The Cuban Missile Crisis had made it clear that the nation might be attacked at any time but few had any idea just how devastating such an attack might be. Those at the highest levels of government had few illusions…
A nuclear strike on Britain in 1963 would have caused devastation beyond the wildest dreams of most people. Bunkers were built, evacuation plans were laid, but the chances of survival were slim.
The USSR’s strategic missile troops probably had several hundred SS-4 Sandal missiles at their disposal at the start of 1963 and more were entering service every month. Deployed along the western edge of the Soviet Union, their 1200 mile range was sufﬁcient to hit Britain and each was ﬁtted with a warhead of either one or 2.3 megatons. It is unknown precisely what they might have been aimed at in 1963 but a Ministry of Defence report in 1967 identiﬁed 104 probable targets.
It is likely that a Soviet missile strike would have attempted to knock out all of the RAF’s bomber bases and those of the US Air Force’s strategic bomber bases as a priority. It would have simultaneously hit military command centres, communications centres, radar stations, naval bases, ﬁghter bases and surface-to-air missile defence bases. Twenty major cities were also on the list: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Shefﬁeld, Stoke-on-Trent, Southampton, Swansea and Wolverhampton.
Every one of these would have been hit by at least one, probably two missiles. Two would be ﬁred at each target in case one failed and London would be hit with eight missiles. Assuming the strikes on ﬁghter bases, radar sites and missile defence bases had been a success and Britain lay ruined and helpless, the next phase of the Soviet plan involved sending waves of strategic bombers over the same 104 targets and dropping two 500 kiloton nuclear bombs on each of them. These, the smallest of the weapons to be used, each had the explosive power of 450 Hiroshimas.
In addition to preparing for a full scale nuclear strike, the USSR was also compiling detailed maps of Britain using Ordnance Survey maps, photo reconnaissance from Zenit spy satellites and information gathered by spies working on the ground. Around 50,000 cartographers were employed to produce the documents which typically showed military structures left off maps made available to the public and in some instances even gave road widths and load bearing characteristics of bridges in the event that the Red Army might need to roll its new 40 ton T-62 tanks across them. A colour coding system was used with industrial structures coloured black, administrative centres in purple and green for military installations. Primary routes of invasion for cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester were marked in red. These maps were regularly updated
throughout the Cold War but it is not clear in what circumstances they were to be used, given the likelihood that a nuclear strike would have reduced many of the buildings and even roadways illustrated to unrecognizable rubble.
A nuclear strike on London
A thermonuclear missile air burst just above the centre of London, over St James’s Park for example, would result in catastrophic damage.
The detonation would produce a shockwave of high pressure air radiating outwards, crushing everything in its path. The park’s lake, trees and
wildlife would be instantly vaporised and all large buildings in the vicinity — Westminster Palace, Whitehall, the Ministry of Defence, Downing
Street, Buckingham Palace and so on — would be destroyed in less than one second. People and objects such as cars and lamp posts would be
annihilated by the sheer overpressure of the blast. The surface pressure and shock would shatter below-ground structures up to a depth of about 20m.
Everything within a distance of less than a mile from ground zero, all the debris generated, would remain in situ but would be completely
unrecognizable. It would pile up to a depth of several hundred feet in places. At the same time, an intense ﬂash of light and burst of heat would
affect anyone looking in the direction of the blast, even from miles away. This would produce temporary ﬂash blindness lasting several minutes. Over the next 15 seconds, the blast and ﬁrestorm would spread out, covering a radius of up to 10 miles and resulting in more than two
Hundreds of thousands more just outside the immediate radius of the blast would suffer from ﬁrst, second and third degree burns. A person suffering even third degree burns over more than 24% of their body will enter severe shock which will most likely prove fatal. Dense sources of combustible material such as duvets and sofas would be ignited by the expanding wave of thermal radiation causing numerous ﬁres in even small areas. Anyone caught in but surviving the initial blast would be exposed to a lethal dose of
The greatest hazard to survivors outside the blast zone would come from small particles of debris irradiated by the nuclear explosion and then carried outward by the shock wave or those forming the ‘cap’ of the mushroom cloud. Particles forming the mushroom cloud’s ‘stem’ would be more highly radioactive but would quickly fall back to earth in areas where most people have already died.
Particles carried away from the point of impact in whichever direction the wind happens to be blowing would form a distended radiation ‘hot spot’. Rain causes particles to fall back to earth too so areas of rainfall in the days following the blast are more likely to become heavily irradiated. In the case of London, with this grim scenario being repeated seven more times across the city, with two further bombs being dropped after the initial strikes, it seems unlikely that there would be any survivors. If all 104 targets on the
Ministry of Defence’s 1967 list had been hit at once, there would have been no safe zones anywhere in Britain. It is estimated that this scenario would have resulted in two thirds of the population dying instantly. Almost the
entire country would have been rendered uninhabitable and those few who did manage to survive would face a situation of unimaginable destruction and horror. All facilities such as water and power would have been knocked out. There would be no easy way of telling which areas were irradiated and which, if any, were not and even those hospitals which avoided being destroyed in the ﬁrst strike would be rendered completely ineffective by the sheer volume of casualties they would be called upon to treat.
Missile alert system
Few people realized in 1963 just how devastating an all-out nuclear attack would be and there was always the possibility that an attack would be less
than total. Therefore, Britain had an advanced missile detection and attack early warning system in place. Early in the year, this started with the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station, now known as the Jodrell Bank Observatory. Its radio telescope was regarded as being the only scientific instrument in the world capable of detecting an incoming missile.
Later in the year though, a much more advanced and dedicated missile detection system was installed at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors. The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) consists of three radomes, each measuring 40m in diameter, which look like gigantic golf balls and contain mechanically steered radar equipment. It is still in operation today but even in 1963 it was powerful enough to track incoming missiles and determine what their targets were. Britain would get a maximum of ﬁve minutes’ warning but the US, which installed the system, would receive 30 minutes.
The second stage of the system was the responsibility of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO) at Royal Observer Corps (ROC) headquarters in Preston. Once it was sent a veriﬁed warning by BMEWS, it would immediately put out an alert on all national and local TV and radio networks via an emergency studio at BBC Broadcasting House in London. This would override whatever programme viewers and listeners happened to be tuned in to at the time.
Simultaneously, a second system called Handel would send a verbal warning to 250 major police stations across the country via the same phone lines that were used by the speaking clock. The operator would hold down
a button and give the message: “Attack warning red! Attack warning red!” The system was also wired into 7000 remotely powered air raid sirens across the country which would then be sounded. If this failed, the sirens could be operated manually by the police.
What might happen next has never been clearly defined. The Government created a publication called Protect and Survive but it was never ofﬁcially published. Later, a series of 20 public information ﬁlms was produced but never screened. The BBC had instructions only to air it if a nuclear strike looked likely within the next 72 hours.
Prior to 1963, it was assumed that the best way to protect the population was to move it away from large urban areas and potential military targets. April 8, 1962, saw the implementation of Exercise Bluebell. This
involved moving 4000 volunteers via the Bluebell Railway to 36 rest centres along its route. It took months to plan and little thought was given to what would happen to the people evacuated if they could not be moved back to
their point of origin within a day or two.
Exercise Bluebell was typical of the sort of civil defence planning conducted by the local authorities that had responsibility for it. During
1963 there was a growing realization that in the event of an attack using thermonuclear weapons there would be very few ‘safe’ places. In 1966 it
was formally decided that attempting to move large numbers of people around shortly before an attack with highly unpredictable
consequences was a very bad idea.
There were three organizations in Britain that would have been expected to swing into action in the immediate aftermath of an attack, had any of their members survived long enough to do so. By 1963, the nation’s Civil Defence Corps had 122,000 members and the Auxiliary Fire Service had 14,000. The corps, whose members were issued with dark blue uniforms and berets, was expected to form a civilian authority in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Every county in England and Wales and burgh in Scotland had a ‘division’. These were divided up into sections such as headquarters, signals, scientific and reconnaissance, wardens, rescue and ambulance.
The Auxiliary Fire Service was equipped with 1000 ‘Green Goddess’ Bedford RLHZ Self Propelled Pump ﬁre engines and operated alongside the regular ﬁre service during peacetime. In the event of a nuclear strike, it would have operated alongside the Civil Defence Corps in attempting to bring ﬁres resulting from nuclear blasts under control and would have been tasked with rescuing survivors from debris.
The Royal Observer Corps, which had been tasked with spotting enemy bombers during the Second World War, was a third key element of Britain’s civil defence. After a nuclear attack its members would have had to report on points of missile impact, the magnitude of the explosion and levels of fallout. A total of 1563 hardened ROC monitoring posts were constructed
between 1958 and 1968 and although the number of ROC groups was reduced from 40 to 31 in 1962, those that remained were more professional and better trained.
Britain’s nuclear bunkers
For anything other than a direct hit, an underground bunker provided the best defence against the blast and subsequent fallout of a nuclear missile attack and Britain had hundreds of them already built by 1963. The most
numerous were the ROC’s tiny underground monitoring posts. These were sited about eight miles apart across the whole country and cost about £5000 (£96,000 in today’s money) each to build. They were made from a waterproofed concrete shell buried about 25ft down.
The three ROC staff for each post had to climb down a vertical shaft on a steel ladder to get in and once inside they could look forward to living in a single room together with a set of bunk beds, a chemical toilet in a separate compartment and air provided by ventilators atboth ends. Power came from a 12v lead-acid battery which would be charged from a portable petrol generator and communication was via telephone, although this was replaced in 1964 ﬁrst boosted tele-talk units and then radio. In practice, conditions were cramped, cold and often damp — despite the waterprooﬁng.
The ROC monitoring posts were linked to around 30 command centres. These were far more substantial structures that were either above ground or semi-sunken to provide increased protection. They provided living
quarters for up to 100 observers and UKWMO warning teams. Men and women had separate dormitories; there were kitchens, decontamination facilities, life support systems, a communications centre and a central
The ROC was a civilian organization and its bunkers therefore paled in comparison to what was available to Britain’s military. In 1963, preparations were being made to bring the nation’s 66 decommissioned Rotor bunkers back into use. Work on Rotor, a code name for Britain’s air defence radar system, was begun in 1949. The 170 radar sites operated during the Second World War were drastically reduced in number and the equipment in those that remained was upgraded. The old Chain Home radar technology was replaced by a system initially called Green Garlic but later known as Type 80.
Rotor was established on both the eastern and western sides of the country but those on the eastern side had greater protection since they would be closer to the incoming Russian bombers. These huge underground bunkers,
often with as many as three below-ground levels, were disguised above ground by a ‘bungalow’. This innocuous looking building served as both a concealed access point and a guardroom for the bunker below. It appeared to have a conventional wooden roof structure with tiles on top but beneath this ordinary exterior sat layers of reinforced concrete.
The bunkers themselves had 10ft thick walls made from concrete laid over a tough skeleton of iron bars, their own generators, air conditioning and boreholes for water. The overall Rotor project entailed the use of 350,000 tons of concrete and 20,000 tons of steel plus hundreds of thousands of miles of telephone lines and electric cabling. In 1953, command and control
staffs were transferred to the Rotor bunkers because it was quicker to relay information to them if they were there on the spot. A system of Master Radar Stations (MRS) was set up in 1955 to supersede Rotor and this required far fewer than the 66 stations already built. Many of these
were mothballed and the rest were upgraded.
These MRS facilities were themselves in the process of being replaced by a new system — Linesman — in 1963. The advent of missiles with hydrogen warheads and supersonic Soviet bombers meant that the existing system of air defence radar would have to undergo a second upgrade which would integrate the individual stations into a system focused on a single site,
known as L1. The staff at L1 would receive data from all Linesman stations simultaneously, giving them a complete picture of the UK’s air defence status.
In addition, the powerful but easy to jam Type 80 radar would be replaced by three new systems that would work together. These would be Marconi’s new Type 84 radar and AEI’s Type 85, also known as Blue Yeoman, and a device produced by Decca to determine the height of incoming contacts called HF200. The two new radar systems would operate on separate
frequencies to reduce the chances of both being jammed. The prototype of L1 was established at RAF West Drayton in Middlesex in 1963 but the
system did not become operationally active until the 1970s.
The satellite Linesman bunkers at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk, RAF Staxton Wold in Yorkshire, RAF Boulmer in Northumberland and RAF Bishopscourt in Northern Ireland fed their information into L1 enabling its staff to form a
‘recognised air picture’ covering an area which measured 1024 by 1024 nautical miles over the British Isles. As more advanced computers were
added to Linesman the area of coverage increased to 1900 by 1900 nautical miles. L1 also received data from radar sites at RAF Ash in Kent, RAF Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, RAF Clee Hill in Shropshire, RAF Corsham and two sites in London.
The underground city
The largest bunker in Britain in 1963 was reserved for the Government. If nuclear war seemed imminent, there needed to be somewhere safe for the prime minister, his cabinet, high level civil servants and their staff to
shelter and continue the work of governing what remained of the nation. This vast but top secret site was known as Burlington bunker or ‘Site 3’
and it was situated 60-100ft below the surface in a former stone quarry in Wiltshire.
Throughout the 1950s the Government’s underground shelter and war rooms had been situated in London but during the age of atomic weapons it was considered that destruction of the capital would be a high priority for the Soviets and the existing shelter, known as Paddock, was not strong or deep enough to withstand a direct hit. Therefore, in 1956, it was decided that a more secure facility would be needed and the Spring Quarry site was chosen. Work began on the 3300ft by 650ft site immediately and was completed in 1961.
When the decision was taken to evacuate the Government from Whitehall, the prime minister and key members of his cabinet would have been
ﬂown to Burlington by helicopter. The rest of their staff — up to 4000 civil servants — would join them as soon as possible thereafter by train via a
secret branch line off the GWR. The bunker had everything they would need to remain below ground for at least three months. There were
dormitories, two kitchens, two canteens, a bakery, a laundry, a medical centre complete with examination rooms, hospital wards, workshops and a library stocked with everything the country would need to rebuild even if all specialists in particular ﬁelds were wiped out. It had books on scientiﬁc processes, technical manuals, maps and Government documents.
There was an underground lake to keep the bunker’s residents supplied with fresh water, a water ﬁltration plant, a telephone exchange which was the second biggest in Britain when it was built, a system of pneumatic tubes so that written messages could be easily relayed across the complex, electric buggies for speedy transportation of personnel along 60 miles of
roads, a buggy battery recharging station, a dark room for developing photographs, and even a pub called the Rose & Crown.
There were more than 100,000 individual lights, a public address system with record player for piping music around the bunker and an air conditioning system to keep the climate at a steady 20˚C. This was ﬁtted with ﬁlters and butterﬂy valves which could be used to seal the system if there was a risk of fallout or other contamination. The bunker’s generators had enough fuel to keep them running nonstop for three months. Accommodation for the prime minister and his family consisted of an ordinary looking room, much like those elsewhere in the bunker but the walls were whitewashed and there was a private bathroom complete with bath whereas most other residents would have been forced to share communal washrooms with long rows of lavatories and basins.
The bunker’s storerooms were kept stocked with everything necessary to maintain a ‘normal’ existence. There were teapots, lamps, toilet brushes, a potato rumbler for removing skins and even equipment for making butter pats. Murals were painted on the walls by artist Olga Lehmann. There was an armory too, which would have been stocked with the standard issue service weapons of the day — Enﬁeld No. 2 Mk.I revolvers, Browning Hi-Power pistols, Sterling submachine guns and possibly even a Bren gun or two.
A staff of around 50 kept the bunker in a state of readiness throughout 1963 and on into the 1980s until it was mothballed in 1991 and ﬁnally decommissioned in 2004. Its future is uncertain with several options apparently being reviewed.
Save the Queen — Operation Candid
Plans were drawn up in 1963 for what should happen to the Queen and the Royal Household in the event of a nuclear attack. These plans were codenamed Operation Candid and involved a 1300 strong battalion of soldiers and a signals unit in a ﬂeet of armoured cars escorting the royals to safety. Candid would be activated when it became clear that a state of
emergency existed and the royal family would be rapidly taken to an isolated country estate well away from any of their well known residences such as Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, or Sandringham House in Norfolk. Although precise details have never been made public it is likely that Prince Charles, as the heir to the throne, would have been moved
separately to a second location.