Science, People & Politics, issue 2 (Apr. - Jun.), IV (2013) Page 7 (Page 1 of issue 2)

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Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957:
a British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System.

by Helen Gavaghan.


On 29th October, 1948 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) changed their communication practices2. Nearly all signal intelligence, which means information gained when one country spies on the activity of another country, was lost. The operation significantly affected was known as Venona (or Bride). Venona intercepted ciphered Soviet wireless communications.

"All radio nets, including military systems, moved over to one-time pads, which henceforth were not re-used. Much of the procedural material that had been sent 'in clear' between operators running medium-grade Army, Navy, Air Force and police systems in the Soviet bloc was now encrypted for the first time. Operator chatter was banned. Over a period of twenty-four hours, almost every Soviet system from which the East sic was deriving intelligence was lost. .... In 1955 when the CIA and SIS began their famous operation to tunnel under East Berlin to tap into Soviet telephone communications, one of the motives was to try and claw back some of the ground lost. The CIA remarked that this new operation 'provided the United States and British with a unique source of intelligence on the Soviet orbit of a kind and quality which had not been available since 1948'.
p250. GCHQ: Signals Intelligence Looks East in the hidden hand, by Richard J. Aldrich (2001). John Murray (London).

It is possible this loss of intelligence at the end of October 1948 changed the nature of the ongoing spat over Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic between Britain and Argentina and Chile. What was a conundrum on 28th October 1948, on the 29th looks like a severe headache. One day Britain was trading with two friendly South American nations and reconstructing its economy after six brutal years of World War3, whilst exploring diplomatic solutions to governance of Antarctica and the Falkland Island Dependencies. The next day Sterling balances are outgunned on Britain's foreign policy agenda by uncertainty about Soviet nuclear intentions and global hegemonical aspirations. Only eight days earlier at a meeting in the Foreign Office4 Prime Minister Fraser from New Zealand had aired his disquiet about potential Soviet involvement in Antarctica.

The loss of signals intelligence had wider implications also in the context of nuclear weapons, a topic covered by the Antarctic Treaty, which solved the Antarctic problem of the 1950s. In 1949 the West was caught by surprise, writes Richard Aldrich, when the USSR tested a nuclear bomb. Such testing on Antarctica was, to all intents and immediate purposes, precluded by the Antarctic Treaty, when it was eventually signed.

Interestingly the science project which played a part in removing Antarctica from what it was about to become, namely, an elephant in the struggle between communism and liberal democracy, also collected the kind of information needed for effective wireless communications, like those the Soviets moved on 29th October 1948 to protect from Western interception.

That science project, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958, is woven into the text of the Antarctic Treaty. Ionospheric investigation was an integral part of the IGY. The questions scientists then asked were,

"Does the F2 region [a particular part of the upper atmosphere which reflects radio waves] persist during the long polar night? Does the F2 region exhibit any significant diurnal variations at sites where the solar zenith angle changes negligably through the day? How does the south polar ionosphere compare with corresponding zones in the North? How does the anomalous displacement of the dip pole, for which there is no northern counterpart, affect F-region morphology?"5

Article continued on page 9.

General history note for context.6


1. The following dates and events taken from Gavaghan. H. (2013). Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957: a British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System. Science, People & Politics, pp 1-7, issues one, (Jan.-Mar.), Volume Four, 2013.
a) 1493. Papal Bull of demarcation, addressing the territorial claims of Portugal and Spain.
b) 1810. Argentina rebels against Spain, the country's imperial power.
c) 1830. Charles Darwin sails through the Beagle Channel whilst pursueing his studies as a naturalist.
d) 1881. Argentina and Chile agree boundary demarcations between their two countries, except in the Beagle Channel.
e) 1914. Britain and Argentina reach the final stages of negotiating a treaty of cession, yielding the South Orkneys to Argentina in return for a British Legation in Buenos Aires. The deal fell through when Argentina elected a new government. (This item temporarily, and incorrectly, said South Georgia. However my original article, as quoted here, was correct. Error spotted by the author and editor and corrected 9th June, 2013.)
f) March 1945. Act of Chapultepec [Reciprocal assistance and American solidarity].
g) 1946. In March Chile sets up a permanent base on Greewich Island, and reiterates a claim made in 1940 that the South Shetlands, Greenwich Island and Graham Land are part of Chile.
h) 9th April, 1947. A British magistrate delivers a note to an Argentinian post on Gamma Island, asserting that the Argentinians are trespassing.
i) April 1947. Britain enters contracts to sell British bombers and fighters to Argentina.
June 1947. Britain and France welcome the Marshall Plan.
j) 12th July 1947. A conference is held in Paris to discuss the Marshall Plan. Some Eastern European nations boycott, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) rejects the proposal. On the same day Argentina and Chile sign an agreement saying they are close to settling their demarcation dispute. It is was settled in 1985.
k) 2nd September, 1947. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, precursor to the Organisation of American States, is signed.
l) 17th September, 1947. Britain offers for the first time to have the Antarctic dispute settled by the ICJ.
In December 1947. Britain delivers notes of protest to Chile and Argentina about trespass on Sovereign territory.
m) 8th January 1948. The Cabinet rejects the use of force to expel Argentinian posts from Deception Island. Mandates exploration of a diplomatic solution.
n) February 1948. A diplomatic exchange between Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, and the Chilean ambassador to Britain.
0) March 1948. Clement Atlee tells the House of Commons that communists, fellow travellers and fascists would be removed from posts dealing with State secrets, but there would be no witch hunt. This was reported by The New York Times on 26th March, 1948.
p) 4th April, 1948. Ernest Bevin outlines for his cabinet colleagues, in a top secret document, the economic and political dimensions of arms sales to south America, and in the light of US views. Bevin recommended there be no inteference with the delivery of aircraft under existing contracts.
q) 21st October, 1948. Ernest Bevin hosts a high level meeting to discuss the Antarctic dilemma. Leaders are in London for a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government.
r) 18th September, 1949. Devaluation of the pounds against the US dollar.
s) October 1951. The Conservatives win power from Labour.
t) 1951. Britain engages with the Transantarctic Expedition.
u) 4th May, 1955. Britain files applications to institute proceedings against Argentina and Chile for infringement of British territory. Both Argentina and Chile refuse to submit to the Court.
v) 16th March, 1956. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) removes from the list Britain's pleadings for the ICJ to decide among the Sovereignty claims of Britain, Argentina and Chile in the Antarctic and Falkland Island Dependencies.
w) 1st December, 1959. The Antarctic Treaty is signed.
x) 4th August, 1961. The ratified Antarctic Treaty is deposited with the United Nations.

2. Aldrich. R.J. (1997). the hidden hand. Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence. John Murray (Publishers) Ltd. (London).

3. The Berlin airlift to relieve Stalin's siege of West Berlin was mid way through in October 1948.

4. Gavaghan. H. (2013). Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957: a British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System. Science, People & Politics, p6, issue 1 (Jan.-Mar.), Volume four. 2013.

5. Dudeney. J.R., Piggott. W.R. (1977). Antarctic Ionospheric Research. p 219.

6. Oxford Companion to British History. Canon. J., Ed. (1997). The Battle of the Falklands. The battle of the Falklands took place in 1914 when battle cruisers under the command of Vice-Admiral Sturdee defeated German ships which earlier in the year had defeated British ships in the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. The German ships had also attacked British installations at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, and had been repelled by a strong British squadron. The victory in the battle of the Falklands protected British merchant shipping during the rest of the First World War. Entry by David French, professor of history, University College London.

This article is based on research I undertook at the University of Manchester in 2003, when I was a part time, post graduate research student, working on a transfer report from M.Phil to Ph.D at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). I could have written this article (parts one and two) in the spring of 2004, and was interested in doing so. It is a pleasure to at last begin publishing some of my work from 2003.

Thanks are gladly given to my research supervisor (thesis advisor, in US teminology), Dr Jeff Hughes, who drew Professor Aldrich's work on Spies and Cold War intelligence to my attention. I also thank my personal tutor, Dr Sam Alberti, an expert on museums, and my fellow research students, a very international group, who were a pleasure to work with. Thank you also to Dr Cynan Ellis-Evans, for acting as a sounding board for the article. Deputy editor, Martin Redfern, sadly had a clash of commitments, and was unable to read the work prepublication.

My books include,
Something new Under the Sun, Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age (1997). Copernicus/Springer-Verlag (New York).
History of EUMETSAT (2001). Eumetsat (Darmstadt). This book is the first official history of the organisation responsible for Europe's weather satellites.


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