A comparison of the approaches to the provision of political and military nuclear bunkers in the United Kingdom, United States and Switzerland.

During the Cold War, nation states took different approaches to the provision of nuclear bunkers according to their prevailing ideologies and perceptions of risks from attack. In this article we will explore the choices made by two nuclear-armed states and a neutral state:

  • The United States, which prioritised ‘continuity of government’.
  • The United Kingdom, which prioritised permanent facilities that could ensure a counter attack.
  • Switzerland, which has neutrality as one of its main foreign policy principles, and prioritised civil defence.

United States – Continuity of Government.
From the moment that he took office it was clear that President Kennedy understood the extreme risk that nuclear weapons created for the survival of the American people and the world at large. In 1961 he called for “fallout protection for every American” and, whilst advocating families building their own shelters, sought $207 million from Congress for a large-scale public shelter programme. These public shelters would not protect against heat or blast in a nuclear attack, but would provide shelter from the radiation effects that would last for weeks afterwards (1).

Despite those early concerns, the huge cost of providing both civil defence shelters and continued development of an offensive nuclear weapons capability presented an insurmountable economic challenge, even for the US. The massive shelter building programme that would have been needed was never completed, but between 1960 to 1965 the US arsenal grew from 18,638 warheads to 31,149 (2). The US aimed to ensure its survival through offensive and not defensive means.

A 1981 report for FEMA noted that ‘… after 3 decades of effort, the U.S. has only a marginal CD program… Impediments to progress have been [including] ambiguity as to the strategic impact of CD… [and] … of highest significance, Presidential and Congressional indifference and neglect and attendant budgetary constraints’ (3).

Despite Kennedy’s initial concerns, no Administration took Civil Defense seriously enough to fund it at the levels needed to create a ‘meaningful civil defense program.’

Preservation of the nuclear ‘deterrent’ and preparations for so-called ‘continuity of government’ were prioritised over the survival of the general population. Successive Administrations did fund the building of military bunkers and silos for the nation’s nuclear weapons, as well as bunkers for national leaders.

Arguably the most famous Cold War military bunker installation in the United States, perhaps the world, is the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. Home to the North American Aerospace Defense Command  (NORAD), Cheyenne Mountain has multiple access points to a bunker complex built under 2,000 feet of solid granite. Designed to survive both the seismic and EMP effects of nuclear blasts, the fifteen three-storey buildings inside are mounted on thousands of giant springs and flexible pipe connectors (4). Its main blast doors are designed to be able to deflect a 30 megaton nuclear explosion as close as 2 km away. A network of blast valves have special filters to protect the occupants from airborne biological, chemical or nuclear contaminants. It has its own power plant, cooling and heating systems, as well as its own water supply. Costing over $1 billion at 2018 rates, all of that was built to provide a coordinated early-warning system against nuclear attacks.

The military looked after its ability to continue to function after a nuclear attack by building the Raven Rock Mountain Complex between 1951-1953). This underground nuclear bunker, located in Pennsylvania was known as the “Underground Pentagon” and was intended to ensure that the US could ‘survive’ a nuclear attack. Costing $35 million by 1954, it had emergency operation centres for the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps (5). It could easily shelter around 5,000 people (6), including high-ranking officers and VIPs like the Vice President. By the 1970s Soviet missile technology had developed to the point that survival in the event of a nuclear attack could not be guaranteed and most of its Cold War mission was moved elsewhere.

Meanwhile the political establishment ensured it could survive by building a bunker to house Congress under the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia (7). This bunker was well-equipped with meeting rooms, a kitchen, hospital and dormitory, as well as a broadcast centre connected to a 30m radio tower located 7km away. It was stocked with a six-month food supply that was frequently refreshed. The bunker entrance was protected by four blast doors that were hidden from the hotel’s normal guests. Its 2-feet thick, reinforced concrete walls were designed to withstand a nuclear attack.

The President would likely be kept safe in another bunker called Mount Weather. This bunker could house the civilian leadership of the US government, including the Supreme Court and Cabinet officials. It had room for thousands of personnel, its own sewage treatment plants, water reservoirs, crematorium, hospital, recreation and dining areas, dormitories, an emergency power plant and even its own radio and television studio (for the Emergency Broadcasting System) (8). The entrance was protected by a 34-ton blast door.

It is clear that the US priority was to ensure it could continue to prosecute a nuclear war if it was attacked, ensuring that its weapons, military forces and political leadership could continue to function. By contrast, the civilian population was largely left having to look after itself with the hopes of ‘duck and cover’.

United Kingdom – Ensuring a permanent ability to counter attack.
In the early days of the Cold War a secret bunker was built in a former stone quarry at Corsham, Wilstshire (9). While the principal nuclear threat on the UK was from manned bombers, it was envisaged that the UK government would relocate to this bunker, codenamed ‘SUBTERFUGE’, in the event of a nuclear attack being expected. The Corsham bunker would have become the UK’s ‘The Central Government War Headquarters’. It was (atomic) blast-proof and self-sufficient, with the capacity to house up to 4,000 people for about three months. An underground lake and treatment plant provided drinking water. Fuel was kept in storage tanks. A BBC studio and large telephone exchange kept the bunker connected to the nation. There were offices for various government departments, a bakery, hospital and dormitories. People sheltering in the bunker would travel around the 35-acre site in electric buggies (10).

Rapid developments in nuclear weapons technologies meant that SUBTERFUGE was continually assessed and its perceived role changed several times. The bunker was also known as ‘Burlington’, ‘Stockwell’,, ‘Eyeglass’, ‘Turnstile’, ‘Chanticleer’, ‘Peripheral’ and ‘Site 3’. It was essentially redundant once hydrogen bombs and powerful ICBMs had been developed – it was unlikely to survive the direct strike expected from an accurately targeted, megaton-yield weapon. At that point continuity of government could not be guaranteed from a single site and the few who would be ‘saved’ would have to be dispersed around the UK (11).

It is unlikely that the location of the Corsham bunker remained secret for long and it must have been on Soviet target lists. The cost of building and maintaining the bunker does not seem to be in the public record, but to me it represents a massive Whitehall folly hidden behind a somewhat childish facade of ‘James Bond style’ codenames.

In the early 1950’s a series of bunkers, known as ROTOR, were built around the UK to house RADAR systems scanning for incoming hostile (Soviet / Warsaw Pact) bombers. Two styles of bunker were built:

  • on the East coast, where a nuclear attack was most likely, ‘R’ series bunkers were built underground.
  • on the West coast semi-sunken hardened structures were more usual.

R-series bunkers were pretty much identical with 3m thick concrete walls. The existing RAF Fighter Command structures were given their own bunkers as part of the changes for ROTOR – four were eventually built out of the six originally proposed, along with additional ‘Anti-Aircraft Operations Rooms’. In total, the network of bunkers (radar/fighter control and command) complexes used 350,000 tons of concrete and 20,000 tons of steel (12).

Most single-level R1 and R2 ROTOR bunkers were built 40ft underground with reinforced concrete shells, 10ft thick walls and at least 14ft thick roofs (13). Inside the bunker was a main operational area with defined rooms for radar plotting, along with domestic and service areas. Access was usually via an above-ground guardhouse that was built to look like a normal bungalow home. This bungalow actually had 2ft thick flat concrete slab concealed beneath its roof tiles and a blast door protecting a double flight of stairs leading into the bunker. Bunkers like this could be found located at places such as Foreness and Beachy Head (14).

More complex, multi-floor R3 and R4 bunkers were built at a similar depth but the extra height of the additional floors sometimes meant that earth mounds were used at the surface to try to maintain their overall cover. Examples of R3 bunkers include those at Sandwich (Kent – R3), Bawdsey (Suffolk – R3) and Bawburgh (Norfolk – R4) (15).

The advent of thermonuclear weapons led to the realisation that survivors in any target area would be likely to be beyond any meaningful help. National communications infrastructure would have been destroyed and any control from a centralised government location would have been very unlikely. The decision was made to create ‘Regional Seats of Government’ with Regional Commissioners given total martial law powers over any surviving civilians in their areas. These RSG’s (and subsequent sub-Regional Headquarters) were located in a variety of existing government buildings, adapted to function as bunkers, including some former ROTOR bunkers.

A 1967 assessment of probable Soviet targets in the UK suggested that the following weapons would be used on military installations and government facilities (RSG’s etc) (16):

  • 160 x 500 KT airburst
  • 86 x 1-3 MT groundburst
  • 72 x 1-3 MT airburst
  • 24 x 0.5-3 MT groundburst

The UK is a relatively small country by area – the devastation would have been almost total.

Under such an assault the UK would have ceased to exist as a viable nation state.

It is perhaps understandable why the UK government focussed on maintaining an ability to retaliate in the event of a war, rather than provide bunkers and shelters for the civilian population. It is shocking in retrospect to realise that most national politicians did not resist this state of affairs. There were few dissenting voices and they were often ridiculed as wanting to unilaterally disarm (from nuclear weapons) and leave the nation defenceless – even though defence in the event of nuclear war was impossible.

A lone voice spoke in 1955 when the Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd George, supported the pursuit of a proper civil defence policy, noting that “… it is in my view the duty of the government, by planning evacuation [of cities] and the gradual provision of shelter, to reduce the possibilities of casualties on this scale [of the Strath report]… it is no use keeping any forces for the ‘hot war’ if the morale of this country is to collapse and we lose the will to fight. I suggest that with no shelter , morale would collapse” (17).

His advocacy for protecting the people was rejected on the basis of cost. The Cabinet’s Ministerial Committee on Home Defence chose to invest in maintaining the nuclear deterrent, declaring that “… the financial and economic situation precluded a programme for the construction of domestic shelter at public expense.”

Throughout the Cold War successive UK governments did not tell the truth about the non-survivability of nuclear war. Instead they propagated a myth of potential survival through propaganda like ‘Protect & Survive’. They chose to focus on preserving government and the military machine over the survival of the people, which seems to be a most egregious discarding of the fundamental responsibility of elected politicians.

Switzerland – Ensuring the safety of Swiss civilians
Neutrality is a fundamental principle of Swiss foreign policy. The country has not fought in a foreign war since its neutrality was confirmed in 1815 by the Treaty of Paris.

Despite its neutral status, in the Cold War the Swiss government decided to make strong civil defence preparations. A vast array of military bunkers and fallout shelters was built to protect its citizens from the potential nuclear devastation in a twentieth century war. By law, every inhabitant of Switzerland “… must have a protected place that can be reached quickly from his place of residence” and “apartment block owners are required to construct and fit out shelters in all new dwellings”.

Most buildings built since the 1960s have a fallout shelter (18). It is estimated that the country has around 20,000 military bunkers and 310,000 public and private fallout shelters. This investment means that Switzerland is well equipped to protect all of its 8 million of its citizens (19).

The Swiss built one of the biggest public fallout shelters in the world at Lucerne. The Sonnenberg bunker was designed to provide shelter for a third of the city’s population – around 20,000 people. Located in two motorway tunnels under the Sonnenberg mountain, if a nuclear threat was made the motorway would be closed to traffic and bunk beds would be put up all along the tunnels. The site included a hospital (stocked with medicines, operating theatres and surgical equipment), a command room, radio studio and even a prison. Sanitary conditions would have been poor, as the only showers were reserved for hospital patients and the toilet block only had around 20 toilets. There was a cafeteria for staff and hospital patients but it was not possible to cater for the majority of the people sheltering there, so each person was required to bring two weeks’ worth of food with them (20).  

Switzerland is a small country – about 18% of the size of the UK and 0.5% of the United States. Its population is about 14% of the size of the UK and 3.5% of the US. It is also a wealthy country with a high GDP per capita. Its wealth, relatively small size and population, made it much easier to finance its civil defence program… particularly as it did not have to choose between maintaining an offensive nuclear deterrent or protecting its population.

Governments have become used to having complete freedom of action when recruiting armies and producing armaments. The development of nuclear weapons was a wartime secret in the US and the general population were never given a vote on whether they should be made, let alone used. When the US denied Britain access to its atomic secrets at the end of World War 2, the UK government also secretly began a nuclear weapons project, denying its population a vote on the matter – it then suppressed dissent against nuclear weapons while its security services actively surveilled protesting citizens. How different to the approach in Switzerland.


1 – “Kennedy, Rockefeller, and Civil Defense” – https://www.nps.gov/articles/coldwar_civildefense_kennedyrockefellerandcd.htm

2 – “Historical nuclear weapons stockpiles and nuclear tests by country” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_nuclear_weapons_stockpiles_and_nuclear_tests_by_country

3 – “Our Missing Shield: The U.S. Civil Defense Program in Historical Perspective” – Harry B. Yoshpe report for FEMA – https://fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/civildef-1981.pdf

4 – “Cheyenne Mountain Complex” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheyenne_Mountain_Complex

5 – “Raven Rock Mountain Complex” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_Rock_Mountain_Complex

6 – “Raven Rock Author Tells Us How Our Government Plans For Its Own Annihilation” –


7 – “Project Greek Island” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Greek_Island

8 – “This is where the government will hide during a nuclear war” – https://nypost.com/2017/06/10/this-is-where-the-government-will-hide-during-a-nuclear-war/

9 – “Central Government War Headquarters” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Government_War_Headquarters

10 – “Insider Burlington Bunker: Britain’s secret underground city” – https://www.businessinsider.com/inside-burlington-bunker-britains-secret-underground-city-2017-1?r=US&IR=T

11 – “PYTHON” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PYTHON

12 – “ROTOR” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROTOR

13 – “Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers” – Nick McCamley – ‘The ROTOR Radar System’ – Pen & Sword Military, 2014

14 – “Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers” – Nick McCamley

15 – “Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers” – Nick McCamley

16 – Includes 2 x 0.5-3 MT groundburst attacks on each RSG that were considered to be possible rather than probable.

17 – “The Secret State” – Peter Hennesy – ‘ Breakdown – Preparing for the Worst’ – Penguin Books, 2010

18 – “Bunkers for all” – https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/prepared-for-anything_bunkers-for-all/995134

19 – “16 eerie pictures of Switzerland’s secret bunkers” – https://www.timeout.com/switzerland/things-to-do/swiss-bunkers-tours-and-museums

20 – “Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on” – https://www.thelocal.ch/20161020/inside-switzerlands-largest-nuclear-bunker-40-years-on

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