OPERATION BLUE ASPIDISTRA
by Martin Barfield
Blue Aspidistra was a British MI6 Cold War propaganda operation intended to follow on from the success of the wartime BBC/SOE ‘Aspidistra’ propaganda radio station at Crowborough. Whereas the original Aspidistra used medium wave (MF) transmitters to broadcast black propaganda to German forces in occupied Europe, and to disrupt and overpower German night fighter control, Blue Aspidistra was conceived to utilise high power VHF transmitters to broadcast a Russian language television programme into Soviet influenced Eastern Europe.
Blue Aspidistra made use of current BBC and ITA transmitter sites, where the installation of the equipment would not be noticed. This was imperative, as MI5 was believed (and later proved to be) deeply penetrated at high level by KGB and GRU agents. However, the system required power amplifiers with considerable output, which were specially constructed by Pye Telecom of Croydon, under the direction of the Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL). Control of the operational side of the system passed to GC&CS, hence later GCHQ, who arranged for the BBC and ITA to employ their operatives. Control of the content of the broadcasts remained with MI6.
The first installations were at BBC VHF television transmitter sites in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia. However, it was quickly realised that the antenna systems and transmitter buildings were detectable by comparison of photographs taken several months apart, and their presence had been noted by the KGB. This was discovered by MI5 when a defecting KGB officer, Golitsin, revealed that the KGB were in possession of what they called the ‘technics’ document, although it remains unclear whether they were provided this information via ordinary agents or from a highly placed mole within MI6.
EMLEY MOOR TV STATION
It was decided therefore that phase two of Blue Aspidistra should use a purpose built site. A phase one installation, constructed in an underground bunker at the IBA Emley Moor station, was chosen for phase two when, on 19th March 1969, the tubular guyed mast collapsed due to severe icing. The new mast, a concrete cantilever tower, allowed Blue Aspidistra facilities to be installed during construction. The underground bunker, which was unusually constructed using the hulls of decommissioned submarines, was modernised to take the updated transmitter equipment. By this time however, better placed NATO transmitter sites in Norway, West Germany and Cyprus were becoming available under control of GCHQ and the Royal Signals corps/RAF Signals. Blue Aspidistra was quietly abandoned in the mid 1970s in favour of other propaganda efforts from locations closer to the Iron Curtain.
In a joint 1954 ITA/MoD project controlled by GC&CS (later GCHQ) a pair of decommissioned German U-boats were installed under the present location of the tower base and the later location of the UHF building to form an EMP (Electro-magnetic Pulse) proof secure bunker. These were brought to the site in mid-winter during the night, when the local roads were usually impassable, local residents being informed that they were water tanks as part of a new covered reservoir being built close to the site. The U-boats were originally surrendered to Swedish navy, but recovered for use after sale to Shortts of Belfast for scrap. After the collapse of the original tower, rebuilding work revealed severe damage to one of the hulls. This was removed and sections of a decommissioned Royal Navy submarine installed. This revealed their presence to the local population, who were forced to sign the official secrets act.
Due to the shallow installation, its periscope mast remained above the surface by some 8ft, and is still in use to mount GPS antennas and can be seen behind tower. As no longer needed for water tightness, internal hatches were removed and formed the secure doors to the UHF building, which can still be seen. Hence the use of the term ‘submarine doors’ for these by staff.
These submarines formed the main hub of the tunnel and bunker complex beneath the site, which allowed the storage of emergency broadcasting facilities as part of the wartime broadcast system. Facilities were also provided to relay communications for the MoD and UKWMO, acting as a relay for RAF radar video images from ROTOR stations, and communications of the Royal Observer Corps, who had a post in direct contact located at Holmfirth. The submarines also linked with the ‘long tunnel’, a deep level structure partially utilising old coal mine workings to connect the Emley Moor tower with its counterpart at Holme Moss. This structure is no longer safe to enter due to flooding and subsidence since the decommissioning of the drainage pumps in the late 1990s.
The original wartime SOE/BBC operation Aspidistra – the transmission of a fake German forces programme into occupied Europe from locations such as RAF Ottringham, utilised high power medium wave (MF - medium frequency) broadcast transmitters. Blue Aspidistra was to provide a Russian language VHF television propaganda service across the Iron Curtain. This is on the limits of what is technically feasible with VHF television signals, and required considerably on atmospheric propagation phenomena known as 'Sporadic-E' and 'Tropospheric Ducting'. These generally occur in the summer months. Tropospheric ducting is due to temperature inversions formed in high pressure weather regions, whereas Sporadic-E involves unusual ionization of the E-layer of the atmosphere, and is associated with thunder storms. Both phenomena are capable of propagating VHF transmissions several thousand miles, sufficient to just reach beyond the Iron Curtain to at least East Berlin. Indeed, both phenomena are well known today as a cause of pixelation and signal loss on digital terrestrial television due to co-channel interference. Emley Moor’s height was sufficient for VHF signals to be receivable at these distances during the summer months.
The transmitters for the project were built by Pye Telecom, and later augmented with newer units supplied by Continental Microwave Ltd. Only minor changes were needed to the modulation scheme of the transmitted signals, and these details could not be noticed externally.
The biggest problem facing the project was the antenna arrays. These were large, and consisted of phased arrays of 2-element beam antennas. It was imperative that these antennas must not be visible on the tower structure. During tower construction, special rectangular openings in the concrete structure were provided facing the required south-westerly bearings. These were formed in close proximity to the location of the 'turret' equipment room, and to an observer appeared to be access doorways for the room. The antenna arrays were built into these openings, and then covered over using a RF (radio frequency) transparent glass fibre cover. This cover was powder coated to ensure from a distance its colour matched that of the surrounding concrete.
Blue Apsidista was shut down in the early 1970s when suitable transmitters in West Germany, Norway and at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus became available, which were able to provide a greater coverage across the Soviet sphere of influence. Removal of equipment began in the late 1980s, the bunker was utilised for storage of engineering materials and emergency transmitters, until structural tests showed signs of weakening and the facility was abandoned. The materials were then stored on the surface behind the transmitter building until finally removed when construction commenced on the new digital switchover buildings. The bunker was sealed, and is only accessed rarely for structural assessments.
REMAINING VISIBLE FEATURES
Few features remain that can be seen from the surface, save for the periscope mast on which are mounted antennas for the GPS receivers, and the remains of the pump pits which housed the underground pumps which provided the drainage for the ‘long-tunnel’, which can be seen surrounded by wooden fencing alongside the boundary wall of the field to the left of the site as viewed from the roadside viewpoint.
CONNECTION TO COLD WAR PROPAGANDA
The installation of Blue Aspidistra at Emley Moor is part of the sub-culture of current Cold War disinformation. One hallmark of the cold war was the use of deception, disinformation and counter-espionage to fool the Soviets. Deception plans relied heavily on what Churchill called 'A bodyguard of lies', any deception would only work if a sufficiently sound back-story was created. The back-story itself however, needed the opposite of Churchills famous speech - A bodyguard of truth. Every essence of the deception back story must be provable to real, true facts, as it was known that Soviet agents would use any means possible to disprove the plan.
Operation Aspidistra was a noted success of deception from WW2. Blue Aspidistra was created founded on this success. The core, however, of the deception of Blue Aspidistra is that the entire project is in fact 'A lie surrounded by a bodyguard of truth'. Blue Aspidistra never happened. There are no submarines buried beneath the site, and no hidden antennas. In fact, the deception even deceives as to the intended target and the timeframe. It was devised not in the 1950s, but during a long quiet nightshift at the Emley Moor TV SMC (service management centre) in mid 2011. Its intended victims not the Soviets, but newly inducted apprentices.
DEBUNKING EMLEY MOOR MYTHS AND LEGENDS
Blue Aspidistra is just one of the various myths and legends that have grown up surrounding the Emley Moor TV tower. The most commonly heard of these are debunked below:
The 'Long Tunnel' - There is a rumour that a tunnel exists linking Emley Moor to Holme Moss station. No such feature does or has ever existed. The distance involved would require numerous ventilation shafts which would be visible at the surface, and the geology itself is not suitable. Besides, there is fundamentally no need for such an elaborate construction.
The 'Golden Rigger' Award - It is believed that sections of the collapsed Mark 2 tower were melted down, cast and gold plated to form awards for the antenna specialist and rigging teams. Again this is not true. The tower sections all went for scrap save one which is utilised as a observation tower by a local yacht club.
The Ghost of the Polish Rigger - There have been stories that one of the itinerant labourers who constructed the tower, was killed in an accident on the site, and his ghost now haunts the turret room. Sightings have been noted. The truth of this is that the tower construction was remarkably safe. However, on occasion shadowy figures can be seen in the turret room in the dead of night. These are in fact real, live engineering staff, carrying out routine work that cannot be done during the day to avoid interruptions to services. Unfortunately, the fluorescent lighting used in the turret room and the fact it can be seen from such a great distance have lead to these stories.