OBERON SUBMARINES RADIO ROOM
While visiting the retired Oberon
submarines in 2006, I took the next 8 photos
of the radio room onboard HMCS ONONDAGA.
This space was
my little domain, also
known as the
Radio Shack, or the Radio Office, or
the Wireless Office, or the W/T Office.
Taking photos inside the Radio Room was forbidden when I was in the Navy due
to the high level of security. This is why I do not have any photos of the
Radio Room from the 1960s or 1970s. The submarines and the technologies they
used at the time have now been declassified. Much of the information is
available on the internet; at least two submarines are now on display as
submarine museums; and some of the equipment used at the time is available
from time to time on ebay.
a photo of the access door to the Radio
Shack which was a Top Secret Level security area.
It was the little domain of the Radiomen, also known
as Sparkers or "Radio Ladies". This is the place where I
spent most of my time in submarines.
Top Secret security clearance was required to enter. In
addition to Radio Sparkers, people who were allowed to enter included the Captain, the
Communications Officer and the P.O. Tel (also known as POTS). The P.O. Tel
(Petty Officer Telecommunication) was the Radio Sparkers's immediate boss.
Note CGNQ on the door. It was ONONDAGA's
international call sign when using morse code. The call sign for voice
transmission was " Voyage Pride ".
Shipmates who had business with Sparkers knocked on the door and
waited. Messages (and hot coffee) were passed on to the sparkers through the
Above is another
view of the access door to the radio room. The radio room was
on the starboard side of the submarine. When facing the door, aft is on the
right and forward is on the left.
If you turned aft, you
would see the
hatch and the bulkhead separating the control room from the engineering room about
20 feet away, past the officer's head. If you went aft a few feet, on the left
would the HF communication mast and the lever to raise the mast. Aft of the HF
communication mast would the the
exhaust mast and the famous flap valve to stop salt water from coming in when
the exhaust pressure drops down suddenly due to an emergency stop of the diesel engines.
When snorkeling at
periscope depth, the snorkel rises above the surface and replenishes the air
inside the submarine which is sucked up by the diesel engines. There is a
floating ball inside the snorkel which prevents the water from coming in when the snorkel dips below the
surface. In rough seas, it is sometimes difficult to maintain periscope depth
and the snorkel often dips below the surface. When this happens, the air pressure goes down
inside the submarine because the diesel engines are sucking up air and the air
is not being replenished due to the blocked snorkel. This is not a serious
situation if the snorkel remains below the surface for only a few seconds. The
air pressure inside the submarine goes up and down as the snorkel dips
below waves and reappears again above the water. However, the situation can become serious
on occasion if the air pressure
inside the submarine becomes critically low. I do not remember how long the
snorkel can remain underwater before it becomes an emergency. At some point, the
officer of the watch will make a decision and will yell into the internal
communication system: STOP SNORKELING, STOP
SNORKELING, STOP SNORKELING.
When this happens, the diesel engines are
stopped immediately. This action causes another immediate danger at the exhaust
mast. This mast never breaks the surface. It is always kept underwater to reduce
detection by diluting the exhaust smoke in the water. What keeps the water out of the
exhaust mast is the air pressure from the diesel engines. When starting the
engines, the pressure is allowed to build up high enough before opening the
exhaust to the sea. Whenever the engines are stopped normally, there are phases
in the shut down process which allows the exhaust to be shut down at the
appropriate time. But when there is an emergency STOP
SNORKELING, there is no time to follow the normal process. Diesel
engines must be stopped as quickly as possible because the crew onboard is in
danger due to low air pressure inside the submarine. This is when the famous flap
valve comes into action. As the pressure inside the exhaust is suddenly dropped
due to engine shut down, sea water starts to pour into the exhaust. As it
reaches the flap valve, it forces it to shut suddenly, thus stopping the water
from reaching the engines. When this flap valve shuts down, a big bang is heard
throughout the submarine. The flap valve is located near
the Radio Room. So when the big bang is heard, you can imagine the noise inside
the Radio Room. Sparkers got severe jolts each time it happened.
In the photo above, the access doors
have been open and we are
now looking inside the Radio Room, or Wireless Office,
or W/T Office. These doors were always shut when the submarine was operational.
When facing the Radio Room, like in this
photo, the Heads (washrooms)
are located behind me.
In the above photo, I have now entered the Radio Shack and have
turned around to look at the Heads across the passage way. Being so close to the
Heads had some good and bad points for the Radiomen.
It was good because if you had to go
urgently and there was nobody to replace you, all you had to do is keep both
doors open and do "your business" while keeping an eye on the Radio Shack.
thing happened once a day. Being on a submarine, human waste was kept into a
tank and had to be emptied daily. The process included shutting some valves,
equalizing the pressure, opening other valves, blowing the waste out, and
reversing the process.
The problem was the venting of the tank at the end of the
process. The aroma which was released inside the submarine sometimes reached the
Radio Room due to its proximity.
There was also another problem which affected
the users of the Heads when venting was not done properly. There was a flap valve inside the toilet bowl which was open with your
foot after you had done your business so you could flush the waste into the tank
using a manual hose. Imagine someone opening the flap valve with his foot when high pressure
is still in the tank because whoever emptied the tank forgot
to vent at the end of the process. You can imagine the results.
Not a pleasant experience. It was a good thing that the access door to the Radio
Shack was kept shut at all times.
In the above photo, I am now standing inside the Radio
Room with the access door on your
right and looking aft. A lot of the radio equipment was
removed when the submarine retired but some is still there. This
equipment seen here is from the 1990s and completely different from what I was using in
the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Morse code and teletype were the two main modes of ship-to-shore
radio communications back then. The world of satellite communications had not
yet arrived. The ionosphere was our only mean of long
distance communications. It meant that frequencies used for ship-to-shore
communications were different each time, depending on the time of the day and the
conditions of the ionosphere. It was sometimes a challenge but it was easier on
ships than on submarines.
Surface ships could track the ionospheric
conditions and be up-to-date on HF propagation at all times. They even
used frequency discriminators to go up and down the HF spectrum while
continuously copying naval broadcast. Frequencies were used in the 4 MHz, 6 MHz,
8 MHz, 12 MHz, 16 MHz, 22 MHz and 25 MHz. As the ionospheric propagation was
changing, the receiver receiving the strongest signal through the discriminator
was used while the other receiver was tuned to the frequency most likely to
improve in the next few hours. Under normal conditions, the best operating
frequencies would climb from early morning until late afternoon and then begin
downward again until early morning the next day. I did say under normal
conditions because the ionospheric propagation was also affected by solar
activity. But in general, because sky waves were being used, they were affected
by the daily changes of the layers in the ionosphere; the disappearing of the D
layer at night, the F layer becoming the F1 and F2 layers during the day and the
E layer becoming weaker at night.
below periscope depth could not track the ionosphere. They had to rely on experience and on
ionospheric predictions published in documents to guess the condition of the
ionosphere at the specific time when the submarine came up to periscope depth
and the HF radio mast was raised above water.
Sometimes the Captain wanted to go back down
as soon as the radio traffic was cleared. Submarine sparkers had to decide which
HF band and which frequencies to use before raising the HF radio mast. Receivers
were tuned in advance and the transmitter was prepared up to the loading of the
antenna. Most of the
time they were right but sometimes they were wrong. When a call to CFH Halifax
was unanswered, a quick decision had to be made. Try to call CFH Halifax
again on a different HF radio band; or try to call CKN on the west coast; or try to pass traffic to Halifax via a
Commonwealth or NATO shore radio station. The pressure on the sparkers was high
when the Captain wanted to minimize the time at periscope depth. When
unsuccessful with CFH and CKN, the next best thing was to try British naval
radio stations in Gibraltar or England because the relays to Halifax were easier
within the Commonwealth. Finally, if all options failed, we called stations of
the US Navy.
If the radio traffic consisted only of the
72-hour check report, the message was sent in morse code, in plain
language without encryption and the text had only three words:
CHECK SEVEN TWO. If the proper frequency band
had been selected before coming up to periscope depth, if the receiver was
already tuned in advance and if all went well during the transmitting process,
everything could be done in two to three minutes. By process I mean: getting the
OK to raise the HF radio mast; raising the HF radio mast; tuning the final of
the transmitter as soon as the lower insulator clears the surface; calling CFH
on the calling frequency; getting an immediate reply from CFH on the CW
broadcast frequency; transmitting the check report on the calling frequency
instead of the working frequency (because it is a check report); getting an
acknowledgement from CFH; and confirming to the control room and/or to the
Captain that the check report had been sent. At that point, if the Captain was
eager to get back below periscope depth, the submarine would begin its descent
immediately while the radio mast and the search perisope were being lowered.
In the above photo, it is the same
view as before but looking down at the operating desk. This is where I sat with
a tape recorder between my legs to record morse code transmissions at 100 words
per minute. It would allow us to quickly copy our submarine
schedule and return to the deep where the tape was slowed down so I could
copy the morse code at 25 words per minute.
Above my head, to the left, was the control
for the Collins ARC-552 UHF transceiver used to communicate with aircrafts and
ships. This transceiver was mostly used by the Captain and Officers in the
Control Room or on the bridge via remote sets. Above my head to the right was
the control for the Collins MF/HF 618-T Transceiver. This transceiver was used
mostly for morse code ship-to-shore radio communications and SSB communications
with surface ships and other submarines.
The safe containing top secret documents was
located in the same spot as the safe in this photo. The equipment rack to the
right of the safe was not there in my days. This is the spot where the
cryptographic equipment was located to manually encrypt and
decrypt morse code messages.
The process for
morse code messages was basically the same process as used by Germans during
World War II with their Enigma machines.
The KL-7 crypto machine we used in those days was basically an
improved Enigma machine using eight rotors.
There was no
need to manually encrypt and decrypt teletype messages since
we were using an in-line KWR-37 cipher machine. Plain
language teletype messages were fed into the KWR-37 and encrypted teletype
messages came out of the KWR-37 and fed to the transmitter. So encryption required
no manual input. The process was reversed at the
receiving end. The received signal was fed from the receiver to the KWR-37 and
the output of the KWR-37 was fed to the model 28 teletype machine.
The cypher codes were changed daily at 0000 Zulu by replacing a perforated card
in the KWR-37. In
order for the entire encrypted teletype network to work, all KWR-37 machines in
the fleet and at naval radio stations on shore had to be synchronized within less than a second of each other. We
commonly used the time signal sent by CHU Ottawa on 7335 kHz or 14670 kHz. When
the CHU signal was bad, we used WWV Fort Collins, Colorado on 5, 10 or 15 MHz .
If the submarine was below periscope depth at
midnight zulu, CHU or WWV was not available for time synchronization. For this
reason, the clock in the Radio Room was regularly synchronized with CHU or WWV
whenever the radio mast was raised and the submarine had access to the HF band.
This way, the KWR-37 could be started at midnight zulu using the Radio Room
clock if the submarine was below periscope depth. Sometimes the synchronization
did not work. Pushing the button within one second of the time signal was not
that easy. Also, if synchronization was done with the Radio Room clock while
below periscope depth, there was no indication that it was working until we came
up to periscope depth and a signal was fed to the KWR-37 from the HF receiver.
Fortunately, the KWR-37 could be restarted every 5 minutes. Sometimes it would
take more than one attempt if the button was not pushed within the allowed time
What you see in the above
photos are two
Collins HF receivers which were used in the 1990s. They were left onboard when
HMCS ONONDAGA was retired in 2000 and they are now part of the display at the
ONONDAGA submarine museum in Rimouski, Quebec.
In the above photo , I have now turned around and I am looking forward.
The operating desk is on my right and the access door on my left. Going back to
the 1960s and 1970s, the Model 28 teletype equipment and the shredder was
located to the right as well as an intercom system for the submarine. Being in
control of the music onboard was not always pleasant. I was accused at one time
of playing The Beatles too often.
The equipment racks to the left contained the Collins URC-32 HF
transceiver used mainly for teletype radio communications, but also
used for morse code and voice AM
transmissions. There was also an equipment rack on the left, closer to
the operating desk, which had two Racal RA-17 VLF/LF/MF/HF receivers
as well as radioteletype and facsimile equipment,
the KWR-37 crypto
machine, and direction finding equipment.