Wednesday 4 July 2007

Of Spies and Men


Chrissy Brand reports from the 2003 Defence Electronics History Society symposium,
on what were once highly classified spy radio operations

First published in Radio Active, PWP, 2004

The DEHS (Defence Electronics History Society) was set up to document and preserve the experiences of defence electronics research, development and applications. The society has around 200 members, and collaborates with a dedicated research unit at Bournemouth University, OHRU (Oral History Research Unit). It is appropriately located in Bournemouth due to the many defence electronics activities in the Hampshire and Dorset region since the 1930s.

You might ask why the history of defence electronics matters, to which the DEHS would say that many of the rapid major advances in science and technology have resulted from the pressure to meet military and defence needs. World War II acted as a catalyst, rapidly increasing the rate of innovation and development in electronics. This in turn laid the foundations for many applications of electronics in both civilian and domestic life, including computing, air traffic control, marine navigation, satellite communication, weather forecasting, medical equipment, radio astronomy and even microwave ovens.

Clandestine radio
The DEHS holds an annual symposium for members and non-members alike. Previous topics have included naval electronics, air defence, and military communications to name but three. The 2003 symposium was entitled Clandestine Radio, or what we in the broadcast radio world would probably call spy or espionage radio. Whatever the definition, the symposium was a day packed full of wondrous stories, revelations and tales of bravado. The meeting concentrated on some of the receiver– transmitter radio sets used by undercover agents and monitors in Europe from World War II to the end of the Cold War. These agents transmitted and received messages by morse code and by the use of encrypted messages, such as one time pads. Whilst resistance members and intelligence services agents went about their cloak and dagger business, monitoring stations were staffed by equally secret teams receiving and decoding the messages, as well as those trying to intercepting and trying to decode enemy transmissions.

Polish Clandestine Radio in World War II
Sebastian Siemasko was in the Polish military, and recounted how Polish clandestine radios were manufactured and operated during World War II. In 1939 the Polish Government’s second department of the Polish GHQ asked the company ABA to produce a small clandestine transmitter-receiver for Polish secret agents in Europe. They produced the Peepshtock set, similar to the German Enigma machine.

When the invading Germans took over ABA’s premises in Warsaw, a signal assistant managed to smuggle out a Peepschtock set and some spare parts. By 1940 there was a Polish army workshop in Stanmore, Middlesex, producing sets (about 150 by 1942). There were four huts where the Polish Military Research team worked, with personnel increasing to 9 officers and 43 on the production line by 1943, when 540 sets were produced. The A1, A2 and A3 sets were superseded by the AP3, AP4 and AP5. These were crystal controlled five microvolt transmitter-receivers, measuring 225 x 190 x 95mm.

Trials had been carried out on Polish, American and British sets, with the Polish version coming out on top. This was due as much for packing as performance, with it resembling a tradesman’s metal toolbox, whereas other sets came in suitcases, making them unsuitable for use in countries under German occupation. In the second half of 1944 a total of 402 transmitter-receivers were parachuted into Poland for undercover agents, along with a further 277 receivers and hand generators. Out of 214 Peepschtock sets dropped, 44 were damaged upon landing.

In addition to the 920 Peepschtock sets another Polish clandestine receiver was produced in the UK. This was the OP3, measuring 175 x 125 x 40 mm. A non-clandestine receiver, (the BP set) planned for use after World War II was also made.

German Clandestine Radio in World War II
Arthur Bauer gave a presentation on German clandestine radio sets, many of which were designed by Rudolf Staritz. He spoke of the wireless service receiving stations in the forest at Belzig to the west of Berlin and in Wohldorf, north of Hamburg. A number of radio receivers were used, including American Skyriders, Hallicrafters, Superpros, as well as a Siemens model made especially for intelligence operations.

High-powered models concealed in suitcases were used by German and Axis intelligence. The S89/80 had 80 watt antenna power and reception up to 25 MHz. This long distance model was used in South Africa and South America, and many were dumped at sea towards the end of the war.

The 40 watt SE90/40 mains powered suitcase set was widely used in Europe, and a three watt battery set SE92/3 with a less conspicuous canvas cover was used on both the western front and in the Russian theatre. Agents were dropped with these small, compact sets complete with a pack of batteries that could last for one year, if used for 15 minutes a day.

Another model in a seemingly never-ending range of ingenuity was the attaché case station type SE98/3. Attaché or briefcases could also contain sheaves of paper to help conceal the set further.

In 1943 a ten watt SE99/10 receiver was produced, in the guise of a cigar box. Transmitter-receivers such as the ten watt SE108/10 were very compact and had a morse key to tap for transmitting. This miniaturisation continued with the pocket sized battery operated E 108/3.

On the receiving side, German equipment made rapid advances, and could trace local transmissions from allies or enemy agents. Tracking equipment worn under a trench-coat, with an antenna around the neck and a field strength meter as a wristwatch enabled Germans to trace clandestine signals on foot.

Once it had been working out the approximate area that the transmission was coming from, the Germans could pull the electrical supply in the area block by block, and when the transmission signal cut off, it was obvious which block it was coming from. A way to counteract this was for agents to switch to battery power should the lights go out.

Dutch amateur radio operators had to give up their equipment under German occupation, but one Dutch ham (PAOYF) in the Hague continued to operate, using a Portuguese call sign (CT1LX). His transmissions were picked up by a DF unit in Kiev and he was captured, but survived the concentration camp he was detained in.

The Romney Marsh Clandestine collection
John Elgar-Whinney has amassed a large collection of spy radios from the Second World War to the 1970s. He enthralled the audience by demonstrating many of them, and invited people to partake in a hands-on session.

A wide range of sets, displaying technical expertise and cunning, included the Polish AP3 Housebrick model, a pocket-sized set, with a battery of similar size and lightweight headphones. The British Biscuit receiver came in a Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin, with two battery packs, a power pack, and headphones mounted on card.

The famous German Enigma machines were called Geheim-Schreiber (Secret Writer) in German. Before World War II some Enigma machines were manufactured in Poland and smuggled out. Although the most famous of the coding machines, they certainly now look the most cumbersome and outdated.

The S Phone was a lightweight guidance beacon used when agents were dropped. It was fitted with a special army mouthpiece transmitter for privacy. Even someone standing next to an S Phone operator would be unable to hear them speaking.

Equally fascinating were the World War II transmitter-receivers designed for use by Allied prisoners of war. M19 developed a super miniature radio receiver to conceal in Red Cross food and book parcels which were sent to POWs. Also sent were some sub-miniature transmitters to identify the location of POW camps.

John Elgar-Whinney pointed out how in the 1940s the ‘average British radio and speakers (used in the home) were almost large enough to crawl into and live.’ The miniaturisation techniques used for intelligence and POW receivers were far ahead of their time.

One of the first, in 1942-43 was the size of an audio-cassette case, operating off two SP11 batteries. It had a fixed frequency and two tuning knobs, and was disguised in a game. Another was the 1943 cigar receiver, so called as it was the size of a cigar box. It had no need for an aerial or earth, as the capacitance of the operator’s body acted as an aerial when holding it.

The vogue for disguising equipment continued, with the Sweetheart receiver being produced by the Norwegian resistance network radio engineers, replicating a ladies vanity case.

The British model 328 Embassy receiver was also known as the Tupperware receiver, as it was disguised in a Tupperware box, very much placing it in the era of the 1960s and 1970s. Something that you would not have been offered at suburban Tupperware-selling parties in the 1970s! It was used by Embassies to decode messages and record diplomatic coded messages via a Uher 4000 tape recorder. It was fully transistorised to work on an internal 11V battery or 12V external battery. The receiver was sensitive enough to receive signals worldwide using only a whip aerial.

The KGB and Colonel William Fisher
Vin Arthey gave an appetiser of his forthcoming book on the KGB’s most celebrated radio man, William Fisher. His father was a Russo-German exiled by the Tsar in 1901, and William was born in Newcastle upon Tyne two years later.

Willie Fisher joined the Komosols in Moscow in 1922. A keen radio ham since a boy, his search for crystals for radios saw him procuring them from the mountains and geology collections. When called into the Red Army in 1925 he served in the radio battalion and was trained as part of the Russian radio elite.

A week after his marriage in 1927 he joined the KGB, and was sent on his first mission to western Europe in 1931, accompanied by his wife and daughter, where he ran a KGB training school. One of the students was Kitty Harris, also known as the spy with 17 names. He became a radio operator for illegal Soviet residents, setting up receivers and transmitters in attics, as well as receiving messages and dead letter drops.

Sacked in 1938’s Great Purge, he was reinstated three years later, and was the radio operator on the steps of Lenin’s mausoleum during the Red Square October Revolution celebrations. Also during World War II he was part of a radio deception, details of which are still classified, which involved deceiving the Germans into sending a large amount of equipment and supplies to what was a fictional army.

His post-war career as secret agent continued in the USA, where his cover was as a retired photographer and amateur artist. He received messages for the Cohens and Rosenbergs and was the KGB’s USA paymaster. Indeed, he helped get Cohen out of the USA just as the CIA were closing in on him.

He prepared for what was termed the ‘special period’, when Moscow expected the cold war to evolve into a hot war. His role included hiding radio transmitters throughout the USA (although none have been found), and preparing escape routes into Canada for fellow east and west coast saboteurs and agents.

In early 1956 he was betrayed by a fellow KGB agent in New York, and his Hallicrafter receiver was found. However, he gave nothing away to his FBI interrogators, who remarked that he ‘spoke kinda funny’. This was in fact his Geordie accent. He was jailed and later exchanged for Francis Gary Powers in 1962. (Powers was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, taking photos of military installations for the CIA).

Back in Moscow he worked in the Lubyanka (KGB HQ), but because of his life in the west, and the paranoia and suspicion that goes with the career of secret agents, he was never fully trusted again. Despite this, and no longer being an operational spy, he was still revered as a great hero. He went under the name of Rudolph Abel (the name of his best friend that he gave to the Americans in 1956) until his death in 1971.

The hundredth anniversary of his birth (in north-east England) was commemorated by a group of die-hard communists in a Moscow cemetery last summer.

Radio Surveillance in Modern Times
This section (and photos) was removed for security reasons on the request of a UK communications company...
...However, the following may be of interest, from PHP (The Parallel History Project Dec 10th 2004, Anna Locher and Christian Nuenlist Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich

As has become publicly known since 1990, stay-behind armies covered all of Western Europe and operated under different code names, such as Gladio in Italy, Absalon in Denmark, P26 in Switzerland, ROC in Norway, I&O in the Netherlands, and SDRA8 in Belgium. The so-called Allied Clandestine Committee (ACC) and the Clandestine Planning Committee (CPC), linked to NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), coordinated the stay-behind networks on an international level. These armies served the dual purpose during the Cold War - preparing for a communist Soviet invasion and occupation of Western Europe, and for an "emergency situation". Learn more about the matter in the introduction by Daniele Ganser, Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, at

Overall the day gave a memorable insight into an undercover world of espionage activity, revealing what were once top-secret operations. As well as the gripping presentations, it was a rare privilege to examine some of the secret agent equipment, all of which was the cutting edge of its time. For all the documentaries and books that cover the murky world of espionage and counter intelligence, there is nothing like the experience of actually playing around with the wheels and cogs of an Enigma machine, or trying the headphones of a suitcase receiver for size.

World War II and Spy films such as The Heroes of Telemark, Enigma, Orson Welles’ the Third Man, and James Bond have given us a glorified glimpse into a secretive world. However, it is something else to be surrounded by the real thing. Merely by holding the controls, you can feel history throbbing through your veins, trying to come to terms with how a real life operator of such equipment might have felt, every second an untold danger, every transmission a possible matter of life and death.

Further reading
The DEHS President is Dr Bill Penley CBE, who has assembled material from scientists involved in the early work on radar. More details can be found by consulting the online Penley Radar Archives at:

OHRU (Oral History Research Unit) at Bournemouth University. The focus of the University based research activity is personal recollections of those involved with the invention, development, production, operational use and maintenance of land, sea and air based electronic equipment and systems. So far work has mostly concentrated on radar and radio communications during World War II.

Vincent Arthey’s, Like Father, like Son a biography of Willi Fisher, published in 2004 by St Ermin's Press. St Ermin's is a small press specialising in espionage material, which markets its titles through Time Warner.

There are many books that mention covert wireless activities, especially those of the Second World War. We will have to wait a few more years for stories from the agents of the cold war and the current period. Two BBC television series and books that covered the Special Operations Executive (SOE) have sections on communications. SOE 1940-1946 by MRD Foot (1984) and Secret Agent (The true story of the SOE) by David Stafford (2000).

Two historical scenarios ~

1) Northern France, Autumn 1943

Post graduate student and covert wireless operator Pierre Duval reaches the edge of town. He wanders across a frozen ploughed field to the edge of the copse where yesterday he was chopping logs. Discreetly checking that the road behind him is clear, he disappears into the wood. Sheltering within he takes out his transmitter-receiver secreted within his coat. He quickly unpacks and with numb fingers starts to tap on the morse key. Later that afternoon the information that his resistance group has successfully cut enemy telegraphic installations and awaits details of the next supply drop, is received at HQ somewhere in the English countryside.

2) Vienna, Summer 1957

Veronica Smethurst, a secretary for the United Nations in the Austrian capital, returns to her second floor apartment on Josephplatz. The cigarette smoke, expensive perfume and polite conversation of the evening’s drinks party at the American Embassy still lingering, she removes her stilettos, and still in her cocktail dress sits down at her dressing table. Opening a draw she takes out a vanity case. which once unzipped, reveals a small transmiiter- receiver.

She checks the time and tunes in around the 41 metre band. Soon, after a familiar prelude tune, a series of numbers are announced through the airwaves. She writes them down, straining to hear through the crackle and hiss of the ether. They are repeated several times, and after 20 minutes, Veronica is satisfied that she has transcribed them correctly. She puts away her set and is awake until the small hours decoding the message. Does it prove to be routine dummy traffic, or does it contain details of the next dead letter drop?


Dr. Rafal Brzeski said...

Dear Chrissy.

If you will allow me I would like to make some comments to the story "Polish Clandestine Radio in World War II" in order to upgrade its informative value.

1. Mr Sebastian Siemaszko - easy to made missspelling as Polish is rather difficult.

2. The correct name of the producer is AVA not ABA. (Full name in Polish is Warszawska Wytwórnia Radiotechniczna AVA) It was a semi private electronics company set up with the Polish Intelligence Service "Oddzial II Sztabu Głównego" money input and managed by Intelligence Service people (Danilewicz brothers). The core personnel of AVA co-operated closely with BS4 section of the Intelligence Service. This was the team which broke Enigma. The BS4's technical support team was working jointly for AVA and Intelligence Service. This team build replicas of Enigma, bombas (electro-mechanical de-cryption devices used to speed up cipher-breaking process)as well as the Polish cipher machines Lacida.

3. There were no technical links between Peepshtok and Enigma. However the personal links were. The same people build both Peepshtocks and replicas of Enigma in the same factory.

4. The Peepshtock = Pipsztok (in the Polish technical parlance of these days it was a small bit of tool or machinery which correct name was forgotten). The official name of this trans-receiver was A-1. It was designed by Tadeusz Heftman.

Heftman was evacuated together with other Enigma people to Romania and later to France. He took with him his designer’s notes and drawings and one complete A-1trans-receiver.

5. >When the invading Germans took over ABA’s premises in Warsaw, a signal assistant managed to smuggle out a Peepschtock set and some spare parts.

When Germans overtook Warsaw, they renamed AVA factory to Brunnwerke. Then Ltn. Konrad Bogacki persuaded one of the night guards to let him inside. Both move out one complete Pipsztok, two sets partly completed and a box of spare parts. But these parts were not smuggled to Britain but used to build AK (underground Home Army) secret communication with Britain.

By 1942 over 200 Pipsztoks were build in Stanmore on the basis of the Heftmans originals design and his various improvements. As their production was not officially sanctioned most parts were to be bought in shops on Lisle Street (between Picadilly and Leicester Square) or brought un-officially from USA.

6. Polish Pipsztoks adapted to the British requirements were used by MI6 and SOE.

7. The Pipsztoks were very simple to use. Plug-and-play. There was nothing to be set up. Just plug in power, earphones and aerial. Set a simple switch to transmit or receive and off you go.

BTW – Heftman was a sole smart Pole from the Stanmore workshops who patented his wartime designs and made a reasonable fortune after war because quite lot of his inventions were used by the British companies. I was told that he bought an island in Scotland where he wined and dined Polish yachtsmen who sailed around Britain and to Atlantic.

Best regards,

Rafal Brzeski

Chris Lumsden said...

Hi Chrissy.
Great to see this blog about spy radio sets. I would like to get in touch with you via email to discuss something about the DEHS 2003 conference you attended.

Cheers, Chris Lumsden

Chrissy Brand said...

Thank you so much to Rafal for these corrections and extra info, much appreciated,


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