World War II officer returns to college

James Watt College in Greenock, Inverclyde. Picture: Wikimedia/CC
James Watt College in Greenock, Inverclyde. Picture: Wikimedia/CC
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A RADIO officer who helped Merchant Navy ships outsmart German U-boats in the Second World War has paid a visit to the college where he was trained in Morse code 75 years ago.

Bill Waugh, 93, hoped to get a job with British Telecom when he graduated in telecommunications in 1939, but his skills were required at sea and he went on to receive medals for his part in the Atlantic Convoys.

Mr Waugh travelled from his home in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, to James Watt College in Greenock, Inverclyde, to see his old school building before it closes for refurbishment in the new year.

He was joined by almost 20 others from the Radio Officers’ Association (ROA) who studied at the college, most of them in the 1950s and 60s.

Father-of-two Mr Waugh said: “It’s really lovely being back, it’s a thrill for me to be here. After 75 years it has changed, the rooms have been divided and that sort of thing, but the atmosphere is still here.

“During my time with the convoys I served across the Atlantic a number of times. The trouble was that although you had all the radio communications on board the ship, you weren’t allowed to use them.

“It was a question of listening for any distress messages, to any messages sent by the Admiralty to the ship, always in code because the Germans were listening in, of course.

“You couldn’t make radio transmissions because the U-Boats were there just waiting for you.”

Mr Waugh said he was reprimanded after sleeping through one of his first overnight watch shifts.

He said: “I wasn’t used to it. I was brought up on a croft and I was used to going to bed at 9 o’clock at night and getting up at 6. They let me off, it was my first trip at sea.”

The veteran, originally from Inverness, decided to enrol at what was then the James Watt Memorial Engineering and Navigational School when his parents could not afford the £100 deposit required to study accountancy.

He received his certificate the year the Second World War broke out and his career was put on hold as he served with the Merchant Navy until 1946.


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Merchant ships were responsible for transporting vital supplies to British troops and their allies during the war.

A ship’s radio room was often the first target during shelling and around 10% of the 30,000 casualties suffered by the Merchant Navy were radio officers and masters.

Though he was never sunk, Mr Waugh said he experienced a bombing and lost many friends in the conflict.

He said: “The worst time I had was on the east coast of England. I served 12 months on a coastal vessel and to me that was more horrendous that anything else because you were subject to aircraft attacks, and mines of course.

“To me that was more horrendous than crossing the Atlantic because the chances of U-Boats finding you were small.

“But on the east coast they weren’t. Every night when you travelled, you knew it.”

The school opened in Greenock on June 1, 1908 and was one of four colleges offering courses in marine radio in Scotland.

Students were trained in Morse code transmission which ships relied on to communicate before the advent of satellite communications.

Previously no ship was allowed at sea without a radio officer but the role was officially made redundant in 2000.

James Watt College is currently used by Inverclyde Council’s education department but will close for refurbishment in January.

The ROA was formed in 1995 and its members hold regular reunions to share memories of their time as radio officers.

Chairman Tony Selman, 69, from Kent, said: “When we found out what was happening at the James Watt College we decided we’d have our first college-specific reunion.

“It has been wonderful to walk round and see the facilities after so many years. We met last night at a local hotel and there were occasions where people came up and said to another ‘I haven’t seen you in 40 years’.

“It’s exactly what our association is all about and we’re very grateful to Inverclyde Council.”


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