Signals Training in the Middle East was undertaken at HMS Saunders a Royal Navy shore base which formed part of The Combined Training Centre (CTC) Middle East at Kabret on Egypt's Little Bitter Lake. It was the first Combined Operations Training Establishment located outside the United Kingdom. Its purpose was to train RN personnel in the operation of landing craft and, together with the troops of many Allied nations, to practice amphibious landings prior to operations against the enemy in the Mediterranean. This page concentrates on Signals Training.
Although HMS Saunders (at that time known as HMS Stag Division K) was established in March 1941, Combined Training did not begin until mid-1942 because the Army was much too busy elsewhere and there were no real facilities for such training. [Photo; the author Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR.]
Craft were in short supply and our naval signals personnel comprised 10 seamen (signal trained at HMS Northney)(1), one old Leading Signaller and two Tels.(2) Equipment included one pedal Aldis signalling lamp, a few Type 18 flotilla radio inter-com sets, a Type 52ERT long range radio transmitter and a massive piece of equipment known as an Admiralty ‘C’ set. It comprised a high power radio transmitter, a multi-band receiver, a petrol generator and a mast to support the aerial plus all the usual accessories such as head-phones & Morse keys. In short a self contained communications station. That was the total extent of our resources. [Click on all maps and photos to enlarge.]
Accommodation comprised one small tent and a tin shed about 6 feet by 12 feet. There was no Signal Officer until November 1941 and the small amount of training given to seaman ratings, before then, was carried out by any officer who happened to be on light duty! The stores and offices were constructed by the ratings out of corrugated iron and packing cases. The first building erected for the Signal Section, as opposed to by the Signals Section, was in late l943.
It was a lamentable situation in November 1941 when a new Officer arrived from the UK. Unlike the others he had been trained in the use of navigational aids developed for Combined Operations. On his arrival he discovered that the 10 STN (Signal Trained Northney) ratings had been absorbed into general duties in the camp primarily because no one understood what they did!
The training they had received at Northney was not intensive and in the meantime they'd forgotten most of what they had learned. The long trip to Kabret via The Cape and the subsequent period doing general duties had taken its toll. It was evident that an intensive course was necessary and they were formed into a class.
The intention at that time was to use them as operators of the H/F (High Frequency) W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) beam equipment known as ‘Lorenz' infra-red directional equipment and Army Type18 sets. The Officer was aware of this before he left the UK and he brought with him recently prepared handbooks on the various types of equipment. However, the complete absence of any working gear for the ratings to practice on was a major handicap to learning and familiarisation. A search of the Middle East located some equipment in the SNSO’s (Senior Naval Stores Officer) store in Alexandria. It had been stored there after removal from one of the Glen ships and was triumphantly transported back to Kabret.
The ratings could now at least see the sets, but getting them working properly was another matter. Much of the early impetus and enthusiasm was lost in the often abortive attempts to get them working properly. The infra-red gear was at length fitted in the ’Princess Elizabeth’, an ex-Danube tug used as a base workshop, but the lack of electrical power forced the abandonment of attempts to get the Lorenz working again. The lack of power was for years one of the greatest obstacles to signal training at Kabret. It took over 12 months to acquire a generator that was only capable of lighting the wardroom and a few officers’ tents!
Batteries were also a major problem especially HT (High Tension) ones which came out via The Cape. The long journey and stop-over at Freetown served only to deteriorate their condition. To find two fully charged HT batteries out of a batch of ten was a good result. LT (Low Tension) batteries were, initially, impossible to find except for a few small Aldis cells. When we discovered that RAF Kabret discarded 12 volt accumulators(3) if the top cover was fractured in any way, we were soon frequent visitors to their salvage depot at Kasfareet.
A small single-cylinder petrol generator provided the power to charge these batteries. Space was tight so they were placed outside our tin hut. The dilemma was that if the terminals were not greased they corroded, and if they were greased the sand collected on them in a thick crust. The generator itself also suffered from the effects of sand in the petrol and oil. When a sandstorm blew up, as frequently happened in the winter months, instruction was a physical impossibility and all work ceased. The conditions during such storms can only be understood by those who have experienced them.
By March 1942 it had become impossible to continue instruction on the navigational aids side as both the infra-red telescopes retrieved from Alexandria had given up the ghost. In any event the transmitter in the ‘Princess Elizabeth’ was ineffective without a gyro-repeater to keep the beam on a constant bearing.
In any event, about this time the whole system of beach-finding was reviewed as described in Navigational Aids below, and Lorenz and infra-red were dropped from the syllabus. The class of STN ratings then concentrated on V/S (Visual Signals comprising light, flags and semaphore)) W/T and R/T (Radio Telephony or voice radio) operating.
The work later done by these ratings cannot be too highly praised. Although they were often taken for granted, adequate communications in exercises subsequently carried out could not have been maintained without them. They were also responsible for communications in the Small Craft Patrol off Tobruk and the Landing Craft Flotillas sent to patrol the Nile when the enemy was advancing on El Alamein. [Photo; Communications staff HMS Saunders 1942].
By the end of 1942 landing craft had started to arrive in the Middle East and training was begun in earnest. One of the first courses was for Army personnel from the Staff College at Haifa. At first most of the exercises were ‘dry-shod’ i.e. not involving any craft, but as time went on, a complete routine was worked out and was followed by every unit passing through the CTC (Combined Training Centre).
Owing to the limited space available, training was mostly on Brigade level and was arranged so that small Company exercises led up to Battalion exercises and the course terminated in a full Brigade exercise lasting three days. Each course was a period of intense activity for the Saunders communication ratings as, unlike the Army, who used their own Signals personnel, the Navy Signals operators were always from the same source. The three battalion exercises were generally held on consecutive nights which meant that, on the conclusion of the first course, briefing and netting (making sure that all the radios on the net were tuned to the exact same frequency) started for the next course. The arrival of two Naval Beach Signal Sections reduced the strain and allowed STN ratings to man craft in training exercises which previously had to do without, but, even so, the short periods between courses were welcomed by ratings and officers alike.
About this time it was decided to improve the instructions for landing-craft signals operations. A small pamphlet had been prepared in the UK giving signals for Minor Landing Craft manoeuvres but it was felt to be lacking in content and scope. Most notably it did not cover the needs of Major Landing Craft. The Beach Signals Officers, together with the Saunders Signal Officer produced a document known as ‘The Mediterranean Landing Craft Signal Book.’ It was used extensively in subsequent exercises and (I believe) some operations. Later on, when landing craft from the UK arrived as part of Operation Appian, it was very interesting to compare the pamphlet with the official LCSB (Landing Craft Signal Book). It seemed that, as was often the case, the signals personnel in the two theatres of war had been working on parallel lines.
Another big step forward about this time was the fitting out of the top deck of one of the houseboats at the CTC as a HQ ship.(4) This was made possible by the installation of generators at the CTC from which power was taken. The training facilities comprised an Ops Room, a large main W/T Office and SDO (Signal Distribution Office). The Army used their Type 22 radio sets for the most part and one Type 9 for their line back to Divisional HQ. The Navy used Army Type 18s for transmission and B29s for reception. The Type 18s were later replaced by Type 46s which proved much more stable and satisfactory. The textbook method of netting a Type 18 set did not give good results and we always tuned ours by wave-meter (an instrument for measuring the exact frequency of a signal being transmitted). The result was that on almost every exercise all naval lines were working while the Army were still trying to make contact.
During the period June 1942 to July 1943 the following units passed through the Combined Training Centre:- Greek SAS Brigade, 9th Armoured Brigade, 9th Australian Division, Greek Infantry Brigades, 15th Infantry Brigade, 108th Infantry Brigade, 151st Infantry Brigade, 234th Infantry Brigade, 25th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 31st Infantry Brigade.
By the end of two or three of these courses the CTC Naval and Army signal staffs worked well together as a very good team. Major Graham, the Army CTC Signal Officer, did much towards the smooth running of the organisation which included a strong but friendly rivalry to see who would be the first to establish communication after W/T silence was broken. This rivalry also kept the ratings on the top line and for a long time the Navy’s habit of tuning their sets by meter was a jealously-guarded secret. When it did leak out the Army thought it most unfair, but it did not stop the practice !
During May 1943 an additional strain was put on Saunders by the arrival of ‘Force G’ (the Eastern Task Force) under Admiral Ramsey. However, time was found to give signal instruction to both officers and ratings and full-scale exercises were carried out with the 13th Corps in the Gulf of Suez.
When Force G finally departed for the Sicily invasion those of us left behind in Saunders were on tenterhooks until the news came through that the operation had been successful. Operation Husky was the first of its kind and everyone was feeling their way. Saunders personnel had the satisfaction of knowing that the hard period of training had proved its worth. [Photo; Senior signals staff HMS SAUNERS 1943-44. Left to right – Yeoman of signals, Warrant Tel (Dixon), PO Radio Mech., Signals Officer (Noel), PO Tel, Asst. Signals Officer (Storey)]. The author is 3rd from the right.
The gear left behind by the signal parties from Force G was a godsend to Saunders. September and October were relatively quiet months for signals training and advantage was taken to overhaul and replenish the equipment. A new batch of seaman ratings from General Service were brought in because the STN ratings knew as much as they ever would about their job and, in any event, they had almost finished their time on the station. Although the new lads did very good work in later exercises they never quite reached the high standards of enthusiasm, commitment and performance of the first batch. Having been taken from general service they always thought they had been lurked for something.
A Mobile Radio Repair Unit now arrived from the UK to maintain the increasing number of communication sets. They were kept very busy. These mobile units proved to be invaluable in Combined Operations signal in the Middle East. Even the RAF found work for them from time to time.
In December 1943 combined training started again with two Infantry Brigades (10th and 12th) and an Armoured Brigade. By the end of February 1944 these had finished and from then on training commitments gradually decreased. In the beginning signals training at Saunders was a Heath-Robinson affair with practically no facilities. By the end it was a well-equipped Signal School and confident and competent staff - two V/S instructional tents, two W/T instructional tents complete with buzzer tables, a generator shed and V/S and W/T offices and workshops had all been erected and equipped by the officers and ratings themselves. There were also flag masts and semaphore arms mostly 'scrounged.'
By common use the group of buildings on the perimeter of the base become known as the ‘Signal School’ and the communication ratings had over time created their own tented campus nearby. A very strong esprit de corps existed among the staff. To the time Saunders closed down the Signal School’s hockey team was the best on the base!
So far I have dealt only with the Combined Ops. side of the signal organisation in Saunders, but this was tied up so closely with the General Service side as to be almost one and the same thing. Saunders was used to take the overflow of ratings from the Signal School in Alexandria and classes for General Service ratings were going on continuously.
The ordinary day-to-day signals had also increased enormously since 1941. At that time the so-called SDO (Signal Distribution Office) was a telephone and a signal pad in a tent on the gangway in the charge of an ancient Leading Signaller. (unfit for sea service). [Photo; shows communications staff outside their tented accommodation at HMS Saunders in 1942.]
By 1944 this had increased to a proper SDO under the charge of a Yeoman of Signals, working in watches of three signalmen in a watch plus one tele-printer operator in the T/P room. A signal station had also been established in the Canal Station for communication with the craft in harbour. This station was also used extensively for communication with ships in transit in the Canal.
With the close of the war in the Far East Saunders had no further use and on the 1st July 1946 the ensign was hauled down for the last time and the Army took over the base except for a very small section.
As their significance was not appreciated until much later, neither of the documents from which this page was prepared, mention two other operations in which HMS Saunders, and myself as Staff Officer (Operations), were involved. The first of these was code-named ‘Accolade’ and was a plan to occupy the island of Rhodes immediately following the Italian surrender in September 1943. Units earmarked for this operation were trained at Kabret but it was abandoned in view of the swift reaction to the surrender by the German forces and the lack of sufficient strength to mount an attack against an organised resistance.
The second was code-named ‘Zeppelin’ and began in March 1944 while the Allies were still fighting their way up through Italy. It was an elaborate, and successful deception operation designed to convince the German High Command that the next major assault against mainland Europe would be through the Balkans. The small but important contribution by HMS Saunders was to arrange for a squadron of twelve LCTs to move from Suez to Alexandria via Port Said during daylight and to return to Suez under cover of darkness. There the numbers on the craft were changed and the whole routine re-started. This went on for a couple of weeks during a period of moonless nights and gave the impression that large numbers of landing craft were moving into the Eastern Med. This was backed up by the appearance of dummy craft in the harbours along the North African coast. At the same time similar operations were happening in the Western Mediterranean. As a result of ‘Zeppelin’ the Germans failed to make any significant troop movements to counter the Normandy landings so the whole thing was very much worth while.
It may seem that in these pages I have stressed the difficulties and made no mention of the advantages. This is quite deliberate. Until the beginning of ‘Appian’ Saunders had all drawbacks and no advantages. Every step forward was hard fought and every piece of equipment begged, borrowed or even stolen. Improvisation was more use than high technical knowledge and the very geographical position of the base, a long day’s car drive from Alexandria, forced it to be virtually self-supporting. In the days of plenty towards the end it was hard to believe that we were expected to carry on signal training without mains power, adequate battery charging facilities or even the gear the ratings were supposed to train on and operate. The best indication that these difficulties were all overcome is that Saunders carried out every commitment she was ever called upon to undertake.
[Editor's note; It's no coincidence that the names Quebec and Saunders are inextricably linked together in the compelling story of the training in amphibious landings provided by Combined Operations. HMS Quebec was the RN base within the No 1 Combined Training Centre at Inveraray on Loch Fyne in Scotland and HMS Saunders was the RN base within the Combined Training Centre on the Little Bitter Lake at Kabret on the Suez canal. One link between them was the close friendship between Captain Wolfe of Quebec fame and Admiral Saunders his Navy counterpart in what many have described as the First Combined Operation. Although not germane to this story another naval connection was the naming of HMS James Cook which was the Beach Pilotage School in the Kyles of Bute.
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On this website by the same author Combined Training Centre Middle East which includes his personal recollections of his time in Combined Operations.
Special thanks to Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR, for allowing us to publish this page which is based on a report he wrote for Combined Operations HQ on return from Middle East. The content of the page was approved by the author before publication.
Footnotes; (1) A Combined Operations Training Establishment in southern England. Also an assembly base for landing craft 'mobile units' destined for foreign service. (2) The origin of the two Tels is not definitely known but it's believed that they were the remains of a Beach Signal Party belonging either to HMS Glengyle or HMS Glenurn (Landing Ships). (3) rechargeable lead battery cells contained in sealed rectangular glass containers usually held within a metal carrying cradle with handles for easy transportation. (4) Philip Zieglar wrote in Mountbatten's official biography, "One of the more valuable gifts which Mountbatten endowed on Combined Operations was the HQ Ship. It may seem obvious today that a massive and complex amphibious operation needs to be controlled from a vessel which remains offshore after the landing, which is not liable to be removed to take part in some naval operation and into which all the communications from land, sea and air are channelled." The HQ Ships were, in modern parlance, Command and Control centres bristling with two-way communications antenna of many kinds.