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A Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy

image well paidIt was in 1956 that I first met Oscar Ashe, the recruiting officer for the Marconi International Marine Communications Company, who introduced me to the prospect of an exciting career as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy where I would be "Paid to see the World".

It all seemed too good to be true. I had always had an interest in radio and all things electrical plus a love for sailing and the sea and so, armed with a Marconi grant, I began my studies at Norwood Technical College for the "Certificate of Competence in Radiotelegraphy and Authority to Operate". This was granted by the Postmaster General and was the required qualification to serve as a Radio Officer on British ships in the Merchant Navy at that time.

There were two classes of PMG certificate, the standard Second Class and a more advanced First Class. I obtained my 2nd in July 1957 and 1st in November 1957. In the interim college summer recess I took up my first posting on the S.S. "Isle of Jersey" as 2nd Radio Officer, serving under Tommy Stubbs, reputed to be the oldest serving "Marconiman" and aged 72 as I recall. This was to be the start of my 16 year career with Marconi Marine, 3 years of which were spent at sea as a Radio Officer and the balance working on their shore staff in technical posts. There is no doubt that these were the most rewarding years of my working life.

Radio Officers were either employed directly by some shipping companies or - as was often the case - by wireless companies. These included the Marconi International Marine Communications Co., International Marine Radio Ltd., Siemens (AEI) and Redifon Ltd., each contracting for the supply of the wireless-room equipment and the operating staff to ship owners. Upon qualification it was customary to be approached by wireless companies and shipping companies seeking recruits but as I had received support from M.I.M.C.Co., my decision to join that Company was a forgone conclusion.

Wireless Operators - or Radio Officers as they would become known - were first employed in the Merchant Navy as far back as 1900. They soon became recognised for the essential role that they played in ensuring the safety of life at sea by providing the means by which ships could maintain emergency communications with each other PMG 1st Class Certificate imageand land based radio stations. Their ability to save lives was clearly demonstrated in those early days to both ship owners and the public when in January 1909 wireless operator Jack Binns managed to send out a distress message from the White Star liner "Republic" when she was rammed by the "Florida" a ship carrying immigrants. Assisted by the "Baltic", only three lives were lost in that collision and many thousands saved. Three years later radio was to play an equally-important role in the "Titanic" disaster when the "Carpathia" responded to her distress messages and was able to save some seven hundred souls.

Two world wars saw the destruction of many merchant ships and once again the Radio Officers on many of those ships gave their lives so that those of many of their ship mates could be saved. In World War II some 2,952 British ships were sunk and 1,408 Radio Officers were killed, many following the long-held tradition that they would stay at their posts in the Radio Room until the last possible moment before their ships went down.

Sadly, from midnight, January 31, 1999, international regulations no longer required ships at sea to be equipped to call for help in an emergency using the traditional Morse code 'SOS' distress signal. On February 1, the automated Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) - using satellite and newly-developed state-of-the-art communication techniques - became the adopted standard, making the specialist Radio Officer redundant.

Thus ended this extraordinary career opportunity for other young men to be paid to see the world and experience the unique brotherhood that continues to exist amongst radio operators of all nationalities. The future use of Morse code now depends largely on the continued interest of Radio Amateurs in the use of this unique "language" and mode of communication. As for myself, I became interested in amateur radio whilst studying at Norwood and armed with my newly-acquired 2nd Class certificate I was able to obtain my own amateur radio licence from the PMG HQ in London on the 10th July 1957 and have now held that licence for well over 50 years.

This web site serves no commercial purpose and is solely intended to present information collected on the ships that I had the pleasure of sailing on as a Radio Officer. I trust it will be of interest to all who have a love for the sea and ships. The previously-unseen photographs of the launching of the S.S. "Samfleet" renamed S.S. "Corabank" when purchased by Bank Line will be of special interest to those who sailed in "Liberty Ships".

Whilst reasonable effort has been made to obtain consent, if any of the pictures presented infringe the rights of the owners of applicable copyright they will be immediatlely removed from the site upon receipt of their instruction to do so.


The Morse code introduction heard when opening this ‘Home’ page is sending the following message: -


This may be decoded into plain language and would be read as follows:

 CQ (General call to all stations) DE (from) GRBQ (S.S. Isle of Jersey)

MQZZ ( T.S.M.V. City of Durban) GCFR (S.S. Corabank) GZRJ (M.V. Eskbank)

QRU? ("Q" Code meaning "Have you anything for me") AR (End of transmission)