Humberside - where Raynet began....



Out in the Field

Many people believe that amateur emergency communications started in the UK in 1953, with the East Coast Floods. 

Emergency communications actually started decades earlier, in the mid-thirties with the idea of National Field Day (NFD). The first NFD was held in June 1933, just six months after Hitler’s rise to power. The original purpose was to demonstrate how low power portable stations , set up with little notice, could operate out of doors , ‘in the field’, in response to a natural or man-made disaster and were capable of maintaining good communications with other portable stations throughout the British Isles.

The original idea was proposed by the London section of the RSGB who spent a weekend out of London, camping every summer. The May 1933 RSGB T&R Bulletin commented that the weekend demonstrated:

…that if the necessity arose the Amateur radio movement in the UK could place into operation an emergency network of stations at short notice…

It went on to predict that:

..such a necessity is hardly likely to arise in this country, but it is re assuring to know our capabilities in this direction

The Hull Radio Club took part in NFD in the late 'thirties, with a portable station usually located at Beverley Westwood.

The amateur radio movement in the UK went on to provide reserve operators for both the RAF and the Royal Navy, who were keen to enlist those with technical expertise as tension mounted. John Clarricoats in ‘The World at their Fingertips’ (1) comments that:

 “ six years later, at the start of World War II, many radio amateurs, who were the first of the many thousands of RAF reservists to go abroad, were grateful for the experience they had gained from NFD operation”

Around this time, the US national society, the ARRL started an emergency corps in the USA. In the tension-laden times of the late nineteen-thirties, UK radio amateurs suggested to the government that they could a provide communications in a crisis. This idea was rejected.

Disasters Don't Happen Here

In 1950 the RSGB and the Air Ministry and Post Office developed a plan to help out in distress situations involving aircraft. Aeroplanes mostly used HF in those days, and a basic distress system was developed for the 7Mhz band on CW. A similar proposal for maritime distress was discussed with the Ministry of Transport and the Post Office. This was turned down.  A system of emergency back-up
communications using a network of radio amateurs was again offered to the authorities, but was rejected. The Ministry stated that disasters didn’t happen here, and in the unlikely event that they did, then they would be adequately covered. The Post Office then had the monopoly of all communications in the UK and guarded this jealously, even in times of crisis. The RSGB persevered at creating an emergency network. An editorial in the RSGB Bulletin of September 1950 after the latest proposal was rejected, stated :

" it would be a thousand pities if lives were lost because the Postmaster General is unwilling to admit that radio amateurs are capable of rendering a service of the nature envisaged”.

 At that time it was illegal for UK radio amateurs to pass ‘third party’ messages on behalf of others.  This was to protect the Post Office monopoly on telephones and telegrams. The amateur licence stated that:

“The sending of news or messages of for, on behalf of, or for the benefit or information of, any social, political, religious or commercial organization, or anyone other than the Licensee. Is prohibited”

 It went on to add that the station:

“shall not be established within any dock, estuary or harbour, or in any moving vehicle, vessel or aircraft”.

 So, no third party messages for any user group, and no mobile operation of any sort. The licence effectively prevented any support to the community in an emergency.

 This should be contrasted with the situation in the US, where the 1949 ARRL Handbook stated that “ the radio amateur best justifies his
existence by the service he renders his community in times of disaster and distress “ and the book goes on to devote one chapter of seven pages to radio procedures and radio methods in an emergency and gives details of the ARRL Emergency Corps, who were working in close cooperation with the American Red Cross.


A Night to Remember

Several years later, on the night of January 31st 1953, a deep depression tracked across the north of the UK and a Force 11 storm created a tidal surge of almost three metres above the normal high tide in the North Sea. Coastal areas across Europe were widely affected. It was the most wide spread natural disaster ever suffered by this country. Large parts of East Anglia and the East Coast were flooded. Three hundred and seven lives were lost in the United Kingdom, with over two thousand people dead in the Netherlands and Belgium, where coastal and river areas were inundated. In total there were two hundred and thirty lives lost at sea during the storm. 

There was a patchy response by the authorities in the UK. No warnings were given, and the rescue efforts were locally organized and often piecemeal. Nearly two hundred ships were in distress in the North Sea, and at the same time  Humber Radio  at Mablethorpe was flooded and went off the air. Other marine stations could not fill the gap. Radio amateurs in Hull and Grimsby replaced the station using their topband equipment, in direct breach of their licence conditions operated out of band to communicate with stricken ships.

 An indignant editorial in the February 1953 RSGB Bulletin entitled ‘It DID happen here’ told the story as the journal went to press:

“Two and a half years ago the Society offered to meet any national disaster on land, at sea or in the air. That offer was declined. Why? Because the GPO had advised the appropriate Ministry that it was capable of handling any emergency without the help of radio amateurs”
“During the last few hours of January 1953, a disaster of tremendous magnitude struck the British Isles. Post Office telephones, government wireless stations and the utility stations were put out of action for days on end. Radio amateurs in these stricken areas, ignoring the terms of their licence, but feeling sure that public opinion would support them, immediately placed their stations and their experience at the disposal of the authorities.”
Four times in a few hours Grimsby and Hull radio amateurs intercepted distress calls from ships at sea”

A month later, in the March 1953 Edition of RSGB Bulletin the full details were available. In ‘Operation Floodtide’, the RSGB reported the story of how Humberside’s radio amateurs started emergency radio in this country; and how enthusiasts with technical expertise had transmitted out of band and against their licence conditions to save lives. It went on to relate how RH Collins G3AXS was listening to Humber Radio in contact with the SS Levenwood. The ship required the aid of tugs and urgent medical advice for the first officer. He heard Humber Radio go off the air, just after reporting that its landlines were down. He arranged for medical assistance and a tug to be sent to the stricken ship. Grimsby and Hull radio amateurs were kept busy that night working shipping that was in distress in the North Sea, replacing the flooded coastal radio station. Distress calls were received from the Humber Lightship, the MV Menapia, the trawler Bombardier, Roda, and the MV Melrose Abbey.   

There is a limited amount of written evidence about amateur radio involvement. There are stories of radio amateurs on the East coast lending a hand, but little contemporaneous evidence .  The only  write-up in any newspapers and magazines at the time relate to the action of radio amateurs on the Humber. If the authorities were involved in any way, with amateurs relaying messages,  there would have been a record of this, and it seems likely that reports about the events would be available, in radio magazines and newspapers.   

The main rescue forces that weekend were from the military. There were still thousands of UK and US serviceman stationed in East Anglia in the early ‘fifties , and they were the first to respond. They had transport, communications and took the initiative when responding to the flood: there was a very limited response from the UK authorities, and very low key involvement from radio amateurs, who were effectively banned from taking part because of their licence conditions.

Across the Sea

Amateur radio was heavily involved in the rescue efforts across the North Sea in the Netherlands, where the scale of the disaster was
much larger. The flood arrived there on Sunday morning, when VERON, the national amateur radio society, had just started their Sunday morning Morse code training transmissions. There is widespread documentary evidence of this. Dick Rollema PA0SE, in a comprehensive article in the IEEE journal (2) describing the amateur radio response to the floods reports that:

“Soon the first messages and call for help came in from ham radio operators in the disaster area, with PA0AA passing these messages on to the relevant disaster recovery organizations”
“ In the meantime, government officials in The Hague frantically searched for a means to restore communications capabilities with the inundated area. Radio hams seemed to be a logical way to do so. A powerful station in The Hague, PA0GVB, was given official permission to handle emergency traffic, and became the primary control station for the network that was quickly improvised”

He goes on to describe how even local vacuum cleaners had to be silenced to allow interference-free reception at the PA0AA station on 3700khz. The article describes the well-ordered response to the major disaster, and how gifted enthusiasts improvised radio links across the country…. There were many stories of how individuals were able to improvise in order to communicate during the crisis:

 “A radio technician, named Hossfeld, lived in the town of Zierikzee on one of the islands of Zeeland. Waking up on Sunday, he found the island inundated by seawater and without any means of communication. Hossfeld was employed as a technician in a radio repair shop at Zierikzee. He went to the shop and started constructing a transmitter. It had to be  telephony one because Hossfeld was not a radio amateur and could not use Morse code. He soon had assistance from a student, Koopman, who happened to be with his parents, living at a farm 2 mi outside Zierikzee. As the water rose inside their home, they fled to the roof and were later picked up by a rowboat, which brought them to Zierikzee. Hossfeld and Koopman had never before built a transmitter and they had to improvise using components that happened to be available in the workshop.”

Rollema goes on to relate how the crisis carried on until the 10th February:                       

“In the following days the emergency network took shape and became better organized. At both stations a civil servant of the Special Radio Service (a government intelligence service monitoring radio communications) was present all the time to assist when necessary. The number of amateur stations in the disaster area was limited and many amateurs outside the area left their homes and relocated to suitable locations in the flooded areas, bringing their own equipment or using surplus World War II radio equipment.”

Radio amateurs did coordinate flood rescue and recovery, but unfortunately not in this country. In the Netherlands, the response was different because of the sheer scale of the floods, with radio being used in rescue operations by radio amateurs and by other radio enthusiasts who used improvised radio equipment. The response was in scale to the catastrophe, but again, like the UK,  it pushed enthusiasts to respond by improvisation and ‘breaking the rules’. It may be that for some, the Dutch response to the situation became conflated with the English. The main radio story here in the UK was set in Grimsby and Hull. An editorial in the Scarborough
Evening News of February  19th 1953 sums up the situation:

“ but there is one set of people who for many years have been offering their services for use in an emergency but have been constantly refused. They are Britain’s radio amateurs- the men who spend their spare time talking across the country, and across continents, through

their radios.Before the war, and since, they have presented schemes to the authorities for the setting up of an emergency radio network, a network composed of low power transmitters which would not rely on the mains for the supply of current, and which could maintain vital

communications in times of emergency. Their proposals have been turned down by Ministry of Transport, which was advised by the GPO that it was quite capable of handling any emergency without the aid of radio amateurs. Despite that assurance there was a gap in vital communications when the Humber Radio coastal station was flooded out, and two or three amateurs, at risk of losing their transmitting licences, filled that gap, and brought aid to ships in distress.

Doubtless the GPOs attitude is dictated by its determination to prevent anything happening that might infringe on its monopoly in the communications world. That would not be in jeopardy if the proposed network was set up. Such networks operate in many countries, and during flood disasters in the United States many lives have been saved by the efforts of these amateurs. If such a network was given official blessing in this country it might be that it would never be needed, but that is a poor reason for its rejection. Every clear-thinking person will wish the Radio Society of Great Britain success when it next approaches the authorities with its proposals”

The Start of Raynet 

The formation of the Radio Amateurs Emergency Network (RAEN) was announced in the RSGB Bulletin in November 1953, following the floods earlier in the year. It was based on a similar system to that set up by the ARRL in the USA, especially in its methods of organization. The RSGB Bulletin of December 1953 reported:

The formation of the Radio Amateur emergency Network ( the organisation set up to implement the Council's plans for a National Emergency Amateur Radio Communication Service) was announced by the President ( Mr. Leslie Cooper, G5LC) at the luncheon following the opening of the Seventh Annual Amateur Radio Exhibition on November 25, 1953. Mr Cooper said that the new service would offer its facilities to such bodies as the Post Office, the Red Cross and the W.V.S., as well as to hospital ambulance services, public utility undertakings, rescue services, the police and civil defence units. To maintain close liaison with these organisations, emergency Communications Officers would be appointed in all major towns throughout the United Kingdom. The Network would provide means of communication only when the normal POst Office telephone services are either out of commission or overloaded, and would feed its messages into Post office lines at the nearest suitable point. 

There was a two page article reporting the launch of RAEN and listing the twenty eight emergency communications officers already appointed. Each county had an Emergency Communications Officer (ECO) who organized the local network.  The ECO for Grimsby was FR Peterson G3ELZ, hero of the North Sea disaster,  and for the Hull area the ECO was
 R. Burwell G4LH. 

An important point was that the organization was to be controlled in a separate way to the RSGB, who recognized that it needed support of the entire amateur radio community. They set up the organization, held it ‘arm’s length’ and allowed it to grow, giving it support
on the way. This was just as well, as there little support from the Post Office, who were then in charge of Amateur Radio. There was still no permission to pass third party messages or operate 'mobile'  from vehicles. 

A year after the flood, in March 1954 the RAEN organization had a logo and a national committee had formed, and the usual paraphernalia such as headed notepaper, badges and callsign plaques could be purchased from the RSGB. Lapel badges were 1/6d and a car plaque was available for 5/-. The RSGB Bulletin then regularly published monthly news about its development and its activities, providing support to the fledgling organization. This carried on until the mid-eighties when the Raynet column was a regular monthly feature in what had become ‘Radcom’ 

Leading the Way

The various local groups were also starting to develop. The RSGB Bulletin in April 1954 takes up the story, showing how one group in our area was getting off the ground:

An excellent example of the way in which RAEN can be introduced to local organizations was provided by the meeting held in the Hornsea Primary School on February 28th and organized by Lt.-Col Arthur Dunn (G2ACD) . Among those present were the Chairman and Clerk to Hornsea Council, the Medical Officer of Health, the Divisional President of the British Red Cross, The County Organiser of the WVS, Councillor Chipperfield ( East Riding CC ), Det. Inspector Bennett (representing the Chief Constable, east Riding County Police), and the Chief Welfare Officer, East Riding CC. Sixteen members of the RAEN were present at the meeting.”

“Earlier in February the Hornsea group were alerted by the police who received a ‘red’ flood warning. It says much for the way this group is organized that within a few minutes all stations were operational. The Hull group were also warned,  and watch was maintained until the ‘all clear’ was given. From experience gained during this alert, 2m was found to be the most satisfactory band for use in the area.”


                          Lt. Col Arthur Dunn demonstrates RAEN coverage in East Yorkshire to representatives from the WRVS, 

                          British Red Cross and Civil Defence                                                                                ER Gazette

Arthur Dunn was busy in other directions too. John Clarricoats takes up the story:

Thanks largely to the energy and enthusiasm of the RAEN controller ( Lt. Col. Arthur Dunn, G2ACD of Bridlington, Yorkshire) liaison was established with the executives of the British Red Cross Society who agreed that members of their Society should co-operate with members of the Network in disaster relief operations and exercises. Up to that time, the Post Office had, unofficially, approved the arrangement, but on August 17 1956, an announcement appeared in the London Gazette which varied the terms of the existing Amateur (Sound) Licence so that, in future, a station could be used "as part of the self training of the licensee in communication...during disaster relief operations or during any exercise relating to such operations conducted by the British Red Cross Society..."

 A few months later, in the October 1956 edition of the RSGB Bulletin, Jack Hum G5UM, commented;

"Preparedness demands practice; it is of little use belonging to the RAEN unless regular participation in the Network's exercises over the air is intended. An RAEN station is still an amateur station. The best service to its cause can be rendered if its standard of operating is impeccable"

A year later, the Post Office amended the licence again and granted  permission for messages from the Police and St. John Ambulance to be relayed. By the end of the decade, the network of amateurs and their organization was recognizable as RAEN, by then named in the more pronounceable 'Ray-net', and still exists in a similar form today. 

In  August 1957 the BBC Light Programme ran a programme called ‘Hobbies… A programme of leisure-time pursuits’. A special edition on ‘Radio Hams’ was aired. Presenter  Robert Reid discussed the hobby with Arthur Milne G2MI, who called up a ham in America and brought together two operators from Kent and the Antarctic. To demonstrate how this hobby can be of practical value a flood emergency exercise was held on the East Coast in Hornsea, Yorkshire organised by Lieut.-Colonel Arthur C. Dunn  G2ACD of RAYNET. 

Colonel Dunn seemed to be a busy man with a flair for presentation. The half-hour long programme was the first time that  RAYNET had featured in the broadcast media, and advertised amateur radio to the public. The Humberside area led the way in its involvement in emergency amateur radio throughout the nineteen-fifties. Its involvement during the flood led to the formation of the RAEN and the energy and enthusiasm shown by local radio enthusiasts led to licence changes and shaped the way that RAYNET developed in later years.


ARRL, 1949, The Radio Amateur’s Handbook, 26th Ed., 1949, ARRL, Connecticut

Baxter, P. , 2005, The East coast Big Flood, 31 January–1 February 1953: a summary of the human disaster( Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ) 

Clarricoats, J. (G6CL) , 1967, The World at Their Fingertips, RSGB, London 

Humberside County Council, 1986, Standard Operating Procedures, HCC EP Unit, Wawne

Rollema, D. ( PA0SE) , 2004, ‘Scanning Our Past From The Netherlands’ in Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 92, No 4, Apr. 2004

Scarborough Evening News Feb 19 1953

RSGB, 1961, The Radio Communications Handbook, 3rd Ed, RSGB, London

RSGB, 1968, The Radio Communications Handbook, 4th Ed, RSGB, London

RSGB, 1933,  RSGB T & R Bulletin Vol IX , no 2, RSGB, London

RSGB, 1953, RSGB Bulletin February 1953, RSGB, London

RSGB, 1953, RSGB Bulletin March 1953, RSGB, London

RSGB, 1954, RSGB Bulletin April 1954, RSGB, London

Grateful thanks to Nick Catford, Steve Price, Ken McCann  and Andy Russell for permission to use their  photographs

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