The story of HMS Venomous

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"Sparkers" and "bunting tossers"
Wireless Telegraphy Operators and
Visual Signalmen

Eric Pountney, Telegraphist, and George Speechley, Signalman, both joined HMS Venomous at Rosyth on the 31 July, the same day as its first wartime CO, Lt Cdr Donald MacIntryre RN.  Poultney must have used a tripod to photograph himself in the W/T Office on Venomous and his fellow telegraphists off duty in the dim light of their Mess deck. He kept copies of signals received or sent during the evacuation of the Welsh and Irish Guards from Boulogne on the 23 May 1940, one of the most dramatic events described in A Hard Fought Ship, and during the first of five trips to evacuate the troops from the North Mole and beaches near Dunkirk on the 31 May. They record events as they happened while the outcome was still in doubt. You can link to these signals from the foot of this page.

But before the signals tell their story I have asked a Wireless Telegraphist on a wartime destroyer to describe the use of telegraphy and visual signalling. Keith Burns (on right below) was nineteen when he joined the modern U Class destroyer, HMS Undaunted, at Malta in September 1944 as a Wireless Telegraphy Operator. Its Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Angus A. Mackenzie RNR, had been "No 1" to Lt Cdr John McBeath RN, the CO of HMS Venomous at Boulogne and Dunkirk in 1940.

Keith described to me in a series of e-mails the work of the telegraphists aboard a wartime destroyer and gave me a better understanding of the photographs and naval signals brought home from the war by Eric Pountney.

Keith BurnsWT Badge"It took five months to train a Wireless Telegraphy Operator. They began by learning Morse code and the navy's methods of sending and receiving signals. To pass out at the end of the course they had to be able to read at twenty-two words per minute and transmit at ten words per minute. Telegraphists were also trained in coding since there were very few coders at the beginning of the war.

Once completing training one became an Ordinary Telegraphist and advanced to Telegraphist and Telegraphist (Trained Operator).  Some ships had a Leading Telegraphist and all destroyers would have a Petty Officer Telegraphist. Flotilla Leaders would have a Chief Petty Officer.

Rates were distinguished by the badge on their right arm. All Telegraphists wore a badge with wings crossed by  streak of lightning representing a radio frequency pulse. Telegraphists (Trained Operators) wore the same wing but above it was a star. Leading Telegraphists (W/T3) wore the wing with one star above and one star below and like all other Leading ratings, were entitled to wear an anchor, known as a 'killick', on the other sleeve. This was known as 'Having picked up the hook'. The badges (similar to an army corporal's 'stripes') on the left arm beneath the killick were awarded for good conduct., one after three years service, two after seven years and three after twelve years. Keith Burns was a Leading Telegraphist with one badge below the hook (killick) on his left sleeve when this photograph was taken. A Petty Officer Tel. would have a crown above the wings and crossed anchors on the other arm (on left). The Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist wore the wings on each collar of his jacket, with a crown above, and a single star below but only after having had the rate for a year.

The bulk of the signals were at relatively long range. Radio Silence was usually essential so they mainly came from shore bases. We sat in the W/T Office in front of a receiver and wore headphones while we read all the signals that were transmitted to ships in the part of the world in which we were operating. Separate sets were used for transmitting and receiving, the latter being smaller. Some of the signals were for the attention of all ships in that region and others for particular ship(s). The equipment in the photograph of photograph of the W/T Office on Venomous is very different from that on HMS Undaunted.

W/T Office on HMS VenomousEngland expects ... Nelson's signalThe signal had to be framed in a certain way beginning, obviously, with the address. The address would be in letters and the text in groups of four figures. Every signal, even if it were for the same ship, would have a different address and it would only become clear as to who it was for when the address had been decoded. Ten signals, ten different addresses due to the coding. I know it sounds double dutch but it was the sophistication of the coding.

When the address had been received and written on a message pad, we would let the coder on watch see this and he would decode the address to see if it concerned us. The key to the code were the two identical five figure groups at the beginning and end of the signal. I have always considered that it must have been impossible to break the code but I don't know if the enemy ever managed it. The coder would either decode the text himself or if the security was above a certain level pass it to the ship's Signals Officer for decoding.  All ships carried a Signals Officer and on destroyers this was often the ship's Navigating Officer.

Petty Officer Telegraphists sometimes insisted that the telegraphist reading the signal should read it all even if we had no interest in it. This was seen as good practice in developing one's skills. These transmissions went on 24 hours each day and in the rare cases of there being nothing to send, then the transmitter would repeat signals sent earlier. These signals were known as "Routines" and it was usually the job of the more junior ratings to read these. As a result they were reading constantly during their watch. No let up. There were times when signals were impossible to read due to atmospherics or other conditions. Signals were consecutively numbered so we knew if something had been missed. Some telegraphists were better at tuning a receiver than others, a constant frustration. Unless engaged with the enemy radio silence was essential to avoid giving away the position of the ship and for close range communication the visual signalman came into their own.

Mayland on signalling lampIn 1905 Midshipman Eric E.C. Tufnell painted "Nelson's Famous Hoist at Trafalgar" in his Midshipman's Log but at the Battle of Jutland signal flags had been obscured by smoke from the funnels of the battleships. "Bunting tossers" (Visual Signalmen) increasingly communicated with other ships in company with flashing lights (in morse but plain language, not coded). There were 20 inch and 10 inch signalling lamps and smaller hand held Aldis lamps. In clear weather the 20 inch lamp could be read quite easily at 10 miles distance but lamps could only be used in daylight. After dark they would have been a security risk. Oscar Maylands is the man using the large lamp in the photograph. Flags were still used for passing signals at close range but their use diminished as Radio Telegraphy (for voice transmission) became more popular, particularly amongst the huge fleet operating in the Pacific. The same equipment was used for receiving and transmitting, unlike W/T.

We had eleven telegraphists and two coders on HMS Undaunted and I think that was fairly typical for destroyers. On our Mess we had telegraphists, visual signalmen and coders but no RDF operators (they were classed as seamen). Hammocks were slung over the mess table but only after a certain time in the evening. The long seat on which we sat at the table had a top which could be lifted up and covered our lockers. The seat was topped with a cushion and some ratings slept on this instead of slinging their hammocks. One of the most popular places was on the table itself where the person would lay his hammock.

Two telegraphists would be on watch together in the W/T Office and there were, of course, four watches. I was interested to see the photo taken in the W/T Office on Venomous and it looks as if it was even more cramped than ours. I did not recognise any of the wireless sets. I guess they had all been superceeded by my time.

Mess Deck on HMS VenomousEric Pountney in the Wireless Office

Left: the Mess Deck where telegraphists and coders spent their time between watches relaxing, eating and sleeping

Right: Eric Pountney in the Wireless Telegraphy Office on HMS Venomous
Courtesy of Erica Pountney and Angela Bowley, the daughters of Eric Pountney, the photographer

HMS Venomous was an elderly V&W Class destroyer built in 1919 and HMS Undaunted was a modern newly built U Class destroyer. The equipment we used was more advanced than that installed in HMS Venomous when Eric Pountney  (photographed below) joined it in August 1939. Bill Legg, Curator of the Royal Navy Museum of Radar and Communication describes the equipment used on Venomous at the bottom of this page.

Procedures may also have changed between1939 when Eric Pountney joined Venomous and 1944 when I joined Undaunted. I think the signals he kept are copies, not originals, as they differ from the standard  practice for recording the Time of Origin (TOO) in 1944. The time which we put on a signal comprised the first two figures for the date and the next four figures for the time (the month was not recorded) and then a letter which represented the time zone.


Wireless Telegraphist

By the time I joined Undaunted there was one transmitting station (Whitehall) for the whole of the Home and Atlantic Fleets, one for the Mediterranean Fleet, and a very few others but surprisingly only one (Hawaii - Pearl Harbour) for the entire Pacific.

The Americans made their routine signals by machine which transmitted at about 30 words per minute and when reading these it was totally impossible to write quickly enough. All American telegraphists (Radiomen) were trained to type so that when receiving speeds at this rate they could type instead of writing. When the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was formed and we arrived in the Pacific, all our telegraphists had to be trained in typing. The Royal Navy was embarrassed that it could neither send of receive Morse Code at the speed of the USN, which, months later, after VJ day in August 1945, led to a complete rethink on training RN Telegraphists.

Towards the end of the war Radio Telephone (R/T) came to be used between ships in company and uncoded voice messages were transmitted. This was a tremendous advantage to the fleet in company. It also relieved the Signalmen of a lot of work much to the disgust of the telegraphists! There were many ancillary matters covered by telegraphists such as the technical aspects of the equipment, batteries etc.

A few telegraphists were trained as High Frequency/Direction Finders (HF/DF, known as "huff-duff") to determine the position of German U-boats and commerce raiders, but they only had to carry out these duties at specific times. At other times they had the normal duties of "sparkers" which
lightened the load on the mainstream telegraphists and we could switch to four watches instead of three.

I would like to finish by telling you a personal story. I was on watch in the W/T office during the middle of the night. Things were fairly quiet and I had turned the volume on my receiver to its highest level and then hung my headphones around my neck. Of course I fell asleep. Asleep on watch - was there a worse crime? Who should come into the office but our Signals Officer. Did he put me on a serious charge? No. He put his hand on my shoulder, I awoke and he said, 'Burns, one day someone will catch you asleep on watch.' Then without another word he walked out and the event was never mentioned again. I made sure it never reoccured and the officer's behaviour was a lesson to me in humanity which I was able to use in my own career, with my own staff. I told him this after the war."

Radio Telegraphy equipment on HMS Venomous

Bill Legg of The Royal Navy's Museum of Radar and Communication describes the equipment for receiving and transmitting telegraphy on HMS Venomous when Eric Pountney joined in August 1939 and later modifications:

"Venomous went to war with archaic equipment installed in the late 1920s but was still able to communicate with the shore and other Fleet Units at sea. Visitors to the Royal Navy Museum of Radar and Communications can see a mockup of a 1920 period W/T Office. The receiver consisted of up to six separate parts, each bulkhead mounted and interconnected. The transmitter, was similar but had fewer units married together. Venomous had two quite separate areas devoted to wireless telegraphy, the main operating area containing the receiver and associated equipment and another for the high powered transmitter.

The Type 37S transmitter had been introduced in 1924 and last modified in 1930. The "SPARK" waveform of the Type 37S was extremely dangerous and unpredictable and in the past operators had received fatal electric shocks and RF burns. The operator sat well away from the transmitter in a 'cage' which in a small ship like Venomous was an integral part of the W/T office. The high powered transmitter was connected to the aerial on the superstructure via metal trunkings which ran through the decks of the ship, and this trunkings radiated dangerous RF voltages resulting in very little of the power actually getting to the aerial - such were the losses. Touching that trunking, or being thrown onto the trunking in rough weather, was not recommended.

In 1942 following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour and Germany's declaration of war on America the US stepped up its assistance to Britain, including the supply of modern radio communication equipment to the Royal Navy. HMS Venomous may have been equipped with the new US supplied Type 60 transmitter or one of its variants during its major refit in the first quarter of 1942 after its collision with HMS Keppel. This transmitter was kept quite separate from the receiver in the W/T Office and wired with coaxial cable direct to a transformer which was directly connected/coupled to the intended aerial. Thus, all the intended output power went into the ether and personal shocks became a thing of the past. HMS Undaunted would have been fitted with the Type 60 transmitter when built."

 From Morse Code to Modern Data Transmission

Morse Code required expert operators to intrepret the signals into alpanumeric characters but eventually machines were developed which de-skilled the task by allowing characters to be typed and printed which could be used by low paid operators. Electro-mechanical machines were replaced in the 1970's with computers, the 5 bit Baudot Code grew into 7 bit ASCII code allowing 128 characters to be coded. Today ASCII is replaced by Unicode, a 32 bit code which can encode every characterof every language of the world, but the basic principles of the modern Internet age are still those of Wheatstone and Morse. Wth due acknowledgement to "Telegraphy: a brief history" by Trevor L Cass.

I shall end this page with another of Keith Burns' stories:

"I left Undaunted just after the war ended as she was not allowed to carry a Leading Telegraphist and after a spell in barracks in Sydney I joined the aircraft carrier, Implacable, one of the very big ones.  We soon left the Pacific to come home and we carried Admiral Sir Philip Vian (Vian of the Cossack). At that time he was Admiral Commanding Aircraft Carriers.

The W/T office was situated just below the bridge and was adjacent to the Admiral's bridge. One night, on the middle watch, probably about 2 am. I was in the office when who should come in but the Admiral. Unheard of. As I was in charge of the watch I immediately stood up and then he asked 'Who is in charge of the watch?'  I started to shake in my shoes and wondered what had I done or what had I not done but managed to answer 'I am sir'.  Then to my absolute amazement he asked "Do you play bridge?"  I had to admit that I didn't and then he explained why he had asked the question.  He said 'Well, out here we have the Captain, my Flag Lieutenant and  me and we want a fourth to play bridge'. I apologised for my lack of expertise and he thanked me and left.  I have always regretted not having been tutored in the art of the card game."

Keith Burns describes his service as a telegraphist in the Royal Navy

Eric Pountney kept copies of the naval signals received and sent by HMS Venomous during the evacuation of the Welsh and Irish Guards from Boulogne on the 23 May 1940 and on the 31 May when Venomous made the first of five trips to evacuate the troops from Dunkirk. There was no need to preserve radio silence as the destroyers were in close contact with the enemy and their positions were known. Most of the signals are from ship to shore where, Bertram Ramsay, Vice Admiral Destroyers (VAD) was directing operations from Dover Castle. These signals give a vivid impression of decisions being made and sometimes reversed in response to rapidly changing events.

Follow events as they happened by reading the naval signals received and sent by HMS Venomous at
 Boulogne on the 23 May 1940 and Dunkirk on the 31 May 1940

Eric Pountney was a keen photographer and his pictures tell the story of his wartime service

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