Shades of the Cold War, from an MN R/O’s perspective

Shades of the Cold War, from an MN R/O’s perspective

First, a bit of history; from 1913, precipitated by the “Titanic” disaster the previous year, merchant shipping worldwide was required to maintain a 24-hour radio watch and therefore carry at least one “radio man”; ships with only one radio operator were also equipped with automatic distress signal receiving equipment to give the operator some respite. In the early days, maritime radio personnel were “ratings”; in the UK they didn’t receive officer status until the late 1930’s, when the Radio Officer (R/O) rank was added to a merchant ship’s hierarchy.

Empress Of Canada Radio CrewMoving-on, in the sixties of last century, the number of R/Os aboard UK Merchant Navy vessels depended mainly on the ship’s commercial requirements. However any ship accommodating more than twelve passengers had to employ more than just one R/O by law. The image on the right is of a typical passenger ship’s radio station; the character seated bottom left is Stuart, of whom more later.

The Radio Officer’s job was to operate, and maintain a 'ship’s wireless station', with his first responsibility being the safety of life at sea. That meant the R/O was expendable in the event of his ship sinking, because he was expected to keep transmitting until all power was lost, and with the emergency batteries being situated in the highest practical location in the ship, which was often alongside, or even above the radio room…

The job was also often interpreted, although mostly unofficially, to cover anything electronic too, such as radar, depth sounders, DF and the like. DF is worth some amplification in these days of ‘GPS’, which some people now seem to rely on to get to their local shop! In the times of this essay, to get from A to B at sea it was necessary to navigate by the sun, stars, local observation and dead reckoning (i.e. educated guesswork) just as sailors had done since time began. With the advent of radio it became possible to get a relative bearing of a radio signal source by using Direction Finding apparatus. In northern climes, where you might not see the sky for many days due to low cloud, mist and rain, making a landfall could still be precarious. The use of radio DF was therefore a great boon to navigation where bearings from two or more shore stations would cross at the receiver's position.

A ship’s wireless station was made-up of basic mandatory wireless telegraphy equipment together with any other apparatus added by the shipowner. The basics included equipment capable of sending and receiving Continuous Wave (CW) transmissions, with information being passed using Morse Code. Then, as now, profit was the name of the game and you can no doubt appreciate often the bare minimum of equipment was provided. Where additional equipment was installed, this usually included radio telephone facilities, although by today's standards, at that time those were extremely primitive. 

Some of the larger shipping companies employed their Radio Officers directly but in the UK the majority of R/Os were rented out, and as those were exclusively male, I guess we were the original rent boys! However in the next decade that would change and female R/O’s also slowly began to be employed around the world.

The rental system included the equipment; in the UK there were four rival companies in competition for this business, Marconi International Marine Co. (MIMCo), International Marine Radio (ITT), AEI/Siemens and Redifon.

The largest market share at that time was enjoyed by the MIMCo in whose employ the following gentleman relating tales of their Cold War were employed.

The companies’ central personnel departments detailed their R/O’s off to one of their depots, which were located in all the larger ports in the UK; within those depots resided the Staff Clerk, who allocated personnel to ships and generally administered their “boys”, often with a somewhat dictatorial rather than fatherly attitude. However even as a teenager, if you stood your ground, their diktats could usually be challenged, especially as at that time there was a real shortage of qualified R/Os. In the UK, after winning his Post Master General’s Certificate (to operate and maintain a ship’s wireless station) every R/O was supposed to undertake a six months ‘apprenticeship’ with an experienced R/O before taking charge by himself; however due to that shortage, sometimes that period was curtailed.

And so to tales of Cold War experiences in the British Merchant Navy…

Pete relates… “I remember the nuclear period, especially the Cuban crisis. The first ship I was asked to join after I’d completed my ‘apprenticeship’ with MIMCo was a bulk sugar carrier destined for the Russia – Cuba run, and this was during the Kennedy 'blockade' of Cuba; running that blockade didn’t sound like fun!

She was Greek flag and had yet to receive the Lloyds certification that would guarantee her insurance and allow her to sail on this new charter. She wasn’t that old but she was already in quite a state, which didn’t bode well for the future; she looked like she had already been in a war.

Some officers were already on board, mostly Greek and to me, they were a pretty scary looking bunch of guys. I was allocated a cabin but as yet, the vessel hadn’t got any crew, I was told they would be coming tomorrow. I awoke the next morning to find a crowd of Koreans aboard, most of whom didn’t speak English, looked particularly piratical and scared the pants off me, me being a greenhorn kid; that clinched it, she could sail without me!

I probably didn’t think of it at the time but any service aboard such a ship might have been detrimental to my entry into the USA, where I now reside, so my impetuous actions then were probably beneficial to me in later life. I went onto the dock, phoned Marconi and told the Staff Clerk I wasn’t going to sail with that ship. He lost his rag and told me, as I’d ‘signed papers’ I’d end up in jail if I didn’t!

Signing on Articles was something everyone did before taking-up a stint aboard ship in those days and those Articles were a standard legal document that committed the individual to up to two years aboard a particular ship. Although that could mean you had to serve the full term, with ships trading in and out of the UK, they didn’t bother most people, as it was as easy to sign-off as on, if you were in a home port. However those covering crews on the sugar run between Cuba and the USSR, which didn’t touch a UK or Commonwealth port, were rumoured to mean what they said.

I told him, ‘fine, that was better than going anywhere on that ship’. Obviously he deduced it would be less hassle if he sent down a replacement, so he found an old timer who apparently was on his ‘last warning’ and who seemed to be nearly in tears when he saw the ship – he really tried to get me to stay but… That did not do my relationship with that Staff Clerk, and his sidekick, any good and no doubt might influence any future I had with the great panjandrum but I didn’t care.

When Kennedy was shot sometime later I was in the eleven hundred ton ‘Bustler’, I guess our Staff Clerk thought a time aboard an ocean going cockleshell would shake me about a bit.  BUSTLERIndeed, she was capable of some aquabatic antics, not least because of two tall masts strung with comms’ aerials and flag hoists. ‘Bustler’ was a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, which really was a merchant ship hired by the Royal Navy. She looked like a tug, acted like a tug, ergo… She was an Ocean-going Recovery Vessel! There were only two ORVs, one based in the UK (and sometimes Gibraltar), the other in Singapore.

Because of the relationship with the navy, many RN traditions (and BS) were observed. On that fateful Friday evening we were enjoying the cheese and port after dinner and on hearing the news immediately went to some higher level of alert and put to sea. We ended-up chasing spent torpedoes on some pretext or other and recovering the same for re-use; needless to say they hadn’t “gone off”!

It was an exciting posting that could have been envied by some of my old friends but for one who doesn’t like heights and is wary of aeroplanes at the best of times, being winched off the back of a bucking bronco by helicopter and being deposited dripping wet on the heaving deck of a destroyer to attend some fleet comms’ briefings was something at the time I could have done without; pretty cool though, looking back and telling the kids… If briefed before we went out on an exercise or to tow a submarine from here to there, we usually had to descend deep into some nuclear bunker, past Royal Marine guards with guns!  I think everyone close to the military was pretty twitchy in those days. It was a very tense period. Some people even believed we were VERY close to Armageddon.

I almost had the last laugh on that Staff Clerk because I look back on ‘Bustler’ (apart from her preponderance to roll on wet grass), as a rewarding experience. I would have liked to stay, especially as she was scheduled to eventually take a tow out to Singapore and change places with the ORV there but the R/O I had relieved (who’d been in ‘Bustler’ a long time) was just about recovered from an operation and Marconi wanted him to return; perhaps that Staff Clerk had discovered I was enjoying myself.”


Stuart remembers… “In late October 1962 we were outward bound from Liverpool for the Panama Canal in “Reina del Mar”. We had just passed through the narrow (17 nautical mile wide) Turks Island passage between Reina Del MarCaicos and Grand Turk islands at the lower end of the Bahama island chain and were now sailing to the east of Cuba, when I got into very hot water!

All that day we had been ‘buzzed’ by warplanes and had seen a great deal of activity by the US Navy, with destroyers cruising about and smaller grey painted vessels bristling with aerials (and guns) dashing hither and yon. For days we had all been following the worsening world news centred on the very area in which we were now sailing, both on the radio and in the press bulletins; as third R/O, ‘taking the press’ was one of my tasks.

Every day a news bulletin was transmitted from the UK in Morse code, which I listened to at the appropriate time, mentally decoded and typed directly onto a Gestetner “skin” in the Radio Room’s manual typewriter. Bottles of ‘Typex’ were an important tool too, especially if there was a heavy sea running. That “skin” was then put into a duplicating machine, and operated by hand crank, reeled-off paper copies for distribution to all the cabins and posting on the ship’s notice boards.

One of my other responsibilities was to record the BBC news broadcast earlier and replay that bulletin over the public address system at 6pm local time every day; on this particular day, I was late getting to the equipment in the radio room! I was never late ‘on watch’ and didn’t have a record of such timekeeping errors and I can’t remember why I was late that day, maybe I was involved in something much more interesting and forgot the time. Within minutes however I realised my error and decided to rectify it by playing back the news at 7pm instead.

I suppose I could be described as a callow youth because I didn’t think about the consequences of this decision. Life aboard ship is one of routine and one of those had now been broken. From what we had gleaned from the news of the last few days the world was spinning towards the unthinkable, a M A D nuclear conflict. Although everyone was somewhat on edge, the tradition was ‘stiff upper lip’ and an outward calm prevailed.

At 6pm there was background music coming out of loudspeakers around the ship as usual but no news. It was the passenger’s cocktail hour and the majority were engaged in discussing current events even though we had entered the Caribbean Sea, which was a deep blue flecked with white horses whipped-up by the trade wind blowing along with us, flying fish were escaping our advances and land (Cuba ‘tis true) was a green smudge on the starboard bow topped by tall white fluffy clouds. Luckily those clouds were not of the towering thunder variety, so couldn’t be interpreted as ‘mushroom’ shaped. Even so, the increased naval activity somewhat belied the peaceful ocean scene. Afterwards I was told that attempts at steering the conversation onto the sights to be seen and the anticipation of the evening’s entertainment were unsuccessful and there was without doubt an undercurrent of fear and anticipation, now heightened because the BBC news hadn’t been broadcast, why? Some of those stiff upper lips were visibly trembling!

At seven they were all sitting down to dinner, when the public address system switched from soft piped music to the BBC at full volume, suddenly you could have heard a pin drop. And the news? It was that Kennedy had issued his final ultimatum to Kruschev… Everyone thought their time had come!

Within minutes the Captain in his best dress dinner kit had stormed into the radio room emitting sparks and spitting tacks; all I can say is I remember my Chief and me received a good old fashioned dressing down and I was lucky it was 1962, not 1862 because I wasn’t sentenced to a public flogging, or worse, a keel hauling but from his demeanour, I reckon the Captain had those in mind. However what had been done had been done and there was no rewinding time – and the taped news was left to run its course.

Needless to say, the news was never late from then-on. Luckily the very next day the two world leaders came to an agreement and there was such a collective sigh of relief it could have started a hurricane!”


Mike recalls…“Before the Cuban crisis I remember seeing some of the crew of ‘Loch Avon’ jump ship in Cristobal at the east end of the Panama Canal. They had been enticed to join Castro in his revolution. The Cuban’s had a ship in the Roads where 

Loch Avon

they gathered together all those who had volunteered. Ships officers were promised commissions as Colonels, and maybe Generals, with the prospect of huge rewards, if they survived. I’ve no idea what happened to those guys, maybe they are still there. I don’t recall any other incidents or worries then or afterwards, I guess I was having too good a time”.


As for your editor, I was third R/O in "Nevasa" out east in the autumn of 1962 (see and despite also having the job of "taking the press", like Mike I have no recollection of the Cuban Missile crisis at all, it completely passed me by. I had been sent to "Nevasa" the year before by the way, where one much more senior (in experience but not much in age) than I was detailed-off to keep an eye on me – I had upset the local Staff Clerk by going over his head to Head Office and kicking up a fuss demanding a "proper ship"; my first was a cross channel ferry!

Photo credits: Thanks to…

Stuart, for the group of R/Os and…

"Bustler" Thanks to Barry Dixon c/o

"Reina del Mar"

"Loch Avon" Photo © Malcolm Cranfield





Search our Knowledge base

for answers

Get in touch Launch live chat

8am to 8pm, all week

Call our helpline 0808 802 8080

8am to 8pm, all week

Find us locally Pop in for a chat

10am to 4pm, weekdays