The report below was created with the help of Mathias Münger and Hans Bühler, both ex-radio operators, and captain Stefan Sip for the description of today's communication. We thank these gentlemen for their support.
When the Swiss flag at sea was introduced during the World War II and an own maritime fleet was established, one also had to consider how to maintain contact with our ships. Radio Schweiz AG, which was initially active in aviation, was entrusted by the federal government in 1941 to operate these connections.
Firstly, the existing radio facility at the Dübendorf airfield (near Zurich) was used, and from here radio contact was made with Swiss ships via the Zurich HEZ coastal radio station. At that time, all radio traffic was handled exclusively with the Morse system as radio telephony was still largely unknown. The radio operators who had previously maintained connections with aircraft were now used for maritime radio. Other radio operators went on our ships to maintain the link with Switzerland. With a few exceptions the ship's crew and the captains were all foreigners, which made it important that a Swiss citizen was in charge of the communication on board.
A few years later this radio station was moved to the new airport at Zurich-Kloten. The coastal radio operators from HEZ were located in the airport building. The shortwave transmitters from HEZ were in Waltikon / ZH and remote-controlled from Kloten.
In 1963, Morse traffic with aircraft was discontinued and the maritime radio station moved to Bern. The Bern Radio HEB coastal radio station of Radio Schweiz AG was located in the PTT telegraph office opposite Bern Central Station. The remote-controlled transmitters were first located in Münchenbuchsee and later in Prangins near Nyon. The remote-controlled receivers were located in Riedern near Bern.
In 1974 Bern Radio introduced the semi-automatic telex system SITOR. At the beginning of 1987 the system was automated and in 1992 a mailbox was added which also enabled the shore participants to send telexes directly via the computer.
However, SITOR became less and less important in the 1990s; communication via satellite was easier and became cheaper and cheaper. In 1998, Swisscom, which had emerged from the privatization of PTT, gave up the ownership of Bernradio. It was left to a few enthusiastic radio amateurs to save the station from demolition.
The transmitting and receiving facilities of the coastal radio stations were to become obsolete not only in Switzerland, but worldwide. A few resourceful Americans took advantage of this. They linked modern computer technology with the infrastructure of existing coastal radio stations around the world. In the early 2000s, such an automatic system from Globe Wireless also ran at the Riedern station near Bern. The so-called digital short wave (Digital HF) was cheaper and especially suitable for the short routine messages that went back and forth between ship and shore every day.
The federal government soon recognized that in times of crisis, independent communication with Swiss ships via satellite and without SITOR was no longer possible as satellites could be switched off easily. That is why a cooperation with Globe Wireless was initially considered. Finally, in 2003, the federal government commissioned its armaments company, RUAG, to develop a communication option for e-mail traffic via digital shortwave.
At the beginning of 2005, the first systems, which were simply called U-boxes, were installed on newly constructed ships of Enzian Ship Management and the Zurich Shipping Company. Basically, a U-Box was nothing more than a modem, which was interposed between a normal PC with e-mail software and a short-wave radio. The system remained however unreliable and was not competitive. Enzian Ship Management stopped operating the U-boxes on board its ships in autumn 2007.
In 2008, the federal government made a new attempt and entrusted Swisscom Broadcast AG (SBC) with the operation of Bernradio, which was responsible for the transmission system in Prangins and the reception system in Riedern. Under the label of "Swisscom Maritime Communication", a sensible and above all competitive e-mail communication solution should be offered. The corresponding system was adopted by the business partner Kiel-Radio GmbH.
From January 2009, Swiss ships were equipped with a Ship Com Server, which in turn went down in the history of Bernradio as ELSE. Once again, ELSE was nothing more than a modem that was still connected to a normal PC with e-mail software and various communication options. Depending on the data volume, geographical position of the ship and the best tariff, ELSE was able to choose between digital shortwave, satellite connection or cell phone network.
By April 2011, 24 of the 37 Swiss ships had installed ELSE. However, the communication concept of the Confederation and Swisscom did not quite work out. ELSE could not be effectively marketed outside of the Swiss fleet, although the systems were now working reliably. Finally, the BWL (Office for National Economic Supply) decided that the need for an autonomous communication infrastructure no longer existed and the Bernradio coastal radio station was switched off at the end of February 2016.
Today, communication between the Swiss ships, other ships and the various land stations is carried out via a communication console, which is normally situated on the bridge. All devices are available in duplicate and must be compatible with the globally prescribed GMDSS, Global Maritime Distress & Safety System in order to receive or provide assistance quickly in case of an emergency. Depending on the trading area of the ship the system must meet the following requirements:
- A1 coastal navigation, radio telephony VHF
- A2 coast and nearer sea areas e.g. North Sea, VHF and MF
- A3 worldwide trade, Inmarsat (satellite communication)
- A4 trade in high latitude, Arctic and Antarctic voyages (only for special ships)
The radio operator is now a thing of the past, but the deck officers must have GMDSS certificates in order to operate the system safely. Traffic is via e-mail and radiotelephone.
The communication console (left) for commercial traffic and for GMDSS for trading area A3 on the SCL BERN (Image: Capt. Stefan Sip)
For further explanations about maritime radio traffic, see also under Links, chapters "Maritime Radio" and "Bern Radio", there are over a dozen websites listed that have a lot of interesting facts about radio communications in earlier times.
SwissShips, HPS, October 2017 & NB January 2020