I attended a meeting last evening, and the topic of diminishing manning and increasing extra duties on the Bridge (and within Engine Room) came up.  The issues appear to be of growing concern.  One former Master Mariner openly stated that the premature removal of Radio Officers is proving detrimental to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Bridge Management Team (i.e. less people to perform more jobs that are themselves of an increasing technical nature).

Anyway, after returning home I thought I would go through some old notes on that very topic.  I came across a photocopy of the article reproduced below (which is now available online at the link detailed at the very end of the post) and though that I would post it to the forum.

Enjoy the read – from 1941…

(and yes, I am aware of the spelling and grammar)




Duties of Merchant Navy Radio Officer

(By F. A. Bradley in ‘The Journal of Commerce and Shipping Gazette’)

In the early days of marine wireless, the apparatus consisted of a transmitter and receiver ; the chief reason for its installation being to summon assistance when disaster was imminent.

To-day, this same reason obtains, out modern developments have added a number of highly scientific instruments to the equipment, and these, operated by an expert personnel, and governed by a world-wide organisation, have made wireless a very valuable aid to navigation.

Carved in the bulkhead of every wireless cabin is the notification, ‘Certified for use in navigating the ship.’ Consequently, the Merchant Navy wireless operator — or, to give him his official title, ‘Radio Officer’ — is not now carried with the prevailing idea that it may be necessary to call for help ; he is placed there with the object of using his instruments, and the organisation at his disposal, to such advantage, as to preclude the necessity of making a distress call, by assisting the master in the safe navigation of the ship.

Thus the importance of new inventions and the enormous growth of the services appertaining to them have reflected more and more responsibilities on the men in whose charge they are placed. To-day, the one radio officer carried in a cargo ship is kept fully
and interestedly employed during his eight hours per day of watch keeping, and the exigencies of the Service sometimes demand more than eight hours.

All ships exceeding 1600 tons must, by law, possess a wireless installation, but hundreds of vessels below this tonnage are also fitted. Those compulsorily equipped are divided into different categories, and upon their classification depends the number of radio officers carried and the type of apparatus necessary to meet requirements. The law provides only for that which is considered necessary for safety purposes.

This minimum, however, makes a good showing even in the average cargo vessel, where the radio officer is responsible for the operating and maintenance of all wifeless equipment and accessory aids to navigation. The modern all-wave valve receiver which he now operates has ‘ world-wide range. Press is received daily. Time signals for checking the
ship’s chronometers are always available. In peace-time, at scheduled daily periods, the receiver is Rugby’s wavelength, and a watch kept for messages conveying important instructions from owners to masters.

Weather and ice reports, together with other warnings of dangers to navigation, are received at frequent intervals during the day. When it is his watch below, the radio officer switches into circuit an automatic alarm device for registering distress calls, and so that safety watch goes on for 24 hours a day.

Another interesting piece of apparatus developed in recent years is the echo-sounding device, and, although its provision is not required by law, it has gained great popularity with masters, and thousands of ships are equipped.

This instrument visually indicates soundings at a rate of at least one per second. A miniature transmitter and sensative valve receiver is employed, for the maintenance of which the radio officer is responsible.

As modern improvements have increased the duties and responsibilities of the cargo ship radio officer, more powerful, and extra equipment, concomitant with providing a public radio telegraph service, gives further interest and responsibility to his contemporary in the passenger ship. Here the safety laws make a further demand, and requires the average passenger liner to have two of her life-boats fitted with wireless receivers and transmitters powered by storage batteries. Apart from this, the extra equipment found in a passenger vessel, and the number of radio staff, largely depends upon the size of the ship and the trade route followed.

The most comprehensive installations are fitted in the big liners ferrying the Atlantic, where the short five-day passage, coupled with the large volume of passenger trade, demands equipment capable of maintaining constant touch with the radio terminals on either side of the Atlantic. Not only is a day and night radiotelegraph service available, but recent developments, together with popular demand, are such, that a passenger may now pick up his stateroom telephone, when in mid-ocean, and be connected to any number which can be reached from the London or New York exchanges.

Thus, September, 1939, found the Merchant Navy radio officer busily engaged; keeping passengers in touch with home, office and the world’s markets ; providing the nucleus of a daily newspaper broadcasting news and entertaining the passengers with music relayed by public address equipment; but, above all, playing his part in providing for the ship’s safety.

Before passing from peace to war, it may now be opportune to review the Merchant Navy radio officer from a more personal aspect.

For his highly specialised work, a considerable amount of training is necessary and centres for this purpose are found in many parts . of the country. Schools are equipped with modern ship wireless installations, and, for a moderate fee, the student is provided with the necessary practical and technical instructions enabling him to qualify for the Postmaster General’s certificate of proficiency in radiotelegraphv. This certificate must be obtained before a person is permitted to operate a wireless set aboard a British ship.

For the first-class certificate, a course covering a period of approximately 12 months is required, for the second-class, six to eight months. Many students qualify for a second-class certificate, and sit for the higher grade after spending a period at sea. War has expanded the Merchant Navy wireless service, and to cope with the need for more personnel, the schools are concentrating in preparing students for a special war-time certificate, the training period for which is from four to six months.

Practical experience can only be gained under actual working conditions, and, for a time after graduation, the newly-appointed man is detailed as a junior member of a ship carrying more than one radio officer.

Unlike the ships’ officers, the radio staff is seldom in the direct employ of the shipowners, but is loaned to them by the wireless company. This system has the ad vantage of allowing the radio officer to maintain touch with the latest technical developments ; affords him the chance of sailing in ships of various lines over different routes, and, as the wireless company possesses a large shore establishment, there is the opportunity of being employed else where than at sea should he desire it.

The standard minimum rate of pay for a radio officer with less than six months’ sea service, is £9/17/6 per month, plus £7 per month war allowance. Annual increments are made, until a man with not less than three years’ service to his credit, and employed in a ship exceeding 16,001 tons, would receive a minimum of £22/10/, plus £7 per month war allowance. These are standard rates of pay, and extra salary is granted where special duties are performed.

The radio officer is in charge of his department, and is responsible to the master for its efficient working. Consequently, he finds himself, often at a very early age, managing a vital business at sea, with no other guide but his own knowledge and initiative. This initiative and devotion to work, has, during the present war, gained for Marconi radio officers the awards of one M.B.E., three O.B.E.’s, two D.S.C.’s, fire Lloyd’s War Medals, six Commendations.

To-day, young men of character are being called to qualify for a career where the opportunities for performing distinctive individual service constantly recur.

And now war-time.- Actually there is little more to, add. Business is not quite as usual, but the radio officer is playing a great part after having had his business adapted for war work. Using the wireless transmitters would give away the ship’s position to the enemy, so they are operated only in cases of urgency. Consequently, his work now consists mainly of listening, listening for and decoding messages containing instructions for his captain; messages, that may save the ship from an enemy bent upon distruction.

In ordinary times, accidents at sea- come mainly under the headings of grounding, fire or collision. Generally there is ample warning of the need to abandon ship. Getting out the boats, and lowering away, will follow along previously – planned lines, which are exercised by all members of the crew at frequent intervals.

Lives at Stake.

In war-time, however, disaster comes very suddenly, and often in such a manner as to partly nullify any previously prepared measures regarding abandon ship procedure. Haste is necessary, and the crew work with a will in getting out available boats and embarking the passengers. The boats, however, form but a temporary haven of refuge, and the people in them face exposure and starvation unless rescue ships appear quickly.

At this moment, the probability is that hundreds of lives depend upon the actions of one man — the radio officer. He can hear the lifeboats going away from the doomed ship, and knows that by the time he has established communication with the outside world, it is possible that no boat will be left to take him. But he steels himself to his responsibilities, and, with a steady hand, taps out the message that means speedy relief, or even life, to those already feeling the discomforts of an open boat in a rough sea.

A sigh of satisfaction escapes him when the distant coast station acknowledges the call, and indicates that help is coming — satisfaction, not merely because help- is on the way, but professional satisfaction. His apparatus has functioned well and stood up to the bomb shocks.


Daily Commercial News and Shipping List, Sydney (Australia), Tuesday 01 July 1941, p2. ; (site active and visited 26 February 2016)

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