The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
Two wires suspended between two masts, four copper gauze mats radiating from a bivvy under one mast, the throb of an engine punctuated by vicious dots and dashes—Wireless.
To become a wireless operator one must, first of all, know how to carry out the daily duties of an ordinary sapper, and, in addition, be able to bear the affectionate embrace of a pair of earphones for hours at a stretch, and suppress the sleep sensation that constantly attacks one during the long night watches. Possess these, and the other qualifications are soon acquired Of course, one needs a good knowledge of operating and a large reserve of patience to unravel the volumes of weird codes, procedure, instructions and examples, that have accumulated for many months.
Before one can aspire to the position of a mechanic, who drives the engine, he must be a professional jack-of-all-trades. Under the title of mechanic is included cook, despatch rider, engineer, team-driver and cipher expert. A strong arm to crank an often cranky engine is essential, also a perfectly. even temper, for the cranking handle often slips from the shaft just as the winding-up effort has reached its maximum, and leaves one with skinned knuckles. Experience has taught Tom not to let his cranking efforts exceed the limits of safety. Other flies in the ointment are the drivers, who steer limbers along dusty roads and navigate pack mules up and down goat tracks, with more or less success. The last personality in the crew is the N.C.O. in charge of the station. He acts as information bureau in general and is a walking encyclopaedia. If a station gets into such a position that capture is probable, the N.C.O. in charge is ordered to eat the code books and the procedure. The code book would be easily digested, but the procedure would cause disastrous complications to digestive organs.
Usually at dusk, a stunt begins. After following the elusive Light Horse along, goat tracks over countless stony hills, dragging obstinate mules that take a fiendish delight in trying either to level the mountains or relieve themselves of their burden by bumping every rock within reach, you arrive at your destination. Then the fun begins. Those of us who have had several years' experience of erecting wireless stations at night are endowed with cat's eyes. It is highly diverting to erect the masts over a wady, drive iron pegs through rocks, and find faults in a red-hot engine by the aid of a candle. When the operator is ready to open up communication, the mechanic Acids that some vital part of his engine has come "unstuck" and been lost en route. Various gadgets are produced from the "come-in-handy" bag, and signals are soon exchanged.
As soon as the other stations hear that we are open, they all hop in it once in a wild attempt to rid themselves of their accumulated traffic. Talk about a flock of galahs! A perfect discord of musical notes, ragged notes, cracked notes, trombones and basso-profundos mingle with "Jacko's" shrill whining tones, to the disgust of the operator. Ignorance is bliss, since none of the operators can receive while sending. At last, one by one they stop, and our operator arranges transmission to his liking. You begin
—others wait. As soon as the first message is received, it is pounced upon by the cipher experts, who tear it inside out, and, with more or less success, solve the problem. Long before No. I message is de-ciphered, another has arrived and more are on their way.
A message marked "Urgent" upsets the whole show. All the "spare parts" are called up to cope with the pressure. Just glance inside. You see the great unwashed cramped around a flickering canrile stuck in the ground, like a lot of moths, trying to shout down the "rip, rip" of a vicious spark and the throb of an engine that heats the bivvy like an oven and produces so much smoke that everybody sheds tears. You may think they are crying over the messages. There's that noble personality, the mechanic, hanging on to the throttle and squirting oil into the engine by means of various contrivances, and staring into the dark case of the speed indicator trying to see the violently swinging needle. Towards dawn the traffic eases down, and one by one the "spare parts" drop asleep till only the operator remains awake, straightening the confusion.
Just as the operator feels that sleepy sensation stealing over him an outgoing troop of Light Horse or a Camel convoy get stuck in the far mast guys, and the station collapses. In column of lump the ''spare parts" dash out, and eventually sort the wreckage and re-erect the station. No sooner is all quiet than a galloper falls over the bivvy guy ropes and brings the bivvy down. His message is signed for, and once again the cipher experts; as if in a trance, crawl towards the candle to transcribe clear English into another tangle of cipher. Half way through this, word is received that we are to move off in five minutes. The last lap consists of a wild scramble to catch up with B.H.Q., and so we stumble along in the dark until we reach our new position, only to repeat the performance.
Such is life on a wireless station, our greatest worry being brain-racking codes, procedure and problems involving the square root of x. The last part of a stunt is the critical stage, when one's nerves are frayed and temper strained. But "when you. are on a good thing, stick to it."