Spectrum Management - From the Early Years to the 1990s

by Laval Desbiens

Page 12 of 26

Spectrum Surveillance and Monitoring - The war years


But where did all the operators come from?


In his book A Man Called Intrepid, William Stephenson recounts the activities of Canadian William Stephenson during World War II (Camp X etc.), where operators work at various interception stations:


 "Stephenson, who had never forgotten his schoolboy exchanges with the Morse operators on Great Lakes freighters, regarded seagoing radiomen as among the world's best. They were accustomed to discomfort and to working in close quarters alone. They could hang onto the faint signals of a moving station surrounded by the clutter of other transmissions drifting across the wave bands. At sea, they had to recognize quickly the 'fist' of the particular operator they might seek, detecting subtle characteristics in the way he worked his key that amounted to an individual signature." (A Man Called Intrepid, 1976, by William Stevenson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, chapter 7, pp. 50-51)


This is where many, if not the majority of operators and inspectors who monitored and then managed the frequency spectrum, came from for many years.



The Ottawa monitoring station during the last war

Lloyd Cope recounts:

"In the spring of 1941, Ed Davey, Charley Rose and Gerry Gard were responsible for the frequency standard and VAA, the master station for the Branch's network, and also for a few intercepts at the old site near the barn on the Experimental Farm. We were quite surprised to follow very interesting communications about the battle to sink the Bismark, a German ship.


During this time, Wilbur Smith, the chief standards engineer at Transport and his boss J.W. Bain worked actively on the plans they had proposed in conjunction with the people from the Royal Canadian Navy to build a new station half a mile away on Merivale Road. The station began operating in the fall of 1941 and from then until January 1942, new operators continued to arrive to help with the interception work.


During the same period, I and several other operators from Ottawa were trained in direction finding at the Department's direction finding station at St. Hubert on Montreal's south shore. This DF station had originally been set up by the Department of Transport to provide air control for aircraft en route over the ocean to Europe.


The Ottawa station was equipped with National HRO receivers, Belini-Tosi style direction- finding equipment and each operating position had its own intercom. Two technicians, René Arial and Dan Maclean ensured that the equipment operated properly.


Around 1942, another room was added to the station that was large enough to accommodate all the shifts, or 125 operators (both male and female). One end of the building contained the teletype linked directly to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the operator of this equipment alternated with the operator of the DF equipment. A position was also reserved for listening to announcements from Berlin, where the names of Canadians who had been taken as prisoners of war in Germany were copied down. We passed the information on to the RCN on 16-inch records. Later on, we did the same thing with the bulletins issued by Tokyo, but the transmissions were of very poor quality.


There was also a position for listening to Canadian transmissions to monitor the "bad guys" (to ensure there were no security breaches in Canadian communications). We intercepted a transmission on that station that we thought was clandestine, but in the end it turned out to be a network of seminarians located close to the Beechwood Cemetery in east Ottawa.


The VAA station occupied a small room at the monitoring station in Ottawa. Near the end of the war, this position was in the teletype room with the one reserved for recording the names of Canadians who had been taken prisoner and the one for monitoring domestic stations.


Each operator used one HRO receiver. Most of the time, no specific task was assigned, with each person looking for messages from surfaced submarines on any frequency. With a group of 25 operators (per shift), it did not take long before this constant sweep through the bands revealed a few frequencies being used by a number of submarines. Three of the frequencies referenced the call signs RXU (French station in Pétain), MMA and KYU (Bismark).


A key aspect of this interception work was that the Germans were very methodical in everything they did. If they had used a frequency once, they would use it again for subsequent transmissions. The transmitters used had a very musical-like sound, which helped to identify them on the band. Sometimes, particular operators could even be identified by their "fist" title (by the way they handled the key and transmitted the Morse code characters).


Because each submarine had to surface to transmit its message, the transmissions were very short and usually resembled something like "WW ABCD EFGH. HI". In just a few seconds, the message was copied down, while someone called out the frequency to the RD operator. Believe it or not, good bearings were frequent and the information was immediately forwarded by teletype to the RCN and then to the Royal Navy that co-ordinated all the bearings from around the Atlantic. Near the end of the war, bearings were obtained using a cathode ray tube display.


I remember a particular intercept around 1943. One of the operators, Ross Stephens, almost fell off his chair when he received a very powerful signal that could be clearly heard in the room. He notified the DF operator and the reading showed a line to the east of Ottawa. From subsequent information, we realized that the submarine was in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City.


Several times during the winter months, we were surprised to receive transmissions from western Europe, the Baltic Sea, and so forth, to learn that they were due to an abnormal propagation effect call the "long skip". (The skip is the distance between propagation hops between the sky and the earth. A long skip occurs when the ionized layer is very high.)

The intercepts were primarily in the 6 and 7 megahertz bands, and the ones from the stations on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea were in the 3 megahertz band. Most of the submarine transmissions were intercepted in the evening.


A curious event was recorded one evening when an operator intercepted a message from a hospital ship on the coast of Africa. He remembered intercepting a message the previous evening from the same station with the same "fist" transmitting a message similar to the submarine messages. The Navy was informed about it.


Around 1944, a red telephone was installed at the shift supervisor's desk. This telephone was connected directly to Prime Minister Mackenzie King's residence to notify him immediately of the invasion of Africa, and then of the landing in Europe. The message was to be sent by the BBC once all transmissions had been shut down as agreed earlier. The transmissions grew quiet and we all held our breath as we waited (June 6, 1944). The announcer broadcast the two invasions. I was on duty when the news came in, around 2 a.m., and I woke the Prime Minister to tell him. He merely said thank you!

The 125 operators received a monthly bonus of $20 from the Navy; I suppose it was to make up for keeping quiet and putting up with the question "Why aren't you in uniform?"


During those years, the Army also operated a monitoring station at Leitrim and the Navy was installed not far from the Department of Transport station at the Experimental Farm. The Navy's station was used for interception and their own communications. Furter, some operators could also be assigned to specific tasks.Bill Ryan said that when he arrived in Ottawa, his job was to monitor transmissions from the French station at Vichy (RXU), which he had already been doing at the Forrest Centre.

In  John Bryden's book, "Best-Kept Secret, Canadian Secret Intelligence in the Second World War", Lester Publishing, a revealing text:

"Everything depended on the quality of equipment, the personnel and speed. U-boat messages were notoriously brief - as little as twenty-two seconds. An operator might spend hours hunched over his radio set, his head clamped in padded earphones, ears numbed by an incessant hiss. Then suddenly the static would leap to life in staccato of Morse code. The man's hand would slam onto a buzzer and an assistant would jump to the teletype machine, banging the frequency numbers out on the keys. Within a couple of seconds, the person in Bermuda would begin his (D.F.) search."

Ernie Brown was responsible for monitoring a relatively busy frequency, which made his work more interesting.

Ernie recounts:

"The operators were all monitoring the German coast stations and the other stations in occupied Europe. They copied all the messages in Morse code.


When a signal with a different modulation was sent and a manual transmission was heard, it could only mean a mobile station or a submarine, or a "raider" (a German warship). The message was always very short, often in a single coded group of five letters. You had to be quick to notify the DF operator who had to memorize the frequencies, tune to the proper one and take the reading. He often had time for no more than one adjustment.


I was lucky to have been assigned to monitor a very busy station, because the work was very boring otherwise."

Around 1943, some operators monitored German transmissions, while others monitored the Italian ones. When the war ended in Europe, it was no longer necessary to monitor submarine transmissions. Some of the operators had been trained in "Katakana" code (76 characters) and were transferred to Vancouver on October 23, 1943, to monitor the Japanese transmissions."


Still at the farm house, HRO receivers were everywhere, in the living room, in the dining room, in the hallways and bedrooms, and operators everywhere... The staff moved to the new station on Merivale Road in 1942. (Del Hansen)


 The Ottawa monitoring station in 1942.


Spectrum Management - From the Early Years to the 1990s

by Laval Desbiens