Sunday, 1 October 2017

"BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force"

This post was amended on 22 October 2017 to update the information on when SSVC took charge of BFBS. See the subsection "Operator".

Disclaimer: I was employed by the BBC at the time of the 1982 war, and continue to be so. However, this is an entirely personal blog post, reflecting only my views.

About this blog post: When I began this blog I intended to focus exclusively on Radio Atlantico del Sur, the Spanish-language shortwave station operated by the British Ministry of Defence in the final four weeks of the April-June 1982 Falklands War. Later, I felt that to tell the story of RAdS to the fullest I needed to look also at some other radio broadcasts during the 1982 war. 

So, I devoted one post to Argentina's Liberty station. 

In the post below I look at a service run by the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). Although apparently modest, it was an innovative development that is very poorly documented. And if something is undocumented it will eventually disappear.

It is paradoxical that this BFBS service, which operated openly and was given publicity in the British press, now has a far smaller internet footprint than either Radio Atlantico del Sur or Liberty, which were both, to varying extents, clandestine operations and which both probably had smaller audiences in their core targets than the BFBS programmes.

Thus, Google searches for the specific phrases (within quotes) "bfbs calling the task force", "bfbs calling the uk task force" or "bfbs calling the united kingdom task force" all produce no results at all (though I hope that will change after the publication of this post).

Fortunately, I still have my private diary and logbook from 1982 which contain notes of the internal BBC operational instructions for the BFBS service. These, together with some other material already in the public domain, are the sources for this post.

Sarah Kennedy presented the BFBS show for the Task Force

"BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force" – profile of a morale-boosting service

Summary: A short programme, aired daily for most of its life, and consisting, in its own words, of "requests and messages from family and friends at home".

Target audience: British servicemen in the South Atlantic during, and for a month after, the 1982 war.

Name and on-air identification: In an article in 2012 to mark the 30th anniversary of the war, BFBS's official historian Alan Grace refers to the service as the "Task Force Request Programme".

This name is also used, though misspelled, by the Imperial War Museum's online archive which –unhelpfully for electronic searches – refers to the show as the "Task Forces (sic) Request Programme" (three entries in the IWM database) and the "Task Forces Requst (sic) Programme" (one entry).

"Task Force Request Programme" may have been the working name used within BFBS, but the opening identification used on the air was: "This is BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service, calling the United Kingdom Task Force."

And "BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force" – often shortened to "BFBS Calling the Task Force" – is the name I remember from 1982, both at work at BBC Monitoring and privately as a shortwave radio enthusiast.

Operator: The British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). 

In early 1982, before the Falklands crisis, BFBS operations came under the control of a new organisation, the Services Sound and Vision Corporation, SSVC, a registered charity which also took over the running of cinemas and the provision of live entertainment for British forces overseas. But the BFBS name continued to be used on air, as it does to this day.

First broadcast: Monday 26 April 1982.

Last broadcast: Friday 16 July 1982.

Total number of broadcasts: 76 over the course of almost 12 weeks (as explained below, broadcasts didn't become daily until 7 May).

Programme content: Record requests and personal messages for named British servicemen. To maximise the number of messages aired in the short time available, records were not played in full.

Alan Grace's article says more than 7,000 requests were aired over the life of the programme.

A note in the June 1982 edition of Navy News invited requests to be sent to: Task Force Requests, BFBS London, PO Box 1234.

Presenters: The main presenter was Sarah Kennedy, who had begun her career at BFBS in the 1970s. By the time of the 1982 war she was known in Britain as one of the hosts of the ITV show Game for a Laugh.

Nicol Raymond, a presenter on BFBS TV, joined Kennedy after the show went daily.

A number of celebrities made guest appearances. They included the broadcaster David Hamilton and glamour model Fiona Richmond

Duration of programmes: When launched, each programme lasted for 30 minutes. When the broadcasts became daily on 7 May the duration was cut to 25 minutes. This may have been necessary to fit in with the scheduling of BBC transmitters.

Transmission schedule: Initially aired three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday) at 1100-1130 GMT on two shortwave frequencies: 21490 and 17830 kHz (in the 13- and 16-metre bands respectively).

From Friday 7 May it became a daily broadcast, at the slightly later time of 1130-1155 GMT, and went out on just one frequency, 15105 kHz (changed to 15180 kHz from 11 June) in the 19-metre shortwave band. 

This retiming was to allow for the introduction of an extra broadcast (at 1100-1130 GMT, i.e. early morning in Latin America) by the BBC's Spanish for Latin America service, which had previously only been on the air in the evening, Latin America time.

From 18 June (four days after the Argentine surrender) the BFBS service was retimed to 1400-1425 GMT and the frequency was changed to 17870 kHz. I don't know the reason for this second retiming. It may have been in response to feedback from the Task Force that a later time would be more convenient for the audience.

Production arrangements: The programmes were recorded at BFBS's central London studios in Kings Buildings, Dean Stanley Street, Westminster. The tapes were then taken to Bush House, HQ of the BBC External Services, for transmission over BBC facilities.

Transmission arrangements: These were handled by the BBC External Services. For internal BBC scheduling purposes, the service was colour-coded Pink. [1]

The service was beamed to the South Atlantic on the above shortwave frequencies from 250-kilowatt transmitters at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island.

The programme was fed from the UK to Ascension by two BBC independent-sideband (ISB) transmitters, on 22930 kHz (from Daventry, Northamptonshire) and 26490 kHz (from Rampisham, Dorset). Between 26 April and 17 June these feeds were relayed instantaneously by the Ascension station. Between 18 June and 16 July the feeds continued to go out from the UK at 1130 GMT, but were recorded at Ascension to be aired at 1400 GMT the same day. [2]

Argentine response:
No Argentine jamming of the BFBS broadcasts was heard (unlike other transmissions from Ascension by the BBC and Radio Atlantico del Sur). 

In his Media Network programme on Radio Netherlands on 6 May 1982, a week after the BFBS service was launched, Jonathan Marks suggested that the operators of Argentina's Liberty station were monitoring it to glean the names of British servicemen with the Task Force, so that they could use the details in their own broadcasts.

Alan Grace says all letters to be read out on the air were "carefully checked for any form of information which might have been of some use to the Argentinians". However, the names of individual service personnel were given along with their specific ship, so there was plenty for Liberty's monitors to jot down.


By today's standards, "BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force" was a very modest affair.

But in 1982 it was quite a revolutionary development. Up to then, BFBS had only operated what were in effect local radio stations in places where British forces were based overseas.

The network of stations varied over the years with changes in military deployments, and in 1982 there were just four BFBS stations: in West Germany, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Hong Kong. These ran a local live service, heavily supplemented by recorded material prepared at BFBS HQ, recordings of BBC programmes and live relays of BBC news.

Although BFBS had its HQ, with studios, in London, it ran no stations for forces' members or their families in the UK. And with no shortwave service it was not heard by a global audience.

This was in contrast to its US equivalent, the Armed Forces Radio and TV Service (AFRTS) which ran an extensive shortwave operation, using transmitters of the Voice of America (VOA), mainly for ships at sea. I frequently listened to AFRTS on 15430 kHz, which was well heard in the UK for much of the day, with programming mainly consisting of relays of the US domestic networks ABC, CBS and NBC.

BFBS's appearance on shortwave in 1982 was short-lived. But the idea of transmitting BFBS via shortwave to British forces was revived in both the 1990-91 and 2003 Iraq campaigns.

Today BFBS has its own local station in the Falklands

[1] All BBC external services (either individual languages or groups of them) were colour-coded for ease of reference throughout the signal chain from studio to transmitter (which might be thousands of miles apart, with some broadcasts airing over many transmitters in multiple locations). For example, the main World Service in English was always coded Green. Arabic was always Brown and Russian was Grey. And so on. The evening Spanish and Portuguese transmissions to Latin America were coded Red (as was the BBC's "Calling the Falklands" programme), though the additional morning Spanish transmissions mentioned above were, like the BFBS ones, coded Pink.

[2] Two simultaneous feeder frequencies were used so as to provide "diversity reception" at Ascension. This could reduce the effects of shortwave fading by allowing at any one time for the stronger feeder of the two to be selected for the programme relay.

Initially, the BFBS programme was carried on upper-sideband (USB) on both feeder frequencies. Later, this was switched to lower-sideband (LSB). This may have been because when a BBC feeder transmitter was operating in ISB (independent-sideband) mode, Green (i.e. BBC World Service in English) was generally carried on USB and the other programme (in this case BFBS) on LSB.

© 2017. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

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