Nobody has anything to gain through a proliferating deployment of nuclear weapons. Allowing US nukes to be stored in the UK increases the chances of the country being destroyed in any confrontation between NATO and Russia (… perhaps China, in years to come). Surely the world needs national leaders to act rationally and reduce tensions over these terrible weapons, not keep banging the drums of war with them?
On 28/2/22, the online news service “MyLondon” reported that a spokesperson for the London mayor had told them that “… London is well prepared in the “remote” event of Russia launching a nuclear strike on the capital…” — I nearly fell off my chair when I read that.
It is the latest iteration of continuous government propagandising about the survivability of a nuclear attack. However, we know a nuclear attack (for almost the entire population) just isn’t survivable in the UK:
There is no programme of nuclear shelter provision for the public in the UK.
There is no established programme of comprehensive civil defence for the UK population in the event of a nuclear attack.
Apparently the mayor’s office said that “… London has a resilient and well-established system in place to ensure key agencies work closely and effectively together to keep us all safe – this includes keeping Londoners fully informed about any emergencies.” — This misses the point completely.
A single 1.2-megaton bomb (equivalent to a US B-83 warhead) exploding over London would detonate with a force equivalent to around 80 Hiroshima attacks. Everything within 1 km of the explosion would be vaporised. There would be significant blast damage to 7.5 km, third-degree burns out to 13 km and light blast damage to over 21 km. And it’s likely that London would be targeted with many bombs. Nothing much in London is going to survive that, including the ‘key agencies’ that the mayor says would ‘keep us all safe’.
The UK population generally does not understand the power of nuclear weapons or that, with the country being rather small, there are few places where the immediate effects of an attack could be avoided. Even if the immediate effects were avoided, the after-effects could be even more non-survivable, up to and including the effects of a nuclear winter.
We need to call out these deceptions and lies about the survivability of a nuclear attack on the UK, and share the truth wherever we can – our very lives depend on it.
While I was recently out on a road trip for another reason, I took the opportunity to visit the first three fictional landing sites for the Martian’s cylinders in H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” (serialised in 1897, first hardcover published in 1898).
Unlike many ‘classic’ science fiction stories, this tale has stood the test of time. Soundly based in a realistic setting, it is still a compelling, page-turning read. I’m not going to summarise the plot here — if you are unfamiliar with the book, it is easily available and I recommend reading it. If you don’t have time to read the book, the 1953 film version is a reasonable re-telling of the story and the infamous 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles is entertaining.
In the book, the Martians send seven cylinders from their dying planet to the Earth, intending to conquer our planet and make it their own. The cylinders land in a line extending from Horsell Common in Surrey to Primrose Hill in London:
#1 – on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking… not far from the sand pits. #2 – in the pine woods to the northwest of Chertsey road #3 – Woods to the North of Pyrford – looking towards Addlestone #4 – Bushey Park, Hampton – North of the Thames #5 – Sheen / towards Mortlake (where the narrator and curate are caught in a house when the cylinder crashes into it) #6 – Wimbledon Common, London #7 – Primrose Hill, London
All of these sites would have been known to Wells. He lived at Primrose Hill between 1888-1891, and in Woking (where his “The War of the Worlds” begins) between 1895-1896. The first three landing sites are within a few miles of each other. It is then a bit of a hike towards the fourth landing site at Bushey Park, with the remaining three being rather dispersed as you head into London.
The First Cylinder falls… Wells describes how the first cylinder falls from the sky in darkness, followed by observations of it in the morning:
“Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star…
… Ogilvy, who had seen the shooting star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.
… The Thing itself lay almost entirely buried in sand, amidst the scattered splinters of a fir tree it had shivered to fragments in its descent. The uncovered part had the appearance of a huge cylinder, caked over and its outline softened by a thick scaly dun-coloured incrustation. It had a diameter of about thirty yards…”
The Second Cylinder… I could not get onto the golf links at Addlestone but this picture of the local countryside was taken nearby. Generally the land feels quite flat and open, with hills quite far away in the distance. The narrator tells us how his neighbour described the fall of the second cylinder here:
“… he told me of the burning of the pine woods about the Byfleet Golf Links… The woods… were still burning… They will be hot under foot for days, on account of the thick soil of pine needles and turf…”
The Third Cylinder… The narrator sees the third cylinder falling in darkness at Pyrford: “As I ascended the little hill beyond Pyrford Church… the trees about me shivered with the first intimation of the storm that was upon me. Then I heard midnight pealing out from Pyrford Church behind me, and then came the silhouette of Maybury Hill, with its tree-tops and roofs black and sharp against the red.
Even as I beheld this a lurid green glare lit the road about me and showed the distant woods towards Addlestone. I felt a tug at the reins. I saw that the driving clouds had been pierced as it were by a thread of green fire, suddenly lighting their confusion and falling into the field to my left. It was the third falling star!”
In a storm he then sees Martian fighting machines for the first time:
“… my attention was arrested by something that was moving rapidly down the opposite slope of Maybury Hill… one flash following another showed it to be in swift rolling movement. It was an elusive vision–a moment of bewildering darkness, and then, in a flash like daylight… this problematical object came out clear and sharp and bright.
… How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer…
… Then suddenly the trees in the pine wood ahead of me were parted, as brittle reeds are parted by a man thrusting through them; they were snapped off and driven headlong, and a second huge tripod appeared, rushing, as it seemed, headlong towards me. And I was galloping hard to meet it!”
Martian tripods from the first two cylinders had moved to meet the third cylinder landing at Pyrford.
Pyrford golf course was again typical of this area of Surrey, open fields surrounded by woods, leading off towards low hills in the distance.
I’m sure that, at the time of writing, the journey by horse from Horsell Common to Addlestone and then Pyrford. Today you can cover than ground in less than thirty minutes by car, but it was still entertaining to imagine what it would have been like in the late 1880s-1890s…
… and there is of course that wonderful memory of standing at the sand pit on Horsell Common and imagining the first fallen cylinder, steaming in its pit…
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.
One of the topics I am exploring in my (soon to be published) series of Cold War articles is the question “Are we already in a New Cold War?” That article was drafted between May – September 2020, but recent news about the expansion of Chinese ICBM silos has pushed the topic on.
I believe it is now clear that (from a historian’s perspective) we are already in a New Cold War. More realistically, I believe that the (first) Cold War never ended, it just changed its clothes and membership.
Historians do not agree on exactly when the (first) Cold War started, its earliest moments of suspicions, paranoia and plotting happened in secret. Generally speaking we could say that World War 2 amplified differences between Russia and “the West”, and the development of nuclear weapons presented an existential crisis that Stalin could not ignore… and so a nuclear standoff began which came to threaten the extinction of almost all life on Earth.
Nuclear weapons take the history of humans killing each other to an unprecedented level. The immediate direct effects of a single weapon can now kill hundreds of thousands of people. The delayed (immediate) effects of fallout and radiation perhaps hundreds of thousands more – who in their right mind could ever, under any circumstances, find it acceptable to do that?
History records that the Cold War ended on 26th December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I believe this Christmas 1991 finish to the Cold War is a useful myth for the leaders of Western nuclear-armed states. It makes the general population feel safe, like they’ve won, and can therefore keep their attention turned to other things.
The collapse of the Soviet Union did not lead to nuclear weapons being withdrawn. Whilst the former Soviet states have now returned all of their nuclear weapons to Russia for deactivation and dismantling 1, Russia is estimated to maintain a stockpile of around 4,500 nuclear warheads (‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’), with 1,600 strategic warheads deployed 2. And so, of course, the USA feels it has to maintain similar numbers of warheads in order to feel ‘safe’.
The post-WW2 elite club-of-one has since expanded to at least nine nuclear-armed states now possessing around 13,080 nuclear weapons between them 3. 3,825 of these are deployed to operational forces, with some 2,000 estimated to be kept on high alert by the United States and Russia – high alert – ready to go.
Nuclear tensions have remained high as all sides of a global ideological conflict continue to develop new ‘weapons systems’ – ie new and ever more innovative ways to kill hundreds of thousands of people at a stroke.
In their latest developments, Russia is now fielding hypersonic glide vehicles (‘Avangard’) that can be launched as MIRV’d payloads from their ICBMs, carrying nuclear warheads with such speed and manoeuvrability that render them essentially invulnerable to anti-missile systems – clearly a first strike weapon. They have also developed an automated torpedo (‘Poseidon’) capable of carrying a 2-megaton warhead (some reports have quoted up to 100-megatons), able to sink aircraft carriers or unleash irradiated tidal waves on coastal areas. Buoyed up by the growth of its offensive strategic weapons, Russia is increasingly threatening its neighbours, invading Crimea, flying bombers towards NATO coastlines, engaging in asymmetric cyber-attacks, expanding its submarine force and even sailing a submarine up the English Channel 4.
The threat is not confined to Russia. Supported by its massive (sometimes very polluting) economic growth, China is also asserting itself on the world. From mock aerial attacks on Taiwan, to the building of strategic islands and airstrips on the Spratley Islands, to the latest reports of their building 100 new ICBM silos 5, China has clearly also decided that it needs the power to threaten omnicide in order to achieve its political goals.
In the meantime, the USA and Russia pull out of arms control treaties and world safety seems to ebb further away with each passing day.
The immediate direct and delayed effects of nuclear explosions are by themselves psychopathically brutal beyond imagination. But those effects become amplified if more than a few of those weapons are used, when the soot from burning petrochemicals and cities threatens to bring on a nuclear winter that could kill billions of people. Research moved on after Sagan’s keynote book on nuclear winter was published in 1990, but ‘A Path Where No Man Thought’ remains a vibrant explanation of how nuclear war could end most life on Earth. Sagan and Turco show how the use of 3,000 – 6,000 warheads on either side (USA, Russia) could trigger a Type III nuclear winter, causing average land temperature to drop by around 10℃, leading to widespread famine in the Northern Hemisphere (amongst other things) and placing 1-2 billion people at risk of starvation globally.
It’s not an idle speculation that the US and Russia could plan to use so many nuclear weapons in a ‘central exchange’ – the US war plan from the 1960’s (SIOP) included a ‘grand tour’ bombing run of every city in Russia andChina (the latter being ‘just in case’ targets). The Grand Tour idea could be seductive – once you’ve decided that in order to win you can’t leave any of your enemy’s infrastructure standing, military or civilian, it becomes easy to just keep adding ‘targets’ (cities, units of hundreds of thousands of people) to the plan. But the release of soot into the atmosphere from so many burning cities could trigger a devastating nuclear winter, killing billions, and perhaps permanently destroying most of the global ecosystem.
And all for what?
Don’t you know there’s a war on?
The New Cold War is on. It’s the same as the old Cold War, but under a new name with some new players.
It is time that the leaders of nuclear-armed states learned to play a new game. —-
… it has been nearly a year since I revealed that I was now writing a series of fictional stories and articles with a Cold War theme…
– although I have been quiet, a lot has been happening behind the scenes!
This is the current status of my writing projects:
The ‘Lissa Blackwood’ novels were paused so I could create other stories and materials around the books’ Cold War themes:
Book 1 – “Evil Eye” has been completed to third-draft stage. Book 2 – currently unnamed – first draft in progress. Book 3 – currently unnamed – plotted but otherwise not started.
‘Special Investigations Group’ (SIG) short stories: 4 stories based in the same setting as the ‘Lissa Blackwood’ novels have been completed:
* Craig Ballard on a covert mission in Crimea. * Craig Ballard returns to Crimea. * Craig Ballard and Lissa Blackwood on covert missions in the Ukraine Occupied Territory, Estonia and Latvia. * Craig Ballard and Lissa Blackwood on a covert mission in Iceland
The first 3 of 6 short stories set within or around New Cold War nuclear bunkers have been drafted:
* Engineer Jon Barclay discovers a chemical weapon sabotage attempt.
* Hackers cause the release of an Orbital Nuclear Weapon – Engineer Jon Barclay helps to restore control of a UK Orbital Weapons Platform.
* Dr Jane Brady realises a psychotropic agent has been released in the bunker.
* The Start of War – Engineer Jon Barclay struggles to keep the bunker operational – news reaches them that a nearby civil defence bunker is in deadly trouble.
* Two Days after the Attack – a survivor in the bunker puts everyone inside at risk.
* Ten weeks after the Attack – trying to rescue survivors in the civil defence bunker.
A series of circa 33 non-fiction articles about the Cold War. With the exception of the curated links to videos relevant to each topic, first draft articles have been written for topics 1-4. I am currently writing articles for topic 5.
The final list of articles might still change a bit, but these are the current titles:
Topic 1: Assess & Rank Threats: Main Risks during the Cold War
The internet is bubbling with news stories about comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein). Current size estimates are that the comet is about 100-370 km across – much bigger than the previous size winner, Hale-Bopp in 1997 at 60km. There are big uncertainties at the moment, with C/2014 UN271 some 20 AU away. Those uncertainties will narrow, and we’ve plenty of time to do that it won’t reach perihelion until 2031.
Unfortunately its closest approach will be around 11 AU, with a currently estimated visual magnitude of about 14-15… so not a naked eye object and likely hard to see except for advanced amateurs.
Even so, it is so unusual to have an object of this size enter the outer solar system, it will be worth tracking this story over the next decade… who knows what C/2014 UN271 will tell us about the frigid wastes of the Oort cloud?
Over forty years many of the books I have enjoyed were ‘very good’, some ‘excellent’, and just one was ‘nearly perfect’ (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – you might say that ‘he went on a bit’).
Now I’m excited to share what I consider to be a PERFECT story – Manda Scott’s 2018 ‘A Treachery of Spies’.
The book was recommended to me and it is a pleasure to share that gift with other readers here.
The judgment of perfection is relative, of course. I would categorise this story as an action-thriller with espionage overtones. If that sounds like the kind of story you enjoy I think you will love it.
The story blends two timelines in an inter-connected plot that spans from British-French resistance and espionage in WW2 occupied France, to the modern-day execution of Sophie Destivelle, “… a very old, very elegant lady spy.” Destivelle was a British double-agent during the war. The story turns on her mission to eventually kill Max Krammer, the German officer who turned her into a traitor.
Early in the story, her fear-hate of Krammer is laid bare and we know that she is desperate to kill him. The British need her to get close to Krammer and act as their agent until they give her permission to do that – becoming a British double agent will both wipe the slate clean from her treachery and give her the closure that she needs with Krammer… and so she returns to France.
Scott surrounds Destivelle with an authentic cast of supporting characters and an exciting WW2 storyline. This is one of the story’s greatest strengths – it feels real, like she is giving us true insights into how the Resistance operated in France. Sub-plots around her British handler’s life, espionage and cryptography, deaths in the Blitz, all add colour to a well-drawn tale.
The modern-day murder mystery tracks how Detective Picaut, a French police officer, follows the breadcrumbs from Destivelle’s murder in a car park, through stories of the wartime Resistance, towards links with the CIA and NSA, and a final satisfying showdown that pulls all the strands together.
The other thing which struck me was the technical execution of the writing – it is flawless. I did not notice any typos. The pacing and structure of both action and dialogue were excellent. Descriptions were never intrusive and it was always clear who was involved. It takes years of effort to learn to write in this gold standard style, and Scott has clearly learnt her stuff.
Finally, I must add that the packaging of this story, in the copy I read, was also perfect. The cover design was excellent, the feel of the back cover made the book a pleasure to hold while reading, and the blurb was spot on.
I’m very interested in how propaganda was (and still is) used to influence the general population to accept nuclear weapons, even though it quickly became clear that nuclear war was not survivable in the hydrogen-bomb era.
Taras Young’s “Nuclear War in the UK” is on my reading list for 2021. In the meantime, this short article in The Guardian was an interesting introduction to the topic.