On 6th November the Forces War Records team travelled to Blandford Forum in Dorset to deliver one of our free search terminals to the Royal Signals Museum for the use of its visitors. While we were down there we chatted to Adam Forty, the Museum Business Manager, had a look round the many fabulous collections on display, and rooted through the museum archives.
The Royal Signals’ history began in the Crimean War, in 1854, when for the first time specialist signallers were used to facilitate communication on the battlefield (shortly after the invention of Morse Code and the electric telegraph). Since then there hasn’t been a single war without some form of signaller present; granted, in the First World War there was no separate corps, just a Signal Service that formed part of the Royal Engineers, but by the end of this great conflict when Dispatch Riders and wireless sets first came into play, the need for a specialist group of communicators was recognised. On 28/6/1920 Winston Churchill signed a Royal Warrant, giving the Sovereign’s approval for formation of this new corps, and six weeks later His Majesty King George V conferred the title ‘Royal Corps of Signals’. As if that weren’t enough to denote royal approval, in 1935 Princess Mary, the king’s daughter, was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of the corps (Princess Anne took over the role in 1977). Clearly this was a branch of the armed forces that was making waves.
There’s a lot to see at the museum: details of the history of the telegraph system, its growing importance in war, the work of Royal Signals alongside other forces (such as airborne and special forces), and the history of encryption, interception and spy radio; a special exhibition to celebrate D-Day and its links to Dorset; and a unique collection of things modern soldiers used and improvised with while in Afganistan. There’s also a display of corps uniforms, several vehicles (including the fabulously pimped ‘Pink Panther’ Landrover), a tribute to animals at war, and an interactive exhibition depicting Women at War. Take a look at the museum’s two great blogs on SOE heroine Odette Sansom, who was awarded the George Cross, for a taster of the type of stories on show: http://royalsignalsmuseum.co.uk/Blog/?p=95 http://royalsignalsmuseum.co.uk/Blog/?p=141.
For us, though, the most interesting was the gallery of 350 medals, all presented to the museum by the recipients or their relatives, including the George Cross awarded posthumously to Signalman Kenneth Smith. This brave man, upon finding a ticking bomb laid on the table in a wireless room on the Isle of Ist, thought of the lives of nearby civilians – including many children – before his own. He picked up the bomb, and managed to transport it outside, but before he could place it in a position of safety it exploded, killing him instantly. He was just 24.
Visitors to the museum will now find our terminal towards the end of the museum’s display trail, near the Women at War exhibition, and will be able to search through our entire archive.