An excellent article on exercise Able Archer in 1983; a NATO exercise which almost caused the USSR to retaliate with nuclear weapons:
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.
An interesting story from The Guardian from 1977 (page 5, Feb 5th) on the injured might be treated by the NHS after a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.
The story discusses a Department of Health Circular on how the NHS would deal with patients after a nuclear strike. It paints a picture of the most extreme form of triage treatment; the priority patients would only be those who would be mostly likely to survive and patients suffering radiation sickness would simply be sent home and deal with it as best they could.
The circular also discusses withholding NHS staff from areas stricken with fallout and in this sense is consistent with the Protect and Survive advice which instructs the householder to lay-in 14 days of supplies – the same time limit the circular recommends that staff should be kept from dangerous areas.
Unfortunately the story doesn’t really cover how may NHS staff might actually survive the initial attack or whether the circular covered this at all. There is no reason to suppose whether NHS staff would be in any less or more danger than anyone else so it seems likely they would make up the same proportion of casualties as the rest of the population. As the nuclear war drama Threads also made clear without drugs, water, electricity and wound dressings most medical staff would be no better prepared to help than the nearest survivor.
There is no mention of the dispersal of staff however it does mention the specific clearing of patients in hospitals for incoming casualties which leads to interesting questions on whether patients could be nursed at home, whether the hospitals themselves would survive the attack in any meaningful way, who would staff them after attack and how many of those sent home prior to attack would need extra nursing care in the aftermath.
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.
For many years it has been thought that Protect and Survive included the following announcement spoken by Patrick Allen:
"Mine is the last voice you will ever hear…Do Not be Alarmed"
Although it is pretty much impossible to say with absolute certainty that this was never recorded for Protect and Survive, these exact words do appear on a remix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s "Two Tribes", the Carnage Long Version remix recorded in 1984.
There have been persistent rumours over the years that there is also an extended warning in Protect and Survive recorded with the words:
"Mine is the last voice you will ever hear, do not be alarmed." and: "If you mother, or any other member of your family dies due to radiation, put them outside, but remember to tag them first for decontamination purposes."
In likelihood this came from an early version of FGTH Welcome to the Pleasuredome. I have never been able to find this was recorded for Protect and Survive, there also seems no evidence to support the claim Trevor Horn sampled Protect and Survive for Two Tribes, as far as I can tell Patrick Allen was engaged to come back into the studio for FGTH and perform cod-versions of his original lines.
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.
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.