Author’s note: the accounts mentioned in this article are taken from Falkland Islanders at War by Graham Bound (2006), published by Pen & Sword Military.
Imagine you live in a remote, small community that is invaded one day by a vastly superior military power to the local token military/militia forces. How would you communicate with your neighbors or your own military? How would you gather and send intelligence? What tricks could you play with ham radio? In 1982, for the residents of a remote British colony, this was no thought exercise.
Far south in the Atlantic, off the eastern tip of South America, sits the rocky, windswept Falkland Islands. Half the world away from Great Britain, this little outpost of Albion was the subject of a brief, nasty war in 1982 when Argentina invaded what they call (and claim) “Islas Malvinas.” Make no mistake; as trivial was this footnote in history may have seemed on the news, it was a real war with ferocious fighting, heroism, and daring risks taken by the islanders.
The Falklands had been little more than an outpost for the wool trade and a stopover for ships since Britan colonized the islands in the 1830s, following a brief attempt at settlement from Argentina that was abandoned. Despite the islands having little to no strategic value, these treeless islands that resembled Scotland were in a natural position for neighboring Argentina to claim them.
In the decades leading up to the war, the UK and Argentina had tried various means of rapprochement over the islands. In an era of decolonization it really did seem like Whitehall wanted to give the territory over to Argentina. One could almost call the islands neglected by their motherland where, at the time, the almost entirely British-heritage population was denied full British citizenship. Despite all this, the islanders felt themselves to be British, even those whose families left the UK generations ago.
No islander wanted to be handed over to Argentina like a dirty memory of the colonial past only to be under the heel of a military dictatorship. The green-eyed suitor was decidedly a worse choice than the inattentive UK. Argentina was currently governed by a military coup known as the Junta in the years following its Dirty War against what we would call progressivism. It is argued with much merit that the war was launched as a distraction against public dissatisfaction with the Junta’s repression and economic policies.
While readers may sympathize with the Junta’s heavy hand against socialist forces at home (throwing communists out of helicopters), the totalitarian tactics bled into the occupation force’s behavior towards the civilians islanders. Thankfully, aside from some selected abuses, the invaders remained fairly well restrained towards the “kelpers” who endured the two-and-half month war. However, the suspicion, and treatment, of civilians was harsh but thankfully not deadly.
Death for the islanders who resisted would have been an easy stretch for Argentina. However, reprisals of this type were nil. Knowing that the small detachment of Royal Marines, about 40 (as a troop exchange was happening at that time), and small Defense Force would be overwhelmingly outnumbered, Governor Rex Hunt ordered that there be no guerilla warfare. The help the islanders did provide through intelligence gathering, minor sabotage, and scouting was invaluable to the British task force.
This article looks at the use of radios by civilians. The accounts highlight the risk of radio operation in a non-permissive environment. There were many intrepid islanders who, at great risk to themselves, passed intelligence back to Britain and even interfered with Argentine communications. Radio is a powerful tool of resistance and some plucky kelpers used it to good effect.
Radio communication was, and still is, a way of life in the Falklands. The islands consist of one major settlement (Stanley), numerous hamlets, and isolated sheep farms across approximately 4,000 square miles of the two main land masses. Especially in the 1980s, communication was largely by radio as the telephone exchange only worked in the city. 2-meter radio formed the backbone of the “bush telegraph” communication system as their form of citizen’s band radio. Many islanders also had high-frequency (HF) radio sets to communicate over longer distances, with ships, and to the outside world.
Families owned multiple VHF radios. Sets were in every vehicle. Longer-ranged sets provided communication across the craggy islands and even across the world. Total confiscation, even with registration, would never be possible due to their prevalence, proliferation, necessity, and the huge distance required to reach remote settlements. The Argentine occupation government realized this and allowed rural radios mainly for the purpose of radio consultation with doctors during their regular “radio surgery.”
The islands’ radio operators were apparently all licensed. In such a small place, although enforcement probably was not much of a concern, unlicensed transmission would be obvious among such a tiny population. Records of operators’ licenses were kept at the Post Office which meant that once the islands fell to the Argentines, intelligence officers seized these records. Immediately the security officials knew not only who was licensed but the particulars of their equipment.
At once, we see the problem of government registration and licensing; it is a roadmap for confiscation and harassment. Americans tend to think in terms of firearms but the same problems we fear over guns the islanders faced with radios. Sad Hams delight in government approval and tracking, but its easy to see how gatekeeping can be a liability during exigencies.
Once the order to turn in radio sets was broadcast via the local commercial radio station, it would be easy for military police to raid the homes of those who failed to comply with the order. House-to-house searches to check compliance and even searches for clandestine transmitters was commonplace throughout the war. The level of fear of illicit transmissions the Argentines had belied the actual level of spying that went on, at least up until the final counter-assault.
While Sad Hams are proud that they are registered with the government, such behavior can be a double-edged sword. Americans may not face the same prospects of invasion as the islanders did, but one can imagine how a registry could be used inappropriately. One benefit to the American scheme in combination with the advance of modern technology is that individual equipment is not registered and it is quite affordable to have separate radio sets, particular dual-band VHF/UHF sets like the Baofeng. Unaccounted for sets are a buffer against confiscation, which one fortunate islander used to his advantage.
Lighthouse keeper Reginald Silvey, shortly after the invasion began, made a contact on the 15m band and passed a simple message to his relatives through an English ham 7,800 miles away. What began as a desperate dispatch to family, turned into the passing of actual intelligence to British defense authorities, requiring a cat-and-mouse game to outfox the Argentinian communications specialists.
Ostensibly, Silvey complied with the military orders and surrendered his transceiver. Silvey turned in his registered radio and made “a fuss” when handing it in. He intended to make it memorable so to remove any suspicion that he had a transceiver. Additionally, he tore down his large antenna. During the dismantling process, a helicopter flew by and he and his friend were sure to wave to make sure the work was noticed.
To get around the problem of radio confiscation, he turned to his friend George. George captained a small ship and his HF radio had not been taken out of his ship. He retrieved it in secret, using a subterfuge to access the restricted waterfront, and smuggled it into a hiding place for Silvey to receive. Should the Argentinians notice the radio was missing from its place on the ship’s bridge, George would claim that while the ship was unattended, soldiers stole it—an entirely plausible answer.
Two problems now confronted Silvey; a power supply and an antenna. For the former, he turned other friends who drove hospital Land Rovers. A 12-volt battery was delivered that would provide power for the rest of the war. For an antenna, the steel clothesline made do, although it was not ideally matched to the frequency. Argentine troops still raided homes on a daily basis which meant Silvey was at risk. A pass issued by the commanding general, Mendez, served to notify troops that the house had been cleared and that they should not enter, although this was not an ironclad guarantee.
Silvey, now back on the air, made contact with a Briton who passed intelligence on to the Ministry of Defense. From his window, the lighthouse keeper could see the airport and wanted the authorities to know that the area, packed with troops and supplies, could be attacked without harming civilians. Following messages contained counts of weapon emplacements and their locations. One important bit of info passed on was the presence of a surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher near the airport.
The authoritarian military occupation forces were quite serious about stopping illicit radio transmissions although their reach exceeded their grasp. Direction-finding vans combed the only city and capitol of Stanley as well as the rural portions of the island, known as the “camp.” Aiding his evasion of the foxhunters, Silvey used terrain against the Argentinians. Despite some islanders who were very remote from the bulk of the troops in town, Silvey sat on Cape Pembroke only five miles away.
However, terrain, propagation physics, and human nature were somewhat in his favor. First of all, the Argentinians were focused mainly on short-range VHF (2m) transmissions as this was the most common form of radio used in the islands. A major concern was local communicating with missing Royal Marines or SAS/SBS commandoes landed on the island to conduct reconnaissance. Hence the focus was less on high-frequency (HF) radio.
Direction finding (triangulation) of radio signals is affected by terrain, which can block both the propagation of transmitted signals and inhibit reception. Stanley is sited on the slope of a hill above a bay, which would place it below Silvey’s radio horizon (and that of much of the island). Putting terrain features between the transmitter and an interceptor can be an effective tactic, depending on the antenna, the band’s propagation characteristics, and other factors.
HF signals, being subject to ionospheric variations and skywave propagation, may exhibit non-linear paths and inconsistent signal strengths over different paths. This can introduce errors and uncertainties in triangulation calculations, making it more challenging to precisely determine the source location. On the other hand, VHF signals' line-of-sight propagation provides more predictable and direct paths, allowing for more accurate signal source triangulation.
Signal source triangulation requires the use of multiple receivers to measure the signal arrival times and calculate the intersection point of the signal paths. While the propagation characteristics play a significant role, other factors like receiver accuracy, timing synchronization, and environmental conditions also influence the overall accuracy of the triangulation process. Hence at least two mobile vans would be required to narrow down the suspected transmission location for house-to-house searches.
Silvey transmitted using a mixture of voice and morse code. His signals were often sent “in the blind”, that is transmitting without first establishing that someone is actually receiving. GCHQ, the UK’s version of the NSA, with their incredible global radio signal detection capabilities, likely detected these signals once they were aware Silvey was passing transmissions.
He also kept his transmissions short (around 15 seconds), which aided being able to evade detection. Longer transmissions give the direction-finders more time to detect and triangulate the signal (lowering the signal strength and using directional antennas, in line-of-sight bands, also decrease the probability of interception). Other islanders reported good results by decreasing their transmitting power to limit the propagation of their signals, thus preventing the distant interception sites/vans from receiving them.
Understandably, the Argentines were paranoid about British commandoes spying. Signals were detected, or believed to have been detected, in town by the Argentine foxhunters. However, no actual source was ever found. The area of interest for the electronics crew was some distance from where Silvey was transmitting from. While it is possible that others were transmitting, this information has not been revealed.
Several islanders did mention mysterious British men who seemed out of place moving about the town in the later phases of the occupation. As the Paras and the Royal Marines advanced, these mysterious men even made contact with particular islanders apparently making sure that they had not been arrested or killed. Many are certain these were British intelligence officers or commandoes. If MI6 or the armed forces infiltrated spies into Stanley prior to the British counter-invasion, it is still classified.
Another tactic Silvey employed was the use of another islander’s call sign, that of Bob McLeod, who lived across East Falkland in the small community of Goose Green. Silvey would drop Bob’s name, well known among hams who sought to make contact with the coveted, remote VP8 callsign. This bit of deliberate misinformation would lead any potential interceptors to assume McLeod was transmitting, which would be impossible since his radio had already been confiscated and himself interned. To this day, this “disinfo” had led people to believe in the legend of “Radio Bob.”
In a separate incident, after the residents of Goose Green had been interned, Argentinian troops occupying McLeod’s home came across a photo of him in uniform. McLeod was a member of the Falkland Islands Defense Force, the island militia. Already suspect for being a licensed ham, the occupiers accused him of being a spy. Much pleading had to be done on Bob’s behalf to convince the troops that his radio had already been impounded and he had been confined with everyone else. This the troops should have known, but the Argentinians did not send their best, and many such incidents involving the hair-trigger and largely conscript soldiers occurred.
Even if the information provided was not helpful, the continued transmissions forced the Argentines to monitor and hunt civilian radios. This dissipated their efforts which might otherwise have been focused on searching for special forces radioing back to the task force. Even the house-to-house searches that followed ensured that the population remained hostile to the occupiers.
A Chilean immigrant, Mario Zuvic, who hated Argentina devised a concealed aerial in a treetop that he and his friends used to listen to Argentinian forward observers on nearby hills. Some of the traffic they intercepted was mundane. Argentinians would be phone patched via radio back to their families. This was the only link, aside from mail, that the mostly conscript army of little more than boys, had with home.
Other efforts were considerably more dangerous. Despite all of the interference and the incredible frustration it caused, Mario’s transmitter was never found. In the rolling terrain of the “camp”, it wouldn’t be easy to triangulate the signal. Mario and his friends would send false signals to the occupiers’ radio control center including fake orders to disrupt forward observers.
In addition to this, they scanned the airwaves until they detected Argentine radio traffic then jammed the conversation by transmitting at maximum power. After one of the British landing ships was attacked, the following day when it seemed like it would happen again, Mario jammed the frequencies by simply keying the mic. This left the occupiers unable to send messages to their headquarters all day and probably disrupted both attacks on the ships and other combat operations.
Not long after an auxiliary airbase was completed at Goose Green, it was attacked by Harriers. Though the anti-air defenses scored one kill, the uneducated troops insisted that there was a spy among the civilians passing radio traffic to the British task force. This resulted in a house-to-house search for the radio that didn’t exist. One little girl even asked her father “Daddy, are we going to be shot?”
It is questionable whether or not the Argentines would have executed anyone. Given the lack of physical resistance in the islands and the rather hopeless position the occupying forces were in, it seems unlikely. General Menendez said that anyone caught transmitting intelligence to the British “would have been considered a spy and that that traditional treatment of spies” (being shot) would have been applied. Perhaps if Britain had not moved to recover the islands or if there was an active resistance taking Argentine lives the clandestine radio operators would have been treated more harshly.
Even so, Argentinians committed many war crimes, generally conducting or threatening mock executions. One captive civilian in Goose Green tuned a radio to the BBC, but in doing so, came across a conversation between hams. The troops thought that the islanders were somehow communicating with British forces and cocked their weapons threateningly. Eventually the occupation government’s sympathetic civilian administrator intervened and managed to get a senior military officer to parole the men to a hotel.
After an incident where an islander attempted to contact the British flotilla, helicopters were loaded with men and radios then flown back to Stanley. At the police station, one man was forced to write a statement and threatened with a knife. Others were taken outside, ordered to dig a trench (presumably) a grave, then forced to kneel in wet grass before soldiers dry-fired pistols in their backs.
The brave acts of the islanders during the Falklands War shows that radio is an important tool not only for communication, but for passive resistance. We won’t know for a few more decades what impact the passed intelligence had (until it is declassified) but even if it was redundant, much effort and time was expended by the occupiers trying to counter it. Civilian radios do have a place in creating electronic warfare as long as it is done smartly. And finally, to the consternation of Sad Hams everywhere, registration and licensing leads to confiscation. Always have radios no one knows about hidden away.
If this topic intrigued you, also check out NC Scout’s book The Guerrilla's Guide To The Baofeng Radio.
Author Don Shift
Don Shift is a veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office and avid fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film who has pushed a black and white for a mile or two. He is a student of disasters, history, and current events.