Numbers stations are real and very weird. What are these and what are the successors to these bizarre transmissions? We delve into the mystery in this edition of Unpleasant Dreams.
CLICK HERE for E.M. Hilker’s original article.
The room is quiet and dark and a little cool. You’re sitting up on your bed, all of ten years old, and the light rain is tapping against the window, a steady rhythm that is occasionally punctuated by damp leaves hitting the glass in the sporadic winds, making shadows dance across your wall. Slowly turning the knob of your little radio that you keep close by your bed, listening to the static come in and out, occasional mechanical sounds. You freeze. The ghosts of a voice, maybe. Mechanical yet soft. You thought you heard – Is that? Yes! There’s a voice out there in the world, coming through this small little metal and plastic device to echo into the stillness of your darkened bedroom. (Radio plays with static: Four. Two. Seven. Zero. Four. Music plays.) The soft voice rises subtly on the last number, almost forming a question. Then there’s a snippet of mechanical music, almost a song. Again, the soft voice: (Radio plays with static: Four. Two. Seven. Zero. Four. Music plays.) And then, silence…but the ideas bloom in your mind as you fall asleep, ripening into the dreams that will carry you through the night.
So-called “Numbers Stations,” that is, shortwave frequencies on which a mysterious someone broadcasts snippets of code in the form of numbers, were first noted in the last months of the first world war. They were assumed, immediately, to be related to espionage, but little was known beyond that. The earliest ones used morse code, a staccato beacon of sound punctuating the air waves, though they progressed to use of real or synthesized human voices as the number of these “stations” increased over the years, reaching its height during the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s and slowly falling off thereafter.
We don’t have a firm source for which Numbers Station was first, only when a transmission was first observed by those for whom the broadcasts were not intended. As with most super-spy intelligence, most government secrets, and most things that happen under the cloak of darkness and secrecy, we only know the parts of the secret that escaped, small drops of water leaking through the cracks of a powerful, strong dam. These stations sometimes use regular scheduled broadcasts and oftentimes do not; sometimes they use an interval signal (often a snippet from folk music) between the sets of numbers, sometimes they do not. They’re enigmatic and mysterious and endlessly fascinating. And, unsurprisingly, few have been terribly forthcoming about precisely what a Numbers Station is or what those broadcast numbers mean, though the Swedish Security Service has acknowledged the use of a station known as “Czech Lady,” run out of and used by Czechoslovakia, to communicate with a Swedish spy in the 1980s. And that is, in fact, most of what we know about Numbers Stations: they’re assumed to be a part of the intelligence community though there’s some evidence that they’re also occasionally used by criminal organizations for various forms of trafficking, and they’re used to broadcast secret messages that only the intended recipient is able to understand. It’s safer than a more direct approach – codes being given out over radio stations so that their intended target can’t be narrowed down; presumably they’re decoded on the other side of the broadcast using a purpose-made one-time cipher. This is one of many, many examples of cryptography at work in the real world.
Cryptography isn’t a new concept. Cryptography – that is, the science of encrypting and deciphering messages – has been around for millenia. The earliest encrypted messages, back in the days of the Caesars, used a simple substitution cipher, where each letter of the alphabet is replaced by a different letter of the alphabet consistently throughout the message. It was basic, new, and effective. As time passed, encryption became increasingly more intricate, with more and more complicated symbols and patterns, through to the Enigma and Lorenz machines used by the Axis powers in the second world war – physical machines that could jumble messages and decode them, and up to the modern techniques of data encryption used across everyday communication.
Arguably the most successful code breaking operation in the modern era, and certainly the most famous, was that of Bletchley Park during the second world war. Bletchley Park began its life as a private mansion, and was eventually taken over by the Government Code and Cypher School – a code-breaking arm of the MI6 – in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It now stands as a historical site and museum, and hosts lectures, tours, and a variety of events. At the height of the war, 10,000 people were employed there; perhaps the most famous was Alan Turing, but there were thousands of people involved in their efforts and successes. Bletchley Park was called “The goose that laid the golden eggs” and the assistance it provided seemed nearly miraculous enough to deserve that moniker: the work there has been said to have reduced the duration of the war by several years, and saved innumerable lives.
Numbers Stations are less direct than the communications intercepted by the codebreakers at Bletchley. The source of transmission is usually unknown, where the person intercepting the signal – the listener – is located cannot be traced, and in that sense it’s much more secure. You need to know where and when to tune in to even access the encrypted message in the first place, before the deciphering can even begin. When the numbers are obtained, due to the use of one-time encryption pads (destroyed after each use by both parties and its particular code never repeated), the deciphering itself is virtually impossible. Despite the relative safety of using shortwave to broadcast your encrypted messages, there have been a handful of arrests of operatives using Numbers Stations at the time of their arrest, including some recent ones in the UK in 1989, the US in 2001, and Germany in 2011, though the use of the Numbers Station wasn’t the clue that led to their discovery.
Perhaps the most famous number station in the English-speaking world is the “Lincolnshire Poacher,” which was not located in Lincolnshire, but rather Cyprus. It’s commonly believed to be run by the British Secret Intelligence Service, nevertheless. It got its name, much like another presumably-SIS station “Cherry Ripe” and many more lesser-known ones, from the notes used in the interval signal – Lincolnshire Poacher and Cherry Ripe are well-known English folksongs, and the interval signal is comprised of a smattering of notes taken from them. The Lincolnshire Poacher broadcast on a specific schedule and consisted of groups of five numbers spoken in a woman’s voice with an English accent, followed by the interval signal. Then, the numbers would again be repeated. It broadcast every weekday hourly from 12 – 16 hundred hours UTC, with an additional broadcast at 20 hundred on Mondays.
But how has the technology itself progressed? In a sense it hasn’t, because it doesn’t need to. Numbers Stations still exist – it takes some luck to find one, mostly they don’t run regular scheduled broadcasts, but with some luck and perseverance (or one of the numerous lists of frequencies available online), you can still catch a li tve transmission. They were and are very effective at transmitting information where no one can know who is listening.
Have they taken new forms, though? Perhaps. An answer to whether or not Numbers Stations and their ilk have evolved and embraced the world of the internet and satellites since the days of the cold war, may well lay in the social media site, Reddit. In 2011, a subreddit called, get ready for this, r/A-8-5-8-D-E-4-5-F-5-6-D-9-B-C-9 was created, on which a user, said to be a bot, posted strings of letters and numbers without explanation. Nothing was done to draw attention to it, but over a matter of weeks and months users began to trip across the subreddit and, suspecting it to be a code of some sort, began to attempt to decipher its messages. As groups dedicated to solving the puzzle began to emerge, the subreddit changed its setting to “private” and advised group members to unsubscribe because the project had ended.
Theories on what the subreddit was differ. The theory that this is a modern take on a Numbers Station, sending codes out to operatives throughout the world, is one of the more prevalent speculations. Of course, it’s easier to track who has accessed a website than it is to determine who has tuned into a shortwave radio frequency, though it would have the benefit of being less likely to be impacted by wind, rain, and storms, one of the few drawbacks to the Numbers Station method of subterfuge. Other theories on what A858 was include a recruitment tool for a spy agency of some variety and the work of extraterrestrials, but the reddit has been private for a number of years now, and no new information has come forth.
Will we ever have the full story behind these clandestine operations? It’s not very likely. Their very nature makes it almost certain that there are parts of the mystery we will never know. Political acts that were fulfilled by use of Stations that were never recorded and destroyed upon receipt of a broadcast message. Much of that will have been lost to the mists of time.
But we can still lay in the darkness, hear those words from a world away, maybe even another world for all we know, and let them allow us to dream.
Andrew, Christopher. The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Yale University Press, 2019.
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Blevins, Joe. “Read This: Unraveling the Mysteries of Reddit’s Notorious R/A858.” The A.V. Club, The A.V. Club, 25 May 2016. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
Chandler, Nathan. “How Numbers Stations Work.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 17 July 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2022.
Collins, Jeremy, and Sir John Dermot Turning. “Alan Turing and the Hidden Heroes of Bletchley Park.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, 24 June 2020. Retrieved 25 June 2022.
“How Alan Turing Cracked the Enigma Code.” Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 25 June 2022.
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“Welcome to Bletchley Park.” Bletchley Park. Retrieved 24 June 2022.