Monday, May 02, 2011

Five in a Row: The Forgotton BBC Relay Station

The Forgotton BBC East Africa Relay Station, Berbera in Somalia

You will remember that we presented here in Wavescan a few weeks back the story of radio broadcasting in the two Yemens, North & South, which today are generally operating as one country under the single title, Yemen. During our research into the interesting radio backgrounds in
Yemen, we were reminded again that once upon a time the BBC operated a relay station in that area. In actual reality, the BBC has operated five different relay stations in this general area, one after the other, over a period of time. In coming editions of Wavescan, we will present the story of each of these five BBC relay stations, and in our program today, we begin at the beginning. Here then, is the story of the BBC East Africa Relay Station, which was located at Berbera in Somalia.
The country of Somalia is located in what is called the Horn of Africa, a projection of the continent that points towards the Arabian Peninsula. The Somali peoples were one of the very early peoples of Africa and they moved into the area in the times of African pre-history. Their country is largely desert, though some coastal areas are agriculturally productive. It is estimated that there are around 20 million Somali people, plus or minus, in their homeland and beyond.
The Somali language is described in the encyclopedia as descendant from the Cushite family of languages, and in early times, various forms of Arabic writing were used to transcribe the spoken language. In October 1972, the usage of the English Latin alphabet was officially introduced for use with the Somali spoken language and they use all letters in the English Latin alphabet except P V & Z.
The coastal Somali people were experienced traders in historic times. In the year 1490 BC, the woman Pharaoh Hatshepsut in Egypt sent five cargo ships down the coast of Africa to Somalia, known as Punt during that era, and the ships returned with many forms of exotic African goods and people.
A full account of this remarkable trading expedition is presented on the walls of the Deir El-Bhari Temple in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. As a mid teenage girl, Hatshepsut is traditionally recognized as the princess who rescued the baby Moses from the water proofed basket that was floating on a large irrigation canal flowing off the Nile in the delta areas of Egypt.
In the late 1800s, European powers began to take a political interest in Africa, and France annexed a Somali territory that is now known as Djibouti. In 1884 England annexed northern Somalia as British Somaliland; and five years later, Italy annexed southern Somalia as Italian Somaliland. In 1960, the British & Italian Somalilands were granted independence and they united into one nation as Somalia.
Unfortunately, these days Somalia is noted for its internal strife and fightings, and some of the coastal Somali peoples are noted for their acts of piracy on the high seas.
The coastal city of Berbera, located on the bay in the Gulf of Aden, is an ancient African city, dating way back into Greek times. The name “Berbera”, is taken from the ancient Greek language, meaning “sea oyster”.
During the year 1890, an underwater cable was laid from Perim Island in the Gulf of Aden across to Berbera as part of a communication system linking England with Aden and beyond to India & Australia. When the era of wireless communication began, a wireless station was co-sited with the cable station at Berbera and it was on the air with spark wireless transmissions in Morse Code under the rather logical callsign BER. This station was inaugurated before the Great War on January 1, 1912.
A subsequent callsign for the Berbera station was VPJ, and additional stations were installed in British Somaliland; VQX at Burao, VSA at Hargeisa & VQY at Zeyla.
On November 2, 1959, the British government was officially informed that a relay station for the BBC was already under construction at Berbera in Somalia. However, one year later, it became apparent that the two Somalias, British & Italian, were about to achieve independence and become united into one country, Somalia.
It was stated in the British Parliament that it was hoped that the new Somalia would permit the BBC to continue with its usage of the Berbera relay station. However, soon afterwards, it became apparent that the BBC would need to leave Berbera due to differences between the governments of the new Somalia & England.
The BBC relay station at Berbera in Somalia was constructed and operated by DWS, the Diplomatic Wireless Service. It was activated in either 1960 or 1961 on mediumwave 701 kHz with programming in Arabic, Swahili and the General Overseas Service in English, but not in the Somali language. The program feed was taken off the BBC shortwave service to Africa, via a shortwave transmitter located at Daventry.
The power output of the BBC-DWS transmitter at Berbera is listed as 10 kW, 100 kW or 400 kW. Maybe there was a standby transmitter at 10 kW located at the cable station, but it is probable that a high powered transmitter at 400 kW was not on the air at this isolated location. Thus, we would suggest, the output power of this single mediumwave transmitter was 100 kW.
This BBC relay station located at Berbera in Somalia is listed in the World Radio TV Handbook for just two years, 1962 & 1963, and it was officially designated as the BBC East Africa Relay Station.
In March 1963, the British government agreed to the closure of the BBC Berbera relay station due to political differences between Somalia & England. The station left the air during the next month, April, at the end of two or three years of active on air service.
There are no known QSL cards verifying the BBC Somalia on mediumwave. However, it is possible that a few personnel who could actually tune in this lonely mediumwave station, and who were also serving the BBC as volunteer monitors at the time, did actually receive a much prized valid QSL card from this rather temporary East Africa Relay Station.
Two weeks from now, we will continue the story of this BBC relay station, at a new location under a new name.
(AWR/Wavescan/NWS # 114 via Adrian Peterson)

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