It is hard to imagine anything worse than a nuclear war and recently a normally well-hidden document in the National Archives in Kew (West London) has come out of hiding to be the star attraction in a new exhibition.
It’s seems almost a world a way but I can very easily remember as a boy in the 1980’s the doom and gloom about the Cold War suddenly turning into a Nuclear war but just for a moment imagine what might have been.
Nuclear war has come to Britain, levelling our cities, killing millions and leaving the wretched survivors in a new Dark Age, scrabbling like rats in the ruins of civilisation.
In the streets, ghostly figures stagger in search of food and water. At special Government depots, armed police stand guard, ready to shoot looters on sight.
And in countless homes across the country, grieving families are holed up in their makeshift fallout shelters, their food supplies dwindling as the corpses in their living rooms begin to rot.
It sounds like some terrible nightmare. Yet in reality, this was Britain in 1981 — or it could have been.
For deep in the bowels of the National Archives, in the leafy streets of Kew, West London, is perhaps the most terrifying document in our history.
During WW2 Britain had its own nuclear development project but stretched beyond breaking point by war and invasion preparations, Britain shelved work on its own project and instead gave its expertise to the American Manhattan project.
The dropping of atom bombs by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had made an enormous impact on world opinion. ‘The time is short,’ writes Labour’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee in one document. ‘I believe that only a bold course can save civilisation.’
He was unswervingly committed to Britain’s national security, and indeed it was Attlee and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who were the key figures in establishing NATO, the alliance that won the Cold War for democracy and which celebrates its 70th birthday this week.
Immediately after the war however, the USA changed its policy and no longer saw the obligation to share the technology with Britain and indeed 72% of the American public felt similarly regardless of the history behind the development of nuclear weapons.
As Bevin told his Cabinet colleagues in 1946, Britain simply could not rely on the Americans, but must have its own nuclear deterrent. ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs,’ he said bullishly. ‘We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’
Britain did get its own bomb in 1952, but fears of Soviet nuclear attack continued to run very high.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis ten years later, many people were literally unable to sleep, terrified that they would wake to see a mushroom cloud from their bedroom window.
The exhibition has great fun with the short films and leaflets in the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ campaign, which was prepared in the mid-Seventies to use in the event of war. The aim was to reassure people that they could survive a nuclear holocaust.
Yet few were persuaded by the campaign’s make-do-and-mend, how to build their own fallout refuges.
On paper the short films sound almost boring: ‘Materials to Use for Your Fall-Out Room’, ‘Water and Food’, ‘Sanitation Care’. Yet even now there is something horribly haunting about the official advice on how to dispose of the bodies of family members.
‘If anyone dies when you are in your fallout room, move the body to another room in the house,’ the narrator says sternly. ‘Label the body with name and address, and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.’
Few of us, I imagine, would relish wrapping and labelling the radiation-ravaged body of even the most annoying relative. Yet the remorseless logic of the Cold War meant that people genuinely had to think about such issues. The exhibition even includes a reconstruction of an ordinary family’s fallout refuge, complete with makeshift toilet, tinned Fray Bentos pies and a packet of Charles and Diana-themed liquorice.
And what if the worst had happened?
In 1983 a study by the British Medical Association estimated that 33 million people would be killed in a Soviet strike. But it could be argued that they would have been the lucky ones.
Would it be far better to be killed at once, than to find yourself dying slowly of radiation sickness in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where civilisation had collapsed?
To anyone born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this must seem like ancient history. And in some ways, the Cold War looks like a lost age of stability and certainty, when the Western world was led by statesmen (and one woman) beside whom today’s politicians look like inept weak figures they are.
Step by step, the top-secret war-game exercise, codenamed Wintex-Cimex 81, sought to test Britain’s preparedness for a Third World War. It explained how the planet stumbled towards Armageddon, leading to the nightmarish scenes above.
This timeline described in the document begins in March 1981, the heyday of the Cold War, when the capitalist West, led by Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s America, confronted the Communist East, ruled then as now by dictators in the Kremlin, Moscow.
The envisaged slide to war has been precipitated by a Soviet build-up in the Balkans, Moscow’s hardliners having decided to take advantage of the apparent weakness of the recession-hit Thatcher and Reagan governments.
As the international mood darkens, riots break out in British cities. Even as British troops are sent to strengthen NATO forces in West Germany, thousands of students march for peace. Within days, railway stations are overwhelmed by people fleeing the capital, while major roads from London, Manchester and Birmingham are choked with traffic.
The government declares a state of emergency. But already shops have run out of coal, oil, batteries and candles, while many pharmacies have run out of first-aid supplies.
On Saturday 14th March, with the first reports of clashes in the Balkans and the Middle East, a massive anti-war demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square attracts ‘prominent Left-wing MPs, leading trade unionists and personalities from many walks of life including sport and showbiz’.
Despite talk of peace, the mammoth demonstration concludes with the police wading in to arrest the Labour leader Michael Foot and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who have been caught up in the fighting.
By Sunday night, WW3 seems inevitable. Soviet led forces have over-run the nominally non-aligned Yugoslavia, and the government announces that an attack on the West is expected ‘within hours rather than days’.
The mood is close to panic. The newspapers are full of ‘Protect and Survive’ adverts, advising people on how to build shelters in their own homes and urging them to stay inside until they hear the all-clear.
On Monday, 16th March, the first Soviet attack comes, the Kremlin’s bombers pounding British bases. The United Kingdom is now at war.
The next day, as fresh attacks destroy Britain’s air defences, the scenes in the streets are said to be ‘reminiscent of Vietnam . . . as families with children push overladen supermarket trolleys along the roads out of cities’.
Some 15,000 people are fleeing to the West Country and Wales every hour to seek refuge in the countryside. In rural areas, farmers are forced to use shotguns against ‘marauding bands of youths’.
Finally on the morning of the 20th March, Mrs Thatcher’s War Cabinet meets to consider the worst. With Soviet forces breaking through in West Germany, defeat seems inevitable. There is only one option left.
NATO commanders have asked permission to launch nuclear weapons at enemy bases in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, in a last, desperate attempt to save the West from total collapse.
‘Never before,’ record the official minutes ‘had a Cabinet been faced with such a grim choice between capitulating to a powerful and malevolent aggressor, and embarking on a course of action which could end with the destruction of civilisation. But the choice had to be made.’
Mrs Thatcher gives the go-ahead. Before dawn the next morning, the missiles are launched. And by the time Britain awakes, the nuclear holocaust has begun.
There the document ends, with Western civilisation on the brink of utter destruction.
It may sound a little far fetched but between 1945, when Europe was divided between Communist East and democratic West, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many in Britain really did live in genuine fear of nuclear Armageddon.
As the Kew exhibition shows, this was a conflict that seeped into almost every aspect of daily life. It was a war of spies and secrets, missiles and rockets, consumer pleasures and state surveillance.
But it was also a cultural struggle for hearts and minds, from Ian Fleming’s best-selling James Bond books in the Sixties to the triumphs of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson at the boycott-hit Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Cold War Britain was a world of deception, defectors and double agents, from the infamous Cambridge traitors to Soviet defectors such as the heroic Oleg Gordievsky, who gave Margaret Thatcher vital intelligence on the weakness of the Soviet regime in the Eighties.
Among countless enthralling documents, the National Archives exhibition contains a list of potential traitors compiled by George Orwell for MI5 in 1949, among them the Left-wing actors Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave, the historian E.H. Carr and the Labour MP Tom Driberg. I wonder if somewhere they have records on current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, met with an agent for the blood-drenched Czechoslovakian secret service?
These days Nuclear War isn’t talked about so much in the same way as it used to be but it isn’t unimaginable. Ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan, an isolated but aggressive Russia and a Britain and America subsumed by internal conflicts and many experts believe that the risks of a nuclear conflict have increased in the last 5-10 years.
Even today, in the event that should Britain be all but destroyed in a surprise attack, the prime minister has written an aptly named “letter of last resort” for the commanding officer on each nuclear submarine in the Royal Navy.
If Britain is destroyed and the PM cannot be contacted this letter can finally be opened.
In it, she gives her last instructions… The commanding officer is given one of several orders: He may be told to retaliate or ordered not to retaliate. Alternatively he could be instructed to place the submarine under an allied country’s command. Or, finally, he may be told to use his own judgement as to whether or not Trident should be deployed.
No pressure then!