Whilst slowly tuning my way through the HF bands about a year and a half ago I stumbled upon a voice that was repeating three numbers followed by “oblique zero zero”. I wondered what it was that I’d found so I looked up the frequency. After some investigation it turned out I’d found one of the many Spy stations that still utilises HF to send messages to their agents – I’d found what is unofficially designated E11, a “Numbers Station”
I was immediately interested in this – countries still send messages to their spies around the world?? Brilliant
I started looking through the internet to see if there was more information about all this and I found Enigma2000, a website dedicated to Numbers Stations. From this site I was able to get hold of the prediction charts for the next months worth of messages; and more importantly the Enigma Control list. This list describes all the Numbers Stations that have been discovered, all the differences between them, and most importantly the format of the messages. It has been compiled over the years by enthusiasts that are just as interested as me on the subject, and there’s a huge amount of knowledge and experience amongst the group.
I felt I was too much of an amateur to join the group so I sat back for a year and just did my own thing, logging what I could and learning from the Newsletters that came out every two months. I have now joined the group, but I soon discovered there was still plenty to learn
The E11 message I’d found was a “Null” message. The three numbers was the recipient (Spy, Agent – whatever you want to call them). The message lasted about 3 minutes in this case, but full messages last a lot longer. There was an E11 message today for instance:
07661 48564 90468 42455 12863
02541 31669 31104 59935 49005
36935 61200 65354 53072 11155
68041 98936 67578 19211 44903
72651 11808 00403 66319 03546
31707 31614 98436 74902 91728
50149 18927 08581 43616 17548
81125 41627 62584
This lasted for 10 minutes. The first three or four minutes is a repetition of the “agent number” (460) and the number of groups that there will be in the message (38). This is followed by each group of numbers being said twice until the end, then the whole message is repeated with each group only being said once. This is how E11 sends messages; other stations send them differently
The designation “E11” came about from the E2K group needing to standardize and identify the different stations. In this case E stands for English, 11 being the eleventh station discovered. There’s other languages too, G for German, S for Slovak (Russian included) and M for Morse Code (CW). There’s even different ways in which the foreign stations using the same language say the numbers; and the E2K group have compiled a list of these too
So, what do the numbers mean? Only the sender and recipient will know. The system uses One-Time Pads(OTP), a mathematically unbreakable encryption method used for sending messages. Used extensively during WW2 and the Cold War, they are still popular with Government Intelligence Agencies and Military to send secure messages to people or groups around the world, in the safe knowledge they cannot be decrypted.
The other bonus with OTPs is that the receiver cannot really be traced, not without a lot of hard work (or luck). In modern days things like Emails, texts etc can be tracked by agencies, and tied down to a specific person, computer or phone. With a broadcasted message that can be picked up by anyone with just a basic radio that can receive shortwave, it is a lot harder to trace the exact target, if not impossible. Also, in times of a war, the Internet, Satellites and such like can just be switched off making it difficult to send messages to agents or military personnel in the field. Radio cannot, and it will remain a method of getting important messages out for the forseable future
There are specific rules for One-Time pads to work correctly, one of which is the key is used only once and that the sender and recipient destroys the key after its use. For more information on One-Time pads visit the website of Dirk Rijmenant, but put aside a bit of time as it has a lot of information, with lots of links to even more – including a a website where you can create your own coded messages
So that you can hear what one sounds like I’ve made a recording of a message sent by S06s recently. The message is as follows:
11171 64385 82707 06123 22438
901 5 00000
The image is a screenshot of the recording and shows it was a very strong signal, transmitted on 7410kHz. It is in Slovak and can be heard here. I’ve removed the first four minutes where 427 is repeated and gone straight to the message
You may see more about Numbers Stations soon, in fact in the USA there is already a growing interest. FX is currently showing a new TV series – The Americans – set in the 1980s, about two Russian KGB officers who are sent to the USA as spies acting as a married American couple
It’s been given a second season and should be in the UK in the next few months. I’m looking forward to seeing it
And there’s a new film – The Numbers Station
There are some fundemantal flaws in the film from what I can see, the use of only four figures in the numbers groups for a start, but we’ll see what it’s like here in the UK soon
There’s no doubt the two of them will bring added interest to a widely unknown fact – the Spies are getting messages every day and anyone can hear them
Looks like some of the film was made at the disused RAF Bentwaters airfield in Suffolk. I recognised the control tower in the trailer.
I really must get out more!