Tag Archives: semaphore

Phonetic Alphabets (1)

Signalling by one group of soldiers to another, or by one ship to another, has gone on for centuries. Signalling flags were used on ships in the time of Admiral Nelson:

And there was always semaphore. As used by the Beatles:

The advent of radio, however, made things a lot more difficult, because when men spoke to each other, interference was a frequent problem. Sometimes words, especially place names, had to be spelt out, and merely giving out a list of letters, such as L-O-N-D-O-N did not always work, especially if the interference was intermittent.

In 1904, British Army signallers started to use a partial spelling alphabet, where only the more problematic letters had their own code word. This produced:

ACK, BEER/BAR, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L ,  EMMA, N,O, PIP, Q, R, ESSES, TOC, U, VIC, W, X, Y, Z

Only seven letters needed! By 1918, the problems of using the 1904 alphabet had added  a few words:

CORK,   DON.   EDDY.    INK.    JUG.   QUAD.   TALK

Here’s a war artist’s rendition of a signaller:

Things got better once for the British army when they adapted horse drawn radios:

Overall, it is crucial to have only ONE spelling alphabet, otherwise the situation becomes downright confusing. There used to be different alphabets for:

the 1914 British Post Office with Apple, Brother, Charlie, Dover, Eastern,

the 1917 Royal Navy with Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff, Edward

the 1918 Western Union with Adams, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Edward

Much more sensibly, during World War II, the US Army and Navy used the same alphabet. It is familiar from so many war films and so many comics:

Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike,

Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke

These men were some of the members of the real “Easy Company” :

What is important here is to have no words whatsoever that sound like any of the others. In this alphabet maybe jig and king, or able and baker, or dog and fox might cause problems.

Here’s the RAF spelling alphabet until 1942:

Apple, Beer, Charlie, Don, Edward, Freddie, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey,

Nuts,  Orange, Pip, Queen, Robert, Sugar, Toc, Uncle Vic,  William, Yorker, Zebra

And here’s the RAF alphabet after 1942

Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe,

Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra.

Smart people will have noticed how close it is to the US Army and Navy alphabet. How sensible!

In actual fact, the RAF was already using quite a few other alphabets anyway, such as this one noted in 1942-1943 :

Apple, Beer, Charlie, Dog, Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, In, Jug/Johnny, King, Love, Mother,

Nuts, Orange, Peter, Queen, Roger/Robert, Sugar, Tommy, Uncle, Vic, William, X-ray, Yoke/Yorker, Zebra

And there was a further alphabet for the squadron letters on the side of the aircraft in the Dambusting 617 Squadron:

A-Apple, B-Baker, C-Charlie, E-Easy, F-Freddie, G-George, H-Harry, J-Johnny, K-King,

L-Leather, M-Mother, N-Nuts, O-Orange, P-Popsie, S-Sugar, T-Tommy, W-Willie, Y-York, Z-Zebra.

I presume that the missing letters were non-existent aircraft. Here is 617 Squadron and these are B-Baker, G-George and M-Mother:

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I wrote a number of blog posts about my wife’s friend, Len, who flew in 617 Squadron, in G-George. His full name was Len Dorricott, and this link will take you to the first of the three posts. If you copy and paste the surname “Dorricott” into “Search”, then finding Blog Posts No 2 and No 3 about Len becomes a doddle.

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