Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Camp Intelligence Officer - Part Two (Wireless Traffic From England)

The Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) generally had a line responsibility for the receipt, control and distribution of information picked up from hidden radio receivers in POW camps in Western Europe. Some camp organisations incorporated the CIO duties into X’s role. ‘X’ would have control over radio and coded message matters, report to the Senior Officer, but still be free to manage the various other escape committees.  
The use of coded letters in and out of POW camps had resulted in an exchange of helpful  intelligence without discovery by the German censors. The major disadvantage was the time taken for question and answer processes to run their course. The war had often moved on in between letters, and information could become stale or of no use. Seven weeks for letters to be exchanged between Germany and England was seen as an optimistic timescale and in Italy anything from seven months upwards made MI9 and MIS–X look for better ways of communicating with prisoners.
POWs in Western Europe received the German version of the war, which was totally slanted and hardly a boost to morale.  The use of wireless receivers, (if they could be smuggled in to a camp or assembled from random parts) was seen as an ideal way to speed up communication and enable POWs to receive a more helpful version of how events were progressing.  

Actual wireless concealed in RAF Roy Kilminster's bunk at Stalag Luft I -  Roy Kilminster

From the beginning of the war, prisoners had always been on the look out for chances to cadge or steal wireless receivers or in most cases acquire miscellaneous parts which could be adapted to construct a simple piece of apparatus to pick up transmissions, especially the powerful BBC broadcasts. Most camps had some POWs who were wireless technicians with good skills around the workings and components. They were able to utilise and adapt the most unlikely metal items in the construction of a receiving set. Additionally MI9 and MIS–X smuggled key radio components and  the smallest receivers they could find into camps concealed in parcels from the fictitious welfare organisations for POWs. (See previous posts on escape aids and codes) This practice lessened once intelligence filtered through that most camps had hidden radios. 

Drawing of how the wireless was concealed  - Roy Kilminster
Close up of hiding place - Roy Kilminster
Screwdrivers used to tune the radio concealed behind the board - Roy Kilminster

MI9 on occasions used one of the most popular programmes on the BBC, ‘The Radio Padre’ to transmit its messages. Every Wednesday evening at 7pm, the Reverend Ronald Selby Wright delivered some religious words and thoughts which also contained information in one of MI9’s secret codes. (Usually ‘HK’- see previous post)
If the Reverend was told to open his talk with the words ‘Good evening forces’ instead of ‘Hello’ or just ‘Good evening’ – both he and the POWs would know that the text contained a hidden message for prisoners listening on their radios. Wright had no idea what information the hidden message contained, only that a coded message existed within. The whole broadcast was taken down in shorthand by a listener in the camp and then written out in full longhand before work commenced to decode it. 
Reverend Ronald Selby Wright pictured with Princess Margaret

BBC transmissions also enabled prisoners to receive more accurate news of the war. Both captor and captive were known on occasions to have displayed maps showing the latest position of the respective armies across Europe. As the war began to turn, the flags on the Allied map might have shown the enemy in a more advanced state of retreat than those positioned on their captors map. It is easy to imagine an enraged Camp Commandant stepping up searches for a hidden radio some days later, once the information on the POW map was proved to be accurate. POWs openly adopting this practice must have been confident that their wireless equipment was sufficiently well hidden to avoid discovery and viewed it as another form of ‘goon baiting.’ The reality was that in most camps, information obtained by prisoners as a result of listening in to wireless broadcasts stayed  'in house.'
The Camp Intelligence Officer played a vital role around wireless operation. The whole process had to be conducted in the most complete secrecy and centred in a room in one specific hut. The CIO would usually insist on all appropriate personnel living in that particular room e.g. technicians, shorthand men and the man who hid the radio. As operation of the ‘set’ was confined to one person who would take down a transcript of the broadcast, other members of the team acted as lookouts whilst the radio was in use. One person stood at the window of the room, one at the door and one stood at each of the two entries to the hut, watching the lookouts who were positioned around the camp to spot any signs of approaching German ‘ferrets’ or guards. It was common for most prisoners to be totally unaware of who was involved with actual wireless work, where the ‘set’ operated from and where it was concealed.

Fences at Stalag Luft I - Roy Kilminster

Another key role for the CIO was the control and release to POWs of war of news received by wireless.. Good news such as Allied victories and advances were a great morale booster, but any setbacks had to be carefully handled. German victories or heavy Allied casualties could have a negative effect on camp spirits and were not always revealed or were played down. News coming into the camp via the radio would be translated from the initial shorthand and then examined by the ICO, who would liaise with the Senior Officer to finalise what information would be released to prisoners. Common practice was then for one high security man to memorise it and then pass the information on to each hut. This is where the line of the CIO and wireless operations crossed into the security of ‘X’s territory.
POW’s were all instructed following the receipt of good news not to show the slightest signs of a change in emotion or body language which might tip off the Germans that information about the war was being received via a wireless. Loose talk amongst POWs, and with their captors about anything beyond the wire that could not be explained was expressly forbidden.  
One aspect of wireless work which was not used by POWs was radios with transmitters. Some camps had managed to obtain the parts and assemble them by the same methodologies as they had for receivers, or by way of MI9/MIS-X who had sent components concealed in the usual welfare parcels. Radios with transmitters were more difficult to conceal and use effectively. The sending of any transmissions was also strictly forbidden by MI9 and MIS- X, except in emergencies and this instruction was relayed to the camps via coded messages. A hypothetical example of an emergency might have been if reliable information had been discovered that all POWs were to be imminently executed by the Germans and POWs were making ready to try and fight their way out.
As the invasion of Italy by the Allies loomed and the Italian fascist regime stood on the point of collapse, in June 1943 MI9 issued a disastrous coded order to all POWs through the Reverend Ronald Selby Wright’s weekly radio programme.  This was picked up in the camps and decoded and it ordered British POWs in Italy to remain in their camps after Italy surrendered. In some locations, British officers even posted their own guards to prevent the men from leaving after the Italians had laid down their weapons. As a result, the German army was able to walk into dozens of camps and round up the POWs. It is estimated that more than 50,000 Allied soldiers were transported from Italian camps by cattle train to far worse conditions in Germany and Poland during the summer of 1943. Many died, either shot while trying to escape from the trains or in the camps over the course of the following two winters. The use of hidden radios in Allied prison camps had a darker side.


MI9 Escape and Evasion - M.R.D. Foot & J.M. Langley
National Archives
The Escape Factory - Lloyd R. Shoemaker

©Keith Morley
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