News Article

Signals Intelligence under Fire

Last Updated: 21 Mar 2018
The story of a frontline signals intelligence team during the German attack on 21 March 1918.

News article - 21 Mar 2018

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Man with moustache, in WWI army uniform and hat
Vince Schürhoff. ©Shirley Family
At five in the morning on 21 March 1918, Vince Schürhoff woke to the thunderous sound of a bombardment. After many false alarms, the much-anticipated German offensive had begun.


Vince was a twenty-six year-old corporal in the British army's Royal Engineers (Signal Service). In 1914 he had joined the army as an infantryman and two years later, because he spoke fluent German, was seconded to signals intelligence work.

That day Vince was in command of what their inhabitants called an IToc (aye-tok) station and the army called a listening set post. Using metal probes and long loops of wire, Vince and his comrades could pick up German messages leaking from trench telephone lines or Morse buzzer messages sent through the earth.

Vince had worked in several IToc stations and also as a prisoner interrogator, but in March 1918 he was in a deep dug-out near the devastated French village of Croisilles, south-east of Arras. This location happened to be at the northern end of the offensive that was meant to end the war in Germany's favour.

With Vince were two other linguists; Wilkie Roberts, a mariner who had worked on the German waterways, and Ernest Tucker, a Cambridge-educated librarian who, unsurprisingly, had a reputation for being a bit of a bookworm. His team also included two young signallers; William Corker from Durham, nicknamed Jelly Belly, and Cyril Haines from Hull.

The British were expecting the attack, so Vince's orders were to intercept German messages and pass them on to the local commander. If the Germans broke through, at the last safe moment they were to destroy their equipment and retreat.

After the initial bombardment, the German attack took a few hours to develop because their main thrust was further south. During this period Vince's team intercepted several German messages. Sprinting across open ground through the ongoing shelling, Vince delivered them to the nearest infantry battalion's headquarters.

By two in the afternoon the situation seemed to have stabilised and Vince saw what he thought were British reinforcements approaching from the south. But when they got closer he realised they were German soldiers threatening to cut off their position. Vince decided it was time to go. He wrapped the listening amplifier in a blanket and ordered his men out from the safety of the dug-out.

All morning Vince's men had been anxious to withdraw, but when the time came the intensity of the bombardment caused one man to falter. Vince physically dragged him from the dug-out and, alternately running and crawling, they made their way to the rear. The infantry pulled out shortly afterwards.

Having reached the relative safety of the area behind Croisilles, Vince was alarmed when a very low-flying German aircraft strafed the road. In later years Vince's sleep would be haunted by the memory of the pilot looking down on him through his goggles.

Eventually the team trudged into the signallers' base camp a few miles back. Having lost contact with the station, Vince's captain had feared the worst. Much relieved to see them, he sat Vince down outside his tent, gave him a large beer, and let him tell his story.

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Hand-drawn-map showing comms wires in relation to the front-line trenches & our intercept points
Map showing comms wire locations. AWM27/311/69 ©Australian War Memorial


In subsequent weeks Vince returned to prisoner interrogation work. In May, with the German threat having subsided, he was summoned to corps headquarters where he was awarded the Military Medal for his actions on 21 March.

In his home city of Birmingham Vince's family were understandably very proud and ensured that the news featured in the local press. But they had a secondary motive beyond familial pride; they needed to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain.

Before the war Vince had been known by his real first-name, Fritz. His father was born in Germany but had become a British citizen after emigrating in the 1870s. During the First World War those of German birth came under suspicion. And in early 1918, as the British army suffered reverses in France, the jingoistic press scapegoated these naturalised Germans, using the slogan "once a German, always a German".

So although their son had been decorated for fighting the Kaiser's army, the Schürhoff family - like the Royal Family a year earlier - decided to Anglicise their surname. They chose Shirley, apparently after the name of the Birmingham suburb.

But more suspicion was to come. In October 1918, with the British now in pursuit of the retreating German army, Vince and other interpreters with Germanic surnames were relieved of their intelligence duties and confined to the signals depot on the coast.

In January 1919 Vince returned to civilian life, although in the Second World War he put a uniform back on to serve in the Home Guard. And we are fortunate that Vince also squirreled away the diaries that he had kept throughout the war. Fifty years later he transcribed them and wrote up some additional recollections. Copies are now deposited in the Imperial War Museum and the Military Intelligence Museum.

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A group of WWI soldiers relaxing in a trench, one using a field telephone
Royal Scots near Croisilles, 4 January 1918. ©IWM (Q 10608)

 

Written by Dr. Jim Beach (University of Northampton).


Further Reading

Jim Beach (ed.) The Diary of Corporal Vince Schürhoff, 1914-1918 (2015)

Panikos Panayi, The Enemy in our Midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War (1991)