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H.M.S.IMPREGNABLE - SIGNAL TRAINING

by RALPH W.HILL

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
RALPH W.HILL
People in story: 
JAMES STOKES
Location of story: 
ST.BUDEAUX, DEVONPORT, PLYMOUTH
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4558223
Contributed on: 
27 July 2005

H.M.S.IMPREGNABLE - SIGNAL TRAINING
The V classes were for Visual Signals, which were conveyed by Morse Light, by Semaphore, and by Flag-Code in which each flag hoisted denoted a letter or sign. To a receiver who could read Morse but not Semaphore it was possible to transmit by Morse Flag, - a large double-handed flag - using quick and slow sideways movements, but Semaphore was much faster. Visual Signals were necessary because although wireless telegraphy had reached an advanced state, radio signals could be received by the enemy, and understood if in plain language. Furthermore, even coded radio-transmission was best kept to a minimum, because the more examples of one's code the enemy could receive, the more scope he had for breaking into the code. Also, whilst the Admiralty could safely transmit from the Admiralty in Whitehall via shoreline transmitters, if an enemy intercepted signals being transmitted by a ship at sea he could use RDF (Radio-Direction Finding) to pinpoint the direction from him in which the ship lay, and by plotting two such directions from two listening-stations some distance apart he could mark a cross on his chart giving him the ship's position.
Thus we had to learn the Morse Code, the Semaphore Code, the Royal Navy Code of Flags, and the International Code of Flags. We had been selected for Visual Signals because tests shewed that we had the intelligence and the good eyesight, particularly colour vision and night-vision, required. The W classes were for Wireless Operators, who at sea worked almost entirely in Morse Code received by radio, plus some use, severely restricted in wartime, of Radio-Telephone communication. Each Class numbered about twenty-four and was in charge of an Instructor, - a Yeoman of Signals. The W classes were instructed by a Petty Officer Telegraphist. Each class elected a Class Leader, who wore a small crown upon his left sleeve, and took command of us when marching.
In our signal-training we worked mostly in pairs, sometimes indoors and sometimes out. We would position ourselves at a suitable distance from each other, somewhat like children playing Cowboys & Indians, and take turns in sending and receiving sentences by Morse light and by Semaphore. Among the lights we used were Aldis Lamps, in operating which one uses a 'sight' on the top to aim at the receiver. The beam at rest points upwards at about 45°, but it is brought down to bear on the receiver by the pulling of a trigger. These were effective at night and in daylight in some conditions, and were always used in aircraft, but must be well-aimed. We had smaller trigger-lamps with a blue filter for short-distance night-signalling, (in darkness a glowing cigarette-end can be seen for three miles), but in daylight at sea we used a ten-inch lamp, like a small searchlight, with a side-handle which operated a horizontal venetian-blind-type shutter. The shutter made a loud noise, and a Signalman nearby could read the message just by listening. For semaphore we used two O flags (rectangular, divided diagonally, red and yellow) on short sticks.
Periodically our instructor would exercise and test us by operating the light or the semaphore flags himself, whilst one partner of each pair in turn called out the letters, signs, or figures and the other wrote them down. Since twentyfour men could not all be positioned to see the light from one of the regular lamps, he would use a Morse Key to operate a light mounted on the wall of the Drill Shed. We sent and received signals in Plain Language, in Code (groups of four letters) and Cypher (groups of mixed letters and figures). In this way we steadily worked up our accuracy and speed. There were also mechanical semaphore-arms, mounted on a pole and moved by two handles, from which we had to read. In semaphore we eventually reached the maximum of 23 words per minute, reading both from the sender facing oneself and from the back view, where of course all the asymmetric signs would appear reversed, - a becoming g, b becoming f, and so on, whereas the three symmetrical signs d, n, r, and u were unaltered. The semaphore call-sign is the letter J, formed with one flag vertical above the head and the left arm horizontal, so even at a distance too great to distinguish the sender's face one knew which way he was facing.
The knowledge of Semaphore can be very useful. At sea it allowed one to have a quiet chat with a mate on board another ship in company, from the back of the bridge, whilst the Yeoman and duty-signalman were exchanging the official messages up for'ard. In mixed company also, when ashore, perhaps in a canteen, one could exchange confidential words with a fellow-signalman by signalling with one's fore-fingers or a couple of pencils. Signalmen can also chat to one another in Morse Code, saying iddy for a dot and umpty for a dash.
When one Signalman is reading a visual message he usually has a mate standing by with a signal-pad and pencil, to whom he calls off the letters and figures. To avoid confusion arising from the similar sounds of letter-names, such as b, c, d, e, g, p, t, and v, we had to learn a set of words for the letters, such as able, baker, charlie, dog, easy, fox; and when co-operation with the U.S.Forces was in contemplation we had to learn their set too. A Signalman on watch by himself had to receive as much as he could reliably remember, and then signal the sender to make a pause to enable him to write it down, before signalling him to continue. I was on watch one night in Scapa Flow, and after checking that our call-sign was not being flashed at us I went down to the galley, spiked a small can of baked beans, and put it on the hot range to warm up. When I returned to the bridge I was 'called up', and found myself receiving, by this slow process, a long weather-report which entirely filled my foolscap-page pad. When I eventually returned to the galley I found my poor beans burned black. However, one could occasionally encounter other difficulties. One signalled the reception of each complete word by returning the letter T (a long flash). Once I was trying to send a signal involving a Petty-Officer with the surname YOUNGHUSBAND, but every time I reached the letter G the receiver, thinking he had the complete name, sent me a T. It was useless to continue, because he would have made nonsense of the rest, and I had to stop and tell him, Surname has twelve letters, before we could make further progress
It is one thing to read a morse-light signal indoors or around a signal-school, but quite another to do so from the bridge of a heaving ship, looking perhaps directly into the glare of the sun or the sunset, into a stiff wind, (perhaps involving rain, hail or snow) or through smoke, or through the invisible but distorting fumes emanating from the funnel of an oil-burning ship. From frequent exposure to these hazards a Signalman steadily acquires what are known as Signalman's Eyes. The muscles below and around the eyes become so habituated to maintaining the eyelids for prolonged periods in an almost-closed state for maximum protection that they become prominent, and a Signalman can be recognized as such from his eyes alone, before his arm-badge is noted. To these difficulties I found sometimes added the firing of a four-inch gun, or of an Œrlikon blasting away on its platform just below me on the bridge.
We had sessions also in the wireless hut, receiving Morse signals via headphones, but did not of course need to develop the speeds attained by the sparks in the W classes. We also had to study the Fleet Signal Book. This was a very weighty volume, two inches thick, bound in red, and within was inscribed the legend, THE COVERS OF THIS BOOK ARE WEIGHTED WITH LEAD, AND IF THROWN OVERBOARD IT WILL SINK, - a measure to be put in hand, of course, if capture became imminent.
As well as drill (square-bashing) and exertions in the gymnasium, we also performed physical exercises which combined signals-training with evolutions. The movements of a fleet at sea are controlled by flag-signals hoisted at the mast of the Senior Officer present. The Fleet Signal-Book contained all the necessary signals for giving the speed in knots, and the direction and scope of any alteration in course. For example, the two-flag signal Blue Nine meant Prepare to alter course ninety degrees to starboard. Each ship in company would acknowledge this signal by repeating it or by hoisting the Answer Pennant. The signal for the execution of the manoeuvre was the dipping of the signal. In daylight, this method was never beaten by any other for speed, but of course the day of such fleets at sea is long past. For our evolutions we would form-up in a squad three-abreast, and the yeoman would move us off at ten knots (marching) or twenty knots (at the double). Each time he gave an order he would raise his hand to represent the hoisting of the signal, and we would raise a hand to represent our answering pennant. When he shouted, Dip! we would answer by dipping, and turn or change speed as required.
We had some sessions at Glenholt Signal Camp, with instruction on the use of codes and of the cypher machines.
As a schoolmaster involved in the teaching of reading, I perceived an analogy with the reading of the Morse Code. In the latter one begins by learning the elements which form each letter, so b has to be learned as a dash and three dots, but soon the mind ceases to be aware of the elements and reads the whole sign as b. Later one begins both to read many short common words as whole units and to recognise longer words merely from their first few letters. From this analogy I maintain that the soundest method for teaching children to read is to teach the common sounds of the single letters of the alphabet, and of the common combinations such as ch, th, ph, and the magic e rules. Other methods have proliferated, but they are unsound and usually result in poor spelling. The common counter-argument is that very many of the commonest words, such as was, one, do not conform to this phonic approach. There are two sufficient answers to this: one, that hundreds of thousands of words do conform; the other, that since those common words are common, they are so often seen as to be easily assimilated.
At our first examination, after six weeks' training, I scored 100% and was thereafter always mockingly known as Prof., and more than twenty years later, when I exchanged letters with a V78 shipmate, he remembered me by that nickname. A consequence of passing was that one was issued with the arm-badge (for the right arm) to denote one's rating as Ordinary Signalman. After 11 weeks' training we had our second examination, followed by ten day's leave. After 16 weeks we had our third examination, and after 20 weeks our final examination, at which I secured first place with 88½%. This was followed by ten days' leave.
Jim Stokes of Bolton, who slept in the bunk below mine, failed to return from shore leave at the end of May. He was later apprehended in Bolton, fourteen days adrift, and an escort was sent to bring him back. He served some punishment detention, but was allowed to return to V78 and resume his training.
Just before I left Impregnable the Commanding Officer sent for me and told me that I was being designated a C.W. (Commissions, War) Rating, and that after I had served a year's probation, including service at sea, and provided that I maintained a good record, I would be sent to a selection board for possible promotion to commissioned rank. I describe in a later chapter what befell.
I suppose flags are now made of man-made fibres, but at that time they were of open-made worsted stuff called bunting, so all Signalmen were called Bunting-Tossers, and for my stories I have sometimes used the pseudonym Buntz.
Sometimes for clarity the character of a hoisted flag-signal required a space between flags or groups of flags on the same halyard, and we inserted a tackline, which was merely a piece of rope of the same length as those with flags attached, but with no flag, and this gave rise to the witticism of referring to a tall thin sailor as Cap-tackline-Boots.
There were many traditional nicknames attached to certain surnames, some of more obscure origin that others. Amongst them were Dusty Miller, Knocker White, Pincher Martin, and Nobby Clark. Other ad hoc nicknames might be coined. There was a famous incident in the American War of Independence called The Battle of Bunker Hill, and a U.S. capital ship was so named, so I was sometimes called Bunker.

My story, Bluebirds, Over refers to Morse training

(A copy of this chapter was deposited amongst the archives of the Department of Documents in the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ, in 1995.)

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