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.


Phil G4OBK said...

What a memory you have Dave - admirable! I wish mine was as good.
73 de Phil G4OBK

Phil G4OBK said...

I knew when I mastered E I S H T M O in a weekend I could manage to learn the rest of the characters as sounds in the coming weeks, and it came to pass!

David Perry said...

Thanks Phil - but the's an awful lot of stuff I can no longer remember at all, and lots of things I can only remember partially.