More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part Nine

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Radio North Sea International was bigger, better and flashier than any other pirate. Aboard a Norwegian coaster converted into the radio ship Mebo II in a Hamburg shipyard, it came on the air on January 23 1970.

Painted in brilliant psychedelic colours and topped by a 50 metre high radio mast, it was, for me, a fascinating enigma from the start. Its conventional medium wave transmitter was more powerful than any other pirate radio ship, and most European national radio stations, and it also, surprisingly, broadcast on two short wave bands and on VHF. It was difficult to discern any commercial rationale behind the operation.

Controversy dogged the station. During the 1970 General Election, it mounted a campaign against the then Labour Government and was, in turn, jammed by the Post Office, a British naval radio station and the military.

By now I was writing for Disc & Music Echo in London on developments in European pirate radio and was also project manager for Capital Radio, anchored just a few miles away.

I was able to infiltrate the Mebo office operation which was located in a suite in the Grand Hotel in Scheveningen on the Dutch coast. From the window of the office we could see the three pirate ships – Caroline, Capital and RNI – impudently at anchor in a row, three miles offshore in international waters outside the jurisdiction of the Dutch authorities.

I became aware of shipments of radio transmitter parts to East Germany and discovered in the outgoing mail copies of airfreight waybills addressed to the ‘Institut fur Technische Untersuchungen’ in East Berlin’. This equipment, of US origin, was being shipped by Mebo Telecommunications (then unregistered) of Zurich to East Berlin, via Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Such technology exports were banned under Federal US law. The Institut was a wing of East German intelligence, the Stasi.

I spirited away the mail that looked interesting, steamed it open using a technique learned from The Daily Mail Annual as a schoolboy, photocopied it, popped it back in the post and laid the copies securely aside for my next trip back to the UK.

Back there, usually in Aberdeen, I would be contacted by a Special Branch officer who would set up my meetings with the man from MI6. Hardly surprisingly, I was dealt with on a ‘need to know’ basis but from the extensive questioning and discussions it became quite clear that ‘W’ was particularly interested in the East German connection and the interference by the radio ship in the general election.

This was distinctly low grade intelligence work far removed from the glamorous world of James Bond.

But in those days, it was this sort of dull footwork which formed the bedrock of most intelligence operations. I was never paid a penny for my miniscule part in winning the Cold War.

Anthony Wedgewood Benn – then Her Majesty’s Postmaster General with responsibility for broadcasting matters – had secretly sworn a warrant for my arrest under the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act 1967 for my part in setting up Capital Radio.

I was simply granted immunity from prosecution as was one of my colleagues, Scottish radio engineer aboard Capital, Ewan Macpherson, a friend from university days who had kept our discotheques running..

However, evidence soon emerged that the activities of European and American intelligence agencies had borne fruit. On July 8 1971, the Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, published a leaked report from the CIA.

It revealed that ten pirate radio ships, based on the Radio North Sea International operation, were under construction in the Polish port of Gdansk.

The programme was under the direction of the Institut fur Technische Untersuchungen. This was believed to be a Cold War riposte to the US-backed operations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. It was also likely that such vessels would incorporate a SIGINT (signals intelligence) capability, which was also a feature of the North Sea operation. Publication of the report effectively compromised the whole operation and work on the ships ceased.

In May 1971, Radio North Sea International was bombed by frogmen who attached plastic explosives to the hull. Rival, Radio Veronica, was blamed and owner, Bul Verweij, went to prison. But in reality it was a botched job by the BVD (Dutch Secret Service).

Meantime my own pirate ship had been cut adrift on the night of November 5 1970 and had ended up on the beach at Noordwijk – right in front of the Grand Hotel. The crew and radio operators were rescued by the Noordwijk lifeboat. The Wijsmuller salvage company spent almost a week salvaging the ship but it turned out to be a somewhat pointless exercise: when the insurance company declined to pay up, Wijsmuller arrested the ship and it would eventually be sold for scrap, effectively flushing more than