American Shortwave Panorama

by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson

Home | Back to Index

The weekly "Wavescan," when it was produced by highly regarded DXer and radio historian Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio, carried a series of very interesting features containing much original research on radio history. We have added a similar series of current feature articles, "American Shortwave Panorama," being written by Adrian for the trade publication Radio World on behalf of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters (NASB).


The Sequel to the Philadelphia Story

Was it deliberate dis-information during the hectic, and sometimes shady days of World War II? Was it simply a change of plans on the part of decision-making personnel? Or, was it just a case of bad memory regarding events of long ago?

You will remember that we presented the story of the shortwave station W3XAU-WCAI-WCAB in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in "Radio World" dated August 15, 2007 ["CBS On the Air Shortwave from Philadelphia"]. In this two page article, we gave a lengthy overview of the CBS shortwave station that was launched as a 1 kw. home brew unit in the back room of a radio shop in downtown Philadelphia in 1932. During the following year this low powered shortwave transmitter, W3XAU, was moved out to suburban Byberry, and a year later again the unit was moved to Newtown Square where it was co-sited with the huge 50 kw. mediumwave transmitter, WCAU. In 1936, the shortwave transmitter was re-built into a 10 kw. unit with two V-type antennas (early versions of the popular rhombic, we would guess) beamed on Europe and Latin America.

Programming for shortwave W3XAU was taken from the CBS nationwide network and from local Philadelphia productions at mediumwave WCAU. In those pre-war days, a 10 kw. shortwave signal could be heard quite widely, and contemporary monitoring reports and QSL cards indicate that this international relay station was often heard throughout the Americas and over in Europe, as well as "down under" in Australia and New Zealand.

In August 1939, at the time when the FCC required all shortwave stations in the United States to adopt regularized and approved callsigns, CBS re-designated this shortwave transmitter as WCAI. However, two weeks later again, CBS implemented the usage of another callsign, WCAB.

Even though CBS requested the FCC to grant approval for an increase in power to the mandated 50 kw. level, this request was repeatedly denied, and shortwave WCAB finally went silent at the end of December 1941. This CBS international voice in Philadelphia was in this way unceremoniously closed, but the international CBS programming was taken over by a new and larger shortwave station located at Brentwood on Long Island.

We concluded the August 2007 article, in good faith, with the following statement: "However, that is not the end of the story. The large new international shortwave station at Brentwood was taken into service with OWI-VOA (Office of War Information and Voice of America) programming less than two months later, on February 24, 1942 and the 10 kw. unit in Philadelphia was packed up and sent over to England for use by the BBC in London. How interesting it would be to find out the information from the other side of the Atlantic as to what happened to this famous American transmitter while it was in service over there in islandic Europe."

We pause now for a moment or two, and we introduce the question: What really happened to this historic shortwave transmitter? Was there some sort of a clue hidden in the information provided from the memory of station staff back at that long ago era? Was it actually transported over to England for use by the BBC? Or was that an item of dis-information in order to cover up the real plans for its intended usage?

The website for the "Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia" states quite clearly that the shortwave transmitter was dismantled and sent overseas to aid the BBC war effort. E-mail communications with colleagues at the BBC in England state that they have no record of the usage of this transmitter in England. At that stage, they say, the BBC was using transmitters with a rated power at 100 kw., not 10 kw. They also state that the black propaganda stations in England during World War II were using transmitters rated at 7-1/2 kw., not 10 kw.

The noted radio historian in the United States, Jerome Berg of suburban Boston, states that he has no information regarding the subsequent usage of the 10 kw. shortwave transmitter from Philadelphia. It should be noted that Jerry Berg has just released the 2nd and 3rd volumes in his authoritative three part series on the history of shortwave broadcasting and reception from the beginning right up to this current era.

However, at the same time as these enquiries were buzzing across the internet, the Philadelphia radio historian who used to work with the mediumwave and shortwave transmitters at the WCAU complex, Charles Higgins, came across a recent article in QST magazine that provided a solution to the enigma. The answer? Transmitter W3XAU was in reality sent to a secret location near Toronto in Canada where it was installed at Camp X for daily communication with Bletchley Park in England. Camp X was a secret spy training facility during World War II and it was so secret that current experienced radio personnel in the area still do not know all the answers to this day.

The article in QST magazine dated in January 2006 states that a radio transmitter, code named Hydra, was installed at Camp X for secret communication with Bletchley Park on 15 MHz; thus it was indeed a shortwave transmitter. In this article, Gil McElroy states that the original transmitter at Camp X was a 2-1/2 kw. unit, and that a 10 kw. unit was provided by courtesy of WCAU in Philadelphia and subsequently installed. The only 10 kw. transmitter on the air with WCAU during that era was certainly the shortwave relay unit. As a confirmation, the photograph of the 10 kw. shortwave transmitter Hydra bears a striking similarity to the 10 kw. shortwave transmitter that was previously on the air from suburban Philadelphia as shown on one of their pre-war QSL cards.

Thus, the available evidence indicates that the Philadelphia shortwave transmitter that was "dismantled and sent to England for secret work with the BBC" was instead installed at the secret Camp X near Toronto in Canada. According to William Stephenson in his book "The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-1945," the Philadelphia 10 kw. transmitter was "overhauled" before its installation as Hydra at Camp X in Canada.

Was it then bad memory on the part of staff that served at the Philadelphia station during World War II? No, not at all; in fact we would suggest that they relayed accurately the information that was given to them.

Was it then a change of plans on the part of senior wartime personnel to have the installation of the transmitter diverted from England to Canada? No, we would suggest, not at all.

Was it then a cover up to state that the transmitter would go to England for work with the BBC war effort when it was known that the real intended usage was for Camp X in Canada? In view of the fact that Camp X was such a secret wartime location, we would suggest that this was indeed the real answer.

And what ultimately happened to Hydra, the fascinating historical transmitter from Philadelphia, after its war time usage in Canada was ended? In view of the fact that none of the original buildings are left standing at Camp X near Toronto, we would guess that the mighty 10 kw. shortwave transmitter that was on the air under the successive callsigns W3XAU, WCAI, WCAB and Hydra, was simply and unceremoniously scrapped.


(This is one of a series of articles that Adrian Peterson of Adventist World Radio is writing on behalf of the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters for the trade publication Radio World. It is reproduced here with permission.)