The Naval Warrant Officer in three parts!

This work is the finest piece I ever produced and was published after more or less becoming a resident of the Portsmouth Central Library in Guildhall Square after a six month stay over period. At that time I lived in Southsea in the old Marine Barracks at 3 Harvey House Gunners Row, and visited the library as soon as it opened armed with my laptop, printer and great desire, leaving each day when my wife collected me at close of play.

It wasn't my intention but it rapidly became a serious group of web pages visited by the discerning, the learned, serving and retired officers and a good audience of current fleet chief petty officers promoted from 1972 onwards into the fleet. Rarely if ever did a 'common browser' happen to visit these pages for to say the least, one needed [and still needs]  staying power to cope with the sheer amount of detail.  This, more than anything, teaches one about the Royal Navy during the transition of the the "Standing officers of a ship" viz the three warrant officers the gunner, the boatswain and the carpenter, who accepted a ship newly de-commissioned into their joint ownership, maintained it and made it ready for when a new re-commissioning  was demanded by their Lordships, than any book I know. These standing officers moved their families into the ship lock stock and barrel and set up home.

I am not therefore going to ask our devoted Curator to published these three interlinked web pages on his web site although it might be good were he to advise a good read in your own time outside the scope of the Museums webpage and library.

I tell you this story for a relevant reason namely that you are all communicators, signalmen and telegraphists, and therefore have a vested interest with a section of the story from the warrant officer story which I have isolated here for your read in situ.

At that time 2003 there was in the areas two lecture venues, one in the Eastney Officers Mess known as the Royal Marine Museum a stones throw from our apartment, in which I once gave an acquaint of life in HMS Hood - well received - and the other was at the rentable rooms in the City's Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh Road. It was at this latter place where I chose to deliver a lecture on 'Aspects of Jutland' to an audience of the local National Trust Association. 

Ex RN signalmen are allowed to be members of such organisations, but I hadn't factored in to my talk that they were probably not as au fait with the story of "equal speed charlie london" which was not really a focal point of mine but to them it was a WOW factor, WOW meaning walk on water - the holy grail!  Anyway the passage I had chosen was about the communications branch at or about the time of Jutland in 1916, albeit a battle of but a few hours only, but with disastrous results of destruction to personnel and materiel of an almost unbelievable magnitude.

So briefly, the situation dictated by history and certainly not by me, was the setting against one another of the warrant officer signals and the warrant officer telegraphist.  The signal warrant officer was called a Signal Bosun and as a senior commissioned warrant officer but of non wardroom commissioned status, a Chief Signal Bosun,  but the warrant officer telegraphist jumped from that rank of warrant officer direct to a commissioned telegraphist, and he held that position for eleven years before the signalman caught up with his rank.

All you need to know at this stage is that the commissioned telegraphist was not thought worth his salt by Jutland senior officers but the signal bosuns and chief signal bosuns were.  To bring the commissioned telegraphist into prominence for he truly was worth his salt, the saying [or order equal speed charlie london] was ridiculed as being an order which lasted for a very short period measured in a few hours, which led to terrible losses of over six thousands men - a worthless order which also nearly lost the battle.

Now you buntings might be out of your seat already but history tells it that way and it is indisputable.

My audience did not like my deliverance [or at least one man didn't and he was a sea cadet officer of a Portsmouth ward, and his reluctance to accept what I was saying rather spoilt it,  and the deliverance in spontaneous thanks from all others, was rather muted.

So now read this episode yourself.

The buntings had to accept that equal speed charlie london had caused a near defeat, the loss of many ships and 6000 lives, and the admiralty had to accept that the commissioned telegraphist was here to stay and was an important member of the communication branch and the admirals staff.

Now for the snippet taken from Part 3 of the RN Warrant Officer Story much of which would have been read on-line and would have covered much ground work bringing me to use the next paragraph taken direct from the story with no additions or subtractions. Please read and contemplate and ergo learn a view point which might run contrary to what you were taught and have always believed. By the way Admiral Jellicoe in the Iron Duke had two communication staff officers, one a Commander [S] meaning Signals and the other a Commander W/T dealing with wireless communication which by 1916 were well established. Both were, in equal measure highly decorated. If you want to know more detail then search me web menu for there is so much detail to tell.


 Now, verbatim from my Warrant Officer Part Three story.

 At this stage in the story you cannot have failed to understand that a CWO, a Chief Warrant Officer, was a commissioned warrant officer, although he was not of wardroom status.

Now to add to that story came an unexpected twist, which really forced the hand of the Admiralty, and once again riled many for favouring a few whilst selling the majority short.

By 1915, virtually all branches had a chief [CWO] - except for the Telegraphist Branch - who was employable [and indeed employed]  in all duties undertaken by commissioned officers of wardroom status of the same branch, except for one rank, namely that of the Chief [CWO] Writer. This was deemed necessary for all CWO's to be employed in these ways especially when fighting a major European War when EVERYBODY should be pulling his weight. The Chief Writer  worked alongside Paymaster officers dealing with money; money coming from several sources which to the penny had to be accounted for.  Because his official title was a Chief Warrant Officer Writer [notwithstanding that meant he was a commissioned warrant officer, but not called that in official circles by the Admiralty] he was not allowed to receive, pay out, or handle money unless supervised by a wardroom paymaster of whatever rank from sub lieutenant to Fleet Paymaster - any officer with the word 'fleet' preceding his title was a commander. This led to meetings in the Admiralty at Sea Lord level to discuss ways of fully employing the Chief Writer so that other officers could  be released for more important jobs chiefly in the administration of the navy under fire. What they came up with,  altered the titles of all CWO's no matter what their branch or specialisation. They decided to call the CWO Writer [what in reality he already was] namely  a 'commissioned writer',  dropping all reference of the CWO rank - that he had the word 'writer' after 'commissioned' meant to all that he was not a wardroom officer but still a warrant officer. Now as a 'commissioned writer' [but still without wardroom status] he could add to his tasks the full and unsupervised handling of money, releasing more senior wardroom officers to tasks like acting as secretaries, heading up supply chains including victualling etc, indeed being more versatile as Supply Officers. 

Just before Jutland in February 1916, it was realised that the Warrant Officer Telegraphist was  also restricted in his duties. Before the war, these warrant officers were limited to handling confidential signals only, nothing of a higher caveat and they were responsible for coding and ciphers chiefly using book systems like OTP = One Time Pads.  Traffic was piling up awaiting the attention of a commissioned officer for traffic above the confidential caveat. It is important to note that the Telegraphist branch never had the Chief's rank and that the Signals branch was not involved in any coding/decoding duties.  Telegraphists and Signalmen were not integrated into one communications branch until very much later, and were treated as two quite separate branches in many ways ### [See just below].  The signalman branch had been formed back in the 19th century and was well established with a Signal Boatswain [WO under ten and over ten years] and a CWO. Signal Boatswains over 10 were recorded before 1900 and Chief Signal Boatswains from about the 1909 period. The telegraphists branch by comparison was almost brand new, the first WO's being created on the 18th May 1910. It would have been  easy to promote an existing Chief Signal Boatswain to a Commissioned Signal Boatswain but what about the Warrant Telegraphist? A further precedent was set to that of the Commissioned Writer [which later affected new and emerging technical WO's], in that they promoted a Warrant Telegraphist straight to a Commissioned Telegraphist, the first two being so promoted on the 29th February 1916. These commissioned Telegraphist were allowed to handle signals bearing the secret caveat from that point, which would have helped greatly for Jutland, although the Battle only lasted for a few hours, so the traffic generated demanding a secret and top secret  caveat would not have been great!  From early 1916 onwards, CWO's [where existing]  were, in piecemeal fashion, stood down in favour of the commissioned officer rank [non wardroom status].  I can find no logical reason for the dates these new ranks were introduced, but for the record these ranks cover some ground:-

Mechanicians Commissioned Mechancians - 1915 but CWO ERA's stayed thesame Commissioned Stewards - 1915 Commissioned Electricias - 1915 Commissioned Victualling Officers - 1918 Commissioned Supply Officers - 1918 Commissioned Master at Arms - 1918 Commissioned Shipwrights - 1918 Commissioned Wardmaster - 1918 Commissioned Ordnance Officers - 1919 Commissioned Cook - 1919 Commissioned Engineers - 1919

then, fittingly {?} first IN and LAST out Commissioned Gunner, Boatswain, Carpenter from approximately - 1924

except [meaning not the first in] bringing up the rear the - Commissioned Signal Boatswain from the early 1930's - approximately 15 years after the Commissioned Telegraphist.

Quite  separately, but not mentioned yet in enough detail, was the ORIGINAL colour coding associated with officers stripes, which were used previous to the colour codes of the five civil officers of 1910 which were the Engineers = Purple; Medical = Red; Accountant = White; Instructor = Light Blue; Assistant Constructor/Shipwrights  = Silver Grey - others were added at a later date, i.e.,  Electrical = Green; Wardmaster = Salmon Pink; Dentist = Orange.  These were:-

Chief Senior Schoolmaster = " Black braid
Clerks = " White cotton
Warrant officers Engineers under 10 years = " Purple cotton under cuff buttons.

### In 1904 there was much comment about the W/T branch, embryonic as it was, that it was seen as a part time job, where would-be telegraphists went off to do other jobs, not necessarily to do with communications but usually to act as electricians, and when there was subsequent wireless activity, others were 'grabbed' from their jobs to man the circuits. These others almost invariably involved bridge watchkeepers, commissioned officers and those on watch in associated decks/areas viz, signalmen. Indeed, the Yeoman of Signals, with his knowledge of the Morse code became quite adept at wireless telegraphy, as did some of the junior signalmen who actually vied with junior telegraphists to be the recognised ships telegraphist. The situation got quite out of hand because often was the case that the "volunteer/pressed man", irrespective of his rank or job, got quite involved in "wireless signalling" that he was not available for his scheduled watch, he already fatigued in terms of hours on deck with their associated necessary and demanded alertness.  Captains of vessels and admirals of fleets and squadrons questioned the volatility of the "ships nerve centre" and the piecemeal arrangements made of necessity in situ,  made to support the fledgling branch of new technology. By 1905, these same captains and admirals demanded of Their Lordships to provide a professional telegraphist branch, where, once operational and at sea, their sole job was to send and receive radio messages at a goodly speed with great [rather than hitherto amateur] dexterity and nigh on one hundred percent accuracy. During major fleet manoeuvres in the Mediterranean, the then C-in-C, in his post exercise report stated the following.    Reports from sea - C-in-C Mediterranean report.  For reasons he explains "communications at present are ABSOLUTELY UNRELIABLE.     W/T MUST NOT have precedence over V/S.  W/T was not used to any great extent in the Russo-Japanese war [also of course of 1905]".  The C-in-C went further by stating that :-

Electrical branch is in charge of W/T - because it uses electricity !
Yeoman of Signals employed as the early telegraphists to cope with the requirements of Morse code.
Shortage of V/S personnel as a result.
[Seen as desirable] - confirm those early telegraphists as permanent telegraphists and continue recruiting to their numbers from more junior members of the signalling [V/S] department.
But, surely this would cripple the signalling department at a time when bridge signalling was as important [if not more so] than W/T signalling.

Remedy ? Suggestions put forward by the C-in-C Mediterranean did not auger well for the future of the full time professional W/T operator.     HMS Vernon, the Signal School, rounded on the C-in-C giving all the reasons why the introduction of the professional W/T branch was  not yet possible, reminding all that the Royal Navy was the best W/T equipped navy in the world and that in due course, W/T operators would mirror that statement. It, the professional W/T branch, followed as promised just over a year later, and was formed by existing R.N.,  telegraphists, by GPO trained telegraph boys,  signalmen foregoing their branch skills, and by AWO's [Admiralty Weekly Orders - forerunners of the AFO] trawling for every man-jack  from all branches willing to be retrained as telegraphists.  It will hurt or even upset some readers when I say [with authority and from profound research] that seven years BEFORE Jutland, the R.N., were well equipped and had had well trained operators, and pose a question as to whether our admirals knew that and why they didn't employ that proven technology?  I can just see the naval father of W/T technology [that famous Yorkshire admiral Sir Henry Jackson] who by Jutland was the first sea lord, asking of his admirals at sea [Jellicoe and Beatty] what's wrong with our bloody admirals, in the same vein as Beatty referred to our bloody ships. Poor Henry Jackson, after what to him must have seemed a life time of fighting with Marconi, who, in the end won Admiralty's affection and purchased Marconi's equipment as opposed to HMS Vernon's/Jackson's equipment, wringing his hands in despair, reflecting on lost years, and a crucial battle lost - or was that half won - it certainly was not won? 

Seeing W/T as an unwilling toy, hell bent on not behaving itself and therefore side-lined by the early WW1 British admirals as unpredictable, reminds me of the 1850-1870 period, when the salt-horses didn't like the engineers and steam age and much preferred sail.  After all, most of the senior sea going officers of those days wanted, as much as anything, a ship, timely arrived and fully prepared for the battle but without the soot and the residual filth accompanying it, without worrying about that most unfortunate of all naval occasions, that of becalming!  Steam and engineering was forced on them just as W/T was forced on admirals post Jutland who turned down a better and more efficient alternative to flag wagging, to their cost. If "equal speed charlie london" means the loss of many thousands of men and many of our so-called fine ships in a less than a twenty four hours time period, then so be it. To others it might mean a classic and dreadful slaughter akin to the army's Somme battle, and yes, W/T versus the archaic V/S technique of yore comes to mind - certainly to mine!

Jellicoe's reported reluctance to fully engage with wireless technology, reasonably well advanced in 1916, must have worried his first sea lord at the time of Jutland viz Admiral Henry Jackson who Jellicoe would relieve in November 1916 when the talk of the town was still all about Jutland. Jackson was not well known for purely naval expertise [he was neither an Admiralty desk driver nor a fleet driver, but he was a brilliant scientist and engineer the naval father of all things Wireless Telegraphy a direct and shrewd competitor to Marconi himself.

Almost from day one of his incumbency as the FSL, Jellicoe and his Board admirals blotted their copy books by telling Lloyd George that there was nothing anybody could do to defeat the German ubiquitous UBoats even though in the winter of 1916 Britain was getting ever nearer to starvation level.  This joint statement alone brought Jellicoe many enemies chiefly the army generals as well as two former first lords of the Admiralty as well as the current first lord, many politicians and lack of support from former colleagues, Beatty for example.  Soon after he led a group of admirals many from the fleet away from the Admiralty to tell Lloyd George that a convoy system ostensibly to protect merchant vessels would not work because it presented too big a target for Boats so counter productive.

The army was under constant battle stress on the Western Front and Jellicoe's performance as the FSL was considered lack lustre.  Finally there were enough highly respected counselors to propose Jellicoe's sacking although some backed away from admitting that after the act had been carried out by the then First Lord Geddes at Christmas 1917 after just one year and forty one days in office. He was replaced by Admiral Wemyss, and throughout the war years no fewer than four admirals had sat in the FSL chair, these being Fisher, Jackson, Jellicoe and Wemyss in that order. By the time Beatty has taken over and all his time in peace-time he went on to serve for 7 years. 

It was a tragic time and the vast majority of the people saw Jellicoe's sacking culminating by him being dispatched as far away from the UK  as was possible to be the governor general of New Zealand [but before that event occurred he was promoted to admiral of the fleet in 1919] as nothing less than cruel after his resounding strategic win at Jutland although in fairness a subdued tactical defeat.

 On his return from New Zealand he was elevated to the peerage first  as a viscount and subsequently as an earl after his ignominious sacking by Geddes dubbed 'Geddes Axe'.

As always the country needed officers to be able 'drive desks' [and some are famous at doing that] but also to drive fleets to face-off our enemies [and few if any did both jobs ashore and afloat with equal drive, merit and alacrity].  Many in Whitehall believed that Jellicoe was a fleet driver par excellence and didn't take well to having a desk and not a ship to manoeuvre.

After just forty three days in office as the FSL Jellicoe accepted a dinner/speech engagement with the Fishmongers Company in their very smart premises just outside the curtain wall of St Paul's Cathedral in the vicinity of the small but touchingly beautiful memorial to the National Fire Brigade of WW2 by Carter Lane Garden on the river side of the Cathedral. That was on Friday evening 12th January 1917. There he gave a speech in response to an article of that week in the Times wanting an authoritative  explanation as to what the navy were doing. He said all that was needed to set the record straight as one would expect which naturally pleased his host and all guests present and one assumes the editor of the Times and his readers. He was likened to Admiral Lord St Vincent and Nelson rolled into one, for you might recall the St Vincent prepared the way to destroy Napoleon and French Revolutionary Forces and Nelson executed those plans and finished off where his superior St Vincent left off. Out of modesty he didn't accept the analogy and concentrated on the warfare differences 100 years on could make.

Jellicoe had received comments about the use of Wireless Telegraphy during the battle of Jutland which led to people believing that communications were effected by visual means which Beatty and others proved wrong in his generous post battle comments and awards made to his W/T experts.  I have cropped his speech to highlight what Jellicoe might have actually thought of W/T when her referred to it as one of the modern pieces of technology which made warring that much more difficult in 1916 than in the early 19th century.  This is what he said:-

Jellicoes speech Part 1.pdf

Manifestly he factored into his war plan that W/T could be his undoing with the speed of exchanging vital intelligence, but equally it could have given him an advantage  allowing him  more time to track and potentially destroy his adversaries.  He knew of the threat to his forces, but didn't extol the advantage of employing it himself.  All his ships were fitted with W/T.  All naval officers of whatever navy used the battle plans of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war but non more so that the Royal Navy. The Jutland plan was largely based on that war, remembering just how bloody war-like both countries were and expected from the Germans and  more than matched by the British.  It was good to see that our admiral understood the major advantages of having and using wireless technology.

P.S. Not only was Jellicoe sacked from his first sea lord appointment, but the navy seems to have had a want to rid his name altogether. Jellicoe died in November 1935 and there were plans to call one of the battleships of the KG5 class after him, but the ship chosen, completed in June 1942 just seven years after his death, instead was named HMS Anson.

There I will let you go, but I wanted you all to know that once the world took onboard the uses and advantages of having W/T from 1905 onwards, it was a race to the top for naval and military uses, closely followed by commercial government agencies.  


See also the sister-page  to this story JUTLAND_COMMUNICATORS.html