Touched by the past
by Peter, HB9RUZ
On November 10 1943 sometime after 13:45 a radio operator of
the RAF base Beaulieu/ Hampshire received a message from Liberator BZ774 marked
'D' of the RAF's 311 (Czechoslovak) squadron, reporting a successful engagement:
a rocket projectile attack on the German submarine U966 near the Spanish Cape
Ortegal had ended with the submarine’s crew abandoning ship. The Liberator,
although having been exposed to the submarines fierce AA fire during the
attack, made it back to Beaulieu after an overall flight time of nearly twelve
hours over the bay of Biscay.
Since my youth I have been fascinated by history, ranging from the Roman Empire up to details of modern air warfare including its related technologies. The history of one’s own life is something special, because most of the documents are only kept alive in the form of one's own memories. At the other hand several formerly highly esteemed hardware items manage to survive repeated spring-cleaning. Touching such a relict sometimes brings back the past, be it only to assure oneself that the past is not imagination, but actually has occurred.
At the age of 13 I met Otto, HB9KN, my late elmer. I was deeply impressed by his ability to build all his rigs both mechanically and electrically from scratch. But on the other hand he was also the proud owner of a all-metal radio receiver, which he had painted gray, introducing it to me with “My BC-348 is a military receiver”. He needn’t have stressed that, because if a Sherman tank is the martial variant of a Cadillac, then the BC-348 is the martial variant of a lounge radio. As you might know: real radios run on a motor and my BC-348 does: until the motor revs up to full throttle, there is no light on the dial scale and no sound on the headphones. Otto passed away many years ago. The wish to possess such a receiver as souvenir from the first years of my hobby became overwhelming, but I couldn’t find a hint to the whereabouts of his grey one. It must have been an advertisement in the newsletter of the international shortwave league which helped me to acquire a BC-348 from an Englishman.
The radio seemed to have been treated with a layer of black shoe wax. After the repeated application of a generous amount of cleaning alcohol, I gradually realized that the former proprietor wanted to hide the numerous injuries to the lacquer finish. Beyond its original nameplate there was a big white R accompanied by a big white dot, seemingly painted by a later user of the radio. The similarity to the RAF symbol was striking, but it didn’t occur to me that the British war department could have been using US radio gear, given that the British radio industry was substantial and I didn’t yet know the story of the National HRO. The sensitivity and selectivity of my new cruddy black acquisition did not fulfil my hopes. And then, for various reasons, my interest in shortwave reception waned.
After I got a ham license this changed, and I bought another BC-348. It had a clean black wrinkle finish and did its job nicely. Its previous owner had obtained it from the Swiss army where it had been completely overhauled, not to say refurbished. Its only drawback was the fact that it wasn’t accompanied by a manual and in lieu of its original U.S. Army nameplate there was a new Swiss army nameplate, declaring the BC-348 to be a ‘H-Empfänger’. Can renaming such an old warhorse be kind – or even legal - I asked myself quietly, but finally found reassurance by considering it merely a piece of cheap metal hiding behind black paint. Meanwhile I had got acquainted to use the internet as a fast and large source of information and so knew, that in all its versions more than 100 000 BC-348 had been manufactured during WW2 and put into service in a large number of USAAF aircrafts.
Recently I decided to reduce the size of my collection of receivers. While preparing the sale, I had a look through the manual of the BC-348 that sported the white R and the white dot. On its worn cover page, tainted by oil patches, I stumbled upon a stamp which I could verify as a aircraft tail number, most probably identifying the former host of my BC-348.
This aroused my curiosity and I wanted to know more about the history of that very aircraft. Information obtained by courtesy of Mr. A. DiFante of the Air Force Historical Research Agency revealed that 42-40652 had been a B-24 Liberator and not a B-17 as I wrongly had assumed. Furthermore that it had been handed over to the RAF based on the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. The mystery of the white R with the dot seemed to be solved: it is as a matter of fact a stylized RAF roundel. Now, that I knew that it was a B-24, I recalled that this type of aircraft had been widely used by the RAF coastal command. Asking Google with the search keys USAAF, 40652 and RAF lead to a cross-reference table on a website of Mr.Joseph F.Baugher. This in turn produced the RAF number BZ774 corresponding to USAAF 40652. Asking Google again with the keywords B-24 and BZ774 finally lead to a Liberator of the 311 (Czechoslovak) RAF squadron. It seems that the number was assigned a second time as 44-40652 to an Liberator transferred to the Royal Australian Air force. This ambiguity can be settled by determining the year of the budget position of the BC-348 order.
Need I still explain, that USAAF 42-40652, host to my BC-348 with that stamp in its manual and RAF Liberator BZ774 of U966 fame is one and the same aircraft?
Most of the crew of U966 were able to reach the Spanish coast, whereas most of those crewing BZ774 never returned from an antisubmarine mission in another Liberator only 4 months later. Their former plane was subsequently reassigned to RAF squadrons 53 and 86 and lost its undercarriage due to a tyre burst during take-off in Wick/Scotland on August 5 1944. The damage must have been so severe that it was transferred from category B status to category E status on September 22 1944, and so its radio and guns ended up in storage. An additional stamp in the manual indicates Liberator 44153 was supposed to get the BC-348 radio. This obviously never happened, 44153 having crashed and burnt out in East-Asia on February 21 1945. Touched as I am by the fate of O. Zantas crew and by the history of that aircraft for which my BC-348 had played a decisive role, I will never again dare to call this radio receiver ‘piece of cheap metal’. I regard the shortcomings of my contemporary as the forgivable infirmity of an old warhorse.
In the summer of the year 2018 the wreck of U966 was found by spanish divers.
I am grateful to Brigitte, XYL of HB9DCE, for eliminating the worst glitches of my English. Photos of O. Zantas BZ774 crew courtesy of www.fcafa.com .
Special thanks goes to Peter, PE1GQV, for boosting my power supply in order not to break down under the high inrush current of the BC-348 dynamotor as well as to Matthias, HB9JCI, for the donation of a spare dynamotor.