SUEZ WAR 1956 – A Communications Overview

All wars, however “small” must have a coherent policy glued together by good and reliable communications.  Indeed, in the Royal Navy, we having a saying; Of what avail the loaded tube?; the cannon and the shell?; if Flags and W/T default, the Fleet will go to hell.. Given the conditions of the 1950’s, the British forces relied heavily on the morse code to convey command and control orders, and the Royal Navy above all other UK forces, had mastered this media par excellence.  Moreover, because it was a deep-sea Navy and roamed in every ocean and sea on the planet, it had few international competitors, not even the Americans, when it came to communicating.  When trouble was brewing, the speed of the dot’s and dashes increased exponentially as more and more signals were drafted by the commanders.  When there were too many signals in the system and the limits had been reached on speed of  morse transmission, a minimise, ordered at the onset of the situation, was rigidly enforced.  Another way to speed up the overall signal flow, was to send the message only once, which made a huge difference, for it had long been the practice to ‘re-run’ as many messages as possible, particularly those of a high precedence.  In times of trouble, the vast majority of signals are sensitive and kept away from enemy eyes [and ears] by coding them. In heavy traffic [signals] periods, the coders were hard put to keep pace, especially when every signal coded, had to be checked-decoded correctly by a second person, before it was transmitted by morse code.  In the 1950’s [and at other times of course] the Royal Navy  frequently exercised the handling of ever increasing traffic loads, by generating ‘dummy’ messages, testing the ability of the Communications Branch to keep the battle commanders informed of an ever changing battle plan.  I can remember it being hard work, and a four hours watch would fly by, such was the intensity in the communication offices onboard ships.

The Royal Navy had very little experience of working with ships of foreign navies, and despite the successes of the British naval units in the Korean War [1950-53]  under the United Nations banner, when we did manoeuvre together, the union caused great frustration to the Royal Navy, a navy  without peers.

NATO was a new organisation with almost insurmountable teething problems, and once again, the Royal Navy had to be ‘geared back’ to allow the shallow-water naval units to acquire a NATO skill, which, notwithstanding its potency, didn’t match the modus operandi of the massive, skilful, competent and omnipotent Royal Navy.

Thus, in communication terms, the scene is set. We have a Royal Navy which is au fait with handling wartime communications around the world, shore and sea. Relatively few R.N., ships are given over to NATO duties, so, by and large, the R.N., is a loner, willing to give assistance to an ally, but happy in its own company.  The bread-and-butter way of sending and receiving signals is by morse code, although much R and D work is in the pipe-line to move us away from the skills and machinery honed sharp in the second world war. Trials have taken place between sea and shore units, whereby all traffic, sensitive or not is sent in plain language [with no need to code] and, as importantly, by a machine using a high speed code other than by ‘slow’ morse code, but still maintaining the status quo of using radio frequencies shared by on-going morse code channels.

Then, after the relatively happy days of post Korean were becoming the norm, the Suez Crisis came and we entered into an affray with the French as an ally.  It has to be remembered that France was not part of the Military wing of NATO and the R.N., had no dealings with them, especially at sea.  As you have read in many articles written about the Suez Crisis, the French committed fewer ships than did the R.N., although they sent the Jean Bart radio callsign FABG, the only battleship present, and yes, she did use her big guns for naval bombardment purposes.  Our communications inter operability with the French, was, as I recall, shambolic.  Additionally, by changing the ‘goal posts’ whereby we introduced “modern” communications, tested by trials only, but not operationally, as the main means of communicating between the Flagship HMS Tyne, and CINC Mediterranean {now domiciled in Cyprus and not in Malta, his normal base}, we were almost doomed to complications, frustration and partial failure.  As a further complication, the R.N. was changing the way it coded its messages by machine – in those days, we also coded by hand using OTP {One Time Pad} etc.  The outgoing machine was called TYPE X updated by a device called CCM, and the incoming machine was called a KL7, an American device, also proverbially known as ADONIS.

The Flagship – HMS Tyne   HMS TYNE Summary of Service 1941-1972

    Click to enlarge  {HMS Tyne, A194,  Radio Callsign GGYV, in 1955 - one year before Suez - taken alongside at South Railway Jetty Portsmouth where she was acting as a submarine depot ship {note her submarines alongside} and ahead of her is the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious {?}. In the distance, astern of Tyne can be seen the foremast and mainmast of HMS Victory {the mizzen is masked by Tyne}. See also HMS Tyne entering Grand Harbour Malta on her way home from the Suez Canal on this page


I joined Tyne in Portsmouth from the carrier HMS Eagle, along with several others.  At that time Tyne was based in Portsmouth as a destroyer depot ship.  She was large, old, and unattractive without the lines or good looks of a warship. A few years earlier in 1952, she had been a support ship for the ships involved in the Korean War.  Tyne was fitted-out as a communications ship and her facilities were mind blowing.  That is why she was chosen as the Flagship for the Suez Crisis.  She had taken part in many ship-to-shore communication trials post-1953 major Devonport refit, mainly with the Royal Naval Signal School at Vicarage Road Devonport,  and her fit included automatic machines which were designed to be a panacea to all known problems in naval radio communications afloat.  She was fitted with no less than fourteen high powered HF [short wave] transmitters.  The communication branch represented a large part of the ship’s company, and from sailing until reaching  Port Said where we anchored in the mouth of the Canal itself, it grew to be the largest ever sea going staff, a record which stands to this very day. In Portsmouth the staff was R.N. with the exception of about six R.M. Signallers and comprised of  six communication specialist officers; two CPO’s; ten PO’s and lots and lots of junior rates. At our first stop Gibraltar, we embarked the RAF Signals HQ unit from RAF North Front and whilst in Malta, further communicators from the Royal Signals Regiment.  We also ‘borrowed’ more R.N., communicator’s stationed ashore in Malta. When operating in Cyprus waters, we had to make room for a few more RAF men from Episkopi and the advanced team of French communicators, increased in size when in the Canal area proper. All of these extra units comprised of officers, sergeants, and other ranks, all crammed into a ship without air conditioning as we know it today, and in Mediterranean temperatures.  Add to this, that after Cyprus, the dress of the day was such that every area of our skin was covered  [action working dress and anti flash gear] to protect us from burns should the ship be attacked by Egyptian forces.

The Command Structure for the War affected Tyne greatly, for it not only meant that we were the Flagship, but that we were the host ship; the ship in which all war correspondents were accommodated; where high ranking Egyptian prisoners-of-war were incarcerated; where surgery took place to repair front line unit injuries, and a whole hosts of other functions and duties which pre occupied our time. Living and working in Tyne, apart from an over crowded non air conditioned space, was like living on a knife edge, because being stationary, berthed alongside the jetty in Port Said, actually on the front-line,  there was a continuous worry about divers and underwater saboteurs; at night time we were light up like a Christmas tree, not from any source above the water line, but from scores of powerful underwater lights  place at near keel level.  The water line was patrolled by small boats carrying our divers and it was the responsibility of all who wandered on the upper deck to be observant.

On paper, the Communications for Command and Control were designed by clever and shrewd minds, and had the conditions prevailed on which these senior officers had cut their teeth, i.e., on the coding/morse code navy with strict rules for minimise, then, I am sure all would have been well!  Equally, as you will have read in other pages on the Suez War, about the political situation which I am not going to expand upon, suffice to say, that  we, Britain, had several enemies at that time.  Our belligerent enemy was of course Egypt: our confrontational, frigid, non-belligerent enemy {at that time anyway!} were the French, a so called ally: our sternest and most unforgiving enemy were the American’s who, as it turned out, won the day and defeated Britain, and bringing up the rear,  most of the people of the rest of the world.  Unlike the 1982 Falklands War, where our men went to, fought in, and came back from, with great pomp and circumstance, we went unnoticed in dribs and drabs over a lengthy period of time; fought a short and most unpopular war, and came back without ceremony with our tails between our legs. However, unlike others who had served in the Suez Canal area before us, we at least did get the Naval General Service Medal [GSM]  {1919-1964 series} with a “Near East” clasp. I am pleased to see that the petty oversight has now been rectified.  Well done you men.

The Command and Control function was of course centred in London {and not Paris} with a British General in overall charge. His subordinates, British and French,  were scattered and linked by ambitious [notwithstanding the clever and shrewd minds mentioned above]  communication plans. The following plan gives one an idea of the Command and Control chain:-

The French commanders were afloat in French ships. The Deputy CinC in the heavy cruiser Georges Leygues. which we used to call the Gorgeous Legs  [her radio callsign was F A R T ], and the Deputy Allied Land Forces Commander was in a most unattractive auxiliary ship called the Gustave Zédé. 

The above picture shows a battleship firing from 'B' turret. F.S. Jean Bart had 8 15" guns all mounted forward in two turrets of four guns each. JEAN BART.jpg (93714 bytes)Heavy action damage forward of the bridge would have rendered her useless as a battleship. Here is a thumbnail of her.  Just like our own battleship HMS Vanguard, Jean Bart did not see action during WWII. Her radio callsign was easy to remember because it was FAB [meaning fabulous] and G [meaning guns] - F A B G.


The communications plan was that our ship, the Tyne was to be a floating communications centre, a COMMCEN, with the ability to handle a traffic load hitherto only seen in large shore COMMCEN's. This would be done in two quite separate ways.  Firstly, the Strategic communications, the bulk of the traffic, would be sent and received by the new technology I have already mentioned, namely by a high speed machine, using a code other than morse code, and not requiring the coding processes.  These machines were the work-horses of shore COMMCEN's but had never been used for real in and from a ship at sea.  They were called BID30's but became better known as the 5 UCO machines. I was trained to be an operator of these whilst in Grand Harbour Malta and again in Cyprus at Episkopi when on the final stages for the attack on Egypt. As operators of such 'new technology' machines, we were seen as a cut above other peer-group operators, and we were rarely taken away from our prime task to undertake more mundane jobs, with one exception, and that was to operate the equally new cryptography machines, the KL7's. The 5 UCO's would send and receive signals by radio frequencies directly to Cyprus.  There in Cyprus, was CinC Mediterranean and his Commanders.  Cyprus was connected to London via comparable machines, channels and radio frequencies, and also to Malta, so the route to the CINC at his HQ in the UK was high speed with an instant read at the end - no decoding.  Malta was critically important because the COMMCEN there completed the Strategic Communications route, converting this high speed, non-morse, plain language data into a morse code ethos which every ship in the Mediterranean was listening to for their information.  The second type of communication platform that Tyne had to perform was based wholly on the use of morse code.  The Tactical situation covering the in-situ daily needs of fighting the war; the intelligence gathering required, particularly about the Israel's intentions and Russia's bullying in Hungary; the routine spuds-and-bread signals for stores, food, fuel etc., and the enormous amount of Press Telegrams written by our many War Correspondents, all engaged a phalanx of senior radio operators sending and receiving signals in morse code for the whole time they were on watch, which was a six hour shift.  They were communicating by morse code with Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Portishead [UK]; with most of the large warships supporting Operation Musketeer,  and with French warships, which were playing host to French Commanders.  There were no 'passengers' within the Communications Branch onboard Tyne.

The 'system' from the very beginning was intense, and it was clear to all that there was no slack or flexibility.  However, some plan had to be available should either the STRATEGIC or the TACTICAL side fail or under perform.  There was, but when it came to putting it to the test, it failed, and failed miserably.

Interference [noise] on radio frequencies had [and has] always been a weakness in using them for communicating. When the noise increases to a point where it is stronger than the signal itself {poor NOISE to SIGNAL ratio} the frequency cannot be used.  However, radio operator's were always trained in using their ears to, as it were, tune in on the signal and ignore the noise, as far as they were able. Highly competent operator's could read a morse code signal even in the worst possible conditions of interference.  Thus, whilst not desirable, interference did not stop us from communicating. Regrettably, it did stop machines from working.  From the very beginning, when we had sailed some distance from Cyprus towards the Suez Canal area, the reliability of the 5UCO machines became a matter for concern.  Ignoring the defects and the difficulties with paper tapes in a sea going environment at that time, our down-times of periods without contact ran into  hours and into many hours.  This down-time meant that the signals waiting to be sent to Cyprus, had to be coded by hand and then sent as high precedence signals over morse code circuits to places like Portishead [UK] and Malta.  Quite often at these times,  Tactical traffic prepared for morse transmission had to take a back seat, and I can vividly remember signals which in non down-times would have taken up to an hour waiting in a queue [such was the size of the traffic generated in Tyne] would have to wait three hours {by which time, it had no Tactical value of course.}  Other morse code but non tactical traffic, would take 24 hours or would be ditched under the minimise rules.  The down-times began to come thick and fast, and the morse code boy's were being stretched to their limits.  This led to a major problem far away from the Canal and the transmitters of HMS Tyne.  Malta and Portishead particularly, were Ship/Shore Stations [an integral part of the COMMCEN] and listened to the radio frequency bands for ships calling in to send their messages.  Clearly, there are many more merchant ships than warships, so it was a first comes, first served basis facility. HMS Tyne by herself, was beginning to have that much traffic to send that these stations had to lay on extra facilities to cope. Like Parkinson Law says, the more you give 'em the more they will use, and Tyne more or less, took over the show.  Operation Musketeer had many naval units, which included at least five aircraft carriers, all of whom wanted their share of the bands to send their traffic: after all, they didn't have a "magic machine" like the Tyne did!  All this lead to a knock on effect, and for the ships of Musketeer, morse code was king.  The Fleet load was climbing and the only way signals could be sent to ships, was by utilising a broadcast common to all ships.  Every ship read every message, just in case the message coming through at that time was for their ship.  If it was, and they were a small ship, then possibly the next twenty would not be for them. To get rid of these messages, Malta was ordered to increase the speed of the morse code.  THIS IS THE SPEED OF MALTA CW AREA BROADCAST DURING THE HEIGHT OF THE SUEZ WAR - IT IS JUST A FRACTION UNDER 30 WORDS PER MINUTE  MALTA BROADCAST IN SUEZ WAR.wav  Ships had to put their very best radio operator's on to read the Broadcast, but in reality, they were needed to send messages out of the ship on the various Ship/Shores available, now few in number because they were swamped. The more the 5UCO circuit failed between Tyne and Cyprus, the greater grew the load on morse code, coding and delays, and the frustration shown by Theatre Commanders was tangible.  We had a room full of sixteen people at one time [I was one of them] and each one would spend hours sitting at a KL7 machine coding signals.  When we had finished, we would pass it a colleague who would then try to decode the signal as though he were receiving the signal for real in some distant part of the world. If it was successful, it would be passed to the morse code operator; if not I would get it back to start all over again. 

Tens upon tens of thousands of words were transcribed by our war correspondents, and, after scrutiny by the ships intelligence office, the correspondent  would want his script transmitted straight away.  We had no long distance voice and satellites were yet to be thought of.

When deep into Musketeer, the 5UCO machines began to behave and settle down, but at no time in the Operation could they have been considered reliable assets.  After Musketeer, at a wash-up which had a heading "Lessons Learned", the swamping of ships/shore and the various broadcasts were high on the agenda. The inadequacies of the 5UCO afloat were legend, and whilst not publicly stated, they must have proved a major disappointment to the Commanders.  As for Tyne and her many senior telegraphisits, one can only admire the sheer physical effort they put into transmitting by hand millions of words in terrible conditions [full action working dress with anti flash gear] in Egyptian temperatures without air conditioning.  As for the Ships Communications Officer Lieutenant Commander A.H. [Hugh] Dickins Royal Navy, I don't think he ever went to bed, such was the hapless man's responsibility, and he didn't even get an MBE for all his sterling efforts. He would have been knighted in today's give-away awards!

Whilst we won the war in terms of force, we lost it in every other way possible, not least in the trials and uses of modern radio communication methods.

I like to think that by 1983 I was a good 'modern' communicator: I certainly knew everything  that could be known about naval radio equipment [machines].  Looking back though, to the mid 1950's, the success of communications was down to the man and his skills and he had no one to blame about missing signals etc etc. Today, naval communicator's have machines, which they don't need to know a great deal about and behind which they can hide and apportion blame for failure.  Their machines are reliable.  Ours were not!  Still, a first world war telegraphist might have said the same of me.