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Monitoring stations – Pacific Region

Adapted with thanks to Jim Whiteside, Eric Shea, Larry Reid, Frank Statham, Dick Lobb et al.

Laval Sept 2009.

 

Some years back, Jim Whiteside wrote:

 

No chronicle pertaining to the development of Pacific Region District Offices would be considered complete without a profile of the Monitoring Service. In general the function of monitoring has always been an integral part of the operational duties of a Radio Inspector. In particular, the Monitoring Services evolved as a specialized discipline in support of work performed by Radio Inspectors.

 

In the context of this report, monitoring is ‘THE INTERCEPTION AND ANALYSIS OF SIGNALS TO ENSURE FAIR AND EQUITABLE USE OF THE SPECTRUM BY CANADIANS’. As a signatory to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Canada also conducts monitoring to assist internationally in the best cooperative use of the spectrum. The complexities of monitoring have grown in direct proportion to the advancements made in the realm of radio communications.

 

From the early years of radio communications in British Columbia, monitoring was performed by those engaged in the Government of Canada radio service. Coast stations included this element in the mix of duties they performed in the maritime mobile service. In other emerging services such as amateur, broadcast, aeronautical and land, no serious attention was given to them until the 1920's when Radio Inspectors became involved in the regulatory process. If one can accept McLuhan’s proposition that modern communications date from the invention of the stirrup, then it can be proposed that the rationale for modern monitoring was established with the Washington Conference of 1927 when restrictions were imposed on the use of spark transmitters.

 

Spark transmitters came into common operation from the turn of the Twentieth century for various reasons. They were relatively inexpensive, simple to operate and repair, could handle high power, and were effective. They were also, by definition, generators of very wide-band radio frequency energy. As more and more radio stations came on the air, it became more and more urgent that radio transmitters occupy as little spectrum as possible to carry out their services.

 

Competition for spectrum became a struggle for b broadcast and voice transmitters which did not use the spark technique but rather the more sophisticated vacuum tube. Members of the Washington conference imposed rather strict limits on the use of spark transmitters for these reasons and Radio Inspectors assumed the task of locating and dealing with them as problems emerged. Monitoring was essential in the orderly location of these offenders.

 

As more and more radio stations, especially broadcast stations, became established during the 1930's, Radio Inspectors sought support for their field operations from the established coast stations and their skilled personnel. About the time when the Department of Transport was formed in 1936, the Point Grey Coast station, located on the University of British Columbia grounds since 1908, commenced fixed monitoring as a distinct function. Elementary frequency measurements were made on broadcast stations in order to develop standards necessary for the adequate separation of frequency assignments. Additionally, as maritime mobile work permitted, some attention was devoted to the surveillance of other services to evaluate quality of operation. Much of this work was pioneered personally by Mr Gray, the Officer-in-Charge of Point Grey radio at that time.

 

The monitoring activity continued to develop inexorably until about the beginning of World War II when the decision was made to create a co-located but autonomous Monitoring Station.

 

This Monitoring Station, the first for the Pacific Region, was created from available personnel and equipment seconded from Point Grey Marine Radio (VAI). It was sequestered in the same building, supervised by Mr. Gray, and operated by specialists who displayed an aptitude for this unique field of unilateral communications.

 

Meanwhile, special monitoring operations developed in Canada as a result of World War II. It became apparent to Allied Naval Intelligence that a wealth of information, vital to the Allied cause, was readily available provided it could be collected and processed to produce something of value. Certain Canadian monitoring operations, quasi-intelligence in nature, were devoted to the interception of Axis-Powers transmissions, in high frequency cipher codes. Skilled operators copied these messages, transcribed them into usable formats, and submitted them for analysis. Another rich harvest was offered these special monitoring facilities. “ Seekriegsleitung” (German Naval Headquarters, Berlin ) insisted that all U-boats, wherever they may be at sea, rise to the surface regularly to transmit their reports using high-frequency. By learning to lurk in readiness for these transmissions, monitoring stations were not only able to collect vital data but could obtain direction finding bearings on these sources. Locations of U-boats could be plotted thus allowing the safer routing of Allied merchant shipping and co-ordinated a ttacks on enemy units.

 

Having developed these special skills, some of these trained people were transferred to the Point Grey Monitoring Station to engage in surveillance of the Pacific theatre of war. One such person was Mr. Harry Lathwell, former Pacific Regional Superintendent of Authorizations, retired. Mr Lathwell, and several other specialists, became proficient at intercepting Japanese high frequency transmissions for the purposes previously described. However, with these transmissions, they had to transcribe the Japanese Kana code into readable material for Naval Intelligence. An example of the crucial importance of this work is contained in the fall of Hong Kong to Japanese forces in January, 1942. Canadian army personnel, sent to defend Hong Kong, were entirely lost in that sad venture. The only information available as to the names of those killed or captured was obtained by the interception and decoding of Japanese radio transmissions. Included in this world of esoteric activity were several British Columbia women who possessed a particular aptitude for monitoring work, one of those whom was Mrs. Agnes Lake, wife of Vancouver Police Inspector Vic Lake, retired.

 

During those years, so many people were required to man a continuous watch, that an “ interception station “ was set-up on Lulu Island, in the vicinity of Steveston , south of Vancouver.

 

Eric Shea recalls “ Late in 1944, after the U-boat problem was somewhat diminished, some of the interception work was transferred to the Japanese war and this entailed the copying of Kana code. This code consisted of 56 characters in lieu of our 26 and consequently was only printable using two of our letters - this consisting normally of a consonant followed by a vowel.. While our alphabet is made of up to four dot/dash combinations, kana code was primarily composed of five dot/dash combinations and some of up to six. While this may appear difficult, it was a fairly easy transition for operators proficient in the copy of normal code signals and many Japanese stations were operating at a fairly slow transmission speed.

 

A standard keyboard typewriter was utilized at all Canadian stations and it was not considered an advantage to acquire the Navy developed typewriter with a keyboard designed for Kana code. Since there was an advantage for reception of Japanese signals at the west coast it was decided to increase staffing at the Lulu Island Monitoring Station (Point Grey had been the original monitoring station at the west coast and continued to operate – Lulu Island was established specifically as an interception station) Early in 1945 Operators from a number of monitoring stations across Canada were transferred to that location.

 

Some of the Japanese transmissions were now at high speed and it was necessary to record the signals and replay at a slower speed. This was much prior to development of tape recorders and recording was done on cylinders rather than flat discs as used in the mechanical phonograph in use at that time. The recording quality was extremely poor but adequate for code. The work of intercepting Kana code was of short duration as the war in the Pacific ended in August 1945. “

 

Jim Whiteside continues: Thus, born of humble beginnings, tempered by the quickened demands of national emergency, did the Canadian Monitoring Service come of age. Following cessation of hostilities in 1945, monitoring at Point Grey reverted to a peacetime level of activity with reduced but highly trained staff. They were ready for the new era in domestic monitoring heralded by the ITU of Atlantic City, 1947.

 

Larry Reid recalls that “ in 1950, the first monitoring installation was made in a back room at the Pt. Grey station. State of the art General Radio Co. precision measurement equipment, together with an RCA AR88LF receiver, were supplied from Ottawa. An Ottawa technician made the installation with assistance from Sid Woods from our Radio Workshop. Initially, monitoring was restricted to below 30 MHz, but VHF capability was added later. Vern Read was appointed as the monitoring operator, and this service was only open weekdays, except when special assignments were required “.

 

Monitoring took on new dimensions following Atlantic City ITU. The International Frequency Registration Board was formed in Geneva to which

participating nations submitted special monitoring reports. New technical measurements of signal characteristics called for state-of-the-art equipment and the ability to employ it competently. The need for space to erect full-spectrum antennae and the encroachment of industrial noise upon sensitive receivers forced the Department to seek a new site for the Monitoring Station at Point Grey.

 

The Ladner Monitoring Station, in Delta, British Columbia, became the new home for this Regional activity in the mid-1950’s. Growing parallel to advances in communications technology, Ladner produced reports and material in support of Canada’s domestic and international needs. In recognition of the increased emphasis being placed on the technical side of monitoring, the operators were converted to the EL category. With this new grading came the plan to involve monitoring station personnel in the full range of duties performed by Radio Inspectors. This plan came into force with the creation of our new Ministry, the Department of Communications, in 1969.

 

This new plan proved beneficial because Radio Inspectors learned to deliver in the field the fruits of their efforts at the monitoring console. More flexibility was available to managers who could draw upon specialists fully competent in monitoring as well as all other Radio Inspector duties.

 

Eventually, the Ladner site became less desirable because of nearby industrial development such as the Roberts Bank coal port. This industrial development resulted in increased electrical noise which desensitized monitoring receivers. Fortuitously, about this same time, the Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation high-frequency transmitter site near Langley was being vacated as a result of conversion to the Trans-Pacific undersea cable. Department officials with vision acquired this new site with its superb characteristics. It satisfied nearly all of the International Radio Consultative Committed (CCIR) basic parameters for an excellent monitoring location. Therefore, in 1972, Larry Reid set the wheels in motion to purchase the property where the Cloverdale monitoring station would be situated. He flew to Ottawa, met the property management which resulted in Teleglobe providing funding the negotiating deal and the property was purchased.

 

The Ladner location was vacated and the Cloverdale/Surrey site Monitoring operation became a reality. Vern Read was the officer in charge of the radio operator staff for 4 or 5 months before taking ill and going on leave. He was replaced by Roger Drouin acting as the officer in charge. Jim Whiteside then won the job as district manager and staff was converted to Radio Inspectors.

 

Technical and operational improvements continued to be applied to the monitoring operation as well as increased field activities. Langley began to assume additional duties such as licensing, examinations, and interference investigations. These were folded into the other work with little difficulty. Increasing growth in services resulted in the establishment, in 1979, of an independent Langley District Office. Later, in 1984, Langley was renamed the Surrey Site and became part of an enlarged Vancouver District organization which provided services from two physical sites.

 

Today, Sept 2009, monitoring stations as we knew them back then are a thing of the past and are being replaced by automated and remote controlled installations.

 

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