Royal Signals Museum
Providing marvelous insight into a relatively downplayed area of military operations, the ROYAL SIGNALS MUSEUM, located in Blandford Camp — still an active military base — tells about the men and women who operate signaling equipment and their contribution to England’s military history in the past 150 years.
Outside the museum a Saracen Armored Command vehicle and an AFV439 Armored Communications vehicle guard the parking lot. Opened in 1997, the large, gray, metal-walled museum displays the history of the Royal Corps of Signals — a fascinating crash course on the science and technology of military communications from the Crimean War to the Gulf War.
A mixture of reader boards and display cases give the general history of military communications. Runners provided the first form of long-distance signaling, followed by fire signals, signal towers and beacons — all early warning methods of impending invasion. The Duke of Wellington organized regular mounted messengers that evolved into motorcycle dispatch riders in the 20th century. A beautifully restored Triumph motorcycle is on display.
Two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, the U.S. Army began using telephones, and several early telephones are on exhibit, including the 18-pound C Mark 1 Ericsson portable military telephone. Invented in 1916, the Fullerphone had anti-eavesdropping capability and was used up to the 1950s.
A number of WWI and WWII displays show how the Royal Signals Corps expanded and developed. As the telephone became the prime means of communications, the Royal Engineer Signal Service grew in WWII to 8,518 officers and 142,472 soldiers; however, 4,362 were killed in action.
Phantom units & spies
In 1940 the purpose of the General HQ “Phantom” Liaison unit was to keep allied air forces and artillery aware of where the front lines of Belgian and British troops were on the ground. Using armored cars, motorcycles and radio sets, this group performed ground reconnaissance to locate the enemy forces.
After the evacuation of allied forces from Europe, the Phantom unit of 48 officers and 479 soldiers were tasked with the mission of observing possible seaborne landing areas in southern England and give an early warning of the anticipated German invasion. On display are some of the No. 11 wireless sets they used.
Another unusual clandestine group were the Auxillary Units, a special group of radio operators who were to remain behind in occupied Britain if the Germans invaded. Their job was to support resistance groups; their long-term chances of survival were slim. The sites and much information about this operation were kept secret until 1970.
As the Royal Signals reorganized and retrained in WWII, their equipment became more compact, lightweight and easier to operate as they geared up for a more mobile type of warfare. Indispensable to all of the allied services, they worked with the Royal Navy as Beach Signals Units, or trained as parachutists to provide communications for commandos or Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents.
The SOE gallery explains the history and adventures of this brave group of spies; many were caught and executed by the Germans. A brainchild of Churchill’s, their mission was “to coordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas.” By 1944 it had grown to 10,000 men and 3,200 women; 5,000 of whom were field agents overseas in France, Germany and Holland.
SOE agents worked closely with the resistance forces, and used all manner of James Bond-type secret agent equipment including plastic explosives, limpet mines and the Mark III suitcase radio set.
Polish technicians proved particularly adept at designing “suitcase sets,” drawing from their pre-war experience. Despite the size and weight reductions, the early A Mark II radio was made up of three metal boxes, all of which fit neatly into a suitcase. Still weighing 22 pounds, it proved difficult for female agents to carry at speed over long distances. The next model, the A Mark III, weighed just under nine pounds with a range of 500 miles.
The WWII Wireless Sets display explains how military wireless sets had to operate a number of interference-free channels, have good ranges, be robust, easy to operate, simple to maintain and portable. The 1943 Wireless Station No. 10 is an example of such equipment, using radar techniques to beam eight telephone channels over a duplex radio path between land links, being used after the D-Day landings. The station was contained in a 4-wheel 2-ton trailer, one of which stands on exhibit. This was the technological wonder of its time, using new and innovative techniques.
The “Deception” exhibit shows how special signals units simulated radio traffic of whole army groups to deceive the Germans. Their illusion convinced the Germans that the U.S. 3rd Army was in one area when they were 150 miles away in Cheshire. Code-named OPERATION FORTITUDE, the operation was so effective the Germans held several of their divisions back around the Pas de Calais area for several weeks after D-Day.
Royal Signals were involved in every phase of OPERATION OVERLORD and every aspect of the D-Day landings. Amongst their tasks were creating signals communications for the combined headquarters, communications for the assembly of troops for embarkation, creating fake radio traffic to deceive the enemy of the whereabouts of the landings, preparing cross-channel communications links, providing beach signals for the landings, allocating radio frequencies to ensure there was no unintentional jamming, and reestablishing telephone and telegraph lines once they had been captured and repaired.
The ROYAL SIGNALS MUSEUM (Tarrant Monkton, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8RH, UK; within the boundaries of Blandford Army Camp) is easy to reach by car, although it can be reached by bus from Salisbury (30 minute ride) or Weymouth. The museum is open Monday-Friday (all year), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and bank holidays (12 Feb to 31 Oct), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is closed for Christmas from 14 December 2010 to 4 January 2011. Admission for adults, £7.50, senior citizens, £6.50 and children aged 5-16, £5.50. Because this is an active military base, visitors will need some form of identification (driving license, passport etc.). Allow about two to three hours.