Discovering First World War Wireless Stations
Cataloguing the remains of England’s network of wireless communications.
They provided a powerful tool – in co-ordinating military operations, air defence, enabling intelligence gathering, deciphering enemy messages and monitoring communications of enemy vessels, Zeppelins, and aircraft.
Despite its significance the development of wireless communications has, until recently, remained a relatively under-research topic. An Historic England funded research project carried out by Oxford Archaeology addressed this gap by identifying the location and survival of First World War wireless stations in England. It also investigated the role, physical form and archaeological potential of surviving stations (Phimester 2015).
In total some 215 sites were identified, the largest category of which were coastal and/or intercept sites (87 sites); these formed the focus of the study. Information about each site was added to the Council for British Archaeology’s (CBA) Homefront Legacy database, which provided a platform for volunteers to add supplementary information about individual sites.
Britain and Germany realised the potential of a technology that gave great strategic advantage in wartime.
Wireless technology developed at the turn of the century with the formation in Britain of the Wireless Telegraphy Company in 1897 under Guglielmo Marconi.
This became a major rival of the German Telefunken company, founded in 1903, and Germany and Britain became locked in a commercial and technological arms race, both realising the potential of a technology that gave great strategic advantage in wartime.
The military, particularly the Navy, was quick to pick up on the developments which were used in early 20th-century conflicts. Wireless communications, for example, allowed naval commanders to maintain close contact with their vessels deployed around the globe. But they also exposed communications to interception, and just prior to the war wireless interception stations were developed, which had the capability to gather intelligence from the enemy. This use of signals intelligence was ultimately of major significance in Britain’s success in the First World War.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the British government immediately took control of parts of the Marconi Company, and the War Office created the Wireless Signal Company in 1915. This early adoption of wireless technology gave Britain an edge in the war for, in contrast to Britain, Germany continued to issue unencrypted messages. Most operational signals, for example those sent to minesweepers to sweep passages clear by a certain time, enabled a picture to be built up of enemy activity. The realisation of the advantage wireless could give to the enemy made the British more conscious of what it could give away by a too liberal use of the technology.
Wireless communication became one of the ‘transformational technologies of the 20th century’ (Cocroft 2013), the material evidence of which survives in the remains of the wireless stations built around the country. The stations fulfilled various roles, including ship-to-shore communications and training schools, but the most significant were the interception and direction-finding stations (categorised as ‘Y’ stations), used to determine the position of enemy wireless stations, airships, aircraft, warships and submarines.
The Location of wireless stations
A system of wireless direction-finding stations was developed at home and abroad. A large network was developed on the Western Front, and the Imperial Wireless Chain connected the countries of the British Empire. In England, the majority of the eighty-seven stations in use during the First World War were located close to the shoreline, particularly along the south and east coasts of England, stretching from Penzance to Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The location of the stations was determined by the volume of maritime traffic: clusters of stations were situated in the strategically important ports of Liverpool and Portsmouth. Stations along the east coast enabled the interception of messages and transmissions over the ‘German Ocean’, and a further cluster of stations on the Isle of Wight gave clear views across the English Channel.
Open aspects for good transmissions were an important factor in the siting of stations, as is evident in the cluster around the Isle of Wight and a number of inland sites in elevated positions. Existing infrastructure such as roads, buildings, water or close proximity to a telegraph line also influenced location. Stations were often situated in defence sites as part of a wider network of military infrastructure in the area. The Port War Signal Station, for example, was sited within Dover Castle, and another station was located in Fort Blockhouse, Gosport.
Cartographic sources were used to establish the location of wireless stations.
The project identified the location of each station through a combination of archive research, predominantly at the Bodleian Library, where the Marconi archive is held, and The National Archives. Cartographic sources were used to establish the location of stations and provided information about their size and layout. Once the location of a station was known, modern mapping was used to generate a national grid reference, and satellite imagery was examined to determine the degree of survival. This process had complexities, since stations were often not mapped and existing buildings were often adapted for secondary uses, so that their classified wartime functions were not shown.
Form and function
Research into the architecture and layout of each site was informed by the material evidence of surviving stations, historic photographs, aerial imagery from websites such as ‘Britain From Above’, as well as by building plans and written accounts found in archives. This showed that the layout and form of buildings were not standardised, but varied according to the station’s role, significance and the date of construction.
The wartime station at Hunstanton, Norfolk, which survives today as residential accommodation, was of timber-clad construction.
The pre-war Marconi station at the Lizard, Cornwall (Grade II listed), consisted of two small timber-clad rectangular structures and a mast surrounded by a fence. In contrast another pre-war station six miles distant at Poldhu, which famously sent the first transatlantic message to the Marconi station at Newfoundland, was significantly larger, with five interconnecting main buildings, eight posts and five masts. A rare surviving station at Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear (Grade II listed), is brick-built with segmental arches and cusped bargeboards.
Archive research identified detailed plans of wartime wireless stations and inventories of kit.
They showed that other buildings may have included an engine house, battery house, guard room, canvas tents, sentry posts, latrines and sanitary huts, as well masts and anchor stays. A quote from a local builder in Aberdeen in 1917 describes the wireless station huts to be constructed on site as being weather-boarded, with a felt roof and bargeboards on the gables. Each hut had four windows, double doors, benches, a hatch for messages and a stove with a smoke pipe (MS.Marconi 335 – 339).
Assessing significance and archaeological potential
The archaeological potential, above and below ground, of each wireless station was assessed as part of the project, using online aerial imagery and investigation of resources such as Historic Environment Records. Several sites were already protected through scheduling and listing, whilst others are protected through the listing or scheduling of larger military complexes, as is the case, for example, for the Admiralty Signal Station at Garrison Point Fort, Sheerness, Kent. Following the publication of the report, the station at Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, was listed at Grade II: although the station was previously known about, the report helped to establish the rarity of its survival.
It is hoped that local volunteers may investigate and update information about sites with archaeological potential.
Potential surviving remains of wireless station structures were identified at Malvern, Worcestershire; Neston, Cheshire; Bolt Head, Devon; Seaham, County Durham; and Cawood, North Yorkshire. They all require further investigation.
A number of wireless stations occupied existing buildings which are thought to survive, although as these returned to their original use post-war, little evidence of their wartime use is likely to be extant.
The study also identified the sites of twenty-three stations in remote coastal locations where evidence of footprints of buildings or below-ground archaeology may survive. Burial pits may contain parts of wireless kit or domestic debris.
By putting this information onto the CBA’s Homefront Legacy database, it is hoped that local volunteers may investigate and update information about sites with archaeological potential.
The study of wireless stations and their technology has considerable potential for further research, not only in understanding more about individual stations but also about the wider context of the subject. There has been research from a technological and engineering perspective, but less from a historical and archaeological stance. The Historic England project made an initial step towards reconciling these two realms, but there remains considerable potential, through desk-based and archaeological investigation, to better understand the topic nationally and internationally.
About the author
Jane has an MA in Industrial Archaeology from the Ironbridge Institute at Birmingham University. She has worked in the buildings archaeology department at Oxford Archaeology for 15 years and is a senior project manager specialising in modern military archaeology. As well as her experience in archaeological recording, she has undertaken characterisation studies, landscape surveys and impact assessments.
Contact Jane Phimester
Cocroft, W D 2013 ‘The Archaeology of Military Communications’. Industrial Archaeology Review 35.I, 65-79
Phimester, J 2015 First World War Wireless Stations in England. Historic England Research Report, 116, 2015
Also of interest...
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