Discover the past secrets of intelligence agency GHCQ

GCHQ Scarborough has helped to protected the UK from global threats for over 100 years. Now the intelligence agency is sharing its stories in a new exhibition. Lizzie Murphy reports.

Dr David Abrutat, GCHQ historian with a morse code operating training set at Scarborough Library. Picture Tony Johnson

For over a 100 years, Yorkshire has played a vital role in protecting the UK and its armed forces from a variety of global threats.

GCHQ Scarborough, one of the three UK Intelligence and Security Agencies, along with MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), is believed to be the longest continuously-serving site for signals intelligence (intercepting and interpreting messages) in the world.

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Its work has been shrouded in secrecy for decades but a new exhibition at Scarborough library aims to give the public a peek behind its barbed wire fence by showcasing previously secret artefacts and unveiling the stories behind them.

Heather French, outreach librarian at Scarborough Library, with the GCHQ exhibition. Picture: Tony Johnson

GCHQ has loaned a selection of items to the library to give visitors a glimpse at the agency’s innovative historic work, including German coding disks, a radio used to train intercept operators, and decrypted wartime messages.

As well as being a fascinating peek into past life at GCHQ, the agency hopes to attract the interest of a new generation of would-be intelligence officers.

Young people are invited to take part in a spy trail around the library, learning about encryption and cyphers as they go in a Code Breaker Challenge.

GCHQ historian David Abrutat says: “Scarborough’s been a really important site for us as an organisation and it’s important that people understand what we do, why we do it and how important it is for national security and economic wellbeing.”

A radio receiver used at GCHQ for intercepting signals used for three decades until the Millenium on show at Scarborough Library. Picture: Tony Johnson

There’s been a push in recent years for GCHQ, which is headquartered in Cheltenham, to tell the stories from its past. Before covid, its exhibition at the Science Museum in London was the most popular public exhibition the museum had ever showcased.

“We’ve got to tell those stories because it’s important to win public trust,” says Abrutat. “We’re not doing anything illegal or untoward, we’re here to serve.”

The beginnings of GCHQ Scarborough date back to 1912, when the Royal Navy established a Wireless Telegraphy Station, at Sandybed Lane. Signals intelligence began there two years later.

The station monitored the German High Seas Fleet. At the start of the Second World War, it intercepted German Naval communications.

Many of the personnel were drawn from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens).

Wrens collected enemy communications which British cryptanalysts could then work on. They were essential to breaking the Enigma and the location and destruction of the German battleship Bismarck.

In 1941, a group of over 20 Wrens were posted to Singapore via Gibraltar. The vessel was sunk as it made its way to Gibraltar by two torpedoes from a German U-boat with the loss of 22 lives.

Their colleagues created a memorial fund, which commissioned a new Royal Navy lifeboat, the Aguila Wren. The boat is currently being restored in Northern Island.

Abrutat says: “There’s quite a bit lost to history because the role we play is very secret and at the end of the Second World War a lot of stuff was destroyed but almost every day I’m finding new stories.”

The library exhibition also features wireless telegraphy red forms, which were filled out by the interceptor operators during the Second World War. By 1944, the whole process from collecting the data, sending it to Bletchley Park for decryption, the analysis, and then prioritisation of the information, took just 20 minutes.

“It’s just phenomenal,” says Abrutat. “But the whole purpose of doing intelligence is to get timely information to where it’s needed most that can then save lives. That’s been a constant from the First World War through to Afghanistan and Iraq.”

In 1943, GCHQ relocated to its current site at Irton Moor, and later became the main station for the interception of Russian naval traffic.

One of its biggest stories came during the height of the Cold War when analysts in Scarborough provided intelligence that would change world history.

In October 1962, they were monitoring Soviet Union vessels which were shipping missiles onto the island of Cuba where the US had a naval blockade, when they discovered that the vessels had turned back.

This intelligence led to the famous call made by NSA analyst Juanita Moody to US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson to let him know they had received the first signs the nuclear standoff was beginning to abate.

It was the first glimmer of hope that the war would not escalate.

Abrutat says: “They were issuing fairly mundane reports...and that’s often the way. You’re producing fairly low level intelligence and then suddenly a world event, something geopolitically, will happen and you’re perfectly positioned to report on something very significant.”

In 1965, the site transferred to GCHQ ownership and nine years later operations transferred from a half-buried bomb-proof bunker on the site to the present building.

Its training and development facility – the Alan Turing Training and Innovation Centre (ATTIC) - opened in 2016 alongside the GCHQ on-site ‘Y Station Museum’, which charts the town’s intelligence history.

The evolution of technology has been a constant theme throughout GCHQ’s history. Upskilling staff is key to keeping up with the fast pace of technological change and responding to new threats.

“We’ve had to transform the organisation to adapt to those technological changes,” says Mr Abrutat. “That’s often reflected in the sort of recruitment campaigns we run. Up until 1965, it was very dominated by military personnel.”

Today, GCHQ Scarborough’s aim is to recruit a diverse workforce – a range of ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds with skills varying from technical to analytical. Three years ago it launched its first work experience scheme.

It is hoped that the new exhibition at Scarborough Library will encourage more people to consider signals intelligence as a possible career option.

With Scarborough Science and Engineering Week just around the corner next month, GCHQ wants to help inspire an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). There will be activities related to the exhibit throughout the year, and children can even upgrade their library card to a spy style card.

“GCHQ Scarborough is a key part of the community and it’s aiming to inspire a new generation of potential STEM careers,” says outreach librarian Heather French. “It’s a fascinating place and I think it interests people because they want to know what actually happens behind the fence.”

The free GCHQ exhibition is due to stay in situ at Scarborough Library for the foreseeable future, with artefacts and activities being regularly updated.

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