Attack Warning Red! How Britain Prepared for Nuclear War 
by Julie McDowall.
Bodley Head, 246 pp., £22, April, 978 1 84792 621 0
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In​ 1955, William Strath was asked to produce a report for the government on the possible impact of nuclear conflict on the UK. Strath, a former tax inspector, economic planner and experienced civil servant, came to the conclusion that Britain was unlikely to emerge from a nuclear attack as a functioning society, never mind as a nation able to wage war. The United States had recently tested its first H-bomb, and the Soviet Union was working on its own version. The atomic bomb worked through nuclear fission, splitting the atom to release a huge blast of energy; the hydrogen bomb used fusion – forcing two atoms into a single new atom – as well as fission to produce a blast many times more powerful. Churchill said that the A-bomb was not ‘unmanageable as an instrument of war’, but that the H-bomb ‘carries us into dimensions which have never confronted practical human thought’. A single A-bomb would kill perhaps fifty thousand people; a single H-bomb could completely destroy a city the size of Birmingham. Missile delivery systems, replacing manned bombers, meant that these weapons were now far easier to deploy.

Strath assumed an attack involving ten H-bombs, each with a yield of ten megatons. The force of such an attack would be 45 times greater than all the bombs dropped by the Allies on Germany, Italy and occupied France during the Second World War. The heat flash from one H-bomb would ‘start in a built-up area anything up to a hundred thousand fires, with a circumference of between sixty to a hundred miles’. Nowhere would be ‘free from the risk of radioactive contamination’. The danger of starvation would be high in the short term, and significant in the long term too: crops, animals and land would all be contaminated. In badly hit areas ‘there might be complete chaos for a time and civil control would collapse.’ Twelve million people might be killed. If the UK was subject to an ‘all-out attack’, it was doubtful whether the country would be ‘in any state to carry on hostilities’. Strath concluded that the government needed to take major steps if British society was to have any chance. It needed to build shelters, disperse industry and stockpile food and raw materials.

The government acted on almost none of Strath’s recommendations. In 1955 there were an estimated 2622 nuclear warheads worldwide. By 1986, the year numbers peaked, there were 64,099. In the 1980s, 70 per cent of young people in Britain saw nuclear war as inevitable. In 1984 the BBC broadcast the astonishingly grim nuclear drama Threads. For Julie McDowall, who watched it at the time, the film was responsible for a ‘life’s worth of dread’, leading her ultimately to make a podcast about preparations for nuclear war, and to write this book.

The advent of the H-bomb and missile delivery systems rendered useless most of the defensive practices developed during the war. The bombs would come too quickly and be too powerful. In a small, densely populated country, fallout would affect everyone. The austerity of the mid-1950s constantly stymied possible British preparations on the home front, though plenty of money was found for bombs and submarines: deterrence by means of a policy of mutually assured destruction. The government couldn’t even find the resources to fund the national provision of steel ID tags, to allow for the identification of incinerated bodies in the event of an attack. Mass bunker-building was out of the question.

The result was that most ordinary people were expected to prepare for nuclear attack by creating a personal refuge at home: in a cellar, under the stairs or in a room fortified with sandbags and bricked-up windows. A 1963 government pamphlet advised householders to equip their fallout rooms with

mattresses, pillows and blankets, tables and chairs, plates, cups, knives, forks, spoons, teapot, tin-opener, bottle-opener, kettle, saucepans, portable stove and fuel, portable radio set and spare batteries, torches, batteries, candles, matches, face flannels, towels, sanitary towels, soap, tea towels, rubber or plastic gloves, clock, books and magazines, toys for children, notebook and pencil, box containing personal papers, e.g. NHS medical cards, savings bank books, birth and marriage certificates, first aid kit.

An accompanying film showed a housewife stocking up on Farley’s Rusks and mock turtle soup.

In the 1980s the advice remained much the same, but the Protect and Survive booklet and films were more grim and clinical than the paternalistic propaganda of the 1960s. The instructions for creating a blast shelter inside the home were plain: block off windows and fortify exterior walls with furniture or bags of earth and sand; create an inner refuge, for example between two doors leaning together in an A-frame, surrounded by more furniture, books and bags of earth. Families were supposed to spend the first 48 hours after bombing in this inner refuge. In 1963 they had been asked to ‘give shelter to anyone caught without protection near your home’; in Protect and Survive they were told: ‘If there is time, help neighbours in need.’ No one was to flee, since the authorities in other parts of the country ‘will not help you with food, accommodation or other essentials’. As E.P. Thompson wrote in his anti-nuclear counterblast Protest and Survive (1980), ‘many thousands of nuclear families’ would be ‘baked, crushed or suffocated to death’ in their tiny refuges.

McDowall sees Protect and Survive as emblematic of the ‘new era of individualism’ ushered in by Thatcher, but in fact the materials were assembled in 1974-76, well before she became prime minister; they were made public in 1980 only because the films were leaked to the BBC, forcing the government to make the booklet available too. McDowall’s critique is more applicable to the 1980s boom in private companies promising to supply households with the tools of survival. In 1981 the industry even got its own magazine, Protect and Survive Monthly, which was mainly a collection of adverts for Geiger counters and shelters with names like the Mole and the Egg. It’s hard to know how many ordinary people participated in the privatisation of civil defence. Some certainly wanted to prepare: one ‘housewife and mother’ wrote to the Sunday Times in 1980 asking whether it would ‘be helpful to cover our shelter with plastic to give us some protection from radiation?’ Protect and Survive Monthly had twelve thousand subscribers in 1981, but by 1986 had folded. Doubtless only a tiny minority ever purchased a shelter.

In fact, a Guardian investigation found that many shelters on the market were ‘actually lethal’: made of combustible materials or lined with lead that would melt if exposed to high temperatures. The government stepped in and issued a pamphlet giving approved shelter designs, ranging from 1a (the most basic) to 4 (reinforced concrete, professionally constructed). An activist for the CND built type 1b – an A-frame made of scaffolding, set over a trench and covered with plywood, polythene, mattresses and earth, with a small pipe for ventilation – and lived in it for two weeks. Unsurprisingly, he was bored and uncomfortable. It was soon damp and mouldy; his skin was ‘wet all the time’; the smell of ‘piss and disinfectant’ was everywhere; he discovered black flies and a white worm in his clothes; it became difficult to light a candle due to lack of oxygen.

This revealed what should have been obvious since the 1950s: people weren’t the priority. The government’s main aspiration was to ensure its own survival in some form. The only recommendations in the Strath report acted on with any enthusiasm were those relating to the provision of refuges for state agents and to the exercise of emergency powers. For the housing of central government, a huge bunker was constructed inside an underground wartime aircraft factory in the West Country. It could house four thousand people and was equipped with offices, dormitories, a laundry, canteen, medical facilities, a BBC studio and a telephone exchange. Altar cloths, candlesticks and prayer books were stocked, so that worship could take place underground, but rumours of a pub were unfounded. In 1968 the policy was changed: the government would be split up and scattered across the UK, in the hope that at least some units could continue to function. Some would go to smaller bunkers; one was to be sent to Oban or Mallaig, where one of Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries, the Clansman, Columba or Hebrides, would have picked them up. The ferries had been commissioned as mobile bunkers, with airtight doors to seal the car decks and decontamination chambers. It’s possible that one would have received the queen.

How did it feel to live in the shadow of the apocalypse? Local government officials, police officers, medical professionals and clergymen were all trained in how to manage the aftermath of nuclear war. The police would play a key role in the run-up to its outbreak – requisitioning supplies, rounding up dissenters and maintaining public order – and were expected to hunker down in refuge rooms in local stations after the attack, emerging when safe ‘to lead and set an example to the public’. Vicars were supposed to ‘be with the dying, the injured and the distraught’.

The advice given to medical staff ran from the ridiculous to the sublime. Staff at ‘casualty collecting centres’ were told to siphon off patients whose deaths seemed inevitable to a holding area, though they mustn’t describe these patients as ‘moribund – expecting to die – but expectant, meaning expecting to get away to hospital as soon as possible’. A lecture on nursing after an attack warned: ‘There will be no place for grumblers.’ The government contemplated requisitioning ice cream vans, using their chiller cabinets to store blood and medicine. The East Anglia Regional Health Board, meanwhile, issued guidance on what natural remedies NHS staff could turn to when modern pharmaceuticals ran out. Mistletoe could be used to treat high blood pressure: ‘Collect young twigs in spring and dry at 45ºC.’ Some protested that post-nuclear medicine was a fantasy. In 1983, Richard Lawson, a GP and CND member, called a public meeting in his village after hearing that some of his patients planned to kill their children in the event of an attack, rather than allow them to die of radiation poisoning. He proposed issuing suicide pills if war seemed imminent; the meeting overwhelmingly approved the motion.

Local government officials gathered at civil defence colleges to hear lectures. They also participated in war games like ‘Hot Seat’, which involved sitting in a darkened room (a simulated bunker) trying to maintain law and order in the country at large while feeding and housing survivors. As fictional food supplies dwindled, they had to cut rations repeatedly; at the debriefing, they were asked: ‘Did you realise that … everyone was starving?’ For some, making these preparations was sickening. One official sent to the civil defence college at Easingwold, a country house in North Yorkshire, told a journalist: ‘I’d been issued with an allowance for the bar from the council before I went, and I thought “this is immoral, I shouldn’t be given this money to spend on drink,” but, by golly, I didn’t half need it … On the first night I was getting quite pie-eyed. It was all the tension I was under.’

Others wanted to revive the Blitz spirit. The Civil Defence Corps was founded in 1949 to undertake work in monitoring, communications, welfare, first aid, and fire and rescue, as well as acting as ‘guide, philosopher, friend and leader’ to the general public in the aftermath of an attack. Its motto was ‘Civil defence is common sense.’ Many early volunteers had cut their teeth during the war doing similar work. The corps trained and recruited through elaborate performances of ‘nuclear street theatre’; one exercise in West London involved searchlights, a ‘mock-up house’, walkie-talkies, a ‘column rescue vehicle … rescuing casualties’ and firefighters ‘directing jets of water’, while the welfare section built a ‘fore and cross trench cooker’ using debris. Another, in Bristol, involved members of a local operatic society made up as casualties, ‘screaming in an almost unearthly manner as the soldiers cleared away the debris above the void’.

Another voluntary organisation, the Royal Observer Corps (the ‘eyes and ears of the RAF’ during the Battle of Britain), was given the job of monitoring the devastation. In the mid-1950s, a web of tiny bunkers was created for its members, each equipped with an Elsan chemical toilet, steel bunk beds, provisions, scientific instruments and communications equipment. In an attack, ROC members would help sound the alarm before retreating below ground. To help calculate the location and strength of the blasts, they would measure changes in air pressure using ‘bomb power indicators’. One volunteer from each station would climb up the escape hatch to collect the photographic paper stored inside the bunker’s ‘ground zero indicator’, which would show whether the bombs had exploded in the air, causing maximum blast, or on the ground, creating a bigger mushroom cloud of radioactive debris. Finally, the observers would take radiation readings using a ‘fixed survey meter’ connected to the outside world by a long pipe. When the time came they would venture above ground, firing maroons to sound three huge bangs warning survivors that fallout was about to descend. In theory, their work would allow the extent of damage and the spread of fallout to be estimated and communicated.

ROC volunteers whom McDowall has interviewed remember the excitement and camaraderie of training: ‘The long stint when I did the whole 48 hours flew by! It’s not like office work. It was fun’; ‘it was extra special when we went to annual camp … We were one big family who shared the same interests.’ Some, though, were pessimistic about the ultimate outcome of their work: one said she and her colleagues concluded that ‘there would be nothing left after the expected three weeks from bomb burst to radiation decay, so we probably wouldn’t survive anyway. We would carry on doing our job until such time as we became ill through lack of uncontaminated food or water.’

Also pressed into service in the 1950s was the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Founded in 1938 to provide respectable, useful, patriotic voluntary work for ladies, the WRVS now spearheaded the ‘One in Five’ campaign, trying to reach one in five British women with tips on how to build a bunker under the stairs, what to stockpile in the home and how to treat injuries. In 1981 the organisation was still promising to provide, in the aftermath of an attack, ‘rest homes for the injured, emergency clothing from our depots’, ‘meals on wheels’, and, hopefully, a ‘jigsaw on wheels’ programme. A One in Five instructor acknowledged in an interview that nuclear war was ‘a very grim prospect’, but thought the WRVS’s work was ‘better than nothing … you have to give people hope that there is something they can do.’

The CND, founded in 1957, held that all this was lunacy. Its fortunes waxed and waned with the temperature of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis boosted support, but 1970s détente brought the organisation close to extinction. Then it was revived in response to the futuristic missile defence systems promised by Reagan’s Star Wars programme. In the immediate postwar era, the iconic CND protest was the annual march from London to Aldermaston, site of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. In the 1980s the tactics became more theatrical: die-ins in the streets and protests at ROC monitoring posts. Outside the Alexandra Palace bunker, activists painted themselves red ‘to resemble blast victims … sat down on the steel trapdoor and fastened plastic bags over the air vent’, making ‘air raid noises through a loudhailer’.

Left-wing councils became strongholds of the anti-nuclear movement. When the radicals on the South Yorkshire Fire and Civil Defence Authority were forced by the Thatcher government to make plans for nuclear war, they responded by publicising plans so detailed and lurid that they functioned as anti-nuclear propaganda. Protect and Survive advised readers, grimly enough, that ‘if anyone dies while you are kept in your fallout room’, you should ‘move the body to another room in the house. Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.’ The South Yorkshire plan warned that ‘the bag should not be too tightly sealed, as pressure of the gases produced by a body decomposing is likely to rupture the bag and the resulting smell is likely to create unnecessary offence.’

Teachers got in on the act, introducing ‘peace studies’ in some schools. Tories objected that students were being taught to ‘lay down our arms and let anyone walk over us’. Advocates of the new subject replied that ‘if educationalists are supposed to deal with this delicate subject as a sort of intellectual exercise – getting the facts, having both sides of the argument etc – we are all surely doomed.’ The parallels with the diversionary tactics of climate change deniers, forever asking for a ‘debate’, are clear.

Despite the preppers, the Blitz re-enactors and the peace activists, the most common reaction to the nuclear threat was a paralysing fear that manifested as apathy. The historian of science Spencer Weart has described this ‘numbing’ effect as leading to ‘a stagnation of military, political and moral thought without modern precedent’. At 6.30 one morning in 1984 a policeman in Coventry dialled the speaking clock and somehow set off nuclear warning sirens across the city. ‘It put the fear of God in me,’ one person who heard the sirens said, ‘but as I couldn’t do anything about it I just stayed in bed.’

McDowall’s​ book has the tone of a podcast: it is loose, familiar, generous with clichés. She deploys the phrase ‘the end of the world’ frequently, and laments, for example, that the mass euthanasia of pets at the start of the Second World War meant ‘the removal of “man’s best friend” that would otherwise have brought comfort and joy during the strain of war’. Visiting Hack Green bunker near Nantwich, once designated as a regional seat of government and now a tourist attraction, McDowall buys a Crunchie and thinks that ‘it almost seems disrespectful’ to eat it. But no government officials took shelter at Hack Green; no civilians died outside its blast doors, scrabbling to get in. McDowall has visited historic sites, trawled archives and interviewed former civil defence volunteers; yet in a fundamental sense she is a tourist. She leads her audience round bunkers, propaganda films and government records, pointing out the horrifying, the unexpected and the absurd. It’s nuclear war as house of horrors.

McDowall ends with a lament for the penny-pinching that meant Britain never built bunkers for its population, and which led the government to dismantle and abandon its air raid sirens in 1993 in order to avoid spending £38 million on refurbishing them. The war in Ukraine, she suggests, makes this appear hasty. Germany still has its sirens, and tested them most recently in September 2020 on ‘Warntag’ (Warning Day). But if sirens and makeshift shelters under the stairs were pointless in 1955, what would be the point today? In cautioning us about the sirens, McDowall misses the chance to pursue the parallels with climate change. We still live in the shadow of the apocalypse. While some scientists hope that technology can outpace climate breakdown, governments are struggling to reconcile apparently irreconcilable short and long-term interests. The super-rich are building their own super-bunkers in New Zealand; Extinction Rebellion borrows tactics from CND. Some people recycle and buy electric cars; others are apathetic, scared or in denial. Hopelessness breeds helplessness. No single individual – no single state – can hope to avert disaster alone.

It’s worth remembering that the proliferation of nuclear weapons didn’t go into reverse because of Thatcher or civil defence or Star Wars. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were the result of popular uprisings across the Eastern Bloc against a political and economic system that did not serve the people. What would a velvet revolution against climate change look like?

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Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite has the measure of the British state’s hapless civil defence preparations, but is less surefooted when it comes to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (LRB, 27 July). It wasn’t a movement of ‘the immediate postwar era’, but (as its activists saw it) marked a break with that stifling period; indeed it was the first step towards 1968. While CND marched from London to Aldermaston in 1958, the ‘annual march’ of subsequent years, which became the ‘iconic CND protest’, was actually in the opposite direction. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have ‘boosted support’ at that particular moment, when nuclear war seemed imminent, but it also created a sense of impotence, and the superpowers’ success in defusing the crisis helped demobilise the movement. It was revived in 1980, initially by European Nuclear Disarmament rather than CND, in response to Nato’s decision, while Jimmy Carter was US president, to introduce cruise and Pershing II missiles into five European countries including the UK – Reagan and his ‘Star Wars’ programme came later.

Martin Shaw
Seaton, Devon

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