The Royal Signals Museum
Peter Booton is introduced to ‘the eyes and ears of the British Army’
Published in September ’13
Dorset is fortunate to be the home of the UK’s National Museum of Army Communications, although many residents of this county are unaware of its existence, it seems. However, mention the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford and most people will at least have heard of it, even if they are not sure exactly what it contains. The museum is of national importance in charting the evolution of communications in the British Army from the time of the Napoleonic Wars – when the Admiralty shutter telegraph was considered state-of-the-art – to the very latest digital signalling technology
Blandford has a long and proud history of association with the military. It is where the Duke of Wellington inspected his troops in 1815, before the Battle of Waterloo, and during World War 1 it was the site of a purpose-built hutted camp for two battalions of the Royal Naval Division. During World War 2 troops evacuated from Dunkirk were housed at the Camp and later, American forces established a hospital there. Post-war, various territorial and regular army units have been based at Blandford.
Formed in 1884, the Telegraph Battalion of the Royal Engineers was responsible for electrical signalling until the formation of the Royal Engineers Signal Service in 1912. The huge success and importance of signalling operations during World War 1 led to the formation of the Corps of Signals on 28 June 1920. Six weeks later, King George V conferred the title Royal Corps of Signals. After being based for many years at Maresfield in Sussex and Catterick in North Yorkshire, the Corps began relocating to Blandford Camp in 1960, to be joined seven years later by the School of Signals. In 1994 the training regiments of the Corps also moved to Blandford.
With a vast collection of material accumulated since the formation of the Corps in 1920, the Royal Signals Museum opened in the late 1960s to trainees and military personnel seeking information about the role of the Corps. In the early 1990s the museum became more accessible to the public and, following a rebuild in 1997, the present museum opened in 1998. It still serves today as an invaluable learning resource for trainees and serving members of the Corps.
On the modern battlefield the Royal Corps of Signals plays a remarkable sixteen distinct roles, including interception of enemy transmissions, direction finding and electronic countermeasures. Inevitably, the present museum collection is continually growing due to rapid advances in modern technology. Although it would be marvellous to put on show to the visiting public the very latest pieces of equipment, in the real world the safety and security of British troops is paramount and so displays of high-tech kit are restricted. Even so, a few state-of-the-art items are on view, but these are models only and lack detailed information about their true capabilities.
Placed almost casually in a corner of the section on Afghanistan is a rather ordinary-looking camouflaged back-pack out of which issues a drainpipe-sized antenna. It represents part of the SEER Lightweight Electronic Surveillance and Electronic Attack System which is currently being employed by British troops in Afghanistan. The device provides its operator with the ability to listen to enemy communications and discover from which direction the enemy are transmitting. The accompanying information board states, ‘Light Electronic Warfare Teams have used this equipment extensively and it has undoubtedly aided in the protection of British Forces and has improved intelligence gathering across Helmand Province.’
The compact size of the back-pack in relation to the technology it contains is in stark contrast to the extremely bulky and cumbersome pieces of equipment signallers had to deal with in the early days of mobile communications. Various means of transporting equipment were once employed, as shown by exhibits which include a pack-horse, Austin 7 motor-car, a wide range of British motor-cycles and an AEC Armoured Command Vehicle that formed part of the Tactical Headquarters at the Battle of El Alamein. This particular ACV covered 11,072 miles during World War 2, with only a single breakdown and one driver, Corporal Victor Berry, who was a regular visitor to the museum until his death.
Miniaturisation of signalling equipment has greatly assisted the mobility of its users in the British Army. It has made life easier for the Royal Signals Museum, too, where space is limited. The museum’s Business Development Manager, Adam Forty, points out that there simply isn’t enough space to display every piece of equipment from every campaign with which the Royal Signals have been involved. In their crucial role as ‘the eyes and ears of the British Army’, the Corps has taken part in every single campaign since their formation in 1920. Many of these conflicts are show-cased throughout the museum, namely the Falklands War, Gulf War, Korean War, Cold War, Northern Ireland and the Malayan Emergency, as well as the earlier Colonial Wars and Boer War in which signallers also took part.
Secure means of communication were imperative during World War 2 and the museum charts the evolution at this time of the British Special Forces, SAS and SOE, who played vitally important covert roles. Displays of equipment they used include clandestine, suitcase and Resistance radios, as well as devices made by prisoners of war using parts stolen from the enemy. The heroism of Odette Sansom, an SOE secret agent, is honoured in one of the Women at War themed exhibits. In the section on codes and code-breaking is a World War 2 German enigma code machine and opportunities to try your hand at breaking codes. In fact, family-friendly hands-on displays are a welcome and popular feature throughout the museum and there is also a chance to drive a simulator.
Notable amongst the rare and unique items on show is a World War 1 horse-drawn cable-laying wagon, the only one of its kind in existence, and the ceremonial chair of King Prempeh, which was captured by a Telegraph detachment who were the first troops to reach the Ashanti capital during the Colonial Wars.
Volunteers play an important part in the day-to-day running of the museum, mostly ex-Royal Signals personnel whose broad knowledge of the exhibits comes in very handy when visitors want to know about specific items of equipment. Lt Col Mike Butler (Retd) has been a volunteer at the museum since 1995 and he mainly looks after the Medals Collection and answers technical queries as well as helping out in the archives. Now 82 years old, Mike joined the Royal Signals at the age of 14 in 1945 and served as a signaller until his retirement 50 years later.
The Archive Collection contains many thousands of documents and photographs, in addition to military histories, technical handbooks, equipment regulations and the personal records of soldiers of the Royal Corps of Signals. Adam Forty says that the museum would love to hear interesting personal recollections from ex-signallers, such as how certain pieces of equipment were used in action, and particularly stories of SOE which he adds, ‘If not told soon, will be lost forever.’ There is also a Handling Collection consisting of various items such as uniforms, clandestine radios, crystal receivers and teleprinters which may be used during school visits.
It is hoped that an exciting new exhibition will be launched later this year to coincide with the release of the Hollywood film, The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The film tells the story of Eric Lomax, an officer in the Royal Signals, who was captured in Singapore by the Japanese and sent to Changi POW camp where he was forced to work on the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ and severely tortured after being found in possession of a secret radio. Lomax, still very traumatised by the ordeal, died last year. His wife, Patti, is generously offering a number of his personal military items for display in the exhibition.
(For security purposes, car drivers intending to visit the museum at Blandford Camp should bring their driving licence including photo ID. www.royalsignalsmuseum.com gives further information and opening hours for visitors.)