Monthly Archives: June 2014

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914


A hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort were assasinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, as reported here in the next day’s edition of the New York Tribune.

That morning, as the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne made his way to city hall, a bomb had been thrown at his entourage. The papers reported that he was indignant upon his arrival at city hall, and snapped, “Herr burgemaster, we come to pay you a visit and bombs are thrown at us. It is an insult!”

After the ceremonies had been concluded at city hall, the Archduke and Duchess announced that they would go to the hospital to visit the wounded members of their party. Despite being under the protection of a cordon of police, they made a wrong turn down a street where the young Gavrilo Princip seized the opportunity and fired the fatal shots upon the Archduke and Duchess.

Later reports, such as the Washington Times for July 1, 1914, revealed that scores of bombs had been awaiting the royals, and that the Archduke “had not one chance in a hundred to escape the Bosnian conspirators.” The Times also correctly reported that “war is near.”

The assassination did indeed serve as the spark that ignited the First World War. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia in 1908. While residents of Vienna paid surprisingly little attention to the assassination, it did spark a massive crackdown against Serbs in Sarajevo, as well as massive riots. The evening of the assassination, the mayor of Sarajevo issued a proclamation denouncing the crime, and announcing that there was no doubt that the bomb came from Belgrade. Anti-Serbian protests, as well as a virtual pogrom against the Serbs, followed.

Austria-Hungary also assumed (correctly, it turns out) that Serbia had been responsible for the assassination, and delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. When Serbia failed to comply, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28. Russia and Germany quickly mobilized their forces, and in response, Germany delivered an ultimatum to Russia to demobilize. When this ultimatum went unheeded, Germany then declared war against Russia on August 1. When France did not adequately comply with German demands for neutrality, Germany declared war on France on August 3, followed by a declaration of war against Belgium on August 4. In response, Britain declared war against Germany on August 4.

Wireless and other technologies were to play an important role in the course of that war, and we’ll be seeing many such examples here as we look back at the centennial of the Great War. The various ultimata and declarations seem to have been delivered successfully using normal diplomatic channels, and wireless seems to have played little role in the start of the war.

It is interesting to note, however, how Austria-Hungary had used technology as part of its unsuccessful attempt to incorporate Bosnia into its empire. The journal Electrical Engineering, January, 1914, reports the successful completion of the Vienna-Sarajevo telephone circuit: “Satisfactory telephonic communication has recently been established between Vienna and Sarajevo, a distance of 875 miles.” Presumably, that line was cut in the coming months, and one press account notes that in reaction to the assassination, all telephone and telegraph facilities in Sarajevo were shut off to all but official communications.

The world would soon be at war, and wireless was to play a role.

The (non) Sinking of the Siberia

SiberiaLostOn May 1, 1914, the New York World Herald, along with most other U.S. papers, carried the tragic news of the apparent loss of the 11,000 ton steamer Siberia off the coast of Formosa. The paper reported that the gravest anxiety prevailed over the fate of the 821 souls aboard, including that of Mrs. Francis Burton Harrison, the wife of the Governor General of the Phillipine Islands. Ships from Britain, Japan, and the United States were racing to the scene of the wreck. The ship’s owners, the Pacific Mail Company of San Francisco, spared no expense in dispatching aid.

The headline of the Seattle Star reported that the ship was “wrecked by Chinese pirates” and helplessly ashore on the coast of Formosa.

On May 2, only an hour behind schedule, and much to everyone’s surprise, the Siberia sailed into Manila harbor none the worse for wear. She hadn’t sunk, nor had she been captured by Chinese pirates. She had been sailing in fair weather the entire time, and her reported demise had been greatly exaggerated.

Apparently the confusion arose when the Siberia made wireless contact and reported her position to the nearby steamer Persia. The Siberia’s call sign was WWU, and the Persia’s call sign was MBS. At some point, the Siberia’s operator was calling the Persia and sent, in International Morse, MBS DE WWU.

This was mistaken for a distress call. In Morse, the Persia’s call MBS is:

_ _      _ . . .    . . .

The distress call SOS is:

. . .     _ _ _    . . .

The confusion probably arose when the call sign was repeated multiple times:

_ _      _ . . .    . . .  _ _      _ . . .    . . .  _ _      _ . . .    . . .

The call was overheard by at least one Japanese steamer as well as by the operator of the shore station at Ozesaki, Japan. The Japanese operators mistook it for an SOS. The Siberia probably had a more powerful transmitter than the Japanese stations, and the Japanese operators’ frantic acknowledgements of the distress call were never heard by the Siberia. Instead, the massive rescue effort was dispatched.

In a later report of the incident, the Pacific Mail Company, which was also the owner of the Persia, was quoted as saying that it will probably change the call sign of the Persia.

The Siberia was sold in 1916 to a Japanese line and was renamed the Siberia Maru.  She remained in service until 1930 and was scrapped in 1934.


“Wireless Mistake Causes Report of Shipwreck,” Popular Mechanics, July 1914, p. 80

“Marine Insurance Notes”, Pacific Marine Review, June 1914, p. 58.


ARRL 100th Anniversary

ARRLnewsitemA hundred years ago, the New York Sun for June 14, 1914 reported on the beginnings of the ARRL.

The article announces that “H.P. Maxim, who invented a silencer, hopes he has invented a communicator.” It outlines Maxim’s plan, which is generally what the ARRL accomplished soon thereafter. “The scheme is to get all the amateur wireless operators of the country, and they exist by the hundreds of thousands, interested in transmitting messages from coast to coast.” Maxim is quoted that the proposal is to “select those stations which are able to transmit from fifty to 100 miles and which are kept in perfect running order. And then all stations in the league which we are forming, to be known as the American Radio Relay League, will at a predetermined hour ‘listen in.’ That hour will probably be 7:30 each evening.”

Maxim points out that the intention is “to make this thing strictly amateur. The messages are to be relayed by courtesy. There will be no fees for receiving, delivering or relaying the messages. No money transaction of any kind is to be considered in connection with the league.”

He also notes that the Government is likely to be cooperative, since the relay proposal ensures that it “will make it unnecessary for an amateur to have a high powered set,” thus reducing interference.

The War slowed things down a bit, but the first “Transcon” test was successfully carried out in January, 1921, with a successful transcontinental message and reply in “two hours flat.”

Soldatensender Calais and D-Day

D-Day Landing (U.S. Army photo)

D-Day Landing (U.S. Army photo)

The complete broadcast day for D-Day, June 6, 1944, was recorded by both CBS and NBC. One detail that I always found interesting was the following wire report, which was also carried in print by the AP in the D-Day afternoon papers:

Music for Invasion Forces

About the same time the German controlled Calais radio station came on the air with the following announcement in English:

“This is D day. We shall now bring music for the invasion forces.”

The whole Nazi controlled French radio network went off the air at 7:25 a.m. in the middle of a physical training broadcast.

Milwaukee Journal, June 6, 1944.

I’ve never seen any explanation of this curious statement, although the impression was that the French personnel of the station had taken advantage of the chaos and taken over the station.

The truth, however, appears to be even more interesting. It seems likely that the “German controlled Calais radio station” was actually Soldatensender Calais, a German-language station operated not by the Nazis, but by the Political Warfare Executive of the British Foreign Office. Soldatensender Calais (Soldier’s Station Calais) was broadcasting not from Calais, but from the village of Milton Bryan, Bedfordshire, England, with a massive 500 kilowatt mediumwave transmitter. It broadcast on 612 kHz, 714 kHz, and 833 kHz, frequencies shared by Radio Deutschland.

Joseph Goebbels himself lamented in his diary in 1943:

In the evening the so-called “Calais Soldiers Broadcast” which evidently originates in England and uses the same wavelength as Radio Station Deutschland when the latter is cut out during air raids, gave us something to worry about. The station does a very clever job of propaganda and from what is put on the air one can gather that the English know exactly what they have destroyed and what not.

The transmitter had originally been ordered by WJZ in Newark, New Jersey (now WABC, with its city of license New York), in hopes that the FCC would authorize the high power to match the superpower signal of WLW in Cincinnati which had in use on and off from 1934 to 1939. But when the FCC insisted on maintaining the 50 kW limit for standard broadcast stations, the station was eager to sell the transmitter to the British government for £165,000. At the time, the station was the world’s most powerful mediumwave station. It had the code name of Aspidistra, and remained in use by the BBC until 1982.

It was able to successfully spoof Nazi broadcasts to the point that it was regarded as a reputable source of information. When real German stations went off the air during air raids, the powerful British station would rebroadcast the signals of other German network stations still on the air, thus giving the impression that it was part of the German network. The superpower transmitter could blanket the continent, thus allowing it to join the Nazi broadcast network seemlessly. But into those programs, it could subtly insert misinformation. For example, it could be used to issue false evacuation orders to send civilians to clog the roads during German military movements. Captured German POW’s, even those who were aware of the station’s source, commended the British on the station’s plausible deniability. If a German officer walked in while the men were tuned to the station, they could plausibly claim that they thought it to be an ordinary German station.

The station’s creator, Sefton Delmer, described its programming as “cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt.” Most of its programming mimicked the official German stations. But when needed, disinformation could be inserted. The Germans eventually figured out what was going on, and they preceded official instructions with the following announcement:

The enemy is broadcasting counterfeit instructions on our frequencies. Do not be misled by them. Here is an official announcement of the Reich authority.

Of course, the English station then began its messages with the same announcement!

The only reference I could find to Soldatensender Calais with respect to the invasion was that when Calais later fell to the Canadians, the station was renamed Soldatensender West. I haven’t been able to find any explanation as to why the station made its English broadcasts on D-Day. But it seems to me that the intention was probably to demonstrate that Calais had already fallen in the early morning hours of June 6, and that the French staff of the fictitious station had taken matters into their own hands to start broadcasting music for the benefit of the invading Allied armies.

And since the American press apparently fell for it and reported the activities of the “German controlled Calais radio,” this tactic seems to have worked.


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