Book Review: The Voices - Spying and Radio Warfare during the Cold War

In tune with our current series on the role of radio communications during the ‘Cold War’ period, David Harris looks at a new RSGB publication on propaganda, deception and subterfuge by radio.

Author: David Harris

Buy your copy of The Voices: Spying and Radio Warfare during the Cold War here.

This book consists of a series of articles first published in the RSGB members’ magazine RadCom from 2000 to 2001. The small volume is a tribute to Gordon Adams (1938 -2018) who served the RSGB, in a number of roles, for over 40 years.

The 15 chapters provide an introductory overview of radio broadcasting during the Cold War from 1948 to 1989. Unlike other Cold War studies, which focus on Europe, the author explores radio propaganda aimed at the Caribbean (mainly Cuba), Central and South America and the Middle East.

Adams devotes several articles to US-funded stations Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe (RFE). These were established to broadcast pro-Western propaganda to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe respectively. RFE started in 1950 and, by 1951, it had established a Short Wave station in Portugal, which would cover most of Eastern Europe. In 1953, Radio Liberty (RL) started broadcasting to the Soviet Union.

Both stations were heavily jammed, and it was estimated that around 2,500 different jamming stations were operated by the Russians during the 1950s. Adams provides some technical details of how jamming stations worked to create the maximum amount of disruption to any would-be listeners.

The chapter on Cuba is of great interest; it offers detail of how the CIA expropriated the Honduran territory of Swan Island to set up transmitters to broadcast to Cuba. Radio Swan transmitted anti-Castro propaganda in Spanish to Cuba throughout the 1960s.

In 1985, the US launched Radio Marti, based in Florida. Despite a partial thaw in relations between the USA and Cuba, Radio Marti continues to broadcast propaganda to Cuba on medium and short wave frequencies.

The chapters I found most intriguing were those on the activities that took place at Orfordness, Suffolk. This remote spit of land was the location for some BBC external service transmitters. It was also the site of the shadowy ‘Cobra Mist’ over-the-horizon radar station. This was a massive civil engineering project, funded mainly by the USA. It entailed building an 18-antenna array with 189 support masts. The project was completed in 1972 but closed suddenly in 1973. It recently featured in a Channel 5 documentary, Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain. The presenter was, of course, a former Secretary of State for Defence but was not too forthcoming as to the purpose of the antennas or the reason for the sudden closure of the project. 

Gordon Adams is forthright in his assertions that it was an unsuccessful OTH radar experiment designed to track Russian missiles, and that it was closed because the Russians were able to compromise the technology by effectively jamming the frequencies used by the radar.

There are thought-provoking chapters on the use of the British military bases on Cyprus for covert radio purposes. This included ‘black-propaganda’ Arabic stations. The BBC would not compromise its independence by broadcasting overt propaganda on its Arabic service, so the government set up its own station.

Further into the volume, the author takes a look at the tantalizing subject of number stations and includes an example of a one-time-pad used to decipher such messages. Although some number stations are still on the air, particularly from North Korea and Cuba, Adams suggests that modern spies use microwave transmissions to keep in touch with their handlers. Intriguingly, he also proposes that some have used the 443ft-high London Eye as an impromptu transmission site.

The book rounds off with a short chapter on the history of the BBC and a couple of sections on propaganda broadcasts during the Second World War. Apparently, it was the intention of the author to revise and expand his original articles. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish this task.

Overall, this collection of essays would benefit from some more careful revising and editing, to minimise spelling errors and to bring the information up to date. Some references are now obsolete and the introduction needs some attention. The main Chapters should have been re-ordered, to give the book a better sense of continuity. Furthermore, an index is vital in a text of this nature, however short it may be.

However, these are minor criticisms of what is a comprehensive overview of a vast and complex subject.

The book definitely stimulated my interest and made me want to read more about radio propaganda.

Buy your copy of The Voices: Spying and Radio Warfare during the Cold War here