Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BBC Indian Ocean Relay Stations: Five in a Row !

Some time ago, the BBC announced that they plan to close their Indian Ocean Relay Station at the end of the month, Saturday March 29.  This station has been on the air for more than a quarter century and it will end its international shortwave service, though the local FM relay stations will still remain on air.
            As a tribute to the lengthy service provided from this important radio station, we are planning to present two topics here in Wavescan.  Next week, you will hear the story of the BBC Indian Ocean Relay Station; and this week, we present the story, Five in a Row, the steps leading up to the erection of their relay station in the Seychelles Islands.   
            Back at the end of last year, we presented the story of the temporary BBC relay station located  at Francistown in Botswana, Africa.  This station was hurriedly pieced together in an effort to counter the political events in neighboring Rhodesia, and it was officially identified as the BBC Central Africa Relay Station.
            Four transmitters were installed, two mediumwave Continentals at 50 kW each from the United States, and two shortwave Marconis at 10 kW each from England.  This station was taken into service on December 30, 1965, and its last day of on air service was March 31, 1968. 
            Around the time when the station was closing, a question was raised in the British Parliament in London regarding this BBC Central Africa Relay Station.  According to the Hansard Report, it was stated that the Francistown station was closing, and that additional antenna systems were under installation at the BBC Relay Station on Ascension Island.  These new antennas would ensure, it was stated, adequate shortwave coverage into Rhodesia.  This of course, would form only a temporary interim service into Rhodesia.
            In June 1966, the BBC was investigating the possibility of utilizing a large ship as a BBC relay station for radio coverage into East Africa.  The ship that they were looking at was a redundant aircraft carrier, HMS “Leviathan”.
            The good ship “Leviathan” was laid down at Tynside in England on October 18, 1943 as a nuclear powered aircraft carrier for use in the latter part of World War 2.  This ship, uncompleted, was launched on June 7, 1945, just as World War 2 was coming to an end, and it simply lay around awaiting its destiny.  But, it was never fully completed. 
            At the time when the BBC was investigating the possibility of taking the ship over as a relay broadcasting station, the suggestion was to have it stationed in the Mozambique Channel and that it would give radio coverage into Rhodesia and South Africa on behalf of the BBC.  At the time, Rhodesia had made a unilateral declaration of independence, UDI, and the South African government was a strong supporter of the Smith administration in the former British colony.
            It does seem at least mildly hypocritical that all this was going on at the same time that the BBC was complaining back home about the existence of unlicensed off shore stations on board ships and forts around the British Isles.
            It is probable that this mobile shipboard radio station would transmit on mediumwave towards East Africa, though shortwave could later be considered.  However, this radio project never materialized, and the entire concept was scrapped in May 1966.  Two years later, the empty and uncompleted aircraft carrier “Leviathan” itself was sold, and scrapped. 
            However, around the same time, the BBC was also investigating the possibility of establishing a large relay station on the island of Aldabra for broadcast into East Africa.  Aldabra is a tiny uninhabited atoll 500 miles off the coast of Africa, 300 miles north of Madagascar, and 500 miles from Zanzibar.  The only personnel on the island are a few officials, caretakers and research officers.
            The Aldabra atoll is 21 miles long, 8 miles wide and it is the second largest raised coral reef in the world.  This atoll is made up of four small islets around a shallow lagoon, though no fresh water is available.  There are many unique forms of life in the area, including an estimated 100,000 Giant Tortoises.
            Back in 1966, the Royal Air Force was giving consideration to establishing an air base on Aldabra, and the American air force was interested in a joint collaboration with the RAF as a refueling station for American planes en route to Vietnam.  American investment in the project would amount to
$11 million.
            In 1966, the BBC chartered a 600 ton coastal vessel from Mombassa, the “Southern Skies” for a six week exploratory expedition to Aldabra.  The BBC survey party was in contact London via a shortwave SSB transmitter on the ship, and the BBC communicated with the ship via one of the high powered shortwave transmitters at Daventry.  However, due to the incursion of tropical storm Angela, the survey expedition to Aldabra was cut short, and this project too was abandoned.
            If the Aldabra project had materialized, it was envisioned that four high powered mediumwave transmitters at 750 kW each would be installed with four independent directional antenna systems beamed westwards towards Africa.  These transmitters would be operated separately, or in pairs, or all with combined power on one mediumwave channel.  Though not stated, if this station had been installed, it is probable that shortwave coverage would be added subsequently.  
            However, the British/American air force base never became a reality, so neither did the BBC relay station.
            The next project in this sequence was the BBC relay station in the Seychelles Islands, and that of course, is our opening topic in Wavescan next week.  So, what then were the Five in a Row?  Here is the list:-
            1. The temporary BBC relay station at Francistown in Botswana, 1965 - 1968
            2. Installation of an antenna system at the BBC relay station on Ascension Island for                     coverage into Rhodesia on shortwave, 1968
            3. Possible usage of HMS “Leviathan” as a relay station in the Mozambique Channel, 1966
            4. Projected BBC station on the island of Aldabra, 1966

            5.  BBC Indian Ocean Relay Station Seychelles, 1988 - 2014