Prior to World War One, few merchant ships carried radio operators. However, during the war radio became a critical necessity for the merchant marine, for monitoring enemy vessels and helping ship convoys maintain order. This account reviews British activities during this period.
Merchantmen-At-Arms, David W. Bone (illustrated by Muirhead Bone), 1919, pages 120-124:
ON SIGNALS AND WIRELESS
FOR war conditions our methods and practice of signalling were woeful deficient. In sailing-ship days the code was good enough; we had no need for Morse and semaphore. We had time to pick and choose our signals and send them to the mast-head in a gaudy show of reds and blues and yellows. Our communications, in the main, were brief and stereotyped. "What ship? Where from? How many days out? Where bound? Good-bye--a pleasant passage!" Occasionally there was a reference to a coil of rope or a tierce of beef, but these were garrulous fellows. The ensign was dipped. We had 'spoken'; we would be reported 'all well!'
Good enough! There were winches to clean and paint, bulwarks to be chipped and scaled, that new poop 'dodger' to be cut and sewn. "Hurry up, there, you sodgerin' young idlers! Put the damned flags in the locker, and get on with the work!"
With steam and speed and dispatch increasing, we found need for a quicker and more instant form of signal correspondence. New queries and subjects for report grew on us, and we had to clip and abbreviate and shorthand our methods to meet the lessening flag-sight of a passing ship. We altered the Code of Signals, adding vowels to our flag alphabet. We cut out phrases like 'topgallant studding sail boom' and 'main spencer sheet blocks,' and introduced 'fiddley gratings' and 'foo-foo valve.' Even with all our trimming, the book was tiresome and inadequate. We began to fumble with Morse and semaphore, with flashlights and wig-wags and hand-flags.
We did it without a proper system. As a titbit to our other 'snippings,' medicine, the Prayer Book, the law, ship's business, the breeches buoy, shipcookery! Fooling about with flags and tappers and that, was all very well for the watch below, but there was work to be done--the binnacles to be polished, the sacred suji-mudji to be slapped on and washed off!
Hesitating and slipshod and inexact as we were, at least we made, of our own volition, a start; under proper and specialized direction, have made an efficient and accurate addition to the sum of our sea-lore. But we were wedded to titbits. Late on the tide, as usual, the Board of Trade woke up to what was going on. They added a 'piece' to our lessons, without thought or worry as to the provision of facilities for right instruction. We crammed hard for a few days, fired our shot at the right moment, and forgot all about it.
Withal, in our own amending way, we were enthusiastic. We learned the trick of Ak and Beer and Tok and Pip. We slapped messages at one another (in the dog-watches), in many of which a guess was as good a translation as any. Our efforts received tolerating and amused recognition from naval officers (secure in possession of scores of highly trained signal ratings). If we came, by chance, across an affable British warship, she would perhaps masthead an E (exercise), to show that there was no ill-feelings. Then was the time to turn out our star man, usually the junior-est officer, and set him up to show that we were not such duffers, after all! Alas! The handicaps that came against us! The muddled backgrounds (camouflage, as ever was!), the fatal backthought to a guess at the last word! The call and interfering counter-call from reader to writer, and writer to reader, and, finally, the sad admission--an inevitable Eye, emmer, eye (I.M.I.--please repeat), when our scrawl and jumble of conjectural letters would not make sense! We have yet a mortifying memory of such an incident, in which a distant signalman spelt out to us, clearly and distinctly, "Do you speak English?"
Under the stress of war we have improved. Fear for the loss of important information has spurred us to keener appreciation. If you promise not to flirt the flags backhanded (a most damnably annoying habit of superior, flic-flac Navy men) we can read you in at ten or twelve words a minute. For single-ship work, that was good enough; if we had a press of signalling to attend, we could make up for our busy time in leisurely intervals. But convoy altered that. In the Naval Service a signalman has nothing whatever to do in the wide world but attend to signals. It is his only job: a highly trained speciality. With us the demands of ship work on our bare minimum crews do not allow of a duty signaller; he must bear a hand with the rest to straighten out the day's work. In convoy, with signals flying around like crows at the harvest, we found our way of it unworkable. It resolved itself to what used to be called a 'grand rally' in pantomime--all hands on the job, and the officer of the watch neglecting a keen look-out to see that note of the message was kept properly.
The naval authorities took counsel. The experiment had been a 'try on,' in which they (with their large staff of special signalmen) had assessed our ability as greater than their own! It was decided to train signalmen--R.N.V.R.--for our service. Pending their formation and development, we were given skilled assistance from the crews of our ocean escorts. But for our gun ratings, and they mostly R.N.R., we had no experience of the regular Navy man in our muster. He spun a bit, trimming the grass, before he found rest and a level. With us only for a voyage, we did not get to know him very well, but in all he was competent enough.
One we had, from H.M.S. Ber--Sharpset, Private Henry Artful, R.M.L.I. Drouthy, perhaps, but a good hand. At the end of sailing day, when the flags were made up and stowed, he came on the bridge.
"Fine night, sir!" We assented, curiously; democratic and all as we are, it is rather unusual for our men to be so--so sociable. "Larst capt'in I wos with, sir, 'e allus gimme a drink after th' flag wos stowed."
We stared, incredulous. "What! Do you say the captain of Sharpset gave you a drink when your work was done?" He started in affright. "Not the capt'in o' Sharpset, sir! Oh no, sir!--Gawd!--No! Th' capt'in o' th' larst merchant ship wot I wos signallin' in!"
His horror, genuine and unconcealed, at our suggestion of such an unheard-of transaction, gave illustration alike of the discipline in His Majesty's ships and, sadly, the lack of it in ours.
In time our quickly trained R.N.V.R.'s joined. They came from Crystal Palace, these new shipmates. Clean fellows--smart. Bacon-curers, Cambridge men, lawyers, shopmen, clerks, haberdashers--trimmed and able and willing to carry on, and lacking only a little ship practice, and a turn of sea-legs, to fit them for a gallant part in delivering the goods. With their coming we are introduced to a line of longshore life that had escaped us. There is talk and ado of metropolitan habits and styles, of 'Maudlen' and high life, of music scores, the latest revue, the quips of the music-halls. ("When Pa--says--turn" is now the correct aside, when Commodore gives executive for a new angle on the zigzag!)
At the first we were somewhat concerned at the apparent 'idleness' of our signalman. He was on our books for but one employment--the business of flags and signals. In intervals of his special duties he made an odd picture on the bridge of a merchant ship--a man without a 'job.' The firemen, on deck to trim ventilators, would take a peep at him as at some strange alien; seamen, passing fore and aft on their reliefs, would nod confidently. "Still diggin' wet sand, mate ? . . . Wish I 'ad your job!" There were days when he was busy enough--'windmilling' with the hand-flags, or passing hours in hoist and rehoist when Commodore was sharpening the convoy to a precision in maneuver, but on open sea his day was not unduly crowded. There were odd hours of 'stand-by' under screen of the weather-cloth, intervals of leisure which he might use as he liked, provided he kept a ready ear for the watch officer's call. Reading was usual. In this his taste was catholic. Tit-Bits and My Dream Novelettes found favour; one had back numbers of the Surveyor and Municipal and County Engineer, old volumes of Good Words from the Bethel box found a way to the bridge; we saw a pocket volume of Greek verse that belonged to the bold lad who altered our signalled 'will' to 'shall'!
For all his leisured occupation he was quick enough when the call of "Signals" brought him to business. His concentration on the speciality of the flags brought an accuracy to our somewhat haphazard system of signalling. We benefited in more than his immediate work by promoting his instruction of our young seamen. Spurred, perhaps, by the knowledge of our quondam haberdasher's efficiency, the boys improved rapidly under his tuition. We paid a modest bonus on results. We are looking forward. We shall not have our duty signalman with us when there is 'peace bacon' to be cured.
Another new shipmate who has signed with us is the wireless operator, the lieutenant of Signor Marconi, our gallant salvator in the war at sea. If we may claim for our sea-service a foremost place in national defence, it is only by grace of our wireless we register a demand. Without it, we were undone. No other system of communication would have served us in combat with the submarine; spurlos versenkt, without possibility of discovery, would have been the triumph of the enemy. If to one man we seamen owe a debt unpayable, Marconi holds the bond.
Unthinking, we did not accept our new shipmate with enthusiasm. Before the war he could be found on the lordly liners, tapping out all sorts of messages, from the picture-post-card-like greetings of extravagant passengers to the deathless story of Titanic and Volturno. We looked upon him as a luxury, only suited to the large passenger vessels. We could see no important work for him in the cargo-carriers; we could get on very well without a telegraph to the beach. A week of war was sufficient to alter our views; we were anxious to have him sign with us. Although he is now an important member of the crew, his reception at first was none too cordial. The apparent ease and comfort of his office rankled in contrast to the rigours of the bridge and the hardships of the engineroom. His duties--specialized to one operation--we deemed unfairly light in comparison with our jack-of-all-trades routine. In port, he was a lordling--no man his master--able to come and go as the mood took him. Frankly, we were jealous. Who was this to come among us with the airs of a full-blown officer, and yet not a dog-watch at sea? Messed in the cabin too, and strutted about the decks with his hands in his pockets, as bold and unconcerned as any first-class passenger! We were puzzled to place him. He talked airily of ohms and static leaks, ampere-hours and anchor-gaps, and yet, in an unguarded moment, had he not told us of his experiences in a Manchester broker's office, that could have been no more than six months ago? The airs of him! Absurd assumption of an official confidence between the Old Man and himself, as if he had the weight of the ship's safety on his narrow shoulders! As for his baby-brother assistant--that kid with the rosy cheeks--everybody knows that all he does is to screw up his 'jimmy fixin's' and sit down good and comfortable to read "The Rosary," with his dam mufflers on his ears! Huh!
But we are wiser now! Here is a text for our conversion. It is a record of a wireless conversation between a merchantman attacked and a British destroyer steaming to her assistance from somewhere out of sight.
"Are you torpedoed?"
"Not yet. . . . Shots in plenty hitting. Several wounded. Shrapnel, I believe. Broken glass all round me."
"Keep men below. Stick it, old man!"
"Yes, you bet. Say, the place stinks of gunpowder. Am lying on the floor. . . . I have had to leave 'phones. My gear beginning to fly around with concussion. . . . Captain is dead. . . . "--an interval--" Submarine has dived! Submarine has dived!"
Yes, we are wiser now! We admit him to full fellowship at sea. And on land, too! We admit him the right to trip it in Kingsway or the Strand, with his kid gloves, and his notebook, and his neat uniform, for his record has shown that it does not require a four-years' apprenticeship to build up a stout heart; that on his 'jimmy fixin's' and their proper working depends a large measure of our safety; and if the crack does come and the air is thick with hurtling debris, broken water and acrid smoke, our first look will be aloft to see if his aerial still stands. We do him and baby brother the honour that we shall not concern ourselves to wonder whether they be ready at their posts!