Paul Hannah casts his eye over a couple of curious ways in which the protagonists in the last world war gathered critical information from each other.
Gathering intelligence in wartime can be dangerous, tedious and
occasionally mystifying. But ever since the first humans snuck up on a
Neanderthal campsite and counted the fires, it has been an essential
component in gaining the edge on an enemy.
In 1940 when all of Britain was worrying about invasion, road signs
were removed along with anything else that was thought to help the
enemy. However no one thought that Big Ben was unwittingly spying for
the Nazis – but it was. Weather patterns in Europe tend to move from
West to East, so knowing what the weather was in England was of value
to the Nazis in planning operations. Consequently all weather
broadcasts were halted for the duration, but Big Ben kept chiming the
hours and the BBC broadcast that chime live across Europe. An
anonymous boffin in the Nazi hierarchy recorded the sound day to day
and noticed that there was a very small change in the tone –
imperceptible to human ears, but with sensitive equipment it became
obvious. The large mass of tin and copper in the bell reacts to the
pressure and temperature of the air outside, changing the sound it
makes very slightly. When British scientists became aware of this, a
recording of the bell was substituted and the sound became uniformly
useless to the Nazis. Counter intelligence missed an opportunity here,
as they could have broadcast a ‘fine weather’ tone when storms were
predicted and let nature take care of a few bombers!
My uncle Dennis was a spy of sorts in the Western Desert of Egypt. He
was in the LRDG, the Long Range Desert Group. While this unit did
carry out a number of daring raids on Rommel’s camps, much of their
work was observation and recording. They would seek out a location
where they could observe a road or an enemy camp where hopefully they
not be seen themselves and carefully recorded the comings and goings.
Once collated this information could be translated into knowledge of
enemy strength and intentions and that knowledge used to save Allied
lives. This work was very dangerous as Dennis found out when on one
operation the officer he was lying next to was killed by a single shot
from a sniper. Needless to say, Dennis decided that a better hiding
place should be found and left immediately.
Just as the German technician who was told to record the sound of Big
Ben from the BBC must have thought his superiors were quite mad, I
suspect the French underground were equally mystified when asked to
relay the price of oranges in Paris every day. This may sound like a
small thing to do, but every radio broadcast exposed the operator to
detection, torture and death, so each transmission was treated very
seriously indeed. The underground never knew just how important this
seemingly trivial information was, but it was vital to the war effort
and saved many Allied lives, while costing the Nazi war machine
dearly. Spain was technically neutral in WWII but continued to supply
Germany with wolfram and Iron ore, both vital to the Nazi armaments
industry. Consequently disrupting the rail traffic between Spain and
Germany became a priority. The RAF stepped up to the challenge and
rail bridges, marshaling yards and junctions became regular targets.
However, there is little point in bombing a rail link too often as a
simple break in the line is sufficient to stop all traffic. A way
needed to be found to know when the line was open again so another
bombing raid could be mounted. Industrial raw materials were not the
only thing to be imported from Spain – oranges also came in by rail.
When the rail line was cut, oranges in Paris were in short supply, so
the price went up. When the line was repaired, the price went down. In
this way the price of oranges in street markets in Paris determined
where and when the RAF launched bombing raids.
(c) 2018 Paul Hannah