Radio Veronica: The forgotten people surfaced

by Hans Knot

Recently a certain Dave Rehl gave information about his grandfather Gunter Herrmann and sons, all involved in the running of Veronica in the early days, and the difficult start of the station from the Borkum Riff:

“The Verwey family consisted of three brothers: Bull (Hendrik), Dirk and Jaap. The first managing director however was Henricus Oswald, and he was a tricky man. He was the person in the organization who, every time a part of the transmitter was ready, leaked this information to the PTT (GPO). According to rumours he did it to
remove some people from the organization. Next my grand-dad went to buy all the material he needed at Loe Lap in Amsterdam, with the collaboration of Mister Slootmans, who was financially responsible for the station, and reliable in his eyes. My uncle, giving me all the information, remembers also Max Groen, as being the first announcer on Radio Veronica.”

It concerns two men, called ‘Günter Herrmann’, or father and a son, and besides that there’s a second son called ‘Dicky’. Günter junior and Dicky (Jan) are still alive and are both uncles of Dave.
In 1959 they were involved in the setting up the first ship of Radio Veronica, then the VRON, ‘Borkum Riff’, bought on 7 November 1959 in Emden for the sum of DM 68,910,55. Thus the former light ship belonged to a ‘Vereniging van Radio Handelaren’. The VRON and the Anstalt Veronica became registered trade marks in Liechtenstein. Strangely enough the Borkum Riff was later sold by Slootmans to a certain Louis Debocq from Den Haag on 1 June 1960,
for the sum of fl 25.000 via notary Van Gelder from Amsterdam.
In Emden, Günter junior and senior had the real control over 8 full time workers converting the light ship into a radio ship. In measuring the ship’s hull, it appeared that it was 150% thicker than the metal of an average coaster of these days.


The first part of the transmitter was assembled there but couldn’t be tested. The oscillators, the doublers (?), the high frequency amplifiers and the modulation amplifiers however could be tested, but the antenna’s couldn’t be erected nor tested, because it was strictly forbidden in Germany.
Dicky: “Building the antenna was a problem, because on the high seas you get a different behaviour of an antenna.
Theoretically all this can be calculated, but the practice is different. The electrical equipment on board had to be improved and extended. According to the author of “The Veronica Saga” not only the seizure of the equipment by the authorities led to a delay, but there must also have been a fire on board in the electric installation, with fl 3.500damage.”
By the way, crew members and engineers in those Emden days were paid in advance by the KIM Rijwielfabrieken (KIM cycle factory) where they were temporarily on the payroll.


The then “future extension of the transmitting installation” brings us back to the Herrmann family.
Dave: “At the start the Radio Veronica transmitter had a 1 KW power, coupled with a so-called B amplifier. A third family member came to reinforce the crew: it was the son of Günter senior, Jan Herrmann, very often called Dick(y). Immediately after his military service he went to work for Radio Veronica. As from then they were three (Günter senior, Günter junior, Jan Herrmann) starting to improve the transmitter. It was boosted from 1 KW to 2,5 KW and the modulation amplifier became a class A. Antennas were adapted and were tuned more capacitively than inductively.
Because of this the actual output was improved and the sound quality could compete with that of the then FM stations (which is called into question by other Radio Veronica engineers consulted).”


Herrmann’s memories of the studio equipment: “The recorders were a mixture of Grundig and Wolenzak tape equipment. All was standardized to Telefunken 7,75”/sec, in the Netherlands known as 19cm/sec. Obviously one was forced to design special filters to suppress frequency interference. Turntables had to be shielded against magnetic and high frequency fields. All this influenced the magnetic tapes which were pre-recorded in Hilversum.”
This last remark regarding the turntables must probably have occurred with another technical project in which Günter Herrmann was involved. There was never a turntable on board of the Borkum Riff. In case of emergencies, when broadcasts had to be made from the ship, recorded tapes of records were broadcast (see picture of studio without any turntables). The above mentioned shield wasn’t necessary for the turntables, but for the Telefunken M 24 recorder.
“They were thrilling days. We were very often chased by the PTT, the customs and the Marechaussee (military police). They were many times searched during their journeys but were never caught with equipment, because they got quite a lot of help from fellow passengers in busses, trains and trams. The Dutch public was very sympathetic towards them and always helped them.


Besides building a transmitter, Jan Herrmann was also a deejay in case of emergency. During storms or bad weather it very often happened that no tapes were received from land, and then old tapes had to be adapted or a new program had to be made on board. Tineke was already employed in Hilversum, and she was responsible for listing all records with a suitable story. Staff of the early days were Arie den Dulk, Ruud Doets and Arie de Ruiter. Of course, many more people were responsible, but after all these years their names have disappeared from the family’s memory.”
Dave recalls the past of his grand father’s wartime experiences in Indonesia, building transmitters for the PTT and for the resistance against the Japanese. After the war he became a radio amateur.


A reporter of the newspaper ‘Het Parool’ remembers a 1961 sunny’s day trip to the Borkum Riff: “Two high masts set on a few hundreds of deadweight capacity. Thickly painted and well rigged. That’s Veronica, five miles off the coast of Scheveningen. Six crew members on board, who have nothing else to do, seven times 24 hours,
but keeping the power supply - the generators, going and maintaining the transmitting equipment of the pirate station. Furthermore they have to look after running the tape recorders and to swab the decks. After seven days, they are relieved by six other guys and they’re going home on shore. That’s the way it goes since 14 months ago, week after week.
On the mast, no black flag with skull and crossbones. On board no savage pirates but a Captain, an engineer, a cook, two technical engineers and a “tape operator”, all of whom obviously don’t seek to keep the aura of piracy.


Cook Maarten Klein about boredom: “With such weather boredom on board is worst. To swim and to get tanned have little by little lost their attraction. The best you can do is to write a letter, that now and then is taken by a passing boat.” And the reporter goes on: “If the nice weather continues for a long time, the Veronica guys will surely suffer from tiffs and wrangles about the smallest things. The best outcome then is bad weather, because then you have to save something. (…) A guy who doesn’t
suffer from the good weather is chief engineer Günter Herrmann from Amsterdam. He’s the son of a German father and an Indonesian mother. He likes to talk a lot, about his job with Veronica: “The transmitter on board, as it is now, is practically completely all the work of my two sons and me. Dick, 20 years old, is radar fitter. My son Günter (18) is precision metal worker. The three of us have equipped a workshop on board Veronica, and subsequently have built up the transmitter piece by piece after the ready-made transmitters had been confiscated several times on land. Don’t underestimate it, because during our work and performing experiments, we have also to stay on the air.


Shortly my family emigrates to America. For us the Netherlands are too narrow minded and too cold. The Radio Veronica management however wants to keep us for another three months, until the transmitter is completely ready. In the meantime, the management pays for the house we’ve already rented in America.”
Comments of other crew members about the chief engineer: “Sometimes he was a
difficult guy for us. Very often he succeeded in ‘wangling’ things superbly. This ‘wangling’ concerned for instance the radio communication with shore when Radio Holland had to break off the links with Radio Veronica by order of the authorities. Now and then communication with shore appeared to be possible, and upon asking how this was possible one of the crew members replied “that solution is none of your business.’


Regarding the Borkum Riff’s flag (already withdrawn by Panama, but there was a second one, with registration and certificates, safely stowed away in a locked drawer in the captain’s cabin) it was also ‘no comment, it remains a mystery’.
Engineer Kootje Van Ieperen, whilst showing his cabin to the reporter: “Sailing to and from the ship is mostly the worst. When however you have to jump onto Veronica and there’s a force 7 blowing, you bite on your lips, you know. It can’t be a joke, and I don’t fancy being mangled between two steel plates.”
In those days the MV Wiebe, a small tender, was confiscated by the shipping inspector, thus tendering was very difficult, although by using small boats,
Günter succeeded in ‘wangling’ things, mostly from Ijmuiden.


As the weather changed quickly, the reporter added:
“Such a trip on a small boat on the North Sea isn’t always fun. I experienced it on the way back when we got in trouble, by sudden increasing wind and we only sailed safely into Ijmuiden harbour just in time. There were ten people: the skipper and his wife, a friendly couple and their son, a friend with his two little boys, Mr Herrmann, who had to go back to the ship and me. Our tender was a small barge, measuring five by one and a half metres, without any accommodation or life saving equipment on board. On the way back, off Katwijk, at around 6.30 pm, the weather suddenly changed. Within half an hour the North Sea was boiling, and the barge became a powerless piece of wreckage, on which one could hardly stand up. The little ship rocked and rolled, whilst the waves high above the low superstructure hit against the windows of the mostly open cabin. At the side, the water hit the low freeboard and sometimes flew over it. It continued for three hours and I thought we wouldn’t make it. It was the only thought that dominated myself and the four other men. The two ladies didn’t think anymore, but had surrendered to their fear and were half in a dead faint. The two little boys held on frantically and looked out with glazed eyes.”
The Captain however seemed to know this kind of situation, and with the help of the passing Ijmuiden pilot he managed to sail into harbour, five hours after the
departure from the Borkum Riff, whereupon the reporter cried: “Never again!”


Shortly before the MV Wiebe, the first Veronica tender, was confiscated, an Elsevier magazine reporter went on board, leaving Scheveningen, as usual for the MV Wiebe, around 10.30 am. In May 1961 one could read in Elsevier:
“Seven miles off the coast lies Veronica for more than a year. No ship has ever been so long in the picture as the 40 year old light ship of Veronica. The interest however doesn’t mainly concern the ship, but what’s going on aboard her. For more than a year the Netherlands have commercial radio. It’s being broadcast from the Veronica and appreciated by many listeners. A couple of Monnikendam are so enthusiastic, that they named their daughter ‘Veronica.’


The tender steered by Den Dulk, assisted by four crew, sailed every day from Scheveningen to the radio ship. Every time, the authorities forced the shipping inspection to call the ship back for re-examination, which resulted in quite a lot
of changes. Den Dulk: “All the regulations have been dealt with meticulously, but now she meets all requirements, and they have no choice but to let her go to Veronica every day.”
In the summer of 1960, it was not allowed to have any link with Veronica at all. Fishermen, coming too close to the Borkum Riff were subjected to inspection, with the threat of their fishing license being withdrawn.


Arie Den Dulk: “In those days it sometimes happened that we were supplied with food and tapes from the air.
Now everything is controlled by the customs and the tapes are exported legally. Thus we don’t have to be dropped from a plane and we can quietly sail in one hour to the radio ship.”
Back to the Elsevier reporter:
“A wreck? A nice elegant ship with two masts. And pirates on board? Jolly good fellows from Scheveningen, enjoying their station and their work. In the middle of the ship there’s the transmitter, operated by father and son Herrmann (20) – every week they relieve each other – and tape controller R.Doets (18). The recording studios are in Hilversum; everything is
recorded on tape. Some 1,000 tapes were stocked against the walls. The four seamen are on duty one week on Veronica and one week on the supply ship, sailors who have sailed all seas.”


Why have they chosen such a life? “Firstly there’s some kind of sport involved, and now we are more with our wives than in the past. These days we are not isolated so much, and suddenly the fishing boats are again allowed to pass by (showing a fresh catch of fish).
I don’t earn more than on shore, but I do the job with enthusiasm, although sometimes being very seasick. Recently with that storm of force 11 I was really critically ill. But nevertheless we had to broadcast. Worst was when the transmitter was silenced by a short circuit. A wave tipped over the bow light.”
Herrmann added: “Then it was proved that Veronica is certainly not a wreck.”


Paid by Elsevier magazine, Ferry Hoogendijk went to see Dirk Verwey of the Veronica management: “Our station is purely commercial; no politics or religion, whatever they want to pay for it. The Red Cross, charities, RSPCA and the like get the opportunity to broadcast their publicity free of charge. We think we are well on our way. Sometimes we get 3,000 letters a week concerning one of our programs. That’s 1,000 times more than what Radio Luxemburg usually gets. According to a recent NIPO survey, millions of people listen to us. We’d rather like to be recognized, then the treasury will also cash in via the tax revenues.”
Hoogendijk tested the GPO by asking them for Radio Veronica’s phone number, but in vain. Dirk Verwey: “Yet we are good GPO customers. Maybe one day we’ll become good friends. At New Year I got a GPO calendar as a present. But I think it was for the Verwey textile factory and not for the Radio Veronica managing director.”

Thanks to Dave Rehl for completing the Radio Veronica story.

Written by Hans Knot, and translated from Dutch by B.Dom.

HANS KNOT ©  2007.

Photos: Jelle Boonstra, Bert van Rheenen, Familie Herrmann, Dietrich Janssen, archief Hans Knot