Home | Back to Wavescan Index

"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, April 22, 2012

The Story of Radio Broadcasting in Ceylon - 3: The Wartime Years

Thus far in our onward and progressive stories regarding the development of radio broadcasting in the island of Ceylon, we have come to the year 1939, when we observed three weeks back that there was just one radio station on the air at that time. The rather new studios were located at Torrington Square, and the transmitter was a 5 kW mediumwave unit on 700 kHz, located at Welikada.

That's where we pick up the story again in this edition of Wavescan. The year is 1939, and we see what radio developments were implemented during the aggressive years of World War 2.

It so happened that there was a race course adjacent to the Torrington Square studios, and beginning around the year 1942, this track was turned into an airstrip for use by the British Royal Air Force. At the same time, the military took over the studio building, and it was in use, not as a radio station, but as a headquarters building for senior air force personnel.

It was at this stage that the studio facilities for the radio station were transferred into a building known as The Bower, located out at Borella on Cotta Road. It was around this stage also that the radio station callsign was changed from VPB to ZOH in conformity to recent international regulations. The first known usage of this new callsign is printed in a radio directory in New Zealand for the year 1941.

The studios for Radio Colombo out in The Bower were in use for a period of eight years. On October 5, 1949, the Torrington Square building was returned to Colombo Radio, and over a period of almost three months, the old building was renovated, work on the new building was finalized, and new studio equipment was installed.

Thus it was, that at midnight on the very last day of the year 1949, the usage of The Bower studios ended, and next morning radio programming was again on the air from the new facilities at Torrington Square. On that same auspicious date, January 1, 1950, a name change took place, and Colombo Radio became Radio Ceylon.

We go back now to the year 1939, when there was just one active transmitter at Welikada on the air for Colombo Radio. This was the 5 kW unit on 700 kHz.

Around about the year 1941, the usage of the previous shortwave transmitter was revived, and we would suggest that the old 1/2 kW unit was renovated with a power increase to 1-3/4 kW. This upgraded shortwave transmitter also took a program feed in parallel with the mediumwave unit, and the operating frequency was now 4880 kHz. This shortwave transmitter was in use at Welikada for three years or more, and then it was removed and transferred to the large new shortwave station under construction at Ekala during the year 1944.

During a visit to the Welikada radio station in 1984, it was revealed that a total of four mediumwave transmitters have been in use at this location. These were:

When next we take up the Ceylon story, we will examine the radio broadcasting scene in the historic regional city of Kandy. That episode is scheduled for broadcast here in Wavescan in three week's time.

The Atlantic Hoax: A Mysterious SOS Signal from a Non-Existent Ship

On Wednesday, February 22, 1939, an SOS signal in Morse Code was sent out from a mysterious ship in the Atlantic Ocean, stating that the ship had been torpedoed by a submarine and was sinking. The location was given in geographic coordinates which was about 360 miles southwest of the Azores Islands, and the callsign of the stricken ship was given as PECC, though the name of the ship was not stated.

This dramatic SOS signal was received by the American cargo vessel "Tulsa" which was in the general area at the time, and the radio officer immediately notified a maritime communication station in the United States, probably WCC at Chatham, on the Cape Cod Peninsula, Massachusetts. The shore based maritime communication station immediately radioed the nearest ship to the SOS location, which happened to be the Canadian Pacific passenger liner, "Empress of Australia."

The "Empress of Australia" searched the SOS area, where the stricken ship was said to have sunk, but there was no debris, and no evidence of any shipping disaster. Another vessel, the Greek cargo ship "Mount Pelion" was also dispatched to the same area.

It was noted later that the British coastal radio station, Portishead Radio GKA also heard the SOS signal from the mysterious ship in the Atlantic, southwest of the Azores Islands.

News reports about this strange ocean going event were published in newspapers around the world. When the search vessels reported no evidence, the newspapers began to suspect that the SOS signal was a hoax. This is what they discovered:

The call letters PECC identified a Dutch ship. However, this call had belonged to the ship "Flandria" some years earlier, but that ship had floundered, and the call was inactive.
The call PECC as given in Morse Code is very similar to the name of another ship, a British tanker named "Pecten." However, the "Pecten" was nowhere near the scene of the SOS signal at the time.

Newspapers then began to state that the SOS call from the Atlantic was a hoax, perhaps perpetrated by an amateur radio operator.

However, news reports from the Azores Islands at the time revealed another view to the mystery. Incoming ships from the Atlantic had seen two unidentified submarines in the SOS area south west of the Azores, a few days earlier. Then at this stage and quite unexpectedly, Berlin got in on the act, and they issued a news release stating that the whole fiasco was a result of American war hysteria. We would ask the question: Why did Berlin get in on this act?

It is known these days that new shortwave transmitters were being installed into new German submarines during the era in question. It is also known that German submarines would take a shakedown cruise in the closer areas of the Atlantic soon after they were launched.

We could guess that the two unidentified submarines near the Azores Islands were in reality two of these units. It is known that four U-boats were launched in the months just prior to the fake SOS call, and these were identified as U37, U38, U39 and U40.

And the fake SOS call? Maybe it was a good opportunity to test the coverage area of the new shortwave transmitters aboard one of the above listed U-boats. The subsequent newspaper items surely gave them a pretty good response as to how far they were heard.