The Times Jan 16 1980: “Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people”

On January 16th 1980 The Times ran a feature*Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people” and printed some details of the 1976 leaflet “Protect and Survive.

Civil Defence has come back on the agenda particularly after it was decided that United States Cruise Missiles were to be stationed in the UK and how these missiles may or may not have made Britain more of a target for Soviet missiles – John Pilger’s The Truth Game does go on to note that in the 1980 civil defence exercise, Square Leg, Greenham Common and Newbury were among the first places wiped out in their theoretical attack. Even if the USSR hadn’t targeted Greenham Common it seems that our own planners thought it highly likely.

In the article written by Peter Evans he goes on to note that civil defence was in for a considerable revival by the new Tory government having been left to largely languish after Labour effectively abolished civil defence with the standing down of the Civil Defence corps in 1968.

However the article weaves quite a contradictory story about civil defence and the effectiveness thereof. The UK’s defence planners are quoted as reckoning on a Soviet attack of between 180-200 megatons which in itself is probably a reliable figure, Operation Square Leg used 200MT as the scale of the attack and the same figure has appeared in Openshaw’s Doomsday from 1983. The article does highlight the government’s proposals to give higher priority to protect people from attack. The problem is that, as Openshaw and Campbell (among many others) have more or less said this scale of attack is literally indefensible.

In the 1982 QED documentary “A Guide To Armageddon” noted more than 77% of the UKs entire population live in cities. In the UK, combining all of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there are only 69 cities. The article reckons the USSR would attack with up to 200 one megaton weapons and targeting every city which would only use about 34.5% of the available force. There would be no serious way to protect even a fraction of the population from such an awesome attack. A further 28 large towns and metropolitan areas would take use up a further 28 weapons consuming about half of a possible attack leaving a huge destructive force for launching multiple weapons at cities as well as military and industrial areas outside cites.

The article looks at one of the silliest perspectives that could be found in Protect and Survive, that large areas would be completely spared blast and fire. I don’t think anyone has seriously disputed this: the problem is that almost no one lives there. The Soviet Union was pretty unlikely to target empty wilderness. As one of the characters in Threads said;

“where our Jack lives there’s only a row of houses and a pub, they’re not going to bomb that, are they?”


* Unfortunately you may need an academic or institutional login to read the full article.

Full citation: Peter Evans Home Affairs Correspondent. “Civil defence-1: Government to give greater priority to protect millions of people.” Times [London, England] 16 Jan. 1980: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Jan. 2013.

Threads—Select References and Bibliography by Kevin Hall

The following reference material was used in BBC nuclear war drama “Threads” either as a factual or dramatic reference. Many of the references were used to either substantiate the on-screen captions and news reports, or were used to approximate casualty, fall-out or blast effects or to simulate the events after the attack.

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“Nuclear injured would have to wait”

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.