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:
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)