The Secret Submarine Cable

THE SECRET SUBMARINE CABLE THAT NEVER EVENTUATED

by Cyril Vahtrick

[Ed: This fabulous story of what might have been is from Cyril Vahtrick and permission to reprint from the OTVA. Thanks to both]

The 1956 Olympic Games had finished in Melbourne and OTC was still trying to come back to normal, with new equipment such as T.E.D. (Teleprinter Error Detection)  and T.O.C. (Teleprinter on Cable) to be brought into service. Christmas was approaching when Chief Engineer Bob Long summoned me into his office with some excitement. He had on the table a pink covered document marked “Secret”.  I hadn’t seen an official secret document since my Radar days with the Air Force during WW2 and was intrigued at what this might be about.

The document was quite bulky, but I was told to stay there and read it.  What it contained was a comprehensive study and recommendation for a submarine telephone cable to provide a link from Britain to Australia, proposed by a British Commonwealth group called the Cable Network Design Committee (CNDC) based in London.

We had heard sketchy reports about a coaxial submarine cable (TAT), with submerged valve operated repeaters which had been laid across the Atlantic that year, but the idea of having valves (electron tubes) inaccessible at the bottom of the ocean seemed almost like science fiction at the time.

The proposal contained in the report was to lay a coaxial cable, capable of carrying 36 simultaneous telephone circuits from UK via Ascension Island to Cape Town, thence a microwave to Durban and then a smaller capacity 24 circuit cable following the old telegraph cable route across the Indian Ocean to Cocos Island and finally Perth. A later smaller cable across the Tasman to New Zealand was also mentioned, with connection via microwave across Australia.

The real jolt came with the financial analysis. With appropriate conservative design, it was estimated that such a system could be established for no more than 20 million pounds! Considering that we had felt courageous committing to purchase a few new HF transmitters at 10 thousand pounds each, the whole cable project looked an impossible dream to me.

Bob Long, on the other hand, not only saw this as the way to the future but, following the telegraph cable example, he immediately began to envisage a full British Commonwealth “round-the-world ”  telephone cable system by also crossing the Pacific and Atlantic.

As a major deviation from the route in the document, we did some great circle calculations and showed that we could save over a thousand nautical miles and a couple of million pounds in the Indian Ocean by following a great circle route from Cape Town to Western Australia via a repeater station on Heard Island rather than going via Cocos.

We had earnest discussions with Phillip Law, of Antarctic fame and he enthusiastically embraced the idea of a joint station on Heard Island. OTC had experience in seconding

Radio Officers to the Antarctic, so we felt we could handle the problem of staffing Heard Island.

After due consideration by the Commission, PMG and Treasury, an initial response went back to the CNDC from OTC proposing firstly a broad commitment to a “round-the-world” concept and also the Heard Island alternative.  The latter idea was opposed by Britain because of the extreme latitude of Heard Island, even though we showed that Oban in Scotland (where the Atlantic telephone cable had landed) was at a higher latitude.

Following our submission to the CNDC a Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference was arranged to be held in London in 1958. This Conference  recommended to participating governments a long term plan providing for the development of a  British Commonwealth communications system by incorporation, gradually, of a round-the-world large-capacity cable system.

The release of information on another “secret” cable project under construction across the Atlantic (the CANTAT cable from UK to Canada) led to strong agitation from OTC General Manager Trevor Housley that the next step in the round-the -world system should be across the Pacific, thus joining Australia to Canada, USA and UK/Europe.

With support from our Government, OTC initiated a British Commonwealth Telecommunications conference in Sydney  in  September/ October 1959. The Conference was opened by Prime Minister Menzies and recommended that a trans-Pacific large-capacity cable be constructed as soon as possible. Trevor Housley was invited by the participating parties to be the first Convenor of a Management Committee for the project.

With experience of the explosive growth of telephone traffic across the Atlantic on the telephone cable and noting that CANTAT was going to be to a new design with capacity for a full supergroup (60 circuits) OTC successfully pressed for the same design across the Pacific. (In the event, by reducing the bandwidth of each voice circuit from 4 kHz to 3 kHz, this capacity was increased to 80 circuits). It was agreed that the cable would be named COMPAC.

It is interesting to note in retrospect that, although the transistor had made its first appearance about 1949, ten years later it was still considered that there was not enough experience with transistors to use them in submarine repeaters, despite the substantial advantage in working voltage, size, etc. Therefore the CANTAT and COMPAC repeaters would still be valve operated.

At the end of 1959, I was selected to go to London to join the CNDC, commissioned with the overall design and planning of the COMPAC project. This work proceeded quickly and, in the middle of 1960, the management Committee placed contracts for 8,700 nautical miles of  coaxial submarine cable and 335 submerged repeaters, making this the longest telephone cable system yet undertaken in the world.

I had the opportunity to visit the TAT and CANTAT terminals near Oban in Scotland. It was interesting to note that the TAT terminal was buried deep inside a massive cliff face, accessed through a series of bomb-proof doors and no doubt designed to withstand an atom bomb. On the other hand the CANTAT  terminal was a conventional building built on a cliff facing the sea, with windows all around, perhaps indicative of a thawing of the cold war.

At home, OTC ran into stiff opposition from the PMG’s Department which saw OTC involvement stopping at the cable landing at Bondi, after which they would take over the terminal equipment. The PMG planned for the cable to be treated as just another long distance trunk route and they proposed that the then current PMG internal trunk signalling system should be employed on the cable. Since this was incompatible with the overseas systems into which we would be connected, OTC successfully demonstrated that special international equipment and a specialized overseas telecommunications terminal would be necessary to interconnect with other international systems.

With support from the Treasury, OTC finally received Ministerial approval to construct and own the terminal. After much searching, a suitable site was found in Oxford Street, Paddington and we found ourselves getting into the business of constructing a multi storey city building.

Since virtually all the terminal equipment represented new technology for OTC, Orm Cooper was selected to attend a training course in London, while Perc Day joined a group in New Zealand who were being instructed by an instructor brought out from UK in the specialized technique of jointing the special coaxial cable.

Despite our lack of experience at the beginning, all the installation work was satisfactorily completed on time and within budget. Finally, the big day came when the first section of the COMPAC cable to New Zealand was ready for service. My recollection is that Orm Cooper was the first person to talk on our first international telephone cable when power was anxiously switched on after the last cable splice was in place.

History records, of course, that this section of the cable was formally opened by Prime Minister Menzies on 9th July, 1962.  During arrangements for the ceremony, the organizers (now extending way beyond OTC) were caught in a diplomatic dilemma as to who should call whom between the Australian and NZ Prime Ministers. Protocol suggested that, since Australia was the senior Commonwealth partner, the first voice to be heard should be our PM’s – on the other hand what if  something happened and our PM was left on the line calling “hello, hello” with no response?

A proper diplomatic solution was worked out. The call should originate in NZ, with an operator, who would have the NZ  PM on the line waiting, then the phone at our end would ring and our PM would be the first to speak! Because of the exact timing required, our PM had been asked to make a short speech to the assembled people at the opening ceremony in Sydney, after which the call would take place. To guide him on timing, a light would blink when there was exactly one minute to go, so he could finish off what he was saying. When the light started blinking, the PM abruptly sat down virtually in mid sentence, leaving an embarrassingly long silent minute while nothing happened. Lots of fingers were crossed but the call came through exactly as planned and all was well.

The final section of COMPAC was completed in 1963 and the whole system through to UK was formally opened from London by her Majesty the Queen on  3rd December 1963 (or 2nd December depending on where you were!).

As for the round-the-world Commonwealth cable system, this plan came unstuck about 1961 when South Africa left the British Commonwealth, so the original cable plans routed via South Africa never eventuated. Also by then, the idea of  a continuing British Commonwealth global submarine cable monopoly had been put to rest, being replaced by international joint ventures and the rapid development of satellite communications.

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6 thoughts on “The Secret Submarine Cable

    • Thanks Ray, We will be posting more and working towards the 50th anniversary of the opening ceremony that involved the heads of 4 countries for the end of next year! Maybe a re-enactment.

  1. Pingback: TAT-1 Cable Landing Station at Gallanach Bay, Oban | Uk Submarine Cable Landings & Cable Stations

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