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The Sinking of the Lusitania: A Ham Radio Connection

04/29/2015

Several Amateur Radio special event stations will be on the air in early May to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Cunard Line’s RMS Lusitania — at one time the world’s largest ship — off the coast of Ireland. As one of the events precipitating US entry into World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania by Germany on May 7, 1915, claimed some 1200 lives, although another 800 or so survived.

GB100MFA will operate during the entire month of May from the UK, with members of the Radio Officers Association at the helm from the lightship Planet in Liverpool, Lusitania’s home port and its ultimate destination on its voyage from New York. EI100MFA will be on the air from Ireland May 3-10. MFA was the ship’s call sign.

Other announced operations include KC9HYY/LUS100, operating May 1-9 from Wisconsin; N2L, operated May 1-15 by the Great South Bay Amateur Radio Club (GSBARC) from Long Island, New York, and WW1USA, operating May 9-10 from the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, by the Santa Fe Trail Amateur Radio Club.

According to wireless history accounts, it was a radio amateur, Charles Apgar, 2MN, of Westfield, New Jersey, who finally figured out the significance of the odd buzz-like transmissions he’d heard emanating evenings from German Telefunken station WSL in Sayville, Long Island. As recounted by the late Phil Petersen, W2DME, Apgar not only was curious but suspicious.

“Apgar had a very advanced sensitive Armstrong regenerative receiver that he modified to make off-the-air recordings on a cylinder recorder,” Petersen wrote. “Suspecting that WSL was transmitting secret intelligence at very high speed, Apgar further modified his audio recorder to greatly reduce the speed on playback. As he suspected, the ‘buzz’ was actually secret Morse code sent at very high speed.” Apgar turned his recordings of WSL’s transmissions over to the US Secret Service, which seized the station in July of 1915.

WSL officials “were charged with sending illegal secret messages regarding allied and neutral shipping,” Petersen recounted. “It was also believed that the German submarines obtained secret information that led to the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania. After the government seized the station, sinking by U-boats greatly decreased.” There is speculation that the German station on Long Island may actually have transmitted the command to sink the Lusitania.

Some historians believe the Lusitania was not really a neutral vessel and was carrying war munitions in addition to passengers. Germany had designated a war zone around the UK, and the German embassy in the US had placed newspaper ads warning transatlantic passengers not to sail on the Lusitania. Of the nearly 2000 passengers aboard the Lusitania, 159 were US citizens, and only 31 of them survived.

According to David Barlow, G3PLE, a former Marine Radio Officer and a founder-member of the Radio Officers Association, Guglielmo Marconi had booked his return passage to England on the Lusitania, and some believe that his presence on board would have made the ship a prime target. Marconi had a change of plans, however, and did not sail on the Lusitania after all.

Barlow said in his account that the ship’s chief radio operator, Robert Leith, transmitted several successful distress calls after the vessel was hit, and he remained at his post until he realized that the Lusitania was going to sink. He and fellow radio operator David McCormick were among the survivors. — Thanks to David Barlow, G3PLE; Bob Burchett, WB6SLC, and others

 



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