Extract from Sailorboy Blue - Wireless Operator

She was built before World War Two and could barely make seven knots.

I don't think anyone in the know would have to be very discerning to know that HMAS Boomering was based on the real HMAS Kookaburra, a 540 tonner built in 1939.
I don't think anyone in the know would have to be very discerning to know that HMAS Boomering was based on the real HMAS Kookaburra, a 540 tonner built in 1939.

A squat little boom-defence ship.

Welcome to Extract from Sailorboy Blue - Wireless Operator.

The squat little boom-defence ship swung out on her after spring, her solitary propeller churning the water to froth under her round stern. The wire-rope tautened, taking her weight, then grew slack. On the wharf a sailor stood by, ready to slip the noose from its retaining bollard the moment he received the order to do so. The Boomerang sounded a shrill blast on her foghorn. Then another. She was a stocky, broad-beamed vessel; strength without grace. For a moment she seemed to prance, an ageing Clydesdale recalling its youth, as the bow wave from a passing harbour ferry caught her. From her halyards colourful pennants flew. Down aft, the White Ensign stood out stiffly in the strong westerly breeze.

She was the oldest, most decrepit looking ship Harry had ever seen.

The Boomerang was the smallest, oldest, most decrepit-looking boom-defence vessel in the Australian Fleet. But she was smartly handled. Except for Harry and one other youngster, there wasn’t a man aboard with less than ten years sailoring experience. For the Boomerang was a paying-off draft. She was the type of vessel sailors went to when they had all but finished their time with the navy. The navy had introduced a two-year drafting policy. Sailors with less than two years to go before the end of their contract were almost automatically sent to ships such as she. This saved a lot of inconvenience. Transferring replacements to foreign ports is an expensive business.

“Signalman - Yes, you, Webster,” said the Skipper, a crusty, old ex-lower-deck man who had worked his way to a command through the ranks, “Call the signal station and request permission to proceed.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” replied Harry smartly. He wanted to make a good first impression with the Old Man.


This is atypical of the radio equipment carried.

Here on the left we have an AT5-AR8 transceiver of around 50 watt power.   They were also carried in RAF bombers in WW2
Here on the left we have an AT5-AR8 transceiver of around 50 watt power. They were also carried in RAF bombers in WW2

On this vessel Harry had to be both visual signalman and wireless operator.


Harry had temporarily forgotten that the Boomerang carried no qualified “Bunting Tosser.” On this ship, as radio operator, Harry had to fulfil two jobs: that of Radioman, and that of Signalman. It was to be a steep learning curve.

Our hero pointed the aldis lamp and aimed it at the high wooden tower that overlooked Garden Island Dockyard. Dit dah, Dit dah, he flashed, as he attempted to draw the attention of the man on duty in the tower. Behind him, from the open door of the tiny wireless office, Morse signals blared. His ship was being called but, for the moment, Harry would have to ignore it.

Busy is a single operator naval ship - one without a visual signalman - that was putting to sea.

Up until the time Harry joined the Boomerang he had deluded himself into thinking he knew what busy was. Now he really knew. Busy was a single operator naval ship -one without a visual signalman- that was putting to sea.

Harry ran signal-pennants up and down halyards. He took the Union Jack from the jack staff up forward, and ran up the White Ensign on the mizzen. He worked the ship-to-shore Morse circuit to local headquarters, kept a listening watch out on the area broadcast from Canberra, and listened in, too, on the Merchant Marine’s distress frequency.


The B40 HF Communications Receiver.

This type were the backbone of radio comms and were carried on nearly every RAN vessel on any size in the 1950s.   All sets used thermioic valves in those days.
This type were the backbone of radio comms and were carried on nearly every RAN vessel on any size in the 1950s. All sets used thermioic valves in those days.

Yes, leaving harbour kept one busy.


Whilst engaged in all this, he had to keep a weather eye out for any attempts at visual contact, by either the signal tower at Garden Island, or by any other naval vessels they might pass whilst traversing the harbour. And such contacts could be by light, semaphore, or signalling pennants.

Yes, leaving harbour kept one busy. But once they reached the open water beyond the harbour entrance things should quieten down, Harry thought. And this proved to be the case. In the wheel-house, the Skipper gave the orders that would take then down the harbour to the open sea.


Wireless operator's upper arm patch. They come in several colours

On a sailors best going ashore uniform this badge would be made of gold wire sewn again the navy blue.
On a sailors best going ashore uniform this badge would be made of gold wire sewn again the navy blue.

It was all very seaman like...


“Let go the after spring... - Coxswain, steer green four zero, engine half ahead... - Any reply from the tower, Webster?”

A hundred yards away signal tower’s light blinked slowly and deliberately.

“Permission granted, sir.”

“Very good. -Coxswain, steer zero-one-zero.”

“Zero-one-zero degrees, sir,” repeated the Coxswain, deftly swinging the small, spoked wooden ship’s wheel.

“Course now zero-one-zero, sir, engine half ahead.”

“Very good.”

It was all very seamanlike. Appearances were deceptive, Harry realised. The crew looked sloppy: they weren’t. These old sailors knew their stuff. No doubt about that. To Harry, as with most young matelots, any man over thirty was regarded as an old man. The navy even had a jingle to this effect.

“Three badges gold: -too bloody old.”


The RC8 radio transceiver.

Low wattage two-way (transceiver) often used when coming into or leaving harbour.
Low wattage two-way (transceiver) often used when coming into or leaving harbour.

Long service badges brought prestige.

It took twelve years to pick up three gold stripes. Good conduct badges, the stripes were called. Each one represented four years of undetected crime, as the sailors cynically put it. The badges brought prestige- and four pence extra per day per stripe. A stripe took a long time to get.. But you could lose one- or the lot- at the whim of a naval officer. As most youngsters were eighteen, or thereabouts, when they joined the navy, three stripes meant you had to be at least thirty years of age. Simple arithmetic.

All of the Boomerang’s old hands were paying off within the next year or so. With the exception of Harry and one other, there wasn’t an enlisted man aboard willing to renew his contract with the navy. They’d had enough. Stoppage of privileges; stoppage of pay; stoppage of leave- they’d all experienced these things

Sailors nearly always remember their last ship as their best.


They’d experienced, too, the humiliations of the second-class citizenship the navy imposed on its enlisted men. These sailors despised not the navy, but the system within the navy. But Harry knew a lot of them would be back. Memory is so deceptive. The bad times are erased as if they have never been: the times of happiness linger as an ever-green song. Yes, the Boomerang was a good ship, a happy ship. And sailors nearly always remembered their last ship as their best. The talk of old hands who had gone outside to “Civvy Street,” and then rejoined the navy was commonplace. It was a cruel world outside the navy too.

Ninety percent of the radio work was done in Morse.

Every radio operator's 'fist' is a little different and after a while you can usually tell who's operating at the other end.
Every radio operator's 'fist' is a little different and after a while you can usually tell who's operating at the other end.

The Old Lady, the sailors called her.


The Boomerang cleared the Sydney Heads at long last. With her seven knot cruising speed, she was no greyhound of the deep. The Old Lady, the sailors called her. She was a gnarled, old washerwoman of a ship: strong, enduring- but ugly and slow-moving. The Skipper handed over control of the ship to the Coxswain, who now became officer-of-the watch. As the ship carried only three commissioned officers, the senior N.C.O. had to make up the numbers. An able seaman took the wheel.

Harry’s wireless office, a tiny alcove measuring six by six feet, was situated right behind the bridge, its door opening onto the bridge immediately behind the ship’s wheel, engine-telegraph, and voice pipes which led to various sections, including the engine room. From this vantage point, Harry was always conversant with what was going on, as far as the Boomerang was concerned

Boomship of the type depicted in the story under full steam.

She was no greyhound of the deep.   Also, with her low freeboard, she was often lee-rail under whilst at sea.   Yeah, she was no QE2, that's for sure.
She was no greyhound of the deep. Also, with her low freeboard, she was often lee-rail under whilst at sea. Yeah, she was no QE2, that's for sure.

You couldn't swing a tail-less Manx Cat in Harry's Wireless Office.

The wireless office was crammed full to overflowing with radio transmitters, receivers and ancillary equipment. There was only just enough room in there to place one swivel chair, a typewriter on a narrow shelf, and room to write up his wireless log-books. It was incredible that so much could be stowed in so small a space.

One powerful radio-transmitter took up an entire wall. There were a couple of box-like receivers, a direction-finder with which- in theory at least- Harry could work out the ship’s position in relation. There was another, smaller transmitter, plus a transceiver on which messages could be both sent and received. He had voltage-control regulators, even a voice pipe direct to the flying-bridge -which nobody seemed to use- above.


On a single-operator ship one is king in one's own domain.


As the voyage continued Harry came to love his little ship. In the radio or W/T office, as it was called, Harry was king in his own domain. No one bothered him. He was answerable only to the Skipper.

Yes, the W/T Office was Harrys “part of ship.” Gradually he became so familiar with it that he knew intimately the location of every control-knob, switch, button, and dial, within that tiny cubicle. He could sit in his office, late at night, with the overhead light dimmed to a point where he could hardly see, and yet his hands would find typewriter, Morse key, controls of equipment unhesitatingly.

Moreover, Harry, at long last, began to love his work. He got the most out of his equipment. our radio operator would tune the big, black monster transmitter at his back until it seemed to become alive. The needles behind the dials and gauges would twitch like living things, as Harry peaked the aerial current, sending oscillating electrons to the quadruplet copper lines that swung between him and the stars.


Now here is a 'greyhound of the deep' the WW2 Destroyer HMAS Warramunga

The "Munga" could top 36 knots at full speed and generally ran rings around even later vessels such as the V class destroyers.  Even todays vessels don't have her speed.
The "Munga" could top 36 knots at full speed and generally ran rings around even later vessels such as the V class destroyers. Even todays vessels don't have her speed.

Morse signals bouncing and whirling across the world...


Our radio operator’s hand would caress the Morse key. Dit-dit-dit-dah. Dit-dit-dit-dah. The letters would flash out, the signals bouncing and whirling across the world to the places Harry called. Other radio operators in such locations as Canberra, Darwin, and Sydney, and other naval vessels, knew Harry’s fist. His Morse style, as is every operator’s, was unique. Like a man’s voice, it carried with it some of his personality.

With tuning graphs in hand, Harry would consult the ionospheric prediction charts to ascertain the best radio frequencies to use. It became a personal challenge to get the clearest possible signal to those he wished to contact. Soon the Boomerang’s call letters became familiar to radio centres as far apart as Vancouver, Gibraltar, and Hong Kong. Harry’s was doing what amateur radio operators do for fun- and he was getting paid for it.

“Who did you send that last message away through, Sparks?”

“Vizigatapatam, Chief.”

“Vizzi- what?”

“Ceylon.”



Added to this was Harry’s swiftly growing sense of prestige, of being a somebody, aboard ship, instead of being just a number. For though only twenty years of age, Harry was a Key Hand; one of the few men regarded as essential to the ship. The old Boomerang could sail short a seaman or two. She could go short on engine-room staff. Even her cook could be left behind. But she could not sail without her radio operator. That was mandatory. When Harry sat in on the occasional Key Personnel Meetings with the Skipper, the First Officer, the Chief Engineer, and the Coxswain, all men twice his age, his heart filled with pride. He was doing a real job, and indispensable job. It was a nice feeling.

No, she's not going fast. Must be steaming into a strong headwind, by that smoke.


Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Just as the Boomerang had her ups and downs, so did Harry’s job. At sea he could be called upon to perform radio duties day or night. If an urgent message had to go out, Harry had to be there. To be dragged from a warm hammock or away from a hot shower could be annoying. But a job was a job. In those times of emergency, such as the interception of an SOS signal, Harry might find himself in the tiny W/T office for many hours. He’d take his meals there; sleep there sitting up- and listen to the continuous chirping of Morse until his head would seem to burst. But such long hours were rare. Mostly it was good.

As the weeks passed, Harry became competent, assured, and more than a little proud. At long last he felt he had become a man.


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2 comments

WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Just excellent, Tom. It takes me back to the wonderful days when radio was still a mystery, and to listen to someone on the other side of the world was a thing of wonder.

Today, it's old hat, and all you need is a cell phone or a computer.

Up and awesome!


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Thank you, Will. Appreciate the feeling. I think a lot of wonder has gone out of Telecommunications since the advent of the sattelite and instant two-communications virtually anywhere in the world.

Thanks for your feedback.

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