In Time of Emergency – US Cvil Defence Film 1969

This interesting US film, produced by the Office of Civil Defence and Department of Defence, is analogous to Britain’s Protect and Survive. Like Protect and Survive this film is basic advice to the population on what to do under conditions of nuclear attack. It follows largely the same pattern; what immediate action to take should a nuclear explosion happen whilst you are out in the open and the second part of how to prepare your home should international tensions rise and attack may seem possible.

There are some obvious differences beyond presentational style – Protect and and Survive is stark and impersonal (“chilling” might be a more fitting description) and this is a much more paternalistic approach. One obvious difference is that Protect and Survive doesn’t shy away as much from the less pleasant aspects of its subject – for all both films are about nuclear attack, “In Time of Emergency” avoids too much discussion of blast effects, the extent of radiation and fall-out and ultimately any discussion of casualties. For all the many shortcomings of Protect and Survive it was reasonably unblinking about the effects of nuclear attack; it admitted that if you were within 5 miles of the explosion you stood almost no chance, that the minimum shelter time was probably 14 days, that medical, rescue and fire-fighting attempts were pretty unlikely and that ultimately you may have to bury your own dead. Chilling stuff.

I couldn’t help but feel “In Time of Emergency” avoided much in-depth discussion of this. It even avoided much discussion on your sanitary requirements – even Protect and Survive had to admit you were going to have to pee and poo in your own shelter space. Perhaps the originators of “In Time of Emergency” realised how absurd many of the more realistic preparations were and were thus better left unsaid.

One very notable difference were the elaborateness of some of the preparations and the huge gulf between the wealth of the United States and Britain. The US had a system of public shelters and whilst not absolutely comprehensive, the UK had whatsoever. In Britain there had been no public shelter space provided since World War II and successive governments had rejected calls for any public shelter programme, generally on the basis of cost.

The difference in wealth is even more striking at the individual level; the American film shows large detached homes with extensive basements, and whilst it can be said was the case for every American family, it was another world from the homes of Britain. Another key difference were the level of supplies families had, both the 1963 British Civil Defence film “Civil Defence Bulletin no. 3” and Protect and Survive’s “Food Consumption” (1976) show very modest amounts of food and water being taken to the shelter. Contrast this to “In Time of Emergency’s” vast supplies of water in large plastic and glass containers, the huge tins of food and other storage items. In fairness “In Time Of Emergency’s” supplies were far more realistic for any kind of long stay in the shelter, the British versions had supplies that looked like what you might have if you were snowed in for a few days. They certainly didn’t look like they’d sustain a family for a week.

Cabinet Minutes on Civil Defence, 1951

There is a very interesting document on Civil Defence from 1951 as part of Cabinet Minutes from the 27th of January that year.

Despite crippling post-war austerity, the government had decided to increase spending on Civil Defence from £137 million to £180 million over four years which is more than £5 billion in today’s money. Even in 1987, the UK was spending only £69 million (£170 million today) despite facing a far greater threat.

The most profound comment in the document however is that it admits to the basic contradiction in both Civil Defence, deterrence and in that they are part of the same:

the Defence Committee considered that, quite apart from the enormous cost that would be involved [of a large stockpile of blackout material] , any general acceleration of civil defence preparations would give the impression that the the Government regarded war as inevitable.


Protect and Survive short documentary on the BBC

There is a short (10 mins) radio documentary about Protect and Survive at the BBC originally broadcast on the World Service:

It has some interesting little factoids in it from when the booklet was originally published in May 1980; they interview Mike Granatt, one of the Home Office’s press officers involved with its publication and Bruce Kent, a CND campaigner at the time.

Granatt notes the difficulties in bringing the booklet out to an incredulous public, Kent remembers it being a spectacular own goal for the the government and there is a 1980 piece by a very young Jeremy Paxman interviewing the public about what they thought of the measures at the time.

Update (8 June 2013):

This episode is available to download from the BBC here.

Update 13 April 2014:

In previous versions I had misspelled Mike Granatt’s surname as Granite – apologies to readers and especially to Mr. Granatt!

Chernobyl: The Final Warning

In 1991 a dramatised version of the Chernobyl disaster was made called “Chernobyl: The Final Warning” that had a cast of well established stars such as Jon Voight and Jason Robards (Robards was also the lead character in the 1983 nuclear war film The Day After).

The film centres itself primarily on the effects of the disaster on the Ukrainian housewife Yelena Mashenko (Sammi Davis) and her firefighter husband, Alexandr (Steven Hartley) and the rest of the Chernobyl firefighters – six died from the immediate effects of the accident. The other part of the story if the involvement of Dr. Robert Gale, a specialist in leukemia from California and the philanthropist Dr. Armand Hammer.

What sets this drama apart is that it tells the story of Chernobyl from an intimate perspective of those trying to cope in the aftermath; there have been many documentaries and films that speculate on the causes and wider aftermath such as The Battle of Chernobyl or the BBC “Horizon” documentary Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus broadcast the same year as The Final Warning.

I found the film really quite good – the production is a bit dated but in telling the story of how devastating the world’s worst nuclear accident played out in the lives of individuals is a powerful and haunting experience. It demonstrated how this silent killer haunted the lives of utter innocents, from firemen, old people, children; people who had no responsibility for causing the accident were the primary victims of its effects.

The repeated message in the is the one from which it’s title is derived: that Chernobyl could be our final warning; that the accident was by no means unique or could not happen again.

The Peace Game – 1982

One of the more interesting bits of UK government propaganda came in the form of a film called “The Peace Game” from 1982. I think it’s worth setting out a proper historical context for this film; by 1982 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was very active with anything up to 100,000 members1 and the opposition to Cruise and Pershing missiles being based on Europe had gained significant momentum. Arguments over disarmament and unilateralism had also gained traction.

This became a major headache to the government of the day and was well documented in Duncan Campbell’s Secret Society in 1987 in the episode “The Secret Constitution: Secret Cabinet Committees” and how the government sought to advance its own arguments over the value of deterrence.

From my own point of view this film is an attempt to startle the viewer into accepting deterrence, and all the baggage that goes with it, by portraying the USSR as a vast military-industrial complex which was numerically superior to in nearly every respect to the West. Reinforcing this, is the portrayal of the USSR as an expansionist power, swallowing up numerous Balkan and Central European satellite states. It never presented an alternative view that the USSRs motivation could have been seen as defensive; with no natural border between itself and Europe the USSR had reason to create buffers between itself and the West. It had been invaded numerous times, spanning the time from Napoleon to Hitler and had suffered catastrophically at every occasion.

The none-too-subtle subtext of The Peace Game is of suggested defeatism by selective interviews of the public concerning neutrality, unilateral disarmament and our NATO membership. They never actually confront the core counter-argument that Britain’s nuclear weapons and her decision to allow the United States to base them on her soil directly imperiled Britain to a far greater degree than any political movement. The USSR had warned repeatedly they would treat an attack on their territory by a US weapon as coming from the continental United States regardless of the geographical origin of the weapon.

The film can be seen in short form on both the UK National Archives site and YouTube and in long form on JISC Media Hub for those with an appropriate login as part of the Imperial War Museum archives.



Cabinet Secretaries’ notebooks – plain speaking on Civil Defence

In the Cabinet Secretaries’ notebook series released in 2010 by the National Archives, there are some interesting and cryptic comments about Civil Defence, made on 21st December  1960.

In CAB 195/19 there are some very revealing comments about official thoughts regarding Civil Defence and its effectiveness:

“S.LI” (John Selwyn-Lloyd) Says:

If we were strictly logical, we shd. conclude that none of this is worth while.  But believe it is politically impossible to scrap C.D.

This is a very interesting comment as it seems to admit at least some in government already believed there was little point in Civil Defence and this was also long before the disbandment of the CD Corps in 1968. This admission is completely at odds with the fact that the CD Corps was also just about at its highest headcount as an organisation.

An additional comment reveals that mass evacuation may never been a realistic policy:

“H.B.” (Henry Brooke):

Evacuation.  No Govt. wd. ever order planned evacuation – for it wd. start 100% rush from big cities.  On that basis, our problem is one of presentn.  The 12 m. plan is un-workable.  At 6 m. plan is possible (tho’ I believe nonsensical : because vulnerable cities wd. be proclaimed non evacuable and because area of devastn. wd. be larger than evacuation area).  On balance recommend opening discn. with l.a.’s on basis of 6 m. – w’out commitment to the plan.

Even long before Peter Watkins suggested in The War Game that evacuation might fail, many years before this government officials in this document already seemed to have no illusions about the limits of an evacuation policy. As early as 1964 in official government films the general “stay put” policy had already been made explicit.

Anti-CND Groups

Principally from the right of British politics, anti-CND groups began to gather momentum in the early 1980s and peaked by the 1983 election. There are several valuable sources of information on this subject well worth reading.

Secret Society – Part 1: Secret Constitution – Secret Cabinet Committees

This fascinating programme looks at the British Constitution and how government does it’s work. The first part of the programme looks at the confidence vote of the Callaghan government and how it tried to influence the vote of the late Clement Freud. It also discusses with Peter, now Lord, Hennessey, the nature of secret cabinet committees.

The programme also takes an in-depth look at the pseudo-official opposition to CND and how various non-governmental pressure groups and thinktanks were mobilised to counter them. It looks at the “who” and the “whys” of the story and interviews Bruce Kent on his incredulity at the level of high placed opposition to CND. This would indicate to me the effectiveness of CND given how many senior figures were so concerned about its influence.

Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (“RIMNET” – UK)

One of the lesser known networks in the United Kingdom is Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network or “RIMNET.” This network was set up in 1986 following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear station in the Ukraine as part of the National Response Plan.

Rimnet is designed to monitor radiation dose across the entire United Kingdom (a map of all sites can be found here [PDF]) and relayed to a computer in London at the Department for Energy and Climate Change for near-immediate alerts to rises in radioactivity. It is managed by the Met Office. There are 92 sites spread across the UK in all areas both close to major cities, in rural areas and near or in MoD properties.

Rimnet was developed in three stages:

  • An initial system, RIMNET Phase 1, was installed in 1988 as an interim solution
  • The Phase 2 system operated until January 2005
  • Phase 3 went live in 2006

There was a detailed article in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry in 1993 detailing Phase 2 (Radiat Prot Dosimetry (1993) 50 (2-4): 171-176.) (see

The article gave a technical summary of the systems in use:

System Configuration
Monitors Type: Geiger-Muller
Measurement range: background to 3 mGy.h -1
Temperature –20oC to +40oC
Windspeed: up to 100 knots
Humidity up to 95%
Main CDF (“Central Database Facility” Configuration: two Digital VAX clustered processors
RIMNET workstation terminals, System Manager console and data storage
Communication Links Combination of leased lines, public data network (packet switched network for PCs), local Ethernet connections

In some ways RIMNET was a civil companion to the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation before it was disbanded in 1991. However by Phase 2 of RIMNET it was much more sophisticated in collecting and transmitting radiation doses than the UKWMO ever was. RIMNET consisted of 90+ collection sites, fully automated than did not need personnel to man them. RIMNET, now at Phase 3, continues to monitor for radiation levels to this day.