Forewarned is Forearmed

Complete video made by the Royal Observer Corps, 1991-1992 “Forewarned is Forearmed” part-recruitment film and part-reflection as the Corps is stood down following the end of the Cold War.

(more details in the Tweet below the video):

Nicholas Thompson – “Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s”

Nuclear War and Nuclear Fear in the 1970s and 1980s

Journal of Contemporary History January 2011 46: 136-149,doi:10.1177/0022009410383298

This article looks primarily at a series of interviews carried out by John Hines of the BDM Corporation between 1990 and 1994 for the Pentagon, the full text of which is available online.

The article is about the set of documents created by Hines called “Soviet Intentions, 1965–1985” and looks at Soviet intentions, policies and fears over the use of nuclear weapons over that 20 year period. In this remarkable set of interviews of senior Soviet figures gives a very different insight into the Soviet machine which is completely different to Western interpretations of Soviet nuclear intent over this period. Much of the self-serving Western propaganda of that period frequently portrayed the Soviet Union as the aggressors and numerous films described this block as having a political agenda of world domination. These interviews present a fundamentally different version of events.

It is impossible to say whether Western interpretations of the Soviet Union were a case of genuine or deliberate error – certainly the more colourful the Soviet menace appeared the easier it was to justify our own arms spending and aggressive military posture. Either way, it didn’t hurt those with the most to gain.

Thompson’s article highlights some of the painfully exaggerated parts of the Soviet threat and the reader is left to ask how much of it is correct; for example the Wikipedia article on the Soviet “Dead Hand” system (a automated system of nuclear retaliation reported to be able to fire even after all human decision makers are dead/incapacitated) yet Thompson reports that Marshal Akhromeev, Chief of the General Staff, rejected the ‘‘Dead Hand’’ trigger mechanism and it ‘‘was never realized’’.

The Waking Point (1951) Civil Defence film

The Waking Point (1951) is a Civil Defence film aimed at increasing recruitment to the now long-abandoned Civil Defence Corps.

I think this film is really about covering three main themes; recruiting to Civil Defence; explaining Civil Defence and trying to legitimise it.

Unfortunately the film tends to demonstrate all too clearly the limitations of civil defence in the nuclear era. Unintentionally I think it explains that civil defence would break down almost immediately in the face of nuclear attack. Within the film just about all the serious deficiencies of civil defence that’s been discussed in the nuclear era are all too apparent.

The narrative of the story is set around an “every man” character in Joe Mercer (John Slater, 1916-1975) who comes to realise that civil defence is universal after a mishap with his son getting trapped in a sandpit. At the end of the film he realises there is “still time” to train in civil defence after he dreams about war being declared before he’d finished his civil defence training.

The nonsense of civil defence becomes glaring obvious in the film: his son gets trapped in a small tunnel in the sandpit and it still takes six adults to dig him out. It becomes increasingly obvious that in nuclear warfare there is no appropriate civil response to the numbers of injured and trapped; in 1980 Operation “Square Leg” – a Home Office Civil Defence exercise, estimated 29 million dead and 7 million injured. Even though the exercise has been criticised by some (see the Wikipedia article) for using extremely large nuclear weapons, the yield is less important that its accuracy in determining the numbers of casualties.

The problem is the Civil Defence Corps never had a strength greater than about 336,000:

Civil Defence Strength

So, if we’re saying it takes a team of six to rescue one person: 7 million / 336,265 gives us a ratio of 20.8 injured persons to every civil defence volunteer. Given that not all civil defence volunteers were wardens or rescue parties (many were welfare/first aid/drivers/food service, etc) and that all things being equal civil defence volunteers would probably be killed/injured at the same ratio as civilians, depleting their numbers even further.

I can’t help but feel that behind the scenes is that ultimately for all its homely charm, The Waking Point is quite sinister. It never truly confronts the effects of nuclear weapons or what our response would be. Images of people running into shelters is as harrowing as it gets. It never contends the idea that an exhausted, post-war Britain had neither the means or the resources to prepare the civil population for even the smallest nuclear attack (as recently as 1984 it was estimated that a single nuclear weapon on any city would overwhelm the entire peacetime resources of the NHS, even if they all survived).

I think at best this image of  civil defence was essentially propaganda as in this case. At worst it was misleading the public into believing their could be a civil response to nuclear attack when nothing could be further from the truth.

(Originally published 6 December 2012 – revised 15 February 2019)

Civil Defence Spending: Cabinet Record — Record of the Public Expenditure Survey Committee 1970

Author: Anthony Barber

Table 24 / Misc Surveys / Page 40

£Million estimates of Civil Defence expenditure

1969-1970* 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975
£1.4 £7.2 £8.5 £9.1 £9.7 £9.1

* (pre-decimalisation)

The table shows that public expenditure for Civil Defence will not grow beyond £10 million by the mid-1970s

Actual Expenditures

(Cabinet Papers 129/1/712)

£millions at 1973 prices

1968-1969 1970 1971 1972 1973
10.7 3.5 6.7 9.2 8.9

Revised Estimated Expenditures

£millions at 1973 prices

1973-1974 1975 1976 1977 1978
12.5 11.7 12.0 12.1 11.7

Reappraisal of the “Stay Put” Policy – 1983

In an article in The Guardian (July 11, 1983; Page: 3 “Nuclear War Evacuations Planned“) there is a brief note on how the Civil Contingencies Unit of the Home Office (UK) was rethinking traditional advice on staying put on the event of a nuclear crisis:

“It is the first indication that the Government is thinking of reversing its traditional Civil Defence Advice for people to stay where they are.”

This re-examination of the “Stay Put” policy tells us several things; the first is that the government does expect to fight a limited nuclear war: as the advice considers telling those who live near major military bases in East Anglia and Scotland to evacuate.

It tells us also that the bases do actually make these areas targets for an attack – something that was frequently denied – tacitly admits deterrence might fail and that the stay-put policy was condemning millions to death if a nuclear war ever broke out.

Yet, as is always the case with civil defence in the nuclear era it tries to reconcile many contradictory points:

“Stay at Home”

As was hammered home in Protect and Survive Stay at Home was a key message. The internal logic of Protect and Survive said that because of fall-out:

…no part of the United Kingdom will be safer than any other…

Which depending on the scale of the attack is absolutely true. Regardless of any ulterior motive for insisting civilians to stay at home, the truth is that the path of fall-out is unpredictable and it could drift anyway (however areas effected by fire and blast can be more reasonably assumed – major industrial areas are probably more at risk than empty fields).

Evacuations Incompatible with Deterrance

If there was still any truth to the theory of deterrance in 1983 anything that encompasses large scale evacuations is an anathema to it. As Gwynne Dyer puts it in Notes on Nuclear War this only works if each side is kept as helpless hostages to the other’s weapons. Any sign of civil defence in the form of evacuations could cause either be highly destalising or even cause on side to escalate.

Where Would We Go?

Unlike large land masses like the United States or Russia, the question for the UK is where would we go? In the theoretical but largely plausible attack in Operation Square Leg or attack “H” in Openshaw’s Doomsday, the areas of the United Kingdom not effected by at least 1PSI of overpressure, blast, fire or all three are pretty small. Parts of the West Country, central and northern Wales and northern Scotland are the least effected by these hazards however they also have some of the lowest housing density and food reserves.

Although trying to crowd millions of these people in small parts of the UK may offer some small amount of protection for an initial attack (although in practical terms doing so would be nearly impossible and would be a strong signal for war) the lack of shelter, food and protection from fall-out could quickly erode any minor gains.

The Times Jan 16 1980: “Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people”

On January 16th 1980 The Times ran a feature*Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people” and printed some details of the 1976 leaflet “Protect and Survive.

Civil Defence has come back on the agenda particularly after it was decided that United States Cruise Missiles were to be stationed in the UK and how these missiles may or may not have made Britain more of a target for Soviet missiles – John Pilger’s The Truth Game does go on to note that in the 1980 civil defence exercise, Square Leg, Greenham Common and Newbury were among the first places wiped out in their theoretical attack. Even if the USSR hadn’t targeted Greenham Common it seems that our own planners thought it highly likely.

In the article written by Peter Evans he goes on to note that civil defence was in for a considerable revival by the new Tory government having been left to largely languish after Labour effectively abolished civil defence with the standing down of the Civil Defence corps in 1968.

However the article weaves quite a contradictory story about civil defence and the effectiveness thereof. The UK’s defence planners are quoted as reckoning on a Soviet attack of between 180-200 megatons which in itself is probably a reliable figure, Operation Square Leg used 200MT as the scale of the attack and the same figure has appeared in Openshaw’s Doomsday from 1983. The article does highlight the government’s proposals to give higher priority to protect people from attack. The problem is that, as Openshaw and Campbell (among many others) have more or less said this scale of attack is literally indefensible.

In the 1982 QED documentary “A Guide To Armageddon” noted more than 77% of the UKs entire population live in cities. In the UK, combining all of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there are only 69 cities. The article reckons the USSR would attack with up to 200 one megaton weapons and targeting every city which would only use about 34.5% of the available force. There would be no serious way to protect even a fraction of the population from such an awesome attack. A further 28 large towns and metropolitan areas would take use up a further 28 weapons consuming about half of a possible attack leaving a huge destructive force for launching multiple weapons at cities as well as military and industrial areas outside cites.

The article looks at one of the silliest perspectives that could be found in Protect and Survive, that large areas would be completely spared blast and fire. I don’t think anyone has seriously disputed this: the problem is that almost no one lives there. The Soviet Union was pretty unlikely to target empty wilderness. As one of the characters in Threads said;

“where our Jack lives there’s only a row of houses and a pub, they’re not going to bomb that, are they?”


* Unfortunately you may need an academic or institutional login to read the full article.

Full citation: Peter Evans Home Affairs Correspondent. “Civil defence-1: Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people.” Times [London, England] 16 Jan. 1980: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Jan. 2013.

James Stafford – ‘Stay at Home’: The Politics of Nuclear Civil Defence, 1968–83

A superb article covering the latter years of Civil Defence in the United Kingdom. It looks at the infamous UK government leaflet Protect and Survive, “The State, the Public, and the Bomb: the Making of Protect and Survive” and how it tried to reconcile many completely contradictory elements of what became known as Home Defence being very distinct from Civil Defence (Duncan Campbell covers this in great depth in War Plan UK).

The key figure in the development of Protect and Survive was Duncan Buttery, Assistant Secretary in charge of the Public Emergencies Division at the Home Office and his input into the character of the material makes it much clearer on the presentational style of the leaflet and companion TV and radio broadcasts.

Buttery was a name unknown to me until I found this article but I did know form various articles from The Times in early 1980, Protect and Survive did seem to go through an extremely long gestation yet was quickly torn to pieces and parodied very quickly upon publication.

The full text of Stafford’s article is here: http://tcbh.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/3/383.full however you may need access to it via University or other academic institution, and is a shame this authoritative article could not be read more widely.

The Guardian – “Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses”

The Guardian – “Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses

Most of what of what is in this is old news and a lot does indeed look recycled from Eric Schlosser’s excellent book “Command and Control“. For decades the military has wrestled with huge compromises in the design of nuclear weapons; many missiles were liquid fueled for a greater part of the Cold War making them inherently dangerous. Maintaining positive control of nuclear forces and making that survivable under attack has always been particularly hard to maintain. In fact I’m fairly certain that even today the British Trident fleet still does not have true positive control and a submarine commander could order an unauthorized launch. The US submarine fleet however is under positive control I believe. It was rumoured that during the 1970s the USSR looked into a Fail Deadly (Dead Hand) system of nuclear retaliation in response to US missiles’ improved accuracy and invulnerability thus presenting the USSR with the threat of a decapitating first strike.

If you want and keep nuclear weapons the fallibility of the design, the engineers, the operators and the command structure means that an accidental detonation is absolutely inevitable. The right combination of factors through accident, human error or even belligerence will result in such an explosion. It may take many more decades or even centuries for this to happen but it has to; already the proliferation of weapons and fissile material make this more and more inevitable. Ageing weapon systems, poor maintenance and the threat of terrorism add to these problems – not least the enormous former Soviet stockpile (here | here) which has provoked widespread concerns regarding condition, security and safety.

There has never been a weapon invented that is as potentially dangerous to its user than as to its adversary. However given the yield of modern weapons any criticality accident could range from injuring personnel to a catastrophic detonation. There is no safe threshold.