Listening base stays silent on its top secrets

Scarborough GCHQ.  The Bunker.Picture Richard Ponter 142317c
Scarborough GCHQ. The Bunker.Picture Richard Ponter 142317c

The sleepy surrounds of Irton Moor are not the first place you would think to find one of the most important places in the world in the battle to keep people safe from attack.

Surrounded by sheep and high-wire fences, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) Scarborough has remained shrouded in mystery ever since its existence was officially acknowledged over a decade ago.

Scarborough GCHQ.  Staff working  at their work stations.Picture Richard Ponter 142317b

Scarborough GCHQ. Staff working at their work stations.Picture Richard Ponter 142317b

Before then it went by the title of Composite Signals Organisation (CSO) station.

Despite now appearing on maps and road signs it is doubtful that anyone in the town knows what goes on behind its grey exterior.

In the post-Edwar Snowden world (who disclosed classified documents to the media), GCHQ is associated with monitoring phone calls and emails to look for threats to national security. While on my visit to the base the subject of what exactly happens behind closed doors was strictly off limits, the top brass are keen to forge a more open relationship with the public.

Simon, the station manager – surnames are also a no-go area on the base – tells me: “When people think about the intelligence services they think of MI5 and MI6. Well, I suppose you could say then that we are ‘the other one’.

“This little corner of North Yorkshire has played a huge role in keeping Britain safe over the years.”

He is not exaggerating.

Opened in 1914 in Sandybed Lane, the 20 or so women who first made up the signal station in Scarborough, listening to communications sent to passing German ships, including those that bombarded the town on December 16 of that year.

Perhaps its most famous moment was in the sinking of the Bismarck in the Second World War. Operators from Scarborough tracked the vessel and it was a Scarborough-based man who heard the great ship break radio silence and sent its location for allied vessels to intercept and sink the pride of the German fleet.

It was following in the footsteps of people like this that brought Lauren to GCHQ.

The mathematics graduate is in her early 20s and turned down offers from the private sector to come and work for the organisation.

“I had a lot of offers from elsewhere but there was 
real sense of duty working here.

“You know that what you do during the day keeps people in this country and other countries across the world safe. That is very rewarding.

“The job is very much like a nine to five job, just one that you cannot discuss with your friends, but you get used to that.”

Simon, who has been with GCHQ since he left university more than 25 years ago, adds: “What we want is the X-box generation.

“Young people who have good computer skills, who can fix computers themselves rather than take them to a shop.

“You don’t need to have a degree, we look for potential. If they come to us with the raw skills we will train them up and give them a career.”

As you might expect, applying to work at one of the most secretive organisations in the world is not straight forward. Candidates must 
undergo stringent background checks before they get anywhere near the building. This means it can take anything up to a year before vacancies are filled.

“It does make it difficult,” admits Simon. “By the time we can offer a job some people have moved on but it does mean the people we hire tend to be very committed as they have gone through the process and waited for the offer.”

People working at Irton Moor get used to doing without a lot of things that others take for granted. Even the most senior personnel on staff are not allowed to bring their phones or laptops past the front gate, and the internet and social media are notable by their absence.

But the importance of the work done by those who work in the building is never far from the surface.

In the newly constructed dining area, part of a major modernisation project at the station, a glass case holds one of the original Enigma machines from the Second World War – a poignant reminder to the new recruits of the role their predecessors played in defeating the Germans.

The history of the base is encapsulated in its museum. It is full of historical items and machines from the early days of radio, but, sadly, apart from when the base has open days for families of people who work there, no-one will get to see inside it.

“I suppose it is one of the least visited museums in the country,” says Kevin, who looks after the exhibits as part of his role.

“All of the documents are from more than 50 years ago so we have declassified them to put on display. It is good for the people that come to work here to know the history of the base. There are some interesting snippets we have found. For example, during the First World War the German code for Scarborough was ‘KU’.”

The only way to see the museum is to apply for a job at GCHQ Scarborough.