Information Warfare



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 36. There are many things that changed in warfare leading up to 1914 and the start of the war, and then as the war progressed. Many of these represent well travelled territory when it comes to history. Machine guns, air planes, railroads, just to name a few but there were many other innovations in the decades before the war that were also incredibly impactful on the course of the conflict, even if their effects were not as noticeable as those I just mentioned. One of these innovations was around global communications. During the late 19th century there were two big changes in how countries communicated with each other, the first being underwater telegraph cables and then later global wireless radio signals. Both of these completely changed how global communications were organized, their importance to governments around the world, and how governments could communicate with each other. When it came to war it also meant that there was another theater of conflict to worry about, one that took place on undersea cables and through the air on radio waves. During the war there were three main areas that each country was concerned with: the first was security of their own communications both cryptographically and physically, the second was how to interdict the communications of their enemies, and third was how to maintain communications links around the world should enemy action negative effect the integrity of their existing communications network. Today we will look at all three of these concerns primary from the British and German perspectives since they were the primary players in the worldwide communications game both before and during the war. We will also take a look at the Americans to discuss the role of a neutral country’s communications infrastructure during a time of war and then how they put that infrastructure to use after joining the war in 1917.

While many countries had a good understanding of how they used communications before the war, and had a general idea of how their future enemies were communicating it still took some time for a complete set of goals and actions to be established or what each country would do if and when a war started. There were many reasons for this, one of them just being a general misunderstanding, and a general mistrust, of these new communications technologies among the governments of Europe. In his book The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern blames the confusion, in part, on the telegraph: “There is abundant evidence that one of the causes of World War I was a failure of diplomacy, and one of the causes of that failure was that diplomats could not cope with the volume and speed of electronic communications. Most of the aristocrats and gentlemen who made up the diplomatic corps in 1914 were of the old school in many respects, as wary of new technology as some generals were wary of newfangled weapons and strategies. … The diplomats failed to understand the full impact of instantaneous communications without the ameliorating effect of delay.” While I am not sure that this mistrust and misunderstanding of technology directly caused the war, it certainly had some impact. Once the war had started many countries were not entirely sure how to interact with enemy communications. There was a general tendency to try to cut off their enemy’s communications as much as possible, this was often done, however there was a slow realization that perhaps this was not the best path forward in all cases. Sometimes it was better to intercept and decode and understand rather than to just fully cut off. The use of radio just made these decisions and interactions even more complicated, which we will discuss shortly.

Before we dive too deep into that discussion, we need to take a step back and discuss at a high level what each country was trying to achieve through their use of communications during a war. When the war started the world’s undersea cable infrastructure was heavily controlled by the British, they controlled not just the cable but also had a monopoly on the fabrication of the actual cables that were used. The British, of course, also had control of the seas. This put the Germans in a bit of a sticky situation, and so they turned to a new technology, radio. Before the war the Germans setup a chain of radio stations that quite literally circled the globe. The network would begin in Nauen Germany, which is near Berlin. From that tower they could communicate with stations in Africa, with the largest station on that continent being in Kamina. Once the signal got to Africa the situation opened up a bit, with the option to go to South America via cable from Liberia, or to Asia and onto Germany’s Pacific islands through more radio towers. The purpose of this network was to allow the Germans to communicate and coordinate cruiser raiders, ships like the Emden which would end up being the most successful. These types of projects were very expensive, and not all of the countries in the war could put up the capital to construct them. A far cheaper way to interact with these communications was by increasing the capabilities to intercept and read the communications that occurred around them. In the years before the war the French and Austro-Hungarians created dedicated groups around cyrptoanalysis and codebreaking. For the French this effort was cost effective and also fruitful, they would be able to reach the diplomatic codes of Italy, England, Germany, Turky, and Japan when the war started. With so many of the nations relying so heavily on radio communications, which were easily intercepted, the ability to read those messages would prove to be very useful and it would be an area in which a lot of time and effort would be put into during the war.

The British were very aware of the threat that global communications posed to their empire in times of war. They also knew that the Germans were planning to use their communications capabilities to launch their commerce raiding campaigns and this caused the British to spend a good amount of time studying and planning for the situation. These studies would be released roughly every 10 years, with one in 1891, 1898, and 1911. A good portion of these sudies dealt with how the British could eliminate Germany’s, or any enemy’s, abilities to communicate with the rest of the world. To accomplish this task the British would do a few things. First they would monitor and suppress German traffic that was sent over British-controlled cables. Second, they would destroy Germany’s overseas cable networks, with the cables in the North Sea being the primary targets. Third they would seek to gain control over the worldwide German wireless networks by directly attacking the radio stations. While the most direct result of these efforts was aimed at curtailing German cruiser activities, there were also other benefits. It would be challenging of the Germans to execute financial and commercial transactions when their communications were cut, and the Entente could be far less concerned about intelligence reaching Germany from overseas. Another benefit that would prove to be very impactful was that it allowed the Entente to almost totally control the flow of information about the war to neutral countries like the United States. For most of the world the story of the war was the story that the Entente were telling, and that would prove to be a very powerful advantage.

The first step in that process was to cut the Germans off from the world and actions to this effect began on the very first night of the war. On the night of August 3 a British cable ship located and severed all five of Germany’s Atlantic cables which ran through the English Channel. One interesting note is that the British often did not just leave the cables lying in the ocean and unused and instead they would try to repurpose them. An example of this would be that one of those five cables, the one the ran to the Azores, would be reattached to the cable network in Britain to increase British communication bandwidth with the Azores and beyond. With Germany’s physical communications mostly taken care of by these cable cutting ships the British efforts shifted to attacks on Germany’s wireless system. In early August warships of the Royal Navy destroyed the German stations at Dar-es-Salaam and Yap, then a few weeks later British and French colonial troops captured the station in Kamina, Togo. Before the war was a month old New Zealand troops were ashore in German Samoa, removing that station from the board. Then in September the stations in Rabaul and nauru in the Pacific were destroyed and the British seized Dauala in Kamerun. Over the next few months the final pieces were taken off the board as the Japanese captured Tsingtao, some cables were cut and captured in Africa, and finally the station at Windhoek was captured in German Southwest Africa. With all of these stations either destroyed or captured the only large wireless stations the Germans could use were either in Europe or scattered around the world in a few neutral countries. And the British went to work on the neutrals next.

This was a problem that the British could not just deal with by force, and the role of the neutral countries in the realm of international communications during wartime was, shall we say an unexplored area. It was clear that neutral countries should block all communications on their cables, or through their radio stations that pertained to military topics. However, other forms of communication were a bit less defined, should they block diplomatic and business traffic as well? If they were going to make distinctions between traffic types, how would they handle encrypted messages? Each country would have to determine the best way to handle this problem. Some neutrals would be essentially bullied by the British to make sure that all German radio and cable stations were no longer available to the Germans. Others, like the United States, were a bit less easily bullied. But even in these countries the British would still be able to exercise some level of control. Before the war there were thousands of messages sent from around the world to Europe every day, many over German cables. When these cables were cut by the British the only option was often to use British cables, but the British were not just going to let anybody use them for any purpose. Instead they took what they claimed were totally reasonable precautions, which meant filtering everything that was sent on their cables. This allowed the British to do whatever they wanted, and that often meant just making messages disappear if they did not like them. The British would almost never even tell the recipient that they had a message they couldn’t read, or tell the sender that the messages had been stopped, they sort of just fell into a black hole. Anytime a country complained, and the United States and other countries certainly did, the British would just say that they were not required to let anybody use their cables, and in fact the neutral countries should be thankful for the privilege.

This censorship was important, before the end of 1914 the British basically had censors at all of their cable stations around the world and a plan was developed to properly use them. This put the British in almost total control of global communications. At first they went so far as to only allow messages that were in English and French, since it made them easier to censor. Soon these restrictions were lifted slightly with Spanish being allowed in early 1915, Italian later in the year, and then Portuguese in mid-1916 after Portugal entered the war. On the messages that were sent there could also be no codes, everything had to be in plain text, after complaints from businesses around the world the British eventually let businesses use codes, but they had to register those codes with the British Boardof Trade. All of this was done under the auspices of making sure that no war related discussion was happening, but there were other benefits for the British and their businesses. Essentially controlling all worldwide communication let the British control most neutral trade as well. They could prevent ships from receiving instructions from home, or of arranging and paying for fuel in port, or any of a variety of other problems could be caused if the ships did not comply with British wishes. The censors were also known to delay messages from time to times, sometimes for days, which occassionally gave British businesses an advantage because the government would tell them the contents of the message and give them time to take advantage of the delay. This control would also extend to the global press. Before the war started there had been foru major news agencies. Reuters for the British Empire and Asia, Agence Havas for South Europe and Latin America, Wolff for northern Europe, and the Associated Press in North America. When the war started the British shutdown all worldwide communication for everybody except Reuters and Reuters would work closely with the British government to make sure that the story that the British wanted to be told was what was being read all over the world. This was used as early as the first months of the war to spread exaggerated stories of German actions in Belgium. To show how closely the British government and Reuters were works, the managing director of Reuters, Sir Roderick Jones, was also the Director of Propaganada for the British Ministry of Information.

With the British were executing their plan ot rule global communications the Germans were not idle. After the quick disruption of their cable communications in the first day of the war, and the degradation of their ability to use wireless communications over the next six months the Germans had to get creative. One of their strategies which I found interesting was to use shipboard wireless sets in Spanish and Portuguese ports. When the war started these ships had been interned in neutral ports and required by international law. They were then used as a wireless relay station. They would receive traffic from that big German radio tower an Nauen and then forward it along to local German embassy officials. They would then use all kinds of different cable routes to communicate overseas. Sometimes it was through Spanish government cables, other times through American cables. There was also a large German radio station in Sayville New York which was large enough to communicate directly with Germany and then to South America. The Germans also worked with friendly neutral countries, for example Sweden, who would let the Germans use their diplomatic credentials to send messages. While all of these efforts allowed some communications to happen, it greatly reduced the amount of communications that could be sent.

While the Germans were trying to get around restrictions placed on them by German actions, the Germans also went on the offensive. The first place that they struck was against Entente cables that ran through the Baltic. These would have allowed the British and French to communicate directly with Russia. By the end of November 1914 these had been successfully put out of action. In the south the German warship Goeben cut the Black Sea cable that linked Sevastopol and Bulgaria in early November, preventing the Russians from use that line to communicate via Bulgaria to Greece and then to the Entente. These two cuts meant that all traffic to Russia had to either go east, through Siberia and around the world or over wireless. The first option meant lengthy delays and the other was almost certain to be intercepted by the Germans since the primary point of communication was via the Eiffel tower in Paris.

As the war progressed the Germans also tried to utilize their U-Boats to sever cables far beyond the Baltic and Black seas. Information Warfare in World War 1 by Jonathan Reed Winkler says this on the topic “The U-boat attacked cables while submerged using equipment attached to the submarine for the mission, an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous procedure. Because of the weight of the armored cables, cuts by U-boats could be made only on cables that lay in depths of up to about 240 feet. At the time of attack, the U-boat may likely have been no more than 10 to 20 feet above the cable, because the higher the vessel was in the water the greater the aggregate weight of cable it would pull up. Indeed, given the relative weight of the cables and the U-boats, it would probably have been physically impossible for the U-boat to surface while grappling a deep sea cable. To make these attacks, the crew of the U-boat used special equipment mounted to the decks of those vessels assigned the task. They could run out a grappling hook attached to one of two motor-driven winches on capstans controlled from inside the vessel. To locate the cable, the U-boat crew used publicly available charts to identify the seabed where the cables lay, and then cruised back and forth across it dragging the deployed grapple.” Once the cable was successfully grappled it would then be severed. This was difficult and dangerous work, and they would never come close to cutting all of t he cables or hindering British efforts to repair them. But with the massive increase in traffic due to the war even a small disruption of cable traffic could result in lengthy delays which impactful, even if only slightly.

The entry of the United States into the war did not drastically change Germany’s operations to try and disrupt British communications it did however open up some new targets to German attacks. The main targets were the trans-atlantic calbes that linked North America and Europe. They tried to coordinate attacks on these cables around specific points where many cables came together, the easiest to reach being the Azores. The Azores acted as a kind of Nexus for many of the trans-atlantic cables and the germans wanted to send several U-Boats into the area to find and cut multiple cables at roughly the same time. Unfortunately for the Germans they were never able to achieve the required amounts of coordination and success to make this happen.

While the U-Boats were never able to pull off the big play of cutting a bunch of cables at one time and seriously impeding allied communications the threat of the U-Boats did have some adverse effects on Allied efforts to lay and repair cables during the war. A great example of this is just in the cost of laying the cables. Before the war a mile of trans-atlantic cable would cost somewhere around $300 to lay, by 1916 that figure had doubled and by 1918 it would be almost $800. This rise in price was not due solely to the threat of the U-Boats, but it certainly did not provide any downward pressure on the price. With the rise in prices and risk for these undersea cables other avenues for communications were preferred, and the United States would construct multiple large radio stations on the East coast that could communicate with Europe.

Lets shift gear now to discuss the less physical and more mental area of communications, cryptography and code breaking. While maintaining communication infrastructure was important, it was also important to keep your communications unintelligible to the enemy while also finding a way to break the enemy’s codes. These interactions with enemy communications would be important right from the start of the war, and the most immediate impact would occurr around radios. The relationship of each country and their armies to radios varied greatly. these relationships were important even in the first weeks of the war, and during the very opening offensives. One of the best known examples of the importance of both radio communication and interception would occur in the east. When the Russians invaded East Prussia they did so with the plan to use radios to coordinate the efforts of their two armies. In the hopes that this coordination could be improved the Russian commander sent orders to the two wings of his army in plain text over the radio, text that would be intercepted by the Germans and easily translated, giving them a let up at the battle of Tannenberg. Another example of the importance of radio communications was in the west. With the Germans advancing through Belgium and Northern France they would often use radios to communicate with the armies of the right wing. However the French were adept enough at signals intelligence to jam some of these radio signals from the Eiffel Tower, which caused delayed and unreceived messages. These are two good examples of how countries interacted with radios even very early in the war. The French would prove to be very adept at the various communication intelligence tasks that were required early in the war. As early as October they were even setting up direction finding stations along the front and these would become a critical component of the intelligence organizations on both sides of the line. By the time that the war was over the entire western front would be covered in radio stations designed to both intercept and then direction find any signals sent by the enemy either from ground stations or from aircraft.

This build up of intelligence gathering facilities and capabilities, even in the cases where no codes were actually broken and communications were still secure, meant that by 1916 both sides began to move completely away from using their high tech radios and instead moved back to the older and less technologically advanced telephones and telegraphs. But even these would prove to be problematic. Early in the war field telephones often used a single wire and early return system, and right from the beginning each side was able to intercept the earth return signals. This resulted in the situation for the British, who would not start monitoring field telephones until early 1915 to learn that while they thought they were doing something cool and innovative, the Germans had been listening in on British conversations for months. This situation caused both sides to eventually ban the use of field telephones near the front. Widespread use of field radios would not return to the Western Front until 1918, by which point the return of some level of mobility during the German and Allied offensives made the terrestrial line based communication previously setup being the front no longer usable.

While code breaking and signals intelligence would play an important role in the development of the land ar, it is best known for the role that it would play in the war at sea. Just by the fact of sheer distance the effect of signal interception was far greater when trying to find ships at sea, and it would be in this arena that the British would spend most of their efforts. The British actually got very lucky right at the start of the war because they were able to quickly obtain three German naval codebooks. Like many countries the Germans had different codebooks for different purposes, a security measure to reduce the effect of one of them falling in with the enemy. But the British were able to get three of them in the span of just a few months between August and November 1914. The HVB code, used by merchant ships, U-Boats, and Zeppelins was confiscated by the Australian navy from a freighter near Melbourne right when the war started, and it was forwarded on to London. Then the Russians sake the cruiser Magdeburg in the Baltic where they captured a copy of the SKM code book, which was the one that the German Navy used during combat, this was again forwarded to London. The final piece of the puzzle was found on a German destroyer which had been sunk in October, and from this destroyer the British gained the VB codes that were used by Flag Officers at sea. Just for the record, all those acronyms have actual German words behind them, but I won’t trouble you with my bad German pronunciation. With all of these codes the British could piece together many of the German signals, but because of this they found themselves trapped in a familiar situation. Basically even though they had the information they were resistant to use any of it because they feared that if they did then the Germans would learn that their communications were compromised. This meant that the British purposefully passed up opportunities just to make sure the Germans did not discover that the British were reading all of their communications. It would not be until after Jutland that the Germans would start to become really suspicious that the British were able to read their messages. This caused them to introduce a new code, FFB in 1917, but that could would then be broken by Room 40 in London in just a few months. The Germans were also able to gain some intelligence in a similar way. The best example of this is when the British submarine, E15, was sunk in the waters of the Dardanelles. From that submarine the Germans were able to gather the current British codes, maps of minefields in the English channel, and a list of British call signs. They would also be quite hesitant to make it known that they had this information.

One change of procedure that the Germans began using later in the war was just complete radio silence while at sea. The British, who had greater access to German messages early in the war, also knew that the best course of action was to maintain radio silence. In both of these cases the concern was generally less about the enemy being able to just read the messages and more a concern that the enemy could use radio direction finding to determine where the messages had been sent from. Both the British and Germans had invested heavily in this radio direction finding technology before the war, but even though both countries were working with very similar equipment for this direction finding the British were in a much better position to actually use it. The problem, as was so often the case for the Germans, was one of geography. Radio direction finding pinpointed a specific radio signals source by having two different receiving stations and they would determine the exact direction that the signal was coming from. From those two stations, if you drew a line out from them in the direction of the signal eventually, due to the laws of geometry, they would cross, and that would be the source of the signal. The problem for the Germans was that the further apart your stations were, the easier and more accurate the tracking was and they just did not have enough coast line to put their radio stations far enough apart to do any direction finding outside of the north sea. This was good enough to guard against Grand Fleet movements in the North Sea, but was not very useful when it came to pinpointing the position of merchant ships West of the British Isles. On the other side the British were in a perfect position to listen for any radio signals anywhere in the North Sea or North Atlantic, if a German ship used a radio, they would find it.

When the war was over the topic of what would happen to the communication infrastructure that was seized from Germany during the war would be discussed, and it would be a hot button topic. This included the underseas cables which had first been cut and then requisitioned by several countries. In sort of class European fashion the victors wanted the cables to be included as just another prize of winning the war but Wilson and the Americans were far from on board with this idea. Their concern was based less on concerns about making sure that Germany was treated fairly and far more based on the American objective of trying to break the British monopoly on global communications. Instead the Americans wanted the global network of cables to be put in the hands of an international body that would be handled by the League of Nations. This would ensure that it was used according to rules. While this was a fine idea, it would be one that never got very far, and eventually the European countries would win the argument. Basically all of the cables that were captured from the Germans would be taken over by the Allies, but they would at least pay the Germans the value of the cables. Unfortunately, this payment was just credited to the already very large reparations bill from Versailles, so the payments did not feel very impactful. After the dust settled, the British would still control over half of all the undersea cables around the world, with the United States controlling a quarter, and then the rest of the countries of Europe splitting the rest. World War 1 had been the first war, but certainly not the last, where these international cables, local cable based communications, and radio were an important factor both on the military and political battlefields. But it certainly would not be the last war where this was the case.