This post is fourth in a series drawn from a History of I.S.9 (CMF) in the British National Archives. Research courtesy of Brian Sims.
Below is the section on Communications from the history. I found the most surprising aspect of this chapter was the use of pigeons (“our feathered friends”) for communications.
This most essential part of any organization such as I.S.9 must be taken in two parts:-
(a) Inter communication between HQs [headquarters] and Sections.
(b) Clandestine communications by means of sets behind enemy lines.
To take (a) first.
The first 6-months or so of active rescue work in ITALY was made doubly difficult by reason of the lack of Communications between HQs and the Field Sections. It must be obvious to any reader that, at the best and under static conditions, Communications by means of Army Signals channels is uncertain and by no means rapid. This is due to no fault of the R.C.S. [Royal Corps of Signals], whose work during the Italian campaign has been magnificent, but due to circumstances generally beyond the control of any person.
It was unusual to find a Section very near to a higher Army Foundation where cypher personnel were available for “Top Secret” messages, or sufficiently near any formation happy to have an additional unit attached to it for Signals purposes.
During an advance, of course, the position for our Sections became impossible from a Signals point of view.
It was, then, with profound relief and thankfulness, that we received from the C.S.O. [chief staff officer, or perhaps chief signal(s) officer] of HQ 15 Army Group, two 399 Transreceivers complete with signallers.
On these 2 sets we built up our Signals network, helped out by portable receivers and borrowed Signals personnel, and in due course had direct W/T [wireless telecommunications] link with all Sections.
The layout was as follows:-
Main HQs to Field HQs.
Field HQs to all Sections.
Thereafter and until the cessation of hostilities, direct contact with all Field personnel was possible and eased many of our burdens considerably.
With regard to (b).
We freely pay tribute to the kindness of I.S.L.D. [Inter-Services Liaison Department] (M.I.6) in providing us with W/T sets, training our operators and passing Signals. Without this kindness and co-operation it would have been impossible to have put into E.O.T. any receivers in the early days before we had our own 399 sets and almost impossible after that time owing chiefly to the difficulties in training operators.
Whilst paying this tribute and in no way minimising the extreme value of this help, we must point out to those who come after us, the disadvantages of having to rely on others in this respect.
One main disadvantage was the need to establish I.S.9 Main HQs, which handled the training of operators and the passing of signals, at a point close to the training establishment and the main radio station of I.S.L.D.
Whilst this fact did not, in point of fact, cause I.S.9 any great inconvenience it was essential during the latter stages of the campaign to maintain a small detachment in BARI to deal with this side of I.S.9 activities, after main HQs had been obliged to move North to FLORENCE.
One additional big disadvantage, to the arrangements as a whole, was the delay in receiving and sending operationally urgent signals to and from the sets inside E.O.T.
The reader will readily understand this delay when it is explained that a message, for example, concerning the reception of an aircraft laid on at short notice, would be received at I.S.L.D., who would telephone Main HQs I.S.9 to collect it. The message would be decyphered, encyphered again in a different code and would have to wait until the next schedule of Field HQs who would then have to decypher, encypher once more and transmit to the Field Section concerned on the first available schedule of that Section. Owing to possible corruption in the signal and to the thought that security of codes would be compromised by retransmitting in the same codes, different codes had to be used with consequent loss of time. In the main however, our signal traffic with clandestine sets was handled without undue loss of time.
There can, however, be no shadow of doubt but that in any future M.I.9 activities the equivalent organization to I.S.9 must have it’s own inter-communications, main radio station and it’s own organization for training it’s operators.
In addition, it must have it’s own supply of portable radio sets and equipment.
For many years, of course, our feathered friends have been used for message carrying and right nobly have they carried out their duties.
This means of communication was not wholly neglected by I.S.9, and in the early days of our work in ITALY and in the absence of radio-communication with our Agents in E.O.T., every effort was made to use pigeons.
The small supply of birds and the difficulties of training over district and terrain occupied by the enemy, made extensive use of pigeons impossible.
It was, however, possible to obtain a few Italian trained birds, and these could be carried in small baskets or even in the pockets of the Agents together with a small amount of food.
A pigeon so used would almost certainly “home” to it’s bases for a period of 6-8 days after being taken from it’s base loft and was, therefore, of great use when radio was not possible, in order to let us know if an Agent had safely crossed the lines, and had reached his area of operations.
One of our Agents was quite successful in the use of pigeons and twice sent quite long messages regarding the E & E situation in the area in which he was to work.
With the radio-set supply position improving however, it must be confessed that I.S.9 did not exploit to the full this most promising and useful form of communication.