Memories of Ascension

Ascension from the sea

It had certainly been a pretty good lunch, and the wine had flowed quite generously.  Now we sat back, waiting to hear what came next.  “We” were the engineers, and the spouses of those who had spouses, selected to be the first operational staff of the South Atlantic Relay Station. (S.A.R.S.), as it was known at the time.  We had all been called to London, given the five guinea tour of B.H. and Bush, and then treated to a slap up lunch in the holy of holies, the council chamber of Broadcasting House!  We were flattered.  

But the BBC, even then, rarely did anything without reason.  We’d had the good news, now for the bad.  “We’re not sure what’s happening on Ascension,” we were told.  “As far as we can make out, there are only about six completed houses in the village, and the power supply from the power house may not be connected for another year, so they’re having to share generators around the village.  Some of the families may have to share houses for a short while. As for you single lads,”  my ears pricked up, this affected me, “It seems that your permanent accommodation isn’t quite finished yet.  You’ll be put up in the construction camp at English Bay for a few weeks.  It’s very nice, air conditioned caravans, that sort of thing.”  Oh well, that didn’t sound too bad, at least I was in the first group to travel out, I couldn’t wait to get there. 

So it was that a few weeks later the first group boarded one of the first of Ascension’s famous charter flights to begin the big adventure. We, along with a whole load of other people from Cable & Wireless, M.P.B.W. and C.S.O , plus of course the inevitable top brass coming along for an “inspection” visit, were squeezed into the rear fuselage of a venerable Britannia airliner at Gatwick.  The front half of the plane was taken up with various stores, among which I remember several large cable drums, two RCA 250W transmitters which were to provide the Island with a slightly unofficial MF service (more on this later) and Dave Wilson’s motor bike.  Dave, one of the S.M.Es, and Al Malcolm, the A.R.E., had travelled out by sea some few weeks earlier. 

After a mere fifteen hours of purgatory we arrived on Ascension.  In what was to become almost a time honoured tradition for every charter arrival, we stepped off the plane into a rainstorm,  Who said it never rains on Ascension?  The Chief of Police stood at the bottom of the steps relieving us of our passports (we got them back a few days later), and that was the end of the immigration formalities.  Dave Wilson was there to round up we three single men, Arthur Allen, Dick Buckby and me, and took us off to English Bay in a very dusty Land Rover.  Here came shock no. 1.  The “air conditioned caravan” turned out to be a section of a wooden shed, furnished in a sort of 1930’s military campaign style.  A bare steel bed frame and mattress (which felt like steel), sheets (2), blankets (2, but never used) and pillows, a folding steel table, two folding chairs and a “Wardrobe, wooden, clothes for the use of”.  Shock no.2 came when we discovered that nobody had any idea of when they were going to start building the Senior Mess which was supposed to be our permanent home.  In the event it was to be some eighteen months before we joined the rest of the staff in Two Boats village.   

It always rained on Charter Day!

English Bay Camp 

I never saw any official figures, but I estimate that the camp was home to about 120-140 men. (There were no women).  These were the contractors and supervisors who were running the various parts of the project.  An adjacent camp housed (or rather tented) the labour force of about 400 West Indian and Saint Helenian labourers.  Most of the guys in the camp had spent much of their working lives on such projects, and knew how to enjoy themselves in such circumstances.  The camp was laid out in a quasi-military style, most of the guys lived in individual ridge tents furnished much like our rooms.  There were several wooden huts, divided up into rooms, and a few, very few, caravans.  These in fact were quite cramped and claustrophobic, and were definitely not air-conditioned.  

The mess area was a series of dining tables under a marquee without walls,  with another similar marquee alongside as a bar.  Shower blocks were scattered around the camp, fed by salt water, and at regular intervals there were small shacks containing communal fridges.  Nobody minded you pinching a beer as long as (a) you replaced it a.s.a.p., and (b) you didn’t take the last one (or two, or three in some cases!).  The food was usually pretty good, occasionally better than that, and at times, when a supply ship was overdue or had left without unloading due to heavy seas, somewhat lacking.  One plus from our point of view was that everyone else in the camp was supplied with food and lodging as part of their contract.  There was thus no machinery for collecting payment for these services, so we lived free.   

English Bay camp, home for 18 months

One group who did not take kindly to living in tents were the Marconi engineers installing the transmitters.  Their solution was to take the enormous packing cases the sender units had been shipped in and turn them into their own little village.  One of their number doubled as the camp barber, so he had his own little patio set up as a barber shop.  If I remember right Joe would charge one shilling and sixpence (about 7.5p for the younger) for a trim, but you’d probably have a least three bottles of beer pressed upon you during the operation, presumably as an anaesthetic. 

 

The Transmitter Site   

The Tx complex, 1968

When we arrived the main transmitter building was still being finished, although work had already started on installing the transmitters.  The admin block was barely started, and the centre of operations was the P. & I.D, hut, which stood in a hollow below one end of the main building.  Here John Rowe, The project engineer and first R.E. watched over progress, surrounded by critical path analysis charts and other paraphernalia. Although we were the first operational staff, we were by no means the first BBC staff on site.  Jim Gray, Ralph Williams and Cathol McClean were setting up the aerial field and training the newly recruited St Helenian riggers at the same time, while Tony Preedy was overseeing the sender installation and Dave Driver was controlling the installation of the P.I.E. and sender control gear, as well as the receiving station. 

The main building vaguely resembled an aircraft hanger, a long pitched roof building with enormous sliding doors at each end to allow the transmitters access.  Above and alongside these doors were enormous glass windows, some twenty feet wide and thirty feet high at the ridge.  They were made from very thick corrugated glass panels, and must have weighed an enormous amount.  The senders were all arranged along one side of the hall, whilst on the opposite side the control room, in the centre of the building, was flanked by workshops, stores, mess rooms and toilets, etc.  One peculiar feature of the design was that the battery room was situated above the H.V.switch room, and was only accessible from this room by a vertical ladder.  This made transporting carboys of acid up to it an interesting operation!  Some years later an external staircase was installed.  Another feature worthy of note is that the building was designed to be positively pressurised.  The environment was known to be very dusty, so three large fans were installed in the roof space to ensure that the air pressure inside the building was higher than ambient, thus preventing the ingress of dust.  It never worked.  When the doors were all closed the heat build-up in the building was unbearable.  The only way to survive was to open the sliding doors and let the wind blow through.  The fans lay idle for years, and were eventually removed. 

When completed the admin block was to comprise of two small offices, for the R.E. and the P.A.O. (The Presentation and Administration Officer, Maurice Turner), A large office intended for the A.R.E and admin. Assistant(s), a dining room and a kitchen.  Some distance from the main building stood a small shack, shown on the drawings as “The link hut”, and ostensibly the home of the standby VHF link to the receiving station.  In practise the VHF gear was housed in the main building, and the hut was to be home to the two 250W RCAs providing the MF feed of World Service to the Island, the mast supporting the VHF antennas doing double duty as an MF radiator.

Transmitting station control desk, Sept '67 (If you believe the calendar) 

One other major feature of the transmitter site at the time of our arrival perhaps deserves a mention.  At the time the site had no fresh water or drainage.  Creature comforts were provided by a row of about a dozen ‘thunderboxes’ situated behind the main building, on a ridge overlooking English Bay and the ocean.  What they lacked in comfort they more than made up in outlook. The two boxes at one end were fitted with locked modesty doors, the keys to which were only handed to “supervisory” (i.e. white) staff.  The remainder were open to inspection, so that the foreman in charge of the labourers could walk round and check that none of his staff were taking too long in enjoying the view.  

With no transmitters to operate the newly arrived staff were assigned to various tasks helping the installers.  I spent a couple of months helping to construct and position the dozens of scaffold tube frames that were to support the RF switches and groundwork of the arrays.  I also remember a white knuckle afternoon or two helping Jim Gray set up dummy load krause arrays from the dizzy heights of a cherry picker. 

While the main building was a hive of activity with contract wiremen, electricians, bricklayers, painters and yes, eventually, plumbers  all beavering away, the aerial field, as it was then called, was equally busy.  The site was surrounded by, and partly occupied, a lava flow (now cooled!).  A considerable amount of explosive had been used to excavate the holes for mast bases and stay blocks.  Apparently the nature of the rock was extremely variable, and the effect of the blasting was not always predictable.  I was told that on one occasion after the charges had all been carefully placed there was a loud bang and a single, very large chunk of rock went straight up into the air and fell back into the hole it had just left.  By the time of our arrival Marconi riggers were erecting the masts.  I have to admit that these guys worried me.  It was standard practise for everyone to leave site and return to the camp for lunch.  After lunch the riggers, and some others, would spend half an hour or so replenishing their liquid levels in the bar, then it was back to work.  In my experience, when you’ve consumed a few cans of beer the time eventually comes when you need to get rid of it, and I reasoned that if you are at the top of a three hundred foot mast you probably wouldn’t bother climbing down to visit the appropriate facility.  I therefore made a point of staying well away from and upwind of any mast under construction in the afternoon! 

Sometime during this period we were informed that henceforth the station would no longer be called “The South Atlantic Relay Station”, but would become simply  “The Atlantic Relay Station” or A.R.S.  Dave Hoyle took great glee in informing Al Malcolm that this now made him A.R.E.A.R.S., or “‘airy arse” .  Al accepted it philosophically. 

Eventually transmissions began.  With all due pomp and ceremony the Island Administrator’s wife, Mrs Wainwright, pushed a button at English Bay which started up a tape machine at Butt Crater, the receiving site, and Sender 304 was radiating Bow Bells.  Ascension was on the air.  At the appropriate moment Clive Atkin and I, down at Butt Crater, faded down the tape machine (Studio Ops eat your hearts out!) and switched the feed of programme to that coming from one of our receivers!  Initially we only radiated during the evening period, so at the end of transmission after everything was shut down we would lock the doors of both buildings and literally leave the keys under the doormat for the day staff.

Ascension was chosen as a site for a relay station because of its' geographical position.  In the words of Henry Hatch, the resident expert on the World Service programme "Short Wave Listener's Corner", "When everyone in Africa has gone to bed, the engineers on Ascension turn the transmitters round and point them at South America".  In actual fact, by using reversible aerial systems we were able to cover a large chunk of Western Africa as well as much of Brazil, Argentina, Latin America  and the Carribean. 

There were one or two areas where operating on Ascension differed from the same job in the U.K.  It took me a long time to get used to having to ask the Power House to start up another generator each time a sender was due on, or to tell them “finished with engines” at the end of the evening.  At the time the Power House was run by M.P.B.W (Ministry of Public Buildings and Works), and liason was not always at it’s best.  Although some of the staff were extremely helpful, and soon learned to anticipate our needs, others adopted a ‘jobsworth’ approach.  If you forgot to ask for extra power before starting a routine transmission, then it wouldn’t be there.  Wavechanges needed to be approached with caution.  Shorts and flip-flops were ‘rig of the day’ every day, so there was a lot of exposed skin in close proximity to hot coils.

English Bay, with the Tx in the background

The control room was quite spacious, and contained everything it should.  On one wall was a large power board mimic, the back wall housed the racks containing the remote aerial switching and slewing gear and the P.I.E. bays, whilst the third wall comprised racks holding the sender drive gear (Marconi synthesisers and W.B.A.s).  The P.I.E. was of course installed by S.C.P.D.  It comprised six programme chains (room for expansion!) numbered in the traditional S.C.P.D. manner from the bottom up.  The drive bays were T.C.P.D. responsibility, and so the synthesisers were numbered from the top down.  You needed to have your wits about you in the late evening, when setting up four senders on 5.955, 5.995, 6.005 and 6.055 Mhz (not necessarily in that order!)  

The S.M.E.’s office opened off the control room, and beyond this was the drive room, wherein was kept the master drive oscillator.  This room was very heavily air-conditioned, and it didn’t take long for the club bar member to realise that it presented ideal storage space.  Cases of soft drinks, and some a little firmer than soft, were soon stacked in every corner, along with the usual pad of chits and collection box so that shift staff could refresh themselves at need. 

The explosives used to clear the aerial field were stored well away from the site, about half a mile from the building.  One day, long after the explosives expert had finished his task and departed, it was discovered that there was still a considerable quantity of TNT in the store, and that it was beginning to sweat, becoming unstable.  M.P.B.W. staff decided to destroy it on site.  They moved an amount (I don’t know how much) to what they considered a safe distance, inserted a fuse and lit the blue touch paper.  The resultant blast destroyed many of the windows which had only recently been installed at the Tx site, including the huge glass slabs comprising one end of the main building.  The rest of the unwanted explosives were carefully taken out to sea and dumped!

  The Tx site in 1993. ( Note the new wing on the left, housing S305 & 306)

The Receiving Station   

Butt Crater during installation, only three of the five Racal receiver bays are fitted. The far bay is for the search receivers

A somewhat alien environment to most of us, the receiving station at Butt Crater must rank as one of Tx Ops loneliest outposts.  After the initial ‘bedding in’ period it was staffed by a solitary engineer, responsible for selecting the best feeds of the many incoming frequencies being radiated from UK sites and routing them to the appropriate senders.   In addition there were reel-to-reel tape machines to be cued up, started and stopped at the correct times with pre-shipped tapes of non-topical programmes, (Plays, comedy shows etc were much in demand after transmission for home consumption before the tapes were returned for re-cycling).  We also occasionally had to record a program off air to be replayed a few hours later.  Then there were Maurice Turner’s locally produced ‘signposting’ announcements, of anything from 10 seconds to 5 minutes duration, which were played on some horrid RCA continuous loop cassette players.  These suffered from those dread diseases ‘Wow’ and ‘Flutter’ to an excessive degree.  No amount of tweaking would cure them, until Dave Dunmall discovered that the effects could be greatly reduced if the cassettes were kept in the fridge until just before they were needed.  The instruction therefore went out; “Play Kool Kassettes!”. 

As originally conceived, the design and layout of the station left a lot to be desired, but this only became apparent once we started to operate it.  The search receivers, essential for deciding which were the best feed frequencies to be set up on the main diversity receivers, were situated at the far end of the room from the control desk.  The only faders by which the play-out music at the end of a tape could be faded down before rejoining the main programme were on the tape machines themselves, some distance from the desk where, simultaneously, program switches had to be made.  The biggest problem of all was the A.S.U., the automatic switching unit.  This was two racks of relays, uniselectors and miniature jackfields.  The entire unit crashed and clattered as it counted the seconds.  On first seeing it in operation John Rowe suggested that it should be equipped with one of the continuous loop cassette machines so that it could go “Cuckoo” every fifteen minutes.  Only after several years, and a great deal of modification and re-wiring of the station, was it finally able to do some of the tasks it was intended for.

Night shift was always memorable.  The building was over half a mile from the nearest habitation, with no passing traffic and only one or two lights visible in any direction. Almost everybody ensured that the door was locked as  soon as the evening shift engineer had left.  The shift ran from 2245 until 0915.  The first half of the night was usually fairly quiet, reception conditions were pretty stable, and very few switching ops were required.  Every half hour the ‘one-man’ alarm would sound, and had to be cancelled to reassure the staff at the Tx that you were still alive, but little else disturbed the peace.  One or two SMEs devised an ‘entertainment’ to brighten these long hours.  By dint of teamwork the staff at the Tx could arrange for all four Sender carrier alarms, plus their programme fail alarms, to sound simultaneously with the one-man alarm, the control line alarm and both the internal and external telephones.  The resultant adrenaline rush would keep the poor Rx engineer on his toes for the rest of the night. 

In 1980 or '81 Butt Crater was re-equipped with remotely operated receivers, the tape machines were moved down to English Bay Tx and all operations were conducted from the Tx control room.  Such was the pace of change that only five years later, with the construction of the earth station at English Bay, the new receivers as well as the tape machines became redundant.  In 1996 the building was in use as a domestic furniture store, but I don’t know it’s current state.   

The rigours of night-shift.  Note a search receiver has been moved to a home-built trolley alongside the desk.  Surprisingly, the can on the desk appears to be a SOFT drink!

 

Building exterior, February 1993

 

The Klinka Klub

The first incarnation

The story of the BBC on Ascension would not be complete without a mention of The Klinka Klub.  Ascension was the only Tx station then built which did not have an official BBC club.  The reason for this was that the three UK based organisations running the project had agreed to finance a joint clubhouse in Two Boats Village.  At the time of our arrival completion of this building was expected to take some two years.  We felt that we’d rather not wait that long, and were lucky to be given a small, derelict fishing hut on a beach not far from English Bay.  With commendable accuracy but not much imagination this was christened “The BBC Beach Hut”.  The name “Klinka Klub” came along later.   Initially all supplies, beer and soft drinks, ice, glasses, generator and everything needed for a party had to be carried over the rocks, but as time went on by dint of scrounging, wheedling, swapping and even at times paying people to work, the hut acquired a graded and tarred road, a patio area, steps to the beach, it’s own permanent generator and importantly, a ladies powder room.  This was a large packing crate, suitably decorated and fitted out with the necessary furniture. On the wall someone had painted a (tasteful) male nude, with a hinged fig leaf covering the non-tasteful area.  Needless to say, anyone lifting the fig leaf operated a micro-switch connected to a bell in the main bar. 

Since those early days the tradition of scrounging and improvising has continued.  The entire building has been demolished and re-built on at least two occasions, and by 1996 featured mains water and electricity, flushing toilets for both men and women, and (thanks to Bill Mason) the most palatial barbeque area in the southern hemisphere. 

The success of the club prompted other organisations to follow suit, and beach huts sprang up all over the Island.  Some are still in existence, or were in 1996, others are long gone.  C.S.O. built theirs just along the coast from the Klinka Klub, but for some reason it did not take off.  The only reminder of it is that the area it occupied is now officially known as “Ladies’ Loo”, in commemoration of one of it’s essential features.   

  As it was in Feb 1993

The Originals

To the best of my recollection, the first group of operational staff comprised:- 

John Rowe (R.E), Al Malcolm (A.R.E), Alex Cruikshank, Jim McKay, Dick Moloney, Joe Peacock and Dave Wilson (S.M.E.s), Austen Adams, Arthur Allen, Clive Atkin, Phil Brooks, Harry Brown, Dick Buckby, Ron Case,Dave Dunmall, Paul Geldart, John Gough, Roy Hanslip, Dave Hoyle and John Laight.(M.E.s).  Maurice Turner was the first P.A.O, Bill Clarke the workshop tech, and Cathol McClean the rigger.  Among the earliest St Helenian recruits were some who went on to serve a very long time, the names of Desmond Stevens, Kenny Williams, Robin Gough, Bunny Lawrence and Cedric Henry come to mind.  If I’ve forgotten anybody, I apologise.  Installation staff already on the Island when we arrived included Tony Preedy, Dave Driver, Jim Gray and Ralph Williams, as well as John Rowe (Project Engineer), Dudley Aitken (Clerical Assistant) and Cathol McClean. once again apologies for any omissions.

 

And finally……..   

Main sender hall, Feb 93

Between 1966 and 1996 I spent five periods on Ascension, totalling about ten years. During that time a lot of change took place.  I’ve already referred to the closing of Butt Crater and the building of the earth station, now itself superseded by dedicated downlinks, one per sender.  In the early 1990s  two more senders were installed after they were removed from Daventry.  These were fitted into an extension wing built onto the side of the main building, forming an ‘L’ shape.  An H.F. control system, similar to those in use in U.K. stations, was installed.  The original control room bay window was removed, this area becoming a mess room and offices for the S.M.E and M.Es.  The old workshop and toilets became the new apparatus room, a new workshop and toilets (including, of course, in these days of enlightenment, a ladies room) were incorporated into the new extension.  It’s strange, perhaps, or a sign of advancing age, but my memories of the station and its’ equipment as at 1966 are much sharper those of 1996! 

 

 

 

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