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Here a miscellany of radio related items and some explanations of terminology…


Marconigram (Telegrams to everyone else)

These were the forms we had to fill in for the sending and receiving of messages between ship and shore stations.

Outgoing messages were charged by the word, this often led to some strange wording to reduce the word count.


A Radio Letter Telegram or Ship Letter Telegram.

This was the method usually used by members of the crew to communicate back home for important things like ‘when I am arriving home’.

The message was transmitted from the ship to the UK shore station, was then put into an envelope and posted by the post office to the final destination. It cost £1 for 20 words.

We had requisition pads for various things. Here is an example of a form where we had to record a list of the required publications that we had to have, their dates of publication and issue numbers as appropriate. This had to be sent in to Marconi Head office on a regular basis so that our books were all up-to-date.

Other forms included the Spare parts Requisition Form. This was a good chance to order new stock of replacement parts so that you could get rid of all the items marked ‘Used but OK’!

There was a Stationery Request Form too.

To the right we have a list of important radio stations and their frequencies. Portishead Radio was our main point of contact with the UK.

The distress and warning signals

We are all familiar with SOS as being the distress signal at sea, sent by Morse Code. This represented the highest level of distress, I only heard this in use twice and both times we were too far away to assist. We did however, maintain strict silence on 500kHz throughout.

The next lower level of alarm being XXX which meant that there was a dangerous or life-threatening situation that we were being warned about but did not relate to the imminent loss of life or ship

TTT was used to prefix things like notifications of problems with navigation.

Weather and OBS

In the days well before the use of satellites in weather forecasting we, the ships at sea were the eyes and numbers of the weather forecasters of the land-based institutions. The Americans had about 5 weather ships positioned in various places in the North Atlantic which formed part of the weather forecasting network. Us merchant ships completed the picture.

Weather observations were voluntary (unpaid) on the part of the shipping line but helped fill in the weather picture. The observation were taken on a 6 hourly basis (4 per day) on 00, 06, 12, 1800 hours GMT daily. The message was in the form of a numerically coded telegram which could be sent to pretty much any land based station. Usually we would send them via MF to the UK coastal stations or to the American weather ships whilst we were in the North Atlantic. When we were elsewhere in the world they were sent to the nearest major coastal radio station.

The message was structured in blocks of 5 numbers along the lines of:

OBS Number of ship



Air pressure at sea level (having read the barometer on the bridge and corrected it to sea level) & trend

Cloud type and % cloud cover

Wind direction & strength

Sea state

Air Temperature

Relative humidity

Sea temperature

There were others but I cannot really remember them that well…

Being a Weather OBS ship meant that the Radio Officer was always kept busy because there were always messages to be sent on every watch.


Being a solo Radio Officer on board a merchant ship meant that a 24 hour a day watch was not possible. The eight hours of watch keeping was split into blocks of two hours on and two hours off but it had to coincide with a requirement to keep to GMT.

Taking the example of being in UK waters that meant starting at 0800 GMT, finishing at 1000 GMT, starting at 1200 GMT, finishing at 1400 GMT and so on until the last watch of the day was completed at 2200 GMT.

As you move around the time zones you still needed to keep the watches but they could start (as convenient) anytime on the 00, 04, 08, 12, 16, 20 GMT hours. As the local time aboard ship changed the Radio Officer’s watch times would slip around the clock. Depending on whether the ship was travelling east or west this would mean that the watchkeeping times would need to change. The earliest (local time) watch started at 0600 and finished for the day at 2000 and the latest was a 1000 start and 2400 finish.

The reason for keeping the GMT watch times was to make sure that you were on watch for the Traffic Lists that were sent at those times by Portishead Radio.

The first job when you went on watch was to tune in to Portishead Radio (on whatever band was open at the time of day) to listen the the Traffic List. Portishead Radio transmitted a long list of ship’s callsigns for whom they had messages. This list was in alphabetical order so fine if you are GBLU (Pinebank) or GBZT (Benkitlan) but an absolute PITA if you were ZENY (Cluden)! Whilst I was on Cluden, if Portishead traffic was heavy I could be waiting over an hour just to find out if I had any messages.

If your callsign was in the list you had to tune up your transmitter on one of your calling frequency crystals on the band appropriate for the time of day. You then tuned your receiver to his (Portishead’s) listening frequencies and you started to call him.

On a good day he might hear you. Once you established communication you would QSY to your working frequency and he to his, the message(s) would then be transferred.

One often had to listen to the traffic lists of many stations depending upon where in the world you were. If you were in British Coastal waters you would monitor the Coastal Radio Station nearest be that GNI (Niton), GLD (Land’s End), GNF (North Foreland) etc.

If you were travelling down the US East Coast you would have to monitor the appropriate US stations.

Radio Time Signals

For navigation purposes it was important to know the time. When we were near the UK, or indeed for large partds of the North Atlantic we would use the Rugby 16kHz time signal. When in other parts of the world there were various other Time Signals such as WWV (America) which transmitted on 10MHz. Receipt of such an accurate time signal allowed the bridge officers to record the error in their time-pieces. The navigational clocks were not corrected, just their deviance noted.

If Marconi wanted to contact you it was usually done by telegram and was always signed THULIUM. Don’t know why, if you know - please do tell!