Since the turn of the last century, merchant navy radio officers have maintained the only link with civilization and have been responsible for saving many lives. Messages from ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore were hand written on a piece of paper called a radiogram and then given to the radio officer (RO) for transmission by Morse code (CW).  Samuel Morse would be very pleased if he were alive today knowing that his method of communication had been used so effectively for such a long time. This system worked very well until recently displaced by modern technology. Except for some isolated commercial usage and the amateur bands, CW now has become a victim of satellite communication. Whether or not this will translate into a more reliable mode of communication,  especially under emergency conditions, remains to be seen.

Three of the most common radiogram forms from that era are exhibited here. Radiogram explanations and a broad outline of the duties of a typical radio officer is given by Ian Coombe. Ian is a licensed amateur, VE2DOH and is the Canadian manager for the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society.  He served as a RO, mostly in Cunard liners and Union-Castle mail ships based in the U.K.  His time at sea was spent with the International Marine Radio Company (I.M.R.C.) of Croydon, England.  He also spent two years as an operator at Portisheadradio.

This station was the major HF marine radio facility in the UK having its receiving center at Burnham in Somerset.  The transmission site was at Portishead and all transmitters were remotely keyed from Burnham. Call sign GKA was used to denote Portisheadradio which incidentally, closed its doors at the end of April, 2000. The station used a series of calls depending on whether they were broadcasting or working specific ships. Examples - For broadcasting,  call signs GKA,  GKB  and  GKC were used for beamed transmissions to sub areas 1A, 1B and 1C.  Working frequencies were: GKH 4 MHz;  GKV 6 MHz;  GKL 8 MHz;  GKG 12 MHz; GKS 16 MHz  and GKI 22 MHz.


Exhibit 1: Marconigram printed on light yellow  paper stock.


A radiogram represented the only copy or record of a message having been sent Some masters would insert a carbon and retain a copy for their own reference.  Receiving forms were somewhat simpler in design and had provision for the ship charge.

Prefix = P
Serial No. of Msg. to Receiving station.= 1
Number of chargeable words = 7
Date = 21
Time (GMT) = 2205
(Any routing instructions) e.g. GKL QSP VIA ZSJ
Address = Brown  25  Newsstreet  Birmingham =
Text = Arrive twentyninth =
Signature = John

In this example, the radio officer has decided to use the **Long  Distance Area Scheme for onward transmission of his message.  Here, Capetownradio (ZSJ) will give a QSL (receipt) and then forward the message over the network to Portisheadradio in the U.K.  The officer could have contacted GKA directly on HF (high or medium frequency) but preferred to expedite the transmission via ZSJ.  Charges would be the same as if he had contacted GKA directly.

** This scheme provided for a long range ship/shore radiotelegraph radio communication service in which Commonwealth countries,  the Irish Republic and the Republic of South Africa participated. Foreign ships were not normally permitted to participate with the exception of foreign ships on British Government charter.  Area stations were linked by a naval point-to-point radio network.


RO's = Radio Officers as distinct from radio operators.

There have been cases of men signing on ship's articles and then refusing to sail until the designator above their cabin was changed from 'Radio Operator' to 'Radio Officer'.
Although well within their rights according to the Merchant Shipping Act this did not endear the 'new' RO with the master or other officers.

The majority of shipping companies leased their radio officers from Marconi, I.M.R.C. or Siemens.

OBS = Meteorological radio telegram.

Some vessels had volunteered their services to the national weather organization of the country of their ships registry.  This service was linked internationally and almost all the world's coast stations forwarded these messages to the appropriate forecasting service in their region. Messages were comprised of 5 figure code groups which indicated wet and dry bulb readings, atmospheric pressure,  wind speed and direction and the state of the sea.  Weather fax charts were then constructed for the information of both maritime and aeronautical services.

SVC =  Service type messages.

An RO might use SVC in his initial call to the shore station.  This would indicate that a message was to follow pertaining to the method of communication or any topic related
to the onward transmission of his traffic. There would be no charge for this exchange of information.  The indicator RQ might also be used for the same reason.  i.e. to ascertain the particular coast station and/or land line charges applicable.

TR =  During his initial call an officer might use this designator which means 'traffic routing'.  Format would be as follows:-


The tanker British Queen is entering Bahrain and closing the station. He is expected to leave the port on the 16th at 0600 GMT.


The Carinthia is leaving Liverpool bound for Montreal and  will be listening for all traffic lists from Portisheadradio beamed to area 1A (North Eastern Atlantic area) from the fourth
at 1600GMT.


The Pendennis Castle is entering Durban but will retain a listening watch for any traffic from Capetownradio (ZSJ).

TR's are inserted in the log for information of radio personnel only.

TFC =  Abbreviation for radio traffic of any kind,  commercial or unpaid.

Other prefixes used in radio telegrams:-

 S = Government message for which priority routing had been  requested.
 F = Government message for which the sender has not requested priority
       in transmission.
 A = Service message.
 ST = Paid service message.
 RST = Reply to a paid service message.
 URGENT = Urgent radio telegram.

Messages prefixed with MSG usually indicated a master's message to follow referring to the ship's business,  arrival  times,  bunkering info,  quarantine and/or  pilotage information etc.

Private crew or passenger messages usually prefixed P.

Prefixes are inserted before the OFFICE OF ORIGIN of a radiotelegram.

PSI (PAID SERVICE INDICATORS). These also gave directions regarding the type of message to follow and were at the request of the sender.  These would be placed immediately before the ADDRESS and would count as a chargeable word for tariff purposes.

Some examples of PSI's:- =Presse= ; =SLT= ; =OL= ; =TC=; =LX= ; =PC= ; =RM= ; =TM= :


As explained, the routing instructions in the above radiotelegram indicated that this radio officer had preferred to use Capetown as its first forwarding station. High frequency (HF) propagation might have been poor and to save time he may have passed the message on medium frequency (MF) if within ground wave proximity.  The call sign would have been Capetown- radio's MF station ZSC.  Both HF and MF operators were in the same office. The message was then sent over the network to the ultimate receiving station at Burnham.

In more recent years, with the cooperative Area Scheme no longer in effect,  ship's radio officers had to communicate directly with the HF receiving station in the country of destination.  In this case it might take a few days to clear traffic under conditions of poor propagation. Ships would always have the option of sending traffic to any station within range but might incur expensive additional charges.  Either the radio company or shipping company (if he was directly employed) might require an explanation at some later date.

Often the RO would have to decide the most prudent course to take appropriate to the contents of the message and not necessarily to appease the master's request for immediate transmission.  It was always possible that traffic forwarded over the Long Distance Area Scheme could be subject to a delay along the point to point network.

Some officers took it as a personal challenge to clear traffic directly to the country of destination.  Experienced RO's would  know which band to use most likely to effect communication.  They would be familiar with propagation conditions on the various bands in his particular region of the world, especially if he had been on that route before.  He might also remain on duty outside of his regular watch keeping hours and continue to call on HF in the hope of clearing the traffic directly.

Seasonal changes of frequencies at the area stations were made four times a year and complements for the ensuing period for each routine transmission were published in advance in what were known as Admiralty Notices to Mariners. One of the first jobs the officer had to do on joining the vessel was to ensure that all pertinent Notices for the forthcoming voyage had been filed and updated.

It should be mentioned that the prime purpose of a ship carrying a radio officer was for the safety of life at sea,  i.e. for distress or emergency communications.  He maintained a watch on the international calling and distress frequency 500 kHz at all times.  A single operator ship had an auto-alarm device which was in use when the officer was off watch. This equipment was basically a receiver also fixed tuned to 500 kHz and designed to receive an automatic alarm signal consisting of twelve consecutive dashes sent out by a vessel in distress. This would ring bells both in the radio officer's cabin and on the bridge. All other communications took secondary roles.  Along with clearing messages, an RO might be called upon to maintain the radar equipment along with other electronic equipment aboard the vessel and to take direction finding bearings as necessary. The latter equipment was usually installed in the bridge or chartroom. Whilst aboard and on 'articles', the RO reported directly to the master of the vessel who was the ultimate authority regarding the working of the radio station.



Exhibit 2: Front and back views of another Marconi radiogram design.

All traffic was entered on these forms including QSP  (relay free of charge) shipping  company traffic.  Most companies kept HF schedules with other ships of the same line.
This was especially the case on regular mail runs.  For example all Union Castle Mail ships sent a great deal of inter-ship traffic on HF with information for the agents at the receiving ships port of call,  depending on the urgency.  The master always had a pad in his office or cabin and such traffic was handled free of charge.   All the oil company vessels,  Shell,  BP,  Niarchos etc. also worked a lot of intership traffic along the same lines.

At the end of a voyage the radio accounts and all messages were sent to head office at time of signing off.


 Exhibit 3: RCA Radiogram

Throughout the 1960's and later, many shipping companies employed their own RO's.  All accounting was done through their own head offices.  As a point of interest,  RO's employed by the Marconi Company upon returning from sea would first be required to report to the local Marconi depot to hand in the accounts etc.   In some cases they would sit in the Marconi waiting room and be called by CW over a loudspeaker system. New RO's thought this rather strange but was supposedly in keeping with the traditions within the Company.  Marconi also claimed to have more depots throughout the world than the two other major radio companies. Upon investigation,  say for example in Freetown,  the Marconi 'depot' would often consist of a suitcase holding a few tubes, fuses and  antenna wire etc. the front of which was the local hotel bar or some dock office. That being said, Marconi was the largest provider of RO's for vessels around the world and most young men setting off to sea for the first time would choose Marconi if only due to the equipment being the same as that upon which they had been trained.

It was fairly common for some,  notably tramp ship owners,  to only install MF equipment as an attempt to save money. The frugality of ship owners is legendary. This meant that the RO would have to rely on the generosity of other radio officers within MF range and whose vessels were equipped with HF equipment to QSP (relay free of charge). The radio officer on a smaller cargo ship could not  claim to be in a high stress job in peacetime and provided he kept a constant watch on 500 Khz. A good Zane Gray novel or 'War & Peace' would help to pass the time.  In this respect, he was only too happy to assist a fellow operator on another vessel within MF range. Passenger liners and cruise ships were another story entirely with high levels of general traffic,  press and stock and share publications to keep the 'rich and famous' happy.

Radio officers who chose to sail on vessels flying the so-called 'flags of convenience'  were often paid above the British Board of Trade established pay scale.  This occurred in the late forties and early fifties when radio officers were in short supply due to the explosion of world shipping after the war. This was a somewhat precarious policy.

If the RO did not perform up to the standard demanded by the master he could find himself deposited on the quayside in some distant foreign port with his suitcase.  This might even occur if another 'free-lance' officer had surreptitiously come aboard and offered to work for the captain for less remuneration. Such a 'displaced' RO would then have to return to his home country on some other ship as a regular crew member working his passage and have DBS  (Distressed British Seaman) stamped in his discharge book. Some adventurous RO's thought the pay scale,  sometimes twice that of the British Board of Trade rates,  was worth the risk.

Such was the 'lot' of a typical radio officer in his heyday at sea.  It was a great beginning to a career and when considering the short training period . It only took 12 months to obtain a Second Class Postmaster General certificate and 15 months for the First Class. The 'return on investment' was well worth it.   It should be said that the course was not easy and required substantial study and application.  CW proficiency for a Second Class certificate was 20 words per minute and for a First Class 25 w.p.m.   The radio officer was expected to maintain all of the radio equipment aboard himself and if he also possessed a Ministry of Transport Radar Certificate, the bridge radar was added to his responsibilities.  Often a company paid additional remuneration for these additional qualifications.

Upon qualifying this would establish the young man as an officer who would receive all the appropriate 'perks' due an officer in the merchant service. This would include free food and individual accommodation (usually adjacent the radio office),  steward's services,  and a wonderful opportunity to see the world and get paid in the process".

[Radiogram blanks provided courtesy of David Ring, Jr.N1EA]

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