BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

Life as an RAF Codebreaker

by warrander

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Gordon Simpson Skinner
Location of story: 
UK, Africa, Italy and France
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 March 2005


On 2nd. May 1941,1 was called up at the age of 20 years and 5 months to serve my
King and Country, and reported to RAF Penarth, near Cardiff. I had chosen the RAF,
as I did'nt want to be a foot soldier in the Army, and did'nt fancy being seasick in the
Navy. So I became a "Brylcreem Boy", as we were known. With others, we were
billeted in an empty requisitioned house, and slept on iron bedsteads, and learnt to
cope with the mattress, which was divided into 3 sections known as "Biscuits", so that
it could be stacked a special way with the blankets and sheets wrapped around. Our
first RAF meal was corned beef with mashed potatoes, and hot pineapple chunks with
custard. We were then taken by train to RAF Station, Melkshem, in Wiltshire for 6
weeks' square bashing. We lived (400 bodies) in a large hangar, divided up into bays
by sandbags, and early each morning the doors at both ends were rolled open, causing
an icy blast, and a quick rush to the latrines and basic wash houses. We were always
hungry, and spent hours and hours marching up and down, and doing PE. We learnt
to slope arms with a rifle, and how to salute if on guard duty - one way for an officer
up to Flight Lieutenant rank, and another way for " Squadron Leader and above
approaching your post". Very difficult for us rookies, but very important for winning
the war. As I had been a bank clerk, the Air Ministry decided that I should be a Clerk
General Duties, against my wishes. My first posting was to a Group HQ at Hindlip
Hall, near Worcester, and then for a few weeks to RAF Station, Finningley, Yorks.
From there to Heaton Park, Manchester, to open up an Air Crew Despatch Centre.
We received hundreds of cadets, processed them, and sent them by train to the Clyde,
from where they sailed to Canada for flying training. It was obvious that I would
soon be posted somewhere overseas, and didn't fancy going as a mere LAC clerk,
and I saw that I could apply to be Code and Cypher with immediate promotion to
Sergeant. After vetting at the Air Ministry in London, I was sent to the Code and
Cypher School at Headington, Oxford for a 3 week intensive course. It was explained
to the course (12 of us) that so far all Code and Cypher work had been carried out by
Commissioned Officers, but that it was being opened to selected NCOs, due to the
huge increase in signal (message) traffic all over the world. We learnt various ways
of putting signals in cyphers, using book systems, and to operate the Typex machine,
an electric machine with revolving drums set to certain settings according to the date
ans time of day, and we typed in a signal, and groups of 5 letters were printed out on a
paper tape. In real life, this tape would be passed to a wireless operator, who wpuld
transmit by morse code. This was to stop the enemy listening in, and reading secret
messages. The receiving cypher bod. typed in the jumble of 5 letter groups.after
setting up the drums correctly,, and plain language came out on the paper tape.
On completion of the course, and with Sergeant's tapes on our sleeves, we had a few
days' embarkation leave, before reporting to a transit camp at Wilmslow. Lots of
horrible injections and for issue with tropical kit (khaki shorts, shirts and huge sun
helmets.) We guessed we would be heading for Iceland! Still not knowing our
destination, a large draft entrained for Liverpool. Where we embarked in Gladstone
Dock on Duchess of Richmond, a Canadian Pacific liner built to carry about 800
passengers on the Liverpool to Canada route in peace time. She now carried 5000
troops, mostly on grossly overcrowded mess decks, but as a sergeant, I was in a third
class lounge fitted out with 3 tier bunks. We sailed on January 16th. 1943, but lay in the
Mersey for 2 days in fog. This was a difficult time for me, as nobody knew where I
was, and as we sailed, I could almost see my home in Wallasey where my parents
were. We sailed up to the Clyde to form a huge convoy, and one Sunday afternoon
sailed around the north of Ireland into an Atlantic winter gale. Conditions on board
were beyond description, with 5000 sick bodies, and it took 3 days to get over it. We
lived and slept every second with a kapok lifejacket in hand, and sailed south in a
very large slow convoy, zigzagging all the time for 6 weeks, with naval escorts
sometimes close by, and sometimes disappearing over the horizon in search of
German UBoats. The fact that there some empty rescue ships in the convoy, was
doubtful comfort, as a torpedo into the crowded troop ships would have been
devasting. As an NCO, I was in charge of a mess deck , and had to supervise the
issue and stowing away of hammocks, which were slung from ceiling hooks like
sardines, and when these were full, the occupant had to sleep on a mess table or the
floor. Each morning I supervised the cleaning of all mess utensils and stowage of kit
before everyone had to go on deck prior to inspection. On one occasion, we were
judged the best mess deck on board, and everyone received a packet of cigarettes
The day after crossing the equator, I went down with a high temperature and
tonsillitis, and my colleagues dragged me to the sick bay - fortunately there was an
empty bunk because an airman had just died. After 6 weeks on board, it was
wonderful to land at Capetown, and to spend 3 weeks in a comfortable camp. We
then embarked, after being told we were heading for Egypt, on an Egyptian ship with
an Indian crew. This took another 3 weeks of discomfort and poor food, before
landing at the top of the Red Sea, and arriving at a transit camp in the Egyptian desert.
We Code and Cypher bods were then taken to TME (Telecommunications Centre,
Middle East) outside Cairo at Heliopolis on the edge of desert. This was a large
underground building, where we started working on Cyphers alongside commissioned
officers who were being paid a lot more for the same job. We lived under canvas, and
after a night duty, trying to sleep in the day under a blistering sun with bed bugs
sucking our blood, was not always easy.

All the signals we were encyphering and decyphering were very secret, and
occasionally on night duty I would lock myself in a separate room, and using a
virtually unbreakable system, encypher messages to Turkey, at a time when when
Britain was trying to persuade Turkey to enter the war on our side. After 15 months
or so in Egypt, I volunteered to be posted to Italy, as this would be much nearer
home. So in the middle of one night, a driver took me to the far side of Cairo to an
airfield, where I had my first flight ever, in a Dakota DC3. We put down at an airstrip
at El Adem, in the Libyan desert, to refuel and have some breakfast. I felt sorry for
the small number of RAF bods in this tiny staging post miles from anywhere. We
eventually landed at an airfield near Naples, and I spent the first night in a cell in a
lunatic asylum, which had been evacuated and damaged in the fighting. I spent about
3 weeks billeted in an empty house, on 24 hour call to move. Eventually, with a few
others, I was flown in a small plane, looking down on Rome, to Lake Viterbo. After
a night on its beach, I joined a crowd of other bods, and were flown to Corsica. It was
very hot, and a good thing as my accommodation was a piece of canvas tied to two
trees, and a scrounged stretcher to sleep on. After some time, I was told to pack up,
and a driver took me over the mountains to the far side of Corsica, where I joined 135
ASP (Air Stores Park), which supplied parts to Spitfires. I was told that with an
officer, some wireless operators, cook and drivers, we were to be an advance party to
land in the South of France to locate suitable sites for the main unit. I was given a
portable steel safe and the necessary secret cypher books and tables, so that we could
communicate with our base. Nobody told me what to do with these highly secret
documents if captured by the Germans. We embarked on a landing ship HMS
Bruiser, and sailed for France. I was offered a meal in the Petty Officers' mess, but
instead arranged with the galley for our tinned food to be heated so we could all eat. I
was called before the O.C. Troops, who demanded to know why I had broken
regulations. I said that the cook was quite willing to heat our food, nobody told me
about Naval regulations, and that I wanted "my men" to have cooked a meal before
landing. We eventually arrived at St. Raphael, and my driver and I drove up the
beach, and found that the coast had been much bombed and shelled from the sea. I
spent the first night under a lorry in a heavy thunderstorm, and felt safe from the odd
sniper taking pot shots. After first camping on a golf course, we moved farther inland,
and after some time were joined by a small part of the rest of the unit. On one occasion
when returning from collecting stores in Marseilles, our vehicle was stopped by
frantically waving outriders, and General De Gaulle passed standing up in a jeep,
making his triumphant entry into the city. The Allied forces had already been there for
some time!! We hoped we would in time proceed to join with the landings in the
north of France, but sadly were sent back to Italy. I spent a week on an American
landing craft, sleeping on deck in the back of a truck chained down. The seas were
rough, and one night a convoy of 6 craft sailed through the straits between Corsica
and Sardinia in a gale, and in the morning there were only 5 craft. I never heard what
happened to the missing one. After calling at Leghorn, we sailed south down the
coast And landed back at Naples. The food on this American ship was wonderful after
RAF rations.

A posting followed to General Alexanders'Allied Force HQ at an empty royal palace
in Caserta, which was quite primitive. Living under canvas in a cold wet Italian
winter was no fun, and when the opportunity came to go to Malta, I volunteered. I left
the cold and flew to Malta, and found the off duty men sunning themselves in deck
chairs. I was at another underground telecommunications centre , and when on night
duty once, I decyphered a signal announcing that hostilities in Europe would cease in
a few hours. So I reckon I was the first person in Malta to know of the end of the war.
Hopes of a quick return home were dashed, and it was another year before I could go
home. Meanwhile in December 1945, I was allowed 14 days home leave, and
travelled by sea to Toulon, and sitting up for 2 nights in a train to Calais. And so I saw
my parents and lovely girl friend for the first time for 3 years. We became engaged,
but we said a sad farewell on Crewe station as I returned to Malta, for an unknown
length of time. By train back to Toulon, Christmas day in a cold wet transit
camp.and sailed in a gale on Boxing Day back to Malta. In May 1946, my demob.
Number came up, and a return to the UK by the same route, to receive a handshake, a
brown suit, brown overcoat and trilby hat at Hednesford, Staffs. My fiancee was
demobbed from the Waaf soon after, and we married 6 weeks' later. There were of
course highlights from serving overseas - unlike some bods, friends and I took
opportunities when meagre pay and leave times allowed - by cable car to the top of
Table Mountain, a visit to the Sphynx and Pyramids and a climb to the top of the
Great Pyramid, an overnight train ride to Luxor, a quick visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem
and a dip in the Dead Sea, though sitting up all night on a wooden seated train with
Gyppy Tummy is not the best way to visit the Holy Land. After hitching a lift to
Rome, and a visit to the Vatican, I met Pope Pius, who shook hands and on learning
that I was British, said "A very special Blessing on you". At all times I was sustained
by letters from home and my lovely fiancee, though these often took several weeks to
arrive As I write this article at the suggestion of our daughters, we approach our 59th.
Wedding Anniversary, and look forward to many more happy times together,
January 2005

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Royal Air Force Category
Egypt Category
France Category
Italy Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy