Of what avail the loaded tube,
The cannon or the shell;
If flags or W/T default
The Fleet will go to hell.
- WWI – author unknown
A few months ago we received a copy of some early naval photographs from the Alan Bennett Collection. One photo in particularly was intriguing, which captured early wireless telegraphy training. This photograph, which has significant importance, is shown in full on the inside of the front cover of this magazine – also note enlargements showing cap tallies.
One of our more senior retired communicators cast his expert eye over this photograph and ventured the following comments:
During the period 1901-10 when it was realized that wireless could be the new defence weapon against torpedo boat threats at night and in conditions of low visibility, the Admiralty ordered a large number of Marconi and Jackson W/T sets for most capital ships. The Admiralty plan to install one W/T set per capital ship initially required a telegraphist complement of four men per ship. Destroyers would begin to be similarly fitted from 1907. In 1909 the total number of telegraphists of all ranks in the RN was 757, which fell far short of the requirement.
This resulted in an immediate demand for operator telegraphists. As W/T was clearly electrical, responsibility for training and maintenance of W/T was given to the Electrical Branch, principally at HMS Vernon. It was not until after WWI that common message handling procedures demanded that visual and electrical signal procedures should be amalgamated into one branch with common training.
The photograph is almost certainly taken in Vernon as it shows a large class under W/T instruction and a second group possibly brought in for the photo event. If there were any signalmen in the group they would have been volunteers accepted for conversion to telegraphists for their Morse skills. In the rear there is an officer who has marked similarity to an ex-signal boatswain and later CMDR Charles Collin, RN who became OIC Signal School in 1915 and could possibly have been at Vernon for the event.
The differing cap tallies indicate that volunteers in large numbers for W/T training had to be called from all ranks and reservists were also called up. The CPO or PO Morse trainer is using a battery powered Morse buzzer trainer and in the foreground there appears to be a demountable W/T ship transceiver also used for training. Note the long length of strapped telegraph cable that would have been fed from the W/T hut behind the ship’s bridge up the foremast to the aerial connectors to the aerial roof arrays that led back to the mainmast.
By 1910 the new RAN conducted most of its W/T training at a small school at Williamstown Naval Dockyard and by 1920 at Cerberus. Neither the CNF nor early RAN had a need for such large classes. Neither would the Sydney based RN Squadron.
While the above all appears eminently sensible there are some problems with the Vernon scenario. TheVernon history is contained in a 1993 volume by Rear Admiral Edmund Nicholas (‘Nicho’) Poland titled The Torpedomen with further reference to this topic on pages 61 and 62. Another eminent reference is Signal – A History of Signalling in the Royal Navy by Captain Barrie Kent, RN.
This agrees with the above in that Vernonhad been evaluating the development of the Marconi and Jackson systems since 1900. Trials had been conducted with 32 Marconi sets leading to general instructions for the issue of the new system to HM Ships. Towards the end of 1904 Henry Jackson became Commanding officer of Vernon and was able to exploit the new radio instructional facilities provided by the arrival of HMS Warrior.
LEUT Henry Jackson, who had been in charge of ‘Whitehead’ torpedo instruction at Vernon since 1885, was searching for a method by which friendly torpedo boats could identify themselves at night. Promoted Commander in 1890, in January 1895 Jackson was appointed in command of the torpedo training ship HMS Defiance at Devonport. Jackson organised a number of experiments which cumulated in 1896 when be succeeded in sending electronic Morse signals from one end of the ship to the other. The importance of these experiments was not readily recognised by the Admiralty but the following year Guglielmo Marconi lodged a patent on a similar system. Marconi, who had an Italian father but an Irish mother, found little interest in his work in his native land and then took residence in England, where he gauged he might interest the mighty Royal Navy and Britannia’s large merchant fleet.
To address implementation of the W/T system representatives of the Channel, Mediterranean and Atlantic Fleets met on board the battleship HMS Exmouth in 1906. It was agreed that there were insufficient wireless operators for war purposes. It was proposed that signalmen trained in the fleet should requalify as wireless operators, but it had become the practice to send men to the wireless office as a form of punishment and it was natural, therefore, that signalmen did not relish the duty full time. The Exmouthconference decided that:
We have assumed that a separate branch is a necessity, that the case is an urgent one in which numbers must be rapidly increased. Therefore any system of training boys will be too lengthy for immediate requirements. Under these circumstances we propose that volunteers from any branch of the service (signalman, bluejacket, marine, stoker and so on) should be eligible for the new branch of wireless operator. The requirements for candidates will be a good education in reading and writing, a good character and intelligence.
At this time Vernon comprised a series of floating hulks, joined by Warrior in 1904, providing space as a floating workshop, power plant and W/T school. TheVernon training establishment did not move ashore into new purpose built brick buildings until 1923.
This seems to indicate that the photograph was not taken at Vernon and is unlikely to have been taken until at least 1907. There is a distinct possibility that it was taken at Williamstown where this type of wooden clad building would be more common. The cap tallies seem to indicate the sailors are of Australian origins.
As this might be of considerable importance to the history of early communications in the RAN any further comments would be appreciated.
Henry Bradwardine Jackson
This is a name not well known today but during the midst of First World War he was running the world’s largest navy and many regard him as the father of maritime radio communications. We are indebted to John Hooper for his excellent 2007 biography Captain Henry Jackson of HMS Defianceinto which we have dipped for much information.
Henry was born in 1855 to the family of a Yorkshire solicitor. He joined the Royal Navy just before his 14th birthday for training afloat in HMS Britannia, moored at Dartmouth. He received the normal sea postings and eventually gained command of a number of torpedo boats. Torpedo boats were the new weapon which could attack almost unseen at night but their problem was identification between friend and foe and signalling their intentions between boats of the same squadron.
Jackson’s life was transformed in 1881, when as a Lieutenant he was posted to Vernon, the torpedo school-ship at Portsmouth. Here he became absorbed in the sciences of electricity and Hertzian Waves (as radio waves were then known).
In 1887 Henry Jackson made a wise choice in marrying Alice Burbury, whose father Samuel, a prominent mathematician, had published works on electromagnetic theory. Henry and his father-in-law were to collaborate on future naval applications of electromagnetic energy. In 1890 he was promoted Commander and, with the right prospects, he and Alice were married. At this time he was also posted as Executive Officer of the battleship HMS Edinburgh. Here, working with Samuel Burbury, they began experimenting using radio waves to overcome the ship identification problem.
In January 1895 he was posted in command of the training ship Defianceand began experimenting in transmitting and receiving signals using radio waves. Defiancehad the distinction of being the Royal Navy’s last wooden-walled battleship, but she never saw active service. At a War Office conference held on 31 August 1896, Jackson, now a Captain,met Guglielmo Marconi. Although the captain was twenty years senior to the young scientist they struck up a lasting friendship and exchanged details of their equipment and the results they had received.
The first ever ship-to-ship radio communications took place in the estuary of Plymouth harbour using equipment installed by Jackson with significant achievements being made from 1896 onwards, as follows:
August 1896 from the stem to the stern of Defiance – 80 yds
Autumn 1896 from a tender to Defiance – 300 yds
Winter 1896 from the gunboat HMS Scourge to a Defiance tender – 1,200 yds
Spring 1897 signals received from Scourge in Defiance – 5,800 yds
In October 1897, Jackson set up a radio link for everyday use between Defiance and the Port Admiral’s House at Mount Wise in Devonport. Up until this time all Marconi’s work was land based and it was not until July 1897 that he installed a radio set in a ship. For some time this was the last of Jackson’s practical work in radio communications as he was posted as Naval Attaché in Paris.
Back at sea in 1899, in command of the cruiser HMS Juno, Jackson took part in the RN’s Summer Manoeuvres where four ships were equipped with radios. Marconi was onboard Juno as an observer where ranges between ships of 60 to 70 miles were achieved. The successful results of the radio operations on that occasion led to the installation of wireless telegraphy (as radio was then called) in many RN ships. By the end of 1900, the Navy had 51 radio sets – 32 designed by Marconi and 19 designed by Jackson. In 1901 a further 52 sets were manufactured at Vernon, after Jackson had vetted an improved version of his design.
Subsequently Jackson was promoted Rear Admiral in 1906 and the same year received a knighthood. In 1911 he was promoted Vice Admiral and Admiral in 1914. He was held in high regard in scientific circles and was honoured with a Fellowship of the Royal Society.
In 1915, following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Lord John Fisher (‘Jacky’ Fisher) who had been brought out of retirement by Churchill, resigned. There were plenty of applicants, and Jackson, while an unlikely candidate, was seen as a modern man with great intellectual capacity, and he was chosen. The stalemate in naval operations since Jutland and the RN’s inability to successfully counter enemy submarines began to take its toll in political and public opinion of the senior service. Jackson had to take the blame and in December 1916 he was replaced by Admiral Jellicoe, an officer with greater operational experience.
Jackson was then appointed President of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a post which he filled with distinction until 1919, when he was advanced to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet. In 1920 he was appointed the first Chairman of the government Radio Research Board. He died at his home near Portsmouth on 14 December 1929, aged 74.
We trust that this story of a torpedoman who became the father of modern communications has been of interest. And, with the benefit of this research, we now hope some detectives amongst our readers can help identify the naval establishment shown in the photograph at the start of this story.