WWII: Life Before Email
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Electronic communications are a way of life for all of us in the 21st century. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a time when we couldn’t send someone a text or an email, anticipating its instant arrival.
While communicating effectively with others is an important part of our life today, it is absolutely crucial during times of conflict. In the dark days of World War II, before emails had been invented, planning military campaigns relied on multiple forms of communication.
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When it comes to military warfare, conveying news and messages accurately and quickly is the key to winning or losing. Effective communication with your allies and knowing the position of your enemies can be the difference between defeat and victory.
Communication methods have evolved through the ages from the very basic such as drum beats and smoke signals, to the high-tech, satellite-enabled devices that are common today. During World War II, there were various methods of communication. Some dated back to the First World War, while others used new technology.
Using carrier pigeons to convey messages from the frontline to headquarters was a throwback to the First World War. A tribute to the birds’ success in delivering messages while under gunfire, they were used again during World War II. They had a 95% success rate of reaching their destination.
During World War II, the Army, the RAF and the Civil Defence Services used carrier pigeons. Aircraft crew would carry homing pigeons onboard their plane so that in the event of a crash landing, the birds would return to base and alert rescuers to where the stricken plane had fallen.
Dogs had also been used during the Great War and their role expanded during World War II. Originally used mainly for guard and sentry duties, they were brought into the field, taking messages back and forth, as well as sniffing out enemy positions.
The first military dogs’ training school in Britain was set up at the Potters Bar Greyhound Racing Kennels in Hertfordshire. Around 76,000 dogs had graduated by May 1944 and after the war, 18 of them received the PDSA Dickin Medal (the animals’ Victoria Cross) for bravery.
Radio and telegraph
The use of infantry, air, artillery and armoured teams created new communication challenges. Real-time communication via radio was needed to keep everyone in touch. Hierarchy provided portable radio sets for personnel on all levels, right down to the platoons. This was the most common form of communication, as it could be used when the troops were mobilised.
There was a radio in every tank and three radios in the command tanks. Multi-conductor cables enabled up to four conversations to take place simultaneously using carrier telephony. The high-powered mobile radio sets meant telegraph communication could be used at a distance of more than 100 miles, even in vehicles on the move.
Larger telephone switchboards with a greater capacity were developed and manufactured to cope with the demand and installed at all tactical HQ.
Morse code had been about since the mid-19th century. Developed in 1844 by the American innovator Samuel Morse, every letter of the alphabet is represented by a series of short dots known as “dits”, and longer dashes called “dahs”.
The dash is three times longer than the dot. Every word is separated by a silence that equates to one dash. Precise transmission is vital, as a message could be easily misinterpreted if not. Morse code messages were transmitted via telegraph stations and became a worldwide system of communication across the US and Europe.
The first permanent telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean was laid in 1866. Morse code was used during World War I and World War II, by all nations on both sides. During the Second World War, the Allies and the Germans developed new technology that enabled them to track down the transmitting stations – known as “direction finding”.
During the latter stages of the war, new tech known as the Burst Encoder was launched to reduce the risk of detection. It could record a Morse code message and play it back at high speed, reducing the transmission time, so there was less risk of detection by direction-finding.
Telephones and letters
The telephone could connect people for immediate communication. It was used by the troops to talk to each other but wasn’t often available for the armed forces to talk to their families back home. The old-fashioned means of communication, letters, was used most frequently by the troops to keep in touch with loved ones. This was a slow means of communication but helped boost the armed forces’ morale to stop them from feeling lonely. Letters were transported by air, but there was always a chance that the plane wouldn’t make it through.
The military services used their wartime experiences to carry out further research in all fields, including communications electronics. Developments in the capacity of radio and wired relay systems and improved electronic aids helped both communication and navigation.
More reliable communication methods for the army, navy and air force were developed for the future, based on the experiences of the military during the Second World War.
Services will take place on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November, at cenotaphs and churches to remember the brave men and women who lost their lives in World War II and other conflicts. Lest we forget.