The Royal Signals Org.UK Datasheets

Recording Signalling Methods, Technology, Equipment & History for Posterity

The following is a compilation of many different sources and information by Petra, some she found from on-line web sites, some from books, some translations from German sources and a lot is simply written by herself, including the noticeably "odd" inclusion of her very twisted humour from which everyone distances themselves! (even Petra) That said you can hopefully still learn a lot and have fun? So anyone who is unhappy with the content of this free newsletter or datasheet can ask for a full refund under our standard Policy.

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Visual Signalling via Flags and other Methods

This Datasheet is actually the first in a Series that covers the pre-Royal Signals period of the British Army (and Naval) Signalling. It will cover Visual Signalling which until the invention of radio was the prima-facia method of mobile wireless communications for both British ground and sea forces. Be Warned! All are subject to outburst of odd "Petra" humour

All forms of Visual signalling will be handled in this datasheet series (in individual parts) and the subsequent datasheets … including the signalling of trains and the No.17 Bus ;-)

1). This Datasheet (School of Signals, basic Trade Training of the mid 1800s till WW1.)

2). Sunlight.  (Heliograph) (and the 1905 Signalling Handbook  on Heliography)

3). Flags.  (incl. Flag Waving, WigWaging and Semaphore)

4). Telegraph.  (Mechanical, Lattice, Shutter, Semaphore, etc.)

5). Lamp (Oil, Gas and Electrical)

6). Beacons(Rocket, Smoke, Flare and Fire)

The Second part of this series "Heliograph" was so extensive that it also has another more detailed description from the original Signalling handbook. Further Datasheets will cover Dispatch Riders (Horse, Cycle and Motorcycle), Runners, Animal Carriers (Dog, Pigeon, etc.) Then we will move on to Uniforms and equipment, Vehicles and Radio sets, etc.

All of the visual signalling datasheets will have an integral interface to the Royal Navy, for reasons that become clear as each part is discussed. Indeed up until WW1 the Navy and RE signallers used much the same systems and worked closely together. In Canada the Chiefs of staff decided in 1968 that the independent units of Naval Signalling, Air Force and Army Signalling would not only train together and share same equipment, but that from 1968 onwards they would form a single joint forces regiment now called the CE!

The South African SANDF Signals have a similar Merger planned into the "CMI". And thus forming a single set of experts for all military communications providing "Command and Management Information Services"

A trend that could also one day restore the earlier marriage of the Engineers and the Sailors in the UK and make the Royal Signals a Multi-Services branch!

So let us deviate a bit from signalling and go back to see how and why the Royal Engineers were so intertwined with the Navy.

The History of the Royal Signals and their Origin in the Royal Engineers is well known and documented on many on-line web resources. But what is not so diligently covered is the fact that the First School of Field Instruction (including Signalling) was a joint effort of the Admiralty and the Royal Engineers and established in Chatham Dockyards in 1812.

The Engineers had in many sieges and battles undertaken some months of complex tunnelling work to be able to lay massive charges (carried down the finished mineshafts they had dug, and built up under an enemy stronghold over weeks) that would destroy the fortifications in one sudden and unexpected go. In fact it is due to this Tunnelling that the good old land mine got its name "Mine" as did the sea mine. The Engineers for their part were entrusted with two Naval Functions. 1). Supplying the Corps of Submarine Miners, Nothing to do with tunnelling under the channel to blow up the French, even if they deserve it! :-) and 2). Supplying the knowledge and resources to build and run Forts along the British coast and Harbour entrances. Obviously it was important not to sink their own returning ships yet still be able to fire on approaching enemy ships long before their cannon became a risk to the moored up fleet in Harbour.

The ship to shore telegraphy was firmly in the hands of the Royal Engineers by the mid 1800s and using massive masthead mounted Mechanical Telegraphs on both the ships and the forts, (which prevailed as ship to shore communications until the end of WW1) signals were sent over many miles, and early enough not to get shot at by the shore based long range Batteries.

Even though the previous paragraph refers to Telegraphy and Batteries, this arrangement was entirely mechanical and visual.

The Engineers were thus stationed on ships and forts belonging to the Admiralty, and the Admiralty for its part were responsible for providing the fixed line communications between London and the Ports, a slightly obscure swapping of roles.

Naturally it made sense that the Engineers and Navy used the same signalling systems, and also wherever possible learnt the same set of ordinance skills and defence tactics.

Sir Charles William Pasley (1780-1861)

Born in Scotland, General Sir Charles William Pasley, KCB, FRS, DCL (Oxon.) was a brilliant scholar, engineer and soldier, the founder of modern military engineering. He was born at Eskdalemoor, Dumfriesshire. At age 8 he read the bible in Greek, and at 12 composed a Latin history in the style of Livy dealing with schoolboy battles in his valley.

Pasley joined the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich at the age of 16. The following year he obtained his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before transferring to the Royal Engineers. Thus began an incredible early career as a soldier on active service in the Napoleonic wars. At the siege of Flushing in 1809 he led a party to spike an enemy battery during which he received a bayonet wound to the leg and a bullet in his back. Though invalided for a year he returned to the war, serving directly under Wellington. A term that later Ghandi referred to as "being under the British boot." :-) More on India Later…

He was educated at Selkirk, entering as said the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in 1796, and commissioned 2nd Lt., Royal Artillery in 1797. Within a year, he transferred to the Royal Engineers, and served in the Mediterranean until 1807. He was at the sieges of Copenhagen (1807), Oviedo (1808, where his knowledge of Spanish helped Wellington), Walcheren and Flushing (1809). When wounded at the last engagement, he used his convalescence to learn German which proved critical for his later discussions with Augustus Siebe.

He also learned of closed suit diving systems being developed by a German, and saw potential for placing charges underwater and/or undertaking underwater construction work, hence the term Submarine Miners, or Sappers.

Pasley and Diving

In 1838 he turned his attention to diving, and over the next five years undertook a programme of practical experimentation which not only introduced diving to the military, but served in itself to advance the technology as never before. Indeed Pasley's involvement in the adoption of the closed diving dress was crucial, his interest provoking a flurry of development amongst manufacturers - most notably the German Augustus Siebe - anxious to obtain lucrative government contracts.

Augustus Siebe (whose name forms part of the famous firm of Siebe Gorman & Co. Ltd, London, manufacturers of all kinds of diving and submarine escape equipment) was born in Saxony in 1788. Siebe, who served as an artillery officer at the battle of Waterloo, came to England in 1817. He had many inventions and improvements to Rifles, Optical equipment and Timepieces, but Augustus Siebe, became best known world-wide for inventing the first useable deep sea helmet in 1830, also has in 1850 the first patented Smoke Helmet. See (and later his UK based company ironically entered the manufacture of Gas Mask in WW1…) As an aside, the British needed Gas mask long before the Germans deployed any mustard or chlorine gas, and were already issuing them for an entirely different reason… The British built carbon monoxide respirator for use during WW1 was issued in large numbers to all trench soldiers in February 1915, long before the unpredictable and unexpected first use of chemical gas weapons. Then it was discovered that all the fired but unexploded shells gave off high enough levels of carbon monoxide to kill soldiers in the trenches, foxholes, and other contained environments. Cooking and heating in the trenches added to this danger, (similar, to the dangers of the exhaust fumes from a car with its engine running in an enclosed garage.) and the number of deaths due to Carbon Monoxide were quite high.

Back To Pasley… During this period Pasley first learned all he could from the foremost civilian divers of the day, and then through the application of a military mindset which saw even a civil engineering task as a potential for an attack on an objective, elevated diving to hitherto undreamed of capability.

The destruction of the wreck of the Royal George in the Solent and a major hazard to shipping was Pasley's greatest achievement, still famous today. However, it was his attention to detail and willingness to experiment that really brought diving - through the military adaptation of the Standard Dress - into the modern era.

As a result of his early diving success Pasley even persuaded a reluctant Royal Navy to take it up (initially under Royal Engineers instruction), whilst the impact of the closed apparatus on the world of engineering and salvage was incalculable. No doubt someone, somewhere, would eventually have advanced diving if Pasley hadn't, but it remains a fact that the commercial and military divers of today can trace the formal roots of their professional training back to Pasley's early 19th century vision.

Pasley and School of Field Instruction and Engineering

He was very popular with the Navy having blown up several of their ships… although that was apparently exactly what they wanted, then these were sunken wrecks obstructing major shipping channels into or out of their ports… He managed to talk the Admiralty to giving him the funds and premises to set up a school to teach his vision of modern "hi tech" warfare. Then by this time he commanded the Engineers at Plymouth, in that spite of his junior rank of Captain, for several years, and attracting such favourable notice.

In 1812 he was appointed, on Wellington's recommendation, as first Director of the Royal Engineer training establishment in Chatham. It was the start of a long and distinguished second career. Under Pasley the Corps of Royal Engineers and its Sappers and Miners was developed into a highly professional and formidable force. Pasley's keen intellect allied with a genuine understanding of campaigning and soldiering gave him a unique insight into the engineering requirements of the 19th century British Army.

Pasley welcomed new technology and the outpouring of products and innovations that sprang from the second industrial revolution provided him with an unending opportunity to experiment with new materials and techniques. He had a keen interest in Signalling and ensured it was recognised as a key element in modern warfare.

He also became the Director of the Railway Safety board and introduced many Safety features, including the Mechanical Semaphore signals from the Military for trackside to cab signalling. A fair swap then by that time the new rail routes with their trackside electrical telegraph wires took over military signalling between London, Portsmouth and Plymouth…

Upon becoming the first director of field instruction at the new Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham in 1812, he was promoted to brevet-Major, where he then remained for thirty years. In 1830 he became brevet-Lt Colonel, the next 1831, then became regimental Lt Colonel. He learnt Welsh and Irish from privates among the sappers and miners there. He was elected FRS (fellow of the Royal Society) in 1816, having already made a mark in Military and Railway Signalling.

The first volume of his Military Instruction appeared in 1814, and contained a course of practical geometry (also a reason the Engineers were later tasked with the triangulation of India, etc.) which he had framed for his company at Plymouth.

Two other volumes completing the work appeared by 1817, and dealt with the science and practice of fortification, the latter comprising rules for construction. He published a work on Practical Architecture, and prepared an important treatise on The Practical Operations of a Siege (1829-I832), which was translated into French (1847).

From 1831-1834 the subject that engaged much of his leisure-time was that of standardization of coins, and was keen to decimalise the British weights and measures to a system similar to that used by the French, and he published a book on this in 1834.

In 1838 he was presented with the freedom of the city of London for his services in removing sunken vessels from the bed of the Thames near Gravesend; and from 1839 to 1844 he was occupied with clearing away the wrecks of H.M.S. "Royal George" from the Spithead and H.M.S. "Edgar" from St Helens. All this work was subsidiary to his great work of creating a comprehensive art of military engineering.

In 1841 on promotion to the rank of major-general he was made inspector-general of railways. In 1846 on vacating this appointment he was made a K.C.B., and thenceforward up to 1855 was chiefly concerned with the East India Company's military academy at Addiscombe. He was promoted lieutenant-general in 1851, made colonel commandant of the Royal Engineers in 1853, and general in 1860. He died in London on the 19th of April 1861. His eldest son, Major-General Charles Pasley (1824-1890), was also a distinguished Royal Engineer officer.

A Royal Fusilier Signaller is photographed here in his Dapper Red and Blue pre 1905 Uniform…

Royal Signals ... Signaller Edward Kelsall (1905)

Figure 1 Signaller Edward Kelsall, from about 1905 (Courtesy of the Balcombe family)

Royal Signals ... Army School Of Signals Mhow, India 1898/99

Figure 2 The Army School of Signals (Mhow, India 1898/99)

These dashing young men from many different regiments are jointly being trained at the Army School of Signalling, in India. The British Army School of Signals, Mhow.

If you look carefully you will see Flags, Telescopes, Many different lamp systems, and three different sizes of Heliographs. It was expected that the Students were proficient in all these.

Today this school still exist and is called the Military College Of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) producing Signallers of a high calibre for the modern Indian Army. The Indian Army Corps of Signals Motto is - "Teevra Chaukas" (Swift and Secure), an interesting adaptation on our "Swift and Sure".

Here is an interesting historical look back at Mhow from an Indian Daily newspaper…

In memory of Morse, Written by V.K. Singh

When we arrived at the School of Signals at Mhow in July 1965 as newly commissioned second lieutenants, the monsoon was in full swing. During the six-month course, we were taught the basics of signalling, one of the first lessons being the Morse code.

After giving us a brief biographical sketch of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the electric telegraph, the instructor proceeded to acquaint us with the famous code devised by him to send messages. The code consists of dots and dashes that are used in various combinations to represent alphabets and numbers. The smallest error by the operator can change a word, and sometimes the import of the message itself.

To underline the significance of this point, he told us the story of the signaller during World War II, who was given an urgent message from a beleaguered post to be sent to the rear, reading ''send ammunition boxes''. The operator who received the message could not read two letters in the last word, and using his imagination, wrote down 'boots' instead of 'boxes'. One can imagine the consternation of the troops when they received an airdrop of ammunition boots. The instructor informed us that the operator was shot for this lapse and warned us of a similar fate if we did not pay attention to the code.

One of the unique features of the code is its universality. It can be used to transmit messages using sound, light, electricity or electro-magnetic waves. Even an ordinary torch or a whistle can be used, sometimes with interesting results. There was a young officer who had a reputation as a ladies' man. One of his conquests was a married lady who lived close by.

Casanova soon realised the value of the Morse code and promptly taught its rudiments to his ladylove. When her husband was away she used a whistle or a torch to signal that the way was clear and he would sneak up to her house. This went on for several months before disaster struck.

The lady had just sent the letters COME when she spied her husband returning - he had forgotten his spectacles. She frantically signalled GO and repeated the message to make sure that it was read. But she sent it so quickly that Casanova read the G (two dashes and a dot) as M (two dashes) and E (one dot). He thought she was repeating COME and walked up to her house. He met the husband just outside the door. Casanova was lucky - he got off with a black eye and two broken teeth.

Another well-known story is about the district collector and the washerwoman. The collector was out on tour, accompanied by his entourage of servants and followers. The washerwoman fell ill, and a message was sent to the district headquarters to send a replacement. The message read ''collector's washer woman sick. Send replacement.'' Due to an omission, the message was sent as ''collector's woman sick. Send replacement.'' Fortunately, someone noticed the error and an amendment was promptly sent: ''insert 'washer' between collector and woman.''

During World War I, two divisions of Indian troops were sent to France to assist the British. When the first contingent disembarked at Marseilles on October 14, 1914, almost the entire population of the town was at the quay to receive them. It transpired that an indent had been sent by Morse code several days earlier, listing out the requirement of rations for the Indians.

This included the requirement of 'meat on hoof' for the non-vegetarian soldiers, in the form of several hundred goats. Due to an oversight, the words 'goats to eat' had been transmitted as 'girls to eat'.

The French have always regarded themselves as pioneers in the art of love, but could not comprehend how someone could think that girls were good enough to eat!

The 1913 Standards of Knowledge Required in Examinations for Naval Signal Ranks and Ratings, was also applicable for the Army and anyone trained as a regimental signaller.

The skills learned included morse code and various methods of transmitting messages such as heliograph, flags, signal lamps and direct morse-key line signalling.

Note the minimum speed of sending is no different for the skilled Senior rating, than for the Boy, the emphasis was instead being placed on higher accuracy, being demanded from the more senior rank.

A factor of this was also the ability to spell, then the educational levels of the boys were not as high as the Seniors, and a certain degree of ongoing education or adult training was also necessary and common for those lucky enough to have gotten a Signalling Job.

Then thanks to the Vision of Sir Charles William Pasley the Army had adopted a systematic approach to training, and invested in ongoing development of their soldier's education and skills. Naturally these farsighted ideas (for the time) were also applied to the dedicated RE Signal School wing that was established at Chatham in 1870 within the above described School of Field Instruction.

Table 1

Signalling Method                Flag Waving Large & Small
Useable Distances 5-7 miles1-4 miles1-4 miles
Skill Set/Method vs. Rank/ratingLarge Cotton 3'Square on 5'6" PoleSmall Cotton 2' Square on 3'6" PoleSmall Silk 2'Square on 3'6" Pole
Boy & Ordinary Signalman8 WPM10 WPM12 WPM
Signalman8 WPM10 WPM12 WPM
Leading Signalman8 WPM10 WPM12 WPM
Yeoman8 WPM10 WPM12 WPM
Chief Yeoman8 WPM10 WPM12 WPM

Table 2

Signalling Method            Heliograph & Lamp Flashing
Usable Distances                         1-15 miles dep. upon type & oil/fuel used or upon electrical power (intensity)      50-100 Miles (LOS)
Skill-Set/Method vs Rank/Rating   Mech. Shutter (Oil, Gas, Lamps)Telegraph Keyed Lamps (Electric Lamps)Heliograph Mk IV
Boy & Ordinary Signalman8 WPM12 WPM12 WPM
Signalman8 WPM12 WPM12 WMP
Leading Signalman8 WPM12 WPM12 WMP
Yeoman8 WPM12 WPM12 WPM
Chief Yeoman8 WPM12 WPM12 WPM

Table 3

Signalling Method      Mechanical & Flag Semaphores
Usable Distance                    1 - 2 Miles10 - 18 Miles6 - 10 Miles
Skill - Set/Method vs. Rank/Rating                        Small Flag Pairs     Mech. Arms on Mast     Hoisted Flags to Howe Code
Boy & Ordinary Signalman15 WPM15 WPM10 WPM
Signalman15 WPM15 WPM10 WPM
Leading Signalman15 WPM15 WPM10 WPM
Yeoman15 WPM15 WPM10 WPM
Chief Yeoman15 WPM15 WPM10 WPM

Table 1,2 and 3 The Expected speed and use of different Signalling Skills/Methods by Rank

The more senior ranks however were tested also on additional new skills like the maintenance and use electrical wired and wireless (radio) telegraphy, etc.

Royal Signals ... Heliograph (MK IV)

Figure 4 The Victorian "Long distance" Wireless Telegraph, the Heliograph (Mk IV)

Here the test levels set by rank.

Rating Being Examined ForPart IPart IIPart IIIExtra PaperTelegraph PaperChief Yeoman, Yeoman, and Leading Signalman W/T paperChief yeoman, yeoman, and Leading Signalman W/T procedure
Max Marks200 marks200 marks200 marks 100 marks100 marks200 marks50 marks
Pass level set% required% required% required% required% required% required% required
Boy and Ordinary Signalman808080----
Leading Signalman858585-909090
Chief Yeoman90909090909090

Table 4 The Expected Accuracy of different Signalling Skills / Methods by Rank

In addition to above subjects Signal Ratings are examined in the following, no marks being allotted, but the proficiency shown is taken into account when assessing results:-

  1. Making a message with Mechanical Semaphore, Hand Flags, and Morse Flag.
  2. Searchlight.
  3. Heliograph.
  4. Viva-voce examination on the Instructions for Flashing and Sound Signals; in addition to this viva-voce examination, Signalmen and Ordinary Signalmen are also examined in Colours and Meanings of Flags, and Speed and Helm Signals, the marks for which are included in the total marks for the paper, questions being left blank for the purpose.

Ratings passing for Chief Yeoman or Yeoman, or re-qualifying in these Ratings will, in addition to the above, be examined in:-

  1. Taking charge of a mast and reporting signals at Flag Exercise.
  2. Working ships of a Fleet and Cruisers on a Mooring Board.
  3. Taking charge of a class at Marching Manoeuvres.

Basic Army Signal Organisation by 1913

The Army signallers were equipped with binoculars, prismatic compasses, signal flags, heliographs, telescopes, watches and bicycles.

Royal Signals ... 50th Division R.E Signal Service

Figure 5 50th Division R.E. Signal Service Signalmen (ready for deployment in WW1)

In the 1907 Army Field Service Manual, it says the equipment is always issued (listed) in sets of eight.

This suggests that in the field each company would have had attached to it three signallers with one of them being a Lance-Corporal where possible.

The remaining three signallers would have been based at the Battalion Headquarters along with the Sergeant and Corporal.

These soldiers would have charged with sending and receiving messages between the Company and Headquarters as well as with adjoining companies.

Except for written messages carried by foot (or bicycle), the messages would have been sent using morse code on the single flag, lamp, and heliograph, and perhaps on the semaphore flags.

However, morse code would have been the preferred and the most common method being the one easiest to transmit over long distances and especially by using the heliograph.

Remember however that the term Morse code has nothing to do with the code invented by Morse, but in fact refers to the first practical code made by Alfred Vail.

Royal Signals ... Heliograph & Flag Waving

Figure 6 The use of Heliographing and Flag-Waving in the Zulu War (May 1879)

Compare this picture from the Harpers Weekly Newspaper of May 1879, to the Navy picture of signalling on the Flag Deck, from 1940 shown in Figure 3 of this datasheet.

A message is being taken via Telescope, it is being flagged further via a Flag Waver, and the Heliograph is being used to send morse in place of the electric powered Aldis Lamp… This shows just why the Navy and Army Signalling were so similar until the advent of Radio. Although for both Services the first Wireless Radio sets were so large that they needed either a Battleship or an entire Farm wagon to mount them and their Battery sets…

Royal Signals ... Mobile Radio sets

Figure 7 One of the First Marconi Field Useable "Mobile" Radio sets (about 1914)

"From a 1911 Encyclopaedia comes the following…"

Throughout these datasheets (on Early signalling) I refer to the 1911 Encyclopaedia which had a lot to say on what was still at that time essentially "Victorian Signalling". I start these using the entry "From a 1911 Encyclopaedia comes the following..." For anyone interested it the entire entry, as well as quotes from a 1905 and 1907 Signalling handbook, the 1913 Admiralty Signals book, and/or other sources from about the same time frame, here for convenience the information is assembled together in one go. It should be pointed out however that the terms "Wireless" generally means Non-Electric or visual signalling, "Telegraph" is the what we today would call the mechanical Semaphore, and wireless telegraphy is the transmission from Semaphore mast on a ships mast to either a shore party, or another ship, etc.


SIGNAL (a word common in slightly different forms to nearly all European languages, derived from Lat. signum, a mark, sign), a means of transmitting information, according to some prearranged system or code, in cases where a direct verbal or written statement is unnecessary, undesirable, or impracticable. The methods employed vary with the circumstances and the purposes in view, and the medium into which the transmitted idea is translated may consist of visible objects, sounds, motions, or indeed anything that is capable of affecting the senses, so long as an understanding has been previously effected with the recipient as to the meaning involved. Any two persons may thus arrange a system for the transmission of intelligence between them, and secret codes of this kind, depending on the inflections of the voice, the accent on syllables or words, the arrangement of sentences, etc., have been so elaborated as to serve for the production of phenomena such as are sometimes attributed to telepathy or thought transference. With the many private developments of such codes we are not here concerned, nor is it necessary to attempt an explanation of the systems of drum-taps, smoke-fires, etc., by which certain primitive peoples are supposed to be able to convey news over long distances with astonishing rapidity; the present article is confined to giving an account of the organized methods of signalling employed at sea, in military operations and on railways, these being matters of practical public importance.

Marine Signalling.-A system of marine signals comprises different methods of conveying orders or information to or from a ship in sight and within hearing, but at a distance too great to permit of hailing-in other words, beyond the reach of the voice, even when aided by the speaking-trumpet. The necessity of some plan of rapidly conveying orders or intelligence to a distance was early recognized. Polybius describes two methods, one proposed by Aeneas Tacticus more than three centuries before Christ, and one perfected by himself, which, as any word could be spelled by it, anticipated the underlying principle of later systems. The signal codes of the ancients are believed to have been elaborate. Generally some kind of flag was used. Shields were also displayed in a pre-concerted manner, as at the battle of Marathon, and some have imagined that the reflected rays of the sun were flashed from them as with the modern. heliograph. In the middle ages flags, banners and lanterns were used to distinguish particular squadrons, and as marks of rank, as they are at present, also to call officers to the admiral, and to report sighting the enemy and getting into danger. The invention of cannon made an important addition to the means of signalling. In the instructions issued by Don Martin de Padilla in 1597 the use of guns, lights and fires is mentioned. The introduction of the square rig permitted a further addition, that of letting fall a sail a certain number of times. Before the middle of the 17th century only a few stated orders and reports could be made known by signalling. Flags were used by day, and lights, occasionally with guns, at night. The signification then, and for a long time after, depended upon the position. In which the light or flag was displayed. Orders, indeed, were as often as possible communicated by hailing or even by means of boats. As the size of ships increased the inconvenience of both plans became intolerable. Some attribute the first attempt at a regular code to Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670), but the credit of it is usually given to James II. when duke of York. Notwithstanding the attention paid to the subject by Paul Hoste and others, signals continued strangely imperfect till late in the 18th century. Towards 1780 Admiral Kempenfelt devised a plan of flag-signalling which was the parent of that now in use.

Instead of indicating differences of meaning by varying the position of a solitary flag, he combined distinct flags in pairs. About the beginning of the 19th century Sir Home Popham improved a method of conveying messages by flags proposed by R. Hall Gower (1767-1833), and greatly increased a ship's power of communicating with others. The number of night and fog signals that could be shown was still very restricted. In 1867 an innovation of prodigious importance was made by the adoption in the British navy of Vice-Admiral (then Captain) Philip Colomb's flashing system, on which he had been at work since 1858.

In the British navy, which serves as a model to most others, visual signals are made with flags or pendants, the semaphore, flashing, and occasionally fireworks. Sound signals are made with fog-horns, steam-whistles, sirens and guns. The number of flags in use in the naval code, comprising what is termed a " set," are 58, and consist of 26 alphabetical flags, 10 numeral flags, 16 pendants and 6 special flags. Flag signals are divided into three classes, to each of which is allotted a separate book. One class consists of two alphabetical flags; and refers to orders usual in the administration. of a squadron, such as, for example, the flags LE, which might signify" Captain repair on board flagship." Another class consist of three alphabetical flags, which refer to a coded dictionary, wherein are words and short sentences likely to be required. The remaining refers to evolutionary orders for manoeuvring, which have alphabetical and numeral flags combined. The flags which constitute a signal are termed a "hoist." One or more hoists may be made at the same time. Although flag signalling is a slow method compared with others, a fair rate can be attained with practice. For example, a signal involving 162 separate hoists has been. repeated at sight by 13 ships in company in 76 minutes. Semaphore signals are made by the extension of a man's arms through a vertical plane, the different symbols being distinguished by the relative positions of the arms, which are never less than 45° apart. To render the signals more conspicuous the signaller usually holds a small flag on a stick in each hand, but all ships are fitted with mechanical semaphores, which can be worked by one man, and are visible several miles. Flag signalling being comparatively slow and laborious, the ordinary message work in a squadron is generally signalled by semaphore. The convenience of this method is enormous, and by way of example it may be of interest to mention a record message of 350 words which was signalled to 21 ships simultaneously at the rate of 17 words per minute. Flags being limited in size, and only distinguishable by their colour, signals by this means are not altogether satisfactory at long distances, even when the wind is suitable. For signalling at long range the British navy employs a semaphore with arms from 9 to 12 ft. long mounted at the top of the mast and capable of being trained in any required direction, and worked from the deck. Its range depends upon the clearness of the atmosphere, but instances are on record where a message by this means has been read at 16 to 18 miles.

Night signalling is carried out by means of "flashing," by which is meant the exposure and eclipse of a single light for short and long periods of time, representing the dots and dashes composing the required symbol. The dots and dashes can be made mechanically by an obscuring arrangement, or by electromechanical means where magnets do the work, or by simply switching on and off specially manufactured electric lamps. The ordinary rate of signalling by flashing is from 7 to 10 words per minute.

In the British navy, as in the army, dots and dashes are short and long exposures of light; but with some nations the dots and dashes are short and long periods of darkness, the light punctuating the spaces between them. The British navy uses the European modification of the so-called Morse code used in telegraphy, but with special signs added suitable to their code.

The introduction of the "dot and dash " system into the British navy was entirely due to the perseverance of Vice-Admiral Colomb, who, in spite of great opposition, and even after it had once been condemned on its first trial at sea, carried it through with the greatest success. The value of this innovation made in 1867 may be gauged by the fact that now it is possible to handle a fleet with ease and safety in darkness and fog-a state of affairs which did not formerly exist. The simplicity of 'the dot and dash principle is its best feature. As the system only requires the exhibition of two elements it may be used in a variety of different manners with a minimum of material, namely, by waving the most conspicuous object at hand through short and long arcs, by exhibiting two different shapes, each representing one of the elements, or dipping a lantern in a bucket, and so on.

Its adoption has not only contributed very materially to the increased efficiency of the British navy, but it has been made optional for use with the mercantile marine. Curiously enough, flashing is not to any great extent used in the navy's of other countries which rely more on some system of coloured lights at night. This system generally takes the form of four or five double-coloured lanterns, which are suspended from some part of the mast in a vertical line. Each lantern generally contains a red and a white lamp, either of which can be switched on.

By a suitable keyboard on deck any combination of these coloured lanterns can be shown. The advantage of this system lies in the fact that each symbol is self-evident in its entirety, and does not require an expert signalman to read it, as is the case with flashing, which is a progressive performance.

For long distances at night the search-light, or some other high power electric arc light, is utilized on the flashing system. Dots and dashes are then made either by flashing the light directly on the object, or by waving the beam up and down for short and long periods of time. Sometimes when a convenient cloud is available the reflection of the beam has been read for nearly 40 miles, with land intervening between the two ships. In a fog signals are made by the steam-whistle, fog-horn, siren or by guns. Except for the latter method the dot and dash system is employed in a similar mariner to flashing a light. Guns are sometimes used in a fog for signalling, the signification being determined by certain timed intervals between the discharges.

The larger British ships are supplied with telegraph instruments for connexion with the shore, and heliographs are provided for land operations. Marine galvanometers are also provided, and can be used to communicate through submarine cables. To the various methods of naval signalling must now be added wireless telegraphy, which in its application to ships at sea bids fair to solve some problems hitherto impracticable. (See TELEGRAPHY: Wireless.) The international code of signals, for use between ships of all nations, is perhaps the best universal dictionary in existence. By its means mariners can talk with great ease without knowing a word of one another's language. By means of a few flags any question can be asked and answered. The number of international flags and pendants used with the international code is 27, consisting of a complete alphabet and a special pendant characteristic of the code.

At night flashing may be used. (C.A.G.B.; A.F.E,)

Army Signalling.-Communication by visual signals between portions of an army is a comparatively recent development of military service. Actual signals were of course made in all ages of warfare, either specially agreed upon beforehand, such as a rocket or beacon, or of more general application, such as the old-fashioned wooden telegraph and the combinations of lights, etc., used by savages on the N.W. frontier of India. But it was not until the middle years of the 19th century that military signalling proper, as a special duty of soldiers, became at all general.

It was about the year 1865 that, owing to the initiative of Captain Philip Colomb, R.N., whose signal system had been adopted for his own service, the question of army signalling was seriously taken up by the British military authorities. A school of signalling was created at Chatham, and some time later all units of the line were directed to furnish men to be trained as signallers.

At first a code book was used and the signals represented code words, but it was found better to revert to the telegraphic system of signalling by the Morse alphabet, amongst the undeniable advantages of which was the fact that it was already used both by the postal service and the telegraph units of Royal Engineers.

Thenceforward, in ever-increasing perfection, the work of signallers has been a feature of almost every campaign of the British army.

To the original flags have been added the heliograph (for long-distance work), the semaphore flag system of the Royal Navy (for very rapid signalling at short distances), and the lamps of various kinds for working by night.

Full and detailed instructions for the proper performance of the work, which provide for almost every possible contingency, have been published and are enforced.


The apparatus employed for signalling in the British service consists of flags, large and small, heliograph and lamp for night work. The distances at which their signals can be read vary very considerably, the flags having but a limited scope of usefulness, whilst the range of a heliograph is very great indeed. Whether it be 10 miles or 100 miles away, it has been found in practice that, given good sunlight, nothing but the presence of an intervening physical obstacle, such as a ridge or wood, prevents communication.

For shorter distances moonlight, and even artificial light, have on occasion been employed as the source of light. In northern Europe the use of the instrument is much restricted by climate, and, further, stretches of plain country, permitting of a line of vision between distant hills, are not often found.

It is in the wilder parts of the earth, that is to say in colonial theatres of war, that the astonishing value of the heliograph is displayed.

In European warfare flag signalling is more usually employed. The flags in use are blue and white, the former for working with light, the latter for dark backgrounds.

There is further a distinction between the " small " flag, which is employed for semaphore messages and for rapid Morse over somewhat shorter distances, and the "large" flag, which is readable at a distance of 5 to 7 miles, as against the maximum of 4 miles allowed to the small flag. With a clear atmosphere these distances may be exceeded.

The respective sizes of these flags are as follows:

Large flag 3' x 3', Pole 5' 6" long;

small flag 2'x 2', Pole 3' 6" long.

The lamps used for night signalling are of many kinds. Officially only the "lime light " and the "Begbie" lamps are recognized, but a considerable number of the old-fashioned oil lamps is still in use, especially in the auxiliary forces, and many experiments have been made with acetylene. The lime light is obtained by raising a lime pencil to a white heat by forcing a jet of oxygen through the flame of a spirit lamp. The strong light thus produced can be read under favourable conditions at a distance of 15 miles but the equipment comprising of a of gas-bag, pressure-bag, and other accessories make the whole instrument rather cumbrous.

The bull's-eye lamp differs but slightly from the ordinary lantern of civil life; it burns vegetable oil. The Begbie lamp, which burns kerosene, is rather more elaborate and gives a whiter light. It was in use for many years in India before the objections made by the authorities in England to certain features of the lamp were withdrawn. All these lamps when in use are set up on a tripod stand and signals in the Morse alphabet' are made by opening and closing a shutter in front of the light, and thereby showing long and short flashes. '

The same principle is followed in the heliograph. This instrument, invented by Sir Henry C. Mance, receives on a mirror, and thence casts upon the distant station, the rays of the sun; the working of a small key controls the flashes by throwing the mirror slightly off its alignment and thus obscuring the light from the party reading signals. The fact that the heliograph requires sunlight, as mentioned above, militates against its employment in Great Britain, but where it is possible to use it, it is by far the best means of signalling.

Secrecy and rapidity are its chief advantages. An observer 6 miles distant would see none of its light if he were more than 50 yards. either side of the exact alignment, whereas a flag signal could be read from almost every hill within range.


None of the physical exertion required for fast signalling with the flag is required to manipulate the instrument at a high rate of speed. The whole apparatus is packed in a light and portable form. An alternative method of using the heliograph is to keep the rays permanently on the distant point, a shutter of some kind being used in front of it to produce obscurations.

When in use the heliograph is fixed upon. a tripod. A tangent screw (E) which moves the whole instrument (except the jointed arm L) turns the mirror in any direction. Metal U-shaped arms (C) carry the mirror (B), which is controlled by the vertical rod (J) and its clamping screw (K). The signalling mirror itself (usually having a surface of 5 in. diameter) is of glass, an unsilvered spot (R) being left In the centre. This spot retains its position through all movements in any plane. The instrument is aligned by means of the sighting vane (P) fixed in the jointed arm L, and the rays of the sun are then brought on to the distant station by turning the horizontal and vertical adjustments until the "shadow spot" cast by the unsilvered centre of the mirror appears on the vane. The heliograph is thus ready, and signals are made by the depression and release of the "collar" (I) which, with the pivoted arm (U, V), acts as a telegraph key. When the sun makes an angle of more than 120 degrees with the mirror and the distant station, a "duplex mirror" is used in place of the sighting vane. The process of alignment is in. this case a little more complicated. Various other means of making dots and dashes are referred to in the official work, ranging from the "collapsible drum" hung on a mast to the rough but effective improvisation of a heliograph out of a shaving-glass. The employment of the beams of the search-light to make flashes on clouds is also a method of signalling which has been. in practice very , it now


The Morse code employed in army signalling is as follows (note this refers to US Morse-Wig-wag signalling, the British Flag-waving can be read from both front and back without error),

In using this code the signaller invariably faces his reader, as unless this were enforced each letter might be read as its opposite. In the above diagram the appearance of the signals to the reader is shown, thus the sender's right side only is used for the letter A.

In sending a message accuracy is ensured by various checks. The number of words in a message is the most valuable of these, as the receiving station's number must agree before the message is taken as correct. Each word or "group" sent by the Morse code must be" answered "before the sender passes on to another. All figures are checked by the" clock check "in which I is represented by A, 2 by B and so on. All cipher" groups" are repeated back en bloc. There is an elaborate system of signals relating to the working of the line. The" message form" in use differs but slightly from the ordinary form of the Post Office telegraphs Signal Stations in the field are classed as (a) "fixed" and" moving," the former connecting points of importance, or on a line of communications, the latter moving with the troops; (b) " terminal," " transmitting " and " central "; the first two require no definition, the last is intended to send and receive messages in many directions. , The " transmitting station" receives and sends on messages, and consists in theory of two full "terminals," one to receive and one to send on. It is rarely possible in the field to work rapidly with less than five men at a transmitting and three at a terminal station. " Central" stations are manned according to the number of stations with which they communicate.

Signalling is used on most campaigns to a large extent. In the Tirah expedition, 1897 and 1898, one signal station received and sent, between the 1st and 18th November, as many as 980 messages by heliograph, some of which were 200 to 300 words in length. It is often used as an auxiliary to the field telegraph, especially in mountainous countries, and when the wire is liable to be cut and stolen by hostile natives. In the Waziri expedition, 1881, communication was maintained direct for a distance of 70 miles with a 5-in, heliograph. In the Boer War, 1899-1902, the system of heliographic signalling was employed very extensively by both sides.

In Germany the first army signalling regulations only appeared in 1902. The practice was, however, rapidly developed and towards the end of the 1905 campaign in South-West Africa, 9 signalling officers and 200 signallers were employed in that country. These usually worked in parties of 2 or 3, each party being protected by a few infantrymen or troopers. The apparatus used was heliograph by day and a very elaborate form of lamp by night, and work was carried on between posts separated by 60 and even 90 miles. The signallers were employed both with the mobile forces and in a permanent network of communication in the occupied territory. In 1907-1908 ~fresh signalling regulations were issued to the home army, and each company, battery or squadron is now expected to find one station of three men, apart from the regimental and special instructors and staff. Some experiments were carried out at Metz to ascertain the mean distance at which signals made by a man lying down could be seen, this being found to be about 1000 yds. The new regulations allow of the use of flag and lamp signalling at 4 miles instead of as formerly at 1¾. Three flags are used, blue, white and yellow, and it is stated that the last is the most frequently useful of the three.

The enormous development of the field telegraph and telephone systems in the elaborate war of positions of 1904-1905 more or less crowded out, so to speak, visual signalling on both sides, and in ally case the average illiterate Russian infantryman or the Cossack was not adaptable to signalling needs. Only about one-quarter of the signalling force (which consisted exclusively of engineer troops) in Kuropatkin's army was employed in optical work, the other three-quarters being assigned to telegraph, wireless and telephone station work. The Italians, who are no strangers to colonial warfare, have a well-developed visual signalling system.

See British Official Training Manuals: Signalling (1907).

Royal Signals ... Send a Letter

Figure 8 Any Remarks?, Drop Petra a Letter (A postcard from about 1917)

So since we started with the subject of Navy Signalling, I will let Jolly Jack Tar signal the close of this first Datasheet in the Series of Visual Signalling with the Initials of our Homepage…

Royal Signals ... Royal Navy Hand Semaphore Flagging

Figure 9 Navy Hand Semaphore Flagging "R S O" (on 1911 Issued Cigarette Cards)