Sunday, November 06, 2022

RN Communications Branch Museum/Library

HMS Mercury
Royal Navy Signals School

Sometimes you need serendipity to discover a fascinating website. I researched the TSEC/KL-7 cipher machine for long and was able to find the few declassified documents on this 1950s cryptologic gem that served until the early 1980s.

Initially named AFSAM-7, the KL-7 was developed for all US armed forces, but the US Navy developed its own fully compatible version with a few more options, named AFSAM-47, later designated KL-47.

Unfortunately, little is known about the British use of the KL-7. However, NATO documents linked patrol boats, minesweepers and submarines to the KL-7 instead of the naval KL-47. This is how the search engine keywords KL-7 and Navy, and a bit of serendipity, lead me to the RN Communications Branch Museum/Library.

This fascinating website is a private initiative of Ken Sutton, who served from 1966 until 1998 in the Royal Navy (RN) and retired as Warrant Officer 1st Class. He then served as civilian Communications Training Design Officer until 2012.

RN Comms Museum History  

The museum/library has existed since the late 1800s when the RN Signal School was based in the RN Barracks Portsmouth, now HMS Nelson base. In 1941 the Signal School and its library moved to the HMS Mercury shore establishment near Petersfield, where the library was maintained and a small museum was established.

HMS Mercury closed in 1993 and moved into HMS Collingwood shore establishment in Fareham. Unfortunately, no space was allocated for the Mercury museum and library, leaving all exhibits kept in cupboards and drawers. The Royal Navy Signals history comprises several branches and specific expertises, of which the communicators were the workforce, and still are today.

The badges of Tactical, Women's Royal Naval Service and Telegraphist/Sparkers

The first badge (crossed flags) is the Tactical badge, the branch that dealt with all comms by flashing light, semaphore, flag hoists, with expertise in the manoeuvering of ships. This side of the branch was transferred to the Seaman Specialist branch circa 2004. 

The second badge (blue gold wings) is the Telegraphist/Sparkers badge of Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) Communicators from the era that WRNS served mainly in shore communications centres worldwide. Few were morse trained and most trained in message handling. They also were trained to encipher and decipher messages using various systems. Notably, they also made up the majority of GC&CS personnel in Bletchely Park during WWII. They eventually integrated in the RN and now serve aboard navy vessels, informally still known by the nickname "wrens".

The third badge (gold wings) is the Telegraphist/Sparkers badge of the branch that dealt with all radio communications.  Today, this branch is referred to as the Communication and Information Systems branch (CIS) due to the amount of computerised systems used in the communications world.

Preserving History   

When Ken Sutton retired in 2012, he volunteered to set it all up again.  The museum is not an official RN museum, even though it resides in a naval establishment.  He created the website to make the museum's exhibits and documents available to all RN Communicators past and present without having to travel long distances to visit it.

His small website turned into a major project when Jeff Dykes, a former Warrant Officer Radio Supervisor, requested Ken to incorporate his huge online archive about all things Navy into the RN Comms Museum website. That's where I found the first account from Royal Navy personnel on the KL-7 and its use.

The website has a huge collection of technical information about naval communications, transmitters and receivers, technical drawings and photos, but also about how the Royal Navy is organised, from information on submarine warfare to burial at sea. You name it, and there's a page about it. Now, back to the KL-7...

The RN Comms Cryptography page describes in detail the KL-7 and its early use in the Royal Navy. More about the KL-7 and how it was used at the Cold War Cryptography page.

Do visit the RN Communications Branch Museum/Library and make sure to check out the Sparkers and Snippets menus, each of which has several sub-menus with many more pages, hundreds! Use their Search Page to find specific items in the vast collection.

Highly recommended!

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