Promotion, total eclipse of the sun and a mysterious entity called Anderson - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Promotion, total eclipse of the sun and a mysterious entity called Anderson

On 26 April 1955, when I had been at Gangodawila for only four months, I was promoted to the unpaid acting rank of corporal. That created a bit of a problem for me because of my short time in the job. One junior technician was several years older and much better qualified than I was; he had studied radio and radar subjects at university before being called up for National Service. I expressed my misgivings when Flight Lieutenant Gibbs personally informed me of my promotion on one of his routine visits. He said that particular junior technician could not be considered for promotion because he was a National Serviceman. "I have been very impressed with the interest you've shown in trying to overcome the network's problems due to the sun spot minimum," Gibbs told me. "I believe you have excellent prospects for promotion to sergeant in due course. Show me your leadership qualities now by establishing the authority you have just been given."

Above: This was one for my parents. Note the length of my shorts - well under the regulation length!
It was not going to be easy to 'establish my authority' because the well-qualified national serviceman took the decision badly and some, if not all, of the other national servicemen were on his side. But I had a plan. I told Chiefy Owen that instead of remaining on day duties as Technical Supervisor I was putting myself on shift duties for a few months because of my keen interest in the very difficult ionospheric conditions we were experiencing during both day and night hours. He made no comment. I told the 'passed-over' junior technicians, who appeared to have little or no knowledge of the principles of short wave propagation, that I was relying on them to keep me advised of, and deal with, any equipment problems that cropped up while I was on shift duties. My plan worked and everyone seemed happy, although I was the one that got the pay rise when my promotion was confirmed a few weeks later.

Above: This was the RAF Gangodawila Fire Section!
I noticed that the BBC engineers were changing the frequency of their transmissions from UK to their relay stations more frequently than usual in order to counteract the rapid changes in the increasingly unstable ionospheric conditions. I had already discovered that the RAF's sunspot prediction tables had become less and less reliable but the ones the BBC sent me by airmail were more accurate. On night watches I noticed that some of the most powerful eastern European medium wave stations, including one of the BBC European Service transmitters, were audible in the middle of the Sri Lankan night far beyond their predicted service range; medium waves are not routinely 'bent' by the ionosphere.

I ordered more adventurous use of the authorised frequencies available to us. Instead of using just two frequencies, one for day and one for night reception, I thought we could do better by changing frequency more often and using some of the lower frequencies in the 25 and 31 metre bands by day, and by using some very low frequencies, in the 41 and 49 metre bands that hadn't been used within living memory, when the entire path between UK and Sri Lanka was in darkness. Those who had been at Gangodawila for much longer than I had were sceptical about my plans - and the transmitter technicians in UK were not best pleased at the extra re-tunings they had to make. However, we were able to keep CAF2 'in traffic' for 8 to 10 hours per day, a significant improvement.

Conditions on CAF6 to and from Singapore were always excellent because the relatively short distance meant that signals had to make only a single hop through the ionosphere. The circuit from Melbourne, CAF5, remained extremely reliable, often available for traffic 23 hours per day. Although CAF5 was long range and the signals required two hops through the ionosphere by day and three by night, there was relatively little other radio traffic on the frequencies we used so we had little trouble from the Soviet and Chinese jammers. Some of the BBC theorists at the time told me that they thought the excellent reception to Australasia was also partly due to the fact that the signal's route between Sri Lanka and Melbourne was entirely over the southern hemisphere, but they couldn't explain why that should make any difference.

Our 18 highly directional rhombic antennae were aimed primarily at UK, Singapore and Melbourne. We could juggle use of the antennae that we had and we could tweak our receivers when propagation was poor. Very often, however, incoming signals from UK were also disrupted by radio interference from other stations, known in the trade as QRM, in addition to the natural interference, known as QRN. Both types of interference confused the circuits in our equipment which de-muxed (separated) the six data channels and thereby rendered them unusable.

When we were troubled by QRM, and we were several times every week, we would call an organisation called Anderson on a direct telephone line and ask the operators there to identify the source of the interference. Anderson used at least one of our five SSB encrypted channels on the circuit from UK for their own purposes and we always had to give absolute priority to Anderson when reception was less than perfect for any reason. Anderson was very good at identifying stations causing adjacent channel interference and we used them a lot and were able to report the culprits to CRAFT HQ.

The source of the adjacent channel interference identified by Anderson almost always turned out to be the Soviet Union but it was not caused by noise jammers, which were extensively used by the Soviets to blot out radio stations such as the BBC and Voice of America, but by what sounded like another multi-channel teleprinter circuit. When it continued for more than about three minutes at a time the controller at Gangodawila always called UK for a change of frequency. That was a real nuisance because it took about 20 minutes for the operators in UK to retune their transmitters and 'warm them up', whereas at Gangodawila we could retune our receivers in about 10 seconds at the most. Being of a curious mind, I soon noticed that a few minutes after we had vacated one frequency, the Soviet station also ceased transmission on it.

This sign outside the Gango Bar was someone's idea of a joke. As a matter of fact I was teetotal; not a drop of alcohol passed my lips until I passed my 21st birthday. Such a strict upbringing.

None of our operators at Gangodawila seemed to know anything about Anderson so one day I asked Chiefy Owen who, what and where Anderson was. I was told it was secret and I didn't need to know to do my job. It was the first time I had encountered what was known as the 'need-to-know' principle: if you don't need to know something classified, then you have no right to know just because you are curious. It was a principle that was to govern much of the rest of my RAF career.

In 2014 I searched Google for 'Anderson Ceylon' and immediately found several references; the most significant was a long quotation from the book 'GCHQ: The Uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency' by Richard J Aldrich: the following clip is reproduced here with the author's permission:
"After independence in 1948, the British government had been permitted a range of continued base rights by the Ceylonese Government. This included HMS Anderson a large sigint station which had been developed during the Second World War. The Government of Ceylon were not told of its true purpose and believed that it was merely a communications relay station. In the early 1950s, the government of Ceylon asked for this base to be relocated because the site was needed for urban development. A new site at Perkar on Ceylon was selected and developed. However, after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Government of Ceylon requested the removal of all British bases."

Mid-morning on 20 June 1955 there was a total eclipse of the Sun, visible throughout most of south east Asia. Over Sri Lanka the Sun was totally eclipsed for 6 minutes and 54 seconds - almost the theoretical maximum possible, for mathematical reasons that I didn't understand. From start to finish of the eclipse, the sun was high in the cloudless sky overhead Gangodawila. As the Unit's 'expert' on the ionosphere and short-wave propagation, I had to compile a report to CRAFT HQ in UK about the effect that the cutting off of the sun's radiation for seven minutes had on our operations. (Actually, there was no noticeable effect because, as I explained earlier, all our signals came down from the ionosphere at least 1,000 miles away from Sri Lanka.)

At the instant the sun became totally covered, there was sudden almost complete darkness: standing outside to watch the spectacle I could just about see enough to write my notes. An uncanny silence descended as the birds and insects in the surrounding jungle fell silent - whether in terror or confusion I know not. For the duration of totality there was a distinct chill in the air - a temperature drop of several degrees Celsius was recorded in Colombo. Various religious authorities on the Island had advised their adherents to stay indoors during the eclipse, including the lengthy partials before and after totality, because to view such a heavenly occurrence would have a disastrous effect on their health/life/future. Thus, those that heeded the advice missed a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

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