Tuesday, 17 November 2020

'The Thing' from Cork, Dutch Pirate TV and the Irish Taoiseach

 

In the early morning hours of December 17th 1964, Dutch armed police boarded three military naval helicopters at Valkenburg airbase north of Den Haag and headed off out into the North Sea. As the three flew in formation, a naval ship, the ‘Delftshaven’ was already on route from the mainland to rendezvous with the airborne assault. At 8.55am, the ship was anchored two hundred yards from its target, five minutes later the three helicopters reached their target, hovering briefly. The door swung open admitting a strong gust. The first of the armed men abseiled down onto the deck below. Two men now secured the helipad and the other helicopters moved in to offload their forces onto the platform. Once secure, the naval vessel moved in and more armed military boarded together with representatives of the judiciary. The operation was swift and flawless and within thirty minutes, the Dutch authorities were in full control of the REM Island.

 

In the offices Department of Industry and Commerce on Kildare Street, Dublin, the Minister, Cork born Jack Lynch contemplated writing to his colleague at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, Michael Hyland. He wanted to suggest to his cabinet colleague, the awarding of a temporary license for broadcast transmitting equipment be awarded to Verolme shipyard in Cork, to avoid them breaking the 1926 Wireless Telegraphy Act. No citizen or organisation had been granted such a license since the foundation of the State and the creation of Radio Telifis Eireann, the State broadcaster. This was a delicate matter, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of State aid to the shipyard, a major employer in Cork, on the line. To compound matters, massive press publicity and questions in Parliament would cause the Minister to feel the heat.

 

As these events unfolded across Europe, in Cork, Felix Muroz, a native of Corunna, Northern Spain was still recovering from the injuries he received on May 16th at the Verolme dockyard. His cries of ‘Mio Dios’ (My God) were immediately answered by Cobh Catholic priest St. John Thornhill[1], who offered spiritual and physical comfort to the injured man as he lay on the docks waiting for an ambulance to take him to St. Finbarr’s hospital. With the cries of the Spanish born crew member of the Global Adventurer still ringing in their ears, the workers at Verolme Dockyard at Rushbrooke, on June first were happy to see ‘the thing’ depart from their shores heading out into the Atlantic and onwards towards the North Sea.

 

‘The Thing’ was the nickname given by the workers to a secret project undertaken by the Verolme Dockyard. The dockyard had been purchased by Dutch shipbuilder Cornelius Verolme in 1959 and had won contracts around the world to build fleets of vessels including Irish naval vessels. Work on creating the dockyard was begun by Joseph Wheeler in 1854 and it was officially opened in 1860. After changing ownership numerous times, with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 it passed into the hands of the State shipping company Irish Shipping Limited. It was reasonably successful and so it attracted investors and as Ireland began to industrialize, International investment was encouraged with financial incentives. In 1959 Cornelis Verolme bought the shipyard. Ship building stopped in 1984, but repairs continued for some years after.


 So how did a Dutch shipbuilder create this pirate television sensation in 1964, just two years after the launch of an Irish TV channel on December 31st 1961 with the launch of RTE Television? Cornelis Verolme sets up his first company ‘Scheepsinstallatiebedrijf Nederland N.V.’ in 1946 and subsequently took over two shipyards, one in Alblasserdam in 1950 and another in Heusden in 1953. The demand for ever-larger ships led Verolme to decide to start operating in this segment too. That called for a new yard, preferably in deep water, close to the sea. In 1956 Cornelis Verolme started the construction of the yard on the New Waterway in Rotterdam. Expanding to Ireland in 1959 and later to places like Brazil

 

Cornelis Verolme 

In an era when Ireland was emerging under the leadership of Sean Lemass and his Fianna Fail government from its insular agricultural based economy into a diverse manufacturing, exporting economy, Verolme was a major employer and leader in Ireland’s drive to attract foreign investment. In order to give it an advantage when competing for contracts from places like Poland and Liberia, the Irish Government provided grants to the company to allow it to compete on a financial front with shipbuilders in the UK. In June the company received £350,000 in subsidies to keep it competitive. For the relevant Minister, Jack Lynch [2]it was an important employer in his native City and it was providing a step on the ladder to the top job as Taoiseach, which he ascended to in 1966. According to Dermot Keogh in his biography ‘Jack Lynch, A Biography’

 

‘Lynch took a mild view of what were deemed ‘technical offences’ committed in Ireland by Verolme. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs complained in 1964 that Verolme was reporting to be providing offshore platforms for pirate radio and television operations. Enquiries established that the Secretary of Verolme Cork Dockyard Limited has confirmed that the company was making drilling rigs. Multi-purpose equipment of that kind could be used for anything, Verolme had no knowledge of intentions to use the product for pirate television. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs proposed to take action against the company over the alleged possession of an illegal wireless transmitting apparatus imported by Verolme and intended for use in a floating platform that would constitute a pirate television station.’

Lynch’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce took the view that,

‘even if there has been a technical offence, it does not appear that punitive action by the Post Office would be warranted, having regard that the apparatus would not be used in this country.’

 

The Department of Posts and Telegraphs in a memorandum to Government said,

‘The Minister for Posts and Telegraphs has been informed that the offshore structure being built at Rushbrooke is now almost complete and that is it not intended to install transmitting equipment on it while it is this country. No particular action is therefore proposed in this case’.

 

The Government were fully aware of the intention of the platform to house an illegal broadcasting station but decided to turn a blind eye to it as it did not affect Irish broadcasting and there seemed to be no intention to broadcast to or from Ireland. Very little consideration was given to the wishes of the Government in the Netherlands.

Verolme pictured with Taoiseach Sean Lemass at the Cork Dockyard

 Verolme workers were seemingly unaware of intentions to use the platform for pirate television when the build began in early 1964. The staff were also kept in the dark as to what they were building, which would resemble an oil rig platform, hence their description of the platform as ‘the thing’. What was ‘the thing’?

 

‘The Thing’ would resemble an oil drilling rig but it would be far from oil it intended to mine. Its financial viability would depend on advertising revenue. Once moored, it would act as an offshore artificial island. The island contained living quarters, a canteen, a fuel storage area and a helicopter deck. In total it measured 80 ft by 40 ft., fitted with a 250-ft transmission tower. The accommodation would have room for thirteen men and two women who would be on board to man both the radio and television stations. The newspapers reported that the building and transporting of the island would cost the investors a quarter of a million pounds. The structure had four periscope legs have been driven into the seabed filled with concrete. The location was outside Holland’s three-mile territory limit and therefore in International waters and exempt from Holland’s broadcastings laws.

 


The original idea of broadcasting from an artificial platform belonged to one Will Hordijk from The Hague. In 1963 he teamed up with Cornelis Verolme, who owned the Cork shipyard, and Pieter Heerema, a shipping entrepreneur from Scheveningen who saw the construction of a TV island as useful practice for his real work: the building of oil platforms, from which he was later to make his fortune. Financing was provided by banking house Texeira de Mattos. The name REM stood for Reclame Exploitatie Maatschappij (Advertising Exploitation Company).


The group behind the plan wanted to expose the staid Dutch television landscape that was controlled by the State and devoid of advertising, similar to the BBC today. An R.C.A. transmitter was purchased in the United States and shipped initially to Ireland which would have a radius of about 50 miles, an area which includes roughly a third and most prosperous part of Holland's 12 million population, including Amsterdam, Den Haag and the Hague.

 

The group behind the venture were a diverse group of planners and businessmen that ranged from a former SS Nazi officer to a Jewish banking institution, a ship builder regarded as a ‘bluffer’ and a later to be jailed financier. The main backer for the project was Cornelius Verolme and it would be his involvement with Cork and the Irish Government that would pave the way for the illegal broadcaster to challenge the resolve of the Dutch Government.

 

The Irish Government were turning a blind eye to pirate operators, as long as they were intended to broadcast in other jurisdictions. On St Patrick's Day, the Irish Independent carried a story under the heading ‘Irishmen make television island for Dutch pirates’. After a veil of secrecy had been drawn over the building work, a spokesman at the Dockyard was now able to say ‘that the dockyard were satisfied that the steel structure was for a marine TV station. The dockyard was recycling some of the grant aid from the Irish Government to build the pirate television platform. This was also at a time when Ireland had launched their bid to join the European union and their laissez-faire attitude to the illegal operations did not go unnoticed on the Continent.  On May 19th, the Connacht Sentinel raised many of questions that were bubbling under the surface. Their correspondent wrote,

‘It might be worth a question, or two, in the Dail, as to where the money for this construction originated. Was there any Irish subsidy involved by accident or design  in the project?’

One could imagine how angry our Government would be if a pirate television or radio ship were to perch at the Kish and proceed to outdo Radio and Telifis Eireann.’

 

The news that ‘a pirate television platform’ was being built in Cork was front page news, this despite the workers not being told exactly what they were building and nicknaming it ‘The Thing’. The building of this platform was a departure from traditional shipbuilding that had been the mainstay of the business in Cork. The story of its build and subsequent departure generated many column inches, even at one stage, Verolme telling spectators where the best vantage points were around the harbour to watch the platforms departure.

‘Dockyard officials stressed today that the best view of the island will be gained from the Monkstown shore and that it will be difficult to see anything from the Rushbrooke side. They also said that it would not be anything dramatic as say the launching of a ship. It will be rather like lifting a box of wooden crates onto a lorry said a spokesman.’[3]

Lynch seemed to maintain later that the Irish Government, including his Department had no idea that the platform being built at Verolme was to be used as a site for an illegal broadcasting station. Unfortunately for Lynch and Lemass’s Government, Ireland was gaining a track record in the field of providing facilities for the creation of pirate operations that would target Britain and the greater European community, this coming at a time when the campaign for Ireland to join the European Economic Community was gathering pace. In March 1964, Radio Caroline and Radio Atlantis were both fitted out as off shore pirate radio stations in the County Louth port of Greenore near the Northern Ireland border. Greenore was a privately operated port owned by Caroline founder Ronan O’Rahilly’s father. The Verolme dockyard was by 1964 in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds in grant money from the Irish Government. This ‘free’ money no doubt gave the shipyard an opportunity to pursue diverse projects. The grants however by mid 1964 were causing unease for the Government as it emerged that there seemed to be a game of ‘find the pea’ with some of the grants provided to the company.


 Mr. James Dillon, the Fine Gael leader of the opposition said he had seen in the Press that the dockyard " in the face of intense and fierce competition," had secured a contract to build a 30,000-ton ship. The order was placed by the Netherlands Freight and Tanker Co., Ltd., of The Hague, and the chairman of that company was Mr. Verolme. We can all picture the pretty picture of Mr. Verolme pleading and wrestling with himself to decide on placing this contract. "About three weeks before this vessel was completed the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Jack Lynch announced that he proposed to give Mr. Verolme a subsidy of £350.000 to enable Mr. Verolme to meet the contract price on foot of the agreement. which had been made between Mr. Verolme and himself." Then a remarkable development took place. said Mr. Dillon. The ship was sold to a firm in Amsterdam. "It has been assumed that it was not less than one million pounds sterling.' Another ship was now in hands, for which he understood they were to provide another £350.000 subsidy. This time the ship was being built for the Liberian National Shipping Line, of which Mr. Verolme owned 25 pc of the capital. (Belfast Telegraph June 17th 1964)

 

In response to the allegations made in the Dail against the Dutch shipbuilding company were rejected as "only partially true and a complete misrepresentation of the facts" by Verolme Vice-President, Dr. Henrik J. Hofstra, a former Netherlands Finance Minister. According to a debate in the Dail in May 1964, the previous year Verolme had been granted free aid of £900,000[4].

 

In November 1963 future Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald wrote in the Irish Farmers Journal,

‘the Verolme shipyard was launched at Cobh the Taoiseach told the Dail that Mr. Verolme was prepared to invest £5-6 million himself, and only required an assurance that if there were difficulties about the export of capital from Holland, it could be made available from Irish sources. For four years after that, the Government refused to disclose how much Mr Verolme had in fact invested in this project until in July they came to the Dail to say that Mr. Verolme had invested £687,000 in the project, that the Industrial Credit Co. had lent almost three time this figure, £1,825,000 and that the Government had given a grant of £550,000 of which £400,000 was to be used to pay back part of the Industrial Credit loan, (a very dubious use of the Industrial Grants Act machinery).

But despite the manner in which the Irish Government had financed Mr. Verolme's project, the shipyard was losing money at such a rate that it could be kept going, said the Minister for Industry and Commerce, only if the Dail provided a subsidy of £1,220,000 to help the company to recoup its running costs, a procedure which has not previously been employed to help any Irish company that got into difficulties.’

 

Writing in 1995 in Trouw.nl, Willem Breedveld wrote,

‘The Dutch Berlusconi’s wanted to seize the power of TV in the Netherlands in 1964. Shipbuilder and bluffer Cornelis Verolme, the obscure financier J.H. Fehmers (who later was jailed for malpractice) and former bunker builder PS Heerema opened a commercial TV station with the heartfelt support of the Telegraaf, which successfully started its broadcasts from an oil rig in front of the coast at Zandvoort. The vast majority of the people thought it was beautiful and even turned out to be willing to buy REM shares, which later turned out to be worth nothing.’

 

On the front page of the Cork Examiner on Thursday May 14th under the headline ‘The Most unusual Ship Will Take Away TV Island’, they reported on the Global Adventurer’s departure from Rotterdam,

‘M.V. Global Adventurer , mounting the biggest floating crane in the world, left Rotterdam at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, bound for Cork, according to a message from Amsterdam yesterday’

 


Building the infrastructure in Cork was one part of the equation, transporting it to the North Sea was another. To achieve that goal Pieter Heerema's Global Adventurer vessel, the first ship in the world to be converted into a crane vessel with a lifting capacity of 300 tons arrived in Cork, creating a mini sensation. Originally a Norwegian oil tanker the Sunnaas, it was converted at the Verolme dockyard in Rotterdam to assist in the oil rig deployment industry.
 On May 14th, the Global Adventurer arrived in Cork and it made front page news in the Cork newspapers including the Evening Echo. It was positioned by the quayside near the dry dock and loading of ‘the thing’ began. On Saturday morning as part of the living quarters was being loaded on board, the crane creaked and cracked and broke as it lifted a 160 ton section on board.[5] It crashed to the deck of the ship injuring Munoz, a married man with two children. Because of the news worthiness of both the plan to broadcast and the originality of the Global Adventurer being in harbour, the press photographers were there to capture the events as they unfolded, including a photograph of Father Thornhill tending to Munoz as they awaited the ambulance. His main injuries were to his back and suffering from shock. The front page of the Evening Echo told their readers ‘Dockyard Scenes of Chaos as ‘The Thing’ Crashes Down On Ship’.

 


The Evening Echo had a reporter quayside and he delivered an eye-witness account. The paper reported,

‘An "Evening Echo" reporter was ten yards from 'where'  the top of the giant crane, the largest floating crane in the world with a maximum lift of nearly 300 tons, sliced into the wharf on the port side of the Global Adventurer.

This is his eye-witness's account: '" l hope I may never nave to relieve the seconds of panic as I ran frantically from the crushing weight of the huge upper portion of the broken jib of the crane, the lashing cables and the flying metal.

"Some ten yards from where I had been sitting, watching an interesting but routine lift of the superstructure of the TV island, was a gaping hole.

" The head of the crane had driven in several feet into the wharf on. the port side of the ship, slicing through a steel plate as though it was tissue paper." Minutes before the crash, an " Evening Echo " photographer and a TV cameraman had climbed on deck.

The loading superintendent, Mr. Jenkins, was directing operations on a telephone system, while crew members waited to guide " The Thing" into its cradle.

" It was poised some fifteen feet above the steel members of the cradle. Then suddenly there was a grinding noise as the crane snapped, a sickening crash as the 160-ton upper structure of the TV. Island crunched into the ship just fore of midships. Then pandemonium.

"Deckhands scampered to avoid the falling debris, and I saw the TV. cameraman running frantically aft. All this happened in a split second. I remained frozen in horror.

"Then I was running, jumping over obstacles, and as I ran, I could hear the screams of an injured seaman.

"It seemed unbelievable that nobody had died, and that when the seaman was taken ashore, he could raise his thumb in weak greeting to me."

The Evening Echo provided a running commentary on their front pages for days. They reported on the Global Adventurer’s arrival in Cork before it had berthed quayside that,

‘An "Echo" reporter also learned from Amsterdam this morning that the Dutch people are taking an intense interest in the events in Cork Harbour, and keenly awaiting news of the departure of "The Thing" for the waters off their shores.’


The following day the Echo reported

‘The clang that rang out in the dockyard when ‘The Thing’ fell on the deck of the Global Adventurer in Cork Harbour today will have international echoing. Since it became known that the platform under construction at Rushbrooke was for a Dutch pirate TV station, the eyes of the world, particularly the querying eyes of television were on the situation.’

 

Cork and especially the Echo, seemed to be at the forefront of the great pirate debate that was now unfolding across Europe. It should be remembered that Ireland was already making headlines in the offshore pirate world when earlier that year two ships were fitted out in Greenore port in County Louth including the famous Radio Caroline.

 

The ship left Cork on the Sunday with part of the platform and a broken crane departed Cork and headed firstly to Southampton to unload the partial construction on board and then travelled across the North Sea to Rotterdam to the Verolme Shipyard to have the crane repaired. Once repaired it returned to Cork, greeted by large crowds and an excited Irish press corps.

 

The accident had been a serious setback for the operation. Mr. A. Hareeme, manager of the Global Offshore Construction Co., the firm engaged to erect the station off the Dutch coast, arrived at Cork Airport by charter plane to inspect the damage.

 

Every step of the Global Adventurer journey was reported in the press. It had arrived in Southampton[6], it arrived in Rotterdam[7], It has left Rotterdam[8], it arrives in Cork tomorrow[9] and then on Monday June 1st, having worked into the small hours of the morning, the ship with its cargo on board slipped away from the dock but as it moved into the harbour heading out to sea, it anchored as a weather front moved in and it was deemed unsafe with its precious cargo on board to continue its journey. The Examiner deeming that the jinx had struck again. The next day the ship began its journey to the North Sea. While moored in Cork, some of the crew visited their colleague in St. Finbarr’s Hospital, checking on his welfare and delivering presents from family and friends. The vessel and its crew also found itself stuck in the middle of lightening unofficial strikes which affected the local tugs and pilots in the harbour. It was one of the few ships to get away from the port that day.


Within two days, the ship was off the Dutch coast and construction began on the artificial island. The legs were lowered into the sea and filled with concrete anchoring it to the seabed eleven miles off the coast. With the legs in place, the platform was completed by June 5th and over the next couple of weeks, the radio and television transmitters were installed, the aerial erected, studios built and it was ready to test. 


On May 26th 1964, the Irish Press had reported,

‘The company setting up the station, R.E.M., has given some details of the type of programme to be transmitted. Four British Incorporated TV serials have been booked, Robin Hood, William Tell, The Saint and The Invisible Man. British, U.S. and continental films will also be shown.

A spokesman for R.E.M. claimed that the available advertising time had been fully booked from September 1, when the service is due to start, until the end of January, 1965.’

 

Meanwhile on the same day May 26th, the building of the platform for an illegal broadcasting operation was becoming a political issue in Ireland with questions were directed at the Minister Lynch in the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann. Mr Sweetman TD asked the Minister in a debate of the ‘Construction of Pirate TV Station whether any subsidy was paid or payable, directly or indirectly for the pirate TV station constructed in Cork. Lynch’s curt reply was,

‘If the deputy’s question relates to the offshore structure recently completed by the Verolme Cork Dockyard Limited, the answer is in the negative.’

 

On 29 July 1964, the first radio test transmission was made from REM Island on 1400 kHz mediumwave. The transmitter power was 15 kW. This was followed by the start of TV tests on 13 August, and the official opening of TV Noordzee on 1 September. Special antennas had to be purchased to receive the broadcasts on VHF Channel 11, but the Dutch public were very enthusiastic, and by October 1964 audience surveys showed that TV Noordzee had 2 million viewers every night. The TV and radio broadcasts were not made concurrently. Radio Noordzee operated between 9am and 6.15 pm, and 15 minutes later the TV station signed on.

From the Dutch Newspaper Archives

The Dutch authorities moved quickly to put a stop to the broadcasts from the Irish built platform. They had up until now tolerated the radio broadcasts from the offshore ship housing Radio Veronica but broadcasting commercial television would not be tolerated. Using European laws, they rushed legislation through the Dutch parliament that rather than outlawing the broadcasts from the REM, they increased the territorial claim on continental shelf at the bottom of the ocean to include the area where the legs of the platform were concreted down. This technically made the broadcasts inside Dutch territory and therefore illegal. To counteract the authorities moves, the operators announced that its TV operations had been sold to a British company, High Seas Television. One Eric Bent from Weybridge, Surrey was named as the new owner, having paid just £100 for their purchase. TV Noordzee made its last transmission on 14 December 1964. Ownership of REM Island itself was transferred to a Panamanian company in the hope that this would raise international issues  if the authorities attempted to seize the platform. Radio Noordzee meanwhile continued broadcasting on board, but on the morning of 17th December 1964, it was all about to change.


 There was increased activity seen around the platform early on the morning of the seventeenth. Over the previous couple of days, there had been an increase in the number of Dutch military aircraft overflies spying on the structure. Just before eight a.m., a flotilla of ships began to circle the base of the platform. At eight, three helicopters arrived over the horizon. The first helicopter moved in over the platform and dropped a smoke bomb onto the helipad area and as that aircraft moved off another swept in and Marine Captain Eric Gerritsen was the first to be winched down onto the platform, followed by more marines. Once the upper deck was secured and there was no opposition from the crew on board, a basket was lowered to the awaiting ships and more military forces were winched on board. The basket had been used by the crew to ferry up men, food, TV programmes cassettes and records but now they were being used to commandeer the platform. The crew of ten were ordered to switch off the transmitters, silencing Radio Noordzee in the middle of programme presented by Sonja van Proosdjijk and a record by 21 year old Anneke Gronloh titled ‘Paradiso’.


 

TV and Radio Noordzee had been silenced for good by the Dutch military on behalf of the Dutch Government. So, what happened to the platform built by the men at the Verolme dockyard in Cork harbour? In 1974, the Department of Public Works began using REM Island as a base for carrying out marine investigations and measurements. However, in October 2003 the authorities decided it is surplus to requirements, and a spokesman said that it has come to the end of its life and will be dismantled. The removal of equipment from the platform will begin in early 2004. It was later broken up and the platform and accommodation dock was anchored in Amsterdam harbour and opened as a restaurant.




[2] Jack Lynch b.1917 – d. 1999. Taoiseach 1966 -1973 & 1977 - 1979

[3] The Cork Evening Echo, May 14th 1964

[4] Dáil Éireann debate -Wednesday, 6 May 1964 Vol. 209 No. 8

 

[5] Belfast Telegraph May 16th 1964

[6] Irish Press, May 20th

[7] Cork Examiner May 22nd

[8] Southern Star May 23rd.

[9] Cork Examiner May 30th

 

Further Reading

http://www.offshoreradiomuseum.co.uk/page763.html

http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/VOLUME14/Rem_Reflections.shtml

https://www.mediapages.nl/zeezenders/rtv-noordzee

https://www.anderetijden.nl/aflevering/670/Het-REM-eiland


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