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Phantom's Origins


Effective, up-to-date and accurate communication is integral to the overall capability and performance of any army because it is a prerequisite to coordinated and timely decision-making by those at the top.

Following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, the British Expeditionary Force was deployed to France, anticipating that if Belgium was invaded, the British and French Armies would engage the Germans along their border in a slow-moving, lengthy and attritional type of warfare, akin that of the First World War.


The BEF were equipped with what they believed to be a tried and tested, cable-based, telegraph and telephone communication system. Messages were sent (largely by field telephone) by different often, isolated and compartmentalised units, up through the many stages of their individual chain of command (from platoon to company, to battalion, to regiment, to brigade, to corps etc) before it eventually reached the real decision makers. This delayed and fragmented information but had been sufficient for the static trench warfare of WW1. The outdated British communications systems were further undermined by the even more antiquated French systems (which relied on the civilian telephone network). This, coupled with poor reconnaissance and liaison, very quickly proved inadequate as the fast-moving German Army exploited the Allies’ weaknesses.

Meanwhile, Germany had adopted a much more rapid and mobile strategy called “Blitzkrieg” or lightning war that  utilised their highly manoeuvrable tanks, aircraft, artillery, and their superior communication systems  which were based on modern mobile wireless radio technology and not the traditional static line-based infrastructure of the Allies. Thus, the German’s mobile tactics ‘rendered the telephone-dominated communication framework useless’. The ineffective Allied communications presented huge problems for the RAF, in particular, who needed up-to-date and accurate information and to coordinate with the British, French, and later Belgian Armies, so they could plan effective air strikes.

It was in order to address this specific problem that Phantom was born……..

Phantom is born: alongside the BEF

During the early stages of the BEF’s deployment, Air Marshal Barratt, the Commander of the British Air Forces in France, identified the limitations of the existing communication and liaison between the RAF and the British Army and between the French, Belgians and British.

LC Hoppy Hopkins.jpg

He set up “air missions” led by Wing Commander J. M. “Fairy” Fairweather (right), to improve the communication required to supply him with the information he needed to deploy the RAF effectively. At the same time, Lieutenant-Colonel George F. “Hoppy” Hopkinson  was an observer on a similar mission representing the British Army.

In November 1939, their two missions were combined to form the  composite 3rd Military and Air Mission and was mustered at Valenciennes in northern France, close to the border with Belgium. The callsign or codename for this Mission was ‘Phantom’ and its members sewed on their tunics, a badge with a white "P" on a black background. 

“Phantom’s” job was ‘to transmit vital information from the battle front, as rapidly as possible and ignoring the usual channels, to the Commander able to dispose of vital reserves.’

At that stage, the Belgians were strictly neutral, and their High Command had been reluctant to liaise with the British, so the mission waited and trained, developing their unique brand of reconnaissance. They grew in size and scope, as they recruited and trained a diverse set of highly skilled personnel and in its final form, consisted of fifteen officers and one hundred and ten other ranks.


By April 1940, Hopkinson’s group (now called No 11 Mission and at the Advanced Report Centre) was distinct from Fairweather’s Detachment by then located at Belgian General HQ and comprised of 15 officers and 110 other ranks: 3

  • HQ staffed by "Hoppy," a G.S.0.2 and a G.S.0.3 and a subaltern administrative officer.

  • "Phantom" Armoured Car Squadron (commanded by Captain J. A. Warre (12th Lancers), consisting of two mobile troops of armoured cars (6 Armoured Guy Scout Cars) fitted with No- 11 wireless sets, and a motorcycle platoon, selected from the Queen Victoria Rifles, commanded by Second-Lieutenant J. A. T. Morgan.

  • Intelligence Section (commanded by Captain John S Collings (5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards) of six subalterns and six junior N.C.O.s, mainly French and even German speaking and mounted on motorcycles – among them was George Reddaway

  • Wireless Section of two No. 9 and two No. 11 sets manned by Royal Corps of Signals personnel

  • 500 carrier pigeons

hops mission.jpg

Training for most men involved map reading, coding, radio operating, morse code and motorcycle training.4  The French were keen to maintain radio silence, but Hopkinson ignored this, ensuring his equipment was tested and ready and his men were competent in using it. They favoured SYKO machines over TYPEX as they were more mobile and easier to destroy during retreat. They became proficient at using one-time pad ciphers.

When “the balloon went up” on May 10th and the Germans advanced, Phantom received the codeword AZRAK and moved immediately into Belgium to tasked with carrying out two main activities;

Firstly, their mobile reconaissance patrols positioned themselves as close to the fighting as possible and observed the progress of the battle. The information they relayed back was particularly useful for the RAF to pinpoint the changing locations of suitable targets for bombs and shells (the "bomb lines).   

Secondly, they placed liaison (intelligence) officers in the Belgian forward HQs to glean any useful information and report back, bypassing the Belgian High Command which took too long to filter and pass on information. Information gathered was to be coded and sent back either by wireless radio or motorcycle dispatch rider, as quickly as possible,  to both Air Marshal Barratt’s RAF HQ and to Lord Gort's Army Headquarters.

Hoppy recorded in his war  diary  "Crack went the whip and off went the horses"; he moved his mission immediately so that his forward unit could report to his own HQ group which located itself adjacent to Belgian Army HQ. His patrol provided vital information about the Germans crossing the unexpectedly intact bridges at Maastricht after the hasty Belgian retreat.  With the Germans advancing and the British, French and Belgian Armies retreating, his mission drew on their versatility and adapted to whatever was required. Over the next two weeks, his highly mobile patrols were able to continue their work using wireless and dispatch rider when the “tried and tested” traditional cable-based communication system collapsed.

Phantom were better prepared than other units; having insisted on breaking the French radio silence, their radio operators were better prepared than other units, many of whose equipment had not been tested and did not work. The French and Belgians relied on their local telephone system which became overloaded.

It became clear that by bypassing normal channels of communication, Phantom could supply the most significant information straight to GHQ, thus avoiding the congestion, confusion and delays caused by the sheer volume of other messages sent amidst the “fog of war”. One officer at the time commented about the mission’s reports…


“The information coming out of France wasn’t good - but at least it was accurate!”

Their superior communications were their backbone - their No11 sets with Wyndham aerials had a range of 20 miles (radio) and 50 (wireless) and worked forward with their reconnaissance patrols while their no9 sets with ranges of 120 miles. worked in the rear. Their coding systems worked “admirably”.

They encountered problems too which would inform them in the future. Their “passes” which gave them access to key personnel, often seemed inadequate. Crucial information was received but not used effectively enough to form a counterattack.

With their motorcycle dispatches they were also more mobile; able to leave the roads congested with refugees and travel across country to deliver messages, avoiding “a great deal of enemy fire”.  The IWM interviewed John Arthur Theodore Morgan who was recruited by the newly established No 3 Military and Air Mission based in France, to command their Motorcycle Platoon equipped with motorcycles and motorcycle and side car combinations armed with Bren guns.  Read a summary here

As the situation deteriorated, patrols assumed fighting roles as they assisted the retreat.12

Those alongside the 4th Division at Berques and covered the withdrawal of the 144th infantry from Wormhoudt, leaving just an hour before the massacre6.  Phantom was also given the role of locating missing units.


Eventually, when it became obvious that the evacuation of the BEF was inevitable, Fairweather’s Air Mission and Hopkinson’s Mission were withdrawn and recalled to England. Hopkinson was injured in a motorcycle accident but successfully got his Mission via Bruges to Ostend from where they were evacuated to England on SS Marquis.

no 11 military mission group.jpg

left to right L/Cpl TiffinL/Cpl Middlemiss Lt Peter Purves Captain John Gabriel (Intelligence Officer) Lt J.W. Jackson L/Cpl Fisher Captain John S. Collings (5th Dragoon Guards) Driver Housden Lt Geoffrey SunleyLt Christopher Cadogan (died with SOE) L/Cpl Swann L/Cpl W.B. McGee (awarded M.M.) L/Cpl Anderson

However, Fairweather and the remainder of the Mission embarked on a different ship, the SS Abukir.


After sailing at 10pm, the Abukir was torpedoed by a German  E Boat about 8 miles off Ostend  and sunk within minutes. Fairweather and over 30 men were lost. F The Role of Honour can be found using the link below. Out of 500 aboard, only 24 survived, amongst them several of the mission, including 2nd Lieutenant Reddaway (whose recollections can be found here)  who had embarked late and was on deck when the ship was torpedoed.

Hopkinson and his fellow survivors returned to London where Phantom's contributions were analysed, leading to the next chapter in their history, one of regrouping and expansion. Follow the story here.

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