Saturday, 27 October 2018

When Britain wooed Arab hearts and minds — the story of Voice of the Coast

The story of Voice of the Coast is little known. I hope this post will serve as a source of reference on the station and that I will be able to update it as more information becomes available. Comments and updates are welcome.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Lee Richards and Mike Barraclough for pointing me towards this story.

The Trucial States were a quasi British protectorate until independence in 1971
Voice of the Coast was based at Sharjah (marked on the map as Ash Shariqah)

Objectives and techniques

Summary: Voice of the Coast (Sawt al-Sahil) was a British-operated Arabic-language radio station on the air between 1964 and 1970, targeting audiences initially in the British-controlled Trucial States and then in the wider Arab world. [1]

Objective: The aim was to support British influence in the region, drawing listeners away from hostile stations, notably Voice of the Arabs (Sawt al-Arab), the dominant presence on the region's airwaves at that time. Voice of the Arabs was pan-regional Arab nationalist radio station operated from Cairo by Nasser’s Egypt since 1953. Its operations were a major concern to the British government for many years. The British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) said in 1958 that broadcasts from Cairo had "played a large part in fomenting almost every recent crisis in the Middle East".

Technique: Any planners of British political radio activity in the Middle East in the 1960s would have been only too aware of the shambolic failure of such British operations during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Accordingly, it seems that Voice of the Coast adopted a light touch, which included playing plenty of music (as did Voice of the Arabs), as well as airing news. 

In the jargon of psychological warfare, it was a relatively "white" operation, not concealing in any way its place of origin (though not being explicit about its anti-Nasser message). The full station identification was: "Voice of the Coast from the Trucial States" (Sawt al-Sahil min al-Imarat al-Mutasaliha  صوت الساحل من الإمارات المتصالحة). And listeners were invited to write to the station, particularly with their music requests, at Post Box 201, Sharjah.

British control

Geopolitical background: Voice of the Coast was based in Sharjah, one of the so-called Trucial States on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf. Although they were not formally British possessions, all the Trucial States had treaties that gave Britain substantial rights in exchange for military and diplomatic protection.

London's authority on the ground was exercised by the Foreign Office through a British "political residency" in the Gulf, which in turn used a number of "political agents" in various sheikhdoms. Sharjah's affairs were looked after by the British political agent in neighbouring Dubai.

The UK's local military presence in the Trucial States was a paramilitary/gendarmarie force called the Trucial Oman Scouts (TOS). The TOS was headquartered in Sharjah, initially at a site next to RAF Sharjah airbase. [2]

The men in charge

Command and control: Voice of the Coast was a joint political-military operation, involving both the British Foreign Office [3] and Ministry of Defence. Political and military control was exercised by, respectively, the British Political Agent in Dubai and the commander of the TOS.

According to the book Britain's Secret Propaganda War 1948-1977 by Paul Lashmar and James Oliver, the initiative to set up Voice of the Coast came from the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), in liaison with major oil companies. The IRD was the part of the Foreign Office responsible for countering communist and Nasserite propaganda.

Station management: Voice of the Coast's first commander was Tim Ash (who died in 2012, aged 79), an Arabic-speaking member of the Royal Signals who had volunteered for service in the TOS. Ash later recalled:
The station’s main aim was to provide listeners with Arabic music as well as supplying local news. The world news was taken from the BBC, but it had to go to the [British Political] Agency in Dubai first for checking before being broadcast. The station broadcast about six hours a day and had its own transmitter.
Denys Johnson-Davies (1922-2017), an Arabic-speaking civilian, took over as director of Voice of the Coast in 1969.

Johnson-Davies was offered the chance by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid, to remain as head of the station after independence in 1971, but turned it down"I said, ‘Here you are, an independent Arab country  what do you want an Englishman for?'"

Tim Ash was Voice of the Coast's first manager
Photo (undated): The National, Abu Dhabi

Expansion and closure

Expansion of the station's transmission coverage: Voice of the Coast was launched in 1964, operating from the HQ of the Trucial Oman Scouts in Sharjah. The station initially used a low-powered mediumwave (AM) transmitter that only provided local coverage. 

By August 1966 this had been replaced by a 10-kilowatt shortwave transmitter and a 1-kW AM one, which were giving reception in areas well beyond the Trucial States. The following year it was noted that a 10-kW AM transmitter had been obtained for the station. 

An increase in the strength of the shortwave transmitter (on 6040 kHz) was reported in 1970. This allowed the station to be heard by shortwave radio enthusiasts in Europe. Reception in the UK was also reported that year of the station's AM (737 kHz) signal.

Shortly before independence in 1971, after the station had moved to Dubai, it was operating with a 10-kW AM transmitter (on 1250 kHz) and a 10-kW shortwave transmitter (on 6040 kHz). It was on the air for 11 hours a day at 0700-1100 and 1600-2300 local times. (Source: World Radio TV Handbook, 1972 edition)

Closure of the station: By the end of the 1960s the regional political climate had changed. The UK's interest in running such media operations in the region had waned. Britain had left Aden in 1967 and the following year Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced a general withdrawal of British forces east of Suez. 

The need for Voice of the Coast had also declined as the reputation and influence of Voice of Arabs never recovered from Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war.

In 1970, Voice of the Coast was transferred from Sharjah to neighbouring Dubai. It was eventually renamed Dubai Radio and handed over to the local authorities, as the Trucial States gained independence the following year. The exact date it stopped using the name Voice of the Coast is not known. It was still using that name immediately before independence in December 1971.

After independence the Trucial States joined together to form the United Arab Emirates, UAE.

The station launches a successful career

Along with Tim Ash and Denys Johnson-Davies, an interesting personality at the station in the early days was a young female presenter, Hessa Al Ossaily. According to a 2014 article in the UAE newspaper The National:
Hessa Al Ossaily was only a teenager when she took the first step towards becoming a broadcasting legend. In 1965, a representative from the newly launched Sawt Al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), an Arabic broadcast radio station in Sharjah that was operated by the British military, was looking for new talents. Just 15, the Emirati, who had a reputation as a star speaker at her school’s morning assembly, was determined to take up the ­challenge.
“I always had an adventurous kind of soul, where I like to try new things and always try to do them well,” says Al Ossaily, now known as the “mother of UAE ­media”.
With a heavy fringe, fashionable at the time, and a big smile, her voice was heard on the radio waves introducing the latest social affairs, celebrity talk and entertainment. As well as the chance of a lifetime, it was a way to help support her family.
“I would present light segments, depending on the requests of the listeners who would write in, and we would sit and read the letters and see what they would like to hear,” she recalls.
Mostly listeners wanted legendary Arab singers and the latest releases by a new generation of singers, especially from the Gulf.
“It was a very simple time: people just wanted a break from work, to listen to something light and fun, as the time for news and politics was announced by the males and adults at the radio station,” she says. 

Hessa Al Ossaily was a teenage recruit to the staff of Voice of the Coast
Photo (2014): The National, Abu Dhabi

[1] I've not been able to confirm the exact dates for the start and end of broadcasts. There are conflicting reports on the start date (it may have been in 1965 rather than 1964). The timing of events when the station closed and was moved to Dubai is also unclear.

[2] RAF Sharjah was home to a separate radio station, Forces Radio Sharjah, which served British service personnel. It had a low-power (0.05 kW) AM transmitter on 1480 kHz. Unlike other such stations around the world, it does not seem to have been part of the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) network. (Source: World Radio TV Handbook, 1968 edition)

[3] In 1968, the Foreign Office became the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at the end of a series of reorganisations over previous decades which brought together the Foreign Office, the Dominions Office and the Colonial Office in a single department.

© 2018. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

MOONSHINE — A story of psychological warfare

This is an overview of the story of Radio Atlantico de Sur. It contains links to other posts on this blog that focus in much more detail on specific aspects of the story.

RAdS said it was an "additional station" to the one run by Argentina from Stanley
Front and back of a British leaflet aimed at Argentine troops
Image credit: PsyWar.Org

Radio Atlantico del Sur  –  Profile of a psychological operation

Summary: A Spanish-language shortwave radio station operated by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in the final four weeks of the April-June 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) War to support the operations of British forces.

Target audience: Argentine military personnel in the Falkland Islands.

Objectives: To persuade Argentine troops to "hesitate before firing on British troops" and to "consider positively the benefits of surrendering". 

These objectives were set out in a now-declassified MoD document known as the “Interim Assessment” first drafted on or shortly before 10 May 1982 (more than a week before Radio Atlantico del Sur went on the air). The Interim Assessment was written by RAdS’s civilian manager, Neil ffrench-Blake, who says in his memoirs that it originally included a third objective: "to discourage enemy troops from mistreating the civilian population".

Psychological techniques: Broadcasts aimed at demoralising the target audience by reinforcing feelings of homesickness and isolation, and unsettling the listener through an implicit but regular reminder of his predicament  he was a long way from home, facing a determined, well-equipped and well-trained enemy, and without hope of reinforcement or relief. (By the time RAdS was launched the islands were under a British air and sea blockade.)

A directive to the station's staff instructed it to increase the audience's sense of isolation "by direct reference to events taking place on the islands known only to the garrison, coupled with information about their own town on the mainland".

Specific themes used in broadcasts included: stressing the lack of training of Argentinian conscripts by comparison with British troops; playing on fears of British specialist units such as the SAS and SBS; and noting the lack of medical facilities available to Argentine forces.

Codename: In the planning stage, the radio station was known as Project MOONSHINE. Once it was on the air the codename was PINOCHIO (sic), though MOONSHINE is the name that is best remembered. See the post No lies are to be told”.  

Logistics of operation: Programmes were produced in London and beamed to the islands by a BBC shortwave transmitter on Ascension Island. 

All broadcasts went out live from a studio of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) in Kings Buildings, Dean Stanley Street, Westminster, normally used by the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). See the posts The Secret is Revealed: Radio Atlantico del Sur's studio and Pinpointing the location: “on the left at the top of the stairs”.  

The programme was fed from the UK to the transmitter on Ascension Island via BT’s Rugby Radio Station. See the post The Incident at Crowsley Park on the Night of 20-21 May 1982.  

Transmission arrangements: The signal was aired from a 250-kilowatt transmitter at the BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island. The frequencies were 9710 kilohertz for the evening broadcast and 9700 kHz for the morning one, both in the 31-metre shortwave band. Both frequencies were close to 9690 kHz, which was used during the war by various stations in Argentina. [1] 

For details of the Ascension transmitter, see the post The Requisitioning of Sender 302

Hours of transmission: Throughout its short life, RAdS transmitted a three-hour evening broadcast each day at 8 p.m. Falklands time (equivalent to 2300 GMT or midnight London time).

From 28 May, an additional one-hour early morning broadcast was aired each day at 5.30 a.m. Falklands’ time (0830 GMT or 0930 London time). [2]

Total number of broadcasts: 47. These were made up of 28 evening broadcasts (19 May to 15 June) and 19 morning broadcasts (28 May to 15 June).

Staffing: Programmes were produced by a group of more than 30 civilian and military personnel using the cover name of the Media Assessment Team (MAT). The MAT included a civilian station manager (Neil ffrench-Blake), nine presenters (all but one being members of the British armed forces), five translators/writers, three Spanish-speaking typists, two civilian journalists, a civilian radio engineer, two RAF technicians, three junior NCOs from the British Army's Intelligence Corps and five administrative staff. 

Command and control: The MAT was under the overall control of Lieutenant-Colonel B and Squadron-Leader G, both posted from the Psychological Operations Section, Joint Warfare Wing of the National Defence College at Latimer, Buckinghamshire. They in turn reported to Colonel S, head of the MoD’s Special Projects Group (SPG), which had been formed just over a week after the Argentine invasion. [3]

Presenters: All the on-air staff used pseudonyms. This included the sole female announcer. See the post Mariana Flores, Britain’s psychological weapon against the Argentine forces.  

Postal address: Listeners were invited to write to Post Office Box 408, London. Letters addressed to the station c/o the MoD were also answered.

Cost: After the war, the total cost of the project was said to have been about £40,000 (equivalent to around £140,000 in 2018 prices). Before broadcasts started, costs had been estimated at up to £20,000 per week.

Argentine counter-measures: These included:
  • RAdS's signal was jammed (though this might have been ineffective in the target area)
  • The Argentine military chaplain in the Falklands warned troops that listening to RAdS was a mortal sin (thus possibly increasingly its allure by giving it forbidden-fruit status)
  • Radio sets were confiscated from Falkland Islanders, reportedly to prevent them from being used by Argentine conscripts to listen to RAdS
  • A privately-owned Buenos Aires-based news agency, Noticias Argentinas, was closed by the authorities for 72 hours in early June. The MoD said this was because the news agency had cited the list of Argentine POWs that was broadcast nightly by RAdS, though other reasons for the closure have been suggested – see the post General Galtieri’s mystery decree 

In later life, Neil ffrench-Blake (1940-2016) used this photo on his Twitter account
Appropriately, his face - like much of his clandestine professional life - is partly obscured

Timeline of Project MOONSHINE

Events in April-June 1982:


Morning of 2 April: Argentine forces invade the Falklands (Operation ROSARIO). They take control of the local radio station, the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service (FIBS), rename it LRA60 Radio Nacional Islas Malvinas and introduce Spanish news bulletins alongside the English ones. 

5 April: British Task Force sails from Portsmouth for the South Atlantic.

6 April: A War Cabinet is formed in Britain, known formally as OD(SA) – Overseas and Defence Committee (South Atlantic). 

Also on 6 April, the BBC begins broadcasting its formerly Sundays-only Calling the Falklands programme three times a week. See the post "London Calling the Falkland Islands" – the BBC's lifeline service. 

7 April: The BBC’s nightly four-hour service in Spanish to Latin America is extended to five hours (2015-0115 Argentine time).

11 April: A Special Projects Group (SPG) is formed at the MoD to support Operation CORPORATE (the codename for the British operation to recover the Falklands).

The SPG is headed by a Colonel S and is tasked by the Chiefs of Staff with the “collection, collation and development of ideas for deception, psychological operations and the development of plans from those ideas”. 

The SPG’s initial work includes devising proposals to spread a rumour in the insurance markets about British intentions to mine Argentine waters and to plant misleading information in the press about British anti-submarine torpedoes. 

21 April (or perhaps a day or two earlier): Argentina launches its English-language radio station Liberty, targeting members of the British Task Force and an audience in the UK. See the post Argentine Annie and Radio Atlantico del Sur – A Comparative Study. 

(The timing is interesting, but there is no evidence that RAdS was proposed as a response to Liberty.)

22 April: By this date the SPG still does not appear to be spending much time thinking about broadcasting. In a four-page memo written that day, summarising the SPG’s current activity, Colonel S only mentions possible radio operations in a single sentence: “Although broadcasting to the islands will be feasible once we have surface ships within 200 miles, to do so will advertise the exact position of the ships involved.” Colonel S’s memo makes no mention of the idea of transmitting from Ascension Island rather than from ships at sea.

Also on 22 April, Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri pays a brief visit to the islands.

26 April: The BBC increases its Calling the Falklands programme to daily broadcasts.

The same day, the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) launches a morale-boosting programme for UK forces in the South Atlantic. See the post BFBS Calling the United Kingdom Task Force”.

MOONSHINE is proposed, opposed and approved

28 April: The past week has seen the SPG devoting much more attention to radio plans. On this date it submits a case (known as SPG 020) to set up Radio Atlantico del Sur, under the codeword MOONSHINE, using a transmitter on Ascension.

SPG 020 provokes immediate opposition from the Foreign Office (FCO).

End of April and start of May: The war takes on a new tempo with Britain enforcing a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) around the islands (30 April), the RAF bombing of Stanley airport (1 May), the sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano (2 May) and the Exocet strike on HMS Sheffield (4 May). 

After the bombing of the airport, the occupying forces end the shortwave and mediumwave (AM) transmissions of Radio Nacional Islas Malvinas and restrict its dissemination to a cable service, meaning that Argentine forces on the islands must turn to stations outside the islands to hear over-the-air broadcasts. (See entry for 11 June.)

First week of May: Argentina begins jamming BBC broadcasts in Spanish to Latin America and the BBC’s daily Calling the Falklands programme. In response, the BBC adds additional shortwave frequencies to the transmission of the Spanish service’s evening broadcast and (on 7 May) starts a daily broadcast in the morning (0800-0830 Argentine time).

3 May: The MoD revises its 28 April proposal on Radio Atlantico del Sur in a bid to meet FCO objections. For the text of the revised proposal, known as SPG Paper No 6, see the post "The codeword for this operation is MOONSHINE".

Despite the revisions, the FCO maintains its opposition to the project. Wangling between the MoD and the FCO over the plans for RAdS continues during the first two weeks of May.

Nevertheless, the SPG begins planning RAdS’s programmes and starts recruiting personnel to operate the station, disguising the recruitment under a cover name, the Media Assessment Team (MAT). One of the civilian members of the MAT has described how he was recruited.

As a result, Radio Atlantico del Sur is ready to go on the air from around 10 May.

10 May: The prime minister’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, writes a letter – circulated around Whitehall and described by one MoD official as "emotive" and "ill-informed" – denouncing Project MOONSHINE.

With the arguments in Whitehall unresolved, it is clear that the dispute over MOONSHINE will only be ended by taking the matter to the War Cabinet for a final decision. The arguments are described in the post The War Cabinet is invited to agree”.

13 May: A proposal to launch MOONSHINE is submitted to the War Cabinet. The text of the proposal is contained in the post The Foreign Office's last stand. 

Morning of 18 May: The War Cabinet approves Project MOONSHINE.

MOONSHINE on the air 

Morning of 19 May: MoD issues press statement on the launch of Radio Atlantico del Sur, and announces that, using its powers under Article 19 of the BBC's Licence and Agreement, the government is requisitioning the use of one of the four shortwave transmitters at the BBC's Ascension Island relay station. 

Evening of 19 May: Radio Atlantico del Sur makes its first broadcast at 2000 Falklands time, starting with its two signature tunes.

The lead story in its news bulletins that evening is that efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Falklands conflict are on the verge of breaking down and that opinion in the UK is that an all-out British attack on the islands is imminent. 

The station also gives prominence to the SAS raid on Pebble Island on 15 May. 

Morning of 20 May: The coverage of the SAS raid in the previous night’s broadcast causes concern within the MoD. See the post Did the MoD broadcast military secrets to Argentina?

Evening of 20 May: Radio Atlantico del Sur’s military commentator, who uses the on-air name Jaime Montero, looks at the effectiveness of Britain’s Harrier aircraft, quoting from Latin American press sources.

21 May: Ground campaign begins with landing of British forces at San Carlos (Operation SUTTON).

26 May: In a bid to counteract Argentine jamming, the BBC increases from two to four the number of frequencies carrying its daily Calling the Falklands programme.

28 May: Radio Atlantico del Sur starts an additional daily broadcast, in the early morning.

28-29 May: Battle of Goose Green (see entry for 2 June).

1 June: 5th Infantry Brigade begins disembarking at San Carlos. The Brigade had made part of its journey to the Falklands on the QE2. 

That evening, Radio Atlantico del Sur broadcasts news of the use of the QE2 to transport reinforcements, in contravention of MoD policy. (The MoD imposed a blackout on reporting the movement of 5th Infantry Brigade until 6 June.)

2 June: The Noticias Argentinas news agency publishes the names of some of the Argentine troops captured at Goose Green, as broadcast by Radio Atlantico del Sur the previous evening.

5-7 June: Noticias Argentinas is ordered by the authorities to close for 72 hours. See the post General Galtieri’s mystery decree.

11 June: Radio Nacional Islas Malvinas returns to the air briefly to broadcast the Mass delivered by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Argentina.

The battle for Stanley begins.

That evening, and on following days, Radio Atlantico del Sur broadcasts features stressing the behaviour that Argentine forces must observe under the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of civilians. 

14 June: Radio Atlantico del Sur begins its evening broadcast by reporting that white flags are flying in Stanley.

Later that evening, General Mario Menendez surrenders all his forces in the islands. 

15 June: The two final broadcasts of Radio Atlantico del Sur.

Also on 15 June, Argentina ends its jamming of the BBC.

16 June: The requisitioned Ascension Island transmitter returns to full BBC use.

RAdS used offices on the first floor of Kings Buildings, Westminster
It broadcast from a BFBS studio in the basement
© Chris Greenway


The story of Radio Atlantico del Sur largely fell into obscurity after the war. (In the English-speaking world, that is. There’s a separate story to be told about what’s been said on the subject by Spanish speakers.)

The station closed the day after the surrender and the broadcasting team dispersed, its members sworn to secrecy to protect the identity of those colleagues with family connections with Argentina.

A few articles about Radio Atlantico del Sur appeared shortly after the war in specialist radio publications, based on press reporting during the conflict (much of which was critical of RAdS and none of which was detailed) along with observations from enthusiasts who had heard the broadcasts. But there was very little interest among a wider public. Two popular British books about the war, published shortly after the conflict, made no mention of the station. [4] 

Neil ffrench-Blake’s identity as RAdS’s civilian manager was “blown” in the late 1980s, though without attracting any attention beyond that of specialist radio historians and enthusiasts. ffrench-Blake himself kept a public silence about his role for more than three decades. All the other members of RAdS’s staff have retained their anonymity to this day.

In 2005, some of the policy discussions about RAdS within government during the war were described in The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (Volume 2) by Sir Lawrence Freedman. But Freedman does not appear to have spoken to any of the station’s staff, relying entirely on official documents to tell its story, and saying almost nothing about its output. The Official History does, however, appear to be the first occasion the station’s codename, MOONSHINE, was disclosed.

Only with the publication in 2015 of ffrench-Blake’s memoirs, and the subsequent release to the National Archives of various MoD and FCO files (possibly triggered by the appearance of the memoirs) could others make their own assessments of the story behind RAdS. [5]

The passage of more than 30 years following the war before authoritative documentation on RAdS’s activities became public allowed myths, misunderstandings and inaccuracies about the station to go unanswered. See the post Ten myths about Radio Atlantico del Sur. 


[1] BBC Monitoring reported in late April that 9690 kHz was being used to relay Radio Rivadavia, a privately-owned station in Buenos Aires, at 0000-1000 GMT, and to air state radio's external service RAE (Radiodifusion Argentina al Exterior) at other times of the day. By late May, BBC Monitoring reported that 9690 kHz was on the air more or less around the clock, with relays at various times of RAE and the domestic services Radio Nacional and Radio Noticias Argentinas.

[2] The proposed time of the morning transmission went through several changes during the planning stage. The MoD announced to the press on 19 May that the morning broadcast would be a 90-minute one at 0815 GMT. But when the morning programme was eventually launched on 28 May, its duration had been shortened to 60 minutes and the start time amended slightly to 0830 GMT.

[3] The full names of these officers, and of other members of the SPG, are given in declassified MoD files, but I have chosen not to name in this blog anyone intimately associated with RAdS unless their identity is already published or they have confirmed to me that they are happy to be named.

[4] The Falklands War: The Full Story (1982) by the Sunday Times and The Battle for the Falklands (1983) by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins.

[5] The memoirs (which appeared under the title The Pol Pot Conspiracy) are largely concerned with ffrench-Blake’s clandestine activities on behalf of the CIA in Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 90s, for which he found his work on Radio Atlantico del Sur a useful preparation.

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.

© 2017-2018. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.