Signals Training for Beach Landings.
HMS Saunders, Kabret, Little Bitter Lake, Egypt
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
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 and is told by Commander, Philip Noel, VRD RNR.
Although HMS Saunders (at that time known as HMS Stag, Division K) was
established in March 1941, Combined Training did not begin there until mid-1942,
because the Army was much too busy elsewhere
and there were no real facilities for such training.
Landing 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.
author Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR.]
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
period doing general duties, had taken its toll. It was
evident that an intensive course was necessary and they were formed into a
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 eventually 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.
[Photo; Communications staff HMS Saunders 1942.]
Anyway, about this time the whole system of beach-finding was reviewed as described
in Navigational Aids below and, as a consequence, 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.
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 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 called ‘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
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
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
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
[Photo; Senior signals staff HMS Saunders, 1943-44. Left to right – Yeoman of signals,
Warrant Tel (Dixon), PO Radio Mech., Signals Officer (Noel - the author), PO
Tel, Asst. Signals Officer (Storey).]
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.
The gear left behind by the signal parties from Force G was a
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
was a Heath-Robinson affair with practically no
facilities. By the end, it was a well-equipped Signal School with confident and competent
staff and good facilities including; two V/S instructional tents, two W/T instructional tents complete with
buzzer tables, a generator shed, V/S and W/T offices and workshops... and all
had been erected and equipped by the officers and ratings themselves. There were
flag masts and semaphore arms, mostly 'scrounged.'
By common use, the group of
buildings on the perimeter of the base became 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
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
1944, this had increased to a proper SDO under the charge of a Yeoman of
Signals, working in watches comprising three signalmen and 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 through the Canal.
With the close of the war in the Far East, Saunders had no further
operational 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 the plan 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.
[Photo; shows communications staff outside their
tented accommodation at HMS Saunders in 1942.]
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 deception 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
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 the Middle East. The content of the page was
approved by the author before publication.
(1) A Combined Operations Training
Establishment in southern England. Also an assembly base for landing craft 'mobile units'
destined for foreign
(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
(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
land, sea and air are channelled." The HQ Ships were, in modern parlance,
Command and Control centres bristling with two-way communications antenna of