Thoughts on the UKWMO

The United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, “UKWMO” was an organisation run by the Home Office to warn the public on impending, essentially nuclear, attack.

This leaflet from 1979 attempts to explain what the function of the UKWMO is as the most the public tended to see were the above ground entrances to the three-person bunkers scattered across the UK (a full list here). Within a few minutes the UKWMO was meant to be able to send out a warning to any and all parts of the UK of a pending air attack. It’s secondary job was to plot the ground-zeroes of nuclear explosions and then to plot and originate fall-out warnings.

Given that the UKWMO was staffed almost entirely by volunteers it is difficult to say whether in a transition to war whether the organisation would have worked at all. This is not to cast doubt on the willingness of volunteers to turn up (although in a time of extreme tension no one can say with any certainty people would have left their families to hide down a hole) but whether in the resources available would the system have actually worked? In fact, would it even have been mobilised?

Most of the communications used by the UKWMO were fundamentally based around the public telephone network, especially those linking carrier control points and carrier receiver points as well as the monitoring posts. If one of their main post-attack functions was to monitor and provide fall-out warnings it seems unlikely that the telephone network would have survived in tact sufficiently well for them to do this. It does seem fairly unrealisitc to believe they would have been able to keep going despite the overly rosy-view of the end of the world in this UKWMO film from 1962 “Hole in the Ground.” (often erroneously called “Sound an Alarm” but the original title card – missing from this clip — does reveal the correct name; see BFI collection “COI Collection, The: Vol 6: Worth the Risk?“).

A more serious point has to be whether UKMWO would even have been called up at all in a crisis. To a belligerent, seeing the main nuclear-warning arm of the UK being called up for duty could be seen as provocative possibly even encouraging an early strike. Much has been said along these lines about civil defence for many years; that mobilising organisations like the UKWMO could actually be seen as preparedness for war.

We were all fortunate that the UKWMO was never needed in its active role and at the end of the Cold War it was shut-down permanently in 1991.

Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

“15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust”

via Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

As much as I admire Gwynne Dyer as a great military historian, I genuinely also believe that repeating the 15 cancer deaths as a direct effect of Chernobyl is fundamentally wrong. The truth is that no one really knows how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. 

The World Health Organisation estimated (PDF) there were 600,000 “liquidators” who worked at Chernobyl after the accident. In that same report, the WHO come to the conclusion there were many more deaths than just 15 and there is sufficient evidence to support the argument that the long term health effects of these many thousands of workers was never tracked in detail.

Your own common sense tells you the likelihood of “just” 15 deaths from the world’s worst nuclear accident is far too low and that arguments to minimise the apparent numbers of victims does the cause of nuclear safety no favours at all.

BBC Nuclear War Film – Threads by Barry Hines (1984)


During the early 1980’s the BBC produced Threads, a drama-documentary about the effects of nuclear war on the UK. In some ways Threads was related to The War Game, a similar kind of film that the BBC suppressed in the 1960s because of political pressure.

Threads is the harrowing story of two Sheffield families living through the build up to nuclear war and the aftermath of the attack. In the years since Threads there have been films that focus on urban destruction, however almost none of them are based on either true scientific rigour or have drama that is as centrally grim.

It is important to consider the style in which Threads is made; it acts as a documentary and a human drama and carefully distinguishes the two. The characters add very little exposition to the factual and scientific basis of Threads unless it is part of a dramatic sequence such as the effects of radiation sickness. At no point to the characters sermonise, they let the viewer interpret the drama for themselves. Similarly the documentary side of the film is wholly abstract and does not even try to impose on the drama. This is important because it allows the film to show the effects detailed in the documentary style to be played out in the drama.

It is also very interesting that in the post-attack world, Threads becomes an increasingly silent film. The only real dialogue comes from the chaotic squabbling in Sheffield’s doomed emergency HQ but outside of this most of the principal actors become almost mute. From this point in the film the need for people to talk vanishes; as most large disasters have proven after the intial attack the world can quickly fall silent for the remaining survivors. The silence also serves to show how blunted and crippled society became in the aftermath of the war.

The characters of the film are meant to be representational of the audience; it is important to underline that what happens in the film is meant to be something that could happen to anyone at any time. Unlike most drama, Threads is not trying to pretend that the horror of nuclear war is something that always happens to someone else. The point of the film is in driving home the gact this could happen to anyone at anytime.

Threads ultimately becomes a generational film. The elder generation (Ruth’s and Jimmy’s parents) are fated to barely survive the attack. The younger generation, such as Jimmy’s younger brother, Michael, are also among the first victims of the war. The generation of people who survive the longest, those in their twenties such as Ruth, Bob and many of the soldiers and police, probably have the most difficult time. Although they do survive the initial holocaust, they become the transient survivors, the people who remember vividly of life before the war. It is on these does much of the film focus, most of this group of people become only shadows of who they used to be; they stop communicating, the horrors of the world around them eventually leaves them emotionally numb. They relate so little to their environment many of them retreat internally which is perhaps why in the later stages after the attack lethargy looks to be so rampant. Of course, the remaining survivors are desperately “cold, weak and hungry” but it is worth suggesting that given their lives have been utterly shattered, without any hope of recovery, it is hardly surprising why so many seem so gaunt and listless.

It is set against this is why Threads seems so powerful; because humans generally define themselves through their environment, to see that environment broken apart, to see society completely destroyed is genuinely chilling. The immediacy of the story is what adds to the fear, this is not a story about some far-off place, some reassuringly fictional look at the future. In 1984 this could be tommorow or next week in your home or your town. This was a television film set in the living room of its audience.

Origins of Threads

Threads itself probably owes its origins to several inter-related sources. The first is perhaps Fail-Safe, the 1964 film by Sidney Lumet. Central to Fail-Safe was the idea that nuclear war was something that when it happens, simply runs out of control because no one is able to stop it when it was unleashed. Coming not long after the Cuban missile crisis, Fail-Safe was a dramatic depiction about how the control of nuclear weapons was more imagined than real.

After Fail Safe came the BBC fictional documentary The War Game, one of the first of its kind to use eye-witness accounts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs with scientific research on what would happen to the general population. The BBC, probably under governmental pressure, with drew the film and it wasn’t shown until 1985. We can only speculate as to why it was withdrawn, it isn’t graphic in the way we understand explicit footage today, more likely it was the depicting of how unable to cope we are with a nuclear attack. Even a “small” nuclear weapon caused colossal damage and loss of life with thousands upon thousands of casualties that would bring any nation to its knees.

Arguably the most chilling and most powerful source Threads drew on, was the British government’s series of Public Information Films called “Protect and Survive”. Protect and Survive started life in 1975 which grew to a series of 12 with supporting booklets and radio versions, all narrated by Patrick Allan.

Although cheaply and crudely made these films made it quite clear what the government imagined post-war life would be like. All the services you relied upon in peacetime were gone, from ambulances to fire engines to burial services, Protect and Survive demonstrated you were on your own. Even after the 25+ years they have been around, Protect and Survive has lost none of its ability to chill the viewer to the bone. In Channel 4’s “100 Greatest Scary Moments” (28 October 2003) the Protect and Survive films were listed by its viewers as the 89th most frightening television clip of all time.

Although Protect and Survive has been declassified and is available on VHS, it is interesting to note that the accompanying booklet is still current and available from HMSO. Therefore it is genuinely worrying to note that it is still the official advice from HM Government on what to do in a nuclear attack, especially when Threads demonstrated the uselessness of that advice. Note that Threads was made with consultation from many of the UK’s leading academic theorists on nuclear conflict and not merely the best guess of its writer. See here for obtaining Protect and Survive from HMSO’s documents on demand service. Also available from the same service is a fore-runner of Protect and Survive, “Nuclear Weapons” produced by HMSO in 1974.

The Credibility of Threads

Why is Threads so powerful? Why has Threads been able to stir nightmare images of a world most people would rather not survive? There have been much more gruesome films but Threads seems to linger more heavily in the minds of people who have seen it. It would seem that Threads is the story of any man and any woman; it is like a shared nightmare that is only a few heartbeats away. The generation of 20 and 30 somethings who grew up through the Cold War saw Threads as the likely outcome of the reckless proliferation of nuclear arms between East and West.

Down through history events occur that become a wake-up call. There has been numerous attempts to discredit the works of Dr. Carl Sagan (part of the TTAPS group) among others of which Threads was partially based. In this perspective it is useful to look at real-life events that triggered a second look in the way we conduct ourselves. The sinking of the Titanic is no better example; the huge loss of life, the complicity and over-confidence in technology and at base, raw arrogance contributed to the end of so many lives. The phoney posturing of NATO and the Warsaw Pact was the equivalent in Threads; they blundered in to war by which time the reasons for doing so became less clear and even less important.

The Nonsense of Survival

Paradoxically although Threads, based on serious scholarly research, demonstrated that like rats and cockroaches humans would survive, the world into which we would emerge might not be much better than having been killed in the attack. There have been some authors who have tried to write books on how to survive nuclear war. Given that there is — thankfully — no actual experience of this, anything they write must be assumed to be supposition. The single strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the effectiveness of the weapons and the consequences of them. They did not demonstrate the global environmental, political and sociological effects of them.

It is unfortunate that many of these books that I have seen originate from the United States and Australia, two countries which have never targeted for any serious bombing. The experience of countries such as Germany, Poland, Russia and the UK of attacks by conventional forces show how catastrophically damaging to society they can be. A nuclear attack would be of the order of a hugely amplified magnitude. At best survival advice for an unwinnable war is naive, at worst it is reckless and irresponsible as it encourages the potential use of these weapons.

In the last massive conventional war, World War II, more than 50 million people were killed. As the first “modern” war, it is important to note that the shift in inflicting maximum damage on the enemy moved from the battlefield to economic targets, to civilians and non-combatants. This is what would become the catalyst that would drive the policy of deploying nuclear weapons; once the economy is destroyed the enemy would quickly fall. Quite what the “winning” side would have won is debateable, in the UKs case, a small country with limited natural resources, would have been a “corpse”, as the CND campaigner in Threads said.

Threads is currently available on DVD.

Fallout – Office of Civil and Defence Mobilisation

This undated film (from the early 1950s judging but its style) is an Amercian Civil Defence film designed to educate the public on the dangers of fallout. Several British films as part of the “Protect and Survive” series were also made about Fallout in 1976 of which the following is an example.

The American film particularly alarming because there are several instructions in the film that by most standards are simply wrong:

Ability to Detect Fallout

The film seems to imply the public can detect fallout – certainly something Protect and Survive doesn’t do. In fact Protect and Survive, for all its many faults, insists that fallout cannot be seen, heard or smelt. “Fallout” recommends leaving a white plate outside and looking for dust collecting on it – an incredible idea that judging from the dust collected on it the public would be able to detect fallout.

In general, fallout is made from debris sucked from the ground by a nuclear explosion on or near the ground, this pulverised material is then made highly radioactive and blown by the prevailing wind. However, there is no obvious visible quality to the material to allow you to decide whether its radioactive or not. In fact in the UK there were two specific warnings for fallout, the Black warning, immanent arrival of fallout and the Grey, fallout expected but not within the hour. These were communicated to the public by radio, maroons, whistle or church bells.

Protection from Fallout

The film describes various methods of protection, including describing that wooden framed buildings would give protection from fallout. Even from very early British films on fallout it is often repeated that heavy, dense buildings are the only effective protection from fallout. This 1961 Civil Defence film shows the relative effectiveness of differing materials.

It would surely have been known at the time that only dense material would protect the public from fallout, bricks, concrete, sand and earth being recommended as suitable. In British films, dwellings made from wood or of lightweight construction (like prefabs)

Overall this is an interesting film; very much of its time but has the same ulterior motive that I think can be found in most Cold War Civil Defence films – it tries to diminish the effects of nuclear weapons, to sanitise the effects in ways that make nuclear war seem more acceptable. The advice it gives, although arguably inaccurate, are qualitatively the same as most others. That the effects of nuclear weapons can be partially negated by domestic preparation when in most instances this has been shown to be palpable nonsense and many civil defence programmes could be described as self-serving propaganda.

COI/PIF at the Imperial War Museum

At the Imperial War Museum Film and Video sales site they have uploaded some interesting Cold War clips that are worth a mention.

Although seen many times, they have Protect and Survive uploaded to their site that is in improved clarity and definition. Most versions of Protect and Survive are available in a strange picture quality that some have said shows the signs of being converted from film to video and then back to film again. The version on the Imperial War Museum web site seems like an original negative copy of the films, although evidenced by scratches and jumps the film seems sharper than other versions I’ve seen, either on YouTube or DVD.

The second film worth a look is a 1958 PIF filler for Civil Defence (COI 844) that appears to be silent although it is in colour. I haven’t seen this PIF for Civil Defence before but it is part of their push of “Civil Defence if Common Sense” at about the high of their recruitment drive.

The final very brief film is for the Auxiliary Fire Service, 1956. It is a 19 second recruitment film for the AFS that like the previous film seems to be silent though it is in colour. The transition to colour seems quite early as previous Civil Defence orientated recruitment films such as The Waking Point (1951) were still being made in black and white.

Incidentally, The Waking Point is also available at the Imperial War Museum and includes the first couple of seconds of music that seems to be clipped in the DVD releases.

Britain and the Bomb: the New Statesman papers on defence and disarmament

A valuable addition to the study of the Cold War and Britain’s place in it is in the 1980 book “Britain and the bomb the New Statesman papers on defence and disarmament” edited by EP Thompson.

This collection of articles from The New Statesman was written at fascinating and tense period of the Cold War; the USSR had invaded Afghanistan, NATO had decided to base Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe and Britain had committed itself to developing the Trident ballistic missile carrying submarine system.

This backdrop of events provided the source for numerous articles by many writers including EP Thompson, Christopher Hitchens, Duncan Campbell and Robin Cook. Hitchens looks at the British government’s nuclear war “survival guide” “Protect and Survive” and neatly fillets the whole notion of surviving nuclear attack. Duncan Campbell exposes Britain’s plans for governing during a nuclear war, how it would control internal dissent, the numbers of bases that would become targets and the culture of secrecy around home defence (that both he and John Pilger would later examine in Secret Society and The Truth Game respectfully).

Now long out of print this little book is an invaluable addition to Cold War studies, particular from Britain’s point of view. This was a very turbulent time in bringing medium range nuclear weapons to Europe and public concern and opposition to it. Highly recommended.

MX Missile – US Air Force Staff Film Report

This 1980 film is an introduction to the MX (Missile Experimental) Missile/Peacekeeper for Air Force staff following its authorisation by the President. It’s important to note that the film is at a very early stage of MX development when many of the developments were proposed or suggested rather than being at a working stage.

The MX missile was fundamentally a system to keep the Air Force in the ICBM business after Soviet advances in targeting and accuracy made static missile silos increasingly vulnerable to attack – in fact the worry was a surprise attack from submarine launched ballistic missiles could potentially neutralised the greater part of this force.

MX was meant to solve that by being a survivable system where the enemy would never know which silo an MX missile was in and by constantly moving them around in mobile launchers to escape detection. At least in 1980 that was the theory and was later abandoned/supplemented by moving MX on a special railroad launcher to an underground railroad system of multiple silos and as a final irony they were actually stationed in former Minuteman silos, static and vulnerable to the very thing they were meant to avoid.

Like the Strategic Defence initiative, MX became too complex and too expensive to fully realise. In fact the more survivable MX became the more it began to resemble a nuclear war-fighting weapon rather than a deterrent. If MX represented an unacceptable level of damage to a potential aggressor then they were probably better off using all their weapons at once rather than risking them all in a reprisal by MX – the MX/Peacekeeper missile did carry 10 MIRV-ed warheads.

The entire MX programme was mired in difficulties, political, financial and practical and the last MX missile was deactivated in 2005. It is difficult to say should a nuclear crisis between East and West have ever come about with MX would have been a benefit or liability.


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