Sunday, March 11, 2018

Goa’s tryst with WW II--Blitzkrieg in the Backyard:

Blitzkrieg in the Backyard:

Blitzkrieg in the Backyard: Goa’s tryst with WW II

11 Mar 2018 07:56am IST
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By Savio Correia
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Seventy-five years ago, on 9 March 1943 to be precise, Goa had a tryst with World War II. Around midnight on the last day of Carnaval, mysterious explosions occurred off Mormugao Port aboard three German merchant ships “Ehrenfels”, “Braunfels” and “Drachenfels” and an Italian “SS Anfora”, in a tale marked with high espionage, sabotage, intrigue and daredevil military operation conducted by the British Secret Service through an amateur “ageing” group of British army volunteers, all in a typical Goan setting. The incident is said to have changed the course of the War in the sub-continent; maybe even delayed the Japanese armies’ march into India. A lot still remains shrouded in mystery though.
 Outbreak of WW II hostilities in August 1939 saw three German freighters sailing in the vicinity seek refuge at Mormugao Port. The Italian “Anfora” arrived in June 1940 following Italy’s entry in the war. Portugal was officially neutral during WW II, and Goa being part of Portuguese India was neutral territory. The ships were promptly interned by the local Government and ordered to turn over all arms, dismantle their radio and remain apart of the war in exchange for the protection of the port.    
As the war continued, the plight of the crew turned extremely pitiable and some resorted to desertion. Though not seen as threats, the ships remained under the watch of Allied intelligence.
The threat perception changed in early 1942 when the British Government handed over a nota verbal to Lisbon about possibility of the German ships escaping to take active part in the war possibly as refuelling vessels.
  According to author James Leasor, the British intelligence unit “Special Operations Executive” (SOE) based at Meerut intercepted coded radio messages suspected to be transmitted from the Ehrenfels to German U-boats in the Indian Ocean with detailed information on Allied ships leaving Bombay Harbour, the source suspected to be an Indian National Army volunteer.  Events came to a head when forty-six Allied ships were sunk by German U-boats in the Indian Ocean over a six-week period in the fall of 1942. The toll continued to climb steadily with twelve attacks in the first week of March 1943.  SOE received orders to eliminate the Ehrenfels, and with it the transmitting station. Regular military units were not deployed as the attack would be carried out on a neutral territory. Instead, 18 members of the Calcutta Light Horse (CLH), a cavalry reserve in the British Indian Army, were recruited. The mission was assigned to Lt Colonel Lewis Pugh.
Historian Dr. P.P. Shirodkar suggests that Pugh along with Col Stewart came on a recce to Goa in November 1942 posing as British businessmen; one of their actions was the violent kidnapping of German national Robert Koch alias “Trompeta” and his wife Grete Koch on 19th December at Altinho Panjim and their suspected elimination at Castle Rock. Eye-witnesses confirmed use of force by the assailants. Robert Koch was alleged to be a key operative in the Nazi Gestapo’s global spy network and the brain behind the clandestine operations aboard the Ehrenfels. However, the local police inquiry concluded that the couple had crossed the border voluntarily with two European gentlemen.
 Codenamed “Operation Longshanks”, the raid was organized with utmost secrecy to avoid any diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Portugal. A section of the CLH team embarked on a hopper barge “Little Phoebe” at Calcutta and sailed around the Indian peninsula to Mormugao, while others travelled by train to board at Cochin.  The surprise attack happened around midnight on March 9, 1943. Some accounts suggest that undercover agents weaned 31 members of the crew for an onshore Carnaval party to diminish resistance. By some coincidence, the lighthouse of the breakwater and the luminous buoy were not functioning that night. The unidentified vessel entered the port under cover of darkness and attacked the Ehrenfels. There was exchange of fire and outcry on the Ehrenfels followed by brief cessation and its resumption after fifteen minutes. A huge explosion followed. Survivors later deposed that they had seen a group of 8 to 10 men uttering obscene expressions in English. The attacking vessel then exited the port, its blitzkrieg operation lasting all of about 35 minutes. In a panic reaction, the other captains ordered their crew to scuttle their ships so that they do not fall into enemy hands.  Five members of the Ehrenfels’ crew were found dead and three declared missing. Two cadavers could not be identified, though investigators presumed one to be of its Captain Johann Rofer. In all, 111 seamen were detained by the authorities after the incident.  The action created a great panic in Goa and jubilation in British India. The media and intelligence agencies reported the scuttling of the four interned ships by their own crew. O Heraldo reported that crew members of the Ehrenfels had rebelled against their captain. The Times of India (Bombay) reported that the crew had set fire to their ships and were taken into custody.  Ironically, the Judicial Court of Mormugao conducting the criminal case delivered a verdict on 1st October 1945 that no alien vessel had entered Mormugao Port on 8/9 March 1943 and there had been no attack! The seamen remained interned at Aguada Jail on charge of setting the ships on fire till end of the war.  It was only when documents of the CLH operation were declassified by the British Government thirty years later in 1974 that the true picture emerged. James Leasors’ book “Boarding Party” based on the episode was later turned into a film “The Sea Wolves”.  A deeper analysis of the events raises questions on Portugal’s neutrality, and whether it was aware of the impending British mission but looked the other way. Were the lighthouse and luminous buoy deliberately shut down that night? Were captains of the interned ships expecting the attack? Was Robert and Grete Koch kidnapping pushed under the carpet to avoid a diplomatic row? Was the second unidentified cadaver a member of the raiding party?  On the other hand, during the rest of March 1943, German Uboats sank only one ship, the Panamanian “Nortun”, and only three throughout the following month of April. Was it a coincidence or attributable to the covert operation? Interestingly, British National Archive records released in 2002 suggest that the SOE mission was actually to capture the German ships, a mission that failed as the ships were scuttled before capture. They also disclose that three anti-Nazi seamen surrendered to the Britishers, served on SOE's strength in India and were repatriated on conclusion of the war. That accounts for three of the four “missing persons”.  The last physical remnants of Mormugao’s tryst with history could be lost for posterity with MPT proposing to scrap the shipwrecks that have lain undisturbed in its waters for decades.  Six Germans opted to stay on rather than return to their warravaged country; Erich Sautter (Drachenfels), Erwin Tiegel (Braunfels), Fritz Dimsak (Braunfels), Karl Breitkopf (Drachenfels), Kurt Thamm (Braunfels) and Walter Sedlaczeck (Drachenfels) married local girls and merged into the Goan countryside.
.Dr P P Shirodkar, CLH blitzkerieg in Mormugao Harbour during World War II, Purabhilekh Puratatva, 15 (July 1986).
.Dr P P Shirodkar, BLAZING MIDNIGHT (2012).
.Dr P P Shirodkar, World War II: German Master Spy and ships in Goa, Colloquim Vol IINo. 2 July-December 1979.
.Jose Antonio Barreiros, O ESPIÃO ALEMÃO EM GOA (2001).
.National Archives of India, De-classified files of Ministry of External Affairs, File no: Progs., Nos. 11(389)-W,(Secret).
.Dwight Jon Zimmerman, Operation Creek: SOE enlists an “over the hill” gang for a mission, DefenseMediaNetwork, available at: http://www.defensemedianet over-the-hill-gang-for-a-mis sion (last visited on March 5, 2018).
.War Cabinet, Weekly Resume (no. 184), 4, The National Archives London.

11 Mar 2018 07:56am IST
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By Savio Correia

It isn't Altamount but Altamont Road

Meher Marfatia: Tall tales from a hilltop

Mar 11, 2018, 09:15 IST | Meher Marfatia

Now far from the avenue of pretty villas that it was, Altamont Road struggles to accept newer avatars

 Jinx and Anand Akerkar hold the inaugural copy of Top of the Hill, published by Shirish Shah for the Altamont Road Area Citizens Committee, of which Anand was an editor. The newsletter reported on a Revitalisation Plan mooted by concerned residents like architect Ratan Batliboi, which, with BMC sanctions, tried to take aboard issues such as streamlining utilities, regulating parking and allocating clear children’s play spaces. Pics/Bipin KokateJinx and Anand Akerkar hold the inaugural copy of Top of the Hill, published by Shirish Shah for the Altamont Road Area Citizens Committee, of which Anand was an editor. The newsletter reported on a Revitalisation Plan mooted by concerned residents like architect Ratan Batliboi, which, with BMC sanctions, tried to take aboard issues such as streamlining utilities, regulating parking and allocating clear children’s play spaces. Pics/Bipin Kokate
First things first. It isn't Altamount but Altamont Road. Signboards persist with the "u", plus postal address sanction spells Altamount. But Colonel Altamont served the Nawab of Lucknow before settling on this Cumballa Hill slope up from Kemp's Corner. In his book, Altamont Road and Other True Stories, philosophy scholar Sheryar Ookerjee insisted, "Not Altamount, please".
Now SK Barodawala Marg (that 1926 sheriff's home is Rizvi Park today), the street ranks among the world's 10 most expensive. Ookerjee's grandfather, Cursetjee Manockjee Cursetjee (grandson of Cursetjee Manekjee Shroff, the Khada Parsi of the Byculla statue), bought a bungalow - presently Pushpak building - in 1907 from the Portuguese de Ghas family, amid an orangey-yellow sea of gulmohur and mango trees lost to road widening.
First edition of the street's local newsletter, Top of the Hill, in December 2005
First edition of the street's local newsletter, Top of the Hill, in December 2005
Reassuringly, outside the Mafatlal mansion, an ancient banyan spreads wide roots like some arboreal angel with sheltering wings. Mafatlal Gagalbhai of Ahmedabad initiated a thriving textile trade in 1905. Generations have clambered over this tree fronting his Bombay home. "We hid in its every crevice in Chor Police games," says great-granddaughter Anuradha Mafatlal Singh.
Opposite, on fairy-lighted lawns of her childhood home, the Khandelwal bungalow Prem Nivas (its charming champa hugged by that beautiful banyan leaning across the road to it), Anuradha Mahindra launched Verve magazine in December 1995. As text editor, I met wonderful women we'd featured and introduced cover girl India Hicks, Mountbatten's granddaughter, to activist actor Priya Tendulkar. "I was bitten by the publishing bug hanging around the paper stall at the start of our street," Mahindra laughs.
Altamont Road old-timers Ragini Dalal and daughter Monica Merchant outside an ancient banyan fronting the Mafatlal mansion. Dalal lives in Pushpak, the building that stands where the Cursetjee bungalow belonging to Sheryar Ookerjee’s family once was; Merchant is a stone’s throw away at Sai Manzil. Pic/Ashish Raje
Altamont Road old-timers Ragini Dalal and daughter Monica Merchant outside an ancient banyan fronting the Mafatlal mansion. Dalal lives in Pushpak, the building that stands where the Cursetjee bungalow belonging to Sheryar Ookerjee’s family once was; Merchant is a stone’s throw away at Sai Manzil. Pic/Ashish Raje
That was in Maskati Corner, earlier Tata Mansion, built by Khorshed Bulsara's grand-uncles. "My family's kiln made our wall bricks," she says, showing her great-grandfather Rutton S Tata's initials, RST, on one. At her daughters' room window we admire a wild fig tree attracting parrots, koels and a coppersmith sound much like a hammer hitting metal.
Up the bend was Washington House, the US Consulate building that Jehangir Vazifdar designed and Lodha Altamount replaced. "I couldn't believe I was seeing this mini America in Mumbai, down to Thanksgiving dinners hosted," Mahindra says. Round the corner, Roman Stores got its foreign moniker because expats brought Kraft cheese and Japanese tea to sell from 1959 when Jethalal Murji Chheda and brother Dungarshi set up the area's sole provisions shop. "Young man, I'm your customer," JRD Tata said, welcoming Jethalal's son Girish duck a rain shower under the awning of JRD's Scottish-style cottage on elevated rock, The Cairn.
Zarine Khambatta supervising seamstresses in the sewing workshop of Butility Products, her store for embroidered baby clothes which counted royalty and movie idols among elite clients. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
Zarine Khambatta supervising seamstresses in the sewing workshop of Butility Products, her store for embroidered baby clothes which counted royalty and movie idols among elite clients. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
Two illustrious granddaughters - Mountbatten's and the Mahatma's - were a hedge across each other the night Verve released. A wall separates Prem Nivas from Prabhu Kutir (once the villa of Baghdadi Jew businessman Victor Sassoon) where 80-year-old Usha Gokani, daughter of Gandhiji's son Ramdas, resides. Her son Dr Anand Gokani says, "We're a hill that's become a township. Ambani and Lodha created statements of power, not buildings of relevance. Overnight the Antilla monstrosity replaced the Khoja orphanage."
The 1894 orphanage, Bagh-e-Karim, was named for baronet businessman Currimbhoy Ebrahim. As a child Sangita Advani visited it on her birthday. She loved listening to strains of Padma Vibhushan Arvind Parikh's sitar waft from his Palmera home. That private gully is dubbed PROVAD: acronym of Palmera, Rizvi Park, Olympus, Venus, Ashiana and Dilkoosha. Sangita's father LU Advani was the developer of Venus and estate agent for Olympus developed by Mohan Advani, pioneer of Blue Star. Piloo Mody was Olympus' architect. Mohan Advani's daughter Suneeta Vaswani shares that three of her father's siblings sought refuge from Karachi in Shyam Niwas on Warden Road - "'Olympus is for my Shyam Niwas family,' he said."
Foy Nissen, The British Council’s 1970s representative and ardent Bombayphile, photographed in his Olympus apartment by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari who considers Nissen his mentor
Foy Nissen, The British Council’s 1970s representative and ardent Bombayphile, photographed in his Olympus apartment by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari who considers Nissen his mentor
Dilkoosha neighbours Naseem Khan and Usha Parkash chat in Parkash's garden flat. I learn of an agreement letter to the Chief Presidency Magistrate, between Badraddin Tyabally Barodawala and Taley Mahomed Khan, the Nawab of Palanpur procuring Dilkoosha in 1954. Beside, Ashiana was Bungalow 5 with the Botawalas on the first floor. The Dutch Consul General's and Washington House families primly called in playing kids for 4 o'clock milk and biscuits, reminisces 98-year-old Sheila Botawala. "At our place they attacked Nilgiri pancakes and chocolate fudge," says her daughter Miriam.
Another blind lane off, Anstey Road was named for Judge TC Anstey. At its end, in Jupiter Apartments, lives Saleem Ahmadullah, my go-to mentor for exploring the city. Crisscrossing the road, I reach what was Chattan, Tarachand Gupta's landmark bungalow, redeveloped by the Rahejas. Manufacturing steel fabrications for train wagons, Gupta outlived three sons. He was stoic as a chattan - a strong stone hill - says his grandson Nikhil.
The porch of 31 Altamont Road, home of the Cursetjees (now Pushpak building), from where a pair of Buicks would grandly roll downhill. Pic courtesy/Pervin Mahoney
The porch of 31 Altamont Road, home of the Cursetjees (now Pushpak building), from where a pair of Buicks would grandly roll downhill. Pic courtesy/Pervin Mahoney
Five-floor Chapsey Terrace seemed soaring to Goolu Adenwalla in the 1940s. "I live in a high-rise," she wrote to pen pals. Himanshu Dwarkadas mentions the building has belonged to his family from great-grandfather Chapsey Jeevondas' time in 1926. Playwright Adi Marzban's flat was the rehearsal venue for stars of the Parsi and English stage. His radio plays were scribbled between chess moves with the Adenwallas in their apartment above.
Jinx Akerkar fell in love with Chitrakoot and the airy spaces around it - "We looked over Flame of the Forest trees to the sea." Her husband Anand was an editor of Top of the Hill, the Shirish Shah-published newsletter reporting everything from revitalisation plans for Altamont Road to peacocks strutting behind Olympus. "A thousand homes were sent this free of cost," Shah says. "It was great communication between citizens and the Altamont Road Area Citizens Committee." The Akerkars' actress daughter Avantika says, "I whizzed on roller skates with a gang of 20 kids. You proved your worth on steep slopes of buildings like Pemino."
Russi Khambatta with his daughters in the Khambatta Hall garden, opposite which is seen the former villa of Victor Sassoon who was hailed “JP Morgan of the East”; Prabhu Kutir has replaced the Sassoon bungalow. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
Russi Khambatta with his daughters in the Khambatta Hall garden, opposite which is seen the former villa of Victor Sassoon who was hailed “JP Morgan of the East”; Prabhu Kutir has replaced the Sassoon bungalow. Pic courtesy/Noshir Khambatta
In Navjeevan Kutir from 1964, Amfico Agencies chairman Keki Cooper drove an Alvis Convertible "when two cars passed every hour". His beautician wife Kamal opened her still popular salon here. From their kitchen window they enjoyed a view of Rolls Royces purring out of the Dadiseths' Greek-type mansion which became Prithvi Apartments.
A slant from the Dadiseths stood Khambata Hall, now Nishant. Erected in 1918 by Hormusjee Khambatta, who supplied coal to ships in Bombay harbour, it was laid with chessboard tiles from the quarries of Carrara. Hormusjee's grand-nephew Noshir Khambatta recalls his mother run Butility Products from the bungalow. Its embroidered baby clothes and cribs won classy clients including the Maharaja of Kashmir and, Noshir's sister Rashna Dalal adds, "Shashi Kapoor looking like a god dropped from heaven". An eminent Khambatta Hall tenant was Dr Jivraj Mehta, Gujarat's first chief minister.
Interestingly christened Bombarci, built in 1925 for heads of the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway, derives its name from those letters: BB&CI. In 1949, BB&CI merged with the Gaikwads' Baroda State Railway to form Western Railways, whose General Manager's official residence Bombarci continues to be. Paranjoti Choir conductor Coomi Wadia's home, on marrying jeweller Nariman Wadia, was close - "With gladioli flowerbeds we had so many coconut trees, I never bought a coconut for my curries." A hop away, facing the Indonesian Consulate is the South African Consulate, flush with Terrace Cama where English professor Mehroo Jussawala and gynaecologist Hilla Banaji were murdered.
Old-timers miss the Friendly Ice Cream stall outside the orphanage. Capitol Electronics below Raj Mahal was a stereo repair adda bonding music buffs on Saturdays. At raddi shop-turned-library, Kamal Book House, in Maskati Corner, Buddhichand Maroo took up a sales job in 1957 to pay for his studies. With robust Kutchi acumen he established Shemaroo Entertainment five years later.
Raj Mahal is my favourite on the road. Legend has it this was called The Castle. Skyward turrets do lend this jewel of a structure such an aura. Filmmakers Srila Chatterjee and Mahesh Mathai's attic guestroom boasts its own trapdoor entry. Meher Davis has spent 68 years walking over "1903", the year of the building's construction, exquisitely etched in mosaic chips wreathing garland motifs around that date on the floor of her ante room.
Burge Cooper, helming AudioVision India, describes his surgeon father Soli Cooper riding horses to Carmichael Road via red mud paths. Beyond Bagh-e-Karim, jungles echoed with jackal howls. Discovering a cobra in his bedroom, Moez Mohemadally says, "Altamont Road was peaceful to the point of deserted. You felt the air float differently in its countryside ambience which wouldn't let summer heat touch us."
The Coopers occupied Rustom Villa which, with Ruttonsha Lodge, became Saahil, Harish Mahindra's home. From Sai Manzil next door, Vernon Miranda smiled to see the industrialist's son Anand's baaraat dance the few-feet distance to his bride Anuradha Khandelwal in Prem Nivas. With wooden staircases and fretted verandas, Sai Manzil was initially Yusuf Mansion, after owner Abbas Motabhai's son. "Sitting at a cotton tree to read, I saw a lovely city sprawl beneath," says Rashida Anees from the Kajiji family there.
Vernon's distinguished father CJV Miranda was Deputy Inspector General of Police, State CID, before becoming the first Director of the Anti Corruption Bureau, seizing smuggled gold and diamonds worth millions in the '60s. Retiring from police service, he was appointed Chairman of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission. "I last met him wearing a suit in an Electric House bus queue," says urban historian Deepak Rao. "He was a graceful man from a graceful era."
Just as well that he didn't live to lament the trite towers of mega magnates blot out the essential elegance of Bungalow Boulevard.
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at
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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Life's a beach – then you're the comms nexus of the British Empire and Marconi-baiting hax0rs

Inside Porthcurno's world-spanning telegraphy web

Landing Fayfal cable Porthcurno 1906, photo credit: Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Geek's Guide to Britain I'm sitting on a perfect sandy beach in dazzling winter sunshine which makes it feel two months warmer than it really is. The beach is nearly empty, although a couple of dogs are enjoying the surf. The nearest road peters out a few hundred yards up a steep valley – the only way here is to walk. Porthcurno beach, just a few miles from Land's End in Cornwall, feels pleasantly like it is a long way from anywhere.
But this place is important, and has been for a long time. There are bunkers in the cliffs, paths with numerous manhole covers and a diamond-shaped yellow sign. And on top of a sand dune next to a lifeguards' hut is what appears to be a windowless white cube.
When it is open you can peer through the building's grated door at an array of decades-old electronics, with labels including Fayal, Gibraltar and Old Vigo. It is Porthcurno's Cable House, built in 1929 and housing the ends of 14 international cables.
1947 view point from top of emergency tunnel photo Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Discreet presence ... The telegraphy station at its apex in 1947. Photo: Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Since 1870, Porthcurno has been a key node in global undersea communications serving what was then the relatively new field of telegraphy.
Telegraphy combined Hans Christian Ørsted's discovery of electromagnetism and Samuel Morse's signalling instrument and code. Electrons were fired down undersea cables protected by gutta-percha, a substance made from the sap of the Malayan percha tree for insulation.
Porthcurno was the spot chosen by Victorian businessman John Pender as landfall for a burgeoning network of global undersea cables serving this new medium that would, quickly, come to span not just the British Empire but the planet.
At its height, during the Second World War, the telegraphy web Pender founded traversed 355,000 miles and shot messages across continents in a matter of minutes rather than the weeks it had taken to send letters by boat.
By 1944, the equivalent of the entire works of Shakespeare flowed through this valley every 11 hours, making Porthcurno arguably the most important telecommunications facility in Britain.
Porthcurno was also the site of what may have been the first act of wireless hacking and espionage. It was on Cornwall's Lizard Peninsula, a few miles to the east, that Guglielmo Marconi – whose ideas were ignored by his own government – was pushing the boundaries of wireless in his attempt to send the world's first transatlantic wireless signal.
Pender's people erected their own mast to spy on Marconi's and attempt to to crack his message stream.
Porthcurno stopped operating in 1970 but its role as a communications-landfall site continues: today, terabits of data flow through fibre-optic cables beneath this beach, linking Britain to the rest of the world.
The operators of such vital infrastructure tend to prefer it remains obscure. But Porthcurno's Telegraph Museum, housed up the valley in what was once the world's biggest telegraph station, lifts the lid on how important this sleepy valley in Cornwall has been for more than century.
cable house cables photo SA Mathieson
Hello Gibraltar ... The cable house cables. Photo: SA Mathieson
The museum's main building, built in 1904 to amplify and reroute signals from the seaside cable house, looks a bit like a white-painted hotel. It was the centre of a tech company campus, with housing, a pub and a couple of tennis courts. The museum still has its own car park, next to a large council one – which can be useful, as those with experience of parked-up Cornish beaches will know. This is a good place to start a tour of this once mighty hub.
The museum is divided into two sections. The first, in the upper floor of the main building, provides a wealth of information on the story of cable-based telecommunications and Porthcurno's role therein. It does so through a short and informative video, vintage equipment, displays and interactive equipment – the primary school children visiting when I was there made particularly audible use of the Morse code generator.
It's a great story, starting in earnest with the invention of telegraphy in the 1830s and the first international submarine cable being laid from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez near Calais in 1850, then failing within a few hours. This was later blamed on a French fisherman thinking it was a new type of seaweed, although contemporary accounts suggest it simply broke in the tide. A working replacement was installed the following year.
After three failed attempts, the first reliable transatlantic cable was laid in 1866 by the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The work was led by Pender, who made his money in textiles and became a fundraiser and investor having been involved in the first Anglo-Irish cable in 1853.
Interior of tunnels, photo: Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Porthcurno's tunnels, dug and built in just 10 months to withstand a bomb blast. Photo: Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Pender decided to establish a telegraphy network for the British Empire, originally intending to base it at Falmouth, a busy deep-water harbour further east along Cornwall's southern coast. But worried about cables being snagged by anchors, he switched to Porthcurno, with its quiet sandy beach, no shipping and a telegraph link to Penzance.
On 23 June 1870, Porthcurno was telegraphically linked to Mumbai, then named Bombay. The initial cost of sending a message was £4, equivalent to more than £400 today, but it arrived in nine minutes, rather than the six weeks it would take by ship. Pender merged various telegraphy companies into the Eastern Telegraph Company and expanded his network. By 1880 the company controlled nearly 100,000 miles of undersea cable, centred on Porthcurno and reaching as far as Australia.
The exhibits include lots of technological details, such as how this low-bandwidth network compressed messages: a panel says a Harry Potter book would take 74 days to transmit by telegraph, compared with 0.000006 seconds by fibre-optic cable. The company had a list of numbers to replace often-used strings of words, including some quite specific ones such as 120 for: "I wish we were together on this special occasion all my best wishes for a speedy reunion," and 136 for: "Hearing your voice on the wireless gave me a wonderful thrill."
Porthcurno had been almost uninhabited before the telegraph, but by 1877 the station employed four married men and 32 bachelors. They called themselves "exiles" – the valley was inaccessible by motor vehicle until the 1900s – a name that was picked up by telegraph operators worldwide. Exhibits suggest they played a lot of sport, hence those tennis courts out front, and indulged in amateur dramatics – a photo of two (male) exiles shows them playing Antony and Cleopatra.
In 1900, Marconi came to the Lizard Peninsula, building 20 masts at Poldhu 60.96m (200ft) high, connected to a 25kW transmitter. These were blown down by high winds, so it was a pair of temporary 48.76m (160ft) masts that sent the first transatlantic wireless signal in December 1901, to Newfoundland in Canada.
The Eastern Telegraph Company decided to spy on Marconi and so set up its own 48.76m mast to listen in, employing the skills of a wireless enthusiast and magician named Nevil Maskelyne.
Elliott Brothers regenerator synchroniser photo by SA Mathieson
The Elliott Brothers' regenerator synchroniser, photo: SA Mathieson
Maskelyne used Morse code in "mind-reading" tricks and had sent his own wireless messages to a balloon across a distance of 10 miles in 1900, but found himself frustrated in his work by Marconi's patents. Working for the Eastern Telegraph Company, in November 1902 Maskelyn wrote in The Electrician that he was easily able to hear Marconi's messages, something Marconi had claimed precise use of wavelengths made impossible.
Articles in a journal are one thing, but a public humiliation gets more attention so, in 1903, Maskelyne hacked a demonstration by electrical engineer and physicist John Ambrose Fleming at London's Royal Institution. Fleming was a consultant to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
Waiting for signals from Poldhu, Fleming instead received the word "rats" in Morse. Maskelyne, who was transmitting from his father's nearby music hall theatre, followed this up with: "There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily." He then wrote to The Times to claim the hack, justifying it by saying it showed how flawed wireless "security" was.
But such antics did little to damage wireless, and the competition from Marconi began to take its toll on cable telegraphy. "The government at the time could see that the Eastern Telegraph Company was going to go under if it took so much business from it," said Gareth Parry, chair of the museum charity's trustees and an emeritus professor at Imperial College London.
Worried about losing its empire-spanning cable system, the government engineered a merger with Marconi's wireless operation, producing Cable & Wireless in 1934. The museum houses Cable & Wireless's corporate archive in a recently built education centre and library.
Demonstrating the military importance of fast, long-distance communications, one of the first actions by the British during the First World War was to cut most German-run undersea cables. Germany fought back, and the exhibition includes a knife used to cut what was actually a dummy cable on the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Times change, but the issues remain the same, and Britain remains vulnerable to similar sabotage – only now from Russia.
But Porthcurno's finest hour came in the Second World War. By then it was the world's largest telegraph station in a well-known location just 80 miles north of the Axis powers. It had to be protected – and the way this was achieved houses the second part of the museum.
Visitors leave the main building and enter a narrow tunnel into the nearby rockface, pass an unexploded Nazi bomb, open a door and travel back in time. In 10 months during 1940-41, miners from Cornwall and the West Indies removed 15,000 tonnes of rock to create two large tunnels, designed to protect Porthcurno's equipment and people. There is a 119-step emergency staircase to fields above, which the energetic are welcome to climb.
Landing Gemini at Porthcurno photo credit Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Landing the Gemini cable at Porthcurno. Photo: Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
The first main room in the tunnels is the jewel in the museum's crown. It houses original restored equipment, which clicks and buzzes constantly, demonstrating how wartime messages travelled around the world. Much of it is beautiful solid-looking hardware, often framed with wood.
The gear shows how much telegraphy had developed since Victorian times. The company had introduced "regen" in 1923, which replaced staff relaying messages en route with equipment that regenerated the strength and precision of signals every 200 miles or so.
Its relay stations replaced large numbers of operators with a few skilled engineers, and team games gave way to singles tennis. The equipment on show today shows how the highly automated regen process worked, from an originating station such as Cape Town via relays in locations including St Helena and the Azores to London.
Porthcurno, the place where the cables met, acted as the key repeater station on the way to the capital, but it had a further role: if Cable & Wireless's London office had been destroyed, these tunnels would become the central operating station of its entire 355,000-mile network.
Although that didn't happen, on some occasions the landlines failed, making Porthcurno the endpoint of the network with staff working around the clock to process messages. A 1944 letter on display discusses the continuing need to refuse space for evacuees, which had been the subject of local criticism, as the company might need to house 58 extra staff at short notice.
The valley was a "protected place" – everyone including residents had to show papers to gain access. As well as the still-visible pillbox bunkers above the beach, a flame barrage was installed. The tunnels were justified – the area was bombed, although the only reported casualty was a cow. In 1944 Porthcurno relayed 705 million words, more than triple what it had handled in 1938.
The equipment stayed in these tunnels until Porthcurno processed its last telegraph in 1970, by which point it was well into its post-war life as a Cable & Wireless engineering college, teaching students from all over the world. Some lecturers used the kit for demonstrations, and when the college closed in 1993 they turned it into the nucleus of today's museum.
To keep this equipment working, the museum has a volunteer-run workshop that is open to visitors. When I visited, Barry Hill – who worked on the University of Nottingham design team that built the first MRI scanner – and computer technician Patrick Dunne were renovating an electro-mechanical regenerator synchroniser built in 1926 by Elliott Brothers of London. It is original Porthcurno equipment, salvaged then rebuilt in the 1970s. Hill reckons that when they finish, it should continue to work for another couple of decades.
The museum, too, is undergoing renovations, the results of which should be open in spring 2018. The tunnels will house a new exhibition on fibre-optics, developed with the involvement University College London and the University of Cambridge. Parry said it will cover wavelength multiplexing, which greatly increased the capacity of a cable by simultaneously sending several signals at different wavelengths of light. The museum also works with Vodafone, which took over most of Cable & Wireless in 2012. Meanwhile, there's a well-stocked gift and bookshop and a site café serving light lunches – yes, including pasties.
Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, photo by SA Mathieson
A dazzling past ... The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. Photo: SA Mathieson
Today, Porthcurno retains its status as a key route for undersea fibre-optic cables, which often take similar routes to the telegraph cables of the past. It is the western terminus of the Fibreoptic Link Around the Globe (Flag) cable, which when installed in 1996 was the world's longest at 17,400 miles (28,000 km). Flag runs to Japan via Spain, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and South Korea, with other cables crossing the Atlantic and the English Channel. Flag and its sister Flag Atlantic are now managed by owner Reliance from Skewjack Farm, a couple of miles up the road to Land's End. They are housed in an award-winning curvaceous building which plays host to Nigella, a suggestively codenamed GCHQ fibre tap, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
Once the home of Skewjack Surf Village, Britain's first surf school when it opened in 1971, this site is now very much closed.
Porthcurno is a centre for undersea telecommunications but is a long way from the rest of the UK. If you travel here, beyond the obvious sandy charms of this and other beaches of this region, there are plenty of reasons to extend your trip beyond simply the Telegraph Museum.
Porthcurno itself boasts the open-air clifftop Minnack Theatre, with shows from March to September. Sennan Cove, just north of Land's End, is one of Cornwall's best beaches with plenty of parking, cafés, a pub and its own surf school. The town of Penzance and St Michael's Mount, a historic castle on a tidal island, are a few miles east. Continuing around Mount's bay, the Lizard Peninsula offers more geek tourism opportunities for those interested in Marconi's pioneering work.
Or, you could just explore the history of cable telecommunications at Porthcurno's excellent museum then relax on its beach, imagining how those surf-dogs would react if they could hear all the cat videos zipping beneath their paws.

Carsten Niebuhr in Bombay and Surat

Carsten Niebuhr in Bombay and Surat

The lone surviving member of an ill-fated Danish expedition to Arabia, Carsten Niebuhr, wrote one of the earliest accounts of the two entwined trade cities—Bombay and Surat—by a western traveller.
In 1760, a band of very knowledgeable men—a botanist, a linguist, a physician, an artist and an ex-soldier—set off from Copenhagen in Denmark to discover Arabia. It was a most unusual expedition, to a part of the world hitherto unknown. Carsten Niebuhr was the sole survivor of what came to be called the Royal Danish Arabia Expedition. The expedition was doomed in several ways; a combination of several factors including unexpected illnesses, bad planning and not least, the failure and unwillingness of team members to get on with each other.
Some of Niebuhr’s writings (1792) of that voyage survive and his son, the equally illustrious German statesman and financier, Barthold Niebuhr, wrote an account of his father’s life, published in 1828. In the last century, the Danish writer and voyager, Thorkild Hansen, compiled the available details of the expedition into a book (1962), and the New York Review of Books in June 2017 brought out an English translation by James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane.
Niebuhr and the Expedition
Born on 17 March 1733 in Ludingworth, Hanover, Germany, Niebuhr was orphaned in childhood and grew up in poverty. In his early youth, he worked in the fields, and by a chance encounter with a surveyor who was measuring land, Niebuhr too became interested in the subject.
At 20, he enrolled for a mathematics degree at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Around the time, King Frederik V of Sweden and Denmark enjoyed a reputation in Europe as a patron of the arts and sciences. One of Niebuhr’s professors suggested to the Swedish foreign minister that the king send an expedition to unknown lands, especially to places known since ancient times as Arabia Felix, “pleasant Arabia,” identified as Yemen but at that time also encompassing regions within present-day Arabia, Egypt and Syria.
Niebuhr applied to join the expedition as a surveyor and geographer and was accepted. For a year and a half, he worked hard to acquire some knowledge of Arabic.
The other members of the expedition were the Swedish natural scientist Peter Forsskål; the Danish philologist Frederik Christian von Haven, who would purchase oriental manuscripts for the Copenhagen Royal Library and transcribe inscriptions he came across; Niebuhr as cartographer would measure and map hitherto unexplored areas; the Danish physician Christian Carl Kramer would research a number of medical issues; the German artist and painter, Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, who would sketch the flora and fauna discovered and then there was the Swedish dragoon, Lars Berggren, the voyage’s man Friday.
In February 1761, the explorers left on board the Danish warship the “Grönland” and sailed from Copenhagen. Their journey took them via the Mediterranean to Constantinople, where they boarded another ship for Alexandria and Cairo. In Egypt, Niebuhr surveyed the Nile delta. His measurements and drawings were so detailed and exact that even a hundred years later, these were used in constructing the Suez Canal.
His colleague Forsskål discovered some 120 species of plants and collected seeds still unknown in Europe, while von Haven bought 72 manuscripts. Baurenfeind drew pictures of the way people lived—their tools, utensils and appliances, their traditional costumes and their musical instruments. They sailed from Suez in October 1762 and went on to Yemen, about which little was known in Europe, although numerous European ships had already docked in the port of Mocha or Al-Mokha to purchase the much sought-after coffee beans.
In Yemen, tragedy first struck. Travellers from cold northern Europe, the team, found itself helpless against the heat, the humidity and the ravages of the Anopheles mosquito. In May 1763, at Mocha, von Haven first died from malaria and Forsskål followed soon. To escape further mishaps, and to save the data they had amassed, the remaining members decided to travel eastward to India.
But in some ways, it was already too late; Baurenfeind and Berggren died on board in August 1763, while Kramer died in 1764 in Bombay. Carsten Niebuhr was henceforth left to work on his own, though he remained seriously ill for a long time with malaria himself. He spent nearly a year exploring Bombay and its environs before sailing homeward. He also spent some time in Surat.
Bombay, Almost a Perfect City
To travel unhindered in Bombay, Niebuhr wore local garb (loose cotton robes), and this proved effective. Bombay, as Niebuhr relates in his book translated in 1792, was then an island, “two miles in length, and more than half a mile in breadth” (p 388). A narrow channel divided it from another small isle called by the English, “Old Woman’s Island.” Bombay produced nothing but cocoa and rice, while on shore a considerable quantity of salt was also collected. The inhabitants were, thus, obliged to bring their provisions from the mainland, or from Salsette, a large and fertile island not far from Bombay that belonged to the Marathas.
Niebuhr writes of Bombay’s salubrious weather. The sea breeze and frequent rains rendered the climate temperate. Its air, Niebhur wrote, formerly unhealthy and dangerous, became purer once the English drained the marshes in the city and its environs.
The city was defended by a citadel in its middle that also overlooked the sea. The city had several handsome buildings; among which were the Director’s (as the head of the East India Company’s operations in Bombay was then called) palace, and a large and elegant church adjacent to it.
“The houses were not flat roofed as in the rest of the east but covered with tiles in the European fashion. The English had glass windows in their houses, while the other inhabitants had windows made of small pieces of transparent shells framed in wood” (p 390), that had the effect of making the apartments seem very dark. The harbour was spacious and sheltered. At the Company’s expense, Niebuhr learnt, two docks were hewn out of the rock, to enable two ships to anchor simultaneously. This was Bombay’s first beginnings as a sought-after port.
Niebuhr observed how the tolerance of English rule extended to people of all religions, a fact that rendered the island very populous. Its inhabitants numbered around 1,40,000 (Niebuhr’s precision for facts and numbers is apparent). Of these, the Europeans were the least numerous class. All religions, Niebuhr remarked, indulged in the free exercise of their worship, not only in churches, but openly, in festivals and processions, and none took offence at another.
Bombay was governed by a council comprising a governor called the president, and 12 counsellors, who were all merchants, except for the commander of the troops. The other employees of the East India Company were factors (trading agents) and writers (clerks) of different ranks.
Factors or trading agents were sent to interior settlements such as Sindh. The Company paid moderate salaries to its factors and directors, but they were permitted to trade on their own account in India from the Cape of Good Hope, to China, and northward, as far as Jeddah and Basra. By means of this extensive trade, “the directors were able to acquire the wealth which became the astonishment and envy of their countrymen in Europe.” However, these advantages were reserved for the English exclusively, for the Company did not admit strangers into the ranks of its merchants, though military service remained open. Niebuhr saw officers from various nations, especially Germans and Swiss.
Niebuhr noted how the coast from Bombay to Basra was infested by pirates. It might have been easy for the English to exterminate these pirates but “it was in the Company’s interest to leave these plunderers to scour the seas,” so as to hinder other nations sailing in the same latitudes. “The Indians dared not travel from one port to another, other than in convoys and under the protection of an English vessel, for which they were obliged to pay a high sum” (p 399).
Visiting Elephanta
Elephanta was a small isle, near Bombay, that then belonged to the Marathas. It was inhabited, Niebuhr wrote, by a hundred or so poor Indian families. Its proper name, he wrote, was “Gali Pouri,” but the Europeans called it Elephanta, from the statue of an elephant made of black stone, that stood on the island’s shore. This island was of small importance to the Marathas and so the English could visit it without passports. Niebuhr found the temple at Elephanta so remarkable that he visited the island three different times, to draw and describe its curiosities.
“The temple was a hundred and twenty feet long, and the same in breadth, without including the chapels and the adjacent chambers. Its height within was nearly fifteen feet, though the floor appeared higher due to the accumulation of dust, and the sediment left by the rains.” This vast structure was cut out of solid rock. The pillars supporting the roof were also hewn out of rock. The temple walls were “sculpted with figures in bas-relief and many of these figures were of colossal size; ranging from 10 to even 14 feet in height.”
Neither in design, nor in execution, Niebuhr specifies, could these bas-reliefs be compared with the works of the Grecian sculptors, but they were greatly superior to the remains of ancient Egyptian sculpture. Yet, he had little hope of obtaining any information from the island’s current inhabitants. “For they were simple folks who believed that strangers visited the island one night and raised this edifice by the time day broke” (p 410).
The headdress on some female figures was usually a high-crowned bonnet. Niebuhr observed also a turban on some statues. He also noted at several places, the image of the famous “Cobra de Capella,” a sort of serpent, that the inhabitants treated with great reverence. The smallest of the chapels had the sculpted figure of the God Gonnis (Ganesha), then still in a state of neat preservation.
The rest of the temple was in a state of utter neglect and haunted by serpents and beasts of prey. One did not dare enter without first firing several rounds of ammunition to scare them away.
Surat’s Peculiarities
Niebuhr went on to spend a few weeks in Surat. The common language was Persian, though Portuguese had come to be the language of commerce and business. The English counsellor at Surat had to announce, via the firing of a cannon, the “Mussalman festival of Bairan”—something that Niebuhr found unusual. He describes the various castes in Surat, the most proliferate being the “Hindoo Baniyas.” There were other groups, such as the Persians, Armenians, Jews and Georgians (from Georgia in Central Asia). He noticed the people’s predilection in announcing their wealth from the state of their palanquins and horse-drawn carriages, locally called “gharris.” Niebuhr bemoaned the presence of fakirs and wandering mendicants on every street, many of whom would refuse to vacate a house’s precincts until the host made a token payment in alms.
Learning from Travel
On his return journey, Niebuhr lingered for a time amongst the ruins at Persepolis in Iran, destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Painstakingly, he copied in detail the numerous inscriptions he found there. He also visited Shiraz, Babylon, Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo. Till he reached southern Europe, he travelled like a man from the Orient—he dressed in their manner, he prepared and ate his meals in their ways, and he slept on a carpet which he always carried with him: reasons he later attributed for his surviving the voyage.
On 20 November 1767, Niebuhr arrived in Copenhagen after a journey that had lasted almost seven years. To Niebuhr’s credit, he saved for posterity the work of his fellow traveller and botanist Forsskål that can be found at Copenhagen’s Botanical Museum and in the Zoological Museum. Baurenfeind’s drawings were released in a book of illustrations that accompanied Forsskål’s zoological and botanical descriptions; his drawings of jellyfish remain the finest of their kind.
After his return, Niebuhr spent nearly 10 years publishing the results. In 1772, his Description of Arabia appeared in print. French and Dutch translations were published in his lifetime, and apparently a condensed English translation came out in Edinburgh (1792). Niebuhr died on 26 April 1815, aged 82. The University of Copenhagen’s Institute for Oriental Studies is named after Carsten Niebuhr.
Hansen, Thorkild (2017): Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition 1761–1767, Trans James McFarlane and Kathleen McFarlane, New York: New York Review Books.
Niebuhr, Carsten (1792): Travels through Arabia, and Other Countries in the East: Volume II, Trans Robert Heron, Edinburgh: R Morison and Son.