Britain’s Secret Falklands Propaganda War

Saturday marks 40 years since the invasion – and the birth of an unlikely radio station.

By Harry Wallop, The Times
March 28 2022

Almost exactly 40 years ago – on April 2, 1982 – one of the most celebrated moments in radio history took place. The station was small and its listeners were mostly sheep farmers and fishermen. That morning, tuning in, they heard their station being invaded by a gang of Spanish speaking men.

An Argentine armoured vehicle in the Falkland Islands in 1982
RAFAEL WOLLMANN/GETTY IMAGES

The presenter, Patrick Watts, with admirable sangfroid, continued to broadcast: “Well, just a minute, if you take the gun out of my back, I’ll transmit the news. But I’m not speaking with a gun in my back.”

He then told his intruders to stop smoking in his studio. The station was Falklands Radio and the news was that Argentine forces had invaded and captured the island.

Thus started an extraordinary ten weeks when the Falklands conflict gripped the nation and dominated the airwaves. Although most of the action took place on the islands, another front was opened up in Whitehall and it involved a bizarre combination of Cliff Richard, Olivia Newton John and a soap opera.

Falklands Radio was taken over by the Argentinians and was used during the conflict to relay messages about curfews. However, one enterprising man in Britain believed that a new radio station – aimed not at the islanders, but at Argentine soldiers could help Britain’s effort to recapture its territory in the South Atlantic.

The station was called Atlantico del Sur and it was pure propaganda – aimed at persuading Argentinians that theirs was a lost cause and that they should surrender.

QSL card received from Radio Atlanitco del Sur.
Image: OnTheShortwaves.com

In an echo of the emotive and slick videos produced by Volodymyr Zelensky and members of his Ukrainian government, this radio station was targeted not at the Argentine junta, led by General Galtieri, but at the soldiers on the ground and their worried families back home.

Zelensky knows that he will never persuade Vladimir Putin that it was a catastrophic mistake to invade Ukraine, but if his videos can get through to the increasingly stretched and despondent Russian forces on the ground, it’s possible he can win the propaganda war.

Atlantico del Sur – “bringing truth to the front” was its slogan – was the creation of Neil ffrench-Blake, an Old Etonian whose colourful career involved working for the CIA and MI6 as well as launching the careers of Mike Read and Steve Wright. They went on to become household name DJs, but started their careers at Radio 210 in Reading, a local commercial station started by ffrench-Blake.

He considered himself a master of psychological warfare and was convinced that Argentine soldiers, with their lax discipline, would tune into a Spanish-language station if it gave them the content they craved: football scores, pop music and some gossip from back home. His view was that you just needed to intersperse the fun stuff with some news about how well equipped and dangerous the British forces were.

The incredible story of how ffrench-Blake persuaded Downing Street to allow him to set up this radio station and the subsequent attempts to win over enemy soldiers with Abba and Status Quo is told in an entertaining documentary made by Stewart Purvis.

Purvis covered the Falklands conflict, briefly in South America then at ITN headquarters (he went on to become its chief executive), where he witnessed the battles between British broadcasters and the Ministry of Defence’s censors, who tried to stop details of British casualties being aired.

Atlantico del Sur had no such qualms: it would report British victories and suppress any Argentine successes. This was all part of ffrench-Blake’s strategy, what he called “grey propaganda”. Black propaganda is outright lies – eg Lord Haw Haw broadcasting to Britain from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. White propaganda is Zelensky, being completely transparent about who he is and why he is broadcasting, trying to win over hearts and minds.

“Grey is when you don’t attribute yourself to anybody, but you appear to be on their side. That was what Radio Atlantico del Sur was about,” ffrench-Blake says in the documentary. “Truth is far more powerful propaganda than lies”, was his abiding mantra.

Ffrench-Blake died a few years ago, but Purvis managed to interview him in his final months. Chris Greenway, a radio historian, explains how he ran the station. “The message from Neil ffrench-Blake was very clear: no lies must be told. Everything was truthful, but it was a very selective truth.”

Many of the top brass in the UK were appalled at the idea, thinking it was not only bound to fail, but – frankly – unbecoming of Britain to stoop to such cheap tactics. One senior Foreign Office mandarin said it was “a ludicrous notion; I strongly hope it can be prevented”.

Bernard Ingham, who was Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, wrote a memo saying that the station “intended to play downmarket, dirty propaganda tricks with the objective of sapping the morale of Argentines. It will not work.”

However, Thatcher thought it was an excellent idea. At the key cabinet meeting when it was agreed to send a task force to the South Atlantic, the station was signed off with the official minutes saying that “it could have a valuable psychological effect on the garrison and could therefore save British lives”.

The station was up and running within days. It was based in an office in Westminster and broadcast from London, using a telephone line to reach a radio mast on the Ascension Islands, which then beamed the shortwave channel to the Falklands and Argentina.

A soldier reads of Britain’s success in winning the conflict
JACOB SUTTON/GAMMA-RAPHO/GETTY IMAGES

For it to succeed it did not need to persuade the Argentine listeners that the disc jockeys and weather presenters were compatriots, but it did need to have a comforting, homely air about it – and that required not just Spanish speakers, but South American Spanish speakers, who use a distinctively different pronunciation.

This is how Major Terence Scott of the 14/20th King’s Hussars ended up becoming one of Atlantico del Sur’s main presenters. If you thought a Sandhurst-educated tank commander was an unlikely South American disc jockey, you’d be right. However, Scott’s family had deep roots in Chile, with his great-great-great grandfather founding a trading company in Valparaiso. He was born there and did not visit England until he was seven.

Scott, now 76, is a retired army major, in immaculate tweed jacket and tie. He speaks to me from his home in the South West in clipped, polite tones. Yet in 1982 he and his cousin Tony, a major in the same regiment, were the closest that Her Majesty’s forces had to native South American speakers.

He’d just finished a tour of Germany and was on an intelligence course in Kent. “This chap came in and whispered something to the instructor. He then approached me, told me to pack my bags, ‘I’m taking you to London,’ he said.

“I asked him what it was about and he said: ‘I don’t know.’ We got to the ministry, went straight in, I got interviewed and part of it was in Spanish, so I worked out it was a language test. I clearly passed because afterwards they told me the idea.” How good was his Spanish back in 1982? “Not as good as I hoped,” he says, laughing.

Scott was won over by the notion of a propaganda radio station. “I thought it was an excellent idea. I had several friends going down there to do the business. Some of them died. I was only too delighted to do my bit in the war. As far as I was concerned, it was absolutely right that we should be doing something. Besides, I thought it sounded quite fun.” Scott’s on-air name was “Jaime Montero”.

The station was not dissimilar to Radio 2 in tone. Staff would go to HMV to source music that was popular in Argentina. That included the 1982 Argentina World Cup song, Julio Iglesias, Abba, More Than a Woman by Tavares and We Don’t Talk Anymore by Cliff Richard.

There was a jingle, breaking football news and even a soap opera featuring two old men: Pablo and Pancho.

Short recording of Radio Altantico del Sur on 9710 kHz, March 27, 1982, 2300 UTC.
Audio: OnTheShortwaves.com

Scott’s, or rather Jaime Montero’s, job was to discuss news stories with his cousin Tony on air in the way that Jeremy Vine might chat with a political correspondent today, although Scott has a particularly dim view of the BBC. “The BBC is basically anti-military,” he says.

The trick, he recalls, was finding stories that would dishearten the Argentine soldiers. One was about the landing of the Gurkhas and a discussion of the regiment’s heritage. “The use of their curved knives – kukris – are well known,” Jaime Montero told the listeners, hamming it up with dramatic pauses. “A long-held tradition of Gurkhas is that once drawn in anger the kukri must shed blood,” his report concluded.

“It was all about creating uncertainty in their minds,” he explains. “I thought it was great fun because one was being mischievous.”

It is uncertain if these broadcasts, or the playing of Cliff Richard, persuaded a single Argentinian to surrender or drag their feet during any attack. But intelligence reports after the war confirmed that Argentine forces listened to the radio and enjoyed the broadcasts.

Scott is fairly sure that he and his fellow amateur broadcasters made a difference. “I think we did. Not least in the rehabilitation of sensible propaganda in the British Army. Up until then, the powers that be were dead against it and talked about Lord Haw Haw.” Similar radio stations were run by the British during its campaign in Afghanistan from 2002.

The conflict was costly; 255 British troops were killed alongside 649 Argentinians. But 40 years on, Scott is adamant that the price was worth paying. “Of course it was expensive. But just think of the reputation of this country if we hadn’t. It would have given succour to our enemies around the world.” Like the emotive videos produced by Zelensky, it targeted soldiers.

© Times Newspapers Limited 2022

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