Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Secret is Revealed: Radio Atlantico del Sur's studio

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.

Acknowledgement: As explained in my previous post, The Declassified Files – A First Look, I am indebted to professional researcher Lee Richards – whose website had already been an excellent source for this blog  for making available to me a number of recently declassified files from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Cabinet Office relating to British information and psychological operations in the Falklands War, including MOONSHINE, the codename for Radio Atlantico del Sur.

Details kept secret

Although the files give the identities of the military officers who were running the MoD's Special Projects Group (SPG) and who came up with the idea of launching a radio station to broadcast to Argentine troops, they don't include the names of any members of the team put together by the SPG to operate Radio Atlantico del Sur.

The exception is Neil ffrench-Blake (a familiar name to readers of this blog), who was recruited to be RAdS's civilian manager.

ffrench-Blake, whose CV is included in the files, is described as having "worked on sensitive projects for FCO". [1]

The only other member of RAdS's civilian staff for whom any clue as to their identity is given is the chief engineer, who is not named but is described as an "ex-Sergeant RAF radar engineer" and said to be "well known to Mr ffrench-Blake".

Priority was also given to another matter. The proposal to set up Radio Atlantico del Sur – first set out by the Special Projects Group in its document SPG 020 of 28 April 1982 – made a point of saying, in a section on "Security":
In particular we will seek to keep secret the location of the studio.
This was spelled out a little further in a later SPG "Directive" dated 20 May concerning the work of the "Media Assessment Team" (MAT), the cover name for the team that operated Radio Atlantico del Sur. This stated:
The highest priority in security is the concealment of the identities of those members of MAT who have family connections with the Argentines. Closely allied to this is the need to conceal the location of the studios.

The SPG was very successful in that objective. The exact location of the studio has never been publicly revealed up to now.

In his memoirs, published in 2015, ffrench-Blake simply said:
We set up offices in London, near the MoD, and borrowed a set of studio equipment from a friendly radio station.
Such secrecy encourages speculation.

In my post The Wrong Sort of Spanish? I noted a claim by Andy Sennitt, a writer and broadcaster on international radio matters, that the station originated "from a studio in the basement of the Foreign Office". I pointed out that this seemed a highly unlikely location, given the FCO's known hostility to RAdS.

The declassified files amply confirm the FCO's dislike of Radio Atlantico del Sur, from the moment the idea for such a station was put forward in late April. FCO opposition continued even after RAdS was approved by the War Cabinet and went on the air on 19 May. 

It is therefore hard to think of a less likely location for the studios!

The location revealed

Radio Atlantico del Sur broadcast from the studios of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) in Kings Buildings, Smith Square, just a few minutes walk from Parliament Square.

(Signs above the two entrances to the premises describe it as "Kings Buildings" i.e. with an s at the end of both words, but no apostrophe. On the internet, references can also be found to it as King's Buildings, King's Building and Kings Building.)

Shortly before the Falklands War, BFBS 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.

The BFBS name continued to be used on air, as it does to this day.

But documents in the MoD files generally use the term SSVC.

For example, a letter of 6 May from Sir Frank Cooper, permanent under secretary at the MoD, to Sir Antony Acland, his opposite number at the FCO, outlining the plans for Radio Atlantico del Sur, said:
Material would be produced in London at the studios of Services Sound and Vision Corporation.
(Sir Frank wrote his letter, setting out the plans and objectives for RAdS, in the hope of securing Foreign Office support for the project. That was a forlorn hope. The FCO was firmly opposed to RAdS from the start. Sir Antony hastened to reply to Sir Frank the same day so hastily that his letter contains a spelling mistake to tell him that "there are considerable doubts here about the project".)

What was in Kings Buildings?

More details of what was planned at Kings Buildings are given in the key SPG 020 document mentioned above. A slightly revised version of SPG 020, dated 29 April, said:

Studio facilities can easily be made available in Kings Buildings close to the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) whose studios can be used outside working hours without interference with normal work. This will be adequate at least in the early stages, and enhancement will be possible. We are examining provision of: (a) Telephones, (b) Commercial Telex, (c) A single broadcast-quality 'music' line to BBC Bush House together with a pair of 'talk-back' lines.
Later in the same document, when setting out the proposed budget for RAdS, it is explained that provision would need to be made for payment of "overtime for SSVC staff".

The reference to studio facilities "close to" the SSVC needs examination. In a separate MOD document, written after the Falklands War, the Radio Atlantico del Sur team were said to have been "fortunate to find spare office space readily adjacent to the broadcasting studio". I assume therefore that RAdS staff used both BFBS's studio and other rooms within Kings Buildings.

The requirement, in point (c) of the passage above, for a "broadcast-quality 'music' line" to Bush House (then the HQ of the BBC External Services) would have been based on the assumption that a feed of Radio Atlantico del Sur would need to go via Bush House in order to be relayed to the Ascension Island transmitter, which beamed the station to its target audience.

As explained in my post The Incident at Crowsley Park on the Night of 20-21 May 1982, in the end the BBC was not involved in relaying the RAdS feed to Ascension. Instead it was relayed via BT's Rugby Radio Station, which would have received a feed by landline direct from Kings Buildings.

Some remaining mysteries

There is an intriguing paragraph in ffrench-Blake's memoirs in which the eventual location of the station's studios is hiding in plain sight. He says that, just a few days after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands (2 April 1982), when he was working at a radio station at a ski resort in the French Alps, he received a "mysterious" telephone call
asking me to ring a certain number in the Ministry of Defence. I made the call, and a very polite officer asked me if I could report to Room 2009 on the second floor of the Kings Buildings within, “say, 48 hours or so”.
This suggests that the SPG may have already been working in Kings Buildings in early April, well before the RAdS team was assembled.

Possible further evidence for this suggestion is in a memo in the MoD files dated 3 June (i.e. almost two months later, but while the Falklands War was still in progress). The memo appears at first sight as a routine circular such as one sees in all workplaces. In it, the head of the SPG reports various personnel movements in his team, with team members joining and leaving, gives the phone numbers of the new staff, and says "... the normal duties of the SPG members now dictate that they work in future from their normal offices as opposed to Room 5346 in the [MoD] Main Building [off Whitehall]".

Might, I wonder, their "normal offices" have been in Kings Buildings?

A curious document and a strange denial

After considerable delay, caused by Whitehall wrangling, the War Cabinet gave the go-ahead for Radio Atlantico del Sur on 18 May – almost three weeks after the Special Projects Group had issued its initial SPG 020 proposal.

The following morning the MoD issued a press statement giving some details of the new radio station. The statement formed the basis for widespread coverage in the British press.

Along with the text of the press release and a fairly straightforward question-and-answer brief for journalists (e.g. "Q: Surely the station will be propagandist?" – "A: No. Programmes will be factual"), the FCO file on Project MOONSHINE also contains a curious document entitled:

This paper appears in the FCO file alongside the main press release and Q&A briefing, but uses a slightly different layout and looks as if it was typed on a different typewriter. Most of the seven "defensive" points are unremarkable (e.g. "Will any of the announcers be women?" – "Yes, some will be") but then there is this one:
Q. Is the British Forces Broadcasting Service involved?
A. No.
This flat-out denial is odd, contradicting the usual principle of "only lie when you have to". As far as I recall, no suggestion was made by the press that BFBS was involved, and I've not found reference to any such suggestion in the files.

Also in Kings Buildings at the time

While Radio Atlantico del Sur used BFBS's studio for its live broadcasts (which were at midnight to 0300 and 0930-1030 British Summer Time), BFBS continued its own work. This included recording its daily broadcast to British forces in the South Atlantic which I described in my post "BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force".

So, the same studios were being used on a daily basis for separate services to British and Argentine forces!
Dean Stanley Street to the left. Smith Square main entrance on the right

Kings Buildings today

BFBS/SSVC moved out of Kings Buildings in 1984 to an address in Paddington, and later to its current base just outside London in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire.

On a recent visit, I found no signage outside Kings Buildings (16 Smith Square) or in its lobby to indicate its current tenants. It is known, however, that DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) occupies part of the building. DEFRA is based next door in Nobel House (17 Smith Square). Smith Square is a prime location for political lobbyists, and it is no surprise that a web search shows that among the other tenants of Kings Buildings are the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and the Chemical Industries Association.

The main entrance to Kings Buildings is on Smith Square. A separate entrance around the corner in Dean Stanley Street is now closed. The 1982 edition of the World Radio TV Handbook gives BFBS's address as "King's (sic) Buildings, Dean Stanley Street" – suggesting that its studios may have been on that side of the building.

Kings Buildings looks as if it would have been a convenient and pleasant workplace for the staff of Radio Atlantico del Sur. Despite being so close to parliament (and only 10 minutes walk from the MoD Main Building), Smith Square is quiet. Nearby Victoria Tower Gardens, overlooking the Thames, would have provided a patch of green for a break from work for RAdS staff in that early summer of 1982.


[1] In a previous post I noted that ffrench-Blake's surname took some time to acquire its hyphen. It was still hyphenless in his 1982 CV but has a hyphen in his 1995 book South East Asia Golf Guide and in his memoirs, The Pol Pot Conspiracy, published in 2015 (the year before his death)For the sake of consistency I am giving it a hyphen throughout this blog.

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

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