A section of the Museum of Global Communications in Porthcurno, Cornwall, now includes a visit to the underground top secret bunker that hid the Telegraph Station in WWII where Allied communications were protected by armed guards and bomb-proof doors. Thousands of miles of undersea cables from all around the world already came into the country at Porthcurno, and in 1939 it was decided to protect them by sending them underground with heavy security.
The Museum of Global Communications opened in 2010, as it was here in 1870 that the first undersea telegraph cable reached the UK, leading to decades of this quiet unassuming town becoming the focal point of all overseas communications. In the days before telephones, the quickest way to communicate when separated by a distance was telegraphy, electrical pulses transmitted down a copper wire, and soon Porthcurno was the central hub for all such global communications.
In the early days of the war it was considered unwise to have the installations on the surface where they were vulnerable to German attacks, so they were moved underground. Tunnels were dug to a large bunker which could continue to operate unseen by enemy eyes.
The bunker is a large room filled with equipment, reached by stone stairs going down from one of the solid doors. It includes an authentic telegrapher’s workshop and a fully automated relay station. It is a strange experience to view all the machines, clocks, cables, cabinets and desks - now silent, obsolete and static - and to imagine the hub of activity during those hectic war years when so much depended on the ability of the staff to operate the systems and ensure the fast and accurate dispatch of vital information.
There is plenty of explanation on display boards for the technically minded to understand the working and detail of the work that took place here. The Regenerator System enabled signals to be received, strengthened and sent on automatically and quickly. Messages coming in to Porthcurno were sent on to Electra House in London, the HQ of Cable and Wireless.
Via this network, governments coordinated their policy, newspapers received the latest news from the Front, and families at home exchanged messages with men fighting overseas.
They also had links to the vital world of spying as many signals went to Bletchley Park for decryption. The staff here were working in shifts for 24 hours a day and had to maintain secrecy about their roles in keeping Britain safe.
In fact, when work started on this large underground bunker under the granite hill in 1940, the locals were told that a shortcut to the local pub was being built - although how many of them actually believed that must be debatable.
The impact of the war on locals is dramatically apparent with the focus of the main room being on the unexploded 500lb bomb hanging from the ceiling which fell on a nearby farm in May 1941. The other 8 bombs all exploded although missed their target - presumably the Telegraph Museum - and no one was hurt. Apparently a bomb squad arrived to defuse it and 16 year old Walter Williams wanted to keep the casing, bartering 3 dozen eggs in return for his souvenir now displayed here.
The human story of those working on Communications is told in some glass cases through artefacts and letters. It appears that the Chairman of Cable and Wireless cared very much about his staff, recording any deaths of telegraph workers, and also using the organisation to help civilians where he could e.g. setting up a Children’s Free Telegram service allowing children to communicate more easily with their parents.
As you move through the bunker there is a door leading to the original escape stairs - 120 steps hewn through the solid granite to the cliff above, giving a covert way out should the tunnels be overrun. You can take a hard hat and climb to the top to find a signpost at the top, showing distances to some of the places from where cables came.
Other smaller rooms, once workshops, sleeping and washing accommodation, now house other displays. You can discover the work of the Telecom Girls, the difficulties of working on a cable ship, laying and repairing the undersea cables, the origins of GCHQ, the radio communications of SOE.
Blinking as you emerge into daylight, you have just a momentary sense of how it must have been for the staff, doing a vital job for the war effort in the bowels of the earth, knowing that your place of work was targeted by the enemy, yet having to return day after day. It’s a humbling experience after a very worthwhile visit.
The bunker is part of a more comprehensive visit to the whole of the museum which details the history of the telegraph and communications.
Visiting Porthcurno Bunker
Address: Eastern House, Porthcurno, Penzance TR19 6JX
Large car park available
There are several buses from Penzance and other local towns and villages going directly to the Museum
Open: Daily 10am - 5pm
Prices: Adults £10, Students £9, Under 18 £6.00, Families £30
Concessions available for NT, English Heritage and people arriving by bus
Tickets can be used for a year
Facilities: Café and facilities available on site