I often find that people either have little awareness of Cold War history or they just weren’t tuned into what was happening. So before I talk about my recent trip to settle some old nightmares at Greenham Common and its infamous ‘GAMA’ facility, here’s a small introduction to the dark world of the mid-1980s…
So what’s the big deal about Greenham Common?
The first nuclear-armed, American cruise missiles were delivered to the Greenham Common airbase in November 1983. I was a teenager at the time and remember this part of Cold War history very well.
Ronald Reagan had been the US President since January 1981 and his early foreign policy seemed to involve stoking the fires of a potential nuclear war whenever possible. Reagan’s early administration was synonymous with intense “sabre rattling”. Constant US prodding and probing of the Soviet Union rapidly increased that regime’s paranoia about being attacked, almost escalating into a full-blown ‘nuclear exchange’ during the US 1983 “Able Archer” exercise (Taylor Downing’s “1983” gives a great account of that).
Earlier in 1983 Reagan had given a now infamous speech in which he declared the Soviet Union to be an ‘evil empire’ and ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’. Reagan rejected the idea that the US and Soviets were equally responsible for the Cold War nuclear arms race, reframing it as a battle between good and evil. Having also announced his ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ (SDI) to create a space-based defence system for the US, from the outside it looked like Reagan was abandoning the concept of nuclear balance and instead moving the US towards a first-strike position. No wonder the Soviet Union became so mistrustful of the US at this time.
This period of USA brinkmanship was unfortunately matched in the UK by Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. No stranger to taking aggressive action, Thatcher had already successfully waged a small war against Argentina following their seizure of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thatcher seemed to be both on genuine friendly terms with Reagan, and determined to keep the UK on the centre stage of international politics.
Ever since 1947, whether the country had a left-leaning or right-leaning government, the possession of nuclear weapons for both political and military leverage had been a central part of mainstream UK political doctrine.
Seen through that lens, the decision to let the USA deploy operational, nuclear-armed missiles into the British countryside was fairly easy for Thatcher to make, despite domestic opposition from protest groups.
Around this time the story leaked out that the Thatcher government had prepared civil defence leaflets called ‘Protect and Survive’ to send to every household if a nuclear attack seemed likely. Media focus eventually led to the leaflets being sent out anyway. I still remember reading our copy and then having nightmares about trying to survive under a lean-to fallout shelter… even then, that advice seemed more like preparing our own tombs than being practical, effective measures to survive an attack. Layer in the effect of the films ‘Threads’ (1984) and ‘When the Wind Blows’ (1986), and the 1980s became a rather terrifying time.
The Greenham Common US missile base
The media occasionally reported on demonstrations from the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, including limited footage of mobile launchers leaving the base to disperse into the countryside. The base and peace camp became symbols for the larger story of the risks that nuclear weapons and political brinkmanship posed to our national survival.
Key thought: possession of nuclear weapons increases the risks to our national survival – they do not make us safer.
By 1986 there were 96 operational ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) kept at the ‘GAMA’ facility at Greenham Common.
GAMA: “Ground-launched Cruise Missile Alert and Maintenance Area”. A series of hillock-shaped bunkers designed to withstand a direct hit from a 2,000 pound bomb or a 10-megaton thermonuclear airburst.
Let’s put that 10-megaton attack in context: in the event of war, the designers of GAMA must therefore have been expecting the site to be ‘targeted’ by a fusion bomb exploding in the air above it with a an explosive force equivalent to over 650 Hiroshima attacks. Everything within 2.5 km of the attack would be vaporised. There would be significant blast damage to 15 km, third-degree burns out to 33 km and light blast damage to over 40 km.
Inside the GAMA bunkers, each GLCM was fitted with a W84 nuclear warhead that could be configured to explode with the equivalent of 0.2 – 150 kilotons of TNT. Noting that the US armed forces seem to have a policy of “overwhelming firepower”, I think it is likely to assume that they were all set to 150 kt – why launch them in time of war with anything less?
And let’s not fool ourselves into believing that these missiles would only be launched at ‘military’ targets. Many such places are located close to urban centres, and in any case the US 1980s ‘SIOP’ (Single Integrated Operational Plan) made it clear that their ‘target list’ covered ‘… nuclear threat, conventional threat, and economic/industrial targets… and also the Soviet political and military leaders’ offices and bunkers.’
At 150 kt, each warhead had approximately 10 x the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The total GLCM force at Greenham Common would have been nearly 1000 Hiroshima equivalents. Or putting it another way: taking an average city population to be around 150,000 people (many cities are larger), those 96 GLCMs with 150kt yield had the potential to kill over 14 million people.
The ability to wreak such havoc on the Soviet Union from Greenham Common naturally increased the risks of being attacked by the Soviet Union if a hot war started… that same hot war risk that Reagan seemed to increase every time he spoke.
Reagan eventually had a massive scare when he realised how close ‘Able Archer’ had brought the entire world to the brink of destruction. His rhetoric slowly changed and he began arms reductions talks with the Soviets. The chances of a hot war reduced and the (official) Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Americans moved out of Greenham Common in 1992. The fences have subsequently been removed and the runway dug up. Today, only the GAMA bunkers remain, a testimony to the terrors of the late Cold War stand-off.
What is Greenham Common like today?
During my visit I found the site to be a place of contradictions. A paradox of memory and reality.
The Common is a large open space. Paths meander in all directions. You can essentially go anywhere, see anything. The sky looms large overhead. Green foliage merges with the purples, yellows and reds of small flowers. Lines of trees, bushes and heather abound, extending to a horizon marked with low hills. Birds sing constantly. Geese fly overhead. Horses graze wherever they choose to wander.
People visiting the Common blend into this landscape. Whether running or walking, cycling or pushing children in buggies. People laugh and chatter, talking about ordinary things as they move around this ordinary place, enjoying the fresh air. Children chase balls, being chased themselves by dogs after the both of them.
It is wonderful to see a place with such a dark history reclaimed by the local population, becoming once again the happy communal space it always should have been.
The Common is also a small space, confined within the bounds of the former airfield. Paths take you on predefined journeys within prescribed limits. Lines of bushes and trees form long barriers, subtly steering you in the same direction as every other visitor. The walk around the Common feels like it should take hours, but you cover large tracts of ground in minutes. The greens, purples, yellows and reds merge into a nondescript mélange over the broken ground of the former runway.
And then there is the GAMA facility… the only real surviving feature of the former base other than the Control Tower.
From a distance you see some green hillocks that look subtly out of place, blending in, yet a little too regular in shape to avoid proclaiming ‘man made’.
From a distance each bunker looks quite small, yet simultaneously large… your logical brain telling you they must be big for you to be able to see them so clearly from so far away.
Getting closer, the GAMA bunkers become physically larger in your vision, yet seem to diminish in importance the more you see of them. Each one is different from its neighbour in terms of its place within the whole facility, perspective setting off an individual feature of each individual bunker. Yet as an aggregate, each one looks exactly the same as its neighbour.
Up close, each bunker is big, yet smaller than expected, hiding its guilty secret behind two lines of fencing. I expected them to exude a residual sense of evil, yet they were just bland, silent memorials to Cold War insanity. Many local people walk past them without even looking. Other people, probably visitors like myself, stand and gawp with a mix of horror-yet-calm-interest on our faces.
Although I don’t look very happy in the picture above, finally seeing GAMA up close has laid my old 1980s nightmares to rest. If only we could now also rid ourselves of Trident, the UK would become a much safer place for all.