was extremely hard to come by, and a big step forward was a receiver that Beale himself had made some years previously. The staff grew through the years, mainly young men, and Pop’s key task was to recruit and train them to accurately read Morse code at high speed. 22 words per minute was the level required for progression to full training and final competency. They were also trained to recognise a sender’s ‘fist’, that is, his or her tell-tale traits of how the Morse was sent. It is very impressive that pre-war preparation was started 13 years before hostilities commenced.
By 1938 the Fort Bridgewoods Y Station was basically fully ready for war, and had a total complement of 73 working there. Much of the work was carried out below ground level in very heavily fortified areas. Pop was the senior instructor and training officer then. Station X, Bletchley Park, was set up for the GC&CS in 1938 also. Key information was gleaned early on from the Fort Bridgewoods intercepts that enabled countermeasures to be deployed in 1940 to jam the new German Knickebein radio beams. Knickebein translates as ‘crooked leg’, and refers to a mystical raven in an old German tale. The antennas used by the Germans were a crooked shape to achieve the directivity. This navigational system used two intersecting radio beams to guide bombers to their target. By the time of the Battle of Britain in the second half of 1940 it was determined that 132 personnel were needed at Fort Bridgewoods.
Some time during his Y station service Pop also acquired his second nickname of Tubby. Again it’s not known why – he was never very large! During 1940 the Medway Towns became a major German target, not least because of Chatham Dockyard and Shorts aircraft factory. On October 16th 1940 Fort Bridgewoods sustained direct bomb damage, although it was probably not known by the enemy as a target. Even so, three young ATS girls were killed in the air raid. So, the decision was taken to relocate the whole operation to Beaumanor Park, near Loughborough, in Leicestershire. The need to move was quite urgent, so there was a brief interim facility set up at Chicksands in Bedfordshire at the RAF base there in 1941, with the move to Beaumanor following soon after. Beaumanor became the HQ of the War Office Y Group, and was well equipped from the very start, with the latest HRO and AR88 receivers.
AR88 receiver (credit: RCA)
Pop continued to train the large number of operatives there, and this now included many women from the ATS. Below image shows Experimental Wireless Assistants in Hut H, or the ‘New Chatham’ room.
Beaumanor Hut H (credit: Dr Philip Blenkinsop)
Although the staff numbers were large, nearly all would have been unaware of Station ‘X’ at Bletchley Park, where their Morse transcripts were taken daily by dispatch riders. These particular riders were the only ones allowed to carry revolvers, rather than cumbersome rifles, to better protect themselves and their dispatches in the event of being intercepted by enemy agents. Y Station personnel didn’t need to know about Bletchley, and, although it may seem strange to us now, their commitment to national security was such that they were content to trust that they were just part of a human machine working to win the war and save lives. Great operator accuracy was essential in taking down the raw five-letter groups of Morse letters, otherwise decoding would have been even harder for Bletchley. By 1943, Room 61 on the top floor of Beaumanor Hall was being used for ‘radio fingerprinting’, using film cameras to capture signal traces. From these it became possible to identify individual transmitting sets. It would appear that this would have been an early forerunner of the waterfall displays we now use for many aspects of our hobby.
Although hostilities had ceased, all of those involved in the X and Y Stations were bound under the Official Secrets Act to maintain silence about what they did and what they knew. Little was in the public domain until some information was published in 1974. To cover their tracks many of the records held at Bletchley were destroyed almost immediately, although much was saved by those who, rightly, felt that Signal Intelligence would need to go on forever.
Group picture c.1946 (credit: The Beaumanor Staff Magazine)
Pop continued to be part of the Beaumanor operation intercepting signals from hostile powers. May, his wife continued to live in Chatham, with Pop visiting each week. The image above shows Pop with Bridgewoods colleagues at Beaumanor at the end of the war. Further tragedy, however, was looming, and on the March 11th 1947, just a few weeks after her grandson, my brother Michael, had been born, May was crushed to death between two buses on Chatham Hill as she started to cross the road after alighting from one of them. After this Pop continued to work at Beaumanor until 1953, when at the age of 65 he retired. One of my first memories is going to meet him at Gillingham railway station in a taxi with my mother. He then came home to live with us in Windmill Road, Gillingham, where the hallway wall was adorned with his new barometer shown in the image below, his retirement gift from colleagues at Beaumanor.
In my early years Pop would often take me out, and take in old military sites such as The Great Lines and the Gun Wharf at Chatham, both old defences for the River Medway and the Dockyard. Beaumanor continued to be used for signal interception into the 1960s, but was closed in 1970 when it was relocated to Cheltenham as part of the new GCHQ. Pop loved to go to cricket matches, especially with friends. Unlike many ex-Royal Signals staff he never showed any inclination towards amateur radio though. In 1961, when I was ten, Pop found that living with our family had become too stressful and decided to move out. The different generations were just not mixing harmoniously. It may also have been that the impact of the deaths of his mother, his sister, two of his daughters and his wife could have finally caught up with him in old age. Pop went to live with an old Army chum for a short while, before finally moving into the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Unfortunately, family contact was lost with him before this last move.
Pop Blundell departed this life on December 9th 1963, aged 75 as a Chelsea Pensioner. The Royal Hospital saw to it that he received a military burial, befitting an old soldier and servant of his country. His grave is in the military section of Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, where the gravestone gives his age as 77, see image below.
So, the phantom two extra years are now etched in stone! Our family visited the grave in May 2004 to pay our respects while our mother was still alive and could make her peace there. Pop never spoke of any of the operational details given here in this summary of his life. By chance, I moved to Kettering with my wife and children in 1983, totally unaware then that this was Pop’s birthplace. My youngest daughter shares the same birthday as Pop, July 13th. His barometer now proudly hangs on my wall and is in good shape and in daily use.
A fascinating and detailed wider view of Y Station activity is given in the RSGB book Fort Bridgewoods by Stephen Small G4HJE.