Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Wartime Wednesday: Morse Code and WWII

Wartime Wednesday: Morse Code and WWII

I recently watched a miniseries called “Churchill’s Secret Agents.” It is a reality show in which fourteen individuals go through the actual application and training process used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during WWII. One of the skills the prospective agents are taught is Morse code, a language made up of dits and dahs (called dots and dashes by laypeople) that is sent via radio. A light turned on and off can mimic the code.

As with all wars, technology advances as combatants seek better ways to overcome their opponents, so I was surprised that Morse code was still in use during WWII. I was sure something else had come along. Further research indicated an alternative had been devised called RATT or Radio Automatic Teletype, but because it relied on a lot of heavy and unreliable electro-mechanical equipment to produce the signal rather than one man with a mechanical Morse key, RATT was set aside. In addition, voice radio systems were limited in range and security, therefore could not be counted on.

In partnership with physicists Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail, Samuel F. Morse developed an electrical  telegraph system in 1836 that used electrical currents to send pulses across the wires. A code was needed to enable the pulses to transmit “natural language.” By 1844, Morse code was “finalized,” and later adapted to radio communication.

Susan Hannaway of Britain volunteered her services in 1942 and was taught Morse code because of her proficiency in the German language. According to Susan, “The training was very intense, and during the training we were taught to use four different wireless receivers. The code itself was taught in blocks six, letters, or numbers.”

She was posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire where along with other trainees, “I lived in Nissen huts in the grounds of a girls’ school. We had bunk beds to sleep in and stone hot water bottles to keep up warm. We were transported to work at the radio station in trucks, still to this day I do not know where I worked as we were transported in secret. We would work in rolling shifts, with one and a half days off in every four days. At the start I was given a particular frequency to scan, as I became more experienced in my work I was allowed to scan the airwaves for messages…Toward the end of the war we knew the enemy was on the run as the messages started to come through in what we called “plain language.”

Back to “Churchill’s Secret Agents:” Of the fourteen individuals, one applicant (a graduate student in math) becomes a whiz at the code almost immediately. Another candidate did fairly well in sending, but struggled to receive the code.

How about you? Are you good at languages? Do you think you could learn Morse code?


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  3. Hi, Thank you for this article. I recently read a book 'Gone but not forgotten' about the career of a Merchant Navy radio officer. He trained for three years in the early 60s and had to be competent in morse code, taking an exam after 10 months. The radio course was 3 years in length. I'm a radio Ham and started looking at morse code finding it is still used extensively today on amateur radio frequencies for world wide communications. It is the simplest but most effective use of radio broadcast. I also believe the military continue to train a number of personnel in morse or CW (the mode). I am now in my 9th week of study. Getting there but it requires application and time and is akin to learning a language. It has a fascinating history and I am so pleased it is still popular today. Alan