An impenetrable accent?

SAS soldier pointing gun

In the midst of some of the heaviest fighting of the Second World War, the race to control communications became so crucial to the war effort that no idea was off limits.

The landscape of war had evolved so much since the First World War thirty years earlier that logistics and communications were developing on the go with stakes so high that any mistakes had the potential to prove deadly for thousands and quite possibly tip the balance of victory.

Only thirty years previously, the theatre of conflict had remained relatively static, with very basic communication systems reasonably effective for the most part but completely inadequate when quicker reactions where required.

The Second World War by comparison, covered massive amounts of the globe with huge movements of manpower the norm.

Behind the scenes, spying and subterfuge entered a completely new level. The SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) had been largely ineffective during the First World War, but where crucial to the Second World War effort. T

he rapid movement of troops became the number one priority for secrecy, yet both sides of the conflict had employed incredibly effective code breaking units, which proved devastating on both the command level structure and at unit level in the field.

Two campaigns in the conflict saw unit level communication interception prove deadly. Both campaigns where in danger of being lost, the US Marine movements throughout the islands of Japan and the newly formed SAS movements in North Africa.

Accent better than code

The US Marines found that no matter what code system they employed, Japanese forces where able to intercept and decipher their communications allowing them to prepare and perform counter attacks to devastating effect. In an effort to protect their communications, the Marines set about expanding an old World War 1 practice – the use of Native American code talkers.

Interestingly, the Germans were fully aware of Native American code talkers and sent a team of anthropologists to the US during the inter war period to study and learn Native American languages – a task that proved impossible due to the huge amount of dialects and languages in the Native American family.

Employing some 500 Native American code talkers, mostly bilingual Navajo speakers proved impenetrable to the Japanese and the Pacific campaign returned to a more level playing field. In the North African campaign, the newly formed SAS operated in such an unorthodox manner that secretive and secure communication was essential.

The founder of the SAS, David Stirling, realised that while they would rarely use long-range communication, their short-range communications would be easily picked up. Operating mostly in complete radio silence, there were rare exceptions that the four or three man teams would need to communicate.

Originally coming from the Scots Guards, Stirling had a strong presence of Scottish soldiers amongst his recruits and was aware of the difficulty in following the Glaswegian recruits speech, even to other Scots.

On this basis, Stirling designated his Glaswegian soldiers as radio operators, with station command communications also being run by a Glaswegian. So successful was his system, that during one operation to rapidly attack an airfield that the German forces, having overheard radio chatter, reported it as an attack by an unknown Middle Eastern tribe and not the result of an allied attack.

Obviously, business communication doesn’t operate under the same high stakes, but that doesn’t mean your communications should be less secure. In a world where every smartphone is a potential data leak and every digital movement we make leaves a digital footprint that is easy for our competitors to access and analyse for their own benefit.

While every business could definitely benefit from employing a Glaswegian (You guessed it, the author is a Scotsman!)  it’s perhaps not practical and we need to drastically rethink our business communication in a digital world where it is becoming clearer that nothing is really ever secure.