“Conformation of the ground is of the greatest assistance in battle. Therefore, to estimate the enemy situation, and to calculate distances and the degree of difficulty of the terrain so as to control victory are virtues of the superior general. He who fights with full knowledge of these factors is certain to win; he who does not will surely be defeated.”

CHANG YÜ — The Art of War

Phantom badge

Perhaps I was raised on too much “Battler Britton”, “Rockfist Rogan” and “Dick Barton, Special Agent” as a child, but like them, I believe that secret organisations engaged in mysterious, shadowy work should always have mysterious, shadowy names.

There was one such organisation, with a mysterious, shadowy name – and its headquarters was in Richmond Park.

In November 1939, at the very beginning of the 2nd World War, Air Marshal Barratt, the Commander of the British Air Forces in France, set up a special semi-secret unit, the 3rd British Air Mission, to gather as much information as possible about the disposition of the enemy and the terrain that they were rapidly occupying. The code name for this unit was “Phantom.”

Phantom unit Neerlanden 1940 (HQ). Lieutenant-Colonel “Hoppy” Hopkinson is 4th from left, smoking a pipe.

“Phantom” was under the command of Wing Commander J.M “Fairy” Fairweather and Lieutenant-Colonel G.F “Hoppy” Hopkinson. Noting the speed of the German ’blitzkrieg" invasion of the Low Countries both men realised that the only way to get the information that their boss needed was by actual ground reconnaissance at the front line. Trying to pick up titbits of intelligence from behind the lines at G.H.Q was not an option.

Together “Fairy” and “Hoppy” put together a mixed company of 15 officers and 110 other ranks, equipped with armoured cars and motorcycle units. There was also a wireless section manned by men from the Royal Corps of Signals and 500 carrier pigeons.

An official definition of “Phantom’s” job was ‘to transmit vital information from the battle front, ignoring the usual channels, to the Commander able to dispose of the vital reserves.’ In practice this meant putting vehicles with trained observers as close to the fighting as possible. The information gathered would be coded and sent back either by radio or motorcycle dispatch rider. One officer at the time commented “The information coming out of France wasn’t good – but at least it was accurate!” After the war “Phantom” was popularly described as ‘the eyes and ears of the Commander in Chief.’

Pembroke Lodge

On 28th May 1940, during the evacuation from France, Wing Commander J.M Fairweather and many of his “Phantom” staff were lost when their ship, the “S.S Aboukir”, was torpedoed by an E-Boat about 8 miles off Ostend. Undeterred “Hoppy” Hopkinson, realising the vital importance of the work, quickly set up the “GHQ Liaison Regiment” (Phantom) and a training unit at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. At the same time “Phantom” units were set up around the English coast to report back on the expected enemy invasion.

In many ways Richmond Park and Pembroke Lodge were ideal locations for rapidly expanding “Phantom.” They were close enough to London to be in touch with the War Office and yet far enough away to be reasonably secure and discreet. The Park was also large enough to accommodate all the men training there and their vehicles. Amongst them was the actor, Major David Niven, who commanded ‘A’ Squadron. He wrote of his time at Pembroke Lodge. “These were wonderful days which I would not have missed for anything.”

Phantom on parade

During the war there were “Phantom” patrols operating in Europe, North Africa and Italy, each patrol consisting of an officer, an NCO and up to 9 other ranks. They were typically equipped with Norton motorcycles, Jeeps, Morris 15cwt trucks and Scout cars. Other patrols undertook parachute drops with the SAS to provide intelligence for SAS Brigade HQ. Before long “Phantom” was also supplying intelligence to the 12th US Army Group. “Phantom” landed in Normandy on 6th June 1944, D-Day. Its job was to locate and constantly update the ever changing positions of all British, Canadian and American units and report them back to H.Q.

In September 1944 during ‘Operation Market Garden’, a “Phantom” patrol provided the only communication between the surrounded airborne troops at Arnhem and headquarters. This included the desperate message from General Urquhart that “Unless physical contact is made with us early 25 Sept, consider it unlikely we can hold out.” Two “Phantom” officers were subsequently awarded the Military Cross for maintaining these vital communications during the operation.

Duke of Kent
The Duke of Kent inspects “Phantom” A Squadron in Richmond Park, escorted by a helmeted Major David Niven with “Hoppy” Hopkinson on extreme left.

Although Field Marshal Montgomery described the work of “Phantom” as ‘indispensable’, in January 1944 GHQ Liaison Regiment (Phantom) was absorbed into the Royal Armoured Corps. “Phantom” was finally disbanded in 1945 but reappeared briefly as Army Phantom Signals Regiment (Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment). In 1961 the Regiment reformed and became a ‘Trunk Communications’ Signal Regiment with squadrons in Portsmouth, Coulsdon and Hammersmith. I hope that “Battler Britton”, “Rockfist Rogan” and “Dick Barton, Special Agent” didn’t hear that. ‘Trunk Communications’!? It certainly isn’t a name to quicken the pulse and set one reaching for the trusty Webley service revolver, is it?


Royal Signals
Royal Signals operator carefully adjusting the BFO of his R107! He is wearing on his right shoulder the white P against a black background – the only distinguishing mark of the “secret” Phantom unit.

What equipment did they use for all this mobile to a base unit?

18/38 sets to a12 set/R107 fixed set-up sort of thing? I know in 1941 they had a “Marconi Transmitter” circuit between Cairo and Richmond to secure a “rapid and secure link from the battle zone direct to HQ”, bypassing (to their chagrin), “many in the chain of command”. Certainly, all the pictures I have seen at the Pembroke Lodge archive show sets such as rows of R107’s for monitoring enemy transmissions in the field etc. and 52 set combinations mounted in vehicles. But interestingly, the initial reports from the period mention the use of “No 1 sets, No. 11 sets, and No. 9 sets.” (before being superseded I presume, by the ubiquitous 19 and 52 sets etc.)

Credit: The various photographs of ‘Phantom’ are from Asher Pirt who is writing a history of ‘Phantom’ and Roger Spear writing for the VMRAS Newsletter.

— from Martyn Day