Cast thy bread upon the waters – Eric Vast

Many years ago I use to install Talking Film Equipment (about 1928/9) for Western Electric. The occasional installation used to pickup noise from the Arc Lamp Nicads, often tucked away in conduit in the Projection Box walls. These I used to trace with a coil of VIR feeding into the amplifier system and the loud speakers. When traced the offending cables could be dug out of the walls and rerouted at a safe distance from the amplifiers.

During Hitler’s war I was in Egypt, Lord of a small Signals Research Unit (Signals Experimental Group) and for a while we did a job for the RAF (Heliopolis) which entailed using a number of cables, which were in fact more or less lost. Whenever we found one I caused a signal to be sent into the cable and traced it, as before with a pickup loop. As the job was a long one we made ourselves comfortable. I took a German Mine Detector Kit, which had a nice shoulder pack and turned it into a three valve amplifier using British batteries which were easier to obtain.

A loop of about 200 turns 2 ft by 1 ft was made with a nice handle. The tone down the cable was provided by a formidable oscillator of 1 KHZ, 100 Watts, which we happened to have from another job. This we applied between the interior electrostatic shield, and the wire sheath of the cables. They had good insulation, it looked about thick enough to withstand 2000 volts, which was just as well, as on open circuit the oscillator gave nearly 1000 volts! With this kit you could wander down the cable route for miles with a good signal 30 feet on either side. You could find the lost end with an accuracy of a few inches. The oscillator which included the then fashionable Vibrators, was run from a 12 volt accumulator.

We used this system on and off round the Garrison finding the odd lost cable and it was kept in good nick. About this time General Montgomery appeared. He was not a nice man, he said so himself. When not looking at a picture of General Rommel in his caravan (he was alleged to do this by the hour trying to find out what sort of man he was), he was usually making complaints about the work of his predecessors. He was extremely rude to the Signals General about the telephone service from Alexandria to GHQ Cairo. Thus it was ordained it should be improved beyond all knowledge.

Now this came under an obscure unit, GHQ Troops (Signals), whose boss was the G2 (Lines) who sat in GHQ. There was a strong Post Office component in Signals. By some curious chance they produced 120 half mile lengths of 60 pair cable. To show willing, work was started right away and a firm estimate of 6 weeks was given to the General for its completion. As the locals were digging up cables for the copper, it was to buried deep. A passing American Unit with a machine, agreed to do this. Deep it went, about four feet with the ends tied together, and sticking up to two feet below the surface.

Now the sands of the desert where the cable was laid were not standard in texture. They can be very diverse. They range from moving dunes where the sand particles are of very similar size and are nearly spherical, to well graded particles of irregular shape. When a vehicle passes over these it leaves permanent tracks, that may last 25 years. The sands up the Alex. Road tended very much to be like the first variety. Two hefty lads with spades, would need to dig hard, and be within a few inches of the ends, and also have a certain amount of luck to find them. The local thieves never found any of this cable, and for three weeks nor did we, even when using 50 pairs of diggers all hours of the day.

One afternoon I got a call from my boss the G2 (Wireless), who told me the sad story and added his Oppo the G2 (Lines) , one Jones, was for the high jump if the date was not met. Could I find the ends with my mine detector? We did not do a lot for the line people as they were a close bunch and rather independent, being mainly ex-Post Office, so the equipment was loaded up and accompanied by Corporal Mills and my driver, we shot down Pyramids Road and reached the repeater dugout (where the Mena House Hotel now is), in 20 minutes or so, it would take 2 hours now! I could not find anybody of note about, except the Sergeant Major, so I suggested we made a start to which he agreed and the mighty oscillator was attached appropriately. I put on the ex-mine detector kit as I could see the chance of a bit of drama. We started over the desert to the first site in a 30 cwt truck, I could hear the tone all the way.

The scene was extraordinary, 50 pairs of sweating Signalmen digging holes over about 1/2 acre. I soon found the end, pointed dramatically to the ground and shouted “Dig here”. Two of the weary Signalmen were detached and behold the two ends neatly tied together. The general agricultural work ceased at once and I must have been the most popular man in Egypt for a while.

About this time the Gallant Captain in charge of the project appeared looking less than pleased. I knew him as a character who had skills, but had got stuck in his job. I had appeared to have taken the limelight and also apparently taken over his unit! Anyway I showed him how to use the equipment (you could also measure the depth of the cable if you knew how), and lent it to him. I was probably re-classified in his mind with the epitaph “Short-arsed and jumped up”, the usual MEF insult. Anyway Jones’ honour had been saved. I heard through the grapevine they met the date, I never got any thanks, nor did I remember getting the gear back. General Montgomery got his lines.

Many years later I was working for Rediffusion who were setting up Associated Rediffusion (AR) for the start of ITA. I was planning Wembley Studios and Adastral House later Television House. There was great gloom in the camp. Advertising bookings were not good and production costs were up. It looked as if we must have networking to succeed. The only chance was to have the old BBC link to Birmingham (3 MHZ bandwidth but just adequate) now mothballed. This link had been firmly turned down by the Post Office. As a concession a final appeal was being made to the Post Office Engineering Branch that day. I joined the party of one of the Directors, and my boss the Chief Engineer, under the wild hope that I knew a lot of Post Office people, and it might do some good. When we got under way I asked who we were seeing, and was told it was a Mr Jones. I enquired did he have a faint Welsh accent, was he a neat little man, and did he have a shark-like smile?

“Well” they said, “sort of”. So chancing my arm I said I probably knew him and he was somewhat beholden to me. This seemed to make the party gloomier than ever, and very touchy. They even complained about my driving, said it made them feel sick!

We were shunted into a waiting room at St Martins-le-Grande as the great man was engaged. Half an hour later we were escorted up to the office. It was Jones all right, and his smile. He ignored my bosses extended his hand to me, and said “Mine Detectors”. We got the Link.

To complete the quotation partially used for the heading, “for thou shalt find it after many days”.

Eric Vast – May 1994.

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