Chapter VII of Getting the Message Through essentially deals with the history of the US Army signal Corps during World War Two and how the Corps responded to various challenges: the need to wage total war across the entire globe; the massive expansion in numbers and the increase in the number of training centres within the United Sates; the need to recruit to the corps men (and later women) of a high mental calibre; the changes in technology which altered some of the traditional roles of the Signal Corps; the challenges of working in vastly different theatres of war with different climates and terrain and, therefore, different operational needs; some of the problems that faced the Corps and were unresolved by the end of the war; but also some its innovations which were highly successful and which the author argues significantly altered the course of the war. Raines also devotes a lot of time to the changing leadership of the Corps during the war and changes in its operational status within the US armed forces. The Marshall re-organization of the Army commands in 1942 made the Corps part of the the Army Service Forces – which reduced its status and was opposed by the Chief Signal officer who felt that the Signal Corps were so vital to the Army’s successful functioning that the Corps should exist as a separate Communications Division, and his suggestion was endorsed by the Board to Investigate Communications in 1943, but ignored by General Marshall. Overall, the chapter makes clear the enormous contributions made to the war effort by the Signal Corps and which did not simply involve communications: the Corps established a world-wide communications system which embraced everyone from the President down to a lone tank commander in battle. Raines writes: “An average of 50 million words a day traveled over its circuits by 1945.” The Corps were also involved in: encoding messages and deciphering enemy messages; still and motion pictures from every theater of war; propaganda films for public and military consumption; and technical innovations such as V-mail and the FM radio.
Throughout the war the Signals Corps struggled to recruit sufficient men of officer material to meet demand for waging a world-wide war. Training often had to be shortened because signallers were needed on the battlefields, so they were sometimes sent abroad with insufficient training. Some of the materials used in radio equipment deteriorated rapidly in the extreme weather conditions of certain parts of the world. The Corps were caught in a difficult position: they needed men with good technical knowledge in the field, but this removed talented people from research and development projects, so that the pace of innovation was arguably slowed down. As the war went on there were also problems concerning the supply of raw materials – demand always managed to outstrip supply. The problem of tank commanders suing FM radio unable to communicate with the infantry on AM had still not been solved by the end of the war.
In December 1941 when war broke out, the Signal Corps consisted of 3,000 officers and 47,000 men. Because of the demands of war it had to expand rapidly: by June 1943 it consisted of 27,000 officers, 287,000 enlisted men and 5, 000 women. This huge rise in numbers was a result, not just of waging a world war, but also increasingly sophisticated technology and new roles assigned to the Corps. Some of the tasks the Signal Corps were responsible for – the construction of elaborate electrical circuits or deciphering enemy messages – required months of training or highly acute, intelligent minds. The Signal Corps made significant technological breakthroughs and innovations: the speed of world-wide communications was dramatically increased by replacing radio circuits with radio teletype; an invention code-named Sigaba enabled the very rapid encoding of messages and the rapid deciphering of enemy communications; the American Signal Corps made advances in radar technology which even impressed the British who had invented radar; the Signal Corps also invented new ways of ‘scrambling’ spoken communications so that the enemy could not eavesdrop on important conversations; the Signal Corps also worked closely with the artillery to develop longer, more sophisticated fuses and tiny radar sets which, when fitted in an artillery shell, allowed the shell to explode only when it ‘detected’ the target. The Second World War changed the importance and status of the Signal Corps: from being a means of ensuring communication in the field, the Corps was transformed into a major method of fighting the war and helping to shape tactics and strategy, because of the information it provided. Towards the end of the chapter, Raines quotes from General Omar N. Bradley’s memoirs in which he wrote:
The provision of rapid and reliable communication systems and information gleaned from enemy messages helped the army win battles time and time again in World War Two.
I enjoyed reading this account of the Signal Corps’ development in World War Two. I found the question of the command structure less interesting than the descriptions of how enemy codes were cracked, or interesting pieces of information such as the use of Comanche and Navajo speakers in front line positions in order to keep American communications secret. I did not know that the Signal Corps were so heavily involved in the production of propaganda films nor that they acted as official photographic and film recorders of the action. Obviously this account tends to emphasize American successes, but it is also honest and open about problems that the Corps faced, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of World War Two.
Raines, Rebecca Robbins. Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the US Army Signal Corps. 1996. http://www.history.army.mil/books/30-17/Front.htm