Transmission Operations - Reminiscences
Skelton Transmitting Station 1942 to 1998 - Over half a century of short wave broadcasting
© G.P. Lowery
Written and compiled by G.P. Lowery in 1990.
The original edition was written and compiled in 1990 by Mr G.P. Lowery who came to Skelton in 1958 as a Technical Assistant and retired in March 1990 as a Senior Transmitter Engineer (STE).
The document has been re-typed and changes that occurred between 1990 and 1998 which made G.P.’s text incorrect are shown in italics.
The major changes are:
1. The change of ownership from the BBC to Merlin Communications International Ltd. (subsequently VT Communications) following the privatisation of BBC Transmission in 1997.
2. The closure and demolition of the Skelton B (OSE 9) site and the building and bringing into use of the Skelton C site. Skelton C is located in the area formerly occupied by the old Skelton B arrays 704 & 705, and Marconi B6126 300kw transmitters feed wide band arrays supported by towers rather than stayed masts.
Due to the origin of
each section of the text the topics do not follow an entirely logical
sequence, but the reader will gain an insight into most aspects of
Skelton's development. A good overview of initial developments is
given under the heading
world’s largest & most powerful Radio Station.
In 1939, Mr MacLarty, O.B.E., was co-author of a paper referring to the “Empire Broadcasting Station” at Daventry. Some of the subjects discussed therein obviously had an effect on the thinking which went into the planning of Skelton, the construction commencing some three years later. By 1940 the short wave service to Europe had been established but the number of languages involved meant that transmissions in each were comparatively short. It was decided to build a new transmitting station capable of radiating on eighteen frequencies at the same time. This would help to combat the jamming already being used by transmitting each programme on a number of frequencies. The use of highly directional aerial arrays would enable field strength to be increased in the target area. It was necessary to cover Europe from Norway to Greece twenty four hours a day which implied the use of short waves.
Considering what we take for granted now, it is quite astonishing to read how much trial (and error) was involved, the more so when the latest developments are seen to have a remarkable amount in common with some earlier alternatives.
Aerials and Masts
Design of aerials is a case in point. It had already been decided that it would be economical to sling more than one aerial between each pair of masts. The aerials would, typically, be what were later known as HRRS 4/4.
(a) Each curtain could be suspended from an independent triatic supported by rigid cross-arms attached to the mast. i.e. If there were three aerials in a particular bay, they would require six triatics, together with some means of keeping the dipoles under tension in a horizontal direction.
(b) All curtains in any given bay could be suspended from only two triatics, again supported by rigid cross arms attached to the mast.
(c) All curtains in any given bay suspended from only two triatics which would be spaced by spreaders of appropriate length and free to swivel independently.
Scheme (c) was chosen because calculations showed that this arrangement imposed the smallest load on the masts and did not subject the structure to torsional stresses set up by cross arms. During trials with 25m and 31m aerials between 325ft masts spaced 650ft apart and with a triatic sag in the order of 40ft, mast head loading of some five tons was imposed at a wind velocity of 70mph, 325ft was found to be the most economical height.
The decision not to use fixed cross-heads made it possible to consider the use of stayed masts, apparently something of an innovation at the time, and cheaper. The original spreaders were of lattice construction and a 21ft example capable of withstanding 1.5 ton compressional load weighed only 70lb.
It is also interesting to see that various feeder systems were considered, open wire line, concentric tube, and busbar. The open wire was cheap and effective, although affected by weather. The concentric tube was unaffected by external conditions but required more skill for installation and repair, switching systems were likely to be a problem . A section of busbar feeder was built for evaluation, but to obtain an impedance of 275 ohms the separation was only one and a half inches and the feeder would have had to be enclosed to prevent short circuiting by large insects, birds, and snow. The cost of the enclosure made the system as expensive as concentric feeder. Even then, it was to be preferred where runs were short and transmitters are permanently coupled to aerials which require an unbalanced feed.
Having decided on open wire feeders, the next problem was that of the design of the switching frame. Anyone who has seen the Skelton A aerial feeder matrix would be astonished to read that the switching of six transmitters to twenty two aerials was regarded as impossible, although it was realised that for long periods a transmitter could be associated with perhaps only four to six aerials. The difference between daily switching and seasonal switching was apparent.
The actual means by which metallic continuity was achieved was the hook and eye with which so many HF engineers are familiar. The transfer of two hooks attached to maybe twelve feet of trailing feeder by use of a soaking wet Ash Pole, at two-o-clock in the morning, half a mile or more from the building whilst being watched by incredulous sheep, is not soon forgotten.
Site, Power, Programme feeds and buildings
Although the perimeter fences were pulled back some years ago, at that time the site covered 750 acres at height of 600 feet above sea level.
The site is reasonably flat and programme circuits from London were within easy reach, as were adequate power supplies (not a small consideration - at one time I was told the station was the largest consumer in the area. I believe that at the time the maximum demand was in the order of 4 MVA, a figure which by 1998 was exceeded by over half as much again).
The situation also meant that no intended target area was within the skip distance (the minimum range of a radio wave reflector from the ionosphere).
In order to minimise the risk of damage by air attack two stations were erected about one mile apart (0SE 8 & 9).
Aerials and aerial switching
Fifty three aerials were provided, supported on no less than thirty one masts ranging in height from 200 to 325 Feet. The aerials were designed by the BBC and the masts supplied and erected by J.L. Eve Construction Co. Ltd. The R.F. feeders were also designed by the BBC and manufactured by B.I.C.C Ltd.
The feeders from the aerials were brought to two frames, one at each station, about 150 feet diameter, in the centre of which was an eight sided switching tower, about 40ft high and 14ft across, with a switching level for each transmitter. The frame at Skelton B was elongated so as to accommodate the feeders from the greater number of channels, but the tower at Skelton B only ever switched the A channel aerial.
The tower enabled each transmitter to be connected to any of seven aerials, each of which may be served by a number of transmitters, Selection was by a Geneva Wheel, a mechanism which moved quickly between positions but stopped accurately at each. The selection was made from inside the building by circuitry which owed a lot to a lift controller.
Skelton B has now been demolished along with its’ antenna switching system.
The first Engineer in Charge was Mr S A (Bungy) Williams, who moved from Start Point in November 1942. He was on call for twelve of the twenty four hours, and was expected to live on site.
The intended accommodation was the farmhouse which still stands and was known as Skelton Glebe. On arrival, the decorations were not ready and candles or oil lamps were the order of the day. The family had to stay in Penrith, with a Mrs Bell in Victoria Road for three or four months.
At this time the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School shared their buildings with the Royal Grammar School pupils evacuated from Newcastle. During the mornings the buildings were occupied by the locals, and during the afternoon by the visitors. It seems that lessons may also have been conducted in a room behind the Gas Board showroom and in the Playhouse Theatre.
Although the BBC installed electricity in the EiC’s house including an immersion heater, and in spite of having a modern kitchen with cooking range which burned logs obtained from the site, the seven bedroom house is remembered as being cold by someone used to Devon.
Decoration during those times would have been restricted to water based distemper, which could be made a little more creative by an application process known as stippling. At that time of year it should have been no surprise to find a plague of mice and a certified male cat called Timothy was employed. The family were considerably surprised when Timothy produced a litter of kittens!
The kitchen garden was already stocked with fruit including rhubarb and damsons - the latter in such abundance that it is only after forty five years that one member of the family can again face them.
Stock included hens, ducks, geese, a pig and a horse. The geese provided Christmas dinner, hen’s eggs were preserved with isinglass, and when slaughtered, the pig provided black pudding, hams and rather fatty bacon. Since there was no refrigeration, the pig meat would be shared with neighbours.
Strictly speaking, the existence of a pig had to be a matter of official record, and it could not be slaughtered without permission, as the meat should have been distributed under the rationing system in force at the time, but many things happened on the quiet. This may have been the reason behind stories told by staff working at Skelton at that time, when canteen scraps went in to the ‘pig bin’ and a basket of eggs found at the foot of the canteen stairs, awaiting transport to market, mysteriously got hard boiled because the finder thought they had been ‘diverted’ from canteen rations. Milk was obtained from the farm opposite the station.
Assistance in running the household was provided by a maid from Skelton village, and once a week by Elsie Pick of Penrith, who provided the knowledge of what to do with the pig.
Entertainment consisted of listening to the wireless, visiting the cinema or repertory theatre in Penrith and playing tennis or golf.
Sometimes it was possible to have a meal out at The George, or perhaps as petrol supplies became more readily available, at The Sun, Pooley Bridge.
Day to day transport was by Ernie Hartness’s bus. Cycle to the road ends, leaving the cycles at the old aerial huts, bus to Penrith (twice a day), or possibly, in view of the family connection, make use of the BBC shift contract bus, also run by Ernie.
Ernie Hartness lived in the house at the lane ends (on the Wigton road) which has accommodation for a couple of buses, and in 1957 his fleet still included a pair of old Daimler charabancs in which the driver’s cab was positioned alongside the engine, separated from the passengers, among whom the less kind may have been heard to speculate on the novel tyre economy of increasing inflation to a point where the vehicle was airborne for a considerable portion of the journey.
The cottage at the lane ends was occupied by George Johnston, a gamekeeper employed by the BBC, who had lost an arm, probably during the first world war. With his dog Rags he controlled the rabbits, moles, pheasant and partridge on the site. A retired storekeeper, George Butterworth, remembers that even with only one arm Mr Johnston could shoot better than most.
During the winter of 1947, snow lay for thirteen weeks. The BBC had their own snow plough in order to keep the road to the station open.
The weekly wages run to Penrith provided an opportunity to do some shopping - meat from Rushforths (where Poet’s Walk now stands), groceries from Grahams, and bread from the Co-op, with a visit to the Devonshire cafe (now sands). A traveller would call at the house to take and provide the monthly order.
Mr Williams, son of the EiC, remembers seeing the torches of technical assistants performing aerial duties in the fields at night. Later on, paths and bicycles were provided.
During the early days the staff numbered about two hundred.
Skelton was complete and operating in 1943
(with minor edits)
I was stationed at OSE 8 & 9 from shortly after V.E day until about 1948, working in Control Room first then on Senders. (At that time staff did not rotate through the various duty positions).
I was transferred there from OSE 3, Rampisham, after V.E day. Transfers were very tough on girls, for the BBC never helped us find accommodation and we were expected to find ‘digs’ on arriving at the nearest town. That was always difficult as hotels were full and rationing was still in progress.
Most of my memories were happy ones, for I met my husband there. He had travelled across Europe with Dimbleby and worked in Nuremberg at the trials. When they ended he was sent to OSE 8 & 9 as an SME and I was on his shift.
In those days romance between station staff was frowned upon. I was transferred to Control Room, Oxford Street, so John applied for a transfer to London. About a year later he was sent to Alexander Palace TV station.
My husband’s name was Jack Shallcross, I, in those days, was Olive Hodson. I retired from Broadcasting House as a Studio Manager. John spent most of his working life at Lime Grove and White city as Technical Manager, retiring 1973. Just before he died, of a heart attack, we had moved to Chester, so we were able to drive to Penrith for a trip down memory lane. We visited the Railway Hotel where John had lived, then a hotel at Pooley Bridge where the BBC staff used to meet in free time; Hartsop where my BBC friend Kathy Brown lodged, she now lives in Belfast, and Patterdale where John and Bob Darragh fished. Bob Darragh ended his career at Motspur Park, valve section, and died shortly after retirement. From Hartsop we drove to OSE 8 & 9. I tried to persuade John to ask permission to look around but he said not to bother the engineers, who had enough to do, so he took a photo of me standing beside OSE 8 gate. A few months later he died.
In a telephone conversation following the above letter, Mrs Shallcross mentioned working at Stagshaw in November 1941. During the break on night shift, junior staff were expected to get the text books out and improve their knowledge. However, she recalled trying to snatch a little sleep whilst hiding under the table in the studio (at the top of the office end stairs) but said that the SME always found out.
After missing the bus from Penrith bringing the shift in one night, she set off to walk to the site, arriving between 01.00 and 02.00. The SME was so taken aback at her state on arrival that he locked her away and told her to get some rest. She remembers Ted Roberts, Dennis Curry and Jack Cave.
Jack Shallcross was apparently a keen photographer, and climbed one of the masts on site without permission in order to take photographs. This episode went down on his record and followed him throughout his entire BBC career.
For 15 years the BBC Skelton site was my home. Dad transferred there from Rampisham early in 1946 to become the Aerial Engineer. A few weeks later he moved, together with Mum and I, into Grisebeck Farm, one of three farm houses on the Skelton site, Grisebeck was to be my home until I joined the Royal Navy in 1951, and remained my ‘home base’ until Dad retired as AEiC Skelton in 1961.
After a fairly ‘lean’ war in Dorset we were delighted to find that food rationing had scarcely reached Cumberland. To a hungry 13 year old it was bliss to have bacon and eggs again! We quickly settled into the new routine - for me that meant a half mile cycle ride to Skelton Road ends every morning to catch Ernie Hartness’ 8.00am bus to Penrith and the Grammar school. Because the last bus home left Penrith shortly after 6.00 pm my social life became entirely dependent on being able to sneak a ride out out to Skelton on the 10.30 pm night shift bus.
That appalling winter of 1946/47 soon introduced us to the bleaker side of the Skelton scene. No sooner had the white blanket descended on us than Dad was whisked back to help out at Rampisham, where one of the masts had collapsed under the weight of snow and ice. Mum and I were left to fend for ourselves as best we could. The water supply to the house was frozen and there was an eight foot snow drift across the full 200 yard length of our lane. My attempt to make snow shoes from odd pieces of wood was a dismal failure. On our expeditions across the fields to the outside world my ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ books took on a whole new meaning. Unfortunately the school bus kept battling its way through - perhaps this had something to do with its owner, Ernie Hartness, himself living at Road Ends!
Droitwich hit the headlines with ‘blinding lights and alien voices in the sky’. The Skelton variant during the late ‘40s was, I seem to recall, the latest Arabic pop-chart hits and it was, I’m sure, much louder and much brighter than anything at Droitwich! At 4.00 am on a stormy night it was certainly eerie to see the scudding clouds lit up by a brilliant pulsating light, accompanied by wailing music and an incomprehensible voice bellowing from the sky.
Some aspects of the work at Skelton would certainly have startled today’s Health and Safety at Work Executive. There was one aerial array which passed directly above Tom Seed’s cottage - this not only heated the brass towel rails until they burnt through the towels in the middle of the night, but it also turned the oven and the corrugated iron cycle shed into receivers and very effective loudspeakers when their doors were partially open. This did very little for Tom’s nerves when he was putting his cycle away after an evening in the pub. In Grisebeck too we played our part when the closest array was to be switched through 180° and beamed through the house for the first time. The output power was increased in steps in a rather “ad hoc” experiment. We chickened out when the house lights began to glow, the totally disconnected radio talked to us, and the telephone wouldn’t stop ringing. But then of course we couldn’t maintain phone contact with the transmitter hall to tell them to stop!
There was one Skelton temptation that I found irresistible. On a warm, still summer afternoon there was no more pleasant spot to be than with a good book on the top platform of the 300 and 325 foot high masts. I didn’t climb them all, but by the time I was sixteen I had notched up quite a good selection. Then Dad found out!
From time to time over the years I have detoured to have a surreptitious look at ‘my’ BBC Skelton. On my last such visit in the mid ‘80’s, I drove down the lane to have a peek at Grisebeck. Imagine my surprise, and disgust, on finding that every vestige of the building, outhouses and garden had been erradicated. My only landmark was a twisted tree that had been opposite the sitting room window. A sad fate for an 18th century ‘home made’ farmhouse (the remains of the brick kiln are in a neighbouring field) where no two doors were the same and there was a fine array of ham hooks on the dining room ceiling.
Mum died in 1978, and in 1982 Dad came through from Ramsgate to live with us in Portsmouth; Dad died aged 89 in 1987. To some extent I appear to have followed in Dad’s footsteps by becoming an electrical engineer. I served in the Royal Navy for 37 years as a weapons engineering specialist, and then worked part time as a consultant.
John Cunningham MA CEng FIEE
Sender 72 - ST&C type CS8
At the time Olive Hodson worked at Skelton, it was not the practice to rotate through all the various duty positions. Olive worked on S72, the same sender on which Bruce Kneene taught me the essentials of sender operations in 1958. It had changed very little in the intervening period, although the trombone filters had gone from the feeders.
Filament supplies were derived from three motor generators for each transmitter, rated at 30 Volts 1500 Amps DC.
The pure tungsten 27 volt filaments were still DC and had to have the polarity changed monthly in order to equalise the thinning due to the differential between their ends. This was reduced with the introduction of thoriated filaments, with their higher emissivity, and hence lower required filament voltage.
It was not unknown for a spanner to be instantly welded to the busbars without the machine even slowing noticeably. They were driven by 80 h.p. induction motors and the generator field was slowly run up and regulated by control cubicles in the transmitter hall. In the event of a mains failure or a severe dip, the sender operator had to wind down all his regulators in order to save a few seconds restoration time. Restarting would otherwise have been delayed until the regulators had wound themselves down to the minimum position. Some would wind the regulator part way up again but this was risky and rarely admitted. The modulator used four double ended 4030D valves, the filaments being at the lower end and the grid connection at the top. When radiating on only one channel, two valves would be isolated from circuit, but woe betide the operator who did not notice that a seven hour single channel run converted to double channel for the last half hour, and the two modulators that he had in circuit stood no chance of handling two channels. It was not unknown for these valves to develop a perforated anode and slowly fill up with water during transmission. They also had pure silver anode fuses in tubular pottery holders, which made a most satisfactory bang when they blew due to the particular characteristic of the silver vaporising its entire length instantly.
Eventually the modulator was modified to use only two power valves running the same R.F. valves on AC in a poor man’s Scott two phase arrangement. This does not use a Scott transformer! There is now much less dirt such as carbon and copper dust, and less maintenance due to the absence of moving machinery, Mr D.I. Price, the engineer responsible, also managed to eliminate the two stage start circuitry by designing a transformer which is very lossy when the valve is cold.
The transmitters were notable in that they used the largest available water cooled valve in a grounded grid circuit. The 600 Amp filament leads are in the form of a transmission line so that the RF. voltages at the valve can be prevented from reaching the filament machines.
Wavechanges were seasonal only. Final coil changing was a spanner job - the stirrup clamps only arrived with daily wavechanges. When the schedule calling for 26mhz transmissions came in, almost anything and everything lit up. Headphones with exposed terminals were very painful, and the telephones were fitted with hardboard dials. After two days every pencil ended up as grade 4H and would spark if it touched any metalwork. I have personally seen “Andy” Anderson light a 240V 100W lamp to full brilliance by touching his six inch steel rule to one terminal while the other terminal made contact with the roof support RSJ.
The EHT rectifier equipment, constructed by BTH Ltd consisted of a 500 kW bi-star mains transformer with interphase reactor and continuously pumped water cooled steel tank mercury arc rectifier. The tank could be evacuated to one or two microns by the mercury vapour pump, which in effect created a wind inside the tank in which gas molecules were swept along like leaves to the evacuation port. Measuring the vacuum was part of the job of the “C” engineer, and required care if the top of the McCloud gauge was not to be hammered out by the mercury.
At first the B channel was switched by hand, as was all bifurcation. (Bifurcation is the name given to a switch in which the common element is the aerial, rather than the transmitter).
The Sender described above was an ST&C type CS8 installed at Skelton B. These have all now been scrapped and the Skelton B buildings have been demolished.
Three years after the end of the war a domestic three band radio set, (long, medium and short waves) cost about twenty pounds, nearly two weeks take home wage for a skilled man, so most of the sets in use were well over ten years old. In 1949 a TRF (tuned radio frequency) nine inch television was available for ninety seven pounds!
Many of the probationary technical assistants who, like me joined the staff after experience in the forces, would already be used to living away from home and at the time, the old “D” block at Evesham was considered to be quite civilised, after all there was no need to go outside to reach the ablutions area. I think a junior NCO at that time got something in the region of eight pounds a week plus keep, and the BBC paid £565 per year, rising to a roof of £855 (1958). If one wanted a good camera, one of the most desirable was a Voightlander Vito, with a fixed F3.5 lens in an eight speed shutter and taking 35mm film. It would cost £27, nearly three weeks pay.
By nineteen sixty a technical assistant would be paid £715 salary gross, so his net pay would almost equate to the price of a new Morris Mini Minor - the latest design introduced in 1959, at £497. If you wanted a 105E Ford Anglia it would be about £600, a triumph Herald, £702. For high fliers a Mercedes or a house in Mayburgh Avenue could be had for £2000.
About 1964, technical assistants were renamed grade D, link C-, and earned £1184 roof, but the Clifford Road houses had by then been priced between £2850 and £3250. By 1967 the roof of C- had risen to £1400.
In April 1970 an unconsolidated shift allowance of eight percent was introduced, amounting to £124 for a C-. This was followed in October of the same year by a restricted meal break allowance of £28 per year - more money than many had ever dreamed of, for previously the attitude had been “if you didn’t want to work shifts then why did you take the job?”
The station had a total radio frequency output of 1500kW, and by 1949 was broadcasting programmes in thirty six different languages, twenty four hours a day on frequencies from 6Mc/s to 21Mc/s.
As technology developed, it became possible to design compressed air operated feeder switches. The first seen at Skelton were produced by Clarke Chapman Ltd., after comparison with a similar prototype design by Vickers. The Vickers design was interesting in that it was built in a non conducting frame, which may have been glass fibre, and the interlock system for the selection keys was mechanically foolproof. Both designs used linear rams in a similar layout which permitted a maximum of four switches. This equipment gave many years reliable service, later to be supplemented by a smaller rotary design based upon the NORMAL/ SWITCHED layout which is comparable to the requirement for use in a matrix. The original tower was re-equipped with this smaller switch to replace the Geneva wheel mechanism, which had taken about fifty seconds to traverse from position 1 to position 7, then had high speed motors fitted in order to reduce the time by half, thus enabling change of aerial within the thirty seconds scheduled switching time. There is a change of concept with the adoption of a two position switch akin to the comparison between parallel and serial availability, each having its own advantages and disadvantages.
The tower described was the one at Skelton B (OSE 9) and this has now been scrapped.
Modern technology in the form of binary coded instructions to compressed-air operated actuators has deprived us of the sheer pleasure of being out in the aerial field at five-o-clock on a summer morning watching the sun rise and getting paid for it.
Of course we no longer have to kick our way through two feet deep snowdrifts and risk our memory of just exactly where that little stream runs that we know is around here somewhere - we get the riggers to do it! I believe that it says a great deal for our riggers that we can predict almost to the minute just how long a field repair job will take, and when they come in and give us the go-ahead we quite confidently crash on a 250kW transmitter to what is by definition an untested aerial.
The buildings are constructed of eighteen inch solid brick outer walls with reinforcing rods built in to the masonry. Certain inner walls are also eighteen inch, but the main structure is steel. It is said to be bomb proof other than from a direct hit. In that event all services were duplicated at each end of the building, and many cross links were built in so that a transmitter could be powered other than from its own supplies.
Three primary cooling plants served two secondary cooling installations. The 11kV supply came in at one end of each building, and one interconnector tied the two buildings. If all else failed, then each station had three 750hp diesel engines driving 500kW alternators. OSE 9 had Mirlees engines which were comparatively easy to start using the 300lb compressed air system, but OSE 8 had English Electric Willans engines, which required a certain delicacy of touch on the air supply and throttle coupled with the ability to interpret the engine noises to run them up to speed in the regulation one minute - not less.
The Skelton A (OSE 8) building still stands but the diesel generators described above have gone.
The six transmitters at OSE 9 supplied by STC Ltd. were built to a design by the BBC. They were a modified form of a prototype in which one modulator served four independent RF amplifiers. As installed, there are only two RF amplifiers per modulator. However the original concept aimed at reducing the time required to change the frequency was further developed to permit either or both RF amplifiers to be powered at the same time. In two channel mode it was possible to feed 840kW into twelve aerials at different frequencies with six different programmes.
As stated previously these transmitters have now been scrapped.
Carrier frequency was set using a variable frequency oscillator VFO 4 and a harmonic generator multiplier HGM in the control room. Accuracy was dependant upon regularly beating in the VFO 4s to a signal received from Droitwich, which was an international standard signal, and indeed still is, though now of much greater accuracy. When two transmitters were required to work on the same frequency (synchronised) the drive oscillator was common, and at Skelton there were three RF tie lines between stations to facilitate synchronised working between stations.
Synchronisation with a transmitter at some other site was a thing of the future, which came within reach with the introduction of the Crystal drive units CP17E, COU4, but of course only on the frequencies for which they were equipped. Interstation synchronisation demands on accuracy of one part in one thousand million, which was later achieved on any chosen frequency by a piece of equipment which was greeted with disbelief (and awe) when introduced. The Rhode and Schwartz synthesiser was the size of a tea chest and sat in majesty in the control room. Its first use was as a more convenient means of checking VFOs, but it could be used for interstation synchronised working.
At this time, the shift complement was a total of seventeen. At OSE 8 the SME was supported by one ‘C’ engineer, one technical assistant working with the engineer in the control room, two TAs on ‘control and monitoring’ and ‘switchboard’ and three TAs on the six transmitters. At OSE 9 there were two ‘C’ engineers and a TA in the control room, two TAs on aerial switching duties, and three TAs on the transmitters. By 1957, when I arrived, all programme switching for the site was carried out at OSE 8 using a Siemens Brothers (not Siemens AG.) automatic switching unit (ASU) popularly known as the Beer Machine, though I never did find out why.
At OSE 9 when a roll in or out - or particularly when a roll over was scheduled, the ‘C’ engineer would come to the transmitter to assist, as there were a number of operations required. The sender operator would have switched on any required filament supplies earlier, then would listen to the incoming programme to find the switching pause, at which time he would remove EHT and possibly drive supplies from the transmitter. The “C” engineer would then perform the necessary interlocked manual changes and await re-application of power. This was most elegantly done by breaking the programme cut off key prior to making supplies, then listening to the incoming line for a suitable point at which to restore it. The time allowed for these operations was twenty seconds.
There was a period when only two of the four 4030D modulators would be used if only one channel was in service, when it would be run at ten amps. Switching the modulators in and out, and fitting or removing the extra vacuum capacitors to the pen. RF stage were two of the more obvious traps by which a TA could draw attention to himself, and since the STE had to sign the transmitter log book every time before power was applied, recrimination was not uncommon.
Automatic Control Systems
A major change was in the offing - 250kW transmitters run by an automatic control system based upon a magnetic core store long term memory and semiconductor short term memory. The primary storage medium was punched paper tape, which had an interesting habit of sticking to the front of the equipment bays after being run through the reader, due to electrostatic attraction. In order to keep the dust under control a special felt carpet had been provided, perhaps one of the first to be seen in a transmission station outside the EiC’s office. The electrostatic effect played havoc with the short term memory, which due to some oversight could not be easily scanned. In an effort to control the creative tendency of the short term memory a new item was added to the daily house keeping list - “water the control room carpet”. This was all to no avail and the carpet was ripped up - interpreted by many as the EiC’s way of defending his privileges.
Unfortunately the problems continued, and it was only much later that faulty earthing continuity on some of the bays was discovered and corrected. For many years I was at a loss to understand why I hated the desk associated with this system. There was the fact that it was never fitted into its designated position with the operators back to the window because someone eventually realised that the daylight would reflect on its electroluminescent display. This type of display used for advertising had been discovered by someone during a visit to the pub. Possibly the alcohol was responsible for subsequent actions but there is no doubt that it was singularly unsuitable for our use . The luminous intensity was quoted as having a two year half life, which would have meant continuing replacement costs due to the fact we couldn’t see the thing, was it not for the regularity with which it burnt out. This occurred in a most spectacular fashion. The entire display of current status and preview tiles was run from a 400V power pack and occasionally one tile would develop a fault that looked like a small red caterpillar. Within seconds this caterpillar would consume the entire area of the tile unless the power supply was tripped. In either case one was left with an automatic control system reading out instructions at one second intervals and no display.
Tony Birch was prevailed upon to build a substitute display using the old technology but with the brief that it must NOT fit into the original frame as the EiC wanted to be able to apply pressure on the designers to provide a replacement.
The top of the desk sloped towards the operator, allegedly a design feature to prevent anything being placed thereon. Eventually I realised that my dislike for the desk centred around the manual input panel on which selection had to be made from the top downwards, beginning with a switch selection to ‘Manual’, then progressing across a pushbutton field on which the subsequent selections were obscured by the hand of the operator, and ending with a choice of ‘GO INSTANT’ or ‘GO DELAY’ (four and ahalf minutes hence). The lunacy of the design was inevitably revealed when someone almost managed to rest something on the desk, which in falling selected ‘manual’, rolled across the buttons making random selections of programme, aerial and transmitter state then completed the sequence by hitting the ‘GO’ button. Had the panel been designed so that the selections progressed away from the operator they could have seen what they were doing and the above disaster would not have been posssible.
The third automatic control system still in use today is based upon the BBC designed Zed Eighty Universal System computer, ZEUS, which uses floppy disc magnetic storage of the schedule. Each of the eleven transmitters at Skelton A has its own Zeus unit holding one week’s schedule, and the system is overseen by two supervisors. All three computers must agree each operation or an alarm is raised. Manual control is available from two keyboards in an emergency. The system uses fifteen Zeus units at Skelton A and nine at Skelton B.
The Skelton A system is still in use, but Skelton B is no longer with us. The Skelton C control system uses a similar but much improved control system system.
In the early 1960’s there was sufficient interest in the back scatter testing of MUF (Maximum Useable Frequency) to warrant the installation of equipment at OSE 8. This consisted if an ex-navy pulse transmitter and a RACAL high gain, low noise receiver feeding a CRT display.
This collection of equipment was not reliable and subsequent to installation Harry Baines spent a great deal of time persuading it to work and demonstrating it to anyone interested in the results, which were really quite impressive. It was rumoured that the installation would be used to check propagation conditions on a regular basis and transmissions would be cancelled if these were unfavourable, but this never came to pass.
For those unfamiliar with back scatter, the transmitted pulses lasted less than one thousandth of a second and were radiated and received using the same aerial.
Any energy reflected is displayed as a peak on a CRT trace which is triggered by the transmitted pulse. It is thus possible to calculate the path length of the signal (total out and returns). This will normally only be a little more than the surface distance between transmitter and target area but is predicable. Testing was carried out using the normal service aerials and if it comes as a surprise that so little reflected energy could be detected, imagine the astonishment that greeted Harry when he pointed out the “once around” and “twice around” signals.
As the space programme progressed, one idea proposed by the USA, and greeted with horror by radio astronomers, was to enhance reflections of terrestrial radio transmissions by dispersing millions of copper needles into the atmosphere. Against much protest this was actually done and Skelton was again involved in testing to determine the effect. Sender 51 was scheduled to radiate 100% tone for alternate five minute periods and this was expected to put enough power into a localised area of the ionosphere to change its characteristics.
The beam was said to be vertical but I do not recall any aerial work associated with the tests. The receiving site was, I think, Malvern Radar Research establishment. The problem was that after about four and a half minutes on 100% modulation all the excess temperature protection was popping off and it took the next five minutes to try to cool the thing down successfully for another five minute 100% blast. I can clearly recall doing these transmissions with my STE, Arthur White, on night shift, with both of us desperately trying to think of some new way to get the temperature under control.
Prior to the introduction to 250kW transmitters elsewhere, tests on high power feeders and combinations of transmitter output were carried out at OSE 9. A bridged TEE combiner to the south of the HT frame fed a feeder running in the general direction of AE 714. This feeder took the form of a pair of tubular lines about an inch diameter at nine inch spacing, and it was said that in the event of overheating it would be possible to have them blown. I have never seen anything similar since that experiment although Daventry used to combine the output of two 250kW transmitters. From time to time high power BALUNS have been tested (back to back) to assist development by a firm whose products are found in much BBC equipment.
Tone coded chain identification was provided from BUSH HOUSE. When an analysis of fault occurrences on the six programme lines indicated that we were in imminent danger of spending most of our time in dealing with this problem, Skelton was provided with a 48khz group carrier system and seven sets of split band equipment. Each channel in the group was capable of handling only the bandwidth of a telephone - 4khz, but by combining suitably processed audio it was possible to simulate six lines, each of about 7khz bandwidth. This type of processing was becoming increasingly common but suffered from the serious disadvantage that a problem resulted in the loss of all six programme chains. It was replaced with a more modern version of the old “private wire” music lines (with back up derived from satellite feeds) when BT warned that coaxial feeds to consumers was to be discontinued.
This system was eventually replaced by programme feeds via satellite.
January 5th, 1946
WORLD'S BIGGEST SHORT WAVE BROADCASTING STATION
The erection of a huge broadcasting station at Skelton, ten miles to the north west of Penrith, was one of the wartime secrets. It swallowed up many acres of agricultural land on the Grizebeck, Skelton Pasture and Priestfold farms, but this sacrifice was necessary in order that the voice of Britain be effectively kept on air at a time when it was vitally necessary that this should be secure. An article in a recent Radio Times tells the story for the first time, and incidentally it reveals that Skelton is the largest short wave broadcasting station in the world. Up to September 1943 under Sir Noel Ashbridge, now director general of the BBC, and then under his successor the present chief engineer, Mr H Bishop, that work was primarily to keep the home service going in a way which would not afford navigational aid to enemy aircraft, and to ensure that those services would continue under whatever conditions the enemy should impose by air attack.
At first some of the transmitters had to be closed down and on the first of September 1939 the number of medium and long wave transmitters was reduced from sixteen with an aerial power of 900kW to eleven with a power of 550kW
The system adopted was to group several transmitters on one wavelength so that enemy aircraft could not tune to any one of them separately until the aircraft was almost within visual range. By that time however, the transmitter had been closed down under the fighter command orders, the orders being conveyed over direct lines to the BBC central control room. For this system to work satisfactorily all stations synchronised on the one medium wavelength and had to transmit the same programme, and that is why the National and Regional services were merged into a single countrywide programme, the home service, on two wavelengths.
The BBC service for Europe operated on a single wavelength. The effectiveness of the grouping was such that Germans gave up trying to use BBC transmitters as beacons, but its success is best illustrated by the comforting fact that the BBC was never once completely driven off the medium wavelengths by enemy air attack.
When Italy came into the war she copied the BBC system, the Germans followed after two or three years of war, but the system of 1st September 1939 did not remain static for long, within a few weeks increases in power and in numbers of transmitters were made. The forces programme for the first expeditionary force began experimentally in December 1939, and early in 1940 a second medium wave frequency was added to the European service, to be followed by a third in October 1940. As yet no new transmitters had been built, pre war ones had been altered and adapted to the new conditions, but with the fall of France and the intensification of air attacks on this country it became obvious that the wartime broadcasting system needed some modification to improve reception in some areas during air raids, and to provide for the transmission of special bulletins and instructions from regional commissioners in the event of invasion. Accordingly, the BBC began to erect a small transmitter in each centre of population having a population of fifty thousand or more, until sixty of these small stations were on air. Fortunately they were never called upon to work under invasion conditions but they fulfilled their other two purposes admirably. They closed down only on local sirens being sounded or during gunfire, and thus provided a service for hours at a time when the more distant high power transmitter on 449 or 391 metres was closed down because of enemy air activity.
With the fall of France in 1940, it also became obvious that the voice of Britain to Europe was the only means of getting the truth from the outside world through to the enslaved European countries, that that voice had to be more powerful than ever, and to speak on as many wavelengths as possible to overcome and circumvent the jamming with which the enemy endeavoured to make it inaudible, or at least unintelligible. The attack was accordingly planned on long medium and short waves. It was known that many receivers in Europe covered only the long and medium waveband, but short waves could not be neglected as they provided the only means of transmission to the more distant countries, particularly in daylight, and they were also well suited.
It was considered that 200kW at Droitwich would not give sufficiently strong reception to Germany, and a site was sought on the east coast to take advantage of an all sea path over which radio waves travel best. A site was secured at Ottringham, near Hull, where was built what is the worlds most powerful broadcasting station, capable of putting 800kW into the aerial on long or medium waves. This station consists of four separate 200 kW transmitters, each in its own bomb proof building, the transmitters being driven and controlled from a fifth building and delivering their power to the aerial through an aerial combining house which forms a central sixth building. Ottringham came on the air using 600kW on long waves in early 1943.
On the short wave side the BBC had begun the war with five high power and three medium power transmitters all installed at one station, Daventry.
In September 1940, the BBC had thirteen, and three months later fourteen, short wave transmitters on three sites. While all this work was going on further expansion of short wave transmitting facilities was planned, partly as another attack on enemy jamming in Europe, and partly to provide for expansion of the overseas services in order that the voice of Britain should be adequately heard all over the world. By the end of 1940 the demands of the programme producing divisions had been formulated and it became clear that to carry the programmes to the target areas eighteen more high power short wave transmitters would be required over and above those already in use or in construction at the time. It was planned to build these in three separate stations, each with six transmitters and each with its separate aerial system. One station was primarily for overseas services, one for the European services, and one to serve the later by day and the former by night. Great difficulties were encountered in finding suitable sites, one was secured at Woofferton near Ludlow, and another sufficiently large for the other two at Skelton.
Skelton is easily the largest short wave broadcasting station in the world. It has two separate installations comprising twelve 100kW transmitters, actually capable of working as six 100kW and twelve 70kW transmitters simultaneously, and its two aerial systems are made up of fifty one aerials supported by thirty one masts, ranging in height from 325ft to 200ft. The first six transmitters came into service in April 1943, and the remainder by stages in the following months. All eighteen channels were on the air by November 1943.
By 1998 Skelton A had nine 250kW transmitters in service (with two ‘spare’) and fourteen antennas, Skelton C had six 300kW transmitters and fifteen antennas.
By November 1943 the BBC could transmit simultaneously on forty three separate short wavelengths. Its transmitters were used to transmit not only the voice of Britain but the “America calling Europe” programmes relayed from New York. From 1 September 1939 to 13 July 1944 after a period of almost five years intense activity, BBC transmitters had increased from nineteen, with an aggregate aerial power of 1050kW to one hundred and twenty one, with an aggregate power of 6420kW.
(Article thought to have been published in The Radio Times in 1946)
Listeners all over the world can tune in at all hours of the day and hear the magic words “This is London!” - words spoken before a microphone in London, but sent on their way on a long air journey from transmitters in a different part of the country, as likely as not Skelton, in the Cumberland hills. Alan Hunter visited Skelton for ‘Radio Times’ and here he gives his impressions of one of the one of the least publicised and most remarkable of the BBC’s many transmitting stations.
“This is London!” is a phrase that the BBC, with its overseas broadcasts, has stamped on the map of the world, and when a listener hears those three words he is right in imagining they are spoken in London, but the chances are the signal bearing the announcers voice is coming from a little place called Skelton in the Cumberland hills.
That is why I found myself on the ‘Lakes Express’ from Euston, bound for Penrith, the nearest town of any size to the largest and most powerful short wave broadcasting station in the world. For that is what Skelton is: unheralded, unsung, almost unheard of, but still the largest and most powerful.
As the familiar panorama of the Cumberland hills came into view and the express flew down from Shap on the final stretch of the six hour journey, I could not help thinking: “what a lovely site for a short wave station, but how outlandish!” And when next morning, Mr SA Williams, the Engineer-in-charge, drove me through the countryside into the confines of his station, I wondered again: there we were, on a high, practically flat plateau, seemingly hemmed in by hills: to the west the saddleback shape of Blencathra; to the east, Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines; and, not far away to the north, the Cheviot hills of Scotland.
But, of course, short waves do not baulk at nearby hills; they hop right over them - upwards from the aerials to the ‘E’ and ‘F’ layers sixty to two hundred miles above the earth, down again, up once more, and so on to the distant area - the Balkans, or Buenos Aires? - where someone is waiting to hear “This is London!”.
Mr Williams took me inside the main station (building-period: wartime austerity, very!)- past some of the battleship grey transmitter panels - nothing skimped there I noticed! - to his simple little office, complete with secretary and a view of the hills and fells, aerials and - yes - black faced sheep grazing underneath them.
To answer the recurring question “Why Skelton?” Mr. Williams had to hark back to that “finest hour” when most of us in these islands were probably too busy to realise just how grim our plight was: the enemy bestrode Europe; ‘Lord Haw Haw’ and Co. were flooding the air with propaganda from newly captured broadcasting stations or using them to jam our broadcasts to the continent; exiled Governments here, meanwhile were anxious to speak to their beleaguered peoples.
At cabinet level, the decision was taken: Britain on the radio front as well as on all other fronts, would counter attack as soon as possible. And so, with top priority orders, the BBC chose Cumberland as a relatively ‘safe’ area, and Skelton in that county as an ideal site, easily linked with London by post office telephone circuits at Penrith and Carlisle.
Skelton, today covers 750 acres, and you must walk four and a half miles to get right round it. Three farms stood where the aerials now soar, the farmhouses vacated to make way for Mr Williams and his two chief assistants, and their families. The rest of the station staff live mainly at Penrith, nine miles away.
Mr Williams and some of his engineers came on the scene near the end of 1942 when the building was taking shape. The erecting and wiring of the first batch of transmitters started on January 1st, 1943 and they came on air for test only eleven weeks later: to be exact, on March 25th. On April 25th they were taken into service. In his modest way, Mr Williams said: “I think I should be safe in saying that this was a record”. It certainly was, with six of the most powerful short-wave transmitters in the world, each of 100kW, beamed on Europe all the way round from Norway, to Russia and Portugal.
Within seven months of the OSE/8 transmitters coming into action, all twelve of another group, known as OSE/9 were radiating from Skelton, making eighteen high power channels, with a total radiated output of 1,500 kilowatts. the OSE/9 group took the voice of Britain beyond those countries in Europe covered by OSE/8 - to Scandinavia, the Balkans, and Spain and Portugal. At certain times of each day OSE/9 broadcast programmes to East and West Africa, to the Pacific, and North, Central and South America as well.
Today as in wartime, Skelton divides its time the same way: OSE/8 transmits to Europe, OSE/9 both to Europe and to the rest of the world. Perhaps the most striking picture of the intricate output is the multicoloured schedule chart behind Mr Williams’ desk: it is a network schedule, with a different colour for each network group of transmitters on the air at any given time.
There is the Blue network, for broadcasts in German, English, Austrian and Polish; the orange network for French, English, Dutch and Belgian; the yellow network for Bulgarian, Czech, English, Greek, Italian, Rumanian, Yugoslav, Albanian and Slovene; the grey network for English, Finnish, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Danish; and the brown network for Japanese, Chinese, French, Malay, Thai, English, Dutch Burmese and Indonesian. There are also the pink and purple networks, for the all night services to North and South America.
These then are the main outlets for the broadcasts from London in a total of thirty one different languages, radiated from Skelton at some time or other in the twenty four hours of each day, with engineers at work day and night, every day and every night, changing the wavelengths and the direction of the signals to suit whichever audience is listening.
In passing, let me hasten to add that the BBC, quite apart from what for want of a better word I must call Cultural broadcasts, project Britain to the world through its very extensive Green and Red networks, using transmitters at Daventry and elsewhere (but that, I feel, is another story).
Skelton, with all its networks, is linked to London by nine GPO telephone lines of high quality. Even so the programmes coming over the lines from remote studios need some restoring in quality, and are then built up, stage by stage, to a very high level. At this level the programme is super imposed on a very powerful high frequency oscillation, which has also been built up stage by stage. It is this combined signal - or modulated carrier wave, as they call it - that is fed to the aerial.
That, in very brief outline is what the equipment in those gleaming grey panels is for. Looking through a glass enclosed cubicle, I saw an alert young control engineer sitting in front of a desk that seemed to be covered with switches and dials, “From this cubicle,” Mr Williams told me “the engineer can run up the whole transmitter from cold and keep an eye on every stage of the process to make sure it is working exactly as it should be.
At Skelton they can change a transmitters’ wavelength from say 25 to 49 metres in less than fifteen minutes: it is done, as I saw, by wheeling in and out beautifully made pretuned circuits mounted on smooth running trucks. In the same way, I saw another engineer wheeling in a huge water cooled valve. “They have to be extremely careful with those valves,” Mr Williams said: “some of them cost almost £1000 each”. The heat given off by the largest valves is ingeniously made to warm the whole building.
Power at Skelton normally comes off the grid, but they have their own diesel driven alternators as an emergency supply, and these are brought into use whenever the electricity authority wants to shed some of its load.
But this time we went out into the soft Cumberland air to see the aerials with which Skelton gives the world, to quote Mr Williams “a good, strong, signal”, a signal the strength of which is due “not only to the great power of the transmitters, but to the scientifically designed aerial system.”
To show me round I had Mr J Cunningham, who is responsible for the upkeep of the whole aerial system - and what a system it is! Luckily I was at Skelton on one of those fine, blue and white days the Lake District can excel in, with Blencathra seemingly only a stones throw away on our left, and even more distant Skiddaw just discernible; on our right the Pennines really did seem to be earning their title of “the back bone of England”.
It is such a setting, though by no means always in such genial weather, that Skelton’s short wave aerials, or arrays as the engineers prefer to call them, are made to excite the receivers of the world-wide audience.
First, I was led through an elliptical shaped stockade of wire, about 120 feet by 60 feet to an aerial switching tower, a truly Wellsian contraption, if you like: a forty foot, eight sided tower with wires coming and going in all directions and at all angles. This tower really is a giant multiple switch with contact arms on six levels one above the other inside it, these arms being carried round by motors to any of forty two sets of contacts leading off to the different arrays on the site. Through them the engineer in his distant cubicle can switch his transmitter to any one of seven arrays, that is to any one array connected to his level on the tower.
Altogether there are fifty two aerial arrays suspended between thirty one masts, and those not connected to the switching tower can be quickly hooked in to service by an engineer with a two pronged pole. I saw a young man doing this, in fact he went round the periphery of the stockade hooking and unhooking wires to a pre-scheduled plan.
Safety Key in his Pocket
For his own safety, the engineer had in his pocket the keys of the doors of the transmitters to which he was hooking or unhooking arrays. Without the keys, no one could shut the doors, and until the doors were shut no power could be switched on. An example, this, of what Mr Williams had already emphasised:
“Every precaution is taken for the safety of the staff.”
From the switching tower near OSE/9 Mr Cunningham took me for a close up view of part of Skelton’s amazing array and feeder system, with its 100 miles or more of copper and steel wires running all over the place. Picking our way through the grazing sheep, we went right up to and under some of the masts - galvanised steel lattice masts of from 200 to 325 feet high.
We were cricking our necks, as it happened, at a BBC design of long distance array, suspended from a triatic like two giant net curtains made of wires and bobbins-one curtain of forty wires, each half a wavelength long, radiating the signal and concentrating it into a beam thirty six degrees wide, and close behind another forty similar wires reflecting it towards the target area. Such a beam from Skelton would, as it gradually opened out, cover the whole of Australia. The array I was looking at was for South America, or if the direction was reversed, and shooting over Russia, for Japan.
Mr Cunningham showed me how, quite simply, they can slew the beam by as much as fourteen degrees from its normal direction, so that an audience just outside the service area of the thirty six degrees beam can be served without the expense of an additional array all to itself.
On our way back to the station building, I noticed the floodlights which, I was told, they turn on at night so that the engineers changing the arrays can see clearly what they are doing: a reminder that the weather at Skelton is not always bright and sunny, but can be very dark, and cold, and wet or snowing.
Over our meal in the canteen, Mr Williams asked me to make the point that Skelton is not only the largest and most powerful short wave broadcasting station in the world: it is all British. Foreign visitors have found Skelton something of a shop window, and the prowess of the station has led to sales of radio equipment to such countries as Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Holland, India, Pakistan and Egypt.
They are all very proud of their station at Skelton, and very keen indeed to see that the voice of Britain makes itself heard, in no uncertain strength, in all parts of the world where truth is still less strange than propaganda. As Mr Williams puts it, “The BBC is taking part in what it believes to be one of the most important movements for the restoration of sanity and the preservation of peace - namely the free exchange of knowledge between peoples.”
In that interchange, let us remember those who make it technically possible: that little band of engineers, away there in Cumberland, keeping those arrays energised so that the world may hear, day in, day out, the strong, clear call : “This is London!”.
28th December 1946
CUMBERLAND VILLAGE TELLS THE WORLD!
SKELTON’S ROUND-THE-CLOCK BROADCASTS IN TWENTY LANGUAGES
Wartime Link with Underground Movement
If you switch on your radio to a short wave station broadcasting in a foreign tongue, giving a strong reception and using the “V” interval signal you are hearing a program transmitted from practically your own doorstep, seven miles from Penrith, for the benefit of listeners up to five thousand miles away.
Twenty four hours of every day broadcasts in a score of languages are being made from the BBC station at Skelton - the biggest short wave broadcasting station in the world.
The erection of the station, between 1941 and 1943 was one of the local wartime secrets. Its high power short wave transmissions enabled contact to be maintained with the occupied countries in spite of all the enemy’s efforts at jamming the broadcasts. Its peacetime purpose is no less important, carrying the voice of Britain all over Europe and further afield to the Americas.
Something of the history of the station has already appeared in the “Herald”, but it may nevertheless be of interest to recall once more how this huge radio base came to be established between the Pennines and the Lakeland fells.
Breaking Through a Wall of Words
It originated as part of the BBC’s efforts to break through the wall of enemy propaganda surrounding the countries they had overrun and to make the British viewpoint known in other parts of the world. These efforts met with notable success. Whereas at one time German interference with our broadcasts presented a serious problem, the introduction of a large number of high power transmitters proved so effective that it became impossible for the enemy to silence them. Hitler simply had not sufficient transmitters to jam our channels of communication.
In this plan Skelton played a vital part. Not only did certain theoretical advances make it possible to serve relatively nearby areas of Europe with short wave broadcasts, but short waves provided the only means of transmission to the more distant countries, particularly by day.
This particular site was chosen for a variety of reasons. It was considered a ‘safe’ area so far as bombing attack was concerned; the land was high, flat and geologically suitable; facilities such as water and power supplies were available; and the situation was convenient from the point of view of the post office landlines, with access to the trunk circuits at both Penrith and Carlisle.
Two Stations on Square Mile Site
There are actually two stations at Skelton, one near the road-ends about a mile northwest of the village and the other a mile and a quarter away in the Calthwaite direction. The whole site covers approximately 650 acres, the perimeter being 4½ miles around.
Building of the first station began in 1941, and in December of the following year the engineers arrived. The installation of transmitters was started on New Years Day, 1943 - the urgency of the project demanded it, even though the buildings were not quite ready, and the first station was testing by the 25th March. This constituted a record for such an installation and was only achieved by the engineers working day and night. By the middle of April the transmitters were in full service.
No sooner was the first station completed then work on the second one began, by June 1943, four of its twelve transmitters were in operation; by August four more, and by the end of November the station was working at full capacity.
It was from these two stations at Skelton that practically all the shortwave broadcasts to occupied Europe were made. Other overseas services were to North, Central and South America, and one of the transmitters was used for the “America calling Europe” programs. These were picked up b a receiving station at Tatsfield, near London, passed on to Skelton by Land line, and then distributed in the shortwave European Service.
Contacts with the Underground
One of the station’s most important and most secret wartime functions was its contact with the ‘underground’ movement in occupied countries, in which respect it did extremely good work. Its value may be judged from the fact that right from the earliest days of its operations in April 1943 - reports were received from those countries that the broadcasts were getting through to successfully, despite all the enemy’s endeavours to stop them and since the war ended letters of gratitude have been received from the people to whom these broadcasts were the only link with their allies in the outside world.
Skelton also had work of the utmost secrecy to do in connection with D-Day and V-Day, special programs being prepared in advance for release on those occasions.
The station has been visited by many important personages and missions. Among these were Mr. (now Sir) Hartley Shawcross, KC, then North Western Regional Commissioner and now Attorney General, and several other government officials, particularly those of the ministry of information with which there was naturally close liaison during the war; the GOC Western Command, General Schriber (now Governor General of Malta), and his staff; and representatives of all parts of the Empire attending the Commonwealth Broadcasting Conference in the summer of 1945, who were much impressed by the evidence which Skelton provides of the advanced development of British broadcasting.
From Skelton to South America
Transmissions from Skelton are made over four networks. In addition to English lessons in each of these, there are broadcasts in the following languages: (1) German, Polish, Austrian; (2) French, Dutch, Luxembourg, Belgian; (3) Italian, Slovene, Bulgarian, Albanian, Greek, Yugo-Slav, Rumanian, Hungarian, Czech; (4) Finnish, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Spanish and Portuguese. The last two named are not used only in broadcasts to Spain and Portugal themselves but for the Latin-American programs to Mexico, Central and South America.
Skelton also participates in the service to the Middle East and Pacific Forces in the General Forces program. These broadcasts (on 13, 25 and 31 metres) are of a varied nature, including music and other entertainment, whereas most of the foreign transmissions consist of news, talks, etc. to inform the rest of the world of the outlook of Britain.
To avoid any possible misconception it should be explained that the programs actually originate in London, from where they are fed to Skelton by Post Office land-line, there to be “put on the air” by the transmitters.
Reference had already been made to Skelton’s use of the “V” interval signal as a means of distinguishing the station - it is in fact the only short wave transmitter using this signal - and to the strong reception which may be expected locally. As a further aid to identification it may be mentioned that the wavelengths used are in the 13, 16, 19, 25, 31 and 49 metre bands, some of which may be received on most three or four wave band radio sets. During the 24 hours between 50 and 50 wavelengths are used.
Blast Proof Buildings
The station has become a familiar landmark to the people of Mid Cumberland by reason of its 31 masts and towers, ranging in height from 200 to 325 feet, and the considerable array of buildings visible at closer quarters. Despite the anticipated freedom from air attack, due preparation was taken in the erection of these buildings to safeguard against that possibility. They are divided into three sections, with very thick blast proof walls around and between them, and the power distribution is such that had one end of the building been destroyed the station could have carried on using the other end. In addition the massive brick built structures were effectively camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings.
Inside, one finds oneself in a world of humming, throbbing mechanism and shining, winking lights reminiscent of Wells’s “Shape of things to come”. Perhaps the most striking immediate impression is the impeccable cleanliness of everything - the polished floors, shimmering copper and chromium, glossy paintwork - a cleanliness which is no mere veneer for the sake of outward appearance but is essential to the efficiency of such an establishment.
To describe in any detail the layout of the transmitter halls, the control rooms, and power houses, the underground valve cooling tanks and motor generators, is almost an impossibility for the layman. Looking at the frightening array of dials and indicators, wheels and handles, pipes and panels, he cultivates an awesome respect and admiration for the engineer sitting at his control desk, checking the transmissions, with the whole complicated business literally at his fingertips.
In the normal way the station takes its power from the Mid Cumberland Electricity Supply Company’s mains, but in the event of a failure of the power supply or the necessity for easing the load on the grid, use can be made of the station’s own diesel generating plant.
The BBC staff at Skelton totals about 150, two thirds of whom are engineers or technicians, plus a number of trainees. Housing has been the biggest problem from the staffing point of view. The majority live in Penrith, travelling to and fro by bus on a special service run by Mr E Hartness, which makes five return trips each day to coincide with the shifts. Some, however, are accommodated in the outlying villages. Most of the non technical staff are drawn from Penrith and Skelton, the policy of the BBC being to employ as many local people as possible.
The Engineer in Charge is Mr SA Williams, who has been at Skelton since the end of 1942. After supervising the installations on the operations and maintenance side, he was responsible for getting the station under way, technically and administratively, and maintaining its subsequent service - duties for which he is well qualified by reason of his 23 years with the BBC. Previous undertakings of which he had charge were the opening of the Northern Ireland high power, medium wave station in 1934 and a similar station at Start Point (Devon) in 1939.
Of the three farms taken over on the Skelton site, Mr Williams lives at Skelton Pasture; Mr HF Bowden, assistant engineer-in-charge, at Priestfold; and Mr J Cunningham, aerial engineer, at Grizebeck.
(Article thought to have been published in Cumberland and Westmorland Herald in 1951)
Maurice Williamson, 20 year old son of a village tailor, last night hooked a wire to a 200 ft radio mast in the Cumberland hills - and Russians behind the Iron Curtain hear ... “This is London calling ...” spoken in Russian.
For Maurice, who might have been a tailor like his father, is one of 160 men who are doing 1951’s biggest job in radio.
They are the men who work in the BBC’s bleakest outpost - at Skelton, nine miles from Penrith, on a plateau 600 feet above sea level.
There, from the world’s most powerful radio station, every day 24 hours a day, they send the voice of London around the world.
A hundred of radio’s most skilled engineers are there to do the job, and, like Maurice, 60 local men from the little village of Skelton have given up their village trades to help.
The station covers 750 acres, the site of three farms.
Five miles of barbed wire fence in the 31 masts between 200 and 325 ft high; the 52 net aerials; the 100 miles of overhead wiring, and rising high above the masts, the 40ft, eight sided tower which acts as a giant switch to set the direction of transmission.
Inside a small brick building - the main station - sit engineers controlling the short wave transmissions which are linked by GPO lines to London.
In 31 Tongues
They can change transmitter wavelengths in under 15 minutes by switching pre- tuned circuits. these are wheeled to transmission cubicles on trucks.
All the engineers can say “This is London” in 31 different languages. For in 31 languages on 12 networks, the station transmits more than 300 programmes a day, and 10 and a half hours of programme each week to Russia alone.
The nearest shops to the station are at Penrith. There are buses, but a missed bus means a 3 hour wait for the next one.
Yes, its a lonely life for the men who send out the voice of Britain.
(Article from local Penrith newspaper in 1955)
New Premises opened at Penrith
At a social gathering last night, the new Penrith clubroom of the BBC (Skelton) Club was formally opened by Mr SA Williams, engineer in charge at the Skelton BBC station.
The clubroom, which is sited on a plot of land at the junction of West Lane and Castle Hill Road, Penrith, is not only attractive in its outward appearance, but inside the all wooden building ample provision is made for the off duty hours of the club’s 130 members.
The principal room measures approximately 50ft by 24ft and other accommodation includes a bar. Tasteful furnishings and attractive curtains further enhance the appearance of the room, in which there is a table tennis table and facilities are provided for other indoor games. It is hoped that future developments may include the addition of a billiard room.
Last nights gathering took the form of a cocktail party attended by members and friends during which Mr David Dove, the club chairman introduced Mr Williams to formally open the club.
Mr Williams, himself a vice president of the club, is shortly retiring from the post of engineer in charge, and in view of this the proceedings also included the presentation to him of a handsome commemorative booklet containing the signatures of his entire staff. He was also made an honorary member of the club.
The club is under the presidency of Mr EF Wheeler, London (Supt. Engineer, Transmitters), with Messrs Williams and HF Bowden as vice presidents. Heading the committee are Messrs Dove (Chairman), J Sinclair (Secretary) and
K Sheperdson (treasurer).
The new clubroom was erected by Messrs J Laing and Son, Carlisle.
SKELTON’S BIG PART IN CHRISTMAS BROADCAST
(Article thought to have been published in Cumberland and Westmorland Herald in the late 1950’s)
“Beamed” to 100 Countries by Eighteen Transmitters
When Her Majesty the Queen made her customary broadcast on Christmas Day from Sandringham in Norfolk, her speech was once again heard simultaneously in many distant countries. Playing a considerable part in the vast radio network which makes this possible year by year is the BBC station at Skelton, one of the largest short wave broadcasting stations in the world.
This year marked the twenty fifth anniversary of the BBC’s round the world Christmas day programme, culminating with the Sovereign’s message to the Commonwealth, in which the Skelton station has participated since it came into operation in 1943. Receiving the programme by land line, Skelton used all its eighteen transmitters to broadcast the Queen’s speech to overseas listeners, some of them 12,000 miles away.
For the BBC staff on duty at Skelton over the Christmas period, there was, of course, nothing unusual about this world wide distribution, except in the concentration of all the transmitters (or “senders” as the staff call them) on Her Majesty’s speech. In the normal way, several different programs would be in course of transmission at the same time, all day and all night - or, at any rate for 23 of the 24 hours - all the year round.
The overseas broadcasting “day” runs from 4am to 4am. At Skelton on Christmas morning it began at that hour with programs in Russian and other Eastern European languages, and continued with broadcasts in English as part of the general overseas service to the West Indies and British Guiana ... in French to Western Europe ... a musical program to Australia, a news bulletin to Persia ...
And so it went on until the normal schedule was interrupted in the afternoon for the transmission of the Queens speech. This was broadcast from Skelton to so many different countries that to compile a list would be extremely difficult, as the BBC are, of course concerned with the coverage of huge areas rather than individual territories.
Suffice to say, therefore, that the transmissions from Skelton, covered every country in Europe, including those from behind the Iron Curtain; Gibraltar, Malta and North Africa; Iraq and Iran (Persia) in the Middle East; the whole of South East Asia, embracing Malaya, Thailand (Siam), Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and Southern China; Japan, Northern China and Korea; the West Indies, Central America and South America north of the Amazon, including Peru. In all it can safely be estimated that the Queen’s broadcast went out from Skelton to something like a hundred countries.
In War and Peace
When it first came into service during the war, the Skelton BBC station played a vital part in enabling contact to be maintained with the “underground” movement in enemy occupied countries, and making the British viewpoint heard in other parts of the world. In the latter respect, it continues to fulfil a no less important peacetime purpose, broadcasting regularly in 38 languages, ranging from Slovene to Swahili, from Hungarian to Hindu.
None of the programmes originate at Skelton. Whether “live” broadcasts or recordings they are all received there by GPO land line from Bush House in London.
Skelton’s powerful transmitters “beam” the programmes to almost every country in the world. Furthest away is New Zealand, to which they are sent “the long way round” (ie: westward, across South America and the Pacific), although in point of fact there is no difference in distance by comparison with the eastward route across Europe and Asia.
The transmissions are in progress right around the clock, except for one hour each day when the station is off the air for maintenance purposes. then the service is taken over by one of the other three overseas broadcasting stations of the BBC in the United Kingdom - Daventry (Northants), Rampisham (Dorset) and Wooferton (Salop) - and Skelton of course, likewise takes its turn in filling in the gap when any of these closes down for maintenance.
As many as five programmes may be going out from Skelton at the same time, and about 100 different wavelengths between 11 and 75 metres are used.
Two Way Check
Every program is under constant check as it comes in on the land line and goes out by radio. This is done by means of an automatic switching unit, which “samples” the programmes continuously for seven or eight seconds at a time, first incoming and then outgoing, while a member of staff on monitoring duty listens in and compares the two.
If he detects any imperfection in either, he immediately informs a colleague seated beside him, who contacts London by telephone (on a direct line) in the case of a defect on the land line, or notifies the transmitter concerned if the fault is in the broadcast from Skelton, also reporting the matter to the Senior Maintenance Engineer.
The station covers an area of about 500 acres. with its 32 tall masts, ranging in height from 200 to 325 ft, it has become a familiar landmark for miles around, particularly at night when each mast is topped by a red light as a warning to aircraft.
The transmitter halls, control rooms and power houses are in two buildings about a mile apart, identical in size and outward appearance, but containing equipment of a different design.
Externally, these almost windowless buildings are stark and austere - a reminder of their wartime origin. Within they are ablaze with light, agleam with shining metal and paintwork, and astir with the pulsating hum of electric power. Here and there an engineer goes about his duties among the formidable array of dials and handles with an unconcern which seems remarkable to the bewildered layman!
Lighting Giant Valves
Beneath are the crypts which house the filament generators supplying the current for lighting the filaments of the big valves in the transmitters, and here also are the water pumps for cooling the anodes of the valves. In the space between the double exterior walls or the crypts are eight inch pipes carrying the hot water down to the coolers or back to the storage tanks.
In the ordinary way, the station takes its electricity supply from the grid, but as a stand by source of power both buildings have their own generating plant, three
700 hp diesel engines, each driving a 500 kilowatt alternator.
The Engineer in Charge, Mr Harold F Bowden, and the Assistant Engineer in Charge Mr John Cunningham, both reside at Skelton, Mr Bowden at Priestfold and Mr Cunningham at Grizebeck. Mr Bowden succeeded Mr SA Williams as engineer in charge in August 1955, having previously been second in command for nearly ten years. Mr Cunningham has been Assistant Engineer in Charge since November 1955, and before that was Senior Maintenance Engineer (aerial) from June 1946.