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Wartime communications

Using a temporary payphone during WW2

Security campaigns : careless talk costs lives

In the early years of the Second World War, the extent of spying activity taking place in the UK was unclear. The country was urged to be cautious about giving secrets away into enemy hands.

People were warned by a series of posters that thoughtless remarks could cause devastating results on the battlefront. 'Careless Talk Costs Lives', ' Loose Lips Sink Ships' and 'Walls Have Ears' were famous catchphrases of the day.

War made heavy demands of the GPO's services and it was keen to make sure everything ran smoothly for the essential work of the war. As well as suspending the Greetings Telegram service, people were urged to make less demand on the system with a series of posters that coined new phrases, such as: 'Don't Make Trunk Calls', 'Telegraph Less', 'Telephone Less' and 'Send it by letter not telegram - I'm busy I'm on war work'.

Telephone no. 328F (1950s) : the Queen's secret phone

Black and green secrecy phone : keep it under your hat

In the 1930s a new generation of '300 series' telephones was introduced. These came in the usual black, green, red and ivory but were developed to provide a range of other capabilities too.

A black telephone with a green handset meant only one thing - 'Secret'. These were the 'hot lines', widely used by government ministries, the military and secret services. They were connected to a large box kept on the floor (replaced by a much smaller version in the 1960s), which was used to scramble conversations so that anyone listening in wouldn't be able to understand a word, unless they had a similar scrambling box at their end as well.

A caller pushed the button on the left-hand side marked 'secret' to activate the device; otherwise by pushing the 'normal' button it worked like any other telephone.

This phone was provided for the private use of Queen Elizabeth in her bedroom on visits to Dower House at Arundel Castle. The unit combined a black based telephone with green handset with a Privacy Set No.6 as a scrambler system. It was taken down to Arundel and installed each time there was a royal visit and allowed secret conversations to take place between Arundel Castle and Buckingham Palace.

This system worked on a normal telephone line but the box contained a number of transformers and valves that scrambled the speech, so if anybody tapped onto the line (without a de-scrambler) they would hear gibberish. The user at the other end of the line had to have similar equipment, to unscramble the call.

Telephone operator, Second World War : Marjory Chapman

Marjorie Chapman, was born in Willesden Green, north London in 1920 to an everyday working class family. Neither she, her family or friends had a telephone and she didn't actually use one until she joined the GPO as a telephonist in 1935, when she was 15 years old.

She enjoyed the job but a few years later, during the war, her commitment was truly tested working at the Faraday Building.

The accommodation provided during air raids was rudimentary but better than hazarding the bombs on the journey home. The work was lightened by the actor Norman Wisdom, who worked there then and told stories during the shifts.

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Well I was hunting around for jobs and an aunt of mine said 'do you know, the GPO are advertising for telephonists, why don't you try' and I said 'oh I don't know' and she said 'yes I think you'd do very well'. So I applied and I was accepted. I was at Willesden Exchange to start with and it was only a small exchange and we had to do everything there because there was only two of us I think. And we would help one another and we'd take messages as well; and then shortly after that the war broke out, and then they wanted telephonists up in London and I was picked to go there. I never looked back after that. When we first went up to Faraday Buildings they just had shells of concrete walls for the girls to stay in and the water was running down the walls. Well it was either that stay or go home through the air raids. I often went home because I preferred (it). They had quite a hard time these girls because if somebody didn't turn up there was always somebody to jump in immediately. There was no question of leaving anything unturned you know. We had gas masks and we had fire watching as well. We had to do fire watching at home and fire watching up there and there weren't enough of the men to go round so we used to do night duties as well. All you were concerned with was getting on with your job and seeing that everybody got what they wanted as best you could. Norman Widsom was one of the telephonists with us at the time. He was a night telephonist and we used to sit on the switchboard and he used to tell us stories about what he'd done. He was very keen on horse riding. It wasn't all that busy at night, but you had to be there you see.

Telephone operator in the blitz : Jean Elliot

Jean Elliot was born in Harrow, north London in 1924. She had had no experience of the telephone until at the age of 17 she joined the GPO, where her cousin already worked.

Jean worked at the telephone exchange throughout the Second World War, manning the switchboards.

She remembers working during the air raids of the Blitz, in 1941, without being evacuated or taking shelter from the bombs because, as she says, they were just too busy.

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Well, you had a tin hat but of course you couldn't leave the switchboard. The switchboard was manned twenty-four hours a day and you worked through anything. You worked through bombing and everything that hits it. I worked in PBX control and they, the flying bombs, came over. There we were on the sixth floor and you could see them come past St Paul's either side, and you just held your breath and waited. And when the engine cut out, we just thought, you know, and when it - the bang - went (off) you thought 'oh well that wasn't for me' (laughs). From the moment you sat down until you got up you never stopped working. The lights were just in front of you, and when you were in the war office and places like that they had special lights. The red light was for the important people and then the green light, then the amber light. You see you always answered the important people first naturally, and you just kept going. I mean it just flashed if they got annoyed because they were kept waiting. They'd just flash you and the lights and that sort of thing.

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