Thursday, October 02, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

A Blast from the Past: The Biggest Aspidistra in the World 
            The Biggest Aspidistra in the World!  This song title is reminiscent of Gracie Fields and her popular rendition back during the era of World War 2.  This title was also applied to a magnificent American made medium wave transmitter that was on duty in England during those same wartime years.
            The Aspidistra is a popular house plant in western countries.  It has numerous long glossy leaves often striped with white, and plumed with pretty purple or brown flowers.  The Aspidistra is a member of the lily family and it was originally native to Oriental Asia.
            Back during the 1970s, the scientists had documented only ten different species of Aspidistra though these days 93 are documented; and it is probable that two or three hundred varieties exist in tropical and semi-tropical Asia, mainly southeast Asia and China.
            The song, The Biggest Aspidistra in the World, was written in 1938 by three Englishmen as a humor song, it was adopted by Gracie Fields in the same year, and it became one of her most popular theme songs.  Gracie Fields was English born, at one stage she was married to an Italian citizen on the island of Capri, and she lived much of her time during World War 2 in the United States.  She is remembered most however for her entertainment programs for forces personnel in combat areas.
            The Aspidistra radio transmitter was a concept that was presented to Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the year 1941.  The project called for a superpower medium wave transmitter that could change frequency rapidly and radiate on any frequency in the standard international medium wave band.  Its purpose would be to cover continental Europe with black propaganda programming.
            An international search was made for a suitable transmitter, already available if possible. It was discovered that the assembly of a 500 kW medium wave transmitter was nearing completion at the RCA factory in Camden New Jersey in the United States.  This transmitter was under contract to medium wave WJZ for installation at Bound Brook New Jersey but they no longer wanted it due to the fact that the FCC in the United States had mandated a maximum power of 50 kW on medium
            At the time, China had already placed an option on the purchase of this superpower transmitter, but it was taken over by the British for installation in the south of England.  This transmitter was inspected on behalf of the British government by Bob Hornby and it was purchased with modifications at a price of £165,000.
            The English engineering executive, Harold Robbin, was sent across the Atlantic in the Summer of 1941 to supervise the completion of this superpower transmitter and its associated equipment.  For two months he lived in New York city and he travelled each day to the RCA factory at Camden, across in New Jersey.
            Two major segments of the transmitter system were already completed and work had begun on the third.  The entire system was modified for a total power increase of 600 kW, with the three amplifiers in parallel.  For a change of frequency, each amplifier in turn was closed, the frequency was changed, and then switched back into service.
            The completed assembly was dismembered, packed separately for shipping to England, and loaded onto different Royal Navy vessels.  All arrived at port in England, except for the antenna towers and antenna systems which were on a ship that was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic.  A duplicate set of antenna systems was hurriedly manufactured and subsequently shipped to England. 
            Several sites were considered for this powerful new medium wave radio station, including one near Woburn in Bedfordshire where initial work preparation had begun.  However, the final choice fell on a location at Kings Standing in Ashdown Forest near Crowborough.  This location was 620 feet above sea level.
            Some 70 acres of land were fenced off, a road construction unit of the Canadian Army that was stationed nearby dug a 50 feet deep hole, and a labor force of some 600 personnel worked 24 hours a day to construct a two storied building underground.  A four foot thick bomb proof reinforced concrete slab protected the top of the building, and a covering of grass and trees provided adequate camouflage.  Programming was produced and controlled in a set of new studios at nearby Milton Bryan.
            The new Aspidistra medium wave facility was ready for usage by April 1942, but it was not taken into regular usage until November 8 on the occasion of Operation Torch, the American landings in North Africa.  On this occasion, Aspidistra carried a mix of programming that included a speech in French by President Franklin Roosevelt, a live relay of VOA news and programming from shortwave WRUL in Scituate Massachusetts, BBC program relays, and local program inserts that were coordinated in their nearby studio.
            Over the years, the Aspidistra transmitter was in use for the broadcast of a variety of program relays, including the BBC European Service in French and German on 804 kHz which began on January 30 of the next year, 1943.  Soon afterwards, a new black clandestine service began from Aspidistra in the German language under the station name, Atlantiksender.  Then on October 24, another station was launched in the same language via Aspidistra, Soldatensender.
            There were several notable occasions also when Aspidistra made intrusion broadcasts.  When a major German station was switched off because of air raids from England, Aspidistra was tuned to the same channel, and it relayed the national German network from another station still on the air.  Then at coordinated times, spurious announcements and information in the German language were inserted into this program relay.  The first intruder broadcast took place on March 24, 1945. 
            The broadcasts of the black clandestine stations Atlantiksender and Soldatensender were terminated at the end of April.  At 4:50 am on June 6, 1944 the BBC announced to Europe via Aspidistra that the expected invasion of Europe had begun.  This station was used subsequently to carry the BBC External Service. 
            The station was closed with due ceremony on September 28, 1982, and later the powerful and historic Aspidistra was unceremoniously sold for scrap.  That was the end of this blast from the past, a 600 kW American medium wave transmitter that was installed in England during the middle of last century.

            We should mention that there were also several other transmitters installed at the Crowborough station, all shortwave, but that is the story for another occasion.
(AWR/Wavescan-NWS 292 via Adrian Peterson)