The Bismarck Could Not Hide from VOAC
By Frank Tibbo
Newfoundland radio operators stationed in Gander during the war were primarily engaged in transmitting and receiving Morse-code messages. Their customers were mainly military aircraft. Some transmissions, however, were not from aircraft but were from ships – German ships. One series of dots and dashes received by a Gander operator made history.
Jim Dempsey was a radio operator supervisor who later converted to radio technician. He went to Botwood in 1937 and came to Gander in 1938.
"I did the ground to air communications for the first Trans Atlantic Flight. The date was July 6, 1937. There were two of them. The first was American Clipper 3, Pan American Airlines NC16736 radio call sign KAHHM. It was east-bound from Port Washington, New York, en route to Foynes via Botwood. It was a Short Sunderland Flying Boat, which was owned at that time by Imperial Airways GADHM. I worked that aircraft fifteen minutes off the water in Shannon and never lost it all the way over, and the last three hours I gave him radio bearings what we call the QDM, magnetic course to steer. He was down in the fog and couldn't see; his navigator could have gone to sleep for what use he was – and that's how he came into Botwood. The first time he went over the station in Botwood he was about 1500 feet. He couldn't see us, but we could hear him. I knew by my radio compass that he was directly overhead. So he went west for about 10 minutes and turned around and took another approach coming back; and when I told him the next time he was overhead he said, 'Yes, thanks; I can see you.' I talked to the radio operator after they landed. His name was Jimmy Coster – he was an Irishman. I believe the captain was Wilcockson." (Dempsey)
Dempsey went to work for the British Air Ministry in Botwood in 1937. The Ferry Command took over in 1941, and he worked with them until the end of the war in 1945. The Civil Aviation Division of the Newfoundland government took over in 1945, and he worked with them until the Department of Transport took over in 1949 at Confederation.
"I was credited with hooking the Bismarck. I was operating the direction finder, so I got a call this day and the officer in charge said, 'You can't beat what you did last night.' He said, 'You got the best bearing you're ever going to get.' It took me a long time to find out what he meant. I went back to the book to have a look. I knew the bearing I took was on German marine. I suppose it was about two or three months before they told me it was the Bismarck I got." (Dempsey)
The Allies had been successful in obtaining the complete top-secret German coding system from a captured submarine. Little did the Germans realize that all their coded messages were being deciphered.
The British Admiralty regularly sent to the Canadian Navy a list of radio frequencies that the Germans were scheduled to use. The Gander operators were given instructions to monitor certain frequencies at the prescribed times. As soon as the submarines and other craft started transmitting to their home station at Kiel, the transmissions were being copied at Gander.
"We would be sitting there on the frequency waiting for them. As soon as they made a peep, we'd copy the preamble of their message. So we'd identify who it was from; and when they were sending the text of the message, we'd send the direction finder on them and take a radio bearing. The Germans were so accurate in their time that you could use the first dot they made as a time-signal. They were deadly accurate, and their Morse was just the same as if they were sending it by tape – never heard the like of it before. And the German Telefunkin transmitter – there was no way that you could hide it. It had a peculiar ping to it as they were sending. The same thing applied to the British Marconi equipment. I could tell two or three different types of equipment just by the sound they were radiating." (Dempsey)
The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the world. It put to sea in early May 1941 and soon after sunk one of the largest British warships, the H.M.S. Hoood, with a loss of 1418 sailors. The Bismarck went to the bottom a few weeks later on May 27.Contributed by F. Tibbo