Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Learning Morse in the Royal Navy

I joined the Royal Navy as a Radio Operator in 1966.

Morse was taught as apart of our Radio Operator training course which  lasted about   35 weeks.  This included breaks for conventional holidays if they occurred whilst in training. Training ran 5 days per week and the hours were approximately 8am - 5pm.

Including morse we were also taught  subjects such as cryptography, voice & morse procedures, touch typing, message handling, radio organisation Visual/tactical signalling, and so on.  Morse was just one of the elements of the course.  The morse lessons lasted perhaps an hour or maybe two hours per day. 

 I distinctively remember arriving at the RN Signal School, HMS Mercury in Petersfield, Hampshire on the Friday evening after having completed  six weeks of basic naval training (knots, marching, seamanship etc. at another  naval establishment).   I was really interested in how the RN was going to teach me morse.  Much to my surprise I  found out as soon as we arrived.  It wasn’t a  sophisticated method.

We were greeted by  two of our instructors, who introduced themselves and   told us to  pair up.  He then gave each pair  a set of flash cards with the CW character on one side and the letter on the reverse.  He then told us, “You’ve the weekend to learn the 26 letters.  “Get on with it and we’ll be starting on Monday”.   We were left much to our own devices for the rest of the weekend.   As you would expect, learning morse on our own  was rather a lot to expect from a group of teenagers, but I guess it kept us occupied and out of trouble over the weekend.  I’m not sure if anyone managed to learn the complete alphabet though.  

On the Monday morning the flash cards were taken away and  the next few lessons the instructor took us through the morse characters with him sending the individual letters and getting us to learn the ones we didn’t know.  I cannot quite remember how exactly how he did this, whether it was by going through all the letters comprising  of dits or dashes, etc., or following some other logic.    Either way it was not too long before we all had grasped the sound of the letters of the alphabet.  Then we started listening to pre-recorded tapes..

Not long after the course  commenced we were  given a morse aptitude test.  This consisted of having to listen to morse characters being sent  and write down the corresponding sequence of dots and dashes.  I cannot remember the speed of the characters, but lots of the time I couldn’t hear wether I was listening to a dot or a dash.  A number of us failed this  but we were told that it didn’t matter as the Navy was simply trialling the test.

I  can remember  the instructor initially playing a tape of morse at 20 wpm  very early on and telling us this was the goal we would achieve.  I certainly could not recognise or identify dits, dots, characters or words.  To me it sounded unachievable.  We certainly did not use Farnsworth or Koch methods of learning.

The pre-recorded  tapes contained a combination of ; 


a) Plain language texts, often from popular or classical books,


b) Foreign language texts, and; 

c) Groups of 5 random letters.

Random groups and foreign language texts were to enable us to avoid guessing what letter might be coming next. We were required to write in print what we heard. 

The emphases was on accuracy and to avoid guessing or anticipating what might come next.  Being able to read whatever morse was sent was important.

I cannot remember what speed the first tapes were sent at, but probably less than 10 wpm.  But I do know we did start with the characters sent slow enough so everyone could recognise what the characters being sent were.  

We certainly did not use Farnsworth spacing, or Koch 

Over the coming weeks we were also introduced to punctuation  and miscellaneous  characters, and the common letters utilised in other languages such as  Á È, Ö Ü  and so on.

 Once the class achieved around  94% or more accuracy the speed of the tapes was increased by one or two wpm. each time  This was achieved by increasing the character speed and reducing the time between letters etc.,      I can remember once when we’d  all  been on leave for several days the instructor having to reduce the speed by a word or two per minute as we were struggling  to read the morse at the speed we could before we went on leave.  Even a break of just several days when you are learning morse slows you down a little.

As the weeks passed by we also listened to morse being sent by hand on a straight key and to morse being sent over the airwaves, with background noise/static. This of course made it a little harder but more realistic.    As trainee RO’s we were also being taught to touch type in another class  and once we’d gained a decent ability of touch type we also learned to copy morse directly onto a  typewriter.  

Over the rest of the 35 weeks  both the character speed was also increased until we could all read morse at 20wpm  At the end of the course we were properly examined/assessed.  The pass rate for  morse reception was 20wpm @ 98% accuracy - You were required to do two tests, one  using a typewriter and an other test done using a typewriter. 

As we gained proficiency in morse  we were also taught to send it.  .  As we’d also learned about  different  wireless telegraphy procedures and the format of military signals, these too became a part of both the morse reception and the morse transmission classes.  The  pass rate for morse transmission was 15wpm @ 80%.  This seems rather low but the RN knew that having reached that degree of proficiency we’d soon became much more proficient when we were posted to our first ships.  A year after I joined my first ship my ability to send  and received morse had increased considerably and I was able to send on a straight key at over 21 wpm with 100% accuracy.  Likewise I could easily copy morse at over 25wpm  by hand or typewriter.

As far as I can recall no one failed to learn morse or failed the course, and although I remember coming out of some morse lessons rather exhausted I wouldn’t say learning morse was difficult.  There was no ‘plateau’ phase often mentioned by people who learn morse on their own.  Learning morse was certainly no different from learning to touch type did using a method I think  was called the, ‘Pitman Method”, and we did a lot of learning to type to music with distinct beats.  This was quite fun - especially as we were all typing exactly the same scripts at the same time and of course it was amusing when someone made a mistake and the class rhythm was shaken somewhat.

All our instructors were Petty Officers or Chief Petty Officers.  As far as I can remember, all of them were also trained and qualified instructors.  Without exception they were  good instructors, patient and encouraging.  We were certainly not shouted at or insulted.


Just about every merchant navy  operator I have met learned in much the same way.   As you will  know military training is costly, both in time and money   If there was a faster or better method of teaching I’m sure the RN  and commercial institutions such as Marconi Marine, would have  adopted better ways  a long time ago!

Some differences on learning on your own and learning in a structured group.

As for the so called 'difficulty', of learning morse. I think there are a number of issues for most learners. This based on a comparision between my experience of learning morse as a 16 yr old in the RN (Learning Morse in the Royal Navy) and that of hams in my radio club who've tried to learn morse (and failed).

In the navy and my experience of learning morse is not particularly different from other servicemen or commercial operators I've met over the years.
1. We were mostly teenagers or early 20's 
2. We had to attend lessons
3. There were no distractions
4. The instructors were (in my case), also qualified trainers/teachers - they knew how to teach us.
5. The method/s used had evolved over many years and was tried and tested.  
6. The instructors were there in the lesson with you to help, encourage, humour and clarify any issues.
7. You got a job out of it at the end, which for many was the start of a long career.

Compared to my experience or knowledge of how hams appear to learn morse.
1. Often a solitary experience = no one to help/clarify, encourage etc.,
2. Family life gets in the way.
3. Work gets in the way.
4. Other distractions get in the way!!
5. Numerous choices of learning, many of which appear to be based on someone's experience of learning or trying to learn morse on their own.
6. No particular target to reach.
7. No understanding of what's involved or how long it might take to learn morse.
8. Age! I think the older you are it might just be harder to learn some new skills such as morse.
9. And if you drop out you've still got a life (and job).

Some things are simply easier learned if you are taught how to do them. Touch typing perhaps. I can remember my attempts to learn how to Eskimo role a canoe on my own with a 'book of instructions', with me. Then someone showed me - success!!! Driving a car might be another better example!!

There are some erroneous beliefs about learning morse, which I believe simply make learning it harder.  Many hams who learned morse on their own talk about the ability to 'Learn Behind' - copying one or two letters behind what is being sent.

'm not a believer in trying - or attempting to "copy behind".  

I can copy over 30wpm. I'd guess I must be 'copying behind', in that as I'm writing down one character the next one is either being sent or has already been sent. I think it is just what automatically happens when you are listening to faster morse especially as your speed increases. You obviously have to write down a character after its been sent (not as its being sent!!), so beyond a certain speed there is an overlap which means your are still writing/typing or even thinking about the character that has just been sent, whilst the next one is being sent.

Its certainly not something I deliberately do and I'm not aware of it when I'm receiving morse. I've never heard any radio operators or trainers ever mention it.

So attempting to copy 'behind', is really just an exercise in making it harder for yourself. I'm sure if I deliberately attempted to copy one or two characters behind then my brain just would not manage it. 

I think copying behind is just what happens automatically and not something deliberate.

Note:  My experience of learning morse was just at the start of the decline of widespread use of morse at sea.  Older contemporaries of mine were required to read morse at 22wpm, and  around 1975 the requirement had dropped from 20wpm to 18wpm.  RATT/RTTY & Satellite communications were becoming increasingly fitted to both commercial shipping  and military ships  Morse was on its way out.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Rescue on the Thelon River, NWT Canada

This incident took part whilst we were on the The Clarke / Thelon rivers  in 2007.  

Not exactly a rescue in the way us British canoeists would know it - but this demonstrates how difficult access/egress is for many of the remoter Canadian rivers.

Our 3rd day of paddling with a small group of paddlers on  the  Thelon and we encountered ice which went right across the river.  A combination of hauling the canoes across the ice and by portage and we were making slow progress. 

On the river bank a lone middle aged canoeist was sitting next to her small tent, and her collapsable canoe.  Alex our guide went to talk to her.  It transpired that she had been  having problems with her satellite telephone and  she told Alex she was; “waiting for the ice to melt or break up. ”. And had been on the river for three days.  We  also discovered that she had  called Fort Smith Royal Canadian Mounted Police as she wanted ‘rescuing’ as the thought of three or more weeks of isolated paddling  through remote wilderness had become far too intimidating for her to cope with and didn’t want to paddle any further, and had given up any idea of paddling to the only settlement on the river at Baker lake a few hundred miles downstream.

Alex told her that no plane could land on the broken ice, nor on the rapids downstream and that she’d have to paddle back a mile or so where the water was flat enough for  a float plane to land safely, but she appeared unwilling to move.  She had plenty of food and supplies so we left her where she was knowing she’d made contact with the RCMP in Fort Smith.  Alex told us that to ‘rescue’ her would cost her $6000 Canadian dollars for the 2 hour flight from Ft Smith!!  

Alex told us that Kevin, whom we had met in Fort Smith was flying out to the river and would probably paddle down to help her move her camp to a place of rescue.

We paddled on.

When we eventually finished our own trip and flew  back to Fort Smith we heard the rest of story.  It transpired that she was from California and  had been rescued  the previous year on the Mckenzie River after her collapsable canoe had sunk - and this was the same canoe she was using on the Thelon!!.  

A  plane had flown out to her the day after we met her, and dropped a message to her telling her she needed to move to a safer place so the plane could land which she refused to do.  

Later another plane overflew her and reported that she had moved her tent, but not to the correct place and that she could not be seen.  At this point it had become apparent to those in Fort Smith that she was in need of mental health care as well, so Kevin took with him a Psychologist & Psychiatrist,  and after a days paddle eventual found her and helped her move to a place where a float plane could come and fetch her back to Ft. Smith.

When I later called in to North West Air, to confirm our own arrangements for flying out of Ft Smith the woman was talking to a representative from the North West Air and wanted to know about getting a job in Ft Smith and for advice on where she could pitch her tent!  Mmmm?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Hedgelaying training for the York Wildlife Trust

Hobb House Farm Rosedale. February 2018

I was asked to run this two day event by Mary-Jane Alexander the NYMNP's Youth Engagement Officer. 

Given that most of them had little experience of using hand saws, axes, billhooks and the like, I was pleasantly surprised that they managed to achieve such good results and under quite cold, wintery conditions.

Mary-Jane and a trainee 
Getting stuck in!

Not bad by any means.  Yorkshire style!

Not perfect cuts, but certainly quite good considering their experience, and age.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Satir/Satyr inscribed stone Wheeldale, Goathland

Near Skivick Crag - Wheeldale, at GR 809982 can be found at a small stone cairn a stone laying against the cairn with the words, Satir, or as Tom Scott Burns told me, 'Satyr', which he was informed to be the burial place of a dog of that name and there is also a date which he says is Sept 1848 or 9.

Here's two pictures taken in January 2019.

Satir or Satyr ?
I didn't notice when I looked but apparently to the left of the year date is;  'Sept' - the date looks rather like 1809 to me but I viewed it on a rather dull day 

I've walked within this inscribed stone hundreds of times since my youth and never noticed it.  I looked in the area for nearly an hour until  I was a local farmer feeding his sheep.  I asked him and he immediately took me the small cairn and pointed it out but he could add no further information.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2 Foxes Stone - Danby Head

The 2 Foxes Stone - Danby Head
2 Foxes

I was first told about this stone by Author Tom Scott Burns in 1989. I never got around to visiting it until one wet and windy day this December 2018.  Easy enough to find with his instructions but I could not find  another inscription close by, recorded by T.S.B.   "....and low down to the left - "I.Peirson 1796"  - is inscribed upon another rock at ground level" .  The ground is extremely steep and pretty overgrown I could not find this stone.  Within the last few years there had been a cliff fall nearby to the 2 Foxes Stone.  It was raining and unpleasant so I didn't spend a lot of time looking.

The location for both stones is reached with some difficulty. (NZ 692024). From Botton in Danby Dale follow the track which runs south past High Farm, past the forest on your left, it then  ascends onto the moor on the east side of Danby Head, follow the track around  the edge of the wood on your right.  As the track descends towards the beck there is a gate.  At the top of the west side of the beck  there are a few small trees along a small broken crag. A very indistinct zig-zag takes you up to the right from where you can traverse to the rock face where  the 2 Foxes stone engraving is.

Peirsons were a family of Quakers in Danby Dale at one time and it may be a memorial to a hunting accident. Who knows?  Here is a picture of the Peirson Stone,  and the location  where it can be found.  I was unable to locate it even after another visit and much longer search.  Some of the crag appears to have fallen away and perhaps with it, the Peirson stone.
Photo taken by Jane Ellis and published by permission.  This photo was taken about 1988

Photo taken by Jane Ellis and published by permission.  This photo was taken about 1988.  I was unable to locate this feature and I'm assuming it has now collapsed.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Farndale Cairn

Cairns are becoming increasingly common on the North York Moors over the last 20 years as more people take to the hills.  This is already causing a problem where this habit causes damage to archeological sites such as Tumulus (Bronze age burial mounds) National Park Blog=  https:/deconstructing-mounds/

Examples of well built ones with well placed stones are far less common.  Many are placed where they can be seen from a distance, such as the shoulder of a hill.  But this one is extremely well hidden and I'm not sure it can be seen from any public path or road.  I

Its in Farndale.   Its very well built - the stones are carefully selected and placed so that the cairn is a true cone shape. Someone took a great deal of care in making this a nice cone shaped cairn.   I'd probably guess its a memorial to a favoured dog..Or perhaps an accident?  But who knows?