Cape Town Radio
Cape Town - South Africa
A picture of Kommetjie about 50 years ago with Wireless Road, the
radio station on the right of the naval barracks in the centre of the picture.
Cape Town Radio is a maritime station with its main task being
that of communication with ships at sea.
The station began its days in Kommetjie way back in 1910 when
it was housed in a building near to the Slangkop lighthouse.
The building is built of rock with a tiled roof and is still there today.
In those days life was difficult for the staff as they had to
contend with sulphorous fumes from the radio equipmment they used.
So much so that the windows of the building were kept open day
and night 365 days of the year to allow the fumes to escape.
It was Cape Town Radio's job to monitor shipping around the
Cape Coast and to work any distress calls that might occur.
The call sign for the radio was VNC.
In 1928 however the call sign was changed to ZSC and
remains the same to this day.
During the second world war the station was moved from its
position on the coast next to the lighthouse in Kommetjie
to Wireless Road north east of its position in Lighthouse road.
The reason for the move was the poor reception they had at the site
under the Slangkop mountain.
The mountain contains manganese deposits
which disturbed reception at the station.
The new building was much larger and was shared with the
Royal Navy. It maintained close links with the navy
The new station building was situated in the middle of
a deserted area surrounded by bush about three kilometres
The area was rich in wildlife, meerkats, snakes such as the
Cape Cobra, Puff Adder and very large mole snakes.
Some of them measured up to two metres in length.
As a child one learned quickly how to avoid the snakes
and one always kept a look out for puff adders which
loved to lie in the sun in the pathways through the bush.
Being very lazy snakes they don't move when they
hear you coming.Should you step on one its bite can be fatal.
Living in the station grounds I often visited the radio
station and rode my bike around the building which
was surrounded by a concrete wall of
about 2 metres in height. It never occurred to me then but the wall was probably
to protect the building from being bombed from the
air during the war years.
Mr Arthur Fairman taking down a morse coded telegram from a ship at sea.
My father the late Arthur Fairman was one of the
operators in the station and often worked the distress
calls that were monitored by Cape Town radio.
It was quite sad during the war years when CT Radio
monitored the airwaves and heard ships calling for
help after being attacked by enemy submarines.
As CT Radio had to maintain radio silence all they could
do was advise the authorities of the attacks.
Many funny incidents happened at the station over the years.
The station had a car which was used to transport staff
members to and from Kommetjie to go on duty.
One day one of the men who had his lunch in a small suitcase
was driving to office when the case fell off the seat next
to him and landed under the car's brake pedal.
As he could not stop the car he drove it into the parking
garage and ended up hitting the rear wall to stop the car.
Suffice to say his lunch was flattened.
Another operator had a very fussy cat which ate steak
and not much else.
Its owner Charlie Kennett had to leave it behind in the
navy barracks when he went on leave and asked the sailors
there to care for it. He supplied its meat and food.
The sailors however decided that they would teach the cat a lesson and fed it scraps while they ate its steak.
On his return Charlie was most upset at the treatment
meted out to his cat by the sailors.
Cape Town Radio came into its own during the Suez canal
crisis in June 1965. All shipping that normally went through the canal was
diverted around Cape Town and caused congestion not only
at all South African ports but also congestion of the radio waves.
For years there were hundreds of ships lying in Table Bay
waiting to get into the harbour for supplies.
To enable themselves to be able to handle the radio traffic
CT Radio introduced time schedules where they placed ships in queues.
There could be as many as 27 ships in the queue at a time.
The Suez Canal was closed for eight years and during that
time Cape Town Radio built up and an excellent reputation for itself.
In 1965 the powers that be decided to move the radio station
from its position in Wireless Road in Kommetjie to Milnerton.
The new station took up residence in a large old building
which looked much like the dance halls of old.
It had a large central floor where most of the consoles
for those monitoring morse code were housed and around
the edge smaller rooms for radio telephones, telex
It was interesting to watch the operators sending out
morse code. They got so good at it that they could send
with their feet and even their behinds if they felt
like playing the fool.
By listening to incoming morse code they could even tell you
who was sending the code to them.
They identified the style of the operator sending the morse code.
The old operators at Cape Town Radio would turn
in their graves if they could see the station today.
It has moved again and is now housed in a modern building
and has all the mod cons of today's world.
In the old days operators did the work manually, today
they sit at computer terminals and can monitor all
aspects of the operation at the same time.
If there was to be another Suez crisis I wonder how
they would hold up.
With the reputation they have built up over nearly a
100 years I'm sure that they would come out tops.
Here's to the operators and men who through their vigil
on the radio waves of the world have most probably saved
thousands of lives at sea without moving from their consoles.
Email : Geoff Fairman
6 Bothma Street, Monte Vista 7460 South Africa
Cape Town Radio
Page updated 13.5.2015