Intercepts and Cryptology World War One in the Beginning…

The United States was just getting its feet wet in Intercept during World War I. Up to this time radio equipment was elementary with spark and crystal detectors. Even though Lee deForest had invented the audion tube in 1906 to detect and amplify radio waves, the long range radio reception of radio waves did not become practicable until after 1913 when Edward H. Armstrong patented a circuit for the regenerative receiver.

As with anything else, the facts of true beginnings depend on memory and conjecture. When it comes to the beginnings of Intercept on the East Coast of the United States, we must depend on careful comparisons of several versions of each separate incident.

Otter Cliffs, Maine

The U.S. Navy’s radio station at Otter Cliffs, Maine, did an admirable job at what was a relatively new concept – Intercept.

In Washington, D.C., in the office of MI-8 headed by Herbert 0. Yardley, wireless message intercepts were received from the German transmitters at Nauen and Bilevese. (Nauen, continues to be a major transmitter site.)

This press from Nauen was copied at Otter Cliffs because Washington wanted a copy. In addition, the censors in New York needed a copy to look over before releasing it to the newspapers.

One important feature of this press from Germany was the information cleverly concealed in it for the benefit of German: saboteurs in the U.S.A. and German embassies worldwide. For example, in April 1916 a message was sent to the SS LIBAU soon to depart from Lubeck, Germany, to this effect: If the word “FIND” Was inserted in an introductory news but bulletin from Nauen, SS LIBAU would know that a gun running expedition had started. If a problem developed to delay the operation, the word “BRAN” would be used, followed by a date to signify that the arrival of the ship would be postponed until that date.

However, as nearly as we can determine, very little decryption and/or analysis was done in Washington on the German Naval traffic intercepted from Otter Cliffs [Maine], Belmar, [New Jersey] or Chatham [Massachusetts]. There was apparently no pre-planning and certainly no trained personnel for this type of work. Only a little over a year and half of the World War I conflict and after the Armistice there was a retreat back to almost nothing. The United Kingdom probably had an edge over the United States in intercepting but cooperation with us was not extensive.

German Code Books Acquired

The British lucked out in 1914 when they received a copy of SIGNALBUCH KAISERLICHEN MARINE, (SKM). It had been recovered from the German cruiser MAGDEBURG sunk by the Russians earlier that year.

Although in effect until May 1917, the SKM could be used on only a few intercepts until an analyst surmounted the difficulties.

More useful, perhaps, was the HANDELSVERKEHRSBUCH (HVB) recovered by the Australians from the SS HOBART of the German-Australian Steamship Lines. It was found in a secret compartment during an “immigration/quarantine” inspection of the ship. The HVB was used between German naval vessels and merchant ships.

The third code cipher book recovered was in a lead-lined box jettisoned from a sinking German destroyer after war action. That book was the VERKEHRSBUCH(VB).

With these three code cipher books the British cryptographers could provide the Admiralty with more information about the German Navy than before.

Generally, the naval cipher systems used by the Germans were so inferior, so the story goes, that the captain of a German collier supplying the German Pacific Fleet had no trouble understanding a wireless message sent to his ship by Admiral von Spee, even though it was in code and the collier captain did not have the key.

Featured image is Radio station Otter Cliffs. Maine

By NCVA: David White