A Brief History of British Psychological Operations

Communication has always been central in war: the complex pre-battle intimidation rituals of some Papua New Guinean tribes, and American soldiers playing loud rock music in action, are in a continuous tradition of warfare. Soldiers might not think of themselves as communicators, but their actions have that effect. In recent years, that centrality has once been recognised in doctrine and capabilities. 15(United Kingdom) Psychological Operations Group was officially formed in 1991, and has gone through several changes since, yet the history of UK persuasive communications, Psychological Operations, or propaganda goes back much further.

World War Two

Turning to Britain, a communications apotheosis came during World War Two. An array of offices and units targeted different audiences and different behavioural goals. At the highest level was the Ministry of Information; while at the tactical level were a host of other units and bodies. These include the Political Warfare Executive, reporting into the Foreign Office, and the London Controlling Section.  Yet these were not necessarily direct forerunners of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group. More immediately related were those units that conducted tactical communications for hearts and minds effects. In the Far East, the Indian Field Broadcasting Units were jointly founded by Lieutenant Colonel George Steer and Alex Peterson (respectively a journalist and schoolmaster in civilian life).

In the European theatre, the Deputy Directorate of Information and Propaganda sponsored Field Propaganda Units, which operated in North Africa and Italy. In preparation for the invasion of France, the function was expanded to create four Amplifier Units and four Leaflet Units. These conveyed tactical messages, such as imposing curfews and encouraging surrenders.14 Amplifier Unit was the first British unit to enter the Belsen concentration camp.

These units, which conducted tactical communication on the battlefield, are the most direct parents of the modern 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group. Indeed, there is an intriguing though unproven possibility that 15 (UK)Psychological Operations  Group was so designated because the Amplifier Units were numbered 10-14, and the Leaflet Units 16-19, leaving 15 unused.

Imperial Engagements

 Following the war, British Psychological Operations capabilities were much reduced. The term psychological warfare first appeared in a British military publication in 1957, in the Psychological Warfare Handbook'. By 1962, this had been modified to psychological operations, which is how it appeared in the Staff Officers Guide to Psychological Operations'. As Britain fought its post-Imperial wars, ad hoc civilian and military teams were often established, and communication played an important role in operations in Malaya, Suez and beyond. However, at this time formal and permanently established military (UK) Psychological Operations capabilities operating at the tactical level were extremely limited. Just one or two staff officers offered advice, first through an Interdepartmental Working Party and from 1956 under the aegis of the MOD Department of Forward Plans.

In 1958 the Interdepartmental Committee on Planning for Psychological Warfare in War was also created.  Meanwhile, from 1955, the Joint Concealment Centre at Netheravon hosted some training courses and support to Home and Overseas commands. From 1959, this resource was provided through a tri-service Psychological Warfare Centre (soon renamed the Psychological Operations Centre) at Maresfield Camp in Sussex. In 1964, the Centre was moved to the Joint Warfare Establishment at Old Sarum, where it resided until 1979. In that year, it became the Psychological Operations Section, Joint Warfare Wing, of the National Defence College at Latimer.

This location and designation were also to prove short-lived, and in 1982 it became the Psychological Operations Wing at the School of Service Intelligence (itself soon renamed to the Defence Intelligence and Security School) at Ashford.  The same year brought the Falklands conflict. That war involved a number of communications products, but it also revealed the contemporary limits of British (UK) Psychological Operations. Some leaflets were produced and radio broadcasts were made, and there seem to have been some limited efforts at deception and rumour-spreading (led by a team referred to as the Special Projects Group). However, the mechanisms of delivery and the Spanish-language skills required for more advanced efforts were missing. Indeed, it is not entirely clear whether the produced leaflets were ever distributed.

The Modern Era

From 1991, the unit in its modern guise began to grow, being named 15 Psychological Operations Group (Shadow). The perceived communications successes of the Gulf War and the wider re-evaluations which accompanied the end of the Cold War, meant communications would have a higher priority in future operations. In the 1990's, there were Psychological Operations contributions to deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Sierra Leone. Another deployment came in 2001, when some work was undertaken in FYROM Macedonia. However, at this point the unit only had two official and full time staff, with operation-specific expansions. A review of capabilities in 1997 led to the dropping of the 'shadow' designation and the formalisation of the group the following year; at this time it also moved from the Templer Barracks at Ashford to DISC Chicksands near Bedford. From 1999 to 2001, it was rechristened the Information Support Group, a change that occasioned some confusion among partners and little alteration to mission and makeup.

At this point the unit roster ran to 8 regulars, 2 civil servants providing administrative support, and 28 reservists. There were further demands for increased capability; a 2000 report by the Defence Select Committee, reflecting on operations in Kosovo, called for greater prominence for (UK) Psychological Operations and their integration into NATO doctrine; the committee quoted the US Navy's Admiral Ellis, who called Allied information operations "at once a great success and perhaps the greatest failure of the war. All the tools are in place but only a few were used."  A more major role came with operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts - in which the strategy was explicitly to win the consent of the population - required a targeted and sustained effort to understand and communicate with the local population.

 The Group was continuously deployed in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2014, developing and delivering a whole range of communications products. In recognition of their work in Afghanistan, the Group was in 2012 awarded the Firmin Sword of Peace. Throughout this period there was a steady uplift in personnel and equipment. By 2008 the unit had 37 regular and 28 reservist members, giving it the capability to deploy one regular and one reservist Psychological Operations support element. The Group controlled "mobile AM and FM commercial radio broadcast systems, TV editing suites and large-volume print production units" They also made use of Radio in a Box, and tactical loudspeaker equipment.

 In 2015, 15(UK) Psychological Operations Group was merged into the Security Assistance Group.