Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Requisitioning of Sender 302 – a detailed look at the controversy

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.

This article is about the use by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) of a requisitioned transmitter at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island to beam Radio Atlantico del Sur's signal to its target audience. I took a first look at this controversy in a previous post

For background to this article, new readers of this blog may wish to read the post Profile and Timeline for an outline of Project MOONSHINE (the MoD's codename for Radio Atlantico del Sur).

The key transmitter

In theory, RAdS could have used shortwave transmitters in the UK. Their signals could reach the Falklands. But it was essential that RAdS had the strongest possible signal, to have the best chance of being heard with reasonable quality on the simple sets that Argentine troops might have packed in their kit bags.

And as it was expected that RAdS would be jammed (as indeed turned out to be the case), only the best possible signal would do.

So, from the very start of the planning for RAdS it was assumed that one of the Ascension transmitters would have to be used.

The criticism

RAdS's critics in 1982 and since, not least in the Foreign Office (FCO)  have claimed that the MoD's operation therefore deprived the BBC of a valuable transmitter for its own broadcasts to Latin America and Africa at a time when it was particularly important for Britain that the BBC External Services were heard as well as possible. [1]

Sender 302

In BBC-speak, shortwave transmitters are "senders", and each one has a unique "S" number. For example, at the time of the Falklands War the 12 senders at the BBC's transmitting station at Daventry, Northamptonshire, were numbered between S8 and S21 (S10 and S15 were no longer in service). Today, the sole remaining shortwave broadcast station in the UK is at Woofferton (straddling the Shropshire/Herefordshire border) where the 10 transmitters are numbered S81 to S84, and S91 to S96.

In 1982, there were four shortwave senders at the Ascension Island station: S301, S302, S303 and S304. They were identical and had 250 kilowatts of output power each. This made them among the most powerful of all the BBC's shortwave transmitters at the time, whether at the five transmitting stations it used in the UK or at its other overseas relay sites in Antigua, Cyprus, Lesotho, Oman and Singapore.

The government would have to requisition a specific transmitter to carry Radio Atlantico del Sur. After consulting the BBC, it was decided that it should be S302.

The evening scheduling problem

Although Radio Atlantico del Sur was on the air in both the morning and evening, it was the latter broadcasts that were seen as the more important "because less of the audience is then likely to be involved in their military duties" as RAdS's planners put it.

The initial plan (circulated within government on 28 April 1982) was that the evening programmes would go out for four hours from 2000 GMT – i.e. at 1700 to 2100 Falklands time. [2]


This posed a considerable challenge, as evenings in May 1982 were busy times for the Ascension relay station. Each day the station had been beaming BBC World Service in English to Africa on at least one transmitter (and at times on all four of them) since early morning, and continued to do so on one frequency until 2245 GMT. From 2000 it was also airing WS English to Latin America. Then there were the evening foreign-language broadcasts to Africa: French at 1815-1915, Hausa at 1915-1945 and Portuguese at 2030-2115 GMT (all carried on two Ascension frequencies). There was the "Calling the Falklands" programme, the BBC's lifeline service for the islanders, at 2115-2200. And from 2200 there was the BBC Portuguese service to Brazil, followed at 2315 by Spanish for Latin America (both languages being aired on two Ascension frequencies).

Accommodating Radio Atlantico del Sur in this busy schedule would therefore have been very difficult before 2245 GMT. (The MoD had made it clear from the start of its planning that the sender would only need to be requisitioned for the hours that RAdS would be on the air. It would be free during the rest of the day for its regular service for the BBC.)

Possibly because of that difficulty, the planned timing of the evening broadcast was quickly changed, and within a week of the initial plan the MoD had modified its proposal by pushing back the start time by three hours to 2300 GMT.

This made things simpler for the BBC's frequency managers. By 2300 GMT, all BBC transmissions to Africa had ended for the day, and the vital "Calling the Falklands" programme was also safely out of the way.

What was left to occupy Ascension for the hours immediately after 2300 was using two transmitters to carry the BBC Spanish service and the remaining two to carry World Service in English to the Americas.

To accommodate Radio Atlantico del Sur, WS English lost one of its frequencies from Ascension. The channel that was dropped was instead carried by a transmitter in the UK. The BBC estimated that this would result in a "50 per cent loss in quality" in the target area on that particular frequency. It should be noted that WS English continued to be beamed to South America after 2300 GMT on a total of eight frequencies (one from Ascension, one from the BBC Caribbean Relay Station in Antigua and six from the UK).

Possible overnight schedule for each transmitter

Using my admittedly incomplete notes from 1982, my best estimation is that each transmitter at Ascension was scheduled as follows overnight:

Before 19 May:
  • S301 carries BBC World Service to the Americas at 2000-0230 GMT (on 15260 kHz).
  • S302 carries "Calling the Falklands" at 2115-2200 (on 15400), Portuguese to Brazil at 2200-2315 (on 15390) and then Spanish to Latin America at 2315-0315 (on 15390).
  • S303 carries "Calling the Falklands" at 2115-2200 (on 11820), Portuguese at 2200-2315 (on 11820), Spanish at 2315-0215 (on 11820) and English to South America at 0230-0330 (on 11750).
  • S304 ends carrying BBC World Service to Africa (on 6005 kHz) at 2245, then makes a frequency and aerial change (from east to west) to carry BBC World Service to the Americas at 2300-0230 (on 11750). 

After S302 was requisitioned on 19 May:
  • S301 ends carrying BBC World Service to the Americas at 2200 (on 15260 kHz), does a quick frequency change to 15390 kHz and carries Portuguese at 2200-2315 and Spanish at 2315-0315. Meanwhile, a transmitter in the UK takes over carrying WS English on 15260 from 2200 onwards.
  • The requisitioned S302 ends "Calling the Falklands" (on 15400) at 2200 and shuts down. It switches frequency to 9710 kHz (but stays on the same aerial) and comes on the air again at 2255 with RAdS's interval signal, prior to the start of programming at 2300.
  • S303 no change - schedule as above.
  • S304 no change - schedule as above.

The morning scheduling problem looked easier...

Accommodating the morning broadcast was simpler than the evening one, though again this was only after the original plan for the timing was changed.

In the early morning, after the overnight transmissions to the Americas had ended, all of Ascension's efforts were focused on Africa. As well as World Service in English (from 0300 GMT), there were the dawn transmissions in French (0430-0445, 0515-0545 and 0630-0700) and Hausa (0545-0600). By 0730 all four Ascension senders were carrying the WS in English to Africa: one on 11860 kHz, one on 21660 and two transmitters doubled-up to give 500 kW on 15400.

For an RAdS transmission starting at 0815 (as was the orginal plan) it was simply necessary to take Sender 302 off 15400 kHz (still leaving another transmitter radiating on that frequency).

Some listeners in Africa might notice a reduction of power on 15400, but they still had the alternative frequencies of 11860 and 21660 from Acension and four other frequencies (two from the UK and one each from the BBC relay stations in Cyprus and Lesotho).

... but for the Voice of America problem

So far, so simple. But there would be a problem if the RAdS transmission continued beyond 1000 GMT. For this would mean a clash with the Voice of America's (VOA) morning transmission in Portuguese to Brazil, which was carried on two Ascension transmitters between 1000 and 1100.

The relay of the VOA by Ascension was part of a swap arrangement under which some BBC broadcasts to Latin America were relayed by VOA transmitters in the USA.

Upsetting the arrangement with the VOA would therefore cause embarrassment to the BBC, and possible irritation in Washington.

The planned timings for the morning RAdS broadcasts went through several changes. At one point a two-and-a-half hour broadcast at 0815-1045 GMT was envisaged. By the time the proposal for Project MOONSHINE was put to the War Cabinet this had been reduced slightly to 0830-1030, and when the MoD issued its 19 May press release announcing the start of broadcasts there had been a further reduction to 0815-0945.

When the morning broadcasts eventually began on 28 May they were at 0830-0930. So, there was no clash with the VOA.

The requisitioning

Someone in government had to write to the BBC to give formal notice that one of its Ascension transmitters was being requisitioned. There was an argument in Whitehall about which ministry should do this. Up to that time it was assumed that in the case of the BBC's domestic service transmitters it would normally be the job of the Home Office. For the BBC External Services the expectation was that the Foreign Office would take responsibility for the task.

But the FCO, which had opposed the setting up of the RAdS ever since Project MOONSHINE was first mooted, rejected the suggestion that it should requisition the Ascension transmitter and wanted the MoD to do the deed instead.

(For more about the arguments between the FCO and the MOD over Radio Atlantico del Sur, see my post "The War Cabinet is invited to agree".)


By 13 May the FCO had been working for over a fortnight to stop RAdS from taking to the air, but seems to have realised that it was likely to lose this particular Whitehall battle. That day, Keith MacInnes, head of the FCO Information Department and a key player in the Foreign Office's agitation against RAdS, wrote to the MoD to say:

[...] this is a special case and it is our view that entire responsibility for the operation should rest with the Ministry of Defence.
In other words, the FCO wanted to cover itself should RAdS prove to be a fiasco, and so the MoD would have to requisition the transmitter itself. This was although a Mr Chamberlain, an FCO legal adviser, had said in an internal memo on 6 May that "it would be better for the letter [to the BBC] to go from the FCO".

So, on 19 May, the day after the War Cabinet had agreed that Project MOONSHINE should go ahead, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the MoD, Sir Frank Cooper, wrote to Sir Ian Trethowan, Director-General of the BBC:

Dear Ian, 
In the circumstances of the present Falkland Islands operations, I am writing on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence to say that Her Majesty's Government require the use of a transmitter number 302 at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station, between the hours of 0815 to 0945 and 2300 and 0200 GMT, from 2300 GMT on 19 May 1982 until further notice. [3]
2. In accordance with Article 19 of the Licence and Agreement of 2 April 1981 between Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Corporation are hereby directed to permit the use of the said transmitter by Her Majesty's Government for the periods stated in the preceding paragraph.
3. I should be grateful if you would acknowledge receipt of this letter.
Yours sincerely,
Frank Cooper
Sir Ian replied:
Dear Frank,

I am in receipt of your letter of today's date informing me that Her Majesty's Government require the use of transmitter number 302 at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station at the specified times of day until further notice.
We will, of course, comply.
Yours,
Ian
And when it was all over, after Argentine forces surrendered late on 14 June, Sir Frank wrote again to the BBC on 16 June:
Dear Ian,
Further to my letter of 19 May, I am writing again on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence to inform you that following the surrender of the Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands, Her Majesty's Government will no longer require the use of Transmitter Number 302 at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station from 1800 GMT on 16 June 1982.
2. I should like to take this opportunity to express my thanks for the BBC's prompt action in making the transmitter available in the exceptional circumstances of the Falkland Islands operation.
Yours sincerely,
Frank Cooper
Conclusions

The BBC coped remarkably well with the loss if one of its Ascension transmitters for four hours a day. No BBC transmissions from Ascension in foreign languages were lost, nor was there any interruption to the important "Calling the Falklands" programme or the relaying of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) programme for the Task Force. The relaying of the Voice of America was also unaffected.

The small price of a loss of power on one (of three) Ascension frequencies carrying BBC World Service for Africa outside prime listening hours, and on one frequency (of many) carrying WS English to South America, seems one well worth paying to get Radio Atlantico del Sur on the air. 

Notes

[1] What is now known as the BBC World Service (operating in English and many other languages) was in 1982 still referred to as the BBC External Services – and in internal BBC bureaucracy as External Broadcasting (XB). At that time, the "World Service" name was reserved solely for the service in English. This distinction was abandoned in 1988 when the "External Services" name was dropped and all international broadcasting by the BBC came under the World Service brand.

[2] When Argentine forces invaded the Falklands they announced that local time in the islands would be the same as that in Argentina, which was 3 hours behind GMT. Meanwhile, local time on Ascension is the same as GMT.

[3] The wording ("a transmitter number 302") suggests that whoever drafted this letter assumed that "302" was a type of transmitter, rather than the designation of one individual sender.

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

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