Saturday, 17 February 2018


In the dying days of TV-Noordzee viewers had been encouraged to become members of the TROS, an acronym for Televisie Radio Omroep Stichting. This organisation aimed at and succeeded in becoming one of the official broadcasters in The Netherlands, as the number of its required members grew in leaps and bounds. Just a year after the demise of the REM-project the TROS was given time slots in the Dutch public broadcasting system. It became the first of the so-called broadcasting pillars (omroepzuilen) to programme the kind of light entertainment the public really wanted to hear and see. Up to that time the other ‘pillars’ had mainly focussed on issues such as education, religion, culture and politics. The growing popularity of the TROS programmes soon forced the original Dutch broadcasters to follow suit.

After Radio & TV Noordzee was forced off the air at the end of 1964 the REM Island lay derelict for ten years. From 1974, when the tell-tale mast was removed, until 2004 the platform was used by the Dutch government to automatically measure sea temperature, salt concentration and wave height. In addition also meteorological information was collected. Early in the new century the measuring platform, which had been renamed “Meetpost Noordwijk”, had outlived its usefulness. In 2004 the construction was put up for sale, but no buyer was found. Two years later, in September, the remainder of the former REM-island was dismantled with the help of the large pontoon crane Rambiz, supplied by the Vlaamse Berginsmaatschappij Scaldis. In 1987 the enormous crane had also been deployed to right the capsized Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise off the coast of Zeebrugge.

The upper structure of the REM-platform was temporarily stored in the port of Vlissingen. Later it was purchased by the housing association De Key and moved to Amsterdam, where in July 2011 it opened as a restaurant. 


Politicians in The Hague however were not charmed by tv-programming from the high seas. They rushed through the so-called “anti-REM-wet”, legislation making broadcasts from structures on the Dutch Continental shelf illegal. That became possible because of a UN-resolution concerning the rights of coastal states over their part of the Continental shelf. This led professor Eric Suy, a resident of Knokke-Heist (Belgium), to publish a study in 1965 about the “Volkenrechtelijke aspekten van de REM-affaire”. From 1974 to 1983 Suy was Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations.

In the meantime, in December 1964, the owners of the REM-island, announced that its TV operations had been sold to a British company, High Seas Television Ltd. Ownership of the REM-island itself was transferred to a Panamanian company. But it was all to no avail.

On the morning of December 17th 1964 a flotilla of boats accompanied by police helicopters arrived at the REM-island. Dozens of police officers disembarked, and at 7 minutes past 9, Radio Noordzee went off the air in the middle of Anneke Grönloh’s “Paradiso”. 

Friday, 16 February 2018


During the first half of August 1964 work continued on the REM-island off the Dutch coast. The antenna mast was completed and towered some 90m above the surface of the sea. The reinforced roof of the broadcasting and accommodation unit started to serve as a helipad and the official opening of TV Noordzee was set for September 1st. Every day after finishing my Summer job as a caddy at the Golf course in Knokke, I rushed home to point the rotary antenna in northeasterly direction, parallel to the coast, in the hope of catching the REM’s television debut. Each time I had my box camera at the ready. 

Then on Thursday August 13th the persistent background snow on the telly, purportedly some of the residual electromagnetic radiation left over from the Big Bang/Bounce at the start of the universe, was suddenly replaced by a picture perfect test card showing the sea, the REM-island and the lettering ‘tv NOORDZEE’. Media history was being made, but the start of television programmes from the offshore structure also caused dangerous waves in the Dutch parliament. 

Two weeks later the official opening of TV Noordzee started with Marjan Bierenbroodspot and Hetty Bennink welcoming viewers on a very windswept Rem-island. That was followed by a 20 minute documentary on the building of the REM-island. Viewers in Holland were very enthusiastic about the TV-Noordzee programming which was aired before the official station Nederland 1 started its evening programmes and after this state-run broadcaster closed down around 22.00 hrs. 

To help finance the 9 million guilders REM-island operation, 7 million guilders worth of shares were issued. Such was the popularity of the project, that the issue was heavily oversubscribed. Many small investors became minority shareholders. On the date of issue, 13 August 1964, the share price was 20 guilders. As stated earlier, within 10 days, the value of the shares had rocketed to 143 guilders. 

By October 1964 audience surveys showed that TV Noord­zee had 2 million viewers every night. TV and radio from the REM-island were not on the air simultaneously. Radio Noordzee operated between 9am and 6.15 pm, and 15 minutes later the TV station signed on.

Thursday, 15 February 2018


The big wait was now on for television programmes to commence from the REM. At home -in preparation and without my parents knowing about it- I made the necessary adjustments to our television set in order to be able to receive the transmission. You have to remember that in a country like Belgium, with two different cultural entities, nothing is as simple as it might be, least of all watching television. In those days programmes in Flemish and Walloon were broadcast according to different television standards.  

TV Noordzee’s intended Channel 11 was free but switched to the 819-line French standard on our television set. That wouldn’t do and meant tweaking the frequency converter through a small hole in the back of the receiver until it clicked to the 625-line setting which was the norm in Flanders, The Netherlands and most other European countries. No big deal really as I was used to messing with the television set, when my parents were out. 

It had been two years since my mother went and bought a fairly expensive Sierra television receiver, which in fact was largely Philips on the inside. The set was duly delivered but the rooftop antenna mast would only be installed two days later. On the screen, without aerial, only black snow could be seen, accompanied by white noise from the speaker. No surprises there, after all it was a black and white receiver! As soon as my mother went out for a loaf of bread however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try out a few things. When she got back I was watching television! Well to be truthful I was merely gazing at the test card. To get the signal I had firmly jammed the pointed end of a pair of scissors in one of the antenna input sockets. This resulted in near perfect reception of Flemish television on VHF Channel 2; the transmitter being only some 30 km away at Aalter.

Days later, after tweaking Channel 9 and turning the brand new rotary antenna in the direction of Dover, I also managed to pick up ITV’s Southern Television. Unfortunately the 405-line picture was severely mangled, with the right quarter of the newsreader’s head curiously popping up on the left hand side of the screen. The sound was perfect however, but could only be heard on Channel 8. The start of TV Noordzee was only days away now... 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018


In late Spring 1964 the papers in the Netherlands and Flanders were awash with news about an offshore TV-project that was being prepared by a Rotterdam-based ship builder. Cornelis Verolme had set up a company called ‘Reclame Exploitatie Maatschappij’, which he floated on the stock market. As a result of the massive media-hype surrounding the project, in just a few hours the REM share-issue was heavily over-subscribed. Thousands of ordinary Dutch men and women proved eager to invest 20 guilders per share in the company. Within 10 days, the value had leaped to 143 guilders

In the meantime the artificial REM-island, built in the Irish port of Cork, was lashed on to the massive lifting vessel ‘Global Adventurer’, and transported to a position off the Dutch coast. Soon afterwards work started in earnest on ‘The Thing’ -as the Irish workmen called it- in international waters some 6 miles off the seaside resort of Noordwijk. Fifty two meter long steel piles were inserted into each of the six leg segments and subsequently hammered into the seabed. Working day and night Dutch, Irish, Belgian and Spanish workmen assembled the offshore construction in just eight days.  

Subsequently Radio Noordzee was heard testing on a number of frequencies. On Wednesday July 29th 1964 –the middle of my Summer hols- the station settled on 214m Medium Wave. At the time I was again spending a few weeks at the house of my mother’s eldest sister in Beerzel. Whilst there I often went on long bicycle jaunts with Ronald Hazelrigg, an American friend of mine. Ronny -as we called him then- was at his grandparents for the Summer. The boy -he was a year younger than me- was mad about bicycles; at the time a most uncommon mode of transport in the States I understand. As there was hardly anyone else in the village who could speak English, Ronny and I, having met watching the dodgem cars at the Summer fair, spent a lot of time together. 

If I was baffled over Ronny’s dreams of becoming a professional cyclist, he was even more bewildered by the fact that I made such a song and dance over some radio station going on the air. In Wheelersburg Ohio, where he then lived, one could tune in to any number of commercial stations, many of them from nearby Portsmouth. It took some time to explain that things were totally different in most of Europe. Hence -on Noordzee’s on air day- it was at near breakneck speed that we cycled back to catch the first proper wireless transmissions from the REM-island on his grandmother’s set. Reception was excellent but the music was somewhat disappointing. The station was no match for either Caroline or Veronica. 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


When Radio Atlanta took to the airwaves in the second week of May 1964, Caroline, the first of Britain’s pop privateers, was already claiming seven million listeners. Anchored just fourteen miles from each other, both stations were aiming at the same audience. Talks ensued between Project Atlanta and Ronan’s Planet Productions and on July 2nd the merger between the two stations was announced. At 8 pm on the same day Radio Atlanta closed down for the very last time. In their joint statement Ronan O’Rahilly and Alan Crawford said: "The decision to merge was taken due to the enormous interest from the public and advertisers in parts of England outside our original transmission area. The merger means that we will now cover the most populated areas of Great-Britain and will meet the demands of advertisers in the Midlands & North and from existing advertisers who are already taking time on the two stations”.

The next day the original Caroline ship set sail towards The Channel, hugging the coast and broadcasting as she went. On board the dj’s tried to predict at what time the ship would be passing important coastal towns. I remember Tom Lodge announcing “This is Radio Caroline steaming West along the South coast”. I managed to pick up the transmission until the ship passed Penzance, just before Land’s End. It took a week for Caroline to reach her new anchorage off the Isle of Man. She dropped anchor on July 13th off Ramsey Bay. Radio Caroline North continued broadcasting on 197m and Radio Caroline South on 201m, both advertising their spot on the dial as ‘one nine nine’, because it rhymed so well with Caroline. With digital frequency read-outs still far in the future hardly anyone noticed -or cared about- this white lie for euphony’s sake. In Zeebrugge, where I lived, I could receive both Carolines. Caroline South obviously offering by far the strongest signal on the Belgian coast. 

Monday, 12 February 2018


In early Summer 1964, the Red Sands off the Isle of Sheppey -another of the ageing anti-aircraft platforms- was taken over by people who wanted to make a go of regional commercial radio in Kent. Subsequently test broadcasts were carried out on a number op frequencies. In the second half of July the newcomer settled on 985 kHz and called itself “Radio Invicta, your station on sticks on 306”. Reception in Kent, Essex and coastal areas in Belgium was excellent. Life on the solitary sea-towers was at first uncomfortable and sometimes fraught with danger. But for the people putting up the money, a fort-based operation cost a lot less to run. 

Although she could hardly be called a fan of this or any other station, Invicta’s more middle-of-the-road type of music was somewhat better tolerated by my mother than the output of most of the floating broadcasters. In the early evening reception on 306m became problematic however. Invicta’s power of just 750 Watts proved no match for a strong same-channel signal drifting in from Algiers. As the evening progressed no amount of turning the ‘tranny’ could prevent Invicta from being totally swamped out. 


Even in Belgium hardly a day went by or newspapers were reporting on the rapidly expanding British offshore scene. On my 17th birthday the Flemish newspaper ‘Het Volk’ announced that Screaming Lord Sutch was all set to start broadcasting from the fishing trawler Cornucopia in the Thames Estuary. The next day, Saturday May 27th 1964, I managed to pick up Radio Sutch, which was calling itself ‘Britain’s first teenage radio station’. The new pirate was only on the air for a couple of hours in a row. Also, the station started very late in the morning. Not knowing any better at the time I thought that the dj’s were plain lazy and overslept or maybe had wild all night parties and were subsequently suffering from a collective hangover. This proved not to be the reason for the late start however. Later I learnt that the transmitter was battery operated, hence the rather flexible broadcasting times. 

The signal, on an announced 197m (next to Caroline), was fairly weak. Especially in early evening the green tuning eye on the Saba radio at home started winking erratically as interference from other stations moved in. It also soon proved that the crew of motley minions around David Sutch were in fact broadcasting from one of the derelict towers of Shivering Sands Fort off Whitstable in Kent. As a result it was the first offshore buccaneer to take up residence on one of the wartime anti-aircraft sea forts off the British coast. They had been designed by Irish-born Robert Maunsell and the last one was abandoned by the Navy in 1958. 

In the early 60’s Screaming Lord Sutch was known for his horror-themed stage show, dressing as Jack the Ripper. From the start Sutch was of course plugging his own records on the station. In fact I remember being quite taken by ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ and ‘The Monster Man’.  When I listen to the songs now, I can only conclude that there must have been something wrong with me at the time. There probably still is.

In the 60’s David (Screaming Lord) Sutch also started to dabble in politics of sorts. In the General Election on October 15th 1964 he stood in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Lancashire constituency. He managed to amass 518 votes.  Years later (in 1977) I briefly met Lord Sutch when he appeared with his group the Savages at ‘Flashback ’67’, the convention held at London Heathrow commemorating 10 years of Marine Broadcasting Offences Act.   


A month and a half later, immediately after Caroline signed off at 6 p.m., I heard Radio Atlanta go on the air from the Mi Amigo. She too had been equip­ped at Greenore. The vessel had anchored off Frinton-on-Sea and used the same frequency as Caroline, introducing herself as the “ship that rocks the ocean”. To me it felt as if my Christmases had all come at once. For the first time in my life there was an abundance of pop music available at the flick of a switch; sheer luxury. No wonder that whenever the sun was out beach-goers had their transistors blaring up and down the East-Anglian coast. On the Belgian beaches it was no different.

I remember Bob Scott, one of the initial dj’s on the Mi Amigo, announcing between records ‘You are tuned to Radio Atlan(t)a. This is a test format’. The station’s name was usually pronoun­ced without the second ‘t’ by the Americans on board. Testing on Caroline’s wavelength after it had gone off the air in the early evening, meant that the newcomer could advertise its presence to a ready-made audience. Regular programmes began on May 12th 1964 using 1493 kHz, 201m, the old Uilenspiegel haunt. In the early days transmissions were between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., but were soon extended to 8 p.m. 

The programmes sounded very mid-Atlantic and a number of maritime-related slogans were used. The dj’s referred to the station as ‘the most on the coast’ and a rather corny sounding ‘the music queen of the seven seas’. The music on Radio Atlanta was distinctly different. Probably because the station's boss, Alan Crawford, gave ample air-time to many cover versions by little-known artists on his Cannon and Sabre labels. Indeed he was no stranger to recreating the hits. Crawford even produced a cover of the famous Fortunes hit ‘Caroline’.


It so happens that Caroline, named after the daughter of a murdered president, was also supposed to be payback for an Irish freedom fighter murdered by the British. It was on April 29th 1916 that Ronan’s grandfather had died in Dublin during the Easter Rising against the British occupiers. Michael Joseph O'Rahilly (Mícheál Seosamh Ó Rathaille), was an Irish nationalist and an important figure in the quest for Irish independence. Although a militant, he had been against the planned insurrection as he felt it was madness and could only lead to defeat. When the revolt went ahead regardless he decided to join his comrades at arms of the GPO garrison. Arriving at the General Post Office he told Countess Markiewicz “It is madness, but it is glorious madness”. To the volunteers he said “Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock. I might as well hear it strike”. And indeed, hours afterwards the bell tolled for him, slain by a number of British machine gun bullets. Forty eight years later it was time for Caroline’s bell to toll to claim the freedom of the airwaves. It also was “glorious madness” and a definite shot across the bow of the British government. 

In 1981, in a stolen moment when preparing offshore Radio Paradijs in Dublin, I went and visited the very spot near Moore Lane (O’Rahilly Parade), not far from the GPO, where The O'Rahilly is said to have been mown down by British bullets.  

Sunday, 11 February 2018


In 1964, like modern day successors to the 16th century French, Dutch and English privateers off the Spanish Main, suddenly a flurry of radio pirates popped up along the British Main, being the Essex coast and the Thames Estuary; often described as pirate alley. Un­like their Caribbean predecessors, who went after Spain’s sil­ver bullion, the pop pirates had set their sights on London’s adver­tising dollar in an attempt to break the monopoly of the BBC and the large record com­­panies. The pioneer in the race to lay claim to the lucrative London market was Radio Caroline, financed by Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, who hoped to emulate Veronica’s success. A former Danish passenger ferry Frederica was bought, renamed Caroline and fitted out as a radio ship in the Irish port of Greenore, owned by Ronan’s family. After two days of tests off Felixstowe Britain’s first off­shore station opened officially on Easter Sunday, March 29th 1964. Ronan had been egging on everyone connected with the organisation in order to be able to inaugurate the station on that day. 

In fact, at the time, I only heard about Caroline going on the air on Easter Monday, as I was spending my school holidays in the small Belgian village of Beerzel (near Malines) where my maternal grandparents lived. My immediate problem was that Caroline’s broadcast on the announced 199m (in fact 1520 kHz) was too close to Belgian regional radio in Antwerp. But as luck would have it my niece Maria Goris, who had just married, was in possession of a large Phillips portable radio, which could be turned away from most of the splutter involuntarily caused by the Antwerp station on the adjacent channel. After a few minutes’ tuning and turning the sound of Caroline’s bell rang through the small house. It would change my life forever. Over the years the start of Caroline has also become a very important date to me personally. More than half a century later I still use it as an all important benchmark. In my life BC means ‘Before Caroline’.



As my paternal grand­mother, Adrienne Vantorre, was spending the weekend, lunch was somewhat delayed at our house on Saturday October 13th 1962. That also meant that my customary quick dial through the Medium Wave was a bit later than usual. But, around 14.25 hrs it happened to be just in time to hear Belgium’s first offshore station go on the air. Reception was very strong as the Uilenspiegel, a vessel made out of concrete, was anchored off Zeebrugge, where I lived and still do. 

A different music era had just started -not on account of the new radio station- but because just a week earlier the Beatles had released ‘Love me do’, their first single for EMI. However, less than a fortnight later the world was in the grip of the Cuban missile crises. With the threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over us, we racked our brains over some sort of protection. With Uilenspiegel providing some entertainment in the background my father and I set to work in the back yard. The underground rainwater storage tank in reinforced concrete was blocked, drained and dried out, to serve as a makeshift fallout shelter for my mother and me. My father was sure he would be at sea should the Third World War kick off. Luckily we never had to make use of the dark and spooky underground chamber. 


Uilenspiegel was the initiative of 73-year old Georges De Caluwé, from Edegem near Antwerp. In the previous months he had purchased the 585-ton supply boat ‘Crocodile’ in the French port of Brest. Well before the war, the vessel in reinfor­ced concrete, had been cast in a mould, like a few of its sister ships. During the Summer of 1962 transmitting equipment was installed on board the vessel in Antwerp. It was subsequently towed to sea, having been aptly renamed ‘Uilenspiegel’ after a legendary sixteenth-century Flemish folk hero who was famous for taunting authority. The vessel was anchored at 51° 28’ North, 3° 12 East. The station announced itself as “Radio Antwerpen van op het schip Uilenspiegel op de Noordzee”, but everyone simply called it Radio Uilenspiegel. Station identification was accompanied by music from ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’, a tone poem by Richard Strauss. It is a lilting melody that reaches a peak, falls downward, and ends in three long, loud notes, each progressively low­er.   Broadcasts  from  Uil­enspiegel  were  on 1492 kHz (201m), a fre­quency chosen  be­cause  it was very close to the channel used by the transmissions for Ant­werp by Belgium’s state-run regional radio. Apart from a half hour pro­gram­me ‘Y’a de la mu­sique’ at 16.30 in French, all other program­mes were in Flemish and pre-re­corded on land. In all 18 people were employed

With Uilenspiegel Georges De Caluwé got his own back on the Belgian authorities. After the war the Pierlot government, returning from exile in London and clearly suffering from Goebbels-syn­dro­me, had refused to renew the licences of all independent broadcasters in the country. Since 1922 and until the Nazi invasion De Caluwé had been running a small commercial station. People called it ‘Radio Kerkske’, since the aerial had been erected on the tower of the Protestant church in Edegem. In the face of the intransigence of the Belgian government De Caluwé had sworn to get his station back on the air, even if it meant swapping a church for a ship of cement.


It was the succes of Veronica and Scandinavian stations such as Radio Mercur and Radio Syd that had inspired Georges De Caluwé. In spite of his age he regularly made the 6 mile dash to Uilen­spiegel’s anchor­age to check on the equipment. Whenever the former shrimper, called ‘Nele’, after the spouse of legendary Tijl Uilen­spiegel, took De Caluwé out to the ship, he invariably went live on air for a few minutes around 12.25 hrs near the end of the pro­gramme "Groe­ten van Uilen­spiegel". In his chat he reported on any im­provements that had been carried out on board. One Saturday he announced that the station could now also be heard on 7.600 kHz in the 41 m band shortwave. He called it an exciting moment and just days later reception reports were received from as far away as Canada.

In the evening the medium wave transmission could be picked up in large parts of Europe. Georges De Caluwé explained to a Swedish journalist that in the first few weeks of broadcasting he had received over a thousand letters in the station’s post office box in Zeebrugge. Apart from Belgium reception reports were main­ly sent in from The Netherlands, the Uni­ted Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries. During the day however reception on 1492 kHz was often troublesome in parts of Brussels and Antwerp. To improve coverage a move to a more favourable frequency was being considered, but this never materialised.

De Caluwé also stressed that he was “proud of the legality of his station”. The ship was registered in Panama, and every month he paid any copyright dues to Sabam, the Belgian performing rights society. Furthermore all provisions and tapes that went out to the vessel from Zeebrugge and occasionally Blankenberge were checked by Customs and were given an export license.


Programmes on the Uilenspiegel commenced every morning at seven with traditional Westminster chimes. Apart from a wide selection of pop hits, also opera, operettas and some classical music could be heard on the station. The transmitting day ended at midnight. From the start Uilenspiegel had been a thorn in the side of Belgian national radio, but it was especially this late closedown which presented the state broadcaster with a pretty problem. In those days shut down time for the NIR was at 23.17 hrs. For years any later programming had been blocked by the unions. They argued that announcers and technicians working at the Flageyplein broadcasting house in the Brussels suburb of Elsene had to be able to catch the last bus home. Hence the most curious close­down time. However, just a week after Uil­enspiegel appeared on the scene, national radio also stay­ed on the air until midnight. The unions had relented. How did the announcers and technicians get home? Well, they used their cars, as they had always done.


In charge of program­ming for Uil­enspiegel was Piet Jager. Among the presenters Louis Sa­moy, Fred Steyn, who later joined the Dutch /Flemish crew of Radio Luxemburg and Jos Jansen, who be­came a journalist for national television in Bel­gium. I remember the first breakfast programme on Uil­en­spiegel. It was Sunday mor­­ning, October 14th 1962. I got up before the crack of dawn to hear the station go on the air. The programme was pre-recorded and nerves clearly had gotten the better of Piet Jager. He repeatedly gave the wrong time-check. When he realised this, Jager excused himself profusely and promised that such a mistake would never happen again on the station (“we zullen het nooit meer doen”).

Also, whenever I hear the sixties golden oldie ‘Chariot’ -the original version of ‘I Will Follow Him’- it makes me think back to the Uilenspiegel days. It was Petula Clark’s popular French song that topped the pirate’s hit parade for most of its offshore existence. In the event the vessel only remained a total of 66 days at sea, and even less on air.


The ultimate run of bad luck for the Uilenspiegel organisation started on December 13th 1962, with the death of its founder Georges De Caluwé after an operation at the Stuyvenberg hospital in Antwerp. Just two days later disaster struck again. The night of Saturday December 15th proved to be a devilish one for all shipping in the North Sea. A westerly force 10 to 11 gale came raging up The Channel battering sea-de­fen­ces and pounding even the largest of vessels into submission. Near the island of Texel the coal-carrier Nau­tilus went down with the loss of 23 lives. Only one seaman was rescued after 5 hours in the water. Off Zeebrugge also the Uilenspiegel was doomed.

Around a quarter past three in the morning on Sunday, although firmly secured, one of the hatches gave way under the relentless onslaught of mountainous waves. The two crew members on watch sounded the alarm, as seawater came rushing into the ship. The generator failed and all electricity was lost. In the hold, the shortwave transmitter toppled over and smashed into the 10 kWatt medium wave. The Uilenspiegel was also dragging her anchor. On deck, by means of flares and setting fire to some clothing, the crew managed to draw the attention of the ‘Suffolk Ferry’. In spite of the severe gale, the train-ferry was on its daily run from Zeebrugge to Harwich. Subsequently the maritime station Ostend Radio broadcast this message on the emergency frequencies: “Following received from train ferry 'Suffolk Ferry': ‘Radio vessel moored six miles NE by N from Môle end, Zeebrugge is in need of assistance'. Two minutes later the Suffolk Ferry sent out an SOS: “Radio station is sink­ing and requires lifeboat assistance”. Immediately a res­cue boat and the tug ‘Burgemeester Van Dam­me’ were scrambled  from  Zeebrugge and  sent  out to  the  stricken vessel. Until their arrival the train-ferry remained alongside sheltering the Uilenspiegel from the worst of the waves. 

During the rescue effort 38-year old Oscar Vantournhout fell whilst leaping across to the Uilen­spiegel. Seconds later he was crushed between the lifeboat and the drifting radio ship. Vantournhout was the owner of the local fishing vessel Z 63 and had taken the place of another lifeboat man who was unavailable.  A week later Oscar Van­tournhout suc­cum­bed to his injuries in hospital at the seaside resort of Knokke, leaving a wife and two young sons of just 12 and 7 years old. 


Three times in succession a tugboat tried to secure a hawser to the Uilenspiegel in an attempt to haul the vessel to safety in Vlissingen. Each time the towing cable snapped. Braving the atrocious weather many hundreds of people watched the vessel’s death throes from the seafront in Heist and Knokke. In the course of the afternoon the Zeebrugge lifeboat managed to rescue five of the nine crew members. The remaining four were taken off by the Dutch lifeboat ‘President Wierdsma’ and brought to the port of Breskens. 

The 37-year old captain of the Uilenspiegel, local man Marcel Van Massenhoven from the coastal town of Heist, had refused to leave his ship. But when the push of a large wave brought him within arm’s length of the rescuers, they dragged him off. Only minutes later the concrete hulk swept past the Zwin estuary, and stranded on the beach at Retranchement, just a few hundred yards across the border in The Netherlands.


The next few days many thousands came to watch the broken vessel on the beach. The more adventurous went souvenir hunting on board. For newspapers and even archenemy Belgian radio and television the demise of the Uilenspiegel became a major story. A string of journalists trooped off to the windswept beach of Retranchement to interview the people that came on a veritable pilgrimage to their lost radio station. Upon leaving the vessel, one interviewee was put to shame however. While he was condemning the people that clam­­bered on board to loot the contents of the radio ship a tin of coffee slipped from under his coat for all to see.

At the time, as a boy of just 15, I was extremely an­noyed with the Belgian government for bringing in Marine Offences legislation, rather than put their own broadcasting house in order. Later I understood that such is the way of politicians and therefore they should never be trusted. Shortly afterwards Prime Minister Théo Lefèvre spent some time in Duinbergen, just a few miles from where the Uilen­spiegel ran aground. Wheth­er he went to visit the wreck in the thick snow, as many of his countrymen did, I do not know. A few days after the radio vessel ran ashore the Big Freeze had set in with major snowfalls, temperatures that reached minus 20 and no frost-free nights until March 5th 1963. In spite of the Siberian weather I did get to give the ever lip-licking Prime Minister (he had a nervous tick) the evil eye though when, during the Xmas holidays, he dropped his son off at the Xaverian school in Heist for extra Algebra-tutoring by Brother Victor. Apparently the boy was just as hopeless at it as myself.


Over the years the Uilenspiegel, having found her final resting place on the beach, with the bow pointing towards Antwerp, slipped ever deeper in the sand. For a long time the wreck remained a popular tourist attraction. Many Flemish day trippers and German holiday makers flocked to the remains of the legendary pirate. In the early 70’s a young German tourist broke his back as he fell from the wreck. The town council in Sluis subsequently decided to have the upper structure blown up. Afterwards parts of the concrete keel could still be seen sticking out of the sand at very low tide. In 2001 growing concerns over safety made the authorities incorporate the debris of the Uilenspiegel keel into a new breakwater. And so the former radio ship, that was wrecked by the power of the waves, became part of the coastal defences to keep these same waves, now egged on by global warming, in check.


Few are aware that the ‘Nele’, Uilenspiegel’s very small tender, went on to make history of her own. In 1963 Victor Depaepe, who lived in Zeebrugge, found a document in the city archives at Bruges which was signed by King Charles II and had been forgotten for some 300 years. After his father had been beheaded, and since Cromwell was in power in Britain, the then Prince Charles took up residence in several European cities, each time until the money ran out or politics forced him to move on. From 1655 he also spent time in Bruges. Charles was running up large bills in the town and did not have the means to pay them. That’s when he had an ‘Eternal Privilege’ drawn up. This granted 50 Bruges fishermen -appointed by the town- the everlasting right to fish in British territorial waters. 

In 1963 the ‘Nele’ was renamed ‘King Charles II’ and Victor Depaepe –whom everyone called Fik­ken Poape- set sail and soon started fishing just a mile from the English coast. This was what the maritime inspec­tors had been waiting for. Sea fishery officers came on board and con­fiscated the catch. The Royal Privilege was said to be no longer valid. But Victor Depaepe was not prosecuted and hence did not get his day in court, which he had hoped and prepared for. 

Many years later when the Public Record Office in London released documents relating to the Depaepe-incident, here too unsavoury cover-up politics transpired. Lawyers for the British Minister of Agriculture had advised to avoid a court case against Victor Depaepe because it would prove that the privilege issued by Charles II was still very much legally valid.  So it proves that the legitimate aspirations of the people behind both the Uilenspiegel and the Nele largely foundered on the deviousness of politicians.

Saturday, 10 February 2018


In the 60’s many shortwave listeners, myself very much included, were puzzled by a mystery station which broadcast the same song over and over again. It was a badly modulated recording of Shirley Bassey belting out "Kiss me honey, honey, kiss me. Thrill me, honey, honey, thrill me. Don't care even if I blow my top, but honey, honey, don't stop!" The song was on a looped tape which lasted for just over two minutes and was then repeated. This went on for hours and hours on several frequencies and could be heard in most parts of the world. Here in Europe it was especially loud on 11.696 kHz near the edge of the 25 m band. The mysterious broadcast persisted for many years!

In the end it appeared that the endlessly repeated song was a new form of jamming. Usually communist countries trying to prevent their citizens from tuning in to broadcasts from certain Western countries by broadcasting loud oscillating sound waves on the same frequencies. Instead of producing this dreary, wobbly white noise the mystery jammer enlisted the the ‘help’ of Shirley Bassey to irritate would be listeners. First Cuba was blamed, then Iraq. The mystery was never really solved convincingly. Ultimately the most likely culprit proved to be Tehran trying to block communist sponsored broadcasts from Radio Peyk-e-Iran (Radio Free Iran), which were aired from East-Germany and later from Bulgaria. In 2006 the American State Department declassified information according to which Radio Peyk-e-Iran in its broadcasts in the 70’s regularly praised Khomeini for his “struggles” in support of “freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism”.


In the early 60’s, before Radio Caroline came on the scene, I used to travel the world every night in bed, an earphone plugged in and the small transistor balanced on my chest. I could hardly wait for dusk to reach South-America. As soon as the path between my home and the America’s was in total darkness the most exotic signals would be wheedling their way to my bedroom. Wintertime was the best since the sun set early and conditions were soon right for the sky wave to work its magic, especially in the 60 m band. And thumbing below the sheets my right hand had been well trained to find even the weakest local stations in Venezuela and adjacent countries. I even taught myself some Spanish for the purpose. Although I must say that Assimil’s ‘Español sin esfuerzo’ at times was still too much ‘esfuerzo’ for my liking. In spite of my learning French –a related language- at school, there was still quite a bit of effort involved before I started to understand a modicum of Spanish. A big help however was the fact that in Latin America the language is properly pronounced and clearly enunciated. In Spain on the other hand people sound permanently ravenous as they gobble up at least half of every word they speak.

Although I have never been much of a sports person –apart from basketball and squash- at times I even tuned in to football matches on the small Latin stations. That’s where I for the first time heard a goal being scored, a Latin goal that is. The ‘gooooool’ shout by the commentator on ‘Ecos del Torbes’ went on forever. Well, at least for well over a minute. By comparison goals scored in my neck of the woods are most modest affairs. Many internet blogs claim that the extended gol-screams were introduced in the 80’s by Hispanic television commentator Andrés Cantor in the States. This obviously is a total fabrication as the practice was already in full swing on Latin radio 20 years earlier. That fact has recently been confirmed by Cantor himself, who admitted: “Yo no inventé nada. La manera de gritar el gol está inventada hace mucho tiempo”.

The Venezuelan station ‘Ecos del Torbes’ was big on sports. It broadcast from San Cristóbal and had been on the air since 1947. Many years later, as luck would have it, when preparing offshore Radio Paradijs, I was to meet its founder Don Gregorio Gonzalez Lovera in the States.

Night time listening in bed offered me many years of atmospheric entertainment. Amongst my favourites were the Windward Islands Broadcasting Service from Dominica, Radio Rumbos in Venezuela and Radio Reloj from Costa Rica. In later years, being able to tune in to Radio Reloj even came in handy one eventful night on board the Mebo 2, as I will recount later.

Friday, 9 February 2018


With hindsight it proved that, a few years later, my next choice of favourite shortwave broadcaster was also most politically incorrect! My aim had been to pick up Springbok Radio in Afrikaans, because it is a language that is easy to understand for speakers of Dutch. That proved no simple matter, as these broadcasts were for domestic consumption only and not directed towards Europe. So I had to settle for Radio RSA broadcasting in Dutch from Johannesburg. In spite of the fact that it was the mouthpiece of the apartheid regime I was fascinated by the station. So much so that I collected titbits of radio news in a stencilled magazine called ‘Bokmakierie Express’. The name referred to the unique species of yellow, green and grey coloured ‘bush-shrike’, a bird native to Southern Africa. Even to this day, when I hear the loud melodious song of the Bokmakierie mixed, as it was, with RSA’s station call "Ver in die Wêreld Kitty", it still makes the hairs on my arms stand on end.

Some years after that, in 1970, even a Radio RSA listening group was formed during a get together in Utrecht. Most of us were in fact fans of ‘De puntjes op de X’, RSA’s dx-programme presented by Chris Uitzinger (1926-2006). Not to be outdone by the Dutch, a year later a garden party was organized in Belgium, at the home of antenna-specialist Hubert Carton in Loppem, near Bruges. As South-African officials were going to be present at this do, I popped in at the embassy in Brussels. The group wanted to make sure, that whoever was going to put in an appearance at our meeting, was well aware that our love of Radio RSA did by no means extend to the racist policies of the South African government. Having delivered this message, the Embassy’s chargé pointed to the corner  of his  office and  told me to “pick up the stick” that stood there. “Surely, he’s not going to beat me” I thought. Seeing that I was reluctant to follow his order, he added “walk with it”. Later the chargé explained that the artfully carved walking stick had belonged to Paul Kruger (1825-1904) the first president of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the face of Boer resistance against the British. The walking stick, called a kierie in Afrikaans, was on its way back to RSA, having been on display at an exhibition in The Netherlands. 

As it happens, it was on Radio RSA, that my voice first hit the airwaves. In November 1969, at the studio of RSA-member Izaak De Kramer in Tongeren, we both recorded season’s greetings for the X-mas edition of Chris Uitzinger’s DX-programme. It was weird to subsequently hear one’s voice filter through the static from half a world away. Soon however even more outlandish things were waiting in the wings. But first, I had to wade through a few more acres of shortwave real estate. 


Although it was not against the law, my mother was not too happy about me listening to pro­grammes -in Dutch or otherwise- from the USSR. Her displeasure grew ex­ponentially how­ever when I re­ceived a letter from Russia and the postman decided to deliver it to the wrong address, a bit further up the road. “Whatever will the neighbours think”, she sighed disapprovingly. My mother, having seen the Gestapo at close quarters during the war, felt sure that our family must now be under the watchful eye of whatever equivalent organisation was bound to be in existence in Belgium… I, on the other hand, was delighted having received a commemorative pin and a letter (on cheap rice paper) singing the praises of Gherman Titov. On the 6th of August 1961 he had become the second man in space. In the event it proved that my early flirtation with Russian radio did not summon the secret police to our house, much to the relief of my mother. 

Radio Moscow be­gan broadcasting to The Netherlands and Flanders as far back as 1930. During the height of the Cold War Russia was on the air in 65 languages, including three half hour programmes in Dutch every evening. The station had one of the best known interval signals. Moscow could be picked up easily in shortwave and -from transmitters in East Germany or the Baltic states- also on medium wave. Transmissions in Dutch and many other languages were discontinued in 1994, when the roubles ran out, some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Soon however, I drifted further afield discovering pastures new in shortwave. Another early favourite was the Mailbag presented by Keith Glover on ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Mel­bourne. There was no mistaking his typ­ic­al nasal twang as the signal hopped across the globe on a Sunday mor­ning. His voice sounded as fam­iliar to me as the Kookaburra’s call. Keith even sent out airmail letters to tell listeners in advance when they were going to be mentioned on the airwaves of Radio Aus­tralia. Those were the pre-streaming days when distance still had magic. Radio Australia’s pro­grammes usually came booming in on a rock steady signal in the 25 m band. 

Mentioning the Kookaburra just now, I feel I must recount the story Keith Glover told on the air one Sunday morning. He explained that laughing Jacko, the broadcasting Kookaburra (the largest of all kingfishers) was captured in the bush whilst minding its own business sitting in a gumtree. The bird was brought to the studio and was coaxed into performing its uncannily loud call, echoing human laughter. When the sound engineer played back the recording, Jacko was so startled that he promptly fell off his perch.  Although today the familiar symbol of Radio Australia is the Kangaroo, long ago it was more often the laughing Kookaburra. Laughing Jacko combined with Waltzing Matilda was for many years Radio Australia's world famous interval signal.    

In the beginning -when my knowledge of English was still a bit higgledy piggledy- I was also deliberately seeking out stations that offered programmes in Dutch. That made for some unlikely bedfellows, as both Radio RSA in Jo­hannesburg and Radio Moscow became regular haunts of mine. Hearing my own language spoken from so far away obviously gave me some kind of kick.


One of the first broad­casters I was captivated by, when initially roaming the short­wave, was “Happy Sta­­tion”. That was the special Sunday morning program­me broad­cast world­wide by Radio Netherlands. Little did I know that many years later  I would be in more or less the same time slot when presenting “North Sea Goes DX” on RNI. “Happy Station” was in fact the oldest running radio pro­gramme in existence. It was presented by the multi-lingual Eddy Startz (1899-1976), who had started his transmissions for the Dutch company Philips in Eindhoven in 1928. As a young boy in 1960 I was very much taken with Startz’s happy chatter and the mixture of Dutch street organ music and marches by John Philip Souza. Although Souza wrote over a hundred marches, the one that sticks out in my memory is “Stars and Stripes Forever”. On the rare occasions that he was stormbound and at home, my father was also very fond of the programme. In the kitchen, only yards away, my mother was oblivious to it. She seemed to prefer cooking Sunday dinner to any form of entertainment that did not include the then German heartthrob Freddy Quinn. Who were we to complain, when we were about to be treated to succulent chicken in a thick brown sauce! It has to be said, all my mother’s dishes were deliciously Delia, avant la lettre.

Thursday, 8 February 2018


On New Year’s day 1961, I saw my meagre savings gratefully topped up by my grandmother. That meant that on the second of January I could go radio hunting in Bruges clutching a 500 franc note (just over £4 at the time), being the sum of my worldly possessions. My quest for a new, inexpensive and cheap to run portable radio of the transistor persuasion was soon met with success. I returned home with a small hand-held radio, an ear-to-ear smile and 5 francs to spare.

The new transistor radio fulfilled all my expectations. It was small, loud, clear and cost hardly anything to run. Apart from that, it managed to capture far away stations that had failed to register on the Tesla. An added bonus, which I only discovered after I got home, was the fact that the set even had ‘Shortwave’! 

Whilst studying in my room I also started listening to ‘English by Radio’ from the BBC. Every day I tuned in to programmes for beginners and intermediate learners. The lessons were broadcast on 648 (where now Caroline lurks :) and 1296 kHz, the loudest channels on the Medium Wave at the time. I sent off £ 2.5 to an address in Brussels and subsequently obtained a year’s subscription to a weekly magazine, which included the texts of the dictation exercises that had been broadcast the previous week. That was a great help for a budding learner of English. After many spelling trials and tribulations I got quite good at it. In fact I had turned learning English into a hobby. Thanks to the BBC my knowledge of the language increased in leaps and bounds. I didn’t have the faintest idea then, that at some time in the future I would become a stringer for one of the BBC stations. I’m sure that would never have happened if it had not been for that small transistor radio. 


It was in the late 1950’s that I became a regular listener to Radio Luxemburg, the English service in the evening on 208m Medium Wave. I vividly remember sitting at the dining table with my father enjoying ‘Wooden Heart’ by Elvis on Luxy. It must have been 1960, as at the time the song was in the hit parade for weeks on end. Tuning in to Radio Luxembourg was like a breath of fresh air, maybe even akin to being fed a few liberal doses of pure oxygen. Until early in 1960 Luxemburg was the only radio station in the whole of Europe that played the latest records non-stop. It was the same year I started to learn English at school. I was 13 then.

My teacher in Heist, Xaverian Brother Ildefons Rotsaert, spoke proper King’s English, but devoted much of his tutoring time perfecting his hate of Communism. Although I was very determined to do well, after the first week I proved to be the worst pupil at English in the whole class. Apparently I had even failed to grasp the correct spelling of the ‘definite article’. The shame was too much to bear! This wasn’t supposed to happen. My father’s family had spent the entire war in England and many family members felt more British than the Brits. No wonder I kept quiet about what I considered to be ‘an absolute disaster’. Before my parents ever found out I had turned things around. So much so, that just days later I was ‘best of class’ for English, and remained so. However that was not the case for many of the other subjects. But I considered that to be of lesser importance…

A few months earlier, by continuously pestering my parents, and purposely doing rather well at school, I was allowed to choose my very own transistor radio. Well, that is not exactly true. My parents bought me a portable radio. It was the cheapest model available, but still a heavy strain on my mother’s purse. For a while I was ecstatic with my -medium wave only- red and cream coloured ‘Tesla Minor’. It was built in Czechoslovakia but still had vacuum tubes instead of transistors. As a result my infatuation with radio soon turned into too high maintenance a love affair. My Tesla Minor became a major disappointment as it only performed after ingesting a bulky and expensive battery, which in addition was very short lived. Especially since I spent long hours listening to Radio Veronica, the offshore station which had just started broadcasting off the Dutch coast in April 1960. That was a full four years before Caroline’s bell tolled. I remember walking to my grandmother’s during the Summer of 1960, with my Tesla tuned to 192m, listening to Veronica. I might just as well not have bothered to bring the portable. On a warm day in Heist one could hear Veronica’s hits and ‘Nur Die’ commercials just about everywhere as they poured into the streets from every open door and window. That Summer it seemed all land based stations were out of favour.  No prizes for guessing why.

The luxury of having a portable tube radio however utterly drained my finances. Hence, the Tesla set was soon demoted. It was put in the corner of our veranda and the small loudspeaker was hooked up to the main radio. That way we could also listen whilst enjoying the Summer sunshine. The main thing was that it didn’t cost me anything anymore, which meant that I could save up for a proper transistor radio.


It soon proved that my mother’s wireless set survived unscathed my many manipulations. Hence, the rules were further relaxed. This meant that I was now allowed ‘on the Medium Wave’. The increasingly appealing LW and KW, which stood for Long Wave and Short Wave, remained off-limits however. No reason was given, but I think my mother feared that engaging too many of the push buttons on the wireless box might upset some delicate balance in the innards of the set.

On the new stomping grounds my attention was soon drawn by the children’s programmes in Dutch broadcast from Hilversum in The Netherlands. To me they were slightly more appealing than any of the Flemish programmes on our own Belgian NIR, which stood for quite a mouth filling ‘Nationaal Instituut voor de Radio-omroep’.

As I grew a bit older I became captivated by so-called ‘Hoorspelen’. In English they were known as radio plays. Through them the wireless became my very own Tardis. The actors -with only their voices- magically transported me to another place, a different time and new sensations. With no visual component these audio dramas depended on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the story. As a result they were often referred to as “the theatre of the mind”. Radio drama became very popular before television ruined everything. That’s why even today I often only listen to Eastenders whilst doing some work on the computer. I like to think that my imagined version of the goings-on in Albert Square somehow has the edge. 

Looking back, the effectiveness of radio drama was probably best born out by a Halloween radio special broadcast by CBS in the States. In 1938 Orson Welles proved so good at communicating with his listeners and creating the theatre of the mind, that he drove a nation into panic (if the papers of the day are to be believed, that is). In the radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds’, he presented H.G. Wells’ novel as a simulated news broadcast. People believed it and ran into the streets with wet towels as make­shift gas masks to protect against the poison gas the radio said was headed to­wards them. Many had no doubt that civili­zation was laid to ruin by invading Martians and were convinced it was the end of the world. One particular farmer who, when hearing about the menacing Martian war machines with their tenticular arms and stilt-like metallic legs, is said to have gone out into his field armed to the teeth, ready to do battle with the alien monsters. In the darkness the poor man mistook his neighbour’s water tower for one of the gigantic Martian invaders, blowing several large holes in it with his shotgun.

In the seventies we had a copy of the broadcast as performed by the Mercury Theatre in our music library on board Radio North Sea. In fact on September 17, 1973, ‘Daffy’ Don Allen put the ‘War of the Worlds’ double LP on the air in it’s entirety on RNI. The album, lasting for over an hour, had just been released in Europe. While it was playing, the dj’s on the Mebo apparently sat listening in the darkened studio. Graham Gill was reported to have chewed off all of his fingernails during the performance. Unfortunately I wasn't on board at the time. In connection with the ‘War of the Worlds’ many people have remarked that when they approach the towers of Red Sands Fort -the former Maunsell Sea Fort home of Radio 390 in the Thames Estuary- they are immediately reminded of these woeful Wellsian war machines.


About a year later entertainment did come to the house, but it was not intended as such. My great grandfather, Leopold Vantorre (Pol Mussche), had decided to install a ship-to-shore transmitter on the remaining fishing vessel he owned (Zeebrugge 34). This meant that if we wanted to receive updates from my father during his fishing trips we needed a wireless set. It was to be my mother’s wireless set, of course. With the money for a first instalment payment in her purse we set off to Bruges. In those days that was the nearest place where radio’s could be bought.

In Degraeve’s wireless shop there was only a limited choice. The owner suggested a state of the art German Saba receiver. It would be delivered later in the week, since first the innovative FM-module had to be ripped out and replaced by the Fishery Band. That was standard procedure for all the families of fishermen who went to buy a set at the shop. To sacrifice the so-called UKW (Ultra Kurtz Welle) was no great loss. At the time there were no FM-broadcasts in Belgium yet.

Installing the new set at home also meant spanning a wire antenna between insulators high above the yard to enable reception of the fairly weak transmissions emanating from the fishing trawlers. Upon my mother’s insistence the antenna wire was also fed through quite a number of evenly spaced wine corks. This was not to flaunt the illusion of wealth, since we never drank wine in those days, but to prevent any near-sighted pigeons in the neighbourhood meeting an untimely death by flying into this unfamiliar obstacle. Also, from day one it was made clear to me that the receiver was only to be used to listen to the news from Brussels (NIR) on Medium Wave and to the calls on the Fishery Band. In addition I was not -under any circumstance- to interfere with the set, since I was liable to break it. For the same reason, I also had to keep my distance, lest I accidentally brush against it.

These rigid rules and regulations soon changed however. Switching on the set to tune in to national radio was easy, but fine tuning to 126m or 133m in the Fishery Band soon proved a bridge too far for my mother. So whenever I was not at school I got happily lumbered with the task. Three times a day I made sure that we could hear my father’s messages. Amid the cacophony of calls I usually recognized my father’s signature whistle before my mother did. As soon as I made out the first few notes of “Over the rainbow” I turned up the volume to hear the message. Richard Briers later whistled the same tune in the “Good Life”, just like my father did all those years ago... But in spite of my obvious monitoring talents I was still only allowed to touch the UKW-button for the Fishery Band. The rest remained temptingly out of bounds.

But I soon discovered that at the far end of this band some music could be heard. That was the area where the Fishery Band spilled over into the lower end of the Medium Wave. And late at night it got even better with mysterious stations fading in below the Maritime Band as well. At the time I did not have an inkling that in equatorial parts of the world this Tropical Band was used by local broadcasters as a substitute Medium Wave. The ordinary Medium Wave being too prone to interference by electrical storms. In a nutshell, that is how I became lord and master of the mock-ivory UKW-button on my mother’s radio. Unbeknown to her the conquest of the rest of the wireless set was now on my to-do list.