RAF West Kingsdown Y Station

 

RAF West Kingsdown Wireless Intercept Station

By Kate Griffiths

Published on Bletchley Park Research October 2012. Copyright for the article remains with the author.

In the Second World War Signals Intelligence or SigInt was vital and as a result both sides invested in Radio Intercept units. In the United Kingdom these units were controlled by either the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or MI5 depending on the intercepted traffic. These stations were known as Wireless Intercept or Y Stations and were top secret because of the nature of their work. One of these stations was right here my village, West Kingsdown, Kent.

RAF West Kingsdown was the headquarters of the RAF Y Service. RAF West Kingsdown was responsible for a network of  around a dozen Y Stations ranging from Montrose in the Scotland to Strete in the South West. The SigInt that the Y network gathered was sent to RAF Sector Stations if the incepted traffic was voice traffic and to Station X at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire for analysis. Morse traffic was also sent to Bletchley Park for decryption.

So where exactly was RAF West Kingsdown, who served there, when was the station active and what did it do? Also what is Signals Intelligence and how important is it?

What is Signals Intelligence?

In time of war intelligence has always been important for military commanders. With the onset of radio on the battlefield in World War 1, commanders realised that if the enemy radio transmissions could be intercepted, decoded and translated he could counter any attack more effectively. This is Signal Intelligence or SigInt for short. In World War 2 this became increasingly important as much as radio was used more frequently. This also meant that signals security was more important. To try and keep operational information secret codes and cyphers were used.

What is the difference between codes and cyphers? The answer is simple codes substitute certain words or phrases for ones which seem to have a totally different meaning. For example when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 the phrase to attack was not ‘Commence the attack’ but ‘Climb Mount Niitaka’. The phrase meant the same as ‘Start the Attack’ but because it was coded it meant nothing to anyone listening in and didn’t know the code.

Cyphers substitute every single character of a message with another character and are far more secure but restricted to either Morse or written traffic. The Enigma is perhaps the most famous encyphering method. What follows is a simplified description of the Enigma and how it works.

image attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2007-0705-502 / CC-BY-SA

At the time the Enigma machine was a brilliant way of encyphering a message and looked like a typewriter with an addition lightboard above the keyboard Each machine had a selection of rotors with 26 letters and electrical connections on them. Each machine had a choice of 5 rotors all wired differently to the other 4. But each numbered rotor had to wired identically for the system to work. The rotors were selected and inserted into the Enigma  according to a book which gave that days settings which included what rotors to use, the order they were to be inserted and what position to set them in. Most Enigmas used three rotors but on February 1st 1942 the German navy introduced a 4 rotor Enigma primarily for the U Boats.

There is also a plug board on the front of the machine with 26 electrical connections holes. Each hole had to be connected to another hole according to that days settings. The machine is then ready to encrypt. When a letter is typed in a different letter is lit up on the lightboard. This noted by an assistant. If you type that letter again a different letter will light up. But a letter will never light up its own light on the light board. To add a further random setting the operator then set the rotors to any position he liked. This start position is noted and included at the start of the message. After the callsigns the first three (four in the case of the Naval four rotor Enigma) letters tell the receiver what the start position of the rotors are in their identically set up Enigma. They then typed the message in to the machine whilst the assistant copied what letters lit up on the lightboard. Then the entire message is then sent by Morse code. The recipient then turns the message back into plain text using their Enigma. Theoretically the Enigma was unbreakable unless the code books were compromised or a machine was used to crack the cypher.

The Germans believed the code books weren’t compromised at any time and that no machine existed able to crack Enigma. They forgot to tell the codebreakers at Bletchley Park that breaking the Enigma wasn’t possible!!

LOCATION

RAF West Kingsdown was in the North Kent village of West Kingsdown on top of the North Downs. Today the village is more well known for its famous neighbour, Brands Hatch Motor racing circuit. The station was in two locations within the village. The first location is on Fawkham Road between Southfields Road and Warland Road in an old toy factory. The station also utilised the house in front which was then called Mizpah which meant watch tower.

Mizpah is now known as Gizwell but the house is still there. The layout of the toy factory behind the house is the same but the buildings are different. You can see where the 70 foot high aerial tower was. The toy factory was the operations room and Mizpah was the office area of the station.

In early 1941 the station moved three quarters of a mile down the road across the A20 to Hollywood Manor on School Lane. The Manor was a lot bigger than the original location and a 90 foot mast was also installed. In all, according to 1943 plans obtained from the RAF Museum, three masts were at Hollywood Manor. There was also a secondary station at Wrotham 3 miles down the A20 with a 240 foot high mast.

RAF West Kingsdown was the headquarters for the whole RAF Y service controlling Y Stations or Home Defence Units as they were known stretching from Scarborough in Yorkshire to Strete in Devon. Including RAF West Kingsdown, the Kingsdown Network consisted of 10 Y Stations concentrating on intercepting voice (R/T) traffic but also intercepting morse (W/T) traffic encoded by Enigma. Cheadle in the Midlands was the main W/T Intercept station for the RAF but Kingsdown also kept Station X fed with W/T intercepts. The name of Home Defence Units was used to try and deceive the enemy about the true nature of these stations.

WHO SERVED THERE

The personnel who served at these Y Stations were men and women fluent in German and, to a lesser extent, Italian. They were recruited from both civilian life and from the RAF and the WAAF to listen and transcribe the messages they heard. They also came from many countries, including those that were occupied by the Nazi’s. This very important and but monotonous job required a very special person and the selection process was tough.

The Commanding Officer (CO) was Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) R K Budge OBE. It was he who found the first location of RAF West Kingsdown. Other well known or important people who served there included Assistant Section Officer (later Air Commandant) Jean Conan-Doyle, daughter of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Assistant Section Officer (later Squadron Officer) Aileen Clayton MBE (nee Morris) the first WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) to be commissioned as an Intelligence Officer.

R K Budge was a popular CO who was small, wiry and born in Devon. According to Aileen Clayton ‘he had enormous energy and a great capacity to instil enthusiasm into our team.’ The only other RAF officer was Flying Officer F.C Jones known as Jonah Jones. Once again Clayton gives a brief description of him. She describes him as ‘tall with the figure of a rugger full-back. He was steady and not easily ruffled. Having spent many years as a teaplanter in India, Jonah had learned to handle crises and men with good-humoured equanimity.

Assistant Section Officer Jean Conan-Doyle was the stations first administration officer. She would rise to the rank of Air Commandant and later become Director of WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force). She was a very able, enthusiastic and sympathetic officer who cared for her WAAFS a great deal. She was known in the Y Service as Billy. She later became Dame Jean Bromet and an Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty The Queen.

Assistant Section Officer Aileen Clayton MBE spent two years at West Kingsdown before taking up a position in Cairo working in the Middle East Y Service. Aileen Morris as she was then was the first WAAF to commissioned as an Intelligence Officer. She wrote a very good book on her days in the Y Service called The Enemy Is Listening, a copy of which has been my companion whilst researching RAF West Kingsdown. Her nickname in the WAAF was ‘Mike’. Like her close friend Jean Conan-Doyle she was a popular, able and enthusiastic officer who was dedicated to the Y Service. Her dedication and expertise led to her being offered the Middle East posting. Whilst in Cairo she was for time acting head of AI4 (Department of Air Intelligence responsible for Y Service) Middle East when Squadron Leader George Scott Farnie was invalided home after a crash in a Lysander whilst touring some stations in the Middle East.

When was the station operational?

The station was operation from mid August 1940 until 1944, when the whole operation was moved to Canterbury. According to the Air Historical Branch of the RAF the station closed down on 10th May 1944 but there are references from veterans including Peggy West who was  a WAAF Sergeant at RAF West Kingsdown about a V1 ‘Doodlebug’ destroying an airman’s accommodation hut and severely damaging a WAAF’s accommodation hut. Here is an extract of her recollections as posted on the internet site http://www.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2003/west.asp

‘Thankfully my own ‘A’ Watch was on duty the night an engine of a flying bomb did ‘cut-out’ above us, blew up our men’s hut and made a mess of the Watch room – but no radio links were lost. Our own WAAF hut was unsafe too and had to be knocked back into shape. Mind you, cleaning it was much easier after that; you just swept the dirt down the cracks in the foundations.’  

The V1 attacks did not start until 13 June 1944, over a month after the Air Historical Branch said it closed. After viewing file HW 50/83 at the National Archives I have narrowed the date of closure to around 20th July 1944.

What was RAF West Kingsdown and what happened there?

RAF West Kingsdown was a Wireless Intercept Station or Y Station. The personnel stationed there were some of the most valuable people in the Kings Service. The main role of the Kingsdown network was to listen in to the radio telephone traffic of German Luftwaffe aircrews. The network also intercepted wireless telegraphy traffic (messages sent by morse and encrypted using the famous Enigma machines). All the R/T traffic was written down by the operator in shorthand as it was heard and later transcribed in to longhand and into a daily log that each operator kept. These Daily Logs were sent to Bletchley Park for analysis. Important operational intelligence that was heard and could be acted on was immediately passed onto RAF Sector Stations to be passed onto RAF aircrews as they were flying.

 

The operators also had to decode the Luftwaffe language that was heard. Like the RAF the Luftwaffe used code words to give certain instruction or convey information. Once these code words were decoded it made the job of the RAF pilots a lot easier. But the same was true for Luftwaffe Y monitors. The most famous code word that was used by the RAF was ‘Angles’ meaning height. This was soon compromised but was kept in use.

A lot of useful intelligence was gained from listening in to German R/T traffic. For instance the Luftwaffe started using a series of navigation beams to guide their bombers to targets. This information was gained from Y operators at West Kingsdown by decoding the language used in test and operational flights. It wasn’t long before countermeasures against the beams were devised. The beams were nicknamed Headache by the British and the countermeasure jamming system was codenamed ‘Aspirin’. Special ‘Headache’ units were set up to administer Aspirin which was a jamming device and the operation was known as ‘bending the beam’.

Another discovery by a WAAF operator was what was known as ‘Little Screw’. I’ll let you imagine the remarks that were made when one of the WAAF’s called out ‘There he is again. I’ve got him loud and clear. He’s playing around with his little screw again.’ For a short while this traffic was baffling. From what was being hear the listeners could tell it was a training flight of some kind with new equipment and there were problems with it which was frustrating the pilots. This was a great help to the Y Service as when the pilots became frustrated their radio discipline disappeared and they started talking in plain language. Eventually it was discovered that ‘Little Screw’ was a controlled night-fighter system using aircraft, beams and searchlights. It was also listeners at West Kingsdown that first heard the code-words ‘Emil, Emil’ which turned out to be airborne night fighting radar fitted to German night-fighters.

In October 1943 Operation Corona was started from West Kingsdown. This involved German speaking personnel countermanding the orders of German controllers  and feeding false information using high powered transmitters. To try and stop this the Germans switched from male controllers to female. The RAF swiftly copied this. The battle of words over the airwaves led to some interesting incidents. One is described both in the official Bomber Command Campaign Diary and by Peggy West. It is best described by Peggy West,

 ‘A German controller was trying to direct his aircraft to Kassel. Kingsdown’s ‘ghost’ was trying to stop them and told them not to take any notice of the Englander who was trying to confuse them. After an exchange or two, the German became pretty agitated, lost his temper and swore. Our ‘ghost’ replied, ‘The Englander is now swearing’ and was met by an infuriated shriek from Germany: ‘Its not the blank Englander who is swearing, its blankety-blank me.’

What equipment was used at RAF West Kingsdown?

AS RAF West Kingsdown was primarily a listening station the main equipment were radio receivers. American made Hallicrafter S-27 that covered frequency range of 28Mc/s (megahertz) to 143 Mc/s. For the high frequency range the RCA AR88 and National HRO sets were used. West Kingsdown had 68 of these listening sets, As West Kingsdown was also a direction finding (D/F) station there was either a R1481 that covered VHF low band 66Mc/c-86Mc/s or R1132A that covered the higher frequency airband of 100Mc/s – 124Mc/s  for direction finding. The whole of the Kingsdown network had a further 100 listening sets and 11 D/F sets as of 30th September 1942.

The value of the work done at RAF West Kingsdown and its Y Stations can not be under estimated. How many lives the intelligence gained from the intercepts saved will never be known. The aim of this short history of the station is to serve as a reminder of those who served there and in a way to say thank you for their service. We must never forget those service men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in all wars so that we can be free.

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years Condemn

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, 

We will remember them

From ‘For the Fallen by Lawrence Binyon

 

When you go home tell them of us

And say for your tomorrow we gave our today

The Kohima Epitaph

Download a PDF copy of RAF West Kingsdown Wireless Intercept Station (1)

Picture of Dame Jean Conan-Doyle downloaded from http://www.ash-nyc.com/DameJean.htm

Excerpt of Peggy West’s memories downloaded from http://www.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2003/west.asp

 

 

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Kate Griffiths index card update

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4 thoughts on “RAF West Kingsdown Y Station

  1. There is so much detail now available about station X, enigma, etc that it is good to learn more about the Y and RSS services that supplied Bletchley with ‘fuel’ At Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (West Cornwall) we have the receivers used for interception (AR88, HRO. Hallicrafters etc) and there were Y-service sites within a few miles (St Erth etc) so I was glad to learn from google about typical Y sites. Had no idea that they often usedas many as one hundred receivers and perhaps thirty or more rhombic aerials. Keep up the good work of research.
    John. P.

    • John,

      Thank you for your comment. I discovered Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in June while on holiday in Cornwall. I found the museum totally fascinating and is a great family day out, with interactive exhibits: we had great fun practising Morse Code. It is a ‘must see’ site for anyone interested in Telegraphy and World War 2 Signals Intelligence.

      The underground area provides a real sense of isolation and provides a strong echo of the past. I was really struck by the difficulties workers had transporting supplies to the site before surfaced roads and cars. I also think about the total darkness of the site during the black outs of World War 2.

      We spent a great few hours on the marvellous adjoining beach too!

      I think I will look towards adding something about the museum to the Bletchley Park Research website.

      Kind Regards

      Kerry

  2. My late father Joseph Binning had been posted to West Kingsdown and is mentioned on page 62 of Aileen Clayton’s excellent book “The Enemy is Listening”. He was an amateur radio operator, so was given the job of teaching the WAAFs Morse code. He also taught Aileen Morse code. She said: “To the despair of out tutor, Corporal Joseph Binnings, he could never get me, try as he would, beyond eighteen words per minute. Fortunately the German operators were not much better than I was and they rarely transmitted faster than eighteen words per minute”. My father had great respect for Aileen.

    It was at West Kingsdown, where My father met my future mother, Zoe Gray. She was one of the WAAFs he taught Morse code to. They got on so well, they got married at the end of the war.

    Long after the war, my father was working for the Marconi company and was given the job of maintaining the Chain Home masts at Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight. It believe that the Marconi company was using the masts for the development of an early warning system, during the Cold War period.

    Regards,
    Raymond Binning.