1982: Microwave Television – a Live Link with Home

Microwave link

A recreation of the route covered by the 1,000km ‘microwave link’ from London to Berlin.


Having to wait to watch something is almost unheard of today. But in 1975, BFBS TV was made of popular pre-recorded shows flown over to Germany from the UK. 

All that changed in December 1982, when the first ever live link with home took place thanks to the longest microwave network in the world.  

Today's armed forces based overseas not only benefit from BFBS TV – a bespoke service offering the best of UK and Nepalese TV and more – but also the BFBS TV Player app, which allows  personnel to watch their favourite TV shows live or on demand to suit their time zone. BFBS also has the MiPlayer (see 2016: A Digital Turning point) which enables viewers to access TV, radio and much more on their personal devices in locations where there is little to no internet.  

But nearly 50 years ago, a very different BFBS Television went on the air at 7pm on 18 September 1975, transmitting from Celle in Germany.  

With tens of thousands of British Armed Forces personnel and their families still based in post-war Germany, BFBS had quickly gained a huge and loyal audience.  

Once again, BFBS had to innovate and transform itself to best serve those who serve and enable those based overseas to watch live TV at the same time as family and friends at home in the UK. 

At first there was just one transmitter but, over time, many more were built to bring BFBS TV to all the British Armed Forces and dependents in Western Germany.  

However, there was another problem with this system – there was no way of airing live news or sporting events.  

Securing a live link from London to Germany was vital to provide the best service possible.  

A live link would mean BFBS TV could include the ITN News at 5:45pm and the BBC 9 O'Clock News in the schedule each day, plus all the big sporting events.  

It also meant viewers could watch other major national occasions such as royal events, elections and budget announcements.  

So, in December 1982, BFBS experimented with a ‘microwave link’ crossing more than 1,000km from the UK to Germany – using 45 transmitter links across Europe.  

The live link was a line-of-sight microwave radio relay system that started at the London Control Centre in Wembley and went through Kent to Dover, across the Channel, then through France and Belgium, and ending at the network input point at JHQ Rheindahlen.  

For the first time, 160,000 British servicemen and women and their families based across 50 sites throughout northern and central regions of West Germany were able to watch live news from ITN and BBC at the same time as their loved ones back home.  

Once again, 40 years on from its starting point, BFBS used the latest technology to keep the armed forces community connected with home.  

Speaking before the launch of the live service, Pat Pachebat, the then Controller of BFBS Television, explained how adding programmes as they aired in the UK would change the channel.

However, he was keen for the audience to be gentle with BFBS as they got used to the new way of broadcasting.  

He said: "We hope it's all going to run smoothly but, if we do have a rough edge here or there in the first few days, I hope you'll be patient and try to understand the tension and all of the effort that's going on behind the scenes and, perhaps, above all, the total dedication of everyone who's involved and trying to get it right."  

On the night of the first live link, ITN and BBC News presenters said hello to their new viewers who were eagerly waiting in front of their televisions for this new chapter in BFBS TV's history to begin.  

Michael Nicholson, the ITN broadcaster presenting that night said: "Before we say goodnight, we'd like to say hello to a lot of new viewers – that's to British servicemen and families stationed in West Germany – 160,000 of you, we're told."  

John Humphrys, the BBC News presenter, welcomed the new viewers and spoke about what it took to make the live link happen, saying: "The link has been built by the Royal Signals Corps at cost to the Ministry of Defence of around £20m.  

"The signal is even picked up by British troops in West Berlin.  

"An Army spokesman there said it was 'marvellous to see BBC News in Berlin, 102 miles behind the Iron Curtain'." 

Pic of John Humphrys on vintage telly.

John Humphrys, BBC newsreader on the Nine O’clock News acknowledged the ‘new viewers’ in Germany as part of his report as the link went live.