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Merchant Navy Radio Officers
The Ship’s Radio Room in World War II
|The above photo (Canadian National Archives Reference PA-213725 (WRN-779) was taken by Nicholas Morant. It shows Art Sim in the radio room on board the Gatineau Park in February 1943, on the Saint John to Halifax leg of a trans-Atlantic voyage. Thanks to Nelson Oliver for the photo, and to Joanna Greenlaw, Harold Hopkins, and Paul Enrico, and others of the Radio Officers Association for assistance in identifying the equipment shown.|
|Radio Room Clocks
The clocks in the Radio Office were all set to Greenwich mean time, which was always referred to as Zulu time. The clocks had two segments painted on the dial, one segment at quarter to and the other at quarter past the hour. This was to remind the operator not to transmit during this time, but to listen for distress calls.
During World War Two, however, the radio operators had to maintain strict radio silence. They listened for scheduled messages sent to the convoys and independent ships from Portishead and Rugby Radio on the HF band. The rest of the time, they listened for calls on the 500 k/cs (600 metres) MF band. If the ship were attacked, they would transmit a four-letter code. For example, SSSS, would indicate an attack by U-boats, AAAA for aircraft, and QQQQ for armed surface raiders. The SOS code was not normally used in convoys in wartime.
|US Maritime Commission||Chinese clock||German clock||US Shipping Board|
|The photographs of the above clocks are from the collection of Roger Karl. The first clock is a U.S. Maritime Commission Victory ship clock from World War II. On this clock, there is a second hour hand (white) which is a “slave” to the black hour hand. The purpose of this second hour hand is to indicate Greenwich Mean Time (time zone Z). In this case, the black hand is set to Eastern Standard Time and the “slave” hand is plus 5 hours for GMT. The second clock is Chinese. The entire face has been hand-painted, faithfully reproducing every number and second mark, but the clock lacks a sweep second hand. The third clock is German. The radiotelephone silence periods (at 12 and 6) have been marked in green pencil. Presumably this clock was made before the radiotelephone silence periods were mandated, and the clock continued in service after the mandate took effect. The fourth clock is a U.S. Shipping Board clock, the predecessor of the U.S. Maritime Commission that was responsible for creating the U.S. Emergency Fleet (of Merchant Marine ships). The radiotelegraph silence period (when the operator was to listen for distress signals) resulted from the sinking of the Titanic. This regulation came into effect internationally in 1912, following an International Radio Conference in London, England.. The automatic alarm procedure come in just prior to WWII when the equipment became available to automatically detect the signal, and the radiotelephone silence periods came in after WWII. All three procedures were discontinued around 1999.|
|Codes & Cyphers|
|For those interested in codes & cyphers used in World War II, the RMS Rangitane website contains information about Merchant Navy signal codes, including the BAMS (Broadcast Allied Merchant Ships) cypher. The BAMS code book was used by all allied shipping, including the Americans. There was a call sign for the convoy, and for each individual ship.BAMS was a merchant naval shore to ship broadcast using Civilian Long Range and Coastal Radio stations, but controlled by the Navy. Merchant ships copied these broadcasts (Morse) and did so without breaking radio silence. Information sent included weather reports, navigational hazards (including minefields), reports of enemy contacts, safe navigational routes, distress traffic, etc. Not all messages needed to be sent in code. Very few messages were directed to individual ships, particularly those sailing unescorted.. For more information, refer to Merchant Navy Signal Codes.|
|Read what really happened in the Titanic‘s Radio Room and
RMS Titanic’s Chief Radio Officer, John George (Jack) Phillips
MorseMad – a British site with information on Morse keys, Morse tutor software, etc.
|Long range maritime radio communications: 1920 – 2000. During World War II, “two way communication with ships changed to a broadcast of traffic without any acknowledgment of receipt. For obvious reasons, transmissions from ships were kept to a minimum so as not to release their positions and destinations. However, distress calls, enemy sighting reports, news of the North Africa landings and clandestine signals from Europe ensured the station was kept busy.”|
|Short wave radio telephone communications to America had been established from Rugby Radio in the 1920s. During World War II, however, the radio telephone overseas services were suspended, with the exception of one or two particular services. The transmitters were mostly converted for telegraph working and put to the use of the armed forces.. GBR in particular becoming of vital importance to the Navy and other shipping interests.|
|Equipment in the Radio Room|
|For a look at a ship’s radio room visit the HMCS Haida Naval Museum where, under the guidance of Jerry Proc, you can take a tour of the Haida’s radio rooms, and learn about some of the WW2 and postwar radio equipment.
You can also visit the Reading Room for more articles and information.
Visit the radio room on the Liberty ship SS John Brown
Visit the Marine Radio Historical Society.
Another interesting site is Uncle Sparky’s Merchant Marine Radio Shack