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)

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!

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.

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.



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

Government films accessioned by The National Archives

The UK National archives have a list of all government films they have accessioned – some 4800 films in total dating from pre-1939 almost up until the present day. The full list – available as a spreadsheet – contains a suprisingly small number of films that seem to be relayed to nuclear matters:

BRITISH NUCLEAR FUELS   COI + British Nuclear Fuels
NUCLEAR FUEL SERVICE 1985 UKAEA British Nuclear Fuels

Civil Defence seems also not very well represented:

CIVIL DEFENCE CARTOON 1958 none listed

Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of a description and some titles don’t adequately describe the contents of the film so there is a chance much interesting material may be very hard to spot.

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: 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.