Yuri MANUKOVSKY R5GM
Ernst Krenkel was born on December, 24th, 1903 in the city of Belostok (Russian empire, now territory of Poland) in family of the inspector of commercial school. In 1910 Krenkel’s family moved to Moscow. Despite their limited means Ernst’s parents were determined to provide him with a good education and in 1913 sent him to a private school. Sadly Ernst was not able to complete his schooling. During the hard times of the first world war and civil war he had to work to help his family make ends meet.
He was briefly employed as a packer, a billposter, an electrical engineer’s assistant, and for a while a repairer of kerosene stoves and carriages. But Krenkel was not content and in 1921 he became interested in the role of radiotelegraph operators. Broadcasting and a radio communication was perceived as something mysterious back then, slightly magical. At 18 yrs old Ernst Krenkel had the good fortune to notice an advertisement for a free evening class, leading to a Radio operator’s license. The class was funded by the Red Army, on the lookout for recruits for their radio school.
As with anywhere else, during that hard time, classrooms were not heated. Cadets and teachers wore overcoats and caps to keep warm. To cadets “ the strengthened ration “ – a small piece of black bread with the spoon of jam (free of charge) was a real incentive to attend.
Krenkel seems to have been an excellent pupil and in the final examinations showed himself capable of the highest CW reception speed in his class. After graduation he was sent to work at a receiving station near Moscow, but after working there for some time he decided upon a career as a ships radio operator to satisfy his desire for world travel.
In the summer of 1924 Ernst Krenkel went to Leningrad with what little money he had saved, hoping to find employment as the radio operator on any ship undertaking a long voyage. At that time, only specially designated Soviet vessels went on long voyages, and in Leningrad there were already qualified naval radio operators without work.
Just when Krenkel had given up all hope of finding work he was told that the hydrographic management bureau was in urgent need of a radio operator prepared to go on any expedition, to any island in the Arctic ocean. There was little interest because the pay was poor and it was necessary to be away for the whole year, living in ‘hellish’ conditions.
Ernst rushed around for an interview, and was offered a post. With a small advance on his salary, and wearing his new naval uniform he set off by train to Arkhangelsk (Archangel). On arrival he was assigned to the “ Yugorski Shar “ which was preparing to take the relief crew to the first Soviet polar observatory “Matochkin Shar”, constructed the year before on the northern coast of the Matochkin Shar strait of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.
After returning to Moscow the following year he was enlisted in the Red Army and served in the radiotelegraphic battalion in Vladimir. At around this time the USSR government decided to allow ‘private radio stations’ on the short-waves. Ham radio was born in the USSR and Ernst Krenkel was delighted. Soon he was on-air using homebrew equipment, with the callsign EU2EQ (later U3AA).
But Krenkel had fond memories of his winter on Novaya Zemlya and he was determined to return to the arctic. Shortwave radio had never been fully tested in the arctic, and few believed that fragile equipment could be reliably operated in such extremes. Ernst faced an uphill struggle to convince anyone to sponsor an expedition.
Somehow Krenkel managed to convince officials at the Moscow branch of the Nizhegorodskoj Radiolaboratory to provide radio equipment for his expedition by giving the impression that the russian Navy was keen to test it in the arctic. Then he went around to see the Navy officials in Leningrad. He explained to them that the Nizhegorodskaya Radiolaboratory had given him radio equipment to test in the arctic and he was ready to fill any vacancy in their polar expedition team.
His ruse worked, and he got the job despite the fact that no-one seriously believed he would be able to contact the mainland from the soviet polar station on Novaya Zemlya. Nowadays we would find it hard to believe that you would not be able to contact the Russian mainland from the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, but this ‘over-wintering’ expedition was in 1927/28 and things were very different back then. For one thing, climate-controlled accommodation was unheard of. Wide variations in room temperature, with the risk of ‘dew-point’ condensation within high voltage circuitry was an ever-present problem. Within a few hours of his arrival Krenkel made contact with Baku, and then many other locations, to the utter amazement (and delight) of the Russian authorities.
Crucially, for our interests, he was able to persuade the authorities that he could use the radio in his leisure time for amateur radio. The callsign was PGO (Polyarnaya Geograficheskaya Observatoriya).
Krenkel returned to Moscow, working as a ships radio operator, but he was always looking for an opportunity to return to the far north. He joined an expedition to spend winter 1929/30 on Franz Josef’s Land as a wireless operator, using the callsign RPX. Early in 1930 he surpassed all previous achievements by making contact with Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition. This was on a wavelength of 42m. He was using 250w output, while Admiral Byrd’s party had 700w. The radio operator of Byrd’s expedition was Howard Meson, the callsign WFA.
The Russian authorities were keen to use airships in the arctic, so in 1931 Krenkel joined the crew of the “Graf Zeppelin”, along with Rolf Kluge (later to become DK4MF) and two other operators. This flight was arranged in preparation for 1932, which had been designated “International Polar year”.
The flight lasted 104 hours and covered over 8000 miles. Starting from the Zeppelin Hangar in Friedrichshafen, to Leningrad, Arkhangelsk (Archangel), and then to Franz Josef’s Land. Returning via Severnaya Zemlya and Cape Tscheljuskin).
1933 was probably the year that really brought Krenkel’s name to the attention of the general public. The north-east passage was important to Russia. All along the Siberian coast there were trappers, weather stations, and others who needed regular supplies. The previous year (1932) Krenkel had been wireless operator on board the icebreaker “Alexander Sibirjakow” which had demonstrated the viability of sea passage from Archangel to Vladivostok without having to over-winter trapped in ice, in ships with specially reinforced hulls.
The icebreaker “Chelyuskin” 7,5 thousand tons displacement had been fitted with a 2,500- horsepower engine, a special frame, and reinforcements, plus extra steel plates on the bow and forward bulkhead. By the time the ship reached Cape Chelyuskin (after which it was named), Captain Vladimir Voronin realized that his vessel was not performing to expectations and that conditions were worsening rapidly as the summer drew to a close. By mid-September, the “Chelyuskin” was picking its way through narrow strips of water, twisting and turning to avoid the big floes, heading ever eastward. Then, just 200 miles from the Bering Strait, the ship became trapped in the ice. Even its powerful engine was unable to free it.
The ice began to drift steadily to the southeast, and on November 3, the ice pack, with the “Chelyuskin” in it, moved into the Bering Strait. By radio, the captain heard that 12 miles ahead was open water. In a matter of hours, the “Chelyuskin” would be in the Pacific Ocean free to steam south. Success was finally within their grasp.
But alas it was never to be. Without warning the ice was gripped by powerful northerly current. After weeks of drifting to the northwest, they realized the ship was now in the main polar ice-pack and would never be free, so the captain started to make plans to abandon ship.
Once again nature would force their hand. On February 13, 1934, a mountain of ice gashed a 40- foot-long hole in the side of the ship, flooding the engine and boiler rooms. The Chelyuskin’s bow began to go down rapidly and the order was give to abandon ship.
Krenkel stayed in his cabin to send a distress call. Only after he was sure it had been received did he dismantle all the radio equipment and carry it out onto the ice. As they watched, the stern of the ship gradually rose higher, until she stood almost vertically, before sliding down through the ice. Within just a few minutes she was gone.
It was 13th February 1934, and the 104 men & women from the “Chelyuskin” had to camp on the ice.
Rescue would have been impossible to organise without radio communication. The only aircraft available were based 230km away and could only take a few people each time. Rescue was co-ordinated via a radio station at Uelen, operated by Ludmila Shrader.
Flights were entirely dependent on favourable weather, something in short supply at those latitudes, and the last six men (Krenkel was one of them) would not be rescued until 12th April, after 7 weeks on the ice.
Throughout this time Krenkel had to maintain the radio equipment carefully. During the night, the ‘indoor’ temperature was well below zero, so dew formed inside the gear when the paraffin heater was lit in the morning. Every time they wanted to use the radio Krenkel had to dismantle it, polish all the contacts, and let the components dry out near the paraffin heater.
The pilots of the rescue planes were the very first people to be made a “Hero of the Soviet Union” (an award that Krenkel would later be awarded himself) but for his part in the rescue Krenkel was awarded something that (as a radio ham) he would probably have been more pleased about. The soviet government gave him the callsign of the “Chelyuskin” for use with his home amateur station. That callsign was RAEM.
Most people would have opted for a quiet life after surviving such an ordeal, but Krenkel’s love for the polar region was undiminished. By august the following year he was on board the ice-breaker “Alexander Sibirjakow” en route to Novaya Zemlya. There, at Cape Olovyanniy he was to be the chief of a 4-man team at a wintering camp. But once that previously deserted camp had been restored Krenkel decided that it was foolish for four young men to do nothing but read the thermometer and weather data 4 times a day and relay it to Moscow.
He requested permission for himself and one other man to travel 100km further north to Kamenev Island to restore an abandoned weather camp. His wish was granted, but he and his companion suffered terribly from scurvy during their stay. Despite this they survived, and were taken back to the mainland in May 1936 by the ice-breaker “Alexander Sibirjakov, which brought Krenkel the news that he had been selected as 2nd in command for an expedition to the North Pole, led by Ivan Papanin, in March the following year.
Their mission was to set up a weather monitoring station near the North Pole.
On the outward journey the 5 large aeroplanes carried 35 researchers and 10 tons of equipment. They left Moscow and arrived at Rudolf Island easily enough, but then had to wait two months for the weather to become suitable to make the final leg of the journey to an ice floe near the North Pole.
Ten hours after leaving Rudolf Island a radio message was heard there. “This is UP0L. I hear you loud and clear”. By then they had erected a ‘residential tent’ made of eider down in a silk cover (weighing 17kg), a radio tent, a tent for the hydrological laboratory, and the radio masts. All on an ice floe near the north pole.
Two weeks later most of the people made the return flight, leaving just 4 men (Krenkel included) to spend the winter on an ice floe measuring about 1.5km long and 1km wide, taking weather readings.
They knew that the ice floe would drift and 274 days and 2600km later they found themselves near the north coast of Greenland.
Once again Ernst Krenkel had obtained permission to use the radio equipment on the amateur bands when he was not on duty. But there were restrictions. Wind power was used to charge the batteries so Krenkel was only permitted to use the radio on the amateur bands if the batteries were already fully charged, and there was enough wind to maintain them fully charged while he operated the equipment.
This inevitably limited the time he could spend on the amateur bands, but despite this he made a number of contacts.
27th May to 31st July (from 89 degrees North to 88 degrees North)
LA1M, F8IS, W2CYS, PA0AS, GI5AJ, G6KP, G5RI, TF3C, U1AD, U1AP, W1EWD, OK1PK, ON4BW, D3FZI (Germany), U3CY, PA0FF, UK1CR, D3GKR (Germany), F8AI, PA0GN, K6SO (Hawaii), VK5WK, VK2DG
1st August to 31st October (from 88 degrees North to 84 degrees North)
SM5UW, W7LQS, VE5LD, G5MY, W8PMB, W1AEF, W9PNE, GM2JF, W2KAP
1st November to 4th December (from 84 degrees North to 82 degrees North)
W2SB, W2FSN, W8EME, K7RT, G5JX, F8GQ, W9THH, W9ALV, W9VDQ, W8CMH, W8HRD, W8NOT, W9AJA, W9PLX, W8BGX, W8LSK, W8DFH, U1CO, ZL4BR, U9ML, W1HUD, GM2JF, W2BHW, W2GTZ, PA0DA, SM5WM, SM5QU, U1AD, U1BC
There were many polar expeditions that RAEM participated in, or organized, but Krenkel’s last voyage to the Antarctic Circle, took place in 1968. He headed a voyage of the scientific-research vessel “Professor Zubov”, which was bound for the shores of Antarctica to relieve its staff of winterers, and also to carry out oceanographic research.
Despite so many winters in the arctic in primitive camps Krenkel not only survived, but succeeded in keeping his signals on the air. He then survived persecution in the Stalin epoch, in some ways more arduous still, but after Stalin’s death in 1953, his reputation, his amateur radio license, and his honour were restored.
He was the first chairman of the central radio club (CRK) the USSR; and Chairman of the Federation of radiosports of the USSR (1959 – 1971). He put great effort into the popularization and development of amateur radio in the USSR, and he did all this despite the uneasy conditions behind the iron curtain.
He died on Dec 8th 1971, and his tombstone bears the letters of that unique callsign RAEM. Now the Central Radio Club of the Russian Federation bears his name.
A bay on the coast of Komsomolets Island, and one of the islands in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago are also named after him. Together with a polar hydrometeorological observatory on Heys Island (Franz Josef’s Land), a street in Moscow, a Communications Electro-Technical College in St. Petersburg, and a weather research vessel of the Hydrometeorological Service.
In addition to the various museum exhibits and published articles honouring Ernst Krenkel, on the 4th full weekend of December each year the ‘Ernst Krenkel Memorial’ – International Contest RAEM is held on 80, 40, 20, 15 and 10 m. bands. The uniqueness of the contest is in the non-trivial number exchange that requires operators to show their true CW skills.
The memory of Ernst Krenkel will never die!
PS : I wish say special thanks to David G3ZPF for his care, support, and help when I decided to write this article. Also my thanks go to Mike (G4AYO) and to Alf (SM5IQ) for helping G3ZPF with translation and images from their private collections.
For the writing of this article I used:
- Krenkel “RAEM is My Callsign”;
- Kremer “The radio operator and the polar explorer”;
- “Radio”Magazines (1946-2009)
APPENDIX 1 : Equipment at UPOL.
Translation from Russian to Swedish: SM0RGH
Translation from Swedish to English: SM5IQ
The main equipment was named ”Drift” and was produced by the advanced radio laboratories in Leningrad.
Chief engineer – Vladimir Leonidovich Dobrozhansky (U1AB; earlier: 65RA, EU3AJ);
Developers – Feodor Abramovich Gaukhman (U1BP; earlier: RK-1, 93RB, EU2DF, EU3DE);
Engineers – Nikolay Nikolayevich Stromilov (U1CR), Andrey I.Kovalev, Nikolay Ivanovich Aukhtun;
Designers – Maria Zabelina, Tosya Sheremet and Alexey Razhev;
Technologists – Evgenie Leonidovich Ivanov (U1BH; earlier: 51RW, EU3BT) and Paul Tovpenets;
Mechanics – Anatoly Kiselyov, Alexey Kirsanov and Alexander Zakharov
Assembler – Victor Dzervanovsky.
Other radio amateurs who worked on the project:
Dmitry Petrovich Aralov (U1AH, earlier – EU3FD)
Boris Grigorevich Haritonovich (U1AK; earlier-EU3ED)
The main transmitter in the two Drift stations was a two stage telegraphy transmitter, the main oscillator being crystal controlled.
Power output 20 Wt
Bands 20-30, 40-60, 560-610 metres
Power source Ni-Fe accumulators
Plate voltage Via rotating converter PM-2 which, if necessary, could also be hand-cranked or treadled).
Power output 50-80 W depending on frequency band
Power source Ni-Fe accumulators
Plate voltage Via “enankaromformare” PM-1, (from the low voltage outlet the batteries could be charged) driven by an air-cooled petrol engine
B-3. “Enankaromformare” is a Swedish word that I cannot translate. It is a rotating converter, which in contrary to a motor-generator has only one rotor block for the input and output windings.
Main receiver 1-v-1 19-20000 metres, battery powered
Aerial L shaped wire antenna, horizontal part 55 m,
sloping part (to tx) 15 m, height 8.5 m (two duraluminium masts)
Spare station Name “Reserv”.
One stage transmitter with fixed frequency, max 20 W, wavelength 600 m. with 0-v-1 receiver
Main power source “The windmill” (designed by eng. S B Perli, Kharkov)
Dynamo power output 200 Wt at max voltage 15 V
APPENDIX 2 : Translated from Russian by Mike (G4AYO)
A conversation with Ernst Krenkel in an interview on the day before he departed to UP0L, and which was published in the Russian ‘RADIO’ magazine.
We placed before the designers of the radio laboratory of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs the following basic requirements: a total autonomous (i.e. capable of existing independently) portable radio transmitter, durable, with back-up and maximum lightness. A radio station which I will have to operate at the North Pole, built by the Leningrad laboratory especially for our expedition.
V.L. Dobrozhansky, head of the research part of the laboratory who had been involved with the construction of the radio relay centre on Dikson Island, took upon himself leadership in the planning of the radio station. Taking on the work was radio technician N.N. Stromilov, a participant of Arctic sailings, who built two transmitters of 20 and 80 watts power which operated on short and long wave.
The working out of two receivers to this transmitter was carried out by chief radio technician A.I. Kovalyov who used original working apparatus which with extraordinary portability allows coverage of a range of waves from 20 to 20,000 m.
The third set of radio equipment is a reserve backup receiving-transmitting radio station created under the direction of senior technician of the ORL comrade Gaukhman who set up the receiving-transmitting radio station on a fixed wave of 600 m.
The main radio station works on long and short wave. For work on short wave range the transmitter is constructed with a three-cascade circuit.
The power of the transmitter is 80 watts with the possibility of reducing to 20 watts. It works solely by wireless telegraphy and I consider such communications most advantageous over long distances. Valves UB-132, SK-164 and GD-50 are used in the transmitter.
The portable wireless transmitter is set into a common framework and gives the means to transmit in the following ranges:
20.5 – 32.5 m 550 – 1600 m
32 – 52.5 m 1800 – 3820 m
50 – 85 m 3200 – 8500 m
230 – 650 m 7500 – 19800 m
The radio is constructed according to 1-V-1 layout with a pentode in the output and with feed-back.
UB-152, CB-154 and SB-155 valves are fitted in it.
An additional station power 20 watts “analogous basic”
We also took a reserve station of 20 watts working in the 550-610 m ranges.
During work on long waves the transmitter will feed from a RM-2 transformer.
During our work on short waves we will set working a petrol engine with RM-1 machine.
Besides this we will have 2 complete sets of alkaline accumulators. We will charge the accumulators from a special 200 watts output turbine. During calm weather charging can also be produced from the RM-1 machine coupled with a petrol engine.
Our reserve source of power supply are 3 dry anode batteries and one RUN-10 machine for feeding the anodes. We also have two spare RM-2 and one spare RM-1.
We will construct a one-radial antenna and will extend it on two masts. The height of each mast is 8.5 m and the total length of the antenna 70 m.
It is difficult to say what the communication conditions will be on the drifting ice. Obviously we will work with Rudolph Island on long wave and with coastal stations and Dikson Island on short.