THE COMMUNICATOR - A BREED APART
By Thurlow E. (Buck) Arbuckle
Department of External Affairs (Ret'd).
In the beginning, there was nothing. The fledgling Department of
External Affairs had a few embassies in such major centres as London, Paris,
Washington and New York and relied heavily on British services, i.e., The
Diplomatic Wireless Service and the Diplomatic Courier Service to carry
correspondence. In the early stirrings of communications, Washington and
New York were favoured with leased circuits and these were given a measure of
security with a device known as Telecrypton.
Supply and Services, a division of External Affairs, hired a few
communicators and opened up a small section known as Communications.
This comcentre was provided with book cipher, a tedious two-man system for
encipher and similarly two for decipher. At embassies, secretaries
frequently assisted in the process. One of the early communications in
Ottawa was a gentleman who worked on book ciphers for one dollar a year while
awaiting a suitable assignment as ambassador abroad. His name was Tommy
Stone. This book cipher system involved looking up individual letters or
words in code books and substituting them for five number groups which were
then subtracted from another five number group. The result had to be
typed for transmission, or, in decipher, typed for circulation. Maximum
speed - perhaps five words per minute.
Those were lean years. Like school children, communicators were issued
with a pencil and only when that pencil was worn down to 1½ inches could they
turn it in for a new one. If it were necessary to visit another building
on business, he could apply to Supply and Services for a bus ticket. But
it was not all bad. Communicators as a group often found Prime Minister
Mackenzie King 3. at the wicket enquiring about the status of a
telegram. Many other senior officials in the department were well known
to the communicators but were strangers elsewhere.
Anxious for something better, the comcentre acquired a British developed
electro-mechanical device known as Typex. This Typex machine had
many similarities to the German Enigma, developed before the Second World War,
which proved very secure indeed. Typex used rotating code wheels with
inserts and plug boards and the machine was programmed for each message.
When the communicator typed into the machine it produced a printed result on a
gummed tape. This tape was then stuck onto a page to be retyped for
transmission or circulation. A good communicator with all the associated
typing might process a message at an amazing 10 words per minute. This
was a vast improvement on book cipher, less labour intensive, and less prone
A peculiarity of the Typex system was that negatives were always
repeated in telegrams to ensure the meaning was not lost through error to
transmission corruptions. Vowels were omitted. The receiving
communicator had to look at a string of consonants and reinsert vowels to try
to re-establish a readable text for distribution. Most of the time, he
accomplished just that. This procedure shortened the message, saved
transmission time and costs which were increasingly important because
communicators were filing more and more telegrams commercially via CN/CP
Telecommunications. Sending coded telegrams commercially often meant
that code groups were received corrupt, transposed or even omitted.
Corruptions were the bane of communicators who spent much time seeking
corrections and repeats in order to solve unintelligent portions of corrupt
As communications improved, so the Department placed increasing
dependency upon communicators. Dispatches through the diplomatic bag were slow
and as they decreased, so comcentre traffic increased. More leased
circuits were installed. Although the Department was limiting its use of
the Diplomatic bag to send dispatches, the Canadian Diplomatic Courier Service
was expanded to handle shipments of communications material.
About that time, in the late 1940's, a new machine arrived on the
scene. It was Rockex and it employed a
measure of electronics in conjunction with mechanical drives. It was
this machine which caused an establishment change. The little comcentre
became a separate division, and, influenced by the influx of electronics, was
renamed the Telecommunications Division. Over the years, perhaps two
hundred Rockex were bought, which indicates the extent of the expansion of the
communicators work at home and abroad.
The Rockex used a cryptographic key tape which, when combined with a
paper tape input, produced either five letter groups or plain language
text. This output was collected on a punched tape for transmission and
on a page copy for distribution as necessary. These machines reduced the
manual input of the communicator as compared to book cipher or Typex but there
was still much typing and attendance on machines geared for sixty words per
Traffic volumes multiplied. More and more circuits were
leased. London and Paris were turned into relay centres, each relaying
traffic for numerous area posts. New circuits meant more equipment and
space in Ottawa, London and Paris comcentres was at a premium.
Particularly in Ottawa, Communicators were stressed out running around the
comcentre tending circuits. Tape relay equipment arrived and offered
more compact work stations. This eased the situation somewhat but
traffic volumes continued to increase relentlessly.
Rockex influenced other areas. Equipment had to be transported securely
to embassies. Cryptographic key tape shipments to all posts were urgent and
never ending. The Canadian Diplomatic Courier Service was extended to
meet demands and communicators, who understood the requirement, were recruited
into the service.
Soon Departmental expectations exceeded the current processing capacity
of Rockex. Key generators seemed a promising alternative.
Transparent to the communicators and hard wired into transmission circuits,
they cruised at 100 words per minute. Communicators received telegrams
from the various divisions, typed them into the communications format and
simply transmitted them on the appropriate circuits. Key generators did
the encryption and decryption automatically. These machines provided an
added level of security in that they fed a continual stream of characters down
the circuits whether or not there was any traffic. Thus any would-be
interceptor was unable to tell when a message began or ended, or even whether
a message was actually being transmitted.
But as one problem was solved others required attention. Many
messages had multiple addresses. This demanded that a prepared message
had to be transmitted on a number of circuits, increasing the handling time
for a single message many times over. Message switches were new on the
market and CN/CP Telecommunications were contracted to supply, program and
install the necessary equipment. Communicators, with their experience
and expertise in handling traffic were very much involved in programming and
testing of the hardware. Leased circuits were established direct from
Ottawa to most embassies and the relay operations in Paris and London were
repatriated. Message switching was a huge success and acted as a spring
board for future developments but it also retired a big chunk of the
communicators work load.
But typing was still a communicator's chore. Telegrams were first
typed by secretaries, then handed to communicators who they re-typed them into
the communications format. Why not change the telegram form and have the
secretary's type telegrams in the communications format in the first
place? Electronic readers were provided which read the new form and
converted the telegram into electronic impulses for transmission. The
communicator's job was shrinking fast. The final blow came with a
decision to move the telecommunications terminal out of the comcentre onto the
desk of the Foreign Service Officer. These officers reluctantly became
communicators and the communicators work was finished.
The Diplomatic Courier Service was also hit hard. No longer was it
necessary to ship great quantities of classified communications material to
posts, and, as electronic transmission replaced the need to dispatch many
documents by bag, the courier service was largely disbanded.
Communicators had been called upon to tackle many different tasks and
they met the challenge. Half of the officer complement of the division
were former communicators. The divisional secretary was a reclassified
communicator. Communicators figured prominently managing divisional
accounts. The courier service was staffed by communicators who, in turn,
took over the budgeting and management of the whole courier service.
Unfortunately, the communicator, who breathed life into the department,
advanced and worked themselves right out of existence. But their 50 year
contribution will always be remembered with admiration for their steadfast
devotion and dedication to duty. In 1995, Parliament adopted legislation that
formally recognized the name change from External Affairs Canada to Foreign
Affairs Canada .
CRYPTO SYSTEMS USED BY FAC
This list will summarize, in chronological order, the various crypto
systems that were used by Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC) and including the
In 1954, Lester B. Pearson, the Secretary of State For External
Affairs, began to realize that Canada
should begin an effort to
provide all, but the smallest of diplomatic posts, with cypher machinery in
case an emergency should develop either of local or general nature.
By March 1956, there was a concerted effort by FAC to introduce
ciphered, teletype-based communications to replace the diplomatic pouch and
improve the efficiency of sending messages. Colonel W.W Lockhart spearheaded
this program which commenced in the summer of 1955. Once example of
improving efficiency was to have a decoded message sent to a Teletype machine
which would print on mimeograph (aka Ditto) paper. Numerous copies could then
be produced and distributed from the master. In this time frame, the
department's teletype equipment was on line 16 hours per day, 6 days per week.
A one-half hour would be lost at the beginning and end of each day setting up
new codes and shutting down the operation for the night.
1. OTFP and code books fell into disuse when electronic
messaging systems came on-line, however, they were retained as a backup
system in case OCAMS or NOCAMS was down for an extended period of
2. Ray White indicates "The STU-II and later STU-III
secure telephones were used in secure facsimile operations (SFAX). Prior to
this, the KG-30 was for used for SFAX which was a point-to-point service and
did not go through any message switch".
These vintage photos illustrate some of the equipment rooms found at
Canadian embassies and missions in various countries around the world. Unless
otherwise noted, all photos have been submitted for use on this web
document by Ray Fortin.
Encryption/decryption activities were always carried out in areas
completely separate from those areas with live communication circuits. In
Foreign Affairs, the area where the communications circuits were terminated
was called a Line Room. Crypto work was performed in the area
referred to as The Back
Room. The only activity
between the Line Room and the Back Room was the hand-carrying of
encrypted 5-level paper tape.