70 years of Skelton once the voice of freedomin a world of turmoil …
A PARTY consisting of 96 servingmembers of staff, retired BBC staff and their guests assembled in the maintransmitter hall at the Skeltontransmitting station on Friday tocelebrate 70 years of internationalbroadcasting from this remote Cumbrian site.
A hog roast was provided by the Crown Inn, Broadfield, and accompanied by drinks, courtesy of the Skelton Club and the Geltsdale Brewery, Brampton. Forms and tables were borrowed from Hutton End village hall to accommodate the party-goers.
Seventy years ago, on 25th April, 1943, the first BBC transmission from the Skelton station, eight miles north of Penrith and 12 miles south of Carlisle, was broadcast into Europe, covering theoccupied countries in a powerful radio beam that spread from Norway to Portugal.
In November of the same year, further transmissions from the 750-acre site the biggest in Europe and arguably the largest short-wave site in the world were broadcast into the last vestiges of the British Empire, as far away as New Zealand and the Americas.
The two austere brick, reinforcedconcrete and steel buildings that housed the 12 British designed and manufactured transmitters were separated by a distance of a mile to minimise the effects of an enemy air attack. Six Marconi and six dual-channel standard telephones and cables 100 with kilowatt transmitters were capable of directing a total power output of one-and-one half megawatts into a selection of 53 aerials, each supported by fields of slender, guyed masts.
In 1940, the BBC had 14 short-wave transmitters, mostly at Daventry in the Midlands, but others at Start Point and Clevedon, in the West Country. Anexpansion scheme to build upon the “soft power” of broadcasting saw further short-wave sites being built at Rampisham, Dorsetshire, and at Lisnagarvey, Northern Ireland, in 1941.
The Skelton transmitting station and a station at Woofferton, Shropshire, were built in 1942 and were on-air in 1943. This essential wartime construction, along with aerodromes and defence infrastructure, was the largest civil engineering program undertaken in Britain, with hundreds of Irish labourers employed in thecompletion of the site within a year of inception.
The programs broadcast from Skelton were often appended with “messagespersonnels” whereby innocuous news items would be punctuated with phases such as: “Tonight, Aunt Polly’s tea-party begins at moonrise.” This would be amessage to the French Resistance to expect a parachute drop of arms, or a coded signal to demolish a section ofrailway line.
The Skelton station played an important role in the run-up to D-Day, when such messages were broadcast in such secrecy that even the engineers who ran and maintained the transmitters knew nothing of their meaning.
Upon cessation of hostilities, the Skelton site was found to be in an ideal location to play a part in the next chapter in history, the Cold War, and on 26th March, 1946, the BBC launched its Russian Service, aimed at the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Russians became adept at jamming the BBC’s transmissions within seconds of them being directed into the east, and to overcome this, a system of “barrage”transmissions was instigated, with 18different radio frequencies all carrying the same message. A system of crash-starting transmissions was alsoundertaken, costing the Soviets valuable jamming time and allowing the message to get through.
In 1967-68, five of the wartime Marconi transmitters were scrapped, and replaced with six new, more powerful and efficient 250 kilowatt transmitters. A further four of these more compact radio transmitters were installed in 1984.
In March, 1990, the six heavily-modified wartime-vintage transmitters weredecommissioned and replaced with four 300 kilowatt fully automatic Marconi transmitters of high efficiency design. A further two 300 kilowatt transmitters were added not long afterwards.
Skelton continued to broadcast to Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas throughout and after the Cold War. It is likely that Skelton’s voice to the world kept Beirut hostages John McCarthy, Terry Waite and Brian Keenan informed of events 27 years ago. More than 30 different languages have modulated the signals from Cumbria’s voice to the world.
In the late 1980s, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the world situation started to change, and high-power short-wave transmissions with their subsequent expensive running costs were being superseded by local VHF radio and satellite broadcasts in thedeveloped world. Short-wave was just one of several vehicles by which the BBC could be heard abroad.
Short-wave broadcasting still had a role to play in the developing world, inparticular Africa and India, however, where educational and current afairsprograms were concentrated, and where short-wave could be received on very basic, universally available receiverscosting nothing more than a few dollars.
Knowledge and entertainment arepromulgated in the world of today largely via satellite and the Internet, and the role of powerful short-wave transmitters such as those at Skelton is diminishing as broadcasters face an ever-increasing strain on their budgets.
The Skelton transmitting station, once the voice of freedom in a world of turmoil, was sold off by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1997 to become Merlin Communications International, although was still contracted to broadcast itsprograms. Alongside the BBC, reciprocal transmissions from the likes of Vietnam, Canada and Korea were broadcast from Skelton, alongside independentbroadcasters such as Family Radio.
In 2001, Merlin Communications was subsumed into Vosper Thorneycroft, later VT Group, and in August, 2010, VT Group was bought out by Babcock International, which currently runs the Skeltontransmitting station and which, bybuilding on the collective skills of the Skelton staff, is taking it forward to meet the technological challenges of the 21st Century.