This article focuses on how UK government propaganda and bunker construction helped to promote the idea of nuclear-survivability to the civilian population during the Cold War.
Nuclear weapons are the equivalent of trying to crush a single grape with a volcanic explosion. There was nothing “strategic” about the nuclear-armed states’ plans for those weapons. Excepting the very smallest warheads, even so-called ‘tactical’ weapons had the ability to destroy cities.
UK government officials had a clear understanding that hydrogen bombs were capable of totally destroying large cities in a single blast. For civilians, survival near to such an attack would have been essentially impossible – and “near to” meant being in a city or town, or within about 40km of a ‘strategic target’ (for a 500kt warhead). For example, a 1955 Joint Intelligence Committee report said that “… ten ‘H’ Bombs, each of a yield of about 10 megatons, delivered on the Western seaboard, with the normal prevailing winds, would effectively disrupt the life of the country and make normal activity completely impossible.” (1) Abnormal life under those conditions would of course have meant having access to bunkers, masks and NBC suits.
A few years later in 1961, Nikita Khrushchev told Sir Frank Roberts that “… the pessimists thought that six bombs would be required to put the UK out of commission while the optimists felt that nine would be needed.” Whatever the actual small number, six to ten H-bombs exploded in the sea along the Western coastline of Britain would destroy the country – apparently Khrushchev said that “… West Germany, France and the UK would ‘perish’ on ‘the first day’ [of World War 3]” (see Hennessy).
Despite this knowledge, successive governments published information describing ways that civilians could increase their chances of survival. This egregious use of propaganda to deceive the general population diluted the debate about nuclear disarmament, helping governments to maintain a status quo within which the weapons could continue to be deployed.
Consider the 30-minute film entitled ‘The Hole in The Ground’ from 1962. It shows the ’United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation’ (UKWMO) responding to a nuclear attack. The film shows a shockingly overwhelming sense of calm as the nation above-ground is being destroyed. Nobody panics. Everyone does their jobs as required. The nuclear attack is portrayed as an emotionless exercise in numbers and planning. The effect of nuclear blasts on actual towns and cities is never shown, even when one of the staff in the bunker becomes aware that her parents’ town has been hit directly.
The message for civilians from ‘The Hole in The Ground’ is to leave it all to the ‘experts’. Even though they would be enduring a real-life nightmare. Even though the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by the nuclear explosions would have destroyed telephone lines between the various headquarters and their nuclear monitoring posts. The film presents a compartmentalised view of a nuclear attack, ignoring the human horrors on the surface and focusses instead on regimented administrative tasks.
This is not to say that UKWMO’s (2) efforts were pointless. There was a feeling that something should be done to try and protect the civilian population. It was created in 1957 from a mixed group of volunteers and professionals (the Royal Observer Corps- ROC). Headquartered in a converted barracks building in Cowley, Oxfordshire, its five main tasks were to:
- Warn civilians of an impending air attack.
- Confirm nuclear strikes on the UK.
- Warn civilians about approaching fall-out.
- Providing information about nuclear blasts and fallout to civilian and military authorities.
- Provide post-attack meteorological services.
While it is true that within the zones destroyed by the bombs few people would have survived the immediate effects of the blast, people living beyond them would very likely have needed help. In that context, the dissolution of the UKMO in 1992 and the ROC in 1995 by John Major’s Conservative government were perhaps the last and most uncaring action in the abandonment of the civilian population by decades of Whitehall officials.
By the end of World War Two, Britain had spent almost £7 billion on the war effort. The nation had endured terrible numbers of civilian and military deaths, the bombing of its cities and rationing. Afterwards it would slowly face up to the death of the British Empire and its decline as a global power. The new Labour government was quick to focus the country on hope for the future despite the circumstances of this “Age of Austerity” (3).
In the public eye, the creation in 1946 of the free-to-access National Health Service greatly increased the quality of medical care for all people, especially for the poor and elderly. Transportation was improved in the 1950s and legislation created ‘holidays’ that allowed many people to spend time by the seaside, enjoying traditional pier attractions and live shows. The 1951 “Festival of Britain” exhibition symbolised the revival of Britain, showcasing national achievements in science, manufacturing and housing- it was described as being ‘magical’, showing innovation and optimism (4). National optimism rose even further in 1953 with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – an event which increased sales of domestic television sets so that people could watch the ceremony from their own homes (5).
Britain was presenting an impressive display of defensive strength that was amplified by its 1952 detonation of an atomic bomb, making it the World’s third nuclear power (6).
Films like ‘The Hole in The Ground’ and the revelation that the government was planning its own survival increased the public’s awareness of the technology of nuclear war. As a relatively high-technology, industrialised nation, these secret plans, bunker codenames and equipment reinforced the idea that the government was working hard and knew what it was doing. The structures, both physical and military-political constructs, looked and felt like they had a determined purpose to achieve something – so surely they must have been ‘right’?
Booming sales of television sets gave the government a new ability to direct propaganda directly into people’s homes instead of during their special trips to the cinema. Its ability to influence the population had grown deeper, allowing it to spread the message that people should not panic about a nuclear attack, but be assured that the government and its agencies everything under control (7). For a population still recovering from the war, with recent memories of ARP Wardens, Andersen shelters and a culture of ‘careless talk costs lives’, perhaps these messages were easily accepted.
That acceptance was assisted by the suppression of dissenting views. For example, in 1965 the government prevented the BBC film “The War Game” from being broadcast (8) because it “… [was] too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however, be shown to invited audiences…” The official government statement said the BBC’s decision not to broadcast it “… was not the result of outside pressure of any kind.” I doubt that anybody present then, or today, believes that to be true. In later years, with the media showing stories of clampdowns on peace marches and protestors being arrested by the Police, and with MI5 quietly keeping files on dissenters, what chance was there for the reality of non-survivability to enter the mainstream consciousness?
Meanwhile, propaganda posters were produced throughout the Cold War encouraging people to enroll in local Civil Defence.
For example, take a look at this poster from 1957 (9) – it says that “…there would be terrible devastation, but for millions and millions of people, chances of survival would be very good. It depends very much on our Civil Defence.”
The Civil Defence Corps was offering people the chance to learn what were classed as everyday life skills, but also those that the government deemed could be useful in a nuclear attack, such as how to put out a fire or operate a radio transmitter.
This poster in particular emphasises the ‘YOU’, making it personal to the reader in the same manner that was employed with the propaganda for the two World Wars to encourage people to enlist. YOU learn these skills by joining the Corps – which will unite the country – and YOU will survive a nuclear attack! (9)
There is some truth in those statements, but they pay little attention to the effects of fallout or a nuclear winter. They also disregard the callous manner in which the entire British mainland could have been rendered uninhabitable with minimal effort, if the Soviet Union had so desired.
Public attention on Civil Defence soared in the 1980s when increasingly dangerous rhetoric between the USA and Soviet Union brought the world perilously close to Armageddon. But this time the public had become very aware of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the UK government was forced in those circumstances to distribute its ‘Protect and Survive’ programme via various media channels. Even then, the government persisted in propagating the lie that people could survive if they were sufficiently well prepared.
The advice was to build shelters out of doors and bags of soil inside the ‘safest’ area of houses. How this was supposed to help beggars belief – blast and over-pressure would have collapsed or destroyed homes within the 40km zone, and fallout would have penetrated the rubble to kill off those who had survived the first few minutes of an attack.
And yet today I believe that a majority of the public still believe the messages from ‘Protect and Survive’ – it is the effectiveness of that propaganda that buys both their unquestioning acceptance of these weapons and a lack of proper civil defence. Yields of nuclear weapons deployed today range from around 100kt (UK Trident SLBM), through circa 500kt (US stockpile (10) ) to circa 1Mt (eg 750kt Sarmat MIRV warheads), and each of these are capable of destroying cities.
The risks are unchanged… and yet government policy continues to be that the general population would be sacrificed in the event of a nuclear war.
1. “ The Secret State” – ‘Beyond the Imagination: The Spectre of Ever-Greater Annihilation’ – Peter Hennessy – Penguin 2003
2. “United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_Warning_and_Monitoring_Organisation
3. “Life after war” – https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zgmf2nb/revision/5
4. “Britain in the 1950s” – https://www.retrowow.co.uk/50s.html
5. “The Coronation 1953” – https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Coronation-1953/
6. “Britain in 1950” – https://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/community/resources/postwar/Britain%20in%201950.pdf
7. “Britain in the 1950s” – https://www.retrowow.co.uk/50s.html
8. “BBC film censored?” – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/sixties-britain/bbc-film-censored/
9. “Civil Defence is Common Sense” – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/fifties-britain/civil-defence-common-sense/
10. “Complete List of All U.S. Nuclear Weapons” – https://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/Allbombs.html