Monday, December 20, 2021

February 1944: Arthur becomes a Maquis radio operator

Context: Arthur and a team of men had retrieved an Allied SOE airdrop to their resistance unit.  Because the unit had no radio prior to that, a courier would have hand-delivered a message encrypted with a one-time pad telling them that there would be an airdrop that night, and what their personal message would be alerting them to future airdrops.  The BBC broadcast a string of sequitur messages every day, some of which were garbage, and some of which were meaningful to specific groups.  


The young man took the crowbar, and went to work. In just a few moments, he had worked the lid off the box which had padding on the inside walls  There was a great deal of burlap, a pair of shoes, three packs of cigarettes, and two chocolate bars being used to fill every available space. In the corners of the box were four pistols.  

But in the center was a big cube-shaped metal tin printed with “Biscuits” in big letters, with colorful pictures of cookies surrounding it. Arthur realized that Liliane, at almost three years of age, had never had a biscuit. “They are sending us desserts?” Marcel asked in disbelief.  

“Don’t be stupid,” André told his brother.  “Probably no biscuits inside.”

Dr. Planas lifted out the biscuit tin, revealing boxes of ammunition for the pistols underneath. There was a very thick pad of burlap beneath those. He placed the tin on the table next to the box, and lifted the lid off.  

Inside was a layer of corrugated paper, which they flipped out of the way. Under it was a dark grey rectangular metal box, about the size of a loaf of bread. One end had leads which attached to a battery or an electrical power supply, and the other end had a series of pins sticking out the end.  Carefully wrapped bundles had been placed next to it.  Three of the bundles contained what Arthur realized were caps or modules that plugged into the pins in the end of the main unit.  There was a big black knob one one side, and a three other smaller knobs, marked “reaction,” and “sensitivity,” and “AE Trimmer.”  

“It’s a radio,” Arthur said.  It was tiny; the smallest radio he’d ever seen — no more than about 20 or 22 centimeters on the long axis, and about 10 centimeters wide and tall.  There were several other bundles in the tin, containing extra batteries, a coil of wire, a power supply (if one had electricity, which they didn’t), and headphones.

There was a sheet with instructions, but it was written in English.  “Anyone speak English?”  Dr. Planas asked.

“I speak some English,” Arthur volunteered.  

Dr. Planas handed him the sheet, and Arthur started reading. It had been made in Glasgow, Scotland. 

“You attach the wire antenna there,” he said, pointing. Michel did so, then hung the wire up on a nail high above them.  “Attach the battery,” he said, indicating the plug at the end.   “The module coils - they allow you to choose which frequency bands.”  

Michel looked up at Arthur, who shrugged and said, “I’d try the range 1 coil.” Michel grabbed the thickest module and plugged it into the end of the radio.  The module was the same height and depth as the rest of the radio, but extended the length of the unit by perhaps six or seven centimeters.

“Plug in the headphones, turn it on, and tune it to _____.”

Michel did so, and they could hear quiet static come through the headphones, but when he looked at the dial, he stopped. Then he glanced at the others, then looked at the dial again, and fiddled with the settings. They could hear the static change. “I can’t read the dial,” he finally said, confusion plain his voice.

“What?” Dr. Planas, said.

“The numbers are wrong. They aren’t like what I’m used to.”  

Arthur could see a word printed under the dial, but couldn’t read it from where he stood.  “What does it say under the dial?” he asked.

“Kilocycles,” Michel answered.

“Kilocycles?” André and Marcel asked at the same time.

“What are kilocycles?” Dr. Planas asked. He peered at the radio dial.  “Radio dials are normally marked in …” he stopped, searching for the word.

“Wavelengths,” Arthur supplied.

“Yes, right. Wavelengths.   What are these kilocycles?” Dr. Planas asked.  He didn’t sound annoyed, just puzzled.

Arthur spoke up. “Well, the wavelengths times the number of cycles, is the velocity of light.”

All eyes turned to Arthur. They looked at him as if he weren’t speaking French.

“What?” Dr. Planas finally asked.

“Well—“ Arthur shrugged. “It’s easy to translate kilocycles into wavelengths, because the product of the two is velocity of light, which is ten times ten to the power of ten centimeters per second.”

“Hoh,” Dr. Planas said with his eyebrows up. “You know this?  You are the radio operator.”

Something — surprise? Worry? Excitement? — jolted through Arthur.  “But hell, I don’t know anything about electronics,” he protested. “If something happens, I cannot repair it.”  

You are the radio operator,” Dr. Planas repeated.

Arthur laughed a little. “All right. I’m the radio operator.”

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