Sunday, 29 September 2019

An Oriental PsyOps Mystery — the story of Radio Spark

If you enjoy reading this article, you may also be interested in another on Soviet "active measures" against China — the story of Radio Ba Yi. 

The self-deception of an intelligence organisation by counterfeit material deliberately faked by its own staff or agents always makes for an intriguing story.

In fiction, such deceptions are the basis of Graham Greene's comic novel Our Man in Havana and John le Carré's The Tailor of Panama.

My story below is, however, not fictional.

Cover of British paperback edition of the book that broke the secret of CIA's psyops during China's Cultural Revolution. The CIA obtained a court order to redact more than a page worth of the six pages devoted to the subject, likely containing key operational details, before publication

The Cultural Revolution and the CIA

The story begins in May 1966 with the start of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Detecting signs of resistance to the revolution and its Red Guards, particularly in southern China, the CIA sought to encourage such opposition through the distribution of printed matter by balloons launched from Taiwan.

The balloons carried bogus leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers purporting to be from counterrevolutionary groups within China. In fact, they were written by CIA propagandists.

The story is taken up by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks in their 1974 book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence [1]: 
Almost immediately after it began, the balloon project was a success. The CIA's China watchers soon saw evidence of increased resistance to the Red Guards in the southern provinces... Within weeks, refugees and travellers from the mainland began arriving in Hong Kong with copies of the leaflets and pamphlets that the agency's propagandists had manufactured – a clear indication of the credence being given [to] the false literature by the Chinese masses.
 Encouraged by this success, the CIA looked for ways to expand its propaganda operation: 
A decision was therefore made to install on Taiwan a pair of clandestine radio transmitters which would broadcast propaganda – and disinformation – of the same nature as that disseminated by the balloon drops. If the Chinese people accepted the radio broadcasts as genuine, the CIA reasoned, then they might be convinced that the countermovement to the Cultural Revolution was gaining strength and perhaps think that the time had come to resist the Red Guards and their supporters still more openly. 
The left hand and the right hand

The CIA's radio stations in Taiwan duly began their bogus broadcasts. But a problem arose.

The part of the CIA (the Directorate of Plans) that was running the secret balloon drops and black radio transmissions to China did not inform the separate CIA division (the Directorate of Intelligence) that was, as its name suggests, collecting and analysing information about what was happening inside China. [2]

Among the Intelligence Directorate's subdivisions was one responsible for monitoring foreign radio stations: the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).

FBIS's daily reports on the content of public radio broadcasts from and to China were circulated within the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, and to others both inside and outside the US government.

Marchetti and Marks continue the story: 
Even though the FBIS editors are members of the CIA's Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the Clandestine Services are reluctant to reveal their propaganda operations to them. As a result, for its Far East daily report the FBIS frequently monitored and distributed the texts of programs actually originating from the agency's secret stations on Taiwan.
"Highly successful" CIA radio operation

In short, FBIS was unaware of the provenance of the CIA's broadcasts, and published transcripts of them in the belief that they had been aired by genuine dissident stations inside China. Marchetti and Marks noted: 
CIA operators seemed untroubled by this development and the accompanying fact that the agency's own China analysts back at headquarters in Washington (along with their colleagues in the State and Defence Departments) were being somewhat misled. Nor did they appear to mind that unwitting scholars and newsmen were publishing articles based to some extent on the phony information being reported by the FBIS [...]
Communist China was an enemy, and the writings of recognised journalists and professors publicising its state of near collapse and potential rebellion helped to discredit Peking in the eyes of the world  which was after all in keeping with the CIA's interpretation of American foreign policy at the time. 
The CIA's secret radios therefore proved to be highly successful. 
What were the stations in question?

The identity of the CIA's radio stations (though not their origin) was revealed as early as January 1967 by the respected Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

In a dispatch from Hong Kong it said that two pro-communist but anti-Mao clandestine stations, Spark (火花  Huohua) and Voice of the Liberation Army (解放之声  Jiefangjun zhi Sheng), had been heard since the middle of the previous month.

Such a start of broadcasts in December 1966 fits well with the narrative by Marchetti and Marks.

Asahi Shimbun noted speculation by China watchers that the two stations originated from mainland China. The ruse by their CIA operators – to pose as genuine underground radios broadcasting from within the People's Republic – had therefore been successful.

More than a year later the deception was continuing to be successful. In July 1968 the New York Times said in an article on the Voice of the Liberation Army's broadcasts: 
It is a mark of the turmoil in China that the broadcasts have commanded the attention of political analysts and led to speculation that a clandestine station may be operating there.
In these early years the two stations made several short broadcasts (just five to 10 minutes) each day on shortwave starting in the late afternoon, Chinese time, and then at intervals throughout the evening. The brevity of the programmes lent credibility to the idea that these were underground stations forced to keep their transmissions short to avoid detection by the Chinese authorities.

In late 1968 a third station thought to be part of the "Radio Spark group", calling itself Contingent of Proletarian Fighters (斗士  Wuchanzhe Zhandoushi), was heard. (Between May 1971 and April 1974, it would simply call itself Fighters.)

Handover to Taiwan?

After Richard Nixon made his ground-breaking visit to China in February 1972, all three stations became inactive, possibly as part of Washington's moves to improve relations with the Chinese.

Sheila O'Brien of the University of Michigan says in a chapter of Clandestine Broadcasting, published in 1987, that the CIA may have handed over its Chinese black broadcasting operations to Taiwan's own intelligence services at some time between 1972 and 1978. [3]

According to a prominent US writer on shortwave broadcasting, Lawrence (Larry) E. Magne, the Fighters and Liberation Army stations disappeared in June 1972, reappeared briefly later that year and then began new phase of broadcasting, in conjunction with Sparks, in April 1974. (This information is from a global survey by Magne, "Clandestine Broadcasting 1975", in the 1976 edition of the annual World Radio TV Handbook.)

An alternative theory

The interruption in 1972 and the 1974 relaunch reported by Magne could be the period identified by O'Brien as when the stations of the "Radio Spark group" were transferred from CIA to Taiwanese control after Nixon's visit.

However, Magne says they were under Soviet control, and had been so ever since the original launch in 1966.

Magne's labelling of the stations as originating in the USSR is at odds with several pieces of evidence that point to the CIA/Taiwanese connection, although this was not the first time that he had made such a claim of Soviet backing.

In the 1973 edition of How to Listen to the World, Magne said Radio Spark was operated by the KGB and staffed by Chinese exiles associated with the so-called "28 Bolsheviks" faction (a group of Chinese who had studied in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s), although he gave no source for that information.

Questions of provenance

Magne's assertion was repeated in Julian Hale's 1975 book Radio Power, which became a standard work on international broadcasting and radio propaganda. Hale also said in relation to Sparks:
A similar operation, sharing transmission facilities with Sparks, calls itself Radio of the Chinese People's Communist Party, thus rubbing in their refusal to identify Mao Tse-tung's clique and his less-than-authentic party with the true followers of Marxism-Leninism.
Evidence of the provenance of Radio of the Chinese People's Communist Party (中国共 广播台  Zhongguo Gongchangdang Guangbo Diantai), which was heard between 1968 and 1971, is scant. It made transmissions of just 10 minutes in length, like the outlets of the Spark group, and like them favoured transmission times in the late afternoon and evening. It also used similar slogans to those of Voice of the Liberation Army (one of the Spark group), and like that station used two separate frequencies to carry the same programme, though not synchronously.

However, a detailed report on clandestine broadcasting to China by the Japan-based Asian Broadcasting Institute (ABI) noted evidence that the Communist Party station was not in the Radio Spark group but was part of a separate, but also Taiwan-sponsored, group of outlets.

Known Soviet clandestine broadcasts to China 

While I disagree with the claims by Magne and Hale that the Radio Spark group of stations came from the USSR, there were undoubtedly other clandestine radios targeting China that were Soviet in origin notably one calling itself Radio Ba Yi (八一   Ba Yi Diantai).

Bay Yi literally means Eight One and is a reference to 1 August, China's Army Day. 

Radio Ba Yi was launched during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War (in which the USSR backed Vietnam) and was last heard in late 1986 when Moscow-Beijing relations were improving.

Another Soviet-operated station, Red Flag (  Hongqi), was first heard in 1971 and then rather intermittently. Like Radio Eight One, it disappeared in late 1986. There was ample evidence that both transmitted from the USSR. Red Flag was notable for broadcasting on the mediumwave (AM) band rather than shortwave.

Although I disagree with Magne about the origin of the Radio Spark group, the description in his 1976 article of the modus operandi of the Radio Spark group is valid, whatever their provenance:
A variety of techniques besides aired statements is used to create the impression that there are rebel army units "on the run" within China itself. The transmissions are brief and often erratic, with station names and schedules changing often enough to create a guerrilla flavour.
Similarly, whatever my doubts about Julian Hale's attribution of Spark and the Communist Party station to a Soviet origin, his book Radio Power is an excellent study of the world of international shortwave radio in its heyday. 

More outlets

In 1978, a fourth station of the Radio Spark group was heard, calling itself October Storm (十月暴  Shiyue Fengbao).

Radio Spark targeted a youth audience, while Contingent of Proletarian Fighters and Voice of the Liberation Army were aimed at workers and members of the armed forces respectively.

Reporting the operations of the Radio Spark group, the New York Times said in May 1984 that "some references to Nationalist ideology led to speculation that they come from Taiwan".

Another station that may have been associated with the Radio Spark group was a fake version of China's main state radio network, the Central People's Broadcasting Station. [4]

This phony CPBS was certainly in operation by May 1974 and a similar station had been heard in February 1972. It operated on frequencies close to that of the genuine station, and played recordings of the latter, interspersed with bogus commentaries.

All five of the above stations continued into the 1980s. BBC Monitoring reported in January 1984 that only one of the four members of the Radio Spark group was heard on any given day. The first 10-minute transmission of the day was heard at 1700 Chinese local time and was then repeated up to seven further times over the course of the next two and a half hours.

The fifth station, the impostor version of the Central People's Broadcasting Station was reported by BBC Monitoring to have been heard again in May 1987 after a break since 1985, airing two daily transmissions of around 30 minutes each at 1900 and 2100 Chinese times.

From land or sea?

Were the clandestine broadcasts from a ship in the Taiwan Strait?
Map © CNN

In 1984-1985, various Western publications reported that Radio Spark and its sister stations were broadcasting from a ship in waters off China. The Los Angeles Times said in May 1984 that Western monitors believed the ship was in the South China Sea. 

The same suggestion was reported by Jane's Defence Weekly in July and October 1985, while Asiaweek said in April 1985 that the transmitting ship was in the East China Sea (Taiwan lies between the East China Sea and the South China Sea).

As early as 1970, David W. Conde had said in his book CIA: Core of the Cancer that in the summer of 1966 a fleet of pirate ships had been deployed by the CIA off the Chinese coast in a black propaganda campaign intended to cause China to collapse from within. (Though note that Marchetti and Marks said that the CIA's transmitters were installed "on Taiwan", rather than on a ship.)

Further support for the idea of the broadcasts coming from a ship came from an observation in 1982 by a member of the Asian Broadcasting Institute who noted that whenever a typhoon appeared in the Taiwan Strait, broadcasts of the stations of the Radio Spark group appeared to be suspended.

The ABI member also used direction-finding equipment of Japan's public service broadcaster NHK to track the Radio Spark group, with results that were consistent with the signals coming from waters off Taiwan.

The ABI's observation does not, however, necessarily mean that the Radio Spark group was using a shipborne transmitter. Land-based transmitters in Taiwan might also have had to shut down during typhoons, for example to lower their transmitting aerials.

End of the broadcasts

Contingent of Proletarian Fighters was last heard in 1984, Radio Spark in 1985, while the Voice of the Liberation Army, October Storm Broadcasting Station and the phony Central People's Broadcasting Station went silent in 1989.

Notes and sources

[1] Victor Marchetti was a member of the CIA between 1955 and 1969. For the last three years of his service (i.e. covering the early period of the Cultural Revolution in China) he worked in the office of the CIA director. John D. Marks joined the US State Department in 1966, resigning in 1970 after the US invasion of Cambodia.

[2] After 1973, the Directorate of Plans was known as the Directorate of Operations. Marchetti and Marks say that within the CIA the directorate was generally referred to as the "Clandestine Services".

[3] O'Brien's comments are quoted in the report by the Asian Broadcasting Institute (ABI) mentioned elsewhere. I have drawn extensively on the ABI's report in writing this article.

[4] Although its Chinese name (中央人民广播  Zhongyang Renmin Guangbo Diantai) is unchanged, Beijing now refers to the Central People's Broadcasting Station in English as China National Radio.

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

Monday, 2 September 2019

80 years of BBC Monitoring — how it started

BBC Monitoring – originally the BBC Monitoring Service – celebrated its 80th anniversary last month. The article below describes the events that led to the service’s birth on 26 August 1939.

The Golden Gates at the entrance to Wood Norton on the cover of Assigned to Listen

1920s: The Keston and Tatsfield receiving stations

The earliest documented reception of a foreign broadcast for use in BBC programmes was in December 1923 when KDKA radio in Pittsburgh was picked up by a BBC engineer at Biggin Hill aerodrome, south of London, and relayed to the BBC's own listeners. 

From 1925, the BBC operated signals-receiving stations, first at Keston in Kent (now in the London Borough of Bromley) and then, from 1929, at Tatsfield on the North Downs in Surrey to the south of London. 

The Keston and Tatsfield stations measured the technical characteristics of BBC and foreign transmitters, and picked up foreign broadcasts, such as concerts, to be relayed in BBC programmes. 

They were not, however, tasked in those early days with monitoring foreign radio stations to gather news or report on their political output.

1930s: Early monitoring efforts by the Foreign Office

The first official British efforts at monitoring foreign broadcasts for news or intelligence purposes were done not by the BBC but the Foreign Office, following Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. Apparently, only English broadcasts were listened to at that stage.

According to the BBC’s official historian, Asa Briggs:
The Foreign Office gave little sustained support to this venture, which went through a further phase of development at the time of the abdication crisis [in 1936], when Whitehall was especially interested in knowing what American stations were saying about the King and Mrs Simpson.
After these limited efforts, in the late summer of 1937 the Foreign Office turned to a target in which Briggs says they were "genuinely interested", namely broadcasts in Arabic from Italy. The FO recruited an Arabist, Sigmar Hillelson, from the Sudan Civil Service for this work. 

Hillelson was later taken on by the BBC to do Arabic monitoring, before becoming head of the BBC’s broadcasts to the Near East. 

The BBC takes an interest

That same summer the Foreign Office began its monitoring efforts in Arabic, two BBC officials (Lionel Fielden and Felix Greene) wrote critical reports on the Corporation's overseas activities, calling for them to be improved in both quantity and quality. 

In his July 1937 report, Greene [1] urged the creation of a monitoring service: 
To know immediately and precisely what is being said by Rome and Germany to our empire and colonial listeners will become of immediate importance. 
The BBC starts some monitoring in 1938

In January 1938, the BBC began broadcasting in Arabic, its first service in a foreign language. (The Empire Service had started in 1932 but it was only in English.) 

Staff of the new service took over from the Foreign Office the monitoring of Arabic broadcasts from other stations. 

Similarly, when the BBC's Latin America service (in both Spanish and Portuguese) began in March 1938 its staff also monitored relevant foreign broadcasts. 

In the case of both the Arabic and Latin America services, BBC staff in those teams had to do this monitoring work when time could be spared from their broadcasting duties. 

By June 1938, the BBC was also monitoring English broadcasts from Paris, Berlin, Rome, Prague, New York, Pittsburgh and Tokyo. Signals were picked up at the Tatsfield Receiving Station and fed to an office on the third floor of Broadcasting House in London to be listened to by shorthand typists. 

Monitoring work also took place at Tatsfield itself by staff from the BBC's Overseas Intelligence Department (which had been formed in December 1937). 

After the BBC began a German service, one of its editors, Leonard Miall, did his own monitoring at Broadcasting House of Germany’s shortwave station at Zeesen. 

A monitoring pioneer

Meanwhile, David Bowman, a member of the BBC Latin America service with experience of monitoring, advised the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) on their own monitoring project, which involved listening to and analysing German and Italian domestic radio. 

Bowman, who was both a talented linguist (Spanish, Portuguese and French) and a shortwave radio enthusiast, would remain a member of BBC Monitoring for over 40 years, including tours of duty at its listening posts in central and east Africa. One of his last assignments was using his Spanish language skills to cover the 1982 Falklands War.

Clouds of war

In early 1939, with the international situation deteriorating, the BBC began considering how its limited monitoring efforts could be expanded. 

One idea was for the establishment of a number of "monitoring centres", along the lines of the station at Tatsfield, in various locations.

Another suggestion was that equipment be installed in the homes of BBC staff so that they could listen there.

A more ambitious proposal crystallised in April 1939, the month that Italy invaded Albania. The previous month, Germany had invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. 

Rather than piecemeal operations, the BBC proposed that monitoring work be consolidated into a single dedicated unit with its own staff.

The government (in the form of the embryonic Ministry of Information) agreed in principle with the BBC's proposal. But the ministry queried the size and scope of the suggested Monitoring Service, its cost and who should pay for it – the BBC or the government. 

Matters were not helped by the fact that the Ministry of Information (MoI) was itself still only in a planning stage. It would not be launched formally until September 1939.

The Man from the Ministry

The MoI's discussions with the BBC were led by the embryonic ministry's Deputy Director-General, A.P. Waterfield, who is remembered by history, if at all, as the civil servant behind the Keep Calm and Carry On poster (which was never displayed during the war). Unfortunately, as Asa Briggs described, Waterfield knew nothing about broadcasting, and was ignorant as to what the BBC would need to do in wartime. 

For example, Waterfield queried whether it was really necessary, as the BBC insisted, that monitoring operations take place around the clock. 

As one BBC official put it:
We ourselves are planning [in case of war] what is virtually a 24 hour programme for both Home and Overseas. Should we not presume that other countries will take similar action?
The BBC buys Wood Norton

While these difficult negotiations with the government continued, the BBC had already found a home for the new Monitoring Service. 

In late 1938 and early 1939, the Director of BBC Office Accommodation, Ralph Wade, toured districts to the north and west of London in search of suitable properties. 

He was looking for "somewhere in the country" that could accommodate not just Monitoring, but the many other BBC departments that would be evacuated from London in the event of war. 

Wade and two colleagues, later rumoured to have posed as a trio of Midlands industrialists, eventually decided upon Wood Norton Hall, near Evesham in Worcestershire, which had once been the home of the Duke of Orléans, pretender to the French throne. 

Evesham is about 100 miles west-northwest of London.

The estate agent described the property as follows:
Wood Norton, Worcestershire. Evesham 2 miles. A magnificently appointed mansion, reconstructed by the Duc d’Orléans about 40 years ago at cost of £40,000. 40 acres. 9 reception rooms. 30 bedrooms. 7 bathrooms. Swimming pool. The construction is of red brick with stone dressings in the French style, and contains vast quantities of oak panelling, parquet flooring and other fittings. There are two drives – the principal one entered through a pair of magnificent wrought iron gates from the Palace of Versailles. 
The estate agent was wrong about the gates. They came in fact from York House, Twickenham, where Louis Philippe Robert d’Orléans had been born in 1869.

The BBC signed a contract in March 1939 to buy Wood Norton for £10,000 and took possession shortly afterwards, with an Engineer-in Charge (W. Bruce Purslow) taking up his duties there on 10 April to begin equipping the new site for both broadcasting and monitoring operations. 

For monitoring, the BBC initially spent £810 on a wooden hut, six receivers and some simple aerials. The Ministry of Information declined to assist with the cost. 

Several wooden huts were eventually built in the grounds of Wood Norton
Preparations accelerate

After weeks of discussions in the spring and early summer of 1939, the Ministry of Information (which was still operating in "shadow" mode) eventually made a formal request that the BBC make arrangements to run a dedicated Monitoring Service in case of war. 

But there was still disagreement over funding. The MoI agreed to pay for the new service, but rejected the proposed budget. The BBC had estimated that it would cost £100,000 to run the service in its first year. 

The MoI initially provided just £24,0000, plus £4,000 for capital expenditure. Talks over money continued for months after the start of the war, with the MoI making piecemeal additional grants from time to time. By February 1940 these had totalled £90,000, not far short of the BBC's original estimate. 

Meanwhile, the government was pressing the BBC to provide more information from foreign broadcasts. To bridge the gap before Wood Norton became operational, Malcolm Frost, the head of the BBC's Overseas Intelligence Department (OID), arranged for receivers to be installed at the home of a member of OID's Spanish section, R.J. Baker, at Flackwell Heath, between High Wycombe and Beaconsfield. 

Other OID staff joined Baker at his home to do this improvised work. 

Recruitment of staff

With at least some funding guaranteed for the new Monitoring Service, in July and August 1939 the BBC began recruiting linguistic staff ("monitors", as they were becoming known). 

The new recruits were told that they would be based in "the West of England", but that their work would only start if war broke out or a national emergency was declared. 

The initial batch of 32 monitors were qualified between them in Afrikaans, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. These were the seven foreign languages in which the BBC was broadcasting by then.

The Monitoring Service would also listen to English-language broadcasts, and many additional languages were added after it was launched. 

The last week of peace

Just as the recruitment of the first monitors was completed, there came the shattering news on 22 August that German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop would visit Moscow the next day. It seemed that the BBC's preparations were only just in time. 

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in the Kremlin during the night of 23-24 August. War was now certain, and the BBC moved to implement its plans. 

Events moved rapidly. On 24 August, the British parliament passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. The same day, Ralph Wade – the BBC manager who earlier in the year had found Wood Norton for the Corporation – drove there with his secretary, a typist and £100 in cash for emergencies (the equivalent of around £6,000 today). 

One of the tasks of Wade and other BBC administrators who arrived from London was to arrange the billeting in private homes of the many BBC staff (both broadcasting and monitoring) who were about to descend on Evesham. 

Evesham was a largely agricultural community at the heart of one of England's main fruit-growing districts. When Wade arrived, the main concern of the town’s residents was preparing for its annual Gala in aid of the local hospital. 

Back in London, on 25 August the BBC sent telegrams and made phone calls to the newly recruited monitors telling them to report to Broadcasting House the following day to be taken to Evesham, or to make their own way to Worcestershire. 

One of those who received such a call was Anatol Goldberg. Russian-born Goldberg had passed the monitoring recruitment test in Spanish, by no means his strongest language. He thought the offer of an annual salary of £300, plus free accommodation and two meals a day, "absolutely magnificent". 

After the war, Goldberg would become the BBC's chief commentator on Eastern Europe and a household name in the USSR through his broadcasts on the BBC Russian service. 

Amid the preparations to start work at Wood Norton, the limited monitoring operations in London, Tatsfield and Flackwell Heath continued.

26 August 1939

On the morning of Saturday 26 August, a bus carrying staff of the newly formed BBC Monitoring Service set out from London for Evesham.

Those on the bus included Dr Gustaaf Renier, recruited from the Royal Institute of International Affairs and author of the book The English, Are They Human? 

They arrived to find Evesham under drizzle and en fête, enjoying its annual Gala. It was not the best day to sort everyone out with a billet in a local home. Locals received one guinea a week for hosting a billetee, who became known as "guinea pigs". 

The billeting fee was soon raised to two guineas a week (£2.10, equivalent to around £120 pounds today). Problems with billeting feature prominently in the reminiscences of wartime monitors. 

Transition to Wood Norton

Ironically, although 26 August 1939 is the official birthday of the BBC Monitoring Service, it's unlikely that any serious monitoring work took place at Wood Norton that day. 

However, the monitoring operations in London, Tatsfield and Flackwell Heath continued while Wood Norton became established. 

All the monitoring at that time was of public radio broadcasts on shortwave, mediumwave and longwave. The monitoring of news agencies by Morse, radioteletype and Hellschreiber came later. 

The first "Digest of Foreign Broadcasts" a nine-page document circulated to BBC and government departments, was dated 27-28 August 1939. 

In the early months of Monitoring's life, during the so-called Phoney War, Pathé newsreel cameras visited Wood Norton – described only as being "somewhere in England" – and made a lovely two-minute featureThe press was not invited back to Monitoring until after VE Day. 

One of the huts of Monitoring's "M Unit" at Wood Norton in February 1941
The separate "Y Unit" focused on specific intelligence targets
Sources and further reading

There’s no single comprehensive description of how the BBC Monitoring Service came to be formed (or, indeed, of its subsequent history), though as Brian Rotheray noted in a booklet to mark the service’s 70th anniversary, "more has been written about the Evesham period than any other". 

I’ve drawn on all of the sources listed below for my account. Even taken together, they still leave some gaps. For example, only the briefest descriptions of the Foreign Office’s monitoring work in 1935-37, and of the listening that took place at Flackwell Heath, have been published.

Similarly, the full details of the negotiations in the spring and early summer of 1939 between the BBC and the government remain unpublished.

Fortunately, between them the following sources combine top-down history based on official papers with the bottom-up view given in the recollections of those who were present.

Assigned to Listen by Olive Renier and Vladimir Rubinstein (1986). This book tells the story of Monitoring at Evesham between 1939 and 1943, when the service moved to Caversham Park. It is based on the recollections of Monitoring staff of the time and was inspired by a staff reunion in September 1979 to mark the 40th anniversary. Along with many interesting chapters – including an essay by Dr Lux Furtmüller on "Changing techniques of German home propaganda" and a vivid explanation by Rubinstein of the difficulties of monitoring Soviet broadcasts in the first months after the German invasion of June 1941  it includes a description of events leading up to August 1939, although these are personal accounts from individuals rather than a well-structured overview.

Such an overview is provided in BBC Monitoring Service, August 1939 – August 1979 by Ramon Silva. This 35-page unpublished history was written at the time of the 40th anniversary for the benefit of current and former staff. Silva had been a member of the service between 1939 and 1972, including as head of the Reception Department.

A third fruit of the 40th anniversary was Listening to War, an excellent hour-long Radio 4 documentary written by Norman Longmate, produced by Barbara Crowther, recorded in 1980 and broadcast in January 1981. It includes interviews with several of Monitoring’s pioneers, including David Bowman, Malcolm Frost, Richard D’Arcy Marriott, Anatol Goldberg, Vladimir (Vova) Rubinstein, Lorna Swire, Ray Barker, Ivan Bilibin, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Lord Weidenfeld, Molly Warren-Evans, Stephen Szego, Martin Sullivan, Karl Lehmann and Susan Temple.

Preparations for the launch of the Monitoring Service are described in the two relevant volumes of the official BBC history by Asa Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless (covering 1927-39) and The War of Words (looking at 1939-45), published in 1965 and 1970 respectively. Although the space given to Monitoring is necessarily limited in books that had to cover the complex story of the Corporation as a whole, Briggs’s histories are largely based on official documents (which are cited meticulously) and so complement the recollections of former staff.

Gerard Mansell’s 1982 history of the first 50 years of the BBC external broadcasting, Let Truth Be Told, also covers Monitoring. Although it adds only a little unique material on Monitoring's early days, I mention it here as it is an excellent history of the external services, with a particular emphasis on the 1930s and 40s.

Edward Pawley’s mammoth and comprehensive book BBC Engineering 1922-1972 is my constant companion when researching anything about the BBC’s first 50 years. It deals with much more than pure engineering (for example, it is a good record of the many buildings owned and used by the BBC across the country) and is crammed full of precise facts, figures and dates.


[1] Felix Greene was a cousin of Hugh Carleton Greene, who would run the BBC German service during the war and serve as BBC Director-General in the 1960s, and the novelist Graham Greene.

Author's note: Given the psyops theme of this blog, it can be noted that BBC Monitoring’s work has included coverage of such activity by foreign states and others, such as insurgent and militia groups. In addition, the service’s output has been used by those responsible for the UK’s own psyops efforts. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) in the Second World War, the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD) during the Cold War, and the operators of Radio Atlantico del Sur in 1982 all used BBC Monitoring material. 

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.