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 All you ever needed

56890 78345 62321 and so on, and on marching deep into the night.  Strange random blocks of numbers in groups of fives, and complete messages of 200 blocks of fives, never more, never less, being read out by soft robotic voices in exotic foreign accents.  These were part of my adolescence, way back in the dark days of the cold war.  They were the immediate face of the ongoing conflict, messages in the ether to spies and supporters on both sides.  One time pads, book codes, drop boxes and “Moscow rules”, all suddenly real and alive down on the low numbers of the short wave-band.  Voices from the eastern front.  Oh, to hear again the tones of that young Czech woman, so stiff, so school-marmish, reading numbers and letters to who knew who, and oh so alluring!

This was the real Tinker Tailor stuff.  For these were the Number Stations.  Run by both sides in the 1950’s and 60’s, in the white heat of a technological cold war, they were a dirt cheap unbreakable way for controls to keep in touch with operatives.  No fancy equipment, nothing ever to identify or incriminate the operative.  Inexpensive, unbreakable and totally infallible.  Just a radio and a pad of paper, about as far away from James Bond as you could get.

They were favoured by certain nations rather than everyone.  So one heard stations speaking in English, German, Czech, Arabic, Russian (who also used French for some reason) as did the Israelis.  At the bottom end of the short wave-band, at set times of the week, usually in the middle of our night, they would start up like alien mother ships, broadcasting from distant worlds.  Often they presaged their appearance with music.  Folk tunes were a favourite. There were strange touches of national humour too. The British blared out “The Lincolnshire Poacher” from their base in Akroteri on Cyprus right across the middle east, the Australian used “Cherry Ripe”, and the Americans had one which bellowed out a line from Yosemite Sam “Varmite I’m a going to blow you to smithereens”, whilst the East Germans had once had a tape of carillon bells, or maybe it was a glockenspiel, until time stretched the tape so it sounded like gongs being struck in the depths of hell.  I can only assume they kept it because they thought it apposite or amusing.  Once heard never forgotton seriously creepy!

But times changed, and Number Stations seemingly went the way of the Oxford Traveller and the Simon Dee show.  I tried to find the Lincolnshire Poacher for my younger daughter when she had a school project a few years ago but it had long since ceased being broadcast.  I assumed they fell with the Wall and I found other things to do than chase numbers in the night.

 Now technology has given the Number Station a fresh lease of life.  Cheap easy and now on Twitter, the Number Station is both back and hip!  Well it’s back anyway.  And for those with a longing for the nostalgia of their youth, you too can hang on the blocks once more wondering who sends them and what they say.

So here they are, a small selection to try.  First correct entry cracking these could win you a 25 year vacation in Siberia or Guantanamo depending who catches you!




Shame though, the gongs are gone, and I still miss that Czech girl’s silken voice from all those years ago.

Copyright David Macadam 2011