War and 'Censorship:' Cables and the Internet, Part 2

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of an ongoing series. To read Part 1, click here.


British undersea cables sent telegraph signals around the world.

The successful laying of the transatlantic cable set off celebrations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and immediately proved to be a money-saver for the British Government. They sent a message to a regiment of the British Army stationed in Nova Scotia, telling them to not return home — and saving the government approximately �50,000 in transportation costs.


Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. Just three weeks later, on Sept. 3, 1858, the project's chief electrician, who was self-taught and ironically named Wildman Whitehouse, attempted to increase the speed of transmission by ramping up the voltage on the cable from 600V to 2,000V.


The insulation couldn't handle the increased voltage and, within hours, the cable failed. Though the famed physicist and engineer William Thomsom (later known as Lord Kelvin) had consulted on the project, a formal enquiry assigned primary responsibility for the failure of the cable to Whitehouse, who was a surgeon by profession.


Six years would pass before money and materials were raised to lay another cable between the continents.


Once the feasibility of transoceanic cables was proven, however, Britain would become the world leader in designing and building such networks. By 1911, the Brits completed the All Red Line, a worldwide network that connected the entire Empire. With just a touch of the telegraph key, messages could be sent around the world at speeds never imagined.


Cables in wartime


It didn't take long for governments to realize the critical need to protect submarine cables in the event of hostilities, with the British again leading the way. World War I officially began July 28, 1914. Shortly thereafter, at midnight on August 5, a coded telegram arrived at the port of Dover.


Within an hour, a British sloop, Alert, was underway to commit the "first strategic act of information warfare in the modern world." By 3:15, the Alert had reached its first target area, lowered its hook and began dredging the seabed. Within hours, the Alert had slashed through almost all of Germany's undersea cables, effectively cutting German communications with their overseas colonies and allies.


With the destruction of their cables, Germany was forced to rely on cables controlled by other countries to send messages. Unfortunately for the Germans, many of those other cables intersected with British-controlled relay stations. This circumstance gave the Brits an enormous intelligence advantage, and they wasted no time in exploiting it.


British Alert class warship

Moments before the Alert set sail, specially trained men, called "secret censors," entered British telegraph offices in every corner of the Empire. Once in place, each censor sent a message to London that read, "Fixity London, Fixed."


Covert cable ops


This global system of interception, known as "Censorship," enabled the censors to intercept and cut off Germany's correspondence with its foreign agents. For the duration of the war, these 580 British censors would read fifty thousand messages each day, often uncovering or blocking important enemy communiqu�s.


Perhaps the greatest coup of Censorship was the Zimmerman Telegram, an offer from the German Foreign Office proposing a military alliance with Mexico. With the hope of maintaining good relations and assisting in negotiating a quicker end to the war, the United States had previously agreed to permit the Germans to send diplomatic messages to their ambassador in Washington over U.S. cables.


The U.S. cable did not, however, run directly to Germany — it passed through a British relay station at Land's End (near the English city of Cornwall) where, unbeknownst to  U.S. officials, the British were intercepting and reading cable traffic to and from Germany.


The Zimmerman Telegram promised Mexico Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if the Mexicans would make war on the United States. British intelligence shared the message with the U.S. government, and its contents inflamed public opinion against Germany and became one of the primary reasons the United States eventually entered the War on the side of the Allies.


While Germany lost the use of its own undersea cables, Britain's All Red Line, despite multiple enemy attempts, remained uninterrupted during the war. The network had so many built-in redundancies that it would have required 49 cable breaks to isolate the United Kingdom.


In the ensuing 104 years since the midnight voyage of the Alert, every nation with the ability to do so has made it a priority to sever the submarine cables of hostile powers.


Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of an ongoing series. To read Part 1, click here.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.