As regular as clockwork, the emotionless voice reads out a list of numbers to be received by who knows who? These are the transmissions of number stations used by both sides during the cold war. Of course in this day and age, there are highly encrypted, transmission devices that can send so much more data in a sub-second burst than thirty minutes worth of content from a numbers station, but back in the 1970s and 1980s both sides used what become known as ‘number stations’ to send encrypted messages that could be heard by many, but only understood by the few.
Possibly one of the most famous numbers stations was referred to as the “Lincolnshire Poacher”. This was due to the tune it broadcast prior to the stream of numbers being read out. As a child I can remember sitting in front of my dad’s shortwave radio, listening, fascinated by the numbers and sometimes writing them down to see if I could spot a pattern or decode the message. (Of course, I never could.)
The station itself was believed to have been transmitting from the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and more specifically, the sovereign base area of RAF Akrotiri, on a range of frequencies between 5.5MHz and 16.1MHz.
Cold War World
The world was a very different place back then. The iron curtain was still hanging strong, dividing western and eastern Europe. Cities like Prague in Czechoslovakia were a hotbed of espionage activities. The Berlin Wall remained in place, heavily guarded with the use of deadly force the norm against anyone who tried to cross it without the appropriate authorisations.
So who were these number stations actually transmitting to. Nobody can say for sure, but I think we could safely speculate ‘intelligence assets’ operating in territory of their opponents were the targets. Imagine being shacked up in an attic space, or perhaps out with a portable radio receiver in a forest, scribbling down the numbers as they came in, all the while keeping an eye out for the enemy.
Whilst we take global, end to end encrypted communications via the internet almost for granted these days (most smartphones support that), the agents operating behind enemy lines in those days relied on a shortwave radio receiver, a pencil and what was known as a one-time-pad that would allow the message to be decrypted, but only once.
Looking at the position of Cyprus, we can see it is an ideal location for a numbers station transmitter. A high powered HF Radio transmitter would be more than capable of transmitting to eastern Europe and deep into the U.S.S.R. It is hard to describe today how remote and sinister the eastern European countries controlled by the massive U.S.S.R. bloc felt. In the 1970s and 1980s, I travelled to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria on holiday. As westerners, officials in both countries viewed us with suspicion. After all, ‘neither were great holiday destinations at the time, so why were we there?’ I suppose the officials thought. Yet, the people themselves, the ones we dealt with everyday were friendly and welcoming, if somewhat a little guarded in what they said to us. I remember a sense of dread and horror when the local Police took my passport off me and I didn’t see it again for over twenty four hours. Was I going to be bundled into a car against my will, like we had seen on so many spy films? Thankfully that never happened but it does give an indication of the mindset you got into when traveling behind the iron curtain in a much more uncertain age. So feeling that tension when travelling as a tourist, doing nothing wrong and complying with local laws, I can’t begin to imagine the pressure our agents operated under with the constant fear of discovery. Were the numbers stations providing welcome reassurance from back home? Were they issuing orders for operations to be carried out or for documents to be delivered to dead drops? I’m guessing there would be combinations of messages for all of those, but unless you have been part of that world, and I haven’t, you’ll never know for sure.
The Modern World
Surprisingly, some numbers stations remain operational today. There is a treasure trove of information available at the Numbers Stations Research and Information Centre website. So why not dust off that old radio, scan down to the shortwave bands and see if you can find a numbers station?