BBC Radio Station on Board Ship?

During the era when the Voice of America was operating a radio station on board the Coast Guard vessel Courier, the BBC in London announced that they also planned on establishing a radio station on board a ship. This was also at the time when there were several pirate radio stations on board ships in European waters as well as off the coast of New Zealand. This is how it happened.

In the year 1888, mining rights were granted by the Matabele people to Cecil Rhodes, a prominent Englishman living in South Africa. Seven years later, the Matabele territory was named Rhodesia in honor of its founder, though ten years later again, England divided the territory into two, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia. In 1960, Prime Minister Ian Smith declared unilateral independence for Southern Rhodesia.

Following a long period of turmoil, Southern Rhodesia was finally granted independence from England in 1980 and the name of the country was changed to Zimbabwe. It should also be mentioned that Northern Rhodesia is now known as Zambia.

In 1965, five years after Ian Smith declared independence for his country, the relay of the BBC news from London over the local radio stations in Rhodesia was cancelled. Hurriedly, the BBC erected a new station at Francistown in Bechuanaland. This new and temporary radio station operated with 50 kw on mediumwave and 10 kw on shortwave, and it was inaugurated on the last day of the year 1965.

There was speculation at the time that this new BBC station in Africa was in reality the previous VOA transportable station at Sugarloaf in Florida. VOA Sugarloaf was also a 50 kw mediumwave unit, and it disappeared quietly around the same time. The official explanation at the time was that the station was destroyed by a hurricane and bulldozed into a pit, though visitors to the area find no evidence to support this theory.

An additional 50 kw mediumwave transmitter was installed at the Francistown facility a few months later during the year 1966.

Unfortunately, the station was too close to Southern Rhodesia to be effective on shortwave, and in any case, jamming transmitters made reception in the target areas almost impossible. In addition, the host country Bechuanaland was nearing independence as Botswana and it became necessary for the BBC to close this facility.

The final broadcast from the BBC Central African Relay Station was on March 31, 1968 and the entire facility was then donated to Radio Botswana. Entries in subsequent editions of the World Radio TV Handbook would suggest that at least the 10 kw shortwave transmitter was taken into use by Radio Botswana, on the single channel 9590 kHz.

However, in the meantime, the BBC announced plans to establish a radio station on board a ship, though the details of its electronic equipment were not given. It was intended that this ship would anchor in the Mozambique Channel on the east coast of Africa and make its broadcasts into Southern Rhodesia from this seabourne location.

That, dear listener, was the last that was ever heard of the BBC radio ship!

From: Wavescan 417, December 22, 2002

A few weeks back, we presented the story of the BBC and their plans to establish a radio broadcasting station on a ship for coverage into eastern Africa. We now have an updater on this information from several sources, including the website of Dr Martin van der Ven in Germany,

The original plan called for this radio broadcasting station to be established on the aircraft carrier, HMS Leviathan back in 1966. However, this project was diverted to a land based station and site studies were conducted at several islands in the coastal areas off East Africa.

The small coral atoll, Aldabra in the Seychelles, was considered but finally a site was chosen in a swampy area on the west coast of the island of Mahe, the capital island in the Seychelles. This station was launched in 1988 and it replaced the earlier BBC relay stations that had been established in earlier times at Francistown in Bechuanaland, Somaliland, and on the island of Perim.

From: Wavescan 435, May 4, 2003

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“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).