Men of Goodwill
He doesn't play soccer, or "salta moleta" (the leapfrog game) but he's friendly with everyone in the convent school of Minor Friars of St Giacomo in northeastern Italy. Born in 1895 in a family of land owners, weak and in poor health (many doubt that he will survive his first year), Bortolo Begali grows almost normally thanks to the attention and medical care that his family's wealth makes possible. Admonitions of "Do not sweat, Bortolo!" and "Wrap yourself up!" are common throughout his childhood.
Experimenting with Electric Waves
He spends his free time at school in the physics laboratory with Father Beniamino, a teacher of physics who performs experiments with electrical waves. With the economist Father Damaso, they experiment generating waves using an induction coil, purchased from Ducretet workshop in Paris, which creates 5 inch sparks.
Father Damaso shares with his young student the passion for scientific experimentation. Beniamino, Damaso and Bortolo finally meet success when, after having set up a receiver that uses an Edison effect detector purchased from England, they are able to follow telegraphic transmissions between the Antivari station in Montenegro and the station in Bari (southern Italy).
Service in the WWI Trenches
After May 24, 1915, even though he is exempted from compulsory military service, he enlists as a volunteer and asks to be sent in the first line as a sharpshooter (cecchino). Bortolo is wounded on Podgora in 1916 but refuses invalid status and, after being promoted to sergeant, returns to fight at Fort Campomolon (one of the hottest places of WWI, especially during the Strafexpedition, also known as the Battle of Asiago, a counteroffensive launched by the Austro-Hungarians on the Italian Front).
He is wounded for the second time and is taken to the military hospital in Verona where he meets and becomes friends with Giovanni "Nan" Casabona, a telegrapher with a combat engineering unit, under treatment for burns to the hands due to an electric discharge caused by Ruhmkorff coil.
Dry Feet and Defied Orders
Bortolo refuses the invalid status again and enrolls in Officer Candidate School. After being promoted to Second Lieutenant he has an idea -- shoes! Shoes soaked with moisture and mud make life in the trenches very hard for soldiers. So he orders a supply of footwear for all the men of his platoon from his family's shoemaker. Bortolo is rewarded later when, after he is trapped in a grid, his soldiers disobey their orders and go to his rescue.
Unfortunately, after this incident he falls ill with pneumonia from the hours he spent in the mud and rain. After the major defeat in Caporetto, Bortolo can no longer return to his parents' house since the territory is now occupied by the Austrians. He moves to Val d'Illasi, Nan's home (who has not yet recovered the use of both hands), to convalesce.
A Spark Gap and Covert Communication
Talking and chatting in front of the fireplace over a glass of wine, they devise a plan to broadcast information from the occupied country using those very tools that he experimented with in the laboratory at the school of St Giacomo. A soldier of humble origins from a modest family probably wouldn't have been able to obtain support from his superiors, but the status of his family allowed Bortolo to gain the approval of High Command.
Prior to this, espionage communications had been carried out by pigeons, but the Austrians banned their breeding, making it a capital crime. Moreover, their snipers were ordered to shoot anything that flies. But the new media of radio is there to fill the void. In 1916, the technical development of radio does not permit them to be readily transportable. Fortunately, the St Giacomo convent radio is available behind enemy lines to communicate with the High Command.
During the night of February 2 Bortolo parachutes into S Fior (a town near St Giacomo), landing in an estate belonging to his family. He is helped by peasants to conceal the parachute and his uniform. (It was one of the first uses of the device designed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1500. It was rediscovered by the British and later improved by General Guidoni who died during a launch test over the airport of the town that now bears his name -- Guidonia Montecelio, near Rome.)
Since Bortolo has documents certifying that he's exempted from military service, the Austrians grant him a pass allowing him to move freely throughout the territory to look after his family's property (the prestige of his family is well known over the border also).
With the help of Father Beniamino, he sets up the radio. For the transmitter they use the Ruhmkorff coil powered by a stack of polarize. The transmission power is less than 10 W, radiating along a copper wire that Father Damaso who, in his youth was a member of the Trento Alpinist Society, stretches out from the laboratory school to the bell tower of the church every night. Since he is an experienced climber, he's not afraid of the height at the top of the spire, but he is terrified of the Austrians. As soon as he descends from the belfry he runs and hides in the cellar until the transmissions are finished. Then he climbs the belfry again to withdraw the antenna. The receiver is the same one they used to listen to broadcasts from Antivari. Among Bortolo's many informants are his sister and girlfriend (Lucia and Aura) who keep an eye on the rail traffic to Treviso. Unfortunately, the St Giacomo school was destroyed in 1944 by Allied bombing.
In Venice, at the same time, Nan has resumed service as sergeant and leads the operation of a squad of telegraphers. They need all their skills to follow the fleeting broadcasts from the occupied area, even with the best receiver of the time using a double circuit line, Fleming detector and French "Loupiote" amplifier (in French the triode vacuum tube was called loupiote). In spite of the fact that the signal is hardly readable, the connection is established almost every night.
Even without concrete evidence, the Austrians suspect Bortolo and he is often questioned but always convinces the Austrians of his innocence. In this manner he continues the operation until October 30, 1918 when, with the signing of the Armistice of Mudros, the peace desired by all men of good will arrived and the epic era of WWI came to an end.
Piero Begali, I2RTF, remembers hearing Sputnik as it beeped its way around the world in 1957. He was first licensed in 1964 as a Second Class ham. He has a technical background covering radio and mechanics and has worked most of his life as a machinist and mechanical engineer designing and manufacturing components for knitting machines. For the past 12 years he has been manufacturing the Begali line of telegraph keys for the amateur market, which can be seen at www.i2rtf.com. Piero can be reached at Officina Meccanica Pietro Begali, Via Badia 22, I-25060 Cellatica, Italy
All photos and drawings courtesy of Piero Begali, I2RTF.
Ruhmkorff Coil: A type of induction coil designed by Heinrich Ruhmkorff used to convert a low voltage DC input to a high voltage AC output. It consists of two coils of wire wound on an iron core and includes a magnetic switch, coupled to the iron core, in the DC input circuit to interrupt the input current inducing a high voltage output.
Battery polarization: A process in wet chemical cells where large amounts of hydrogen gas are generated. This gas tends to collect on the positive plate of the cell interfering with electric energy production.