The Original Hackers
28 November 2013
Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs.[i] As a war-time telephone censor, Ruth is probably the last person still with us who once listened in on conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt, but then we still don’t know for sure exactly who else was party to the great men’s conversations. For those who have been surprised by recent phone tapping and state surveillance revelations, it is sobering to remember that hacking has been a recognised policy since a least the Second World War.
In 1942, Ruth’s shorthand skills led to her being picked out of her job at the postal-censorship offices for a role monitoring the Transatlantic radio link between Britain and America. For three and a half years she worked long shifts, tucked into a small office in a partly destroyed building in St Martins Le Grand. Here Ruth listened in to conversations between the dispersed members of European royal families, a ‘rather bad-tempered’ Mme Chiang Kai-shek, and senior political and diplomatic staff including Churchill and Roosevelt, or Mr Smith and Mr White as they were known over the phone. Ruth’s job was two-fold; to note down everything that was said, and to pull the plug, literally, on any conversation that might in any way compromise the Allied war effort if overheard.
Churchill was ‘a natural telephoner’ Ruth told me over tea and sandwiches in her North London care home, ‘very effusive with Roosevelt and often unguarded in his comments’. Listening down the line, she felt that she never knew what he might say next, and she suspects that Roosevelt did not either. Their conversations might start with a description of Churchill’s dinner, or Roosevelt’s polite enquiry after his opposite number’s family, but would soon develop into often quite passionate discussions. Churchill ‘didn’t hide his emotions’, Ruth remembered. Although he was always confident about ultimate victory, ‘he did not have that clipped, buttoned-up quality’. On one occasion, when he was distraught at the devastation caused by a V2 that had landed near Holborn Circus, Ruth had to cut the line on Churchill twice in quick succession, for fear he would reveal the exact location and extent of the damage caused. And yet the PM only spoke to Ruth directly once, demanding ‘what did you do that for?’ when the line went dead unexpectedly. Ruth had to explain that this time it was her US counterpart who had cut the line on Roosevelt – something Ruth was never allowed to do herself. The only consistent thing in the calls was the way that Churchill always signed off saying, ‘Kaye Bee Oh’. Eventually, unsure how to transcribe this curious farewell, Ruth asked her boss who told her it was K.B.O. for ‘Keep Buggering On’.
Ruth knew that all her shorthand notes on the Churchill/Roosevelt conversations were shredded once she had transcribed them and in any case, she told me, a few days later ‘no one could read them, not even me’. After the war, in October 1945, Churchill was asked to attend a US Congressional hearing with the longhand transcripts, and responded that they, too, had been ‘destroyed’. It seemed that that was end of that. Ruth married soon after the war and raised two sons and, having signed the official secrets act, she never spoke about her work listening in to the hottest British hotline of the war.
Fifty years later Ruth was ‘horrified’ to learn about the existence of a German listening station at Valkenswaard, near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Philips electronics are based. Up till then she had imagined that her role had been little more than a necessary war-time precaution. ‘If I had had any proof [that the Germans were listening] at the time, I would have just laid down my pencil and made a run for it’ she told me laughing. Looking back, however, she has become fascinated by just who, besides herself and the American phone censor, was eavesdropping on ‘these two old men, talking to each other’.
In 2004 Ruth travelled to the Netherlands to search for the Valkenswaard listening station. Major Tony Bayley, of the British Battalion of the Irish Guards, had introduced her to members of the military team who, just after the war, had found the abandoned Dutch farmhouse that had once served as the German listening station hidden away in some woods. Sadly the building had already been stripped, and all the equipment either thrown into the nearby river or evacuated with the staff. Visiting nearly sixty years later, Ruth found the building was still standing and used as an Arts Centre, but she met ‘a blanket of silence’ when she began asking questions at the Valkenswaard Heritage Centre and other official archives. ‘You imagine that the Dutch are liberal’ she sighed, ‘it is shocking that this happened there’. However she did meet a man who remembered the high security around the building when he was a local teenager during the war.
The American historian, David Khan, has written about the German facilities at Valkenswaard, describing the underground bunker where the technology was kept, and the radio masts hidden among the trees.[ii] Here the thirty-five staff, all fluent English-speakers, lived in comparative luxury, with comfortable bedrooms, an on-site kitchen preparing fresh meals, and a lounge with an open fireplace. ‘Apparently, the quality of the reception was good too’, Ruth added ruefully as we spoke, thinking about her own cramped office, lack of lunches, and sometimes terribly static lines.
On her last day in Amsterdam, ‘this little man turned up on the doorstep’ Ruth told me. Hans Knap was a retired TV journalist who had written a history of official postal monitoring dating back to the end of the nineteenth century.[iii] While researching Valkenswaard he, too, had also drawn a blank with the Dutch authorities. Nonetheless Knap’s research led him to conclude that ‘after forty years of German-Dutch colonial co-operation, German engineers listened to the “hot-line” of Churchill and Roosevelt with the help of the facilities of the Dutch PTT and Philips Electronic Industries’. David Khan, who has looked at records in the USA and elsewhere, even asserts that translations of all the Churchill/Roosevelt talks landed on the Fuehrer’s desk within hours of the calls being made.
Now in her 90s, Ruth is still a woman with a mission. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun’, she told me, ‘and I’ve got very irritated and very angry…’ In a way though, she says, it did not matter that the Germans were successfully listening in. Given the coded nature of the conversations, and her own and her American counterpart’s quick action to prevent any sensitive information from being discussed, she feels sure that they ‘gained little original intelligence’ from the Transatlantic radio line. However, her memoirs tell just one side of a conversation, she explained, and she would still like to know just who these ‘original hackers’, as she calls them, were. ‘I am surprised at people now – that the authorities were so amazed by the recent hacking’, she told me as we said goodbye. ‘Why was it a scandal? We’ve all been doing it for years.’