THE MORSE - THE MEMORIES
By Gordon (George) Gunnill G3AVV
A personal story of Morse Code Training in the Royal Air Force 1939 - 1942
Original document typed by John Rose, M0BQO
Edited and transcribed by Geoff Watts, G0EVW - June 2000
Chapter 1: In the Beginning
Chapter 2: My First Classes
Chapter 3: The RAF approach to teaching Morse
Chapter 4: Pupil Input
Chapter 5: Acceptance by the Civilian Instructors
Chapter 6: I introduce Evening Classes
Chapter 7: Blackpool Winter Gardens
Chapter 8: Trade Test Board
Chapter 9: A Break from 'Sound'
Chapter 10: Visual Signalling
Chapter 11: The New Relationship
Obituary: Sadly, George died in March 2000, before "The Morse the Memories" was published. See the 'subpage' at the bottom to read his obituary, originally published in the SDRS Newsletter. A further article by George dealing with his days at TRE and written just before his untimely death is hoped to be published on this site in the future - Geoff, G0EVW June 2000
CHAPTER ONE - IN THE BEGINNING
In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain stepped out of his plane, waving his umbrella, declaring "Peace in Our Time." he had just returned from negotiations with Hitler. That news served me (and many others) well indeed, it meant I had another 12 months Morse Code practice which took me to 22wpm at age 18 years, at which point the balloon went up.
As a member of the RAF Civilian Wireless Reserve (CWR) I reported for duty to No.2 Signal School, Yatesbury, and with another 200 chaps was assessed for Code Speed: we floundered around for three weeks - some Morse Code practice, trench digging etc. then were posted to No.1 Electrical and Wireless School, RAF, Cranwell. (Its name was later changed to No.1 Signal School.)
We then started on a Wireless Operators Course which was to last 9 months. The minimum code speed requirement was 18 wpm and the maximum was 25 wpm.
Within 3 weeks I was firmly copying 27 wpm. During this time we were given a 'special' 25 wpm test so that 12 men could be drafted immediately for 'Special Duties'. I passed the test, but as the postings were overseas and it was necessary to be a minimum of 20 years old, I was left behind. However, after about two days copying Code as a pupil I was tapped on the shoulder by the Senior NCO Communications Section who said "You're not going to sit 'ere for another 8 months filling our notebooks with Plain Language Code Groups and Numbers - at two o'clock this afternoon you will appear in W/Commander Kirk's office (C.O. of the Signal School who will be appointing you as an Instructor for Morse Code, and another important thing to remember is, that your age is 22 years - at two o'clock today!!"
I was aghast, especially to be told to lie about my age. Fortunately I wasn't asked. I was told that I would start teaching 20 to 25 wpm the following morning. I did not sleep very well that night!
CHAPTER TWO - MY FIRST CLASSES
There were 50 pupil positions in 5 very long benches. Each position had a robust straight Morse key which was able to be operated freely and was also "Solenoid Operated" from a control position on my desk, thus using the output from a Creed Automatic Transmitter, all keys (without manual assistance) could be operated to send perfectly formed code. In addition, there was a Tape Machine on which code sent by the key could be recorded as ‘Dits and Dahs' by throwing a clutch lever which operated an 'Inker'; it was therefore possible for me to send a passage of code using the Creed TX, and then for the pupil to try his fist and compare his code with that of the "perfect" code. On my desk was the Creed TX and a Tape/Typewriter machine, my key for sending to the class, and a second key connected to the Comms Office, in case of fire or other emergencies. Finally, a large blackboard on which were printed standard exercises for use by pupils when sending code, and also for following text during receiving exercises.
The pupils were principally CWR types, half of them old enough to be my father - in some cases Granddad. Some were ex-Commercial Operators and only two people took exception to my comments like "Which foot were you using?" and 'Try taking your socks off'. One of them asked for it, and he was an ex-GPO op, but the tape recording of dits and dahs did not lie. They had an average of 2 hours per day. I divided the time with varying RX speeds of 22, 24 and 26, finishing with two test pieces at 20 and 25 wpm.
The P/L RX receiving text was largely taken from the Daily Telegraph and Times editorials, which most instructors agreed was good basic English, however I decided that was a bit boring, so I spiced things up with extracts from the book "No orchids for Miss Blandish" which carried a few spicy paragraphs for its time, 1939. Typical use I made of these texts was, e.g. "He snuggled down between the silken sheets in the lavish style bedroom, when suddenly the door opened, and there, transfixed in the doorway was an exotic beauty. The light of the hall behind her picked out the outline of her sensuous body clothed in a transparent negligee. She slowly approached the bed, laid back a comer of the sheets, and said 'Move over, old man' AR". "Sorry chaps", I said, end of lesson - this story is continued at 3.00 this afternoon". Well, it took some of the boredom away, and at 3.00 the starting line was "and the dentist said 'spit in this"'! Well, we're all entitled to dream! Except when learning Morse Code!
Somewhere along the line, maybe mid 1941 the Basic Test was changed, and therefore so was the teaching. The part of the test containing 25 5 character code groups, using letters only was changed to 25 4-character groups with letters and numbers mixed, which also included a Barred P i.e. PT. All happened at the beginning of SYKO - putting it briefly it gave an Airborne WOP the means of coding up his messages using a compact device. On decoding, the PT was the space between the words. On the day this was introduced it nearly caused a riot in my class of Australians, whose various comments included "Let's get back to Aussy and help keep the Japs at bay." (Singapore had just fallen) "We don’t want messing about like this." etc. I got'em quietened down and we carried on. Within 3 months 1 was giving the final 'Passing Out Tests' for Morse Code to some hundreds of pupils and the 'Assessment Tests' for new arrivals at the school. Eventually I became a member of the RAF Trade Test Board for Wireless Operations.
CHAPTER THREE - THE RAF APPROACH TO TEACHING MORSE CODE
Preface: The introduction of procedural signals and formation of messages to other parties did not form part of this training until pupils achieved about 12 to 16 wpm and took place in classrooms designed for that purpose. Therefore the extensive use of procedural signals whilst learning basic code was omitted.
Each class had 25 members, and as most classrooms had capacity for 50 pupils, two classes could be held at the same time. On day one, 50 pupils, having no Code knowledge at all, enter the Classroom. The first session was usually allocated two hours. I firstly stressed a few points:-
a) No reference will be made to characters using the words 'Dot' and 'Dash'. These words must be replaced with 'Dit' and 'Dah'.
b) Funny rhymes, phrases and sayings that are believed to indicate the make up of a letter are forbidden.
c) Through repetition (parrot learning fashion) you will learn the 'sound' of the characters; just the same as all of us learned to speak words and make sounds by copying them from our parents from the ripe young age of say six months old.
d) When receiving, the most important issue to focus on, from day one, is when a character cannot be recognised almost instantaneously, forget it and read the next one. This is not easy to achieve, there is always a great desire to use time in decoding a character; but this means missing maybe three or more characters, then dismay sets in, and more will be missed. It is the sound of the character that must be recognised, not the assembly of dits and dahs.
e) The teaching of "opposites" is absolutely forbidden; it introduces an extra decision to be taken by the pupil in the early days of learning, when it is the sound that is to be decoded; there is no thinking time to decide 'is it A or N?' So never, not no-how, teach opposites!
I discover the pupil problems when someone has taught in this manner when I assess them at about 6 or 7 wpm. This is a service I provide to assist pupils on their way to 12 wpm - AR - not NK got it, now forget it!
I completed my opening remarks to a class of new recruits by promising that most of them would be reading a few four letter words at a speed of 5 wpm at the end of 2 hours. Their verbal reaction was a mixture of "You'll be lucky ", "You must be joking", etc. However, I made them eat their words. At the end of each week RX speed was assessed and recorded. This showed the progress being made, and provided information from which the instructor could deduce the degree of speed increase to be used in the following week always causing pupils to reach for a slightly higher speed each week. To give pupil satisfaction however, a few passages were inserted at the lower speeds so that almost 100% copy could be received. Assessment of speed was done by deducting one word per minute for five errors made, i.e. a RX test piece sent at 22 wpm having five errors would result in an assessment of 21 wpm. 10 errors would resulting in a marking of 20 wpm, etc.
Sending of Morse Code by pupils with no knowledge of code was started as soon as they set foot in the classroom for their first 2 hour session. May I draw attention to this approach; in view of the fact that much advice has been published by many authors which recommends that a pupil should reach some positive ability to read code at, say, 8 wpm or thereabouts before using a key.
Speed of characters used on Day Number One The Creed Auto Transmitter would be set at 16 wpm, and the characters were separated to give 25 wpm from the punched tape input to the Creed. No pupil therefore listened to a character speed less than 16 wpm from his first moment of hearing code. When an assessed speed of 3 wpm was being copied, the separation of characters would be adjusted to give 6 wpm (character speed still 16 wpm). So; the 'dwell time' between characters was reduced to 16 wpm when the code had the 'Sam Morse Spacing' for the first time. Sending of Code was started within the first hour of tuition, this was assisted by the Auto Operation of the straight keys and controlled by the signal output from the tape, with a pupil following the words from the blackboard.
Keeping interest alive when learning the most boring subject on earth is very important, therefore receiving was punctuated by periods of sending and sometimes advice on writing and printing. I found this essential, after all the maximum printing speed would have to reach 25 wpm (try it some time) in order to pass a test at that speed.
The Morse Test was in three parts:
a) 5 minutes of pure plain Language, plus one full stop and one comma.
b) About 25 five-character code groups.
c) About 15 five-figure numbers only.
CHAPTER FOUR - PUPIL INPUT
a) Aircraft apprentices between 15 & 17 years of age.
b) Civilian Wireless Reserve - general interest in Amateur Radio, ages 18 to 55 or 60.
c) Conscripts - backgrounds various and directed to their RAF trade by requirements for WOPs - result was that they had no special interest in Radio at all.
d) RAF members with early training in USA (wot a scruffy lot they were).
e) RAF members trained to 10 wpm at Blackpool.
f) WOP/Air Gunners already at 10 wpm.
g) Aircraft Apprentices - new intakes - no CW knowledge at all.
h) EATS - Empire Air Training Scheme - usually WOP IAGs from everywhere, including Poles, Free French, Norwegians, Czechs, Dutch.
i) Signals Officers under training.
It is difficult to summarise the 'types' but one or two things emerged. The EATS chaps were keen to get on with it, although the' French Canadians' provided some difficulty. Free French were a bit too free in respect of human behaviour: half a class was absent one Monday morning after six weeks tuition, making peace with their girl friends relatives following their favourite conjugal activities. Nevertheless, when we had finished with the new pupils only about 2% failed to make the grade.
CHAPTER FIVE - ACCEPTANCE BY THE CIVILIAN INSTRUCTORS REVOLT
My classroom door burst open and in bustled an elderly long serving Corporal Instructor of Cockney origin. It was the beginning of the morning break. He yelled at me "Come on Corporal, follow me." "What the'ell for?" I said. "Just shurrup an' do as I tell yer." I grabbed my cap and followed him down to the Instructors Common Room where tea and biscuits were available. The gathering was largely of Civilian Instructors, say 30, plus a few servicemen. Inside the door was a desk placed on which was a Morse Key and Buzzer. "Sit down there lad, and send that test at 25 wpm; don't ask why! gerron with it." By this time I thought I had better get on with it. He timed me and when I finished the P/L code groups and numbers without a single mistake he said "OK that's fine, you can go." I couldn't resist a look around at the assembled instructors who looked a little amazed; well in their tea break they didn't anticipate listening to a 25 wpm Morse test. I went! and pretty smartly, saying to myself "What the 'ell was all that about?" but I found all did not finish there.
In the NCO 1/C Common Sections office a Flt Sgt Leigh about five minutes later declared "It is about time I checked all my instructors at 25 wpm, I haven't done this for many years, so I will arrange that they are all tested." Now each instructor was connected to his office and he fixed a date and time. I asked who was to send the test? (It had to be by hand as he didn't possess a Creed Transmitter.) His reply was "You will send the test" ! I was a bit startled, but at the time of testing I had no nervous reaction at all. I marked the test papers and made out an assessment list.
From then on the Civilians talked to me. Of course, in my young days I did not appreciate the fears of Civilian Instructors having their jobs threatened by young lads like me. It took a few more years to appreciate their concern when I became involved in Trade Union affairs in another field.
CHAPTER SIX - I INTRODUCE EVENING CLASSES
It struck me, out of the blue, that No 1 Signal School did not run Evening Classes, when as a civilian I travelled 180 miles per week to attend a Technical College in order to qualify in Naval Architecture, so why not do the same for Wireless Operations?
Courses ran for 14 weeks for Airborne WOPs and about 8 months for Ground WOPs, who only had to travel at most 500 yards to the classroom. It was necessary for all WOPs to achieve 18 wpm at least and usually when qualified at the end of the Course, they were granted two weeks leave. I believed that there was enough incentive to attract enough volunteers to attend.
I didn't consult with my fellow instructors but sought permission to open a classroom for 2 hours, 2 nights a week. This was granted by the Senior NCO for the Communications Section. About 20 pupils came in on the first evening. A few more appeared on the second and half way through the session the C.O. of No 1 Signal School looked in to see how it was going. I was somewhat embarrassed, because I had relaxed the No Smoking rules, and it took a few seconds to identify this visitor through the smoke screen. I said a very loud "Good evening Sir", which caused immediate action from the pupils, who waved their arms about to clear the smoke. However, the C.O. ignored the scene and pleasantly commended me for instituting Evening Classes.
My 'feel good factor’ however was severely damaged when I discovered that my Senior NCO had taken complete credit for my initiative. On my last day in the RAF, before leaving in civilian clothes and travelling south to join the Telecommunications Research Establishment to reinforce the engineering effort in support of RADAR development; I was able to speak freely to my Senior. Amid his comments like "insubordination" and "insolence" I slammed the door and left.
CHAPTER SEVEN - THE WINTER GARDENS BLACKPOOL
I don't suppose Reginald Dixon imagined the competition he was to have. The Ballroom was taken over as a Training Area for Wireless Operators, filled with tables plus Morse keys etc., all by the seaside, beside the sea. When the pupils could make Morse Code Music at 10 wpm we received a lot of them at Cranwell taking them from 10 wpm to at least 18 wpm and hopefully 25.
On one occasion for assessment on arrival I had 70 airmen in one large room; I tried to get to a point where all the headphones worked; you may think that is a simple thing to achieve but you are wrong! One pupil ended up in Sick Bay, having shouted out to me he had no lead in his pencil, so I referred him to the experts for a "Check-up"!
Results of assessment of a new intake normally showed a capability of an RX speed of 8 wpm to 12 wpm.
CHAPTER EIGHT - TRADE TEST BOARD
I was assigned, along with a Warrant Officer, to proceed to Newcastle GPO and give 'passing out tests' in Morse Code and Signals Office Procedures to 70 members of the WAAF. They had been trained by Civilian Instructors, and now was the proving time. My job was to send the Morse tests and assess abilities in speeds from 18 to 25 wpm and then interview the girls individually to assess ability in Signals Office routine.
We arrived at the GPO about 17.30 hrs and to our surprise this very large classroom was still occupied by the girls who normally would finish instruction at 16.30 but apparently insisted on staying to meet their examiners and also hear the kind of Morse code that would be sent by me on the following day. At this point, having exchanged greetings and before I sat down at the key I saw a line of what I considered to be a formidable looking array of very competent GPO Instructors, all old enough to be my father. My age was 19, and I wondered what thoughts were going through their minds. However, by now I was unafraid of them so I sent 'em some passages of code from 18 to 25 wpm, and was greeted very pleasantly by their instructors. The girls left with smiles all round after a few questions had been answered.
Next day RX and TX tests went smoothly; the Civilian Instructors were pleased indeed with my fist; you see, apart from being an Examiner you are also subject to examination, especially if you look like an under nourished 15-year old schoolboy.
Now comes the announcement of results. This is where the W.O.s wider understanding of female behaviour came to the fore. He said, "In the morning, we arrive at the GPO with all bags packed and ready to go, we then read out the results, pick up our bags and go; quickly!" The results were read out by him: those who had failed, cried. Their friends cried in sympathy and others cried in joy. We smartly disappeared before the Newcastle GPO floated away down the River Tyne.
CHAPTER NINE - A BREAK FROM 'SOUND'
At a moment's notice I had to replace a colleague of mine who was teaching Aldis Lamp Signalling to 70 WAAFs under training as Radio Telephony Operators. The large classroom was blacked out, and it was mid-summer. On entering I was met with a 'solid' smell of a most peculiar kind, due I guess to high humidity and a large variety of body odours and perfumes. I recovered my composure, dowsed all the lighting and gave a quick flash (of the Aldis Lamp of course!). In the darkness, in addition to the flashing of various lights around the room, the exclamations by pupils were unbelievable, and I was unable to pinpoint the sources of the verbal comments.
I couldn't wait to get out of the classroom but I did so just before 'Gang Rape' was invented where I would have laid with my Aldis Lamp in my hand! probably sending SOS - nice and slowly of course - well, they were only beginners! At Morse code, anyway!
CHAPTER TEN - VISUAL SIGNALLING
No 1 SIGNAL SCHOOL RAF CRANWELL 1939 TO 1942
I feel it necessary to record this facet of signalling, as it caused major reactions from pupils who were following a syllabus of training to become Airborne Wireless Operators. They were greeted by the Senior Instructor for visual signalling. One named Mr Wink who was then a civilian instructor with a long background in R.N. Signals, who always strutted about carrying two semaphore flags behind his back, asking his new pupils, "What is Semaphore . He was given a reply by one pupil, “The last resort for sending messages, Sir". Well, of course Mr Wink asked for it didn't he? As the trainee was hoping to become a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner he couldn't imagine where he was going to stand in a Lancaster Bomber waving his flags. I always thought the last resort was Carrier Pigeons.
Mr Wink's assistant was a Mr 'Tiger' Oxley, another ex-RN Signalman: he was a coarse, snarling individual, which accounts for the prefix 'Tiger'. And what better descriptive name could have been chosen than 'Mr Wink' for Aldis Lamp Signalling? He terrified many pupils, and I was often called in to keep the peace.
But the big question raised was obviously "Why were Airborne Wireless Operators taught Semaphore?" I never found a pair of flags stowed in the Wellington, Whitley or Lancaster Bombers for use by WOP/AGs.
Where are the pigeons?
CHAPTER ELEVEN - THE NEW RELATIONSHIP
This text is not connected with CW at all but I have recorded it because of the unique situation the RAF management found itself in, having to find a new response.
At the outbreak of war the RAF inherited a wide variety of chaps with many varying backgrounds. In 1940 I became a Corporals Mess Club member; one of about 250 chaps. Very soon I was given the Club Secretary's job, along with a Club Chairman who was a solicitor. We had official access to the Signal School management from time to time to air our grievances, or whatever, in order to improve our lot.
The Cpl's club represented about 75% of the teaching staff, but I only realised on reflection that the management had never faced such well presented issues before. In peace time solicitors stayed in their profession, but now a few of them became Corporal Instructors in the Signal School. During negotiations there were many awkward moments of silence before the management could respond to the way in which the arguments were presented. I learned quite a lot from this. We often ended up with the AOC (Air Office Commanding, Cranwell) becoming involved.
There was something of a new dynasty opening up in relationships between Management and Men; much to the benefit of the Lower Ranks.
(C) Gordon Gunnill 1999
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