Between the two world wars the British Army decided that wireless communications were essential to support their doctrine, and that forward of divisional HQ wireless would be the primary means of communication. Unfortunately this aspiration proved unachievable in 1939. Some elements of the British Army entered World War 2 (WW2) with an ambivalent attitude to wireless. The infantry saw little need, taking the view that face to face meetings, a loud voice and ' runners ' would suffice, and addressing the problem of greater dispersion by reducing from ' square ' companies and platoons to ' triangular ' ones (I.E. 3 sub-units instead of 4) to keep these commands manageable. The Royal Corps of Signals (R Signals) had been formed in 1920 from the Signals Service of the Royal Engineers but starved of resources, and the division of some communications responsibilities had been insufficiently validated.
However, two parts of the British Army fully recognised the power of wireless communications: the Royal Artillery and the Royal Armoured Corps. To the armoured corps they were critical, communications within and between sub-units and tanks had to have them, without them an armoured force could not be controlled.
WW1 had clearly demonstrated the limits of artillery without mobile communications, although wireless had been used to control fire on various occasions throughout the war, including by aircraft from early 1915. In the mid 1920's an artillery officer, Lt Col Alan Brooke (later Field Marshal and Chief of the Imperial General Staff for most of WW2), had written about what could be called the ' revolution in artillery affairs ' that would flow from battlefield wireless. At about this time a manpack radio was first demonstrated and used to control artillery fire. It was the key to indirect artillery fire on the mobile battlefield by providing communications between observers and their guns and enabling the large concentrations of mobile firepower that became a characteristics of British artillery.
TYPES OF COMMUNICATION
Radio, or wireless as it was called in WW2, was only one of four main communications ' technologies ' in use at the outbreak of WW2, all were used by artillery. These were:
Visual signalling, and
The last was most familiar in the form of despatch riders, who were R Signals. Above unit (eg artillery regiment) level they formed part of the Signals Dispatch Service (SDS) that used many modes of transport. Within units many officers had an ' orderly ' who delivered messages and such men were called ' runners ' in the infantry. Orderlies in artillery regiments had motor-cycles. Despatch riders were tradesmen and hence paid more than the non-tradesman orderly.
Visual signalling used semaphore flags, marker panels (ground to air), heliographs or signalling (Aldis) lamps. Although it was extensively taught pre-war its use rapidly died out as the war progressed after being used effectively in the East African campaign in 1940, apart from some very specialised uses. However, a specialised form of visual signalling, marker panels, was used from ground to air. Unlike some continental armies the British made only limited use of coloured flares and the pigeon service was not used by field artillery, although the Australian artillery did deploy with pigeons on at least one occasion in the SW Pacific!
Wireless and line communications were either voice or telegraph. On wireless voice was called 'R/T' (radio telephony) and telegraph was 'W/T' (wireless telegraphy), line telegraphy was sometimes called 'L/T'. There was a third mode, teleprinter (teletype-writer in the US) a form of telegraph, but this was not generally used for dedicated artillery communications at any level in the British Army.
Morse code was used for telegraph, lamp and heliograph signalling, and in ' continuous wave ' (CW) mode on normal HF radios in units. However, this was not just simple Morse code, in addition to the alphabet and numbers there were codes for some special characters such as "/". There was also a large set of two and three letter brevity codes for all manner of military expressions. The Artillery Code covered artillery specific matters including Fire Discipline.
The British Army officially recognised three types of communications traffic:
' Unregistered Messages '
' Formal Messages ', called ' phonograms ' when sent by R/T or over line using voice.
For field artillery there was a special type of Unregistered Message - ' Fire Orders '. This used a vocabulary of terms with special meanings in accordance with ' Fire Discipline ' - the language of fire control, see Fire Discipline for more details. Their purpose was to ensure that fire control orders and reports were unambiguous and brief; for W/T (and L/T) there was a special set of brevity codes called the ' Artillery Code ' that included Fire Discipline. Knowing Fire Discipline for R/T and W/T was the essential expertise for artillery signallers.
More generally all three types of communication traffic were transmitted in accordance with ' Voice Procedure ' or ' Telegraph Procedure '. Voice Procedure was introduced as radio use increased, it grew from a handful of prowords in 1940 to extensive procedures by the end of the war. It included call signs, the phonetic alphabet, standard words and phrases and their meanings (eg ' Roger ', ' Wilco ', ' Over ', ' Out ', ' Say Again ', and many more), procedures for establishing and operating communications (including such things as relaying messages), standard code names, and low level ciphers for protecting the content of messages.
Fire Orders followed the rules of Voice or Telegraph Procedures but with some key differences. All messages were automatically repeated back by the recipient to the sender, and if incorrect the sender repeated their message prefixed by the proword ' Wrong '. This was a critical element in the system of preventing mistakes and associated with it was the practice that fire orders were always written down by both sender and recipient, but usually destroyed within a day or so. Numbers were spoken without the proword ' Figures ' and ' owe ' was used instead of ' zero ' (to avoid confusion with zero lines). Observation Posts (OP) could call gun troops by their troop name - eg ' Able Troop ', ' Easy Troop ', etc, - on a battery or troop radio net. Call signs were dropped altogether for troop and battery targets after the initial call, unless ' rotation ' procedures were being used (one or two OPs engaging different targets on the same net at the same time). The term ' net ' wasn't officially used, ' wireless group ' was the official term, but ' net ' became vernacular probably from the ' netting call ' procedure used to establish communications in a ' wireless group '.
Signallers in the British Army were divided between ' regimental signallers ' in the units of all arms and services and R Signals. Both increased throughout the war to cope with the increase in radios but the regimental signallers increased more.
In field artillery regiments R Signals provide the regimental signals section at regimental HQ. This section provided communications forward to the gun batteries and rearwards to divisional, corps or AGRA HQ. RA regimental signallers had comparable line and radio responsibilities within the gun batteries.
No 2 Company (squadron in armoured divisions) of each Divisional Signal Regiment provided the signal sections (troops in armoured divisions) for the divisional artillery. These sections operated radios, laid and maintained line, provided despatch riders and operated the regimental signals office. Sections were lettered as follows:
H Section - HQRA, and detachments for anti-tank and anti-aircraft units.
E, F & G Sections - field regiments.
R Signals in division and corps HQs provided common-use line communications, exchanges and dispatch services, although a dedicated artillery telephone exchange was often established at division and corps HQs.
The other two companies, with their lettered sections, of a Divisional Signal Regiment provided communications at the HQ (No 1 Coy) and forward to brigades and non-artillery divisional units (No 3 Coy). Similar arrangements applied in Corps and Army Signals Regiments, albeit with No 3 Coy providing artillery regimental sections.
Initially AGRAs had a signal section, basically an H section. Eventually this became a company and responsible for the regimental signal sections in the AGRA's regiments and other elements necessary for an independently deployed HQ. Independent sections for artillery regiments in neither divisions nor AGRAs were also established. All types of HQRA included RA regimental signallers and driver-operators in addition to R Signals operators.
R Signals had a complex structure of signalling trades that tended to differentiate between voice and telegraph operators, and of course those in artillery sections had to be trained in fire orders. In artillery, signallers were not tradesmen and were trained in accordance with the army standard for regimental signallers (in 1938 the syllabus covered wireless, telegraph, line and visual signalling) with the addition of fire orders. However, this was a progressive training regime in which a soldier learnt more each year. The consequence was that in the first years of the war a unit's organisation reflected differing levels of individual training. As the war progressed RA ' signallers ' became more generic and in about the middle of the war a tradesman was introduced, the driver-operator.
W/T, involving Morse, was a major training load and a particular challenge for the infantry due to their casualty rates. Signallers also had extensive training in the more technical aspects of their equipment, they needed this knowledge to operate them. ' User friendly ' was not a term that could be applied to British wireless sets of the period, the technology was simple and unsophisticated, but required skilled operators. Being able to speak with a high pitched voice was also a useful attribute.
The attraction of line was that it offered security, a lesson the British had learnt from WW1. Intercept of German wireless traffic in 1914 had led to a rapid British victory in West Africa and the compromise of their own plans through telephone intercept by the Germans, most notably at the Somme in 1916, was an influential experience. WW1 telephone intercept was possible because British field telephones used a single wire cable with the ground itself as a return, and British and German positions were close to each other on the Western Front. This proximity was never a problem in WW2 and single core (' assault ') cables had a weight advantage. However, most cable was twin core.
The problem with line was that it took time to lay and was susceptible to battle damage. In WW1 it had been British practice to bury cables 6 feet deep to protect them from German 15-cm howitzer fire. In WW2 most cables were laid on the surface and most damage, about 70%, was from own troops, although when enemy artillery was active it caused many cable breaks. However, as operations became increasingly mobile cable laying could not always keep up so units and formations relied increasingly on radio. The intercept threat to cables was well recognised and lines were patrolled to detect listening devices and in the forward areas line was treated as an insecure communications medium.
Units generally had 20-line switchboards, with 40-line ones used at smaller HQs and 200-line ones at major HQs. Artillery regiments had a large number of cable laying vehicles operated by their signals section and regimental signallers in the batteries. The regimental section carried 15 miles of cable.
Line layouts were usually planned to provide redundant circuits from battery CP level and above by means of lateral links. Each battery would connect to its flanking batteries as well as RHQ and each RHQ would link to its flank RHQs as well as HQRA. There was no fixed configuration for the line network for a battery, regiment or divisional artillery, and the basic link layout could be either a ' ring ' or a ' star ' at any level. No 38, a short range manpack radio only operating in R/T mode and used mainly within infantry companies and by artillery FOs. Each OP party received one in 1943 for FOO use, tank OPs used them to communicate with infantry. The Australian built version was No 128 but had a different frequency range.
No 46 was a special crystal controlled and water-proofed radio for use in amphibious landings, some artillery observers probably used it.
No 62 appeared at the end of the war to replace No 22. It was a 2 man load and notable for having its front panel labelled in both English and Russian and remained in service until the mid 1960's.
The final radio relevant to field artillery was the TR 1143, a VHF set used at batteries and artillery HQs to communicate with Arty/R aircraft once this ground-air communication responsibility was transferred from RAF to Army. It could be connected to a HF radio for re-broadcasting. British development of general purpose VHF radio was unsuccessful because they selected an unsuitable frequency band and abandoned development thereafter. However, VHF sets were used in AA units and the ground to air links, where the TR 1143 was used to arty/R aircraft. Some use was made of a UK built version of the US SCR 300 called No 31.
The range of a wireless depends on several factors, notably power output, frequency, the type of antenna and its tuning. Lower frequencies give better range than higher ones for ground to ground use. This means that other things being equal HF radios give greater range than VHF because VHF is limited for non-line of sight communications. British use of HF may have been an important enabler for concentrating artillery fire because CCRA/CRA/CAGRA Representatives were probably able to communicate from the front directly to the higher HQs. This avoided the need for re-broadcast or relay stations that would have been essential if VHF was used.
HF ranges are indicative, actual range depended on the type of terrain, time of day and antenna. Range was usually greater during daylight. Radios had a choice of antennas that could give greater range, although often only small antennas could be used on the move. For example the No 22 had a 34-foot rod and 140-foot wire antennas, while No 18 had a 10- foot and a ground antenna that aided concealment but reduced range. HQs also had several R107 HF receivers, these could be used to listen to nets in subordinate units and formations as well as monitoring ' guard ' frequencies.
Figure 3 gives an indication of the complexity of higher level wireless nets. It shows the divisional level links of 2 NZ Division, comprising 4 brigades, on 9 April 1945. The CRA's command included 8 field and 2 medium regiments. The division was one of the 4 divisions in 5 Corps, whose artillery included 2 AGRAs and 2 AOP sqns. HQRA was accommodated in an armoured command vehicle (ACV), as was the division's operations staff, although in British formations ACVs were only on the establishment of armoured divisions. In the diagram HQ 5 Corps is shown in barest outline.
AFTER WORLD WAR 2
From an artillery perspective changes were incremental. Organisationally, the R Signals element in artillery regiments reduced to a rear-link detachment and all communications forward of RHQ became artillery operated. Standard fixed call-signs were adopted within units throughout the army, instead of daily changing call-signs, with ' arm indicators ' when elements of different arms were together on one radio net. Voice procedure also continued to evolve. As previously mentioned the phonetic alphabet changed to the NATO one.
In the decade after the war a few new radios were introduced, particularly for use in the Far East and to make more use of VHF. A new system of designating radios was also introduced, 'A' sets were manpack, 'B' were man-portable and vehicle mounted and 'C' were vehicle mounted. Other letters were assigned to long range R Signals sets. Vehicle mounted sets used 24 volt power supplies, and this meant that soft-skinned vehicles were either 'GS' (12 volt electrical systems) or 'FFW' (Fitted for Wireless - subsequently FFR) with 24 volt systems.
The big change came in the late 1950's when the Larkspur range of VHF radios was introduced, although these radios still required the operator to manually tune them by listening to a signal tone. UK adopted the practice of giving artillery its own VHF frequency band, which had minimal frequency overlap with the radios used in the rest of the army. The Larkspur sets used by artillery were A42, B48 and C45, but to provide communications with their supported arm observers were equipped with A41 and C42 as well. A41 and 42 were copies of the US AN/PRC 9 and 10. The B48 was primarily used for automatic re-broadcast by FOOs. HF was little used except in the Far East and morse gradually lapsed apart from some specialist uses. However, new HF sets were finally introduced in the mid 1960's, the A13 and A14. Larkspur and the manpack HF sets were all replaced by the Clansman range starting in 1979.
Motor-cycle orderlies disappeared in the 1950's and line capabilities steadily reduced as VHF was introduced. Line remained in use between CPs and guns. Apparatus Loud Speaking (ALS) 21 was introduced to replace the wartime tannoys, it too had lights in the CP for each gun and enabled the gun to acknowledge orders by clicking the handset pressel switch. B48 also became the standard set in SP guns (Abbot, M109, M107) and a new ALS23 could be used with both radio and line. Abbot broke new ground by being fitted with induction loop communications to detachment members inside and outside the gun, although it wasn't an outstanding success. Data communications between CP and guns arrived in the early 1970's with AWDATS (artillery weapon data automatic transmission system). It could be attached to either line or radio, and displayed firing data at the gun, receiving it from the FACE (field artillery computing equipment) in the battery CP vehicle. However, it required good tuning of the B48 or line in good condition. FACE included a radio teleprinter that could produce punched tape, which could be input to FACE. The radio teleprinter was used to receive meteorological data.