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Signalling At Sea


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Signalling at sea

Everyone will be familiar with Nelson’s famous signal made as the opposing fleets slowly closed in light winds.

He decided to fill in time by telling his men what was expected of them by sending the signal “Nelson expects that every man will do his duty”. But his signal offi cer, Lt Pasco, pointed out that “Nelson” would have to be spelt out in full and suggested it be replaced with “England” which only required a single flag, a proposal to which Nelson agreed.

During the age of sail signalling at sea was an uncertain and ambiguous business and frequently resulted in confusion and misunderstandings.

This was especially the case during naval actions when the dense smoke from cannon fire completely obscured signal flags for lengthy periods. It was not until the 20th century, with the development of wireless telegraphy and its successor technologies, that unambiguous messages could be conveyed over long distances between ships and between ships and shore stations.

Astonishingly, the British Admiralty maintained an archive of every signal sent by a warship or naval shore station. In 1955 Capt J.M. Broome published a selection from the archive in his book ‘Make a Signal’ and a further selection from his book of some of my favourites follows.

* A cruiser made a good approach to mooring trot lines watched by an admiral in the harbour signal tower. After the ship successfully secured to the bow mooring the admiral sent “Good”. The strong tide then swung the ship well away from the mooring buoys and the admiral sent “Add to my previous signal ‘God’”.

* From Captain D, Plymouth, to C-in-C: “Intend putting ‘Fisher Girl’ out of action for seven days for scraping of bottom.”

* Following a wild storm in the Atlantic a destroyer encountered a dismasted colleague and sent “How come?” The other replied, “Scraping under very low cloud”.

* From a very fussy destroyer fl otilla captain to a destroyer leaving harbour for exercises: “How long do you expect to be after leaving harbour?” Reply: “310 feet as usual.”

* From minesweeper to coastguard station: “There is a white buoy ahead of me with a black band around it. What is it?” Reply: “The Kentucky Minstrels.”

* A battleship returning to Portsmouth Harbour sent: “Who do you recommend for Admiral’s woman?” Puzzled by this request the signal tower asked for the signal to be repeated and received: “Reference my signal please insert washer between Admiral and woman.”

* After conducting a successful action in the Mediterranean Admiral Sir James Somerville was awarded a higher order of chivalry whereupon he received the following signal from a fellow admiral: “Dear me, twice a knight at your age.”

Finally my pick for all time favourite.

During the winter of 1940 there was a severe shortage of material to make naval uniforms and members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service were buying up all available supplies of serge in order to kit themselves out. The Admiralty sent the following signal to all shore establishments:

“Wrens clothing is to be held up until the needs of seagoing personnel have been satisfied.”

John Powell,

Berowra Heights.

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:074::Funny-Post: I've got another one:

There once was a naval officer whose ultimate ambition was to command a battleship. He finally achieved that goal and was given commission of the newest and proudest ship in the fleet. One stormy night, the captain was on the ship's bridge, when off to the port side, he spotted a strange light rapidly closing on his ship. Immediately, he ordered the signalman to flash the message to the unidentified craft, "Alter your course 10 degrees to the south." Within moments, the reply came back, "Alter your course 10 degrees to the north."

The captain was determined that his ship would take a back seat to no other, and he ordered the signalman to declare, "Alter course 10 degrees. I am the captain!" Back came the response, "Alter your course. I am Seaman Third Class Smith." Now the captain was infuriated. He grabbed the signal light and fired off," Alter course. I am a battleship!" The reply came back, "Alter your course. I am a lighthouse!"

Dunno if the story was concocted as an anaolgy.


Edited by Flattieman
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