Visit to GCHQ in Scarborough

Wed, Nov 15th 2017 at 6:40 pm - 9:55 pm

Visit to GCHQ - followed by a meal at The Denison Arms in Ayton.



Wed 15th November 2017 - Visit to GCHQ in Scarborough

Although a necessity, clothed in secrecy, one of Scarborough's long-lasting gems and what might be "described as the "Jewel in the Crown", lies to the left-hand side at the top of Racecourse Road. Part of the Government's communication Headquarters (GCHQ) has been in existence in the locality in one form or another for more than 100 years, this is longer than the establishment known nationally under that name situated near Cheltenham, Gloucester. The Scarborough establishment may be thought of as an out-post of the larger part of the organisation but in fact the latter is yet to celebrate it's centenary.

Members of the Scarborough Rotary Cavaliers and guests were privileged to visit the site in mid-November and were most efficiently and courteously escorted in to the Museum which adjoins the main building.  Here we learned of the close association with the Royal Navy and other services throughout the two World Wars and of the intelligence gathering which is so necessary for the defence and protection of the United Kingdom and its allies at all times.

We were made aware of the strict security and the military style administration when a large 4x4vehicle was parked across the entrance to the staff car park ensuring that our party proceeded along the road to the parking area marked "Visitor's Only". Entering the secure area, passports were necessary to prove we were the individuals whose names had been notified prior to the visit. The staff were very welcoming and helpful and our guide who was most knowledgeable was ready to answer our questions with the proviso that he would not provide an answer which would entail a breach of the "Official Secrets Act"

The Museum building was once part of the working area and bomb proof walls at least 2 feet thick confirmed this.  Once inside we were shown all manner of equipment and displays and a spacious hall with comfortable furnishings in the centre for those who might wish to take a rest!

The history of communications in our area started with a small Radio Station on the cliffs to the North of Scarborough constantly watching out for the activities of vessels in the North Sea and beyond.

Each member of our visiting group will have their own impressions and recollections of what is on display. There were so many items which covered the period from the early days to radio commutations up to the early 1950's.  Intelligence gathering at the site continues to the present day, but the methods used are not publicised in any detail.

Three main items caught my imagination:- 

(1) The Enigma machine captured from the German Navy. The Enigma codes had been used by German High Command from the early "1930's" but they were continually up-dating versions.  A photograph of Alan Turing is displayed, and it is reported that he managed to break in to five days’ worth of Enigma material by December 1939, but it was later in the 2nd World War when current German messages could be broken and later it was invaluable to have a machine in the possession of the allies.

(2) A large Direction-Finding Machine is on display.  The use of a similar machine helped to find the German Battleship "Bismark".  Once located messages were relayed to Bletchley Park the World War 2 Code Breaking Centre where they were successful in cracking certain codes. But this capability was not suspected by German High Command.  Therefore, hours before the ship was sunk by the British Navy, four RAF reconnaissance planes were sent to the area and when they were spotted by the German crew it looked for all intents and purposes that the ship had been discovered by chance.

(3) The activities of German submarines ('U' boats) included the sinking of defenceless fishing boats in the North Sea.  But there are stories of a 'U' boat coming alongside a local trawler and asking for some fresh fish for the crew's supper.  How could a skipper of this fishing boat refuse?  There is also a tale of a 'U' boat captain rowing ashore to Scarborough and going to the cinema before returning that night to his submarine.  Apparently, he produced his ticket after the war to prove the authenticity of the event.

On behalf of those who attended, our thanks to the staff of GCHQ and those who were able to organise such an interesting event for us. {DF}

A potted history of

Composite Signals Organisation Station (CSOS)

now known as GCHQ Scarborough. Scarborough’s ‘Wireless Station’ (phonetically known as ‘Y’ Stations) began its life in late 1911/early 1912 on land purchased by the Admiralty near to the current Sandybed Lane. Its initial purpose was to develop expertise in what was then called ‘Wireless Radio’. As such it was designed as a Naval communication stations but by 1914 had changed its primary role to Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). Form 1914 the station conducted SIGINT in support of the defence of the United Kingdom and in support to our armed forces. During the 1914-18 World War the station was under the command of the Royal Navy when its role was to monitor the German High Fleet harassing and in some cases attacking the East Coast of England. On the cessation of hostilities in 1918 and onwards, Scarborough’s mission widened to include diplomatic communications. At this time the site went from approximately 20 staff at the start of the war to 400 by the end. At the beginning of August 1939 the Y services at home moved into position (there were in excess of 200 Y stations scattered around the country and world) with Scarborough covering the German Naval and Naval Air along with controlling a Direction Finding (D/F) network. By this time the site had less than 40 qualified wireless operators. The station was known as the Admiralty Civilian Shore Wireless Service (ACSWS) and complement was about to rapidly increase to approximately 600, calling on retired naval communication officers and augmented by the Womens Royal Naval Service. By 1941 the site was deemed to be too small and a decision was made to move the service to Irton Moor, a site that had been purchased from the former Raincliffe estate in 1922 for approximately £184 and covered over 180 acres. Work began at the new site but took some time with the station eventually moving in 1943 into mostly covered and bomb proof buildings where it became the lead site for the collection of German Naval ENIGMA traffic, with recent evidence indicating that it was the work of this station that was able to D/F and intercept key traffic that led to the sinking of the German Battleship Bismark. During this period it was a bit misleading that the intelligence services were trying to get hold of Enigma machines – they had plenty that had been captured as part of the fighting – the deputy director had even managed to purchase one from Berlin prior to the war and it had been checked out to identify how it worked. What they were always after was the encryption setting sheets that each of the radio networks relied on to set the machines up prior to transmission. The Scarborough site staff, many of them young ladies, never got to see what the content of the wireless traffic was, it was received and then couriered/despatched directly to Bletchley Park where the content was identified and then submitted to the various area and command desks. The occasional feedback from the site commander went along the lines of “if you do nothing else, what you have done has been vital for the war effort”. In 1964 the site was renamed to Composite Signals Organisation Station (CSOS) as part of a merger for ACSWS and other signals services.
The site stayed working in the same buildings until the mid 70’s, when the site was redeveloped to what it is now, with a large main building of concrete and state of the art for 1974. The site work stayed mostly the same but with a greater emphasis on the Cold War and Russian traffic. With the ‘thaw’ of the cold war, the future of the site was called into doubt with several efforts to close it thwarted. New work and missions were added, with the development of Computers and the increased use, the site expanded its remit to cover that form of communication and along with other site developments, it now prospers, carrying out its essential work to safeguard the UK and its citizens. The site was renamed from CSOS to GCHQ Scarborough in July 2001.  

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