After All: How the spark gap proved itself mightier than the bomb
Image credit: Reveille Press
A little-known story of a tiny Belgian enclave that helped save London from possible destruction during the First World War.
Last month, I was asked to give a talk on the enclaves of Western Europe at the Royal Geographical Society’s London headquarters in Kensington. Enclaves have been one of my subjects of interest for years, but I was genuinely surprised by the sheer number of people who turned up to listen to the talk on such a relatively esoteric topic.
Here, I can reassure those E&T readers who may not feel quite certain as to what defines an ‘enclave’: there’s no full consensus about it even among geographers. Whereas some believe than an enclave constitutes a part of one sovereign country, totally surrounded by another sovereign country, others insist that not only has an enclave to be “totally surrounded” by another country but also landlocked by it – a definition that automatically excludes from this concept such towns and territories as Russia’s Kaliningrad region, or Spanish towns Ceuta and Melilla, often misnamed enclaves, for all of these have access to the sea.
Of the 255 proper enclaves currently existing in the world, almost 90 per cent are located in one small corner of Asia: between Cooch Behar, a district of the Indian state of West Bengal, and Bangladesh. Only a handful are in Europe.
If we don’t count the recently decommissioned Vennbahn railway, which used to form six small pockets of Germany inside Belgium, the technology aspects of the remaining European enclaves are few and far between (they are all just small towns and villages, after all), but – and that is what triggered this particular column – I was unexpectedly reminded of one of them after the talk, when I was approached by Stephen Booth, former editor of ‘Geomatics World’ magazine, who was in the audience.
Mr Booth showed me an article on the Cooch Behar enclaves, published in his magazine in July 2012. The author was Brendan Whyte, assistant map curator of the National Library of Australia, whose name immediately rang a bell, as I remembered corresponding with him on the subject of enclaves ten years earlier.
On returning home, I dug up this correspondence, which included a PDF copy of the book ‘Listening to Ludendorff’ – a First World War memoir by the Belgian officer and radio engineer Paul Goldschmidt, translated and introduced to English readers by Whyte himself. (General Erich Ludendorff was one of the top German army commanders during that war).
The book was all set in Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog – a unique Dutch/Belgian municipality comprising 22 pieces of Belgium and eight of Holland, a place which I had visited many times and knew very well.
The border inside Baarle resembles a hank of yarn chased by a playful kitten, thoughtlessly leaping across streets and squares and cutting through houses, offices and shops. The confusion is such that every building in town has to be marked not just with a number, but also with a tiny Dutch or Belgian flag underneath it. Of three houses standing next to each other on the same side of the same street, one could be in Belgium, the next in Holland, and the third split between the two.
Baarle is also the only place in Europe where one can find the so-called sub-enclaves (or counter-enclaves), e.g. Dutch enclaves that are within the Belgian enclaves that are within the Netherlands. One of them played a pivotal role in the First World War, as I learned while visiting Baarle in 2002 from Arie P de Jong – a retired Colonel of the Royal Netherlands Air Force and a local historian.
During the war, all 22 Belgian enclaves of Baarle were occupied by Germany, whereas the town’s Dutch enclaves remained neutral. Inside one of those Dutch enclaves, there was (and still is) a tiny Belgian sub-enclave (i.e. an enclave within and enclave), which the German army was unable to access without violating Dutch neutrality, potentially bringing the Netherlands into the war on the Allied side – a scenario that Germany wanted to avoid at all costs.
It was there, in that minuscule unoccupied bit of Belgium, that Sub-Lieutenant Paul Goldschmidt was tasked with setting up an openly operating radio station in 1915. The aim of the wireless tower was to intercept German radio communications (including those from General Ludendorff), to warn the Allies of Zeppelin raids and alert them to German naval and troop movements. The equipment, most of which was assembled in London, was “embryonic” – a spark-gap transmitter of several kilowatts, a 40-metre transmission mast and a coal-powered generator.
As Goldschmidt, an engineer, himself explains in his memoirs: “at its most basic, the spark-gap is simply two metal spheres across which an electric discharge arcs when the transmitting circuit is completed by pressing the Morse key.”
Towards the end of the war, the spark-gap technology at the station was replaced with vacuum tubes (or valves), when a type 3TER valve amplifier was installed.
The impressive record of the MN 7 wireless station behind the German lines includes an early warning of the impending bombardment of London by three German airships (dirigibles) in 1916. As a result, all three were shot down en route by British artillery in one of the first air-defence operations in British military history, and the bombing never took place.
Transmitting at 1280m/234kHz, the tiny station continued to forewarn the Allies about impending air raids – by airships and then by the first bomber-planes – up to the end of the war, thus potentially saving thousands of lives.
Brendan Whyte, my fellow enclaves enthusiast, chose the following meaningful epigraph (from Lancelot Hogben’s ‘Science and the Citizen’, 1940) for this exceedingly rare book, first published in English by Reveille Press in 2013: “In the age of the pamphleteers it was said that the pen is mightier than the sword. This is not the age of the pamphleteers. It is the age of the engineers. The spark gap is mightier than the pen.”
And, as the above story proves, mightier than the bombs, too!
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