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Moonraker

Devizes wireless station, WWI's GCHQ

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Moonraker

Does anyone know anything about the role of UK wireless stations in detecting Zeppelins? Books on the raids usually refer only to interception by aircraft and to blind people using their acute hearing to tell where a Zeppelin was. For some time I've been researching Devizes wireless station, erected on and near the North Wilts Golf Club (close to the modern radio masts on Morgan's Hill between the A4 and A361 in Wiltshire). It was part of the Imperial Wireless Chain being built by Marconi's when WWI broke out and was taken over by Royal Engineers (whose plan survives in TNA, as we think we now refer tol the PRO). An "army intelligence station" moved there from Langley, near Slough. Its CO in 1918 was E W B Gill, a major in the Royal Engineers and apparently a member of MI1e. In his discreet book, "War, Wireless and Wangles" (Oxford 1934) he says it determined the position of enemy wireless stations and the movements of Zeppelins and (other) aircraft. After the Armistice its work doubled because it was monitoring messages "sent by our late allies". Then it became a maritime wireless station for a few years. A few concrete bases, bits of chain and a couple of huts can still be seen.

The Royal Signals Museum was unaware of it, and though R F H Nalder mentions several UK stations he does not include Devizes. The local paper and BT Archives have quite a bit about its prewar construction.

Any suggestions and any pics, please (I've several postwar photos of it and I guess photography was banned during the war.)

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HERITAGE PLUS

Tony

I was brought up in Devizes and was only vaguely aware of the stations existence.

There is a post in the thread on the forum below which mentions its use in 1924.

Dave

http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/discu...html?1075821013

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Moonraker

Since my original post (eight years ago!), I've discovered a bit more about this wireless station and discovered another postwar photograph on line.

A book published last year by Oxbow, Beyond the Dead Horizon, compiled by Nicholas J Saunders, has a chapter about a hut "rescued" from the site in 1929 and preserved in a nearby village. Another hut, used as a cattle shed, remains on site.

Moonraker

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Gareth Davies

Moonraker

I learnt about the Devizes wireless station a couple of months ago from your excellent book "Wiltshire and the Great War: Training the Empire's Soldiers" and it is on my research to do list. Can you point me in the direction of the preserved hut?

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centurion

There were a number of wireless listening stations around the country as part of an intelligence operation. In cooperation with the French these were able to build up a picture of German wireless activity. Even when German codes could not be broken much useful information could be gleaned merely by identifying operators and their location. Every morse operator had their own style (or fist) and this in conjunction with location achieved from taking cross bearings could be used to track the movement of German units so that if the operator who had been transmitting from the location of say the XXXX cavalry HQ on the Eastern front turned up transmitting from a location in Belgium it was a fair assumption that this unit had been transferred from the Eastern to the Western Front. The existence of this listening network was kept very quiet. Many of these stations were used again in WW2 relaying their material to Bletchly Park.

The only use of wireless for anti airship purposes I've come across was for the transmission of spoof messages to airships and to confuse their navigation. The Germans were using French and British wireless transmissions as navigational aids, taking bearings from identified stations. By switching transmissions to different transmitters it was possible to fool the German into taking the wrong course. At least five Zeppelins were destroyed over France due to this ruse. This was also kept very hush hush even post WW1.

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centurion

The French wireless station on the Eiffel Tower did experiment with picking up the signals generated by the coil and spark plugs of aircraft engines (both aeroplane and airship) to provide early warning and direction. They used a cover story about trained parrots picking up the noise of aircraft to cover this activity. Some success was had at first but as suppressors began to be fitted to engines this dwindled.

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Moonraker

Moonraker

I learnt about the Devizes wireless station a couple of months ago from your excellent book "Wiltshire and the Great War: Training the Empire's Soldiers" and it is on my research to do list. Can you point me in the direction of the preserved hut?

Gareth, first, thanks for the plug! The chapter is titled "Mr Hopgood's shed : an archaeology of Bishop's Cannings wireless station" and I infer that the current Mr Hopgood lives in Bishops Cannings. Perhaps a search of the local telephone directory might provide a pointer.

The book - which also has a chapter on arborglyphs on Salisbury Plain (ie carvings by soldiers on trees) - is not easy to find, though yesterday Foyle's in London had a copy. Wiltshire Library Catalogue lists it for "reference only", from which I infer that it's probably at the local studies centre at Chippenham.

I had assumed that the chapter related to an archaeological dig on the site, but in fact it describes the terrain and the shed in detail and speculates about living conditions in such accommodation, referring to structures that had been at Chisledon Camp, near Swindon.

I felt just a little smug that the author had apparently not come across the plan and book mentioned in my first post, nor had consulted the Wiltshire Gazette, whose prewar editions carried articles about the construction. Having said that, for the second edition of my book I needed to thoroughly revise the section on the station, as I'd made a couple of false assumptions.

Gareth, unless you want the fun of doing your own research (and quite possibly unearthing fresh material) I can send you copies of my own notes. Please PM me if you're interested.

Moonraker

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MikeMeech

Hi

An interesting essay that includes information on attempts to locate both German Airships and aeroplanes by their wireless transmissions is, 'Airbandit: C3I and Strategic Air Defence during the First Battle of Britain, 1915-18.' by John Ferris. This is found on pages 23-66 of 'British Policy During the First World War' edited by Michael Dockrill and David French, Hambledon Press, 1996. It is worth a read to get a 'big picture' of of how C3I was working in the Air Defence context at that time and the difficulties and successes that were encontered.

Mike

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Moonraker

Beyond the Dead Horizon also has a chapter on soldiers' arborglyphs (carvings on trees) on Salisbury Plain.

Moonraker

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Waddell

I felt just a little smug that the author had apparently not come across the plan and book mentioned in my first post, nor had consulted the Wiltshire Gazette, whose prewar editions carried articles about the construction. Having said that, for the second edition of my book I needed to thoroughly revise the section on the station, as I'd made a couple of false assumptions.

Terry,

I note that in your book you mention that at the time of armistice works were being carried out at the wireless station that would double its size. I have recently been researching a local man who served in the 1st Pioneer Battalion AIF, who upon reaching England spent the majority of his service attached to the Pioneer Training Battalion. He was marched out several times to Devizes Wireless Station as part of working parties sent there.

Looking through the Pioneer Training Battalion War Diaries there are various mentions and reports of works carried out within the area. In particular there is a progress report contained in the attachments of the April 1918 war diary that outlines the scope and progress of the work that was commenced in November 1917. It seems that the detachments form the Pioneer Training Battalions made up the labour component for the Royal Engineers who were from Cornwall (?).

Link is here (p.32) –

http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/records/awm4/14/18/awm4-14-18-10.pdf

Should you be able to locate a photo of the surviving building I would be interested in a copy.

Hope this is of interest.

Regards,

Scott

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Moonraker

Scott, that's a great find, thanks. And there's more of interest to me in that month's diary, such as a note on the extension of the Lark Hill Military Railway from Fargo Hospital to Lake Down Airfield.

The article - by Cassie Newland, also a BBC TV presenter - does have a photo taken last year of the exterior of the shed. The building measures 6 metres square and perhaps was part of a much longer one. I can't reproduce the photo here because that would contravene the declaration I made when asking the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre at Chippenham for photocopies. But for £5 (minimum charge) including postage and VAT, the Centre will supply seven A3 photocopies of the article. Contact Localstudies@Wiltshire.gov.uk for an application form. (I tried to add a file comprising the form, but it was too big to load, and I'm not sure that I can satisfactorily reduce its size.)

Moonraker

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Waddell

I'm glad those diaries are of interest Terry.

Thanks for those details regarding the article and images. Will chase them up.

Scott

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Guest theboxalls

Whilst looking for information on the Wireless Intelligence Station at Devizes I came across your post. I don't know if it's of any interest to you, but during World War I my grandfather served in the Royal Engineers stationed at Devizes and involved with Wireless Intelligence. I did have some postcards of his showing the station which I donated to the Imperial War Museum some time ago, but I also have a few photos taken during the war. Three of them are group photos of his unit. Another one shows my grandfather and three other officers in front of a timber building and the fifth photo is my grandfather with four other officers who appear to be standing on an outcrop with a line of masts behind them. The quality of the photo is not good, but I think you can just make out a building and other features. I'd be happy to scan any or all of the photos and email them to you if you are interested.

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Moonraker

That's very kind, and welcome to the Forum!

Private message sent.

Moonraker

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Moonraker

Theboxalls' post 14 prompts me to post belatedly a summary of my own research:

In August 1913 Parliament approved a plan by Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy Company to build an imperial chain of six wireless stations linking England to Australia. The receiving station, consisting of eight tubular steel masts (six of which were 300ft high with two of 50ft at either end), was built on Morgan's Hill, above the village of Bishops Cannings and three miles north of Devizes. In December the War Office (which after an early lack of enthusiasm was now very interested in the military potential of Marconi's work), was concerned about lack of security at the two English stations in the chain – the receiver near Devizes and a transmitter at Leafield in Oxfordshire, which were administered by the General Post Office. It asked for fortifications and bullet-proof shelters, and for contingency plans to be made by the GPO and police for protection 'against ill-disposed persons'. The Marconi Company indignantly questioned the necessity, though in May 1914 women believed to be suffragettes entered the Leafield site, prompting the appointment of a night-watchman. In the end the Postmaster General agreed to erect interlocked wire fences around the masts and buildings but in June 1914 the Government decided 'not to take any measures for the defence of the receiving station at Devizes in time of war', though the station at Leafield would be surrounded by a fence.
Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities and with the Devizes station all but complete, the Government 'repudiated' its contract with Marconi's (leading to the company claiming £7,181,774 in damages and being awarded £590,000 in 1919). In the first months of the war, experiments 'near Devizes' and presumably at the wireless station found it was possible to determine the point of origin of a wireless transmission.
This led to the Royal Engineers moving on to the site to adapt the existing buildings and equipment. In August 1915 the Wiltshire Advertiser reported some 150 men of 499 Company, Motor Transport Section, Army Service Corps arriving at Shepherds Shore., which was the location of one of the terminal masts, apparently for a short stay under canvas, with the townsfolk attending a gala sports day a week or two later. It is likely they were there in conjunction with the conversion of the station. In November the Royal Engineers drew a plan showing a 1,000ft circle near Shepherds Shore, possibly indicating a new installation of four masts in a circle designed to help determine from which direction a signal was coming.
An army intelligence unit from Langley, near Slough, moved to the site, which became one of three direction-finding stations in Britain charged with intercepting signals from Zeppelins. By 1918 it had become the headquarters for all army wireless stations in England and was also a training centre for wireless operators involved in signals intelligence. That year Ernest Gill was at the station as its commanding officer. He was a major in the Royal Engineers and also a member of a branch of military intelligence, MI1e, responsible for breaking codes and analysing signals traffic. At the time of the Armistice, semi-permanent buildings were being erected to the extent that the establishment's size was being doubled. When Gill suggested this might no longer be necessary, he was reproofed: 'It is not for junior officers, knowing nothing of the facts in the knowledge of higher officers, to put forward suggestions of policy', he was told. So construction went on for more than twelve months and on the day it was completed, demolition (which must have been only partial) commenced. Gill recalled that during those twelve months 'instead of taking note only of the German wireless messages and locations, we had also to keep an eye on all the messages sent by our late Allies and our work was more than doubled'. But, until he protested, members of his staff were being demobilised, making the extra duties difficult to fulfil.
In 1920 the station was taken over by the General Post Office and its equipment used to communicate with vessels at sea; an Ordnance Survey map revised in 1922 shows a cluster of a dozen buildings close to one of the central masts. After a new station was built at Portishead near Bristol the masts were dismantled in 1929. Gill visited the site around 1931 and found only overgrown foundations, though one building and the concrete foundations of the masts could still be seen in 2011 (such as at map reference 032664).
Moonraker

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HeatherC

Moonraker - that's absolutely fascinating. I live near Devizes and have walked up to the nature reserve and the current masts often. I'm interested to know if you know the locations of the eight masts? You give a location of Shepherds Shore for one end of the installation, which is at least 1.5km from the site of the modern masts (which are close to the highest point) and about the same distance from the Grid Ref you gave above (which is marked by a small building on my 1987 OS map). Do you have locations for the rest and how they were laid out?

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Moonraker

Heather

Here's a plan based on a modern Ordnance Survey map prepared by someone else

post-6017-0-44994700-1417439441_thumb.jp

Sorry, my image-posting skills are limited, so it's a bit small.

The North-Westerly foundations are on the golf-course. There's car-parking at "184" on the minor road from Hill Barn Cottages to "club house", and a right-of-way goes through the site, so it's possible to see a hut now used as as a farm shed and some of the foundations.

When I Googled for images of "Devizes wireless station", I got mainly photos of the modern installation the other side of the hill but the one at top left is of the WWI era.

For those unfamiliar with the locality, the A361 from Devizes to Beckhampton runs through the circle (pencilled in by the map compiler) at bottom right.

Moonraker

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HeatherC

Thanks Moonraker - I can see I will have to walk a little further next time I go up there and take a look for the mast bases. I assume you have seen this in the Nat Archives? http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C3273270

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NigelS

Interesting thread, thanks for sharing your research Moonraker.

6" OS maps of c1920s-30s showing the station & the masts then (or at least when surveyed/revised), can be viewed in good detail on the NLS maps website (Click) specifically:

top left hand corner of
http://maps.nls.uk/view/101463119 & http://maps.nls.uk/view/101725545

& top right hand corner of
http://maps.nls.uk/view/101463113 & http://maps.nls.uk/view/101725542

Difficult to tell from Google Earth, either most recent or historical, what might be the remains of mast bases or the remains of something more ancient or modern (the circular feature - a quarry or remains of a tumulus?- near the huts is shown on earlier maps so predates the station.) Interesting to see that there was a range on the site's western edge (shown as having moving targets in the 1880s), &, further west still, the site of a battle in 1643.

NigelS

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NigelS

Found some recent pictures of the surviving building: a couple in a Wikipedia entry for Morgan's Hill (which cites this thread for some of its information) Click & another on the 'Geograph' site Click . Surprising how many buildings described as 'old barns' started off life as something far more interesting!

NigelS

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towisuk

In the 1920's Devizes Commercial Radio Station was using the call sign GKU, and if you want to see what the beam station would have looked like, check this link.......

http://tetneybeamstation.blogspot.co.uk/

There were 5 D.F. stations operating into the twenties.....

Lizard callsign BVY

Croydon Radio GED

Pulham GEP

Flamborough BVN

Berwick BVG

regards

Tom

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Moonraker

... I assume you have seen this in the Nat Archives? http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C3273270

Yes, Heather, I discovered that in the late 1990s - one of the most rewarding moments of my research in those days.

... 6" OS maps of c1920s-30s showing the station & the masts then (or at least when surveyed/revised), can be viewed in good detail on the NLS maps ... further west still, the site of a battle in 1643.

NigelS

Ah, the wonders of modern technology! Back in the late 1990s I spent a lot of time trying to source old maps showing military infrastructure of the Great War period on Salisbury Plain! Happily the PRO (as it then was) had bound volumes of 6-inch maps of the 1920s (such as those Nigel has linked to) and I had access to the maps collections at Oxford University. Now it's all available through a few keystrokes at home. I did think of scanning my own photocopy of one of the maps for Heather, but its size made the task technically demanding. So thanks, Nigel.

The battle is that of Roundway Down, quite an important one in the Civil War. Near to the site is a very helpful information board showing how the battle developed.

Found some recent pictures of the surviving building: a couple in a Wikipedia entry for Morgan's Hill (which cites this thread for some of its information) Click & another on the 'Geograph' site Click . Surprising how many buildings described as 'old barns' started off life as something far more interesting!

NigelS

The Geograph contributor seems not to have realised the significance of the building and the site.

Moonraker

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HeatherC

I've spent half the afternoon looking at old maps, photos and Google earth now and trying to work out what is where - it's all your fault Moonraker. Still no nearer to finding out what the cricular feature near the remaining hut is though. I wonder if it could be a flint pit as there is mention of Furze Knoll having been a flint quarry. Pity the forecast is so rubbish this week or I might go up there and look!

I did wonder why the masts were not on the highest point, but if you look at the first pic on this site (ignore the crop circles!) http://www.lucypringle.co.uk/photos/2011/furze-knoll-cropcircle-2011.shtml you can see how the chain of masts would have kind of wrapped around the hill facing south east, which does make sense. Note you can see the remaining hut and the circlular feature quite clearly on this photo

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Moonraker

The wireless station must have been a spectacular sight high on the downs between 1914 and the late 1920s. It took me a long time to source contemporary photographs, and a few years ago I was lucky to spot a website run by a wireless-stations enthusiast who sent me some photographs. I think that at the time I undertook not to publish them without his consent, which he gave for one that appears in my book - it looks the same as the one I mention above that results from a search of Google Images. I can't find the website now.

Still, I would have thought that a century ago photographs might have been taken "for the record" and though security issues would have inhibited their publication during the war, there was a decade of peace for more to be taken. Books on the history of the Devizes area barely mention the station (if at all). I suspect there may be some references in the 1920s editions of the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald, but having looked through copies from 1897 to 1920 I was not motivated enough to look through another 450 or so editions on microfilm on the off chance!

Moonraker

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