Naval air-telegraphy at the start of WW2

Operating a radio in a naval aircraft at the beginning of the Second World War was no easy matter. Radio Telephony (‘R/T’) was a distant dream for naval aviators in 1939 – there was no ‘Tally Ho, bandits nine o’clock high!” for the Fleet Air Arm. R/T equipment was in short supply, and in any case the contemporary sets were of too limited range to be of any use to naval aviators. Communication from ship or shore to aircraft was a matter of Morse Code, while communication between aircraft was done by Aldis lamp or hand signals.

Aircraft like the Fairey Swordfish had rudimentary communications equipment by 1940s standards

While pilots flew and Observers navigated, radio equipment was largely the domain of the TAG, or Telegraphist Air Gunner. At the beginning of the war, these were enlisted men who had undertaken a course in telegraphy and another in gunnery. Later on, when radio equipment became simpler to use, any naval air gunner was entitled to the TAG label. At this point though, TAGs were highly trained in the radio apparatus of the day. There were no radio mechanics at that time, and each TAG was responsible for maintaining ‘his’ own set – something they took great pride in.

The radio equipment carried by naval aircraft at the beginning of the war was at once basic and highly complicated – basic technically, but complicated to operate. Until the Skua arrived, Fleet Air Arm aircraft did not even have an intercom and communications between pilot and crew had to be conducted through ‘Gosport tubes’ or by means of a complex array of hand signals.

The 1082 Receiver section of the average naval aircraft’s radio fit in 1940 – note the red and green plugs, which had to be changed to alter frequency

The standard radio fit in Fleet Air Arm aircraft consisted of a GP (General Purpose or ‘jeep’) Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) set which was made up of a 1082 Receiver, a 1083 Transmitter and a R1110 beacon receiver (for detecting an aircraft carrier’s revolving beacon). Accumulators for the sets generally had to be charged overnight and lugged by hand to the aircraft.

The W/T used an overhead aerial, but to make best use of the HF (High Frequency) equipment, a trailing aerial could be wound out – laboriously and at great risk to equipment and career.

Former TAG Ken Sims described the problems surrounding these devices experienced during a training flight in a Blackburn Shark: “On my first W/T exercise I lost a trailing aerial – a heinous offence – because of the hand signals. No-one had explained to me exactly what they were and I was simply asked if I knew the thumbs up. Well of course I did – everyone knows that! So off we went. In the air I touched the pilot on the shoulder and circled my hand and finger. I had heard from the other pilots that this meant ‘can I reel out?’ Down went his thumb and I sat there glumly wondering why he had refused the request. After much waiting he rocked his wings and put his thumb up. Gleefully I reeled out… To my horror as I rose up in the cockpit we came in and landed. Luckily I recovered the all-important weights from out on the airfield, for the loss of which one paid dearly… I didn’t need telling then that thumbs down meant reel out and thumbs up meant reel in.”

During operations, it was this equipment that allowed the aircraft to find their way back to their aircraft carrier. Radio silence could not be broken, so aircraft could not radio in for a ‘fix’ – even if they did, the carrier would not have responded. Instead, they had to follow a tricky dance navigating around the carrier’s VHF Beacon.

The 1083 Transmitter part of the ‘GP’ W/T set

Lloyd Richards, a TAG with 803 Squadron, described to me how beacon navigation worked: “The beacon made one revolution per minute – initially we were issued with chronometers to time the signal, but they ran out with aircraft getting shot down, and they were very expensive,” he explained. “We subsequently used wristwatches.

“You would receive your bearing onto the ship, say 90°, but we would receive and steer the reciprocal of that – 180° of that bearing, and we would use that as a bearing. It would be all right if the ship was stationary but of course it was moving. You would always approach from the stern. Without a chronometer to time it precisely, if the signal came out earlier, for example ten seconds less than a minute, and the next came up at nine or 12 you would turn to the right or left depending on where you were in relation to the ship.” With a chronometer, the time difference could be worked out precisely and equated to a course, but with a wristwatch it was a case of ‘less than a minute, steer one way, more than a minute, steer the other way’. Eventually, the ‘beeps’ would be at precise one-minute intervals and this meant you were heading straight for the carrier.

An aircraft detects the beacon ‘beep’….

The second ‘beep is less than a minute after the first, indicating that the aircraft needs to turn to port to intercept the carrier

The W/T equipment was technically straightforward, but far from simple to use. The set was tuned painstakingly, by fitting pairs of plugs (twenty pairs, one red plug and one green) into sockets, more or less by trial and error until the correct coil for a particular frequency was reached. Richards explained:

“You would get on your receiving frequency then back-tune the transmitter until you picked up your own signal. It was all done by hand, eye and making notes. When I was a boy, 13 years old, I built a radio which was more advanced than that unit!”

Lloyd Richards’ quotes came from conversations with the author in 2006 and 2007. Ken Sims’ quotes were taken from his book Telegraphist Air Gunner, J&KH Publishing 1999, courtesy of the TAG’s Association

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