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.

Protect and Survive Myths

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.

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.