The Role of Intelligence in the Falklands War | History Hit

The Role of Intelligence in the Falklands War

Nick van der Bijl

Cold War Twentieth Century
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Defence Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence was responsible for collecting, analysing and circulating information on existing and potential enemies on the battlefield and in operational theatres.

The provision of Operational, or Battlefield, Intelligence is supplied to by Army level intelligence units down to battalion and regimental level intelligence sections. Intelligence allows commanders at all levels to fight their battle in the advance and in defence. It is their choice, as commanders, whether to reject or accept the intelligence.

To translate the motto of the Intelligence Corps,

Knowledge Gives Strength to the Arm.

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A lack of Argentinian intelligence

When the Falklands crisis broke out in early April 1982, there was virtually no intelligence about the threat that Argentina had posed to the Falklands since 1833.

Basic threat assessments from the Ministry of Defence were almost non-existent, potentially for three reasons.

  • The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was interested in the Falklands as a territory to be transferred to Argentina and therefore the British Embassy in Buenos Aries missed the intelligence signals of Argentine aspirations.
  • Argentina believed that with its NATO, Northern Ireland and worldwide commitments and its apparent disinterest in the South Atlantic, Great Britain would not react to the Argentinian seizure of South Georgia.
  • Thirdly, unlike the Army, the Royal Navy, which had responsibility for British interests in the South Atlantic, did not have an equivalent Intelligence branch at operational level. This meant, for instance, that Commander Amphibious Warfare, which supported 3 Commando Brigade, did not have a dedicated intelligence officer.

Thus when 3 Commando Brigade mobilised on 2 April 1982, its Intelligence Section faced a very steep intelligence-gathering curve. But when Intelligence sent to HMS Fearless at sea, it was so highly protected that it could not be circulated within the Brigade.

HMS Fearless.
HMS Fearless in San Carlos, during the Falklands War.

The issue was alleviated at Ascension Island when Brigade Intelligence had access to of the Cable and Wireless commercial link between Port Stanley and Argentina being used by Argentine servicemen and families to exchange telegrams. Telegrams messages indicating morale, name, rank and unit of the sender.

Planning the invasion

During the nearly three week stay in Ascension Island, sufficient productive intelligence emerged that allowed Brigade Intelligence to build the Army Group Falklands order of battle and deployments.

Studies of other South and Central American allowed guesses to be made on tactics.

Army Group Falklands was divided into Army Group Stanley drawn 10th Mechanised Infantry Brigade and 5th Marine Infantry Battalion landing team, Army Group Falklands drawn from 3rd Mechanised Infantry Brigade at Goose Green on East Falklands and 9th Mechanised Infantry Brigade at Fox Bay and Port Howard on West Falklands.

British domination of the maritime zones around the Falklands led to Army Groups Goose Green and West Falklands merging into the single Army Group Littoral commanded from a tactical brigade headquarters in Stanley.

Tactically, the Army Groups did not sally forth from their bunkers, which eased the intelligence process. The principal threat came from Special Forces, but the quality was relatively poor.

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Intelligence in the Falklands

Once ashore at San Carlos from 21 May, the range of intelligence sources widened to include prisoners of war, captured documents, patrol reports and information from civilians. However passage of information from UK was lost.

A controversial element is that the intelligence provided to 2nd Parachute Battalion at Goose Green was largely rejected in favour of less accurate information from other sources. In the end, it is a commander’s responsibility to accept or reject intelligence.

The attacks on the Outer Defence Zone of Mount Harriet by 42 Commando, Two Sisters by 45 Commando and Mount Longdon by 3 Para during the night of 11/12 June and the assault on the Inner Defence Zone of Mount Tumbledown by 2 Scots Guards and 2 Para on Wireless Ridge on 13/14 June destroyed the defence of Stanley.

Argentine Prisoners of War
Argentine prisoners of war in Port Stanley.

The critical role of intelligence

When the Argentines surrendered on 14 June, a significant amount of documentary and technical intelligence was captured. About 10,000 prisoners-of-war were screened with a view to retaining several hundred prisoners who were retained as prisoners until Argentina formally surrendered on 15 July.

Throughout the land phase of the operations, the author ran a Field Security counter-intelligence operation to protect 3 Commando Brigade from the intentional or unintentional compromise of information from scrutiny, interference and removal by someone not entitled to that information (espionage), protecting troops from subversion and protecting equipment and material from sabotage.

This was extended to a counter-intelligence operation in Port Stanley to determine the extent of Argentine subversive and espionage penetration.

How effective was the intelligence? Brigadier Julian Thompson wrote in his Post Operation Corporate review:

The response by members of the Intelligence Corps was positive and professional. As the brigade commander, what impressed me most was the quality of the intelligence assessments that were produced from quite early on and right through the campaign, by the intelligence staffs in my superior HQ, and in my own HQ.

I also felt that the way the Intelligence staffs in the theatre of operations coped with the interrogation of prisoners, a mammoth task, when one considers the numbers taken, and the short time available in which to process them was a model of efficiency and humanity.

Falklands War
Discarded Argentine weapons, Stanley 1982 (Credit: Ken Griffiths).

Nick van der Bijl served 24 years as a Regular in the British Army in armour, military intelligence and security and finally as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army. He saw active service in Northern Ireland and with the 3rd Commando Brigade during the Falkland conflict. My Friends, The Enemy: Life in Military Intelligence During the Falklands War is his latest book and will be published on 15 February 2020, by Amberley Publishing.

My Friends, The Enemy

Nick van der Bijl