I’m not surprised when my friend, Anne Ponsonby, starts talking to me in Morse code. During the Second World War, eighteen-year-old Anne joined the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) because she liked the uniform. She was expecting to learn how to drive and ferry senior army officers around the country, but FANY offered to train her as a radio operator, sending and receiving messages to and from the French Resistance – much more exciting! Now, over seventy five years later, Anne remembers anxiously listening out for the ‘Dah-dah-dah di-di-dit’ call signal as secret agents tried to make contact with her through the static.
I’m showing Anne photos from my visit to the Secret Army Exhibition at Beaulieu in the New Forest. The stately home is better-known nowadays for the National Motor Museum and World of Top Gear, but during the Second World War Beaulieu was the site of the Special Operations Executive ‘Finishing School’. More than three thousand men and women were taught burglary, forgery, sabotage, slander, blackmail and murder there, as part of their training to become secret agents. Afterwards they parachuted into enemy-occupied Europe to inspire and assist the resistance movements, obeying Churchill’s instruction to ‘set Europe ablaze’.
The Secret Army Exhibition includes encryption keys printed on silk handkerchiefs, knuckledusters disguised as rings for female agents and miniature tyre-slashing knives. However, it’s the transmitter disguised as a suitcase that catches Anne’s attention. ‘Look how big and heavy it is. The agents who were radio operators had to take that around with them without attracting attention.’
Anne explains that she had a schedule of times when the radio operators would try to contact her station in Grendon Underwood in Buckinghamshire. When she heard the call signal, she would tap back, ‘Are you ready?’ in encrypted Morse code and they would set off as quick as possible. She had 15 minutes to take their message down through the noise on her primitive wireless equipment and was forbidden to ask for a repeat.
‘The awful thing was if you did make a mistake you knew you were putting them in danger. So you had to get it down as quickly as possible and send it off to be decrypted. It was strictly forbidden to send any messages using plain language.
‘Patience was required as sometimes no messages came through and we wondered if they were in trouble as they sat with their radio sets, probably in an abandoned building or on top of a hill knowing they were in mortal danger every time they went on air.’
Anne worried with good reason. Radio operators had a six week life expectancy once they entered enemy-occupied territory, for if a Nazi radio detector van caught them transmitting they would be tortured, imprisoned and shot.
Among the agents trained at Beaulieu were fifty-five women who spoke perfect French. Some were married and had small children, others were working as shop assistants or had other jobs: all volunteered to leave them and go into occupied France. Nineteen were captured and perished in Ravensbrück or other concentration camps.
Anne spent three years patiently listening to encrypted Morse code for six hour shifts on a 24 hour schedule. On June 6th 1944 she had no suspicion that anything was happening when she started her shift and sat at her radio receiver waiting for the familiar call signal. To her amazement and excitement a different pattern of Morse code started to come in.
‘Vive la France!
‘Vive La Grande Bretagne!
‘Vive les Allies!
‘over and over again. I suddenly realised I was taking down a message in plain French. I waved to the Sergeant in Charge, who came over, grabbed the message and literally ran to telephone Head Office with the news that for one radio operator in France, D-Day had begun.’
Anne always gets gooseflesh when she remembers this incident. ‘We celebrated that evening with warm beer and spam sandwiches’, she says with a smile.