SIGNAL CITY?

A largely unknown story of WW2

WHERE WRENS REALLY DID RULE THE ROOST!

 SIGNAL CITY; WHERE THE WRENS HANDLE THE NAVY'S SECRET MESSAGES.

OCTOBER 1942, GREENOCK [and its environs] SCOTLAND.

SIGNAL CITY, THE BUSIEST NAVAL COMMUNICATIONS STATION OUTSIDE THE ADMIRALTY, IS PART-SITUATED IN THE GROUNDS OF AN OLD HOUSE, AN ORIGINAL MARINERS ASYLUM AND ELSEWHERE IN THE AREAS OF GREENOCK AND GOUROCK SCOTLAND.

 200 WRENS WORKED THERE, UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF A SIGNALS COMMANDER, ALONG WITH JUST A FEW NAVAL SIGNALMEN, BUT WITH SCORES OF MALE MAINTENANCE STAFF

THE WRENS: TELEPHONISTS, CYPHER OFFICERS, TELEPRINTER OPERATORS, WIRELESS TELEGRAPHISTS, SIGNALS, DISPATCH RIDERS, etc HANDLING MANY HUNDREDS OF VITAL MESSAGES DAILY.

THIS TOTAL OF WRENS DOES NOT TAKE ACCOUNT OF THE WRNS QUARTERS STAFF WHO LOOKED AFTER THESE LADIES IN THEIR VARIOUS ACCOMMODATION AREAS.

 SIGNAL CITY WAS SPECIALLY DESIGNED BY THE SIGNAL COMMANDER, WHO WAS NOT NAMED OR ASSOCIATED WITH A GEOGRAPHICAL APPOINTMENT, HELPING TO DENY THE AWARENESS OF THE COMMCEN TO THE ENEMY.

Now in case you are wondering just where GREENOCK is, here are two simple maps. Greenock [regularly visited by the Cunard Queens as Trooping Ships in WW2] sits side by side with Gourock nestling on the southern shore of the River Clyde, in west Scotland. The first map concentrates on Greenock the main military/naval [including the Free French Navy], and the next map below it, on its direct neighbour Gourock.

Gourock

 

The accommodation/function out at Gourock Bay Hotel was hardly salubrious it being a part of a row of shops with a rather large post office integral to it.

 

However, despite the connotation that the Principal Wrenery was a former Mariners Asylum, it was a grand building fully befitting naval personnel however described.

Perhaps at this juncture I should explain that asylum in this case normally means elderly mercantile mariners suffering from Alzheimer's and depression, and not men who had succumbed to illnesses related to madness, irrational and unpredictable behaviour. It was built by a sponsor and benefactor born in Greenock, one Sir Gabriel Wood, who left a generous sum in his will asking the family women who shared in his life who would post-decease him, to build a suitable building to honour these poor men in their distress after spending a life at sea in the mercantile service which largely benefitted the port of Glasgow and related shipping yards and company's established along the length of the Clyde.  It was opened on the 17th October 1854 [although their website [which can been seen below]  has a typo suggesting that it was in 1954],  for these dear people, and taken over by the navy in 1941 being commissioned in very early 1942. After the war it returned to its original use, and sometime later, it was opened to all comers, whatever gender, age or previous occupation, on the understanding that the word cabin would be used in the sea going tradition and not the word 'room'.  It is still going strong and its web site can be viewed here http://www.sirgabrielwoods-marinershome.org/

 The House [much larger than shown here for it has two very long wings built symmetrically either side of the central tower you see, and you are viewing two thirds only of the right hand wing]  sits on a prominent mound with luxurious manicured lawns cascading down to a lower road level, and the house is reached via Royal-style huge in girth and height ornate and gilded iron gates.  I pride myself with having seen the outside of every WRNS accommodation block [barracks] 1953 to 1984 and there is absolutely none comparable to this unknown barracks. Whilst on the subject, how well the dear Scots in nearby western Scotland suffering from these sad conditions are housed and looked after - it is humbling but also lovely to know that the incumbents of this house today are nursed in a dignified environment.

Many parts of the UK were bombed by the Luftwaffe including far outlaying areas which included the west of Scotland and the many Clyde areas. These areas were blitzed in the same way as for London, Plymouth, Coventry and many many others, and over two nights in May 1942 areas of the Clyde experienced saturated bombing with hundreds dead and badly maimed. The German purveyors of Lucifer's inhumane deeds, bombed civilian areas and targets, largely missing the docks and ships at berths or in mid stream in the Clyde, with relatively few out of thousands of service personnel based in the areas of Greenock, Port Glasgow etc coming from many navies, air forces and armies. Many people indigenous to the Clyde areas were killed world wide in the many theatres of the extended war, resulting in a long and disturbing list. Much of the infrastructure [as indicated on the two maps above] was left undamaged.

Greenock had a torpedo factory, was the official home of the Free French Navy, the largest naval transport division out of many in the UK under Commodore E G de S Jukes-Hughes CB RN Rtd, a large Naval Stores Depot, a civil engineering department, a Victualling yard, a boom defence depot, a substantial medical team of surgeons, doctors, dentists, QARNNS and SBA's, and a communications centre of a cavernous size.

Navy House was a shore HQ called HMS ORLANDO - see map above. It was the HQ of Flag Officer Clyde/Greenock who in 1942 was Vice Admiral Sir Richard A.S. Hill KCB CB Retired. Navy House was staffed by scores upon scores of officers the majority being reserve officers. Also appointed to Greenock on separate to FO Clyde's staff were several other high ranking officers from vice  admirals through to commodore's 1st and 2nd class, and they in their turn had many captain's running their departments. One in particular was Vice Admiral T G Hallett CB CBE Retired who flew his Flag in HMS Monck just down the road area from where FO Clyde/Greenock flew his Flag [ashore] in the vast compound, and his job was Vice Admiral Combined training.

All in all, Greenock was a very frenetic naval environment, with a sea going flotilla attached.

Before moving on to view photographs, perhaps a word of amplification about some of the areas shown as numbered buildings/areas on the maps.

When the admiralty first assessed Greenock as a possible base, they took into account the "posh" areas in the west of the town which had many splendid residential buildings, and a generous amount of hotel spaces. If you look at the first map of Greenock, your will see two prominent roads called ELDON and NEWARK Streets. Here were to be found fine properties adjacent to the River Bank which were requisitioned in a group, called, apart from other names, "Signal City" because the primary use of the commcen was to take over from Whitehall Wireless in London should it be captured: it was impregnable to bombing. Greenock commcen was staffed almost totally by Wrens chiefly from the UK and Canada. Moreover, in addition to being a Wrens deployment on direct war service, it was a Wrens DEPOT meaning the they recruited and trained their own immobile WRNS - IMMOBILE meaning WRNS who as a condition of service can only be employed in the agreed base of depot, the HQ being at the Mariners Asylum [always abbreviated to Mariners] No 2 on the map, which administered all Wrens in the Greenock and Gourock areas. In additions to the communication Wrens and their training/tasking thereafter, there were several trade schools at the HQ which taught motor transport drivers and motorcyclists [dispatch riders], cooks and stewards, and quarters duties like laundry, cleaning machines, and general cleanliness of the women's accommodation areas.

The Navy House, No 5 on map, was known as HMS ORLANDO  but also Navy Command Clyde. It was a five storey warehouse building in a block of five warehouses [some demolished]. Navy House [F.O. Greenock]was a sub command to Derby House Liverpool. In that 'House' were the HQ of F.O., BSO = Base Supply Office,  Accounts, Stores, Workshops and the Maintenance Captain and Engineer.

 In a published scenario its was thought that:-

if Admiralty in London was put out of action then C-in-C Western Approaches takes over the Admiralty's duties.

If C-in-C Western Approaches fails, then C-in-C Plymouth takes over those duties.

If C-in-C Plymouth fails then F.O. Greenock takes over.

Control lines from the Orlando Commcen were established to Whitehall Commcen and to Rugby Radio for transmission and to Leafield Radio Station in Oxfordshire for reception with lines to Flowerdown Radio Station at Winchester Hampshire. Other long haul communications lines were established for working with direct communications to Burnham on Sea [Portishead] Bristol for purely CW  = Continuous Wave working i.e. Morse Code circuits. I wish I had a 1 for each hour I spend working Portishead from warships and submarines at sea world wide.

HMCS = His Majesty's Canadian Ship "Niobe" A name given to a Canadian medical team assigned to HQ Naval Forces in the Clyde for Ravenscraig Hospital

 

Enough now of words and now a few pictures.

    

Wrens in the grounds of the Wrenery [see picture above] standing on a purposely erected roof top outdoor V/S = Visual Signalling arena now gathered around the training commander having just read and transcribed [pencil and paper]  a message which was transmitted by the mechanical semaphore arms you can see at the right hand end of the hut. In the background, currently occupied by two officers, one of whom has his hands on the controlling handles for each of the two white semaphore arms. Soon they will disperse to various parts of the now wet surface, where they will pair up, one to read the arms and one to write down the letter of figure transmitted told by the reader. The Wren centre front, is making more legible her transcription ready for the effort to be marked.

A message comes in a pneumatic tube carrier to the Wren cypher officer in charge, to be put into cypher for either coding of decoding.

A secret envelope, doubly sealed, is handed to the Wren Dispatch rider who starts off on her hundred mile journey over rough roads in the black-out.

The mechanical semaphore arms are now at rest and the Wrens form pairs to practice sending flag generated signals to their partner. Eventually they will build up to acquire satisfactory speeds, making clear and unambiguous signals to distant receiving stations.

 

Now things become more difficult when those on the right have to speedily and accurately write down the symbol they have seen quickly raising their head and eyes ready for the next without too great a delay, which would slow down the communication chain to an unacceptable speed. As always, it is a case of practice makes perfect and both they, and male signalmen need time to acquire the dexterity of eye and hand coordination.

A Wren telegraphist relaxes her whole body to sit easy and comfortable, then relaxes her wrist to acquire a good stress-free dexterity in order to achieve a near perfect rhythm, leading to good Morse Code. Rest assured that it takes some time to master the inherent stress of possibly sitting for four hours sending and receiving many signal and of course thousands of Morse Code dots and dashes, with the fewest possible mistakes maintain a good consistent speed.

Teleprinters plays an important part in the network of naval communications. Assuming that the operator has achieved a good typing skill when preparing a message for transmission, it works at high speed when compared with Morse Code. It gives one a coherent page copy for distribution whilst retaining one on the machine as a local record, allows the simultaneous making of a punched paper tape should the message need to be retransmitted or processed as a "torn tape" operation for routing to alternative transmission heads. It can be connected to a real time cypher machine enabling highly sensitive messages to be transmitted and received in plain language, thereby speeding the process of signalling many fold, enhancing the commands reaction to important orders.

In the Distributing office: typists making copies of signals. Touch typing and a Gestetner [trade name] inked duplicator machine on the end table. In WW2 Wren communicators were recruited into the following jobs:-

Wireless Telegraphy
Radio Direction Finding/Taking
Coder
Teleprinter Operator
SDO = Signal Distribution Office [or Operator?] as shown above.

Clearly they don't appear to be inter operable although all are important jobs especially in war time, but there's only three I would opt for [the first three]'cos I reckon four and five would be mega boring in the long term.

Visual signaller was on offer from mid-war onwards, but by that time VHF voice was common place so communicating with ships entering and leaving harbour by flashing light and semaphore soon lost its attraction and viability.

 

In the silent chamber, a secret signal is deciphered by Wren Officers only. This was a laborious and boring job involving using OTP = One Time Pad high grade codes routinely used for a classifications from Restricted to Secret with the caveat that one had to be specifically cleared to handle each and every classification. With the OTP [paper documents] came a metal frame called a SSF = Stencil Subtractor Frame which made the interpolation of codes that much easier. For classification to Top Secret and above [just a few!]when a special OTP was used for top qualifiers. At about the 18 month stage of the US being firmly in WW2 viz late May 1943, the Type X Cypher machine was widely used by the Allies and a little later still, a British addition was added called a CCM which allowed the Type X to be used for intra RN signals and inter British traffic.

Wrens receiving their pay in 1943. Note on the hat of the Wren being paid is the cap tally of HMS ORLANDO. There's is not much to say about pay packets except to note that they contain notes and not loose change, as I was paid in 1953 - note just one a half crown per week, every Wednesday morning!

 

 This Wren Officer seals many hundreds of secret messages during her watch.

 Wrens receiving instructions in Flags. The Chief Yeoman of Signals demonstrates how a signal is made with flags. A commander looks on through the open window

Rear Admiral C S Holland [no relation to the admiral who died in the sinking of HMS Hood] shaking hands with WRNS officers. He is seen inspecting the large WRNS complement at HMS Orlando F.O. Clyde/Greenock Navy House base, the so called "Signal City". 8th May 1942.

 

 Rear Admiral C S Holland with Commander D Joel, RN, chatting to Wren dispatch riders during his tour of inspection of HMS Orlando Greenock.
May 1942

The admiral moves on to inspect a platoon of the WRNS ratings at HMS Orlando Greenock May 1942.

Two Signal Wrens at work on board a HM ship complete with Bell Bottom Trousers. They are enjoying a sea day in the Clyde off Greenock and HMS Orlando, during a break from commcen life.

V/S Wren Vera Holland at work in the signal tower. NAVY HOUSE Greenock communicating with the local flotilla manoeuvring in the Clyde on behalf of F.O. Clyde/Greenock in 1943.

 

 

 Wren saves ship? 21st October 1943 @ Greenock. V/S Wren Vera Holland aged 19, of Leigh on Sea, who while on duty helped to save HMS ESCAPADE from running aground by her prompt actions in signalling to the ship's commanding officer forewarning him of impending danger.

 

Wrens at HMS ORLANDO tasting the Christmas 1942 pudding in the making. Note they are wearing HMS hat ribbons and not the HMS Orlando ribbon introduced in early 1943.

 

That's it folks. I hope that you have learned from your viewing but also that you have enjoyed it.

Take care and good luck.