Masirah Island: I
A coil placed near another coil will experience induction . . .
After the BBC transferred me to Burghead, a tiny and incredibly obsolete transmitting station in the far north of Scotland, I began scheming to get a job somewhere else. I finally persuaded the Beeb that my future lay elsewhere, and was permitted to work for DWS, the then-known Diplomatic Wireless Service.
I reported to a house in M____ street, a quiet road lined with elegant Georgian houses, within easy sight of Big Ben. The house belonged to HM Foreign Office.
I arrived a little early and was asked to wait in the waiting room, which looked out onto the street below. While I stood at the window surveying the street and wondering if all the houses were one sort of government office or another (quite likely), a bottle-green Bentley tourer parked right outside.
It looked exactly the same as the one driven by ‘John Steed’ in ‘The Avengers’, a British tongue-in-cheek comedy thriller from the 60s, even down to the hand-operated bulb horn. The driver wore a bowler hat identical to Steed’s. He got out of the car and entered my building, and within a few minutes was ushered into the waiting room. The conversation went like this:
“Hello, old chap. Here for the security course, I suppose?”
“Er, yes. I suppose so.” Here I was, supposedly not to talk to people about this, and ‘John Steed’ had opened the conversation with it!
“Jolly good. I hate coming here, it’s always impossible to park.”
“You seem to have done alright this morning. Terrific car, by the way. It’s just like the one in – ”
“– The Avengers? Yes, isn’t it! I’d better be careful not to get towed away though. Bloody nuisance. It’ll all be in the newspapers in a few weeks, anyway.”
“In the newspapers?” This was all so weird I was beginning to sound like a parrot.
“They’ll get hold of it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Bloody fool. Imagine trying to smuggle a dozen jet fighters through _____. It’s just a small island, everyone knows everyone. So now I have to appear as a witness.”
“Ah. Hmm.” By now I had pretty much reached the conclusion that this guy was an agent provocateur of some kind, planted in the waiting room to engage the candidates in spurious conversations to determine . . . what? What could be the possible reason for such a strange topic?
While I was in the middle of flights of fantasy as to what this could all be about, someone stuck their head into the room and announced that my presence was required for the security course, so I said good luck to the jet-smuggler witness and followed the civil service hierophant.
I found myself in a large room with perhaps twenty other people, mostly a little younger. We sat in rows of somewhat uncomfortable chairs. We were all given a long lecture about security, spies, and so forth; it was all very interesting but I couldn’t work out what connection this had, with running giant radio transmitters on a remote island.
The spies part, in particular, was better than anything I’d read in The News Of The World. It ended in a movie, in which a young cipher clerk working in the Moscow embassy was propositioned first by young KGB ladies, then young KGB lads, until finally The Department thought of the jolly wheeze of the clerk accepting the advances of one of the young ladies, and filming the resulting, er, action. By the end of the film, the faces of the female cipher clerks in the audience were mostly a flaming pink. This was indeed more fun than The Avengers! I began to wish I had chosen a career as a cipher clerk instead.
Later we enjoyed a most interesting lecture about bugging, including details of why a brain-frying microwave beam had been directed at the American Embassy, and even handled a Russian ‘bug’ that supposedly had been embedded in the American Eagle plaque in the US Embassy.
The bugging lecture culminated in a challenge: we had to attempt to locate any of the bugs in a room, having been assured there were plenty. Of course none of us could find any. Then we went next door to view the videotape of us, peering into assorted invisible cameras.
I went home on the 6.30 London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street, surveying everyone I met surreptiously and wondering if they might be in the pay of one side or the other. When I finally found a vacant seat, a pretty girl sitting opposite struck up a conversation. It took me a few minutes to decide that she wasn’t a Foreign Office operative checking up on me
Next I paid a visit to GCHQ, at Hanslope Park. This is a huge place with more antennas than you can count, and is seriously high security, so I won’t mention much about it. Not that I saw much. Two things stick in my mind: a ‘security officer’ interviewing me and two other people about whether we had been in the Communist Party or the CND or . . . whatever. I guess it was the standard cipher clerk lecture. Maybe the other two guys were cipher clerks. It’s the sort of thing you don’t ask.
And as for the pensions department. They seemed not to be able to comprehend that someone would join up just for a year. One chap said, “You’re a TTO1?” (a civil service grade) “You won’t be able to keep that grade when you return!” In vain I insisted that I would not be returning, as it were, and therefore keeping the grade was moot. And in vain did I insist that, no, I did not want to sign up for the 20 year civil service employee’s special pension fund. But finally I escaped.
If an electromagnetic current occurs in a conducting medium, electromagnetic radiation occurs.
After a short period during which I got my suitcase together and told my friends not to expect me for a year, I went down to Crowborough Transmitting Station in Sussex. I had never been to rural Sussex before, but the nearby village with its excellent village inn was quite charming.
I stayed at the inn and every evening was a piece of theatre. A couple of aged locals had staked out ‘until the day they carry me off’ seats at the bar and when unwitting strangers sat on them, the old codgers would, with glares and remarks, hound them until they sat elsewhere.
During the day I worked in a fairly desultory sort of way at the transmitting station, which happened to be the home of ‘The Biggest Aspidistra In The World’. This was an absolutely gorgeous art deco transmitter of some 600 KW power. It was underground, and the transmitting antenna was a directional, seven-element medium-wave yagi. I had never seen one of these before, and when I noticed the extra masts and began counting, an engineer, Hugh ___, laughed and said, “Yes, it IS a medium-wave yagi.”
Mostly my time there consisted of either studying the circuitry and construction details of Beryl, the huge 1500 KW transmitter on Masirah Island, or navigating as nearly as possible along the predicted path of the Aspidistra’s directional beam, using an Ordnance Survey map while Hugh drove along the twisting farm roads of Sussex. The field strength was enormous; as far as I recall, the effective radiated power (ERP) was some 3 MW. The antenna pointed straight into the USSR and the signal strength over there was still stronger than most local stations. Once, a local farmer ran us off his field, convinced that we were government surveyors planning the route for a new motorway.
The underground transmitter building and control room was magnificently built. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that the architect used to design the grandiose cinemas of the time. The transmitter itself had been built by RCA in the U.S.A. and was an absolute work of art.
See this site for some excellent pictures of the ASPIDISTRA.
Hugh mentioned that when the transmitter had been connected at full power into the new antenna for the first time, the engineers noticed that the antenna current reading was fluctuating. They switched off and one person went out to investigate. When he walked across the mast base his shoes almost burst into flames, the concrete was so hot. The reinforcing rods hadn’t been properly earthed.
It’s pretty useless really, trying to familiarise yourself with a giant transmitter just by studying circuit diagrams, so eventually I was glad to be on my way to Masirah. This was by way of normal British Airways to overnight at Bahrein, which I remember quite vividly because I had to fight off a gay Australian airline steward.
My old friend Keith had told me that there were lots of clay pigeon targets on the island, so I decided to take my double-barrelled Army&Navy CSL twelve-bore shotgun with me. I carried this through Liverpool in its gun-cover and nobody paid any attention. When I got to the airport I simply handed it to the airline staff for safe keeping.
Bahrein: In the morning, and still hypervigilant for predatory airline staff, I continued via Gulf Air to Muscat, which I also remember quite vividly. The old Muscat airport (not the modern one they use today) was tucked in behind a mountain, so the aircraft would hop over the top and corkscrew down. Passengers would exclaim ‘Alla-hu-akbar’ (God is Great) as the plane taxied to a stop.
I had to wait a few days before the next scheduled flight from Masirah Island. This would be a routine transport from the RAF base on the island. I found a taxi and asked him if he would take me to the old souk (market).
He said, “Ameriki?”
I said “No. British.”
“Ah. Good. I no like Ameriki. I will be your guide for the afternoon. Just fifty rials.” (Or whatever the currency was at that time.)
I spent the afternoon buying various oddball items in the soukh. Soon I came across a stall full of Persian carpets and the like, and there was just a young lad of about 11 or 12 looking after it. My surprise must have shown on my face because the lad jumped to his feet, and said, “Are you American?” in a very strange accent that I couldn’t place at all.
As I made conversation with him I realised that he spoke a strange, archaic form of English. Finally I asked him “Where did you learn English?”
He proudly produced a very worn antique volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica dating from Victorian times. Then I recalled what I’d been told about Muscat: that it used to fall under British influence and that we’d used gunboat diplomacy relevantly recently, to unseat the old Sultan and replace him by his Eton-educated son.
While I was at the hotel, I was offered, (so far as I could ascertain with my minimal Arabic), in exchange for the shotgun, two goats and a young girl. I turned the offer down as politely as I was able.
Two or three days later, the Andover twin-engined RAF transport arrived and we took off from Muscat airport, bound for Masirah Island.
(see part II: Arrival)
more information as to what became of the M.E.R.S. installation
"In more recent time, a replacement radio station, both mediumwave and shortwave, has been constructed in Oman on the mainland, and the transfer of programming from the old station on Masirah Island to the new station on the mainland began in August earlier this year. According to an email news item from Wolfgang Bueschel (BUSH-el) in Germany, the final broadcast from the BBC Masirah was concluded at 21:59 UTC on October 7. The last transmitter was on the air on 6030 kHz for its final broadcast.
The loud voice of the BBC Masirah is now silent, the station is off the air. It has been replaced by the new station on the Omani mainland. Masirah will be remembered by millions of listeners in the Gulf areas, and by multitudes of DXers around the world, some of whom are fortunate enough to hold QSL cards and letters from this now silent radio station. In our program next week, we will present the story of the big new BBC station located on the Omani mainland" (Adrian Michael Peterson, AWR Wavescan Dec 8 via DXLD)