Final Morse transmission of the RNZN

The navy has followed many countries in tossing the time-honoured technology overboard, now that higher-speed and more secure voice and computer commu­nications have rendered it obsolete.

 

The navy has followed many countries in tossing the time-honoured technology overboard, now that higher-speed and more secure voice and computer commu­nications have rendered it obsolete.

in 1999, As the Royal New Zealand Navy ships received their last Morse-code message, 20-year-old able radio officer Fiona Hay battled nerves to rattle out a flawless sign-off message to ships from Southland to Western Australia, veterans recalled their own hair-raising tales from the gold­en age of Morse. An epitome of simplicity with its dots and dashes, the code was developed 161 years ago by American painter and inven­tor Samuel F B Morse, and sent down the world’s first telegraph line when he fin­ished building it in 1844.

There was nothing yesterday to rival the profundity of the inaugural message Morse tapped down the line from Baltimore to Washington: “What hath God wrought!” Demonstrating that a working military has little time for small talk, all Devonport would allow its far-flung fleet was a rather more mundane: “Close down this circuit, out.” to ships from Southland to Western Australia on 1 July 1999 from HMNZS Philomel the naval base at Devonport, Auckland. Its lifeline cut, the Morse signal imitated the flat-line of a dead patient’s heart moni­tor before the last brass code-tapping key went to the navy museum.

But a dozen veterans, while accepting that the tech­nology had done its dash for the military vowed to keep the tap dance alive in amateur- radio circles and their hearts. Jim Blackburn, a 73-year-old veteran of British minesweepers and landing craft, used Morse to communicate with a friend left unable to talk by a stroke.” By blinking his eyelids in Morse he could talk to us.”  Jack Harker, 83, recalled how an attack by the New Zealand minesweepers Moa and Kiwi on a Japanese submarine allowed American divers to capture a new enemy Morse code to devastating effect. The submarine sank off the Solomon Islands with thousands of copies of the code, which the divers found in a clandestine mission. That let the Americans decipher travel plans of Japanese naval commander and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbour Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, whom they killed in an air ambush over Bougainville.

Mr. Harker saw action on the three New Zealand cruisers Leander, Achilles and Gambia but his most spine-tingling moment was receiving a Morse signal about the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. He was on the Leander in the Indian Ocean in 1940 when the Australian cruis­er Canberra reporting spotting the sister-ship to the Graf Spee, which the Achilles had helped sink the year before. “They reported a position so close to ours that it almost made the hair stand up on my neck because we knew what a pocket battleship could do to a cruiser.” But orders to shadow the enemy until nightfall before attacking it were counter­manded when the Canberra sent another signal confessing that what it thought was the battleship was in fact the Leander. The two allied ships later sank the Admi­ral Scheer’s supply ship and tanker but were unable to catch the main prize.

Footnote: The key Fiona is using is a Victorian land-line post office key (pre 1896) with the original milled head terminals. The original horn or wooden knob has been replaced with a brass milled head terminal, which would mean that the operator’s hand is in electrical contact with the keyed circuit – not a very good idea However, Fiona has written to me to assure me that was the key she actually sent the message with. She found that this old key was far more difficult to use than the more modern ones that she was used to.)