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):

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

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.

 

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.

Cabinet Record — Record of the Public Expenditure Survey Committee 1970

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 incredibly yet 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 Mutual Assured Destruction

If there was still any truth to the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction 1983 anything that encompasses large scale evacuations is an anathema to it. As Gwynne Dyer puts it in Notes on Nuclear War mutual assured destruction only works if each side are kept as helpless hostages to the other’s weapons. Any sign of civil defence in the form of evacuations could cause the other side to push the pre-emptive nuclear button.

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.

 

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.