Newsletter 2011

The Antiques Roadshow and WWII Marconigrams

Ken Earney, Newsletter editor

Just before Christmas I saw the repeat of an Antiques Roadshow from Belfast in the former Harland and Wolff shipyard Titanic Design Office, first broadcast around two years ago. One of the most interesting segments of the programme for Marconi Veterans would have been the gentleman who brought along a number of Marconigrams dating to the outbreak of WWII.  How many of you saw it?


The Marconigrams were all messages received and sent by the SS Southern Cross on the 3rd September 1939. The first, timed at 12.15 (photo 1), was from the Admiralty advising all ships of the outbreak of war with Germany. Then, some ten hours later at 22.10, an SOS from the SS Athenia (photo 2) with over 1400 civilian passengers on board stating that she had been torpedoed by a U-boat and was sinking fast. The submarine was the U-30 and this was the first U-boat action of the war. (An error by the U-boat crew which was covered up at the time. U-boat commanders were under orders not to attack civilian ships. Ed). The Southern Cross responded promptly with a message to the Athenia (photo 3) advising that she was 50nm distant and steaming with all possible speed to her assistance. The owner revealed that his grandfather was the master of the Southern Cross who, being aware of the historical significance of these message forms, had kept them for posterity.

Since seeing the programme I have been in contact, initially via the BBC, with the gentleman concerned to ask if he would be prepared to provide the Marconi Veterans’ Association with copies of the Marconigrams that we can place with other Marconi memorabilia in the Chelmsford Industrial Museum.  He has generously agreed to do so, and also provide copies of other information that has come his way from far and wide as a result of the interest generated by the item.  He told me:

“I have been inundated with information that I received after the first broadcast of the programme and there have been some incredible related stories from Norway and Canada as well as the UK. The U-Boat radio operator who intercepted the signals is still alive and I have also discovered much more about my Grandfather’s ship, the Southern Cross, which was built for Howard Hughes and was carrying a Swedish armaments manufacturer (who was a friend of Dönitz!) to visit his friends the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Bermuda. I also have other Marconigrams informing British Shipping about the outbreak and also the end of the war.  The telegrams that you saw on the programme are now on loan and display in the ‘Outbreak 1939’ exhibition in the Imperial War Museum in London which will run until this October.”

I have a recording of an extract of this programme which I can make available, within limits, to anyone wishing to see it. Ed