PHEW – WHAT SIGNALS!

Communications within visual range (or Line of Sight) between ships are maintained on radio nets on VHF (Very High Frequency) or UHF (Ultra High Frequency). Between warships this radio net is called Tactical Primary or TP. All signals on TP are for such tactical purposes as manoeuvring, station-keeping and tactical exercises.

In order that ships would easily understand the purport of the signals, these are either coded in a standard code or use a language meant especially for signals called Signalese. If anyone gets tempted to use non-standard language, this often results into ridiculous situations and sometimes disastrous results (Also read: Anything For Me).

This happened with me on INS (Indian Naval Ship) Ganga. I was the Signal Communication Officer. In one of the Fleet Manoeuvres, we passed very close to a Durg class corvette at high-speed. The latter uncomfortably tossed around in our wake and felt it was rather a close call. So, the ship made a message on the (TP) Tactical Primary which read, “Phew”. Our Signals Yeoman not familiar with the word or its meaning, asked for repetition from the Durg. That started a spate of signals that went on like this:

Ganga: Durg this is Ganga (of course tactical call-signs were used), say again your last, over.
Durg: Ganga this is Durg, I say again my last: Phew; I say that again Phew; over.
Ganga: (Imagining that the word was ‘few’ and hence it was an incomplete message) Durg this is Ganga, say again all before few, over.
Durg: Ganga this is Durg, there is nothing before phew.
Ganga: (Even more perplexed): Durg this is Ganga, say again all after few, over.
Durg: Ganga this is Durg, there is nothing after phew.
Ganga: (Suddenly realising that Durg must be wanting to know the whereabouts of FOO (Fleet Operations Officer): Durg this is Ganga, FOO is embarked on Rajput.
Durg: (It was his turn to be flummoxed now): Say again all after Phew, over.

Mercifully, the Fleet Commander’s yeoman intervened before a few more phews and FOO could be exchanged.

By the way, ‘Say again your last” was the most frequent message exchange between the ships. There used to be many jokes about this use. One day we had a high-ranking team from the US Navy visiting us in the Staff College. In a lecture about Tactical Communications, one of them mentioned that the most common signal in the US Navy was: “Say again your last.”

Phew!

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