Every good story needs a hero. Here are my picks for the WW2 Wireless Intercept Heroes you should know about.
In my mind, all of the men and women who did wireless intercept during World War 2 are heroes. But I will mention a few individuals who stood out when I was researching this series.
For my top hero, I pick Sir Robert Watson-Watt for his enormous contribution to the war effort. Some have called him the “father of radar”. To me, however, he was a dedicated boffin in the right place at the right time.
Born in Scotland in 1892, Watt found himself working at the London Met Office at age 15. His job was to analyze thunderstorm patterns and help aviators avoid them. Over the next ten years, he became an expert in radio and atmospherics. He learned to hook his new cathode ray tube to his receivers and visualize thunderstorm direction and height. Interestingly, he also gave the “ionosphere” its name. Thus, by the end of the 1920’s, RWW had created a new method of high frequency direction finding which displayed bearings on a screen. Most Allied HF/DF gear in World War 2 used his methods.
In 1935, Watt was asked to investigate how radio might be used for Britain’s air defense. His previous work at Ditton Park in Slough had given him vast experience in radio propagation, directional antennas, cathode ray tubes and radio pulse techniques. In short, everything needed to implement radar. His 1935 memo to government laid out the science and plan for the radar system which was soon implemented as Chain Home. You can watch a movie about these years called Castles in the Sky.
More Wireless Intercept Heroes Among the Boffins
Gordon Welchman (lower left) joined Bletchley Park the same week as Alan Turing. Both were assigned to work on decryption. But Welchman also became expert in modern traffic analysis methods. As discussed previously, T/A is the understanding of meta-data associated with intercepted radio messages. Welchman organized and extended traffic analysis into a significant signal intelligence tool that rivaled decryption.
Reginald Victor Jones (second from left) was the father of electronic warfare. He came up with the idea for “chaff” or thin strips of metal foil, to confuse enemy radar. He invented special radio signals to jam or often spoof German radio beams used for German navigation. This spoofing worked so well that there are stories of German bombers being tricked into landing in England, thinking they had navigated back home.
But my favorite Jones story is about his strategic advice to the radar station in Malta. The Germans were successfully jamming this radar. R.V. told the operators to keep using it as if nothing was wrong. The Germans wrongly concluded that the jamming didn’t work and gave up after a few days.
Wireless Intercept Heroes Among the Generals
American Major General George V. Strong (second from right) was the Army Intelligence Chief. In August 1940, while meeting with British Joint Chiefs of Staff, he started a free exchange of intelligence, including radio intercepts and cryptographic information. Big risk as he had no authorization to do so, and got in a lot of trouble. But it got the ball rolling towards exchange of information and technical compatibility between the Allies.
Lastly, I must mention General Erich Fellgiebel (lower right) who presided over the remarkable expansion of German army communications intelligence in World War 2. In addition to major reorganization to improve efficiency, Fellgiebel also played a role in changing all German wireless manufacturing to achieve standardization. But he was also a bit of a hapless hero. First, he advised the High Command that it would be scientifically impossible to crack Enigma. Whoops. Second, he participated in the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944. After it failed, the General was executed.