Home / GWZM and the BBC Overseas Service


During my time at sea, both Shipping and Radio companies had collective call signs. In the case of Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd, the shipping company I worked for as a Radio Officer (R/O), its collective call sign was GWZM.

GWZM calls were a means of establishing contact between ships of the Brocklebank fleet in order to exchange information or to relay urgent message telegrams that perhaps had proven impossible for the originating ship to pass directly to its Area coast station. It was also a means for R/O’s to exchange gossip with other company R/O’s and certainly the skeds added some light relief when the watch was light on traffic.

The invitation to make contact between Brocklebank ships would take the form of a general call sent in Morse code as “GWZM de GBJX hw k”. Translated into real speak, this meant “GWZM (any Brocklebank ship) this is the Magdapur are you receiving me over”. The hw could also be used as an abbreviation for how are things?/are your receiving me?/ do you have anything for me? The letter k sent on its own was Internationally recognised as an invitation to another station to transmit.

It was common practice to record the position of contacted ships in an exercise book and to place this on the bridge of your ship for the information of its navigating officers and Captain. Officers in other departments on the ship also benefited from the information obtained.

The Captain on the SS Magdapur was one of the most friendly and helpful of any Master that I sailed with. He was knowledgeable about radio and was a keen short wave listener with a passion for the BBC’s World Service, particularly the news programmes.

The Captain had quite a comprehensive long wire aerial that ran from his cabin up to the main mast on the monkey Island. This was never a problem because it had its own halyard that allowed it to be lowered whenever I had to take direction-finding bearings. When it was erected to its full height it ran within a few feet of the vertical legs of the ship’s main aerials.

On the Magdapur, the Radio room was located just behind the Chart Room on the Port (left hand) side of the Bridge deck. The Captain’s accommodation consisting of his day room , sleeping cabin and bathroom were located on the Starboard (right hand) side of the Bridge deck, sharing a common bulkhead with the Radio Room.

Unbeknown to me his passion for listening to the World Service and the timing of one of the regular skeds was on a collision course from the day we sailed from the UK because it created the only real problem that I ever had with the Captain on that ship. This was because the interference caused by the breakthrough into his shortwave receiver whenever I was keying the ships transmitters became unbearable to him. Remember that unlike ships time, radio watches and the programmes of the BBC’s World Service both observed and stayed on Greenwich Mean time (GMT) throughout the voyage. The GWZM schedule timed between 1750 (5-50 PM) and 1800 (6 PM) GMT, clashed directly with the 1800 (6 PM) World Service News, particularly if the GWZM schedule over ran the end of the Watch keeping period which it often did.

For those who have never experienced it, the sort of breakthrough that he endured can only be described as similar to the pulsing bursts of interference we used to experience on the old 405 lines VHF televisions from badly suppressed motorcars. It is also likely that his receiver would have been overloaded by the ship’s transmitters, which would have desensitised it leaving it somewhat deaf even after the Morse transmissions ceased. All in all not a very pleasant situation for a Captain who was an avid short wave enthusiast who loved to listen to the news.

Looking back he endured the interference and the disruption to his listening pleasure for longer than I might have expected because he didn’t explode until after we left Aden and were sailing in the Indian Ocean heading for Gan Island in the Maldives.

I think on that particular watch I had been making a few GWZM calls and had possibly worked a few Brocklebank ships so that the interference to his receiver must have been acute. Anyway all of a sudden he burst into the radio room and demanded that I cease transmitting immediately. I naturally asked why and he told me in no uncertain terms that I was interfering with his enjoyment of the BBC. I told him that I had been maintaining a regular schedule required by the company but it made no difference. I did as I was told and he left the radio room as abruptly as he had arrived. By that time I was at the end of the watch keeping period, so I closed down the station and activated the auto alarm.

I was stunned and shocked and replayed the incident over and over in my mind for some time. International Radio Regulations made it explicitly clear that the ships wireless installation and its operation was under the absolute authority of the Master of the ship, which meant that he had the right to make such a decision and I had no right to object. What I did have was an obligation to record his instruction to me in the ship’s radio log because I was obliged by the Company to observe all of the GWZM schedules.

As I said I had always got on well with the Captain and as this was my first deep sea trip as a newly promoted Senior R/O I didn’t wish to have a cloud hanging over me for the rest of the voyage. The following day I requested and was granted an interview with him, which I hoped, would resolve the issue in an amicable way.

When I went into his day room he was pleasant but somewhat formal. I explained that whilst I very much regretted the interference he had been experiencing I was under an obligation to work the schedules as required by the company. I said I accepted his authority and did not seek to challenge it in any way but if his decision was permanent, then I would be obliged to record it in the ships wireless log, which he would be required to counter sign as per normal practice on the next Sunday morning.

This was the only course of action I could take in response to his instruction to me. However I remembered from an incident on the Mahseer a few months earlier where its Captain had initially refused to take his luggage out of the aerial trunking even though it was damaging the ships aerials, that a Captain might reconsider a decision if it were recorded in the Ship’s radio log and acknowledged by him as correct due to him placing his signature against the entry.

At this point in our meeting Magdapur’s Captain became very cordial and friendly once again in his manner. He said that of course he didn’t mean to suggest that all schedules should be cancelled for the rest of the voyage. What he wanted he said, was for the calls made at 1800 hours to be restricted so that he could listen to the BBC World Service news without interference. This seemed to me to be the best face saving solution for both of us so I gratefully accepted the compromise and left his cabin in a much happier frame of mind.

Thereafter operation of the GWZM skeds was resumed as normal and I worked as many Brocklebank ships as I could. However I did try to avoid going over the start of the news at 1800 hours which must have been satisfactory to the Captain because I never did get any more complaints.

copyright © John Leary