Monday, April 28, 2008

The Radio Security Service

The Radio Security Service or RSS was a British organisation that intercepted enemy radio signals during the Second World War. Radio amateurs played a major role in the succes of the organisation.

In 1939, Lord Sandhurst asked Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society, to see if radio amateurs could assist in a listening watch. The new organisation, lead by Colonel Worlledge, was called MI-8, generally known as the Radio Security Service. The radio amateurs were called Voluntary Interceptors or V.I.s.

The initial goal was to help in detecting and locating German spies that transmitted from within the UK. A German spy network was indeed identified and several potential spies were met on arrival and were jailed, executed or turned into double agents. Another important job of the V.I.s. was intercepting all kinds of communication signals, originated from Germany and the rest of Europe.

Most of the German radio traffic was encrypted, mostly with the Enigma cipher machine. The RSS assisted in supplying Hut 6 at Bletchley Park with large numbers of messages to break into the Enigma traffic. In 1941 the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) took over the RSS which at its peak employed more than 1,500 people located all over Great Britain, most of whom were radio amateurs.

The radio amateurs became very skilled at reading weak Morse signals. Most of their radios were home designed and built, such as the Eddystone "All World Two" kit (image top). The more lucky ones had commercial receivers such as a Hallicrafter or the expensive National HRO-5 (image right).

These amateurs have made a valuable and important contribution to the war efforts. At the Secret Listeners website you can find the history of the RSS. The UEA Film Archive contains the documentary Wartime Radio: The Secret Listeners.

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