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Diplomatic Wireless Station

Or was it spying?

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For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.
Peter Wright in ‘Spycatcher’ (1987)

St Helena used to host a Diplomatic Wireless Station, but what did it actually do?

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

Diplomatic Wireless Station [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

Go to: What we knowWhat we think we knowPro BonoKeeping in touch…Read More

What we know

We know that the Diplomatic Wireless Service was set up for the British Foreign Office by Brigadier Richard Gambier-Parry, the first Foreign Office Director of Communications, in the latter part of 1945. Stations were set up around the world to provide a secure, encrypted transmission network for sending ‘diplomatic’ messages around the world, using a multiple frequency-shift keying communications system, known as ‘Piccolo’.

The DWS’s original base was at Whaddon Hall in Buckinghamshire, but it moved to Hanslope Park (also in Buckinghamshire) in the winter of 1946/47. Hanslope Park is still the HQ of its successor, Her Majesty’s Government Communications Centre (HMGCC).

It also operated and maintained transmitters at home and abroad on behalf of the Foreign Office for the broadcasting of the European Service of the BBC and the BBC Overseas Service, which were combined as the BBC World Service in 1988.

Map of global DWS Stations [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

DWS St Helena

We also know that a DWS Station was set up in St Helena in 1965, coming into service in 1966. According to someone who worked there in the 1970s{1}:

As a relay station we were responsible for relaying messages from British High Commissions and Embassies on the African continent to the communications centre in the UK. Without St Helena relay station these posts would have had to communicate vast distances over land. HF radio communication is far easier over water, so our relay station provided an easier path than direct to the UK. St Helena was the perfect location for us with the benefit of sufficient space to accommodate our large aerial fields. We maintained three shifts to provide 24/7 coverage. I think around 60 Saints were employed in one capacity or another.

DWS antennae in 1970 [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
Some of the DWS antennae on Prosperous Bay Plain in 1970

DWS buildings in 1970 [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
The DWS buildings in 1970

The DWS Headquarters was at the receiver building, aka Bradleys. There were 30 masts on Deadwood Plain and 10 on Prosperous Bay Plain.

Extract from 1970s map [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

The DWS had its own power station at Bradleys with Paxman diesel generators. This also provided electricity for the expatriate staff, who resided at purpose-build houses in Piccolo Hill (that’s how Piccolo Hill got its name - after the encoding system, called ‘Piccolo’.)

To support the DWS, masts, wide band amplifiers and aerials on Prosperous Bay Plain to the southeast of Cook’s Bridge, with underground coaxial and telephone cables led to the receiver and from there onto Deadwood via Middle Point and Mulberry Gut.

Including MPBW building/structure maintenance about 60 Saints were employed including technicians, riggers, mechanics and even gardeners and power station watch-keepers.

Transmission would have been effected using the standard DWS 214 transmitter, which operated in the Shortwave band with an output of 500 watts (photo, below left). Signals were encrypted for transmission, using the ‘Piccolo’ system. The Piccolo encryption/decryption equipment is shown (photo, below right){2}.

DWS 214 transmitter [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
DWS MK214{a} transmitter

Piccolo equipment [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
‘Piccolo’ encryption/decryption equipment{2}

The St Helena DWS continued in operation until 1979{3}. The masts were still in existence in 1983, but have since been dismantled. The concrete mast bases still survive.

DWS antennae bases on Prosperous Bay Plain [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
DWS antennae bases on Prosperous Bay Plain

(probably) dismantled DWS Mast in 1995 [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
(probably) dismantled DWS Mast in 1995

What we think we know

It is known that DWS operators were also involved in radio eavesdropping; the gathering of signals intelligence (SIGINT) for GCHQ. The first of these undercover stations was established at Ankara in 1943; another important station was at Stockholm, a location ideally suited for the monitoring of radio traffic from the Soviet Union. According to insiders{4} around half the DWS’s time was devoted to secret collection on behalf of the British code-breakers.

It is thought that the St Helena station was also involved in monitoring the airwaves of the, then, newly independent countries of West and Central Africa. What percentage of its use was monitoring and what was diplomatic traffic is unknown, but the coincidence of its creation in the early 1960s - about the time that these newly independent countries were emerging - supports one conclusion. We may never fully know the truth - the operation of the station was covered by the Official Secrets Act.

1967 QSL Card [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

Whatever else they may have been up to, it seems at least some of the staff found time to use their technical skills for Amateur Radio broadcasting, as is evidenced by this QSL card from a ‘J. Munn, D.W.S., Longwood’ dated July 1967.

Pro Bono

Whatever one may feel about their alledged spying operations, the DWS team did some good for the people of St Helena. In 1966-7 they helped set up Radio St Helena and even modified some old DWS equipment for use as its transmitters. On 11th March 1967, test broadcasts were initiated by the DWS personnel. These broadcasts, using a modified transmitter at the DWS outpost, were radiated on 1511kHz in an endeavor to ascertain the likely coverage area for a regular radio broadcasting service on the same medium wave channel. Following these tests, Radio St Helena launched on 25th December 1967 and the DWS engineers remained involved with the station, providing technical support in its early years.

Keeping in touch…

The following letter appeared in the St Helena Independent on 20th November 2015:

Dear Sirs,
I am hoping that you or your readers can help me. I have been trying to trace an old friend of mine Paul Geeson who served with the Diplomatic Wireless Service in Saint Helena in the early 70s. A Google search revealed that your paper mentioned him in an article called ‘Pantomime 2015’ in May 2015. He apparently produced a number of plays on the island in the early 70s. I lost contact with him and his wife Jan in the early 70s and was hoping that perhaps you may know someone who has kept in touch with them or a last contact address.
Thank you, Ron Bisset.

This website contacted other DWS staff who have contributed to this and the Radio St Helena page and it seems Paul died a while ago. But If you are a former member of the DWS on St Helena we encourage you to contact us and perhaps we can put you in touch with some of your ex-colleagues.

Read More

Article: “First Posting, Forty Years On

Published in the St Helena Herald 10th August 2007{5}

Valerie Carne remembers her first posting in 1967 to St Helena with her husband Alan, a member of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS), and their two young sons.

After an anxious year in the Service including a temporary posting to Bechuanaland, Alan finally come home and said “Well I’ve got my posting”. “Where?” I asked. My heart was in my mouth while I waited for the name. “St Helena Island,” he said. The atlas was out in a second. A dot in the middle of a page. My mind was full of questions. When, how long for, how do we yet there? So many, many questions.

It was certainly going to be a different sort of life. We were told that the widest part of the Island was only about five miles. The population was about 5,000 and there were about 5,000 donkeys. There was no airport because there was almost no flat land. Just large enough for one football pitch. So no airmail. Ships came about once every six weeks. Some fresh food was produced locally but was not always available. This remote British island was where Napoleon had been imprisoned. How on earth were we going to manage with our two young sons?

The Johnson’s representative donating boxes of nappy liners to Valerie and her son, Adrian on board the Capetown Castle [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
The Johnson’s representative donating boxes of nappy liners to Valerie and her son, Adrian on board the Capetown Castle

First of all we thought about supplies to take with us. I contacted Bachelors who offered us boxes of ‘Expedition Packs’ containing a variety of fruits and vegetables. We ordered several of these. Then we bought commercial size containers of tea bags, coffee, dried milk, even dried eggs. I contacted Johnson’s and asked if I could purchase a large quantity of nappy liners (as it was long before the days of disposable nappies). They sent me six boxes of six packs, free of charge provided we agreed to have a photo in the trade magazine (we had to obtain Foreign Office permission for this.) We bought clothes, pharmaceuticals, toiletries, cosmetics and an enormous quantity of stationary and writing materials. We purchased a large wooden kennel so that our Boxer could travel with us.

The journey to our new home

The voyage was magical. Being waited on, luxurious food, a pool a crèche and a pet deck were all new experiences for us. We met Islanders on the ship and I had trouble understanding their special old-world English accent. I wondered how we could possibly cope if we had to converse with them. The ship took us directly to St Helena but because of the low-lying harbour at Jamestown we had to get a long boat to take us from the ship to the landing place. This last part of the journey was very tough because of the Cape rollers (high waves) and our son, Adam was very seasick.

Home was in Longwood, near to where Napoleon had been incarcerated. It was a fenced-off compound with an anti-donkey grid at the entrance. Inside were about a dozen rather nice bungalows built from a sort of kit, rather like a prefab. Our bungalow had a well-stocked fridge and freezer thanks to the thoughtfulness and generosity of our predecessors the late Alan Stoneham and his wife Joyce. The accommodation had all the usual rooms and a balcony, a carport and a small garden Eventually we realised that the balcony faced the wrong direction and was always in the shade and exposed to the winds. The houses appeared to have been built the wrong way round!

Communication

The first thing I missed was the daily newspapers. The ship had brought with it at least the previous week’s (if not month’s) papers, all supplied by the Office, but as Alan was one of the most junior members of staff and latest arrival on post, we were last on the list. I decided it was just too slow for me and in my first letter home I asked my mother to send me as many newspapers as she could. Imagine the shock when the next ship arrived to find that we, personally, had about 50 newspapers. My mother had sent them every day! We looked at this massive pile of papers and lost interest. I asked my mother never to send them again.

Communication with home was quite a problem until the Office allowed a telegram every fortnight. One week we could write to Alan’s mother and a fortnight later we could write to my parents. They were not long letters - just a few sentences to let our families know how we were.

Within days of arriving we started to meet the local people. Everyone was very friendly and wanting to get to know us. We were soon ‘adopted’ by Duggie Crowie, and from that moment on we never went short of anything. Whether it was eggs, vegetables, meat, or non-food items, Duggie would always help us obtain them.

Dancing and fishing

St Helena wives [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]
St Helena wives

Most of the wives did something to help the local community. I decided to help out with the Guides and Brownies because I had done it before in England. The enthusiasm was incredible. Six-year-olds, knitted their own Brownie hats seemingly without a pattern. Fund-raising was a bit of a problem, so the children suggested having a dance. Dances were extremely popular on the Island. We managed to find a suitable date and venue and were discussing the music when several of the little girls asked if their brothers could play for it. I asked how old they were and was told anything from seven upwards. I hated to disappoint them but said we really needed an adult band. The girls made it clear that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Eventually everything was organised. On the night the girls were allowed to come along for an hour or so. Imagine my surprise when the band turned up with several boys not much older than the Brownies and all family members. “They always play at dances Miss!

Fishing was one of the main hobbies. It could be spear fishing or rod and line. It was always another excuse for a party. We usually took out a boat early in the morning and would join about 20 other enthusiasts. We often took the children with us. When we arrived at the chosen spot, the younger men would go off with their spear guns while the more mature and the women would sit on the rocks, sometimes with just a piece of string and a hook. The women would always bring some large cooking pots and lots of rice, curry powder, bacon, and herbs, spices and anything else they happened to fancy. When the fish were cleaned they were cooked with all these other ingredients into what was called ‘plow’ I don’t know how they spelt it but it was a form of pillau. It was quite delicious.

All in all it was definitely a unique experience with its highs and its lows. It is over 40 years since we were posted there. Last year one of the communicators on post with us, Dick Young, died. His widow Cynthia held a reception/wake after the funeral service. Alan and I sat down at a table and so many ex-St Helena people joined to, in the end another table had to be brought to accommodate us all. Whatever the island did to and for us all we shared this strange isolation with each other and became lifelong friends, almost like a family. On this occasion, we had lost a member of that family. Despite another 30 years of postings there has never been another quite like The Island and the relationships we formed there.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]

Laugh at funny diplomaticwireless humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Diplomatic Wireless Station]


Credits:

{a} The Mk214 at the Military Wireless Museum, Kidderminster, UK



Footnotes:

{1} But who wishes not to be identified

{2} This photo comes from the DWS exhibit at Bletchley Park, and appears to be a more recent model than would have been in use in St Helena.

{3} ‘Piccolo’ itself continued in operation over the DWS until 4th July 1993. The current specification ‘Piccolo Mark IV’ is still in limited use by the UK government, mainly for point-to-point military radio communications (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_frequency-shift_keying)

{4} To learn more download a copy of the book “GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency” by Richard James Aldrich

{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged



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