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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Ken Smith - Life Aboard a Cable Ship

Introduction: Ken Smith shares his autobiography, including stories of his service during World War II and through the late 1940s as a cable jointer on board CS Lady Denison-Pender, CS Norseman, CS Edouard Jeramec, and HMS St Margarets.

Ken does not have Internet access himself, so his contributions to this page were very kindly arranged by his friend Joseph Pitchford, who put Ken in touch with me and has acted as intermediary ever since. I’m grateful to Joe for helping make Ken’s stories and photographs available here.

--Bill Burns

The Story Begins...

My name is Kenneth Smith, 87 years of age [2010], and I began my cable service on the Lady Denison Pender (the “LDP”) as a cable jointer in 1940. But my story starts some years before that.

I was born in the East End of London in April 1923. My father was a Londoner by birth, but his father was from Norfolk, and my mother was also from Norfolk.  I have one sister three years my elder.

In 1933 the family moved to Loughton in Essex, a pretty little country village with a river and green fields on one side and Epping Forest on the other. I was educated at the local village school, so my education was basic.  Out of a class of thirty  boys I was just above average. My real education did not take off until I left school.

In April 1937 at the age of fourteen years I left school. Unemployment in the 1930s was pretty high and it was not easy for a teenager to find work. Temporarily, I started my working life as a butcher’s boy, skinning rabbits, plucking chickens – but cutting up dead meat was not for me.

My father was a gas fitter by trade and from very early in my life he taught me the pleasures of using all manner of tools, and to be creative. All my working life I have been a good practical worker who could turn his hand to most jobs.

Living locally was a friend, one Ted Sawyers, who was a few years older than me.  Ted was employed by Cable & Wireless as a messenger boy, and sported what I considered a very attractive uniform. Ted told me that his ambition was to serve on one of the company’s ships – a cable ship.  I had never heard of a cable ship before, but when I was shown a photograph of one I was smitten.

The ship was the image of a luxury steam yacht, low and sleek in the water with swan-neck bows, a single funnel and two tall masts. The decks were covered by a canvas awning, and the ship was painted white with a yellow funnel. My parents had no objections, so I became a Cable & Wireless messenger; strutting about the City of London, I was in clover. After a year or so I put in my request for a position on a cable ship. This opportunity was given to only a small number of messenger boys that had a desire to go to sea.

It was in the summer of 1939 that I was called to the Marine Department to be interviewed, and my application was accepted. For the next nine months I was to present myself to a factory in Greenwich to learn the skills of making joints in cables insulated with both gutta percha and vulcanized india rubber. In September 1939 war broke out, but it made no difference to me–I was committed to cable ships.

CS Cyrus Field in action, with the ship’s working cutter
off to dismantle a buoy flying a Western Union flag.
Although it is not a ship he served on, Ken notes
that this is one of his cherished images, typical
of the cable operations he was involved in.

Cable Ships in the Cable & Wireless Fleet

In 1939 Cable & Wireless had a fleet of seven ships; their names and the area of activity are listed below:

Cambria. Based in Plymouth, UK, with local crew. Operational in home waters.

Mirror. Based in Gibraltar, Spanish crew. Operational in and around the Mediterranean.

Norseman. Based in Rio de Janeiro, local crew. Operational in South Atlantic.

Enterprise. Based at St Lucia, local crew. Operational in the West Indies.

Lady Denison-Pender. Based in Aden with Lascar crew. Operational in Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Recorder. Based in Far East, local crew. Operational in the Far East.

Retriever. Based in Malta, local crew. Operational in the Mediterranean.

The Retriever was sunk in the bombing of Malta, the only ship of the fleet lost through enemy action.

The Lady Denison-Pender in World War II

Ken Smith
in June 1940

It was in April 1940, at 17 years of age, that I completed my training at the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company (Telcon) cable works in Greenwich, and was appointed to my first ship.

My employers, Cable & Wireless Ltd., had booked me a passage on the Viceroy of India, a P&O ocean liner bound for the far east. My passage was to Port Said in Egypt. On my arrival at Port Said I was to proceed to Suez by train; the Lady Denison Pender was berthed at Port Tufik [also known as Port Tewfik or Port Taufiq]. Alighting from the train I was greeted by Ken Anderson, the number one cable jointer; it was a short taxi ride to the ship.

I had seen several photograph of cable ships: swan neck bows, a single funnel and two tall masts, in my mind every inch a fine model of a luxury steam yacht. And here she was in reality; the only difference from the photographs was that she was painted grey, her wartime colours.

Walking up the gangway on to the quarter deck, I was met by the quartermaster, a Lascar sailor dressed in his native costume. The officer-of-watch was dressed all in white, white shorts, shirt and stockings, with a cover over his cap.

To protect them from the fierce tropical sun the ship’s decks were covered in a double layer of a light grey canvas awning stretching from the bows to the stern. The decks were covered in teak planking, sanded almost white, with pitch caulking. From the rear of the boat deck hung a rather large brass bell with the name Indus inscribed on it. This bell was used to summon the officers to the dining room.

So this was to be my new home for the next two and a half years, and a new chapter of my life was about to begin. My, how excited I was; I thought I was the luckiest person alive!

The captain at the time was Captain Harold W.M. Milne, D.S.C.; he was to be followed by Captain Davidson and then by Captain Hammond.

CS Lady Denison Pender

The ship’s company was made up of the following:

Four deck officers
Six marine officers
Four technicians
(electricians/wireless operators)
One purser
One doctor
Of the petty officers
One bosun
Two bosun mates
One deck store keeper
One shipwright
One boilermaker
Two donkeymen
One engine room store keeper
One chief steward
Two cable jointers

The sailors and engine room staff were Lascars, with perhaps twelve Zanzibar boat boys.  The cooks and catering staff were Goanese. When the contract expired and the Lascars returned to India, they were replaced with a makeshift crew from the island of St. Helena. The crew from St. Helena were not experienced seamen and had to be taught their duties. During the war it was difficult to get an experienced crew in the location we were in.

All in a day’s work - striking it
rough off the South African coast.
Foredeck of CS Lady Denison-Pender

When the LDP left Port Tufik her next port of call was to be Aden; in peacetime this would have been her base. In hindsight it was to be many years before she returned to Aden. Her next port of call was to be Zanzibar and from there to Mombasa. Continuing south, her next destination was to be Cape Town.

Only a few days out from Cape Town, on rounding Cape Agulhas, we ran into the most fearsome storm. To me, who had not been at sea for more than a week, to encounter mountainous seas crashing down on the ship was frightening. What a relief just a few days later to find the ship on an even keel. With a calm sea, blue skies, and a warm sun, the ship was entering gracefully into Table Bay. After a short stay the ship sailed to Mauritius in the South Indian Ocean, then back to Cape town.

This stay in Cape town lasted several weeks before we were told that the LDP was to be transferred to the South Atlantic. For the duration of the war our new base was to be Freetown, Sierra Leone. From here the furthest north was to be Gibraltar; to the south, Cape town. Besides calling at the coastal ports we did at times visit the islands, such as Madeira, Cape Verde Islands, Ascension, and St. Helena.

Late in 1942 the LDP was called upon to lay a cable between Gibraltar and Casablanca, but first we had to find enough cable to complete the job. Our cable stocks on board were sadly depleted and there was no chance of getting the cable sent out from the UK. It was decided to salvage from the sea bed the length required. It was rumoured at the time we were stealing French or perhaps Italian cable, but our needs were desperate.

Ken Smith and Chippy Robinson
CS Lady Denison-Pender, 1942

This was not a small operation; it was going to take three or four days, weather permitting, working non-stop twenty-four hours a day. Storing a long length of cable into our tanks was a slow, laborious, and meticulous job. The first night we were operating with a small number of lights on our fore deck; the trawler escort came up to us and an irate voice rang out: “Can’t you douse some of those bloody lights?”

When the required length of cable was stowed safely in the ship’s tanks, we headed back to Sierra Leone. The next move was to proceed north to Gibraltar with our own escort. On arrival, in January 1943, we learned that the cable had to be laid into Casablanca.

A connection was made to an existing cable lying in the Straits of Gibraltar, then we headed out into the Atlantic Ocean. This time we had a destroyer escort. The cable could be laid at only a slow rate; any excessive pull on the cable could cause damage and prolong the operation. On reaching Casablanca our security was taken over by the Americans.

At the time, this operation was shrouded in secrecy. The American troops had not long been in occupation, and it was only weeks, or perhaps months, later that the world learned that Winston Churchill had met Allied heads of state in Casablanca for a high-level conference.

The submarine cable we had laid was specifically for this meeting. Radio signals could be intercepted, and codes broken, but for the enemy to tap into cables that lay deep down on the ocean floor and spanned the world was beyond the realms of the possible.

On our return to Gibraltar we had then to prepare for our journey south to Freetown, the purpose of our visit north having been successfully completed. It was March 1943, and there were just four ships in our convoy, along with three oceangoing tugboats. The ships were in line as we headed into the Straits; our captain was the commodore of the convoy and therefore led the way.

We had barely started our journey when a lifeboat on our starboard side disengaged itself from the davit. The lifeboat was left hanging vertical with the oars and survival equipment disappearing into the sea. The instructions from the leading escort were “Keep going, cut the lifeboat adrift, but do not stop.” We had on board one or two old “sea salts” who saw this as a bad omen and predicted the worst.

The following morning the weather was overcast and the sea choppy. The four ships in the convoy formed a square with the three tugboats lying astern. The escorts took positions front and back.

Early on the Sunday morning the sea was calm with blue skies and a warm sun. The LDP was a cold ship, built specifically for service in tropical climes, so there was no heating in the accommodation and most of the officers and crew had no warm clothing to protect them against the cold. It was a blessing to us all to be steaming south and into warmer weather.

Around eight o’clock in the morning a northbound convoy appeared. As the two convoys passed the escorting vessels changed over–our escorts took over the northbound ships, and their escorts came to us.

Normally on a Sunday morning those members of the crew that had no duties to perform would be lounging about the deck, enjoying the fine weather. It was also a good day to do the weekly dhobiing. At around ten o’clock I was below decks on my way to the mess for morning coffee when there was an explosion; being close to a port I looked out. On our port side a cargo ship was folding in what can only be described as a giant letter “V”. She had been struck amidships by a torpedo. The two escorts circled around, dropping depth charges. The convoy took on a zigzag course and one of the tugboats held back to pick up survivors or to render assistance.

For the next few hours everything seemed to have slowed down, all was calm and serene, and at twelve-thirty the midday meal was served. During the meal there was a terrific explosion, which had so much force that the LDP listed to starboard with all the crockery sliding off the table and smashing on to the deck. My first impression was that the ship was being fired upon by small arms with the bullets striking the deck and superstructure.

Grabbing my life jacket and rushing on to the upper deck, I was just in time to see the stern quarter of a ship disappearing below the waves. The ship had been blown out of the water.  What I had taken to be machine gun fire was the debris from the stricken ship raining down on to our decks.

Once again the two escorts went into action, circling around and dropping depth charges. A second tug stayed behind but the chances of finding any survivors must have been very slim.

With only two ships left in the convoy they followed in line and continued zigzagging, hoping to avoid a further U-boat attack.

For the rest of that Sunday afternoon all was quiet, and the convoy, or what was left of it, continued on a southerly course. It was a blessing when the sun went down and darkness descended.  Most of us that had been lazing about the upper deck ventured below to get some sleep. Surely, in darkness, we were sheltered from a further attack.

I had retired to my cabin, and, fully clothed with my life jacket on the chair beside me, I went into a deep sleep. Some time later I was wakened by the ship’s klaxon sounding. Jumping out of my bunk and grabbing the life jacket, I made haste to the upper deck. The ship lying astern of us was on fire and the sea around her was also ablaze. The glow from the blazing hulk was reflecting on to the LDP, silhouetting us against the night sky. The captain asked the engine room for maximum revs, trying hard to distance the ship from the disaster zone.

Early on the Tuesday morning we entered the anchorage at Freetown, Sierra Leone. The LDP was accompanied by the two escorts; the three tugboats were a long way behind. There are no records on how many survivors were rescued by the tugs.

How was it that the LDP was not a victim of this massacre?  The theory was our size, a ship of only two thousand tons. No doubt the U-boat commander considered his torpedoes too precious to waste on such a small prize.

In November 2020, the PK Porthcurno Telegraph Museum produced this short documentary on CS Lady Denison-Pender’s narrow escape.

Sierra Leone was a large mustering port for convoys heading north; troop ships would also call in on their way south and to the Middle East. The anchorage was a hive of activity.

Serving on a cable ship for years on end stationed on the West Coast of Africa, and in wartime, was not a pleasant experience. Twice a year the ship would venture south to Cape town. for dry docking and a few minor repairs; this broke the monotony. While Cable & Wireless personnel operating the radio and cable station in Freetown were restricted to twelve months spell of duty, this ruling did not apply to the marine staff, who were constantly on the move.

Ken Smith at Freetown, 1943

In normal times the food served on these cable ships could not be faulted, and the officers and petty officers shared the same menu. We would be served with a three-course breakfast, a three-course lunch and a four-course evening meal. But on the West Coast of Africa and in wartime, food stock of any description were hard to come by.

Our meals consisted of dehydrated potatoes and cabbage, powdered milk and powdered eggs when we could get them.  After a short time the bread baked on the ship was full of weevils and the butter was rancid. At one time the chef tried to make a shepherds pie from ships biscuits (hardtack) and salt beef. We called this “cracker hash”.

The Lascar crew wanted meat that was killed by their own sect. The captain went ashore and purchased a few mangy old goats; the livestock was brought aboard to be slaughtered. These poor creatures were run up onto the awning spars by their hind legs and their throats were slit. The decks and scuppers were running in blood.

When the ship left Cape town. to return to the West Coast, she took on as much foodstock as the ship could hold. Sadly, this food did not last more than three or four weeks before we were back on iron rations.

The cable ship Lady Denison Pender was launched at Glasgow in 1920 and scrapped in La Spezia in 1967. She had served the company well for almost fifty years.

I like to think of the LDP in the ship’s heyday, the 1930s, when she was based in Aden and operated in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and Red Sea.  The LDP was a grand lady and lived up to her name, and I was privileged to have served in her.

CS Norseman at War

My second appointment to serve on a cable ship was to be the Norseman. At the time, in 1944, she was on station in the West Indies.

After an extended leave due to the fact that Cable & Wireless, my employer, could not get me a passage out of the UK, I was eventually found a berth on a cargo ship. The ship carried just eight male passengers and was bound for the west Indies via New York. For the first leg of the journey we left Liverpool in convoy.

I joined the Norseman in Trinidad, and we headed for St Lucia, which was the ship’s home base. It was in Castries, St Lucia, that I was introduced to Rum and Coca Cola, a long, refreshing drink that I could recommend.

I was all set to spend my next two and a half years sailing around the West Indies, but it was not to be.

The ship received orders to proceed north. We called in at Jamaica for a short visit, then stopped at Hamilton in Bermuda, but we were on our way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. All the time the ship was travelling north, and it was getting colder. The West Indian crew and the petty officers had only tropical or sub-tropical clothing, and by the time we arrived in Halifax we were feeling the cold.

The petty officers asked the ship’s chief steward to bring back some warm underwear when he went ashore. What we did not expect were red combinations with a trap door in the rear, but they proved to be nice and warm.

The people of Halifax were very generous towards the merchant seamen, handing out gifts of all descriptions.

Our stay in Halifax was again short, and when we left we were heading still further north. To get into St John’s, Newfoundland, the ship was dodging icebergs. It appeared that St John’s was under snow and ice most of the year, and only opened to shipping for three or four months.

CS Norseman in dry dock

When we left Newfoundland we had the protection of an armed trawler of the Royal Canadian Navy, and our destination was some 200 miles out to the cable grounds, where the Atlantic cables lay. For four weeks the Norseman was riding out a North Atlantic swell; the weather was cold, we had a cold ship, and I, for one, was bored.  We had achieved nothing.

We paid a second visit to St John’s, this time for fuel and stores, then sailed back again to the cable grounds. This was the darker side of life on board a cable ship.

After a few days we were approached by a destroyer and told to cease all operations and follow him. We set an eastward course. In the afternoon we ran into a dense fog, but it was pretty obvious that we had joined a convoy bound for the UK. The destroyer put us in position, gave us our course and speed, wished us “Good Luck”, then disappeared into the fog.

It was uncanny to be in a convoy in the thick fog, where there was not a ship in sight. It wasn’t until we were only two days out from Liverpool that the fog lifted. We were in the biggest convoy that I had seen in four years of sea war.

The Norseman broke off and headed for Falmouth. After an inspection of the ship by the Board of Trade, the Norseman was not permitted to leave harbour until certain remedial work had been completed.

The crew was signed off the ship and we were all found accommodation ashore. The ship’s boilers were shut down, and she was like a dead duck. It was coming on winter, and our boarding house was as cold as the ship. After a few weeks I was discontented, and the last month or two I found most trying.

When I joined the Norseman in the West Indies I was expecting to be there for two and a half years. Now, finding myself back in the UK changed my life forever.  I parted company with my employer and a few months later I was married.

CS Norseman in convoy, photographed by an escort

An Incident on Board the Edouard Jeramec

By 1944 I was an experienced cable jointer, having spent four years on foreign service with Cable & Wireless. As described above, my ship at the time, the CS Norseman (4), was in dock in Falmouth having a minor refit, and the ship’s company had been “signed off” and were all living ashore in temporary accommodation. At 21 years of age, I was a little restless and decided I wanted a change.

I took my leave from Cable & Wireless with the intention of joining the Admiralty cable service. It was whilst enjoying a few weeks leave that I received a letter from the Commercial Cable Company.

These people were active on behalf of the All America Cable Company, and therefore had an interest in the American cable ship the Edouard Jeramec, which at the time was in Le Havre. The cable jointer on board was incapacitated and I was offered four weeks’ employment to cover the jointer’s sickness. The war risk money alone that the American company paid was so generous that I could not refuse the offer.

War was still raging in Europe, so I had to find my own way from London to Le Havre. As there was no public transport across the Channel I had to go cap in hand to the Ministry of Transport.

The Edouard Jeramec lay at anchor in the harbour. She was not an attractive looking ship and did not have the graceful lines of the Cable & Wireless fleet.

CS Edouard Jeramec

We did no cable work for three weeks, at least, as the cable grounds had to be swept of mines. It was one Sunday afternoon that the captain got the all clear to proceed with the cable repairs.  He must have been anxious to make a show, for we immediately weighed anchor and set to work. The ship was not far out from the harbour entrance when the grappling irons were lowered onto the sea bed to commence our first drive.

It was early spring, and a pleasant Sunday afternoon, with just a handful of the crew on deck. It was customary that when the ship was dragging the grapnel over the sea bed, the captain would sit astride the rope as it came over the forward sheaves. The captain could feel the grapnels doing their work; any excessive pull on the rope would alter him. After a while he was sure he had hooked on to the cable.

Having stopped the ship’s main engines, the rope with grapnels attached was hauled up. As the grappling irons broke surface, there dangled a large mine. The captain was leaning over the handrail at the bows of the ship when he let out a roar: “Christ, it’s a bloody mine”, or words to that effect, and he, along with the rest of us, ran for our lives.

The captain went to the bridge and the rest of us ran to the back end of the ship. The Edouard Jeramec was not a large ship, and when we reached the stern rails that was as far as we could go. We waited for the explosion, but nothing came. If the mine had detonated we were prepared to jump into the sea.

The captain notified the accompanying American patrol boat of his predicament, and was advised to return the mine to the sea bed and abandon any further operations. The captain carefully lowered the mine and backed the ship far enough away to be out of harm’s way. Then the grappling rope was cut away.

The Edouard Jeramec then returned to its previous anchorage in the inner harbour. There is no record as to what transpired between the captain and his superiors, but that Sunday evening the ship weighed anchor and sailed across the English Channel.

My service aboard the ship was no longer required. It had been a short but interesting experience, and I was more than satisfied with my pay cheque.

A few weeks later I joined the Admiralty cable service and was appointed to HMS St Margarets.

HMS St Margarets at Malta immediately after the war,
at work maintaining anti-submarine installations

Some of the crew of HMS St Margarets at Alexandria, 1946.
Chief Petty Officer Ken Smith second from left

Chief Petty Officer Ken Smith jointing a cable
on the deck of HMS St Margarets, 1947

Some Interesting Incidents on CS Norseman

In September 1948 I joined the CS Norseman for a second time. My rank was that of Senior Cable Jointer. The ship was temporarily based in Gibraltar whilst her sister ship, CS Mirror, was undergoing a minor refit.

The Norseman’s home base was Rio de Janeiro, where she returned when the Mirror was back in service. The ship’s crew consisted of Portuguese sailors from Rio, and her area of operation was the South Atlantic. The cable work took the ship from Montevideo in the south to the Para River in north Brazil.

At some time during 1949 the ship was berthed in the inner basin of Montevideo. One morning around ten o’clock I heard a commotion on the upper deck; a lot of shouting and running about. Out of curiosity, I ventured on deck. Stopping one crew member, I asked what was going on.  He answered in his native tongue, which I did not understand, and pointed a finger overboard. There to my horror was a large, black, heavily-built cargo ship bearing down on us. Were it to hit us amidships the Norseman would have sunk.

At the last moment the other ship veered away, but caught us on the bow.  The impact caused the stern moorings to snap, and as the Norseman started to drift into open waters, the forward moorings also gave way. Most of the officers and crew had taken fright and were standing on the dockside; only a few of us were left on the ship. But with the aid of heaving lines the ends of the broken mooring ropes were put ashore, and the ship was secured.

The captain was on the boat deck facing his crew, who were lined up on the dockside. A little red in the face, he bawled out: “Who the hell told you to abandon ship?”

The ship that did the damage was the German-built supply ship Tacoma, which once served the pocket battleship Graf Spee.

CS Norseman (4)
Built 1923, Clydebank

Another incident which occurred at about the same time, and in the same location, could have ended in tragedy.

The Norseman was carrying out repairs in the River Plate, somewhere between Montevideo and Punta del Este. This was a very busy shipping lane with traffic to and from the Argentine. The captain decided to cease operations come nightfall, and the ship was then anchored close inshore in shallow waters.

With the engines idle, all was quiet aboard and I was asleep in my cabin. My rest was disturbed by a lot of movement, severe thumping and the vibration of the main engines. Going on deck, I found that the weather had changed. A storm had suddenly appeared with strong winds and a heavy swell, and the ship was being bounced off the seabed.

There was a panic to raise the anchor and get the ship into deeper waters. Had we stayed at the anchorage we would surely have been wrecked.  As it was, some of the crew were thrown about, suffering minor injuries.

A third incident is also worth recalling. The Norseman was in Recife, Brazil, where the port is located at the mouth of a river. Opposite the town is a large reef which formed a breakwater. The distance between the town and the reef was considerable, wide enough to allow two ships to pass, and the Norseman was tied up alongside the reef.

It was that time of the year when in Rio de Janeiro the city went wild with its carnival. In Recife they had no such carnival, but that did not stop our Portuguese crew members from going ashore the join in the celebration. The sailors dressed themselves in their Sunday best clothes and all through the night they would be drinking and dancing and enjoying the company of local women.

When the sailors returned to the ship at seven o’clock next morning they were in a sorry state, barely able to stand upright. The bosun put his men to work, mostly doing painting jobs around the ship. Two seamen were detailed off to touch up the paintwork on the ship’s side.

The staging was nothing more than a scaffold board attached to two ropes, and the two men would either stand or sit on the plank.

When the sailors returned from their midday meal, the two men resumed painting the ship’s side.  One man climbed the rail and slid down the rope, and some little time later the second man did the same. When the second man reached the staging his companion had disappeared; presumably he had fallen overboard.

The cry went up “Man overboard!”  Some of us ran to the stern of the ship but all we could see was the seaman’s hat floating down towards the harbour entrance in the fast-flowing river. The launch put off, but after a long search nothing could be found of the missing sailor—he had just disappeared.

In the early evening it was quiet, hot, and very dark. My cabin faced the breakwater and my porthole was wide open to let in any breeze. Through the opening I could hear a commotion coming from up forward, so I went on deck to investigate.

Evidently the missing sailor’s body had slipped between the narrow gap and had got caught up with some obstacle. Had it been on the other side of the ship, the body would have been carried miles up river.

Flesh-eating fish had been to work on the body. The sailors tied a rope around the carcass and towed it across to the town. Because of the hot climate, dead bodies were not kept for long above ground, and the sailor was buried next day.

During the Norseman’s brief stay in Belem, which is located up the Para River, north Brazil, the captain warned the crew of the flesh-eating piranhas in the river.

The Norseman was in her home port of Rio de Janeiro in 1949 when we were called on to carry out a repair on Copacabana beach. A lorry and taxi were put at our disposal; the tools and tackle and a length of cable were transferred from the ship.

Six members of our Brazilian crew accompanied the lorry whilst the first officer, cable technician, bosun, and myself went in the taxi. After leaving the city, the taxi drove through a short tunnel which led out on to the far north corner of this world-renowned beach. There in front of us lay this crescent-shaped tree-lined boulevard, with its luxury homes, flats, restaurants, night clubs and private buildings all sparkling in the sunshine.

The cable came ashore at the most southerly end of the beach, and this is where we set up camp. The crew set about digging up the sandy beach; whilst watching them I was reminded of reading in my youth about pirates of the past digging up tropical beaches to look for treasure.

The sailors were dressed in khaki shorts or trousers, open-neck shirts or singlets, bandannas around their necks, and sported straw hats to protect them from the sun. Each one had a sheathed knife in his belt.

This was a most unusual setting for a cable repair, unforgettable, and a one-of-a-kind experience.

CS Mirror
Sister ship of CS Norseman

The End of Life at Sea

In 1949, when I was the jointer on CS Norseman, I was determined that this would be my last trip. I was married with a 4½-year-old son, and my years at sea had served their purpose.  I was ambitious and it was time to move on.

The ending of my service with Cable & Wireless came in a most dramatic and unexpected way.  The Norseman was in the port of Belem, up the Para River in north Brazil, engaged on a shallow-water cable repair. In these conditions it was not unusual to hire a local tug.

The humidity in that part of the world was unbearable, more like working in a sauna bath. Arriving back on the Norseman in the late afternoon, I was hot, tired, and exhausted, and my damp clothes were sticking to my body. Having had a washdown, a change of clothes and a good meal, I was sitting in my cabin with my feet up on the wash basin compact with my eyes closed.

The door curtain was pulled aside, and I opened my eyes to find the Captain standing there. The Captain said, “I have some bad news for you” and showed me a cablegram he had in his hand. I said, “Not my son?” “No, your wife has died,” and “You will want leave – Belem is not the place but I’ll get you home as soon as possible.”

It took me a good three weeks to get back to the UK.  There ended one chapter of my life, but another was about to begin.

A jointer’s duties are not confined to making cable joints.  It was recognized that jointers would also perform as ship’s electricians, carrying out all forms of maintenance work. In the tropics there were fans running twenty-four hours a day, lead-acid cells to service, and many other jobs, not all electrical. We had the use of a well-equipped workshop with a screw-cutting lathe. I spent many a happy hour among the tools.

When I left Cable & Wireless, the obvious line of work for me was electrical, and so I found employment with electrical engineers and contractors. My son was in care of his grandparents, and although I had a spare bedroom in the house I became an electrician journeyman, travelling around the country.

An opportunity to improve my finances came when my employer won a contract in Bengazi, North Africa. I knew that with my experiences of working in the tropics I stood a good chance of being selected. Nine months in North Africa, and my bank balance was beginning to look healthy.

After a time my employer recognized my potential and offered me promotion. I have never ever asked for promotion, but if it was offered to me I would consider it. But eventually I found that there was a limit to the size of contracts that I was working on, and it was time to move on.

I joined a larger firm of electrical engineers that was engaged in much bigger and more interesting work, and I eventually became a top technician there. But by 1973 the country was in recession; my employer had no contracts on their books and I was made redundant. At fifty years of age my prospects did not look good.

However, as they say, “One door closes, another one opens”, and I found that a large building contractor was putting together a group of contractors allied to the building trade, and he was looking for an experienced electrical technician. My application was accepted and I was given the position of electrical contract engineer with a good salary, a company car, an expense account, and a chance to join the company’s pension fund.

It would appear that I had landed on my feet, and the last chapter of my life would be one of security and contentment. But in the 1980s a cataract appeared on my right eye. As I was spending most of my time in the office writing and producing technical drawings, my performance was affected, and I put in for early retirement. In June 1987 my working life came to an end, and the final chapter was about to begin.

Ken Smith in 2002

From both my mother’s and father’s side of the family, my ancestors originated in North Norfolk. My grandparents lived in an old flintstone cottage in a quaint little fishing village on the outskirts of Cromer in that part of the county. What more fitting place for me to retire – I have had an association with the area as far back as I can remember.

I live just four miles out of Cromer, and, as the crow flies, less than two miles from the North Sea. My bungalow, built in 1975, is located in an unadorned gravel lane, and there are eight old flintstone cottages along the lane, all over 200 years old. It is here that I am enjoying the tranquility of the North Norfolk countryside. I live alone and am quite capable of looking after myself.

When my son reached the age of 17 years he expressed the desire to go to sea. As an apprentice navigator he spent much of his time on tankers, but wishing to get married and start a family he switched to North Sea ferries.  When he retired just a few years ago, he was the Master of a ferry sailing out of Harwich.

I have three grandchildren, but the chances of my ever becoming a great-grandparent are not hopeful!

Here are some more of Ken’s cable stories that don’t fit directly into the chronological account above:

Landing the Cable

In the early part of 1942 the cable ship Lady Denison-Pender was laying a cable ashore in Casablanca. In these operations the ship would lay off shore for fear of running aground. The working cutter would be launched and a rope would be taken ashore. The cutter would hold four seamen and a bosun’s mate, the lightweight rope, known as a grass line, was passed over.

There was a heavy swell running and before the cutter could reach the beach it became swamped, so there was no alternative but for the cutter to return to the ship without getting the line ashore.

On these occasions the company would employ twenty or more local labourers to haul in the cable. Some fishermen on the beach were approached and persuaded to go out to the ship and bring back the rope.

They had a medium-size canoe, holding five men – four on the paddles and one steering. They set off to collect the rope. On the way back they were some way from the beach when they stopped paddling.   When a large wave appeared the crew waited for the canoe to be in the right position on the crest, then they would start paddling frantically. The wave would then take the canoe and men high and dry onto the beach.

The line was passed to the labourers.  On the end of the grass line was a much heavier rope and on the end of that the cable was attached. To keep the end of the cable from dragging along the seabed the first thirty yards or more was floating on very small buoys.

On another ship on another occasion when a cable was being brought on shore, I was involved in an unrehearsed incident.

We had hired the usual local labourers to haul in the cable, and all was going well until the cable became jammed on some rocks close inshore. The ship’s personnel supervising operations consisted of the first and second deck officers, and myself.  It was up to us to overcome the problem.

Hauling in the cable - Alexandria, Egypt, 1946
Ken Smith at the deep end

The three of us entered the sea fully clothed; I, being the tallest and the most junior in rank, found myself in the lead. Bending down, I picked up the rope from the shallow waters and followed it along to the obstruction.  On reaching the rocks I was already waist-deep in water, then I had to bend down and free the cable.

We had no dry clothes with us and had to rely on the sun to dry us off.

Finding a Break

During my time on cable ships, I was asked on many occasions how we managed to locate a break in a cable that spanned the Atlantic ocean and lay deep on the sea bed.

The process was not all that difficult.

The type of telegraph cable in common use on long runs had a single core consisting of a copper conductor with gutta percha insulation, this then being surrounded with steel wire armouring. To my knowledge, this design had not been changed since the laying of the first cable.

Copper has an electrical resistance measured in “Ohms”.  The cable was manufactured in long section, each perhaps several hundred miles, and each section was electrically tested at the factory and the results recorded on data sheets. When two sections were joined together, either on ship or on shore, further tests would be carried out on the new length and the results recorded. Had the jointing been carried out at sea, the splice would have been labelled before it was lowered into the sea, and the location of the joint accurately charted.

Having completed the laying of the cable across the ocean, final copper resistance tests were made. Each nautical mile of cable could then be given a common resistance rating.

If a break appeared in the cable, electrical tests would be carried out from both shore stations, using a Wheatstone bridge and a galvanometer.  As a cable break usually exposed the copper conductor to the sea water, a complete circuit was made via the water and the steel armouring of the cable, and its resistance was easily measured.  The results were then sent to the repair ship.

The cable technician, along with the ship’s navigator, would analyse the findings. Given the resistance of the broken sections, by consulting the electrical data records for the cable, and the nautical charts from when it was laid, a reasonably accurate determination of the location of the break could be achieved.

I am sure some people thought we sent divers down to walk around the sea bed looking for the loose ends of the cable.

Retrieving the Cable

There were times during cable operations when lives were put at risk; here are just two:

When a cable ship went out in mid ocean to carry out cable repairs, the first and most important job was to position a marker buoy as near as possible to the suspected cable break. This may seem a little farfetched, but the buoy had to be anchored in deep water, which could be a depth of up to 1000 fathoms (6000 feet).

There were times when nautical charts showed the approximate depth; if not, then the ship would have to take its own soundings. This was carried out using piano wire and a cannon ball. The piano wire was wound round a drum and the cannon ball attached to a large “S”-shaped hook. When the ball was released, it would sink at high speed and on hitting the sea bed would become detached from the hook. The amount of wire paid out would, of course, be measured, giving the depth at that point.

The moorings to the buoy would consist of a large mushroom type anchor weighing more than a hundredweight (112 pounds, about 50 kilograms). Attached to this was a rope reinforced with steel wires. The buoys varied in size. One for deep sea work would stand eight or nine feet above the deck. A tall flagstaff was attached, and two lanterns. Launching the buoy was the easy part.

Releasing a buoy

When the cable repair had been completed, the last job was to retrieve the buoy.

To do this, the ship’s cutter would be lowered into the water with a crew of four sailors and a bosun’s mate, taking with them a rope which was fed over the bow sheaves of the cable ship. When the cutter reached the buoy the rope would be shackled on to the buoy’s moorings. The bosun’s mate would then balance himself on the boat’s bows and leap onto the buoy, making a grasp for the flagstaff.

Dismantling a buoy
Detail of the cutter’s crew

The two lamps were the first to be removed and passed over to the sailors; then the flagpole, some nine feet tall, would be unclamped and lifted out of its holding bracket. Then came the difficult problem of the bosun’s mate returning to the cutter. The final job was to transfer the moorings from the buoy to the rope from the ship. This was done by using a hammer on the releasing device.

Having been relieved of the weight of its moorings, the buoy would shoot four or five feet into the air, and being pear shaped, it would end up floating on its side. The buoy would then be towed over to the ship and hoisted on board, and all that remained was for the cutter to be brought inboard.

There was no clapping or cheering, just big sighs of relief for a job well done.

On regular occasions men’s lives were put at risk when securing the retrieved cable.

Bringing a cable up from the depths to the bow sheaves, making it fast on to two separate supporting ropes, and cutting the loop of the cable, were all dangerous tasks.  The cable first had to be hooked with a grapnel and slowly raised to the surface, then the supporting ropes had to be plaited around each side of the cable while it was suspended from the grapnel. This had to be done in such a way that the ropes would take the strain and the cable could not slip through.

Protruding over the bows of the cable ship were two davits which we called “The Gallows”. The gallows had ropes attached to bosun’s chairs, which were nothing more than pieces of wood with no back supports. Two bosun’s mates were lowered over the side on the chairs so they could work on the cable hanging off the bows of the ship, attaching the supporting ropes.

The grapnel would then be carefully lowered, and when the ropes had taken the strain, the loop could then be cut with bolt croppers. It was all a question of speed.

Once the cable had been parted, the side deemed to be the broken end was lowered back into the water, relieving the strain on the good side, which could then be brought inboard.

Ken’s shipmate Bob Cooksley with a six-foot shark

With the movement of the ship, there were times when the men’s feet would be inches from a soaking, and it was not unusual in tropical waters to have a shark or two swimming around the ship. On one occasion a shark got too close to the men hanging over the side. The captain of the Lady Denison Pender buckled on a service revolver, but to my knowledge the gun was never fired at the sharks.

Having completed their task, the men were quickly brought in, but at times, the whole operation had its nail-biting risks.

Ken’s services as a cable jointer might be needed at any hour of the day or night when on board ship. Ken recalls this little ditty:

The jointer’s life is a hard ’un as everyone here can see,
And if you don’t believe it, then take a look at me.

They call me early in the morning before the sun’s awake,
With a cry of "Wakey wakey" or "There’s another joint to make".

When fans go groggy and lights go foggy and clusters fall in the sea, when light bulbs need replacing and testing rooms need cleansing, who else is there to call but little old me?

But there is a silver lining to every blinking cloud,
And when I’m not on duty watch I’m off ashore with the crowd.
Author unknown.

Ken Smith’s stories end as they began, with CS Lady Denison-Pender:

CS Lady Denison-Pender watercolour
by Ken Smith, September 1998

Last revised: 18 November, 2020

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