By Victor Strong
Featured in the Kent Archaeological Society Magazine, Winter 2022 (open as PDF)
Under the end of the rear garden of an ordinary-looking house in Mayfield Road, Northfleet, there was a top-secret radio listening post during the Second World War. Here, in a small bunker, the householder, the late Mr Stan Martin, spent many hours during the war years in a lonely vigil sitting in front of his radio set. With his headphones pressed against his ears, he strained to listen for the sounds of enemy radio transmissions.
Mr Martin’s bunker had originated as a private garden air raid shelter. Reached down steps from the garden and through a minuscule ‘lobby’ is a single 2.3 m. x 1.8 m. rectangular room in which the radio-listening equipment, a table and a chair were located. It has a 1.7 m high flat ceiling. Electric light provided crucial illumination.
A wall-mounted fan was installed for ventilation. Outside there was a radio mast next to the bunker. When the author visited in 2002, there were traces inside the bunker of where there had been electrical fittings as well as a folding table. VI stations across the country were generally at the operators’ homes, utilising any suitable, convenient or adapted space. As with other operators, Mr Martin used his equipment. Later in the war, some operators received updated receivers, especially from the United States. In the foreground to the right in the photograph of the bunker’s interior is an American AR-88 receiver, thought to have been provided for VIs from about halfway through the war.
Mr Martin was in Home South Group 2, with its headquarters at Leatherhead. His abilities were soon recognised, and he became leader of one of its sub-divisions (G10), which had operators from Plumstead to Sittingbourne and north of the Thames at Grays and Thurrock. It was their task to listen in to radio traffic sent in morse code from various places, whether from occupied Europe or elsewhere, including Southern Ireland, where British ship movements were sometimes reported to the enemy.
In the words of Mr Martin, ‘our duties were to monitor a very wide range of frequencies....within which they would carry out a general search over a specified band ...and...copy traffic from known suspect services.’ Among the broad range of radio transmissions listened to by VIs up and down the country, there would be those of the Abwehr, Gestapo and other sources. Many were encoded; in such cases, their meaning was not understood by the VIs. Signals to Britain from resistance groups in occupied Europe reporting the results of Allied bombing raids were sometimes also heard. The task of radio listening was painstaking, requiring immense patience and considerable skill. Indeed, Mr Martin and many of his fellow VIs had already developed aural abilities to hear, understand and record messages when they appeared faded.
The messages copied by the VIs were passed on daily for assessment and, where necessary, decoding by the intelligence services, being sent via a post office box at Barnet. This was part of the larger picture of information gathering centred on the now-famous Bletchley Park. Receipt of these logs to VIs was acknowledged with a standard abbreviated response including, in the case of findings from general searches, ‘Suspect – More Please’, when the radio source concerned was expected to provide more or continuing information. As a group leader, Mr Martin received paperwork from the RSS daily to ensure that his operators would cover the most wanted frequencies.
After 1941, in an attempt to help operators deal with possible awkward questions from suspicious neighbours, they were given the ‘cover’ of the Royal Observer Corps membership and presented with a beret, badge and armband. But the pattern of their lives and movements did not quite square with what people knew of the function and routine of that organisation. Mr Martin commented, ‘I often wondered how many of my VIs could distinguish the difference between a Wellington bomber and a Heinkel or a Junkers 88’. Because of Mr Martin’s position as leader of a sub-division, there were ‘strange’ visitors from the RSS calling into the house for an exchange of documentation. This led to speculation and the circulation of rumours among neighbours that ‘something was going on’. There was also an allegation to the authorities, paralleled in the case of some other VIs, that spying was being carried out from the premises. The last straw was when a particularly troublesome neighbour who had, in error, received an envelope from the RSS correctly addressed to Mr Martin put it into a post box and marked it ‘Not known at this address.’ A government official subsequently visited Mr Martin’s neighbour(s), and, thereafter, these problems ceased.
Although when the VI network was first proposed, some doubts about the effectiveness of such an organisation had been expressed. However, it proceeded, and its value to national defence and the war effort became recognised, whether for supplying individual information items or contributing to the wider intelligence picture. Unknowingly to Mr Martin in Northfleet, he might have contributed significant intelligence insights. At the end of the war, in what might have seemed for some of them an anti-climax, the VIs were stood down, a certificate of appreciation being issued to them by, so far as they were concerned, an unknown Mr H.J. Creedy at the War Office. Many considered this an insult and would have preferred an acknowledgement of their service from Winston Churchill or the King, albeit as a duplicated signature.
Mr Martin had taken his job seriously. He never forgot that what he heard over his headphones was not just abstract intelligence information but affected people’s lives. Not least was the effect on him of the SOS calls from ships sinking after being struck by U-boat torpedoes, yet unable to assist in any way. The memory of this haunted him until he died in 1993.
Some of the radio equipment which Mr Martin used has been preserved by the Imperial War Museum, which took it into its collection in 1995. Other items were acquired by a private radio historian and enthusiast elsewhere in Kent. There might be more to be discovered about the VI service in Kent, although it is thought that many M16-related records have been destroyed and that others have not yet been placed in the public domain.
This article is a tribute to the memory of the late Stan Martin and the other VIs of the Radio Security Service. It is an enhanced version of the writer’s article, Mr. Martin’s Secret War, which the Gravesend Historical Society published in their Historic Gravesham, No. 50 (2004), pages 7-9. For the latter purpose, the photographic portrait and the image of the inside of the bunker, as well as the typescript notes of Mr Martin, were kindly made available to the writer by his daughter, Pamela. She also shared recollections from her father and reviewed the then text. More recently, new information has been received from the Radio Society of Great Britain and the Bletchley Park Trust. This has been added. The photograph of Mayfield Road and the scale plan of the bunker are from the writer. The Gravesend Historical Society are thanked for their permission to include material from the original article.