Saturday, December 26, 2009

Women & radio wars - the Y Service's 'Corona'

Some aspects of warfare throw up the most bizarre events, even though the sequence leading to it might seem rationally inevitable.

Who would expect a British woman of reducing a German woman to fits of giggles (and to collapse from laughter herself) in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II?

In the latter part of that war, the night skies over Germany became a new kind of battleground where the aircraft of the RAF's Bomber Command were tackled by the night fighter aeroplanes of the German air force, the Luftwaffe. It was a bloody war with (in some measures) as much attrition on both sides as the Western Front in the Great War of 1914-18.

But this was a new kind of war in other ways.

It was the first war that was invisible, but as hard-fought as hand-to-hand combat; where men, and women, remote from the fighting, strove to give their colleagues an edge or advantage. And those advantages swung back and forth dependant on the newest technology, but also on the most unlikely of skills, and where only words and very quick wits were sometimes as powerful as other weapons. This was the war of the 'specials' -- now called electronic warfare -- but then a secret art known to few.

Radio operators in action in this uncaptioned Imperial War Museum image. (IWM)

These men and women were cramped into tiny rooms in the air or on the ground, staring intently into cathode ray tubes and manipulating dials, while their arena was huge - from Southern Britain to Eastern Germany.

One particular aspect of this was the 'Y service' where German speakers (men and women) were recruited in Britain to sit in cramped quarters and listen in (on captured German aircraft radios, where possible), eavesdropping on German transmissions between the night fighter crews and their ground-based controllers. Initially listening was all they did, using the information to revise counter strategies, but in a unique twist, the British based operators could intervene. The BBC, GPO (Post Office) and the RAF developed 'high power transmitters that bounced signals off the ionosphere deep into Germany.'

The Lancaster I NG128 dropping its load over Duisburg on Oct 14, 1944. The aircraft is carrying Airborne Cigar (ABC) radio jamming equipment, as shown by the two vertical aerials on the fuselage. (RAF Pathfinder Museum)

Another ingredient was an extra man aboard a Lancaster, using very secret radio equipment codenamed 'Airborne Cigar' or ABC. Peggy West, one of the women operators, tells us the story:
Then in October 1943 something quite different was introduced – 'Corona'. At Kingsdown, using those high power transmitters to reach far into enemy country, specially selected men and women began annoying voice interference on the 3–6 megacycle range. Pseudo controllers issued false tuning counts to prevent the Luftwaffe going operational, gave false fog warnings to get aircraft to land, read poetry, or relayed Hitler’s speeches to disrupt and frustrate, and gave direct, contrary orders to cause confusion.
Sam Brooks (on the BBC 'People's War' website) remembers:
The Germans tried all manner of devices to overcome the jamming, including having their instructions sung by Wagnerian sopranos. This was to fool our operators into thinking it was just a civilian channel and not worth jamming.
Back to Peggy:
Corona led to some amusing incidents. A German controller was trying to direct his aircraft to Kassel. Kingsdown’s 'ghost' was trying to stop them and told them not to take any notice of the Englander who was trying to confuse them. After an exchange or two, the German became pretty agitated, lost his temper, and swore. Our 'ghost' replied, “The Englander is now swearing” and was met by an infuriated shriek from Germany: “It's not the *%$#@$ Englander who is swearing, it's *%$#@$ me”!
An 'atmospherically lit' Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter, one of the Luftwaffe's main types in the role, in the RAF Museum, Hendon. Author.

The British had an operator aboard a Lancaster jamming (or distracting) German ground transmissions. To 'spoof' them, he might work with a British operator broadcasting in German, from Kingsdown while pretending to be the 'real' German controller. Confusing? Very.
When a 101 Squadron Lancaster with its ABC 'Special' was shot down over Berlin, the Luftwaffe assumed Kingsdown’s 'Corona' voice interference came from that ABC equipment. They reasoned, correctly, that the RAF would not allow women to fly operationally over Germany and switched to women ground controllers. Since we had anticipated that, we did the same.
An uncaptioned photograph of a woman operator - probably radar rather than radio - on the Imperial War Museum website. (IWM)

So the real female German controller had a British based female 'spoof' controller relayed onto her German wavelength to distract and misdirect her and her night fighter crews. The frustration of the previously-mentioned male German controller was encountered by his female successor:
One of our girls got into a similar battle of wills, the only difference being that both women ended up laughing with each other and had to shut down. We all enjoyed the incident very much – but did wonder what happened to the lass over there!
Such moments of bizarre amusement were few in such a terrible war, but who could ever have predicted such an event ever coming to pass?


Peggy West's account of the work of the Y Service can be found here, as part of a 2003 conference on the Air War in Europe at the Australian War Memorial. More on the Y Service on this page from The Secret War's website, and some of the background to the RAF's special aircraft can be found here on 100 Group. More firsthand memories on the excellent BBC People's War Website can be found here, with an ABC Operator and a WAAF Y Service operator.

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