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The First Signal Schools

"Gongs, Drums, Flags and Banners are Signals to unify the eyes and ears of the troops." - Sun Tzu, 'The Principles of Conflict'

Until the latter part of the 19th century Signalmen acquired the necessary skills 'on the job' at sea. But as sail gave way to steam, and manoeuvring become more precise, it was realised that more formal training arrangements needed to be made. In 1882 the rate of 'Qualified Signalman' was introduced, to replace the previous non-substantive rate of the same name held by seamen employed on signal duties, and an Admiralty order ordained that these young signalmen should be drafted to the Channel Squadron as supernumeraries for training in signals.

The term 'Yeoman' was originally used to refer to the Petty Officer rate, eg 'Yeoman of the Powder Room', 'Yeoman of the Sheets', etc.. The term 'Yeoman of Signals' was introduced in the R.N. by Order in Council dated 25th November 1816. The Signal Branch was the only one to retain the title, rather than 'Petty Officer', the others having fallen into disuse many years ago.

In 1888 a 'Higher Standard Qualification' was added - this was to include instruction in electric telegraphy, electric light, and the heliograph. Up to 15% of Signal ratings could qualify for the higher standard, which entitled them to 3d a day extra pay, and this resulted in a great improvement in professional knowledge and in the status of the Signal Branch

The rates of Chief Yeoman and Yeoman of Signals had existed for many years, and these were now joined by a new rate of Second Yeoman of Signals (P.O. 2nd class), and a new intermediate rate of Leading Signalman.

'One good Leading Signalman should be detailed for odd jobs repairing flags etc. He should be the biggest fraud on the staff for he will come in handy when returning flags etc.. to the Dockyard'. - Read Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, 'Whispers from the Fleet'

In October 1888 the Admiralty said that it was proposed to establish Schools of Signalling at one or two Home Ports, where these subjects were to be taught:

' My lords ..... have been in communication with Her Majesty's Postmaster General, and it has been arranged that four Chief Yeoman or Yeoman of Signals shall undergo a five Post Office course to fit them for the duty of Signal Instructor.'

A letter of 12th December 1888 announced :
'The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have decided there are to be two Schools of Signalling, one at Portsmouth on board HMS Duke of Wellington, the other at Devonport when the Barracks are properly organised.' It went on to say that, at Portsmouth, the Gunnery Lieutenant of the Duke of Wellington was to take charge of the signalling instruction, having undergone the Post Officer Course.

The C-in-C instructed the Flag Captain, Captain Robert Woodward, who was in command of the Duke of Wellington, to report what facilities would be needed. In his report, Captain Woodard said :

'A suitable place can be found on board HMS Victory for the instruction room. The Victory is proposed on account of the incessant and unavoidable noise in the Duke of Wellington, occasioned by the various drills being carried out ....I beg to point out that the stay of Gunnery Lieutenants in the ship is very short, and during my command of eleven months I have already had three and am now without one. Therefore I would suggest that a suitable Warrant Officer have charge until a Lieutenant can be appointed solely to undertake this work'.

He also suggested that the duration of the signal course should be one hundred days, with five hours instruction per day.

In January 1889 the Admiralty approved most of the suggestions contained in Captain Woodward's report and added that '.....the course of instruction is to be commenced on board HMS Victory as soon as practicable. Mr. John Newell, Torpedo Boatswain, of HMS Vernon will be appointed to superintend the signalling instruction'. But later that year it was decided that a limited number of Chief Yeomen of Signals were to be promoted to the rank of Boatswain; one of the successful candidates was Henry Eason, who relieved Newel in March 1890 and took charge of what he usually referred to as the Naval School of Telegraphy. Two more of the new Signal Boatswains were appointed to HMS Vivid in 1890, and HMS Pembroke in 1891, and these appointments mark the establishment of Signal Schools at Devonport and Chatham, subsequent Navy Lists showing that these officers were in charge of signalling instruction.

A picture of life in the Victory was provided by Eason after he retired, as a result of a letter from the Signal School dated 1st February 1908, in which Charles Collins wrote :

'The Captain wishes you to send him a short crisp history of Signal School during your time there .... towards making an history book of the Signal School during your appointment. We hope to continue it up till today.

P.S : Wireless telegraphy is obsolete, superseded by Poulsen's wireless telephony having accomplished 250 miles. I give W/T 2 years longer to die.'

This prediction was somewhat premature - W/T survived for many years, and although gradually displaced by Voice, radio teletype and data, it is still not completely dead over eighty years later.

Eason did indeed write a 'short crisp history' in reply, from which the following extracts are taken :

'At the latter end fo the year 1889 HMS Victory was fitted up as a Naval School of Telegraphy. The instruments set up in the Admiral's after cabin were Sounders, Bells, Needles and Printers. Similar instrument had been set up at the Schools at Devonport and Chatham. On the 6th March 1890 the first batch of eight Signal Boatswains were made, one of which was appointed to each of the Schools in charge of the instructions.......'

HMS Victory, in about 1874, introduced a small mechanical semaphores and was literally worked manually, the operator holding the arms in the appropriate position. An even smaller version was produced for use in boats. The idea of using the human arms did not seem to have occurred to anyone until about 1885, when hand-held flags began to be used. Bigger mechanical semaphores were fitted with rather cumbersome sprockets and chains made to a special Admiralty pattern. In 1941 the firm of Thomas Haywood realised that ordinary bicycle chains would be cheaper and just as effective, and several of the new sets were actually delivered to the Signal School at Chatham, and to HMS Cabbala for training V/S Wrens, in 1942, just a year before mechanical semaphores were finally withdrawn from ships to save top-weight.

'Heliograph was also taught, classes being sent to the Semaphore Tower where communication was established between RMA Barracks at Eastney, RMLI Barracks at Forton, the Military on Southsea Common and Clarence Yard'.

It was not long before HMS Victory became a proper Signal School, sets of flags and signal books being supplied, and flag-hoisting drill being carried out with the fore and mizzen masts representing different ships. Signal ratings from ships paying off were sent to HMS Victory instead of the Barracks, and volunteers from other branches were called for. The initial training course lasted two months, the first devoted to theory, and the second to practical signalling when other ships in harbour also took part. Much trouble was taken to make exercises realistic:

'Manoeuvring signals were made and models worked, and everything such as turning flags etc.. carried out the same as it would be in a fleet at sea. Gun signals were taught by firing friction tubes, and before each class passed out the Hero or the ship used as HMS Excellent's tender fired a series of gun signals and saluting charges. This exercise was most instructive as many a signal rating had never heard a gun signal before. Fog-horns were also practised, men being posted round the deck each with a police whistle, and treated as a single ship, flagships and leaders being denoted, signals made as in a fog, being answered or repeated according to the instructions.'

'Flashing signals were carried out on the orlop deck of the Victory, and two large Semaphores were in position for instruction purposes, one being set up on the night-heads and the other on the poop, small hand flags being used for quick semaphoring. A few officers by special permission of the Admiralty were allowed to go through a course of telegraphy, a few other officers came and received instruction in Signal Books, manoeuvres, etc.. The demand for these instructions increased so rapidly that it was found necessary to open a class for officers in the Naval College in the Dockyard, where an instructor was sent to conduct.'

In a letter dated 5th November 1895 the C-in-C recommended that the Signal School should be placed in charge of a Commander or Senior Lieutenant specially selected for his knowledge of signal duties 'as in consequence of the largely increased numbers of signalmen, the School of Signalling on board HMS Victory has now grown so important'. The C-in-C also proposed that this officer should periodically inspect the Signal School at the other ports, so that there would be uniformity of training.

With a speed that suggested that this proposal had already been agreed informally, Commander Lionel Tufnell was appointed on the 19th November to HMS Victory 'in charge of Signal Schools'. The letter of appointment went on to say that he was authorised to inspect and report, through the respective Commanders-in-Chief, upon the Signal Schools at Sheerness and Devonport.

Commander Tufnell thus became the first Superintendent of Signal Schools. he was relieved in 1898 by Commander Hug Evan-Thomas, who was followed in 1900 by Allan Everett, then a lieutenant but shortly to be promoted Commander; both subsequently became Admirals.

Everett, who commanded the Signal School again in 1906-08, was a great signal enthusiast, often carrying out experiments with new equipment, making proposals for amending signal books, and indeed writing many of the books himself. He made many formal submissions on the subject, and carried on an extensive correspondence with other enthusiasts. Equal Speed Manoeuvres, new signal lamps, the use of W/T by scouting cruisers and competition for the top of the mast were all subjects on which he engaged in discussion.

Meanwhile, it had been decided that a permanent home ashore was required for the Signal School at Portsmouth. While waiting for this, training was transferred temporarily in 1904 to HMS Hercules, lying alongside in the dockyard. A shore establishment was finally achieved in 1906 when the whole School moved to K Block at the Royal Naval Barracks. As the school expanded, L Block was taken over and then parts of M and V, and finally a collection of temporary huts had to be erected alongside. This remained the home of the Signal School, and later also the Experimental Department, for the next thirty five years. The 1937 Naval Estimates included provision for a new Signal School in Portsmouth, but the war intervened and this was never built.

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