The Early Days
In the early 1990's, Bob Breithaupt was Acting President of CRC, and he was concerned that the history of DRTE/CRC was in danger of being lost. He asked John Keys to write about the early activities of DRTE. the original report cannot be found, but John kindly provided his notes and drafts, from which this account was taken.
The history of the Communications Laboratory probably begins with the High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) project of World Was II, when Hitler directed Admiral Doenitz to carry out unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied shipping. Doenitz insisted on controlling the entire operation from his headquarters in Germany. To this end, all U-boats were to report to him daily, by radio. His scientific advisors had assured him that there was no possibility of the Allies intercepting their transmissions. In fact, the Allies very rapidly developed a high frequency direction finding system based on receiving stations at a number of locations surrounding the Atlantic Ocean. Manning these stations were radio operators who copied the coded signals which were then passed on to Naval cryptographers to decode. The Canadian branch of this operation was directed by Frank Davies, a civilian advisor to the Royal Canadian Navy. Assisting him was Lt. Jack Meek.
The Direction Finding (DF) stations were operated by the Department of Transport and staffed by personnel who were recruited from the roster of radio operators who were normally employed at the Department's monitoring stations. The Ottawa station was located in an old building on the Merivale Road known as the "Old Bones" farmhouse. A number of operators continuously searched the spectrum, and copied the intercepted signals, while from time to time messengers would pick up the copy to be delivered to the Naval cryptographers who attempted to decode them.
On one occasion, as recounted by Claire McKerrow, the traffic was unusually heavy and the messengers were virtually snatching the copy from the operator's hands as it was finished and dashing away with it. Several days later, it became known that they had, in fact, been intercepting messages from the German battleship Bismark, which had sunk the British Hood. A large British fleet was scouring the Atlantic in search of the Bismark and her radio messages played an essential part in locating her. She was sunk by a combined air and sea attack as she approached the French Coast. The Navy was very appreciative of the part played by the radio operators and asked the DOT to double their salaries. The Department demurred, arguing that other DOT operators would feel unjustly treated. Eventually, they did get a significant increase.
On another occasion, Del Hansen was copying a German signal when a female voice with an unmistakably British accent broke in to say, "Don't you know that this frequency is reserved for the Royal Air Force? Get off this frequency immediately." The German, very obligingly, shifted up a few kilohertz and continued transmitting.
When the war in Europe ended, the High Frequency Direction Finding Project was scaled back. Del Hansen remained at the Merivale Road station which was occupied chiefly in tracking aircraft crossing the Atlantic. On one occasion, they were called by an RCAF plane which was lost in heavy cloud. When the plane was eventuality located and directed to a safe landing, the shamefaced crew admitted that they were a group of navigation instructors.
Claire McKerrow went to Churchill for two months to study the operation of a new automatic ionospheric sounder which had been installed there. Following that, he went to the ionospheric station at Clyde River for a year, traveling on the Hudson's Bay supply vessel Nascopie. Also on board was Harold Serson on his way to spend two years at the Arctic Weather Station at Arctic Bay on northern Baffin Island. While they were East Coast of Baffin Island, they heard of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Toward the end of the war, the Canadian Radio Wave Propagation Committee (CRWPC) was formed, consisting of Frank Davies, Chairman, Lt. Jack Meek, representing the Navy, Sqdn. Ldr. Jim Scott, who had recently been transferred from Air Command to Headquarters to take charge of an ionospheric research program for the RCAF, and Lou Wiley for the Army. At the end of the war, they had a brief flirtation with the National Research Council, but that organization was not enthusiastic about supporting communications research. They then approached Dr. Omond Solandt. who was engaged in building up the recently formed Defence Research Board. Lou Riley elected to remain in the Army, where he rose to the rank of Major General, while the other three formed the nucleus of the Radio Propagation Laboratory (RPL) of the Defence Research Board. They were joined by members of the Stormy Weather Project under Dr. Bob Langille. This group had been studying radar meteorology at a laboratory on the Metcalfe Highway, in a joint project with Dr. J.S. Marshall of McGill University. About this time, Jim Cox came to the group from Marconi in England.
In the beginning, the primary interest of the CRWPC was high frequency radio communication, and it was decided to concentrate its initial effort on ionospheric studies. Bill McLeish had been loaned to R.P.L. by the National Research Council to assist in setting up the new organization and he was instrumental in designing a new ionospheric sounder for them.
Technicians were required to assemble this equipment. The first to be employed was Claire McKerrow on his return from Clyde River, followed by Del Hansen and then Armour Warwick who had been officer in charge at Clyde and who was employed by Jim Scott to analyze ionospheric data from that station.
It was obvious that the fledgling organization needed more space than was available in DND's "A" Building. The Navy offered them the use of a building on the Experimental Farm which had housed a Loran monitoring station during the war. Claire and Del were sent out to inspect the place and decide whether it would be suitable for a laboratory. Their initial problem was to gain entrance to the building because no one had thought to provide them with a key. They finally found their way in through a coal chute. They had no idea what a laboratory should look like, but the building was large and well lighted and seemed a decided advance over their current quarters, so they gave an enthusiastic report to Frank Davies and proceeded to move in. The Defence Research Chemical Laboratory, which was housed in the NRC buildings on Sussex St., provided the new laboratory with many of the necessary supplies, and when a prefabricated building was required to augment their space, the DRCL maintenance staff erected it for them.
Harold Serson joined the Lab on his return from Arctic Bay, shortly followed by Jim Wiskin, Cam Baker, Keith Bedal, Jerry Moss and Jim Bennett.
The new organization had little money available for new equipment, and at any rate, little was available in the immediate post-war years. Fortunately, however, vast quantities of electronic gear were being declared surplus by the Armed Forces and were made available to the Laboratory by War Assets. Crates of equipment arrived at their door almost daily. They were pounced upon by the eager staff, usually led by Harold Serson and emptied of all sorts of military electronics. It was never known in advance what sort of treasures would emerge. One of their most valued acquisitions was an enormously heavy radio frequency signal generator.
Jerry Moss was assigned the task of dismantling most of this equipment and sorting the components into bins from which they were recycled into new apparatus.
At the beginning, the work of the laboratory was focused on high frequency radio and the problem of forecasting the ionospheric conditions which determined the availability of any given frequency and transmission path. To this end, a new ionospheric sounder was designed by a team led by Bill McLeish. These sounders were constructed at RPL and were installed in a number of stations established across Canada. Most of the components were those which had been removed from surplus military equipment. The stations were manned by DOT personnel who were trained in their operation by Bob Stevens in a small building below the main laboratory by the shore of the Rideau Canal.
A second project arose from some of the HFDF work during the war. It had been noted that transmissions passing through the auroral zone had been deflected by as much as 20 degrees. To investigate this phenomenon further. Jack Meek proposed what became known as the "Mobile" experiment. A railroad car was equipped with a laboratory, diesel generators, accommodation, and cooking and eating facilities. Ionospheric sounders were installed, a crew was chosen and the car was hauled up to The Pas in Manitoba. From there, it was attached to the train which ran to Churchill and was shunted onto sidings at various points along the route. Antennas would be erected, and a series of ionospheric soundings taken. The car would then be hauled to the next siding and the process repeated. A line of soundings was thus obtained crossing the auroral zone. Jack Meek was in charge of the operation for the first period from the autumn of 1947 to January 1948 when Claire McKerrow took over. With Claire were Harold Serson, Cam Baker, and Sgt. Len Hagg on loan from the Canadian Army. The cook, provided by CNR, had an unfortunate habit of disappearing whenever the expedition arrived in The Pas. He was usually found in one of the local bars shortly before the train left. On one occasion, the town was searched from end to end to no avail. He was finally located in the local hospital, and they had to carry on without him. Claire called for volunteers to do the cooking with no success until Harold Serson finally admitted that he could cook a little. (In fact, Harold could have competed with most professional chefs.) Claire and Harold then shared the task until the cook's return. Food was supplied by the CNR from Winnipeg. Both Claire and Harold were inordinately fond of Winnipeg goldeye, and they ordered several cases of this delicacy.. The rest of the crew ate smoked goldeye, like it or not.
In June, Claire was relieved by Del Hansen. Del and Jim Cox rode in the train hauling the Mobile to its next location. Early in the morning, as they were approaching Gillam, Claire was awakened by the smell of smoke. He called the others and then looked into the galley to find the whole place on fire. As the train pulled into Gillam Station, Claire alerted the conductor who signaled the engineer to pull the car under the water tower. Meanwhile, Del had climbed up with an axe and chopped a hole through the roof to get at the seat of the fire. When a few hundred gallons of water had been emptied into the car, the fire was thoroughly extinguished as was most of the equipment. The car was returned to Winnipeg to be rebuilt and the Mobile experiment deferred until the equipment could be repaired.
Around this time it became apparent that the laboratory needed larger quarters. Three sites were considered: the Army Proving Grounds at Orleans, a triangular area bounded by the Jock River and the Rideau River, and the present site at Shirley Bay. The advantages of this last site were the large area available and particularly, the absence of nearby transmitters which might cause radio frequency interference. The Army Proving Ground was felt to be too small and although Frank Davies favoured the Jock River site, it would have had to be purchased from private owners, so Shirley Bay, which was part of the Army's Connaught Rifle Range was chosen. Another criterion was the availability of an adequate supply of good water, since it was anticipated that the Chemical Laboratory would be moving to the site eventually. A minor problem arose from the fact that National Defence had given permission to the Dept. of Agriculture to graze sheep on the land. This meant that the R.P.L. staff had to be careful to close gates after them.
One of the first communication problems arose when it was discovered that the area was served rather casually by a small rural telephone company. This was solved when Bell was persuaded to run several lines out from the city.
Before construction of the building even started, a number of groups were working at the new site, housed in "temporary" wooden huts, several of which were still in use 35 years later. An army van provided transportation to and from the new site. Among the first to take advantage of the Shirley Bay area was Tom Straker. Tom was a New Zealander who had been captured by Rommel during the desert war in North Africa and had eventually escaped from Italy to Switzerland whence he made his way to England, where he spent three years at Cambridge studying low frequency communications. Low frequencies were of considerable interest to the military for their ability to provide reliable circuits when H.F. conditions were blacked out and in the case of Very Low Frequency, for their ability to penetrate the upper layers of the ocean to reach submarines beneath the surface. Tom, along with Jack Belrose, Bob Thain, Claire McKerrow, Harold Serson and Gerry Poaps, erected a large low frequency antenna and ploughed a number of wires below the surface to form a ground plane.
Claire recalls Straker as being "the hardest worker and the hardest taskmaster he'd ever known". Tom left a few years later to join the Marconi group in England.
Meanwhile, the first permanent buildings were going up at Shirley Bay. Building 20 was the original laboratory. Much of the planning was in the hands of Percy Field who had come to RPL from the CBC, It was on Percy's insistence that the building was electrically shielded throughout with copper screen, all thoroughly grounded. Even the copper water pipes had grounding straps soldered across each joint.
Another feature of the building was added several years later. When Dr. Bill Petrie joined the establishment, he ordered a large spectrometer mounted on a heavy cumbersome bed. It was necessary to use a crane to maneuver it through a window into the building. When Petrie left, rather than going through the reverse procedure, the spectrometer bed was stood up against a wall and the wall was rebuilt around it. It may still be there.
The move to the new building took place gradually. At the same time as the move to Shirley Bay was under way, another group, known as the Electronics Laboratory was being established, also under Frank Davies. This group was headed by Jim Cox. and was housed in a building provided by NRC on the Montreal Road, adjacent to the Canadian Army Signals Research and Development Establishment. It was 1956 before the entire Laboratory came to be under a single roof.
Not all of the work of the lab was carried out at Shirley Bay. Lou Hatton had designed a noise receiver which covered the spectrum from about 10 KHz to 30 MHz, and with Claire McKerrow and Jack Griffin, was doing noise measurements for the army. Claire was operating this equipment in Churchill. On one occasion when everything went completely dead for two days, it transpired that this was the result of a major proton storm. Frank Davies encouraged Claire to write a paper on this. It was published in "Nature".
Harold Serson and Bill Campbell went to Resolute in July of 1951, where they made auroral measurements, listened to signals coming across the Pole, and recorded the signals from WWV. Sharing their accommodations was Kit Loomer from the Dominion Observatory who was recording geophysical data. During a blizzard one morning. Kit went out as usual to check his recording equipment. He came dashing back in to say that some large creature at flown at him through the snow. They all went out to find a rabid fox lying on the ground. Kit had kicked and killed it.
Both their cook, and the cook at the DOT camp were anxious to shoot a polar bear. One evening, Harold and Bill manufactured a very realistic bear out of snow a hundred yards from their camp and embedded a number of bottles of ketchup in it. They called out the two cooks who blazed away at it for some time, amazed to see it bleeding copiously but refusing to fall.
On another occasion, they were informed that the senior RCMP officer for the area was visiting Resolute for a few days and, because of shortage of accommodation in the main camp, would be domiciled in the DRB hut. They barely had time to dismantle and remove their still from the spare bedroom before he arrived.
It shouldn't be taken from this that life in field camps was a sinecure. People worked long hours under arduous conditions: overtime pay was unheard of, and the people were expected to stay without a break until the job was done. On this experiment, for example, Bill and Harold were in Resolute from July 1951 until September 1952 with only a six hour break when they were flown down to Churchill for X-rays after a suspected case of tuberculosis in the camp.
Medical problems were handled on site. Harold developed a bad tooth. He and Bill read the directions that came with their medical kit, then Bill drilled out the bad spot and filled it. Harold still had the filling a year later when he came south. The cook came down with some ailment. Again, Bill and Harold read the book and concluded that it was a kidney infection. The book was not clear on whether they should use penicillin, sulfa, or aureomycin, so they combined all three. Every day they would roll the cook onto his stomach, paint a target on his buttocks, and stab him with a hypodermic needle. Despite their efforts, he survived and recovered.
Back at Shirley Bay another project was initiated,this time with no official sanction. During and after the war, numbers of people had been sighting unusual objects in the sky and accounts of these were reported to various Government agencies. A committee was formed to investigate these reports. Two of the members were Frank Davies and Wilbur Smith from the Department of Transport. Wilbur's normal responsibility was staffing the ionospheric stations. The rest of the committee concluded that there was nothing of substance in the sightings, but Smith was fascinated with the idea of communing with visitors from outer space. Without announcing his intentions, he borrowed equipment from NRC, the Dominion Observatory, and RPL and installed it in an empty hut belonging to RPL. The hut was adjacent to to the ionospheric station at Shirley Bay. Smith's equipment apparently included a magnetometer and he gave the apparatus the name "Project Magnet" . The output from the magnetometers was recorded on Esterline Angus paper chart recorders. The ionospheric station was operated continuously by DOT technicians who obligingly flicked the recorder pens from time to time during their shifts. Smith interpreted these signals as being evidence of Unidentified Flying Objects. The first that RPL heard about it was when Jim Scott, who was Chief Superintendent at the time, received a call from the Chairman of the Defence Research Board, Hartley Zimmerman, wanting to know what was going on at Shirley Bay. A book "The Flying Saucers are Real", by Donald Keyhoe had just been published and referred to Smith's work as evidence for "Flying Saucers". The local press picked this up and needless to say, the more DRB denied that anything had been discovered, the more they were accused of a coverup.
Armour Warwick was sent out to have Smith's building removed. These huts were built on heavy timber skids and it was customary to drag them around with a tractor, but when Armour examined this one, he found a concrete pillar embedded deep in the ground and standing several feet high in the building, presumably, a support for a seismograph. Armour had to call the Army to bring in a crane to lift the building clear of the pillar before it could be moved.
Mid Canada Line Radar
This was a project wished on RPL from above. The Government had decided that it was necessary to install a radar system coast to coast some hundreds of miles south of the Arctic Dew Line to back up the latter. Three systems were proposed. One, from RPL, was largely the work of Phil Thomson, the second was from NRC and the third from a combined team from McGill and RCA of Montreal. After some controversial discussion, the latter was chosen. It was to be a doppler system built around 500 MHz communications equipment provided by RCA. RPL was designated to test and develop the system. Simply put: the radar was two of pairs of transmitters and receivers installed alternately at stations roughly 50 Km apart. A transmitter at one station would transmit CW on a given frequency toward a receiver at one of the adjoining stations. If an aircraft were to fly through the transmission path, a doppler shifted frequency would be detected by the receiver and an alarm sounded. Several experiments were carried out over the following two or three years, each given a code name. The overall system was variously referred to as the McGill Fence or DRB Fence. In "Spiderweb", four transmitters were set up along the shores of Lake Ontario between Trenton and Belleville. The corresponding receivers were set up on the western end of Prince Edward County near Wellington. The transmitters were unattended but were visited at regular intervals by Larry Mairs. The receiver site was operated by Jerry Poaps and John Keys. Ted Hartz resided at the RCAF base at Trenton, and when an aircraft was available, Ted would be flown back and forth through the signal paths. The aircraft used were DC3's and T33 fighter trainers. Two problems arose very early in the game. First, two of the receivers had no signal at all in their outputs. The cause was traced to the coaxial cable running from the receiver to the antenna, 50 feet up the tower. In the heat of the sun, the outer conductor had stretched several inches, pulling the inner conductor out of the connector. After this was diagnosed and repaired, it turned out that there was almost steady ducting caused by a temperature inversion over the waters of the lake. The resulting high signal level at the receiver simply overloaded the Doppler detecting circuit. The receivers were installed in an army van parked on the shoreline beside the tower supporting the four antennas. A gasoline driven generator sat on a trailer nearby. Since Ted Hartz was never sure when an aircraft would be available, it was agreed that Keys and Poaps would start the generator at 8 o'clock each morning and wait for Ted to call them on the radio. If nothing was heard by 10 a.m., it was assumed that no flights would be carried out that day. On one occasion, they waited until about 10:30 and when no aircraft showed up, shut down the generator and were about to leave the site. However a T33 had become available at the last minute and the pilot, unable to make contact with those on the ground,, made a low pass over the receiver site at what seemed, to those on the ground, to be an altitude of about ten feet.. The generator was immediately restarted and the experiment got under way. People in the nearby village of Wellington who had also been subjected to this low level pass were convinced that World War III had broken out.
The question arose about the effects of birds flying thorough the beam. A study, code named "Wood Duck" was carried out at Jack Miner's bird sanctuary on Lake Erie. Some thirty people from RPL spent more that two weeks in the sanctuary, counting ducks as they flew through the path of the radar. A film of "Operation Wood Duck" was produced with a commentary by Del Hansen. A copy of this should be sitting in the RPL archives.
"Project Grey Goose" was designed to study the system under ideal conditions: that is, in the absence of anomalous propagation conditions, birds, aircraft, or any other extraneous signals. To this end, it was decided to move back up to the Churchill Railway. Three stations were established: at Amery, where the railway makes a sharp turn to the left, and at Gillam and Kettle Rapids, respectively about 50 km south and north of Amery. The stations formed an elongated triangle with two radars covering each leg. It was hoped, in this way, to determine how many false alarms could be expected in the absence of any interfering signals. The team going up to operate these stations spent New Years Eve of 1953 in Wabowden about 150 km north of The Pas and were greeted on the first morning of 1954 with a temperature of -45 deg.C., a temperature they were to experience regularly over the next several weeks. On arrival at their respective sites, they found a caboose which was to be their living quarters, a boxcar containing two gasoline driven generators, and a flat car carrying an Army van which contained the radar equipment. The towers and antennas were standing nearby. The generators were started with some difficulty and ran for an hour or so before they stopped. After a day or so of this intermittent operation, it was found that there was insufficient ventilation in the boxcar and the engines were strangling on their own exhaust fumes. The caboose was heated by a stove burning soft coal which provided plenty of heat until the grates fell out, which they did about once a day. The stove then had to be allowed to cool down until it could be reassembled. The gasoline for the generators was in 45 gallon drums and had not been treated for use in cold weather. Consequently, it contained a fair amount of water. This problem had been foreseen just before leaving Shirley Bay and a quantity of alcohol was ordered. Because of the short time available, the alcohol was acquired from the Chemical Laboratory next door and on arrival in the north, it was found to be pure ethyl alcohol. Some of it was used to absorb the water from the gasoline.
When one of the party was leaving to return to the south, the rest of the crew organized a small party for him. The alcohol was diluted with canned fruit juice until it ran out and was replaced with juice decanted from canned fruit. Toward the end of the evening, the departing one was handed a glass which he drained at gulp before he realized that it consisted of a quantity of alcohol diluted with the juice from a can of sardines. The results can be imagined.
The Janet Project
This project was particularly interesting in that it was conceived, studied and carried through to the development stage entirely within RPL. Prof. Peter Forsyth, who led the project, described it, and some of his early days at RPL in a note to Frank Davies more than 20 years ago. The note, along with its covering letter are given elsewhere. (Ed. note: The article is . I think the letter is on this site somewhere, but I can't find it. Can anyone help?). It is noteworthy that almost everyone interviewed remembers the the excitement and fun of working at RPL in those days.
A few notes should be added to Forsyth's account. When he applied for the patent in the name of the Queen, he was required to pay the filing fee of $25 himself. Despite his best efforts, the bureaucracy managed to thwart his attempt to recover it. Although the system was well proven, and has been used in many applications, the government failed to pursue it, and when the original patent expired seventeen years later, it was immediately picked up by Boeing and Western Union. Until recently, it was extremely useful for interrogating unmanned geophysical stations such as unmanned buoys.
The development of the system was contracted to Ferranti in Toronto, where the group was led by Arthur Porter, an old wartime colleague of Forsyth's. Del Hansen was the liaison officer for RPL It was Hansen who suggested recording the signal on magnetic tape which was run through the recorder at high speed, then collected in a wastebasket, to be played back at normal speed.
In 1958, Booker, at Cornell, was asking, on behalf of NASA, for proposals for a small ("melon sized") experiment to put into a satellite. Peter Forsyth, at the University of Saskatchewan, attended the meeting and proposed a very simple single frequency topside sounder. Eldon Warren from RPL was also at the meeting and he and Forsyth discussed the idea at some length. The NASA people felt that Forsyth's experiment should be expanded. Forsyth wrote to Jim Scott, the Director General of RPL, suggesting that RPL should put in a bid. Eldon Warren was instrumental in drawing up a proposal, which he and Scott then took to NASA. Bert Walker, from the office of the Defence Research Member, Washington, also attended.
Apparently, there was some lack of communication between the Laboratory and DRB Headquarters because the first thing the headquarters people heard of the proposal was a copy of a letter which crossed the desk of the Chief Scientist, Dr. Keyston, written by Jim Scott to NASA agreeing to provide a sounder. When the resulting brouhaha died down, work began on the Allouette Satellite.