QED – A Guide to Armageddon

On 26th July 1982, the BBC broadcast “A Guide to Armageddon” as part of the QED documentary series which ran between 1982 and 1999. The programme was written and produced by Mick Jackson and is clearly an early blueprint for Threads, although Threads was updated following several important scientifically credible ideas particularly that of nuclear winter.

The programme was 30 minutes in length and was a detailed investigation into the effects of a nuclear weapon exploding over a large city, London being the chosen example. It theorised what effect a 1 megaton airburst weapon would have and demonstrating vigorous impartiality, the programme cited it sources at the very beginning:

Sources:

  • Glasstone, S and Dolan J. D. (1977) J. D. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. U.S. Department of Defense : U.S. Department of Energy.
  • United States. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment. (1979) The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. Government Printing Office.
  • The Home Office. (1974) Nuclear weapons. HMSO.

There can be no dispute as to the excellence of the sources used, particularly the two American ones. However, the British publication “Nuclear Weapons” (1974) has been frequently discredited by Stan Openshaw and Duncan Campbell , among others, who have documented factual errors and a lack of transparency in the publications sources (in fact, it lists none). However, there cannot be any accusations of “bias” in the sources used as programmes that illustrate the dangers of nuclear weapons and particularly the United Kingdom’s vulnerability to almost any attack, are often accused of scaremongering at best, pedallers of CND propaganda at worst.

About the Programme

A Guide to Armageddon looks closely at the effects of a single 1 megaton attack against London, however, as it notes, it could be any large city. It considers the effects in fairly narrow terms as trying to detail the potential effects could have resulted in a much larger programme, in fact to its credit the programme just considers the scientifically provable effects of the attack. Unlike Threads, it does not really speculate on all the deeper social effects. The science behind the study of nuclear weapons essentially presents three effects:

1. Heat

2. Blast

3. Fall-out

These are effects which are scientifically measurable and cannot really be argued away. The programme does this because it is easy to theorize on what the post-attack situation might be however none of it can be provable scientifically no matter how credible the theory may be. When this programme was broadcast the policy of the British Government and NATO was of nuclear deterrence and as commentators ranging from Bertrand Russell to Edward Thompson would remind the public, government policy of having the bomb made it essential to downplay just how precarious this gamble was. In 1982 no serious documentary was going to attack the logic of nuclear weapons without scientific evidence to avoid being attacked by the right-wing accusing the programme of “bias”.

The programme presents the extent of the effects of a single 1 megaton attack on London and what the effects of heat, blast and fall-out would do to humans. It then looks at what possible counter-measures there are against such an attack. It looks at different fall-out shelters ranging from the basic “Protect and Survive” type all the way to commercially available shelters buried under ground that were available during the 1980s.

Heat

Heat is the first major hazard presented in the programme that would effect a city after detonation of a nuclear weapon. As it travels at the speed of light the programme notes people would be effected by this at almost exactly the same time for hundreds of square miles. It points out that the initial fireball is 20 million degrees centigrade, hotter than the centre of the Sun, as a way of demonstrating the power of a nuclear explosion. Within this context, it then looks at how vulnerable the human body is to heat and the extent to which heat would damage a city.

The programme began by making the observation that the human body is very easily damaged, that skin is severely burned at only 70 degrees Celsius and that the heat from the fireball at one and a half miles is 4000 Celsius. Through make-up effects they show the impact of burns on the face that would require extensive skin grafts. Using a piece of meat as an example, they expose it to equivalent heat from the bomb and within only a few seconds it is charred black.

Only a few seconds after the explosion over London, the programme estimates that there would be approximately 360,000 burns victims in London, a figure borne out by both the BMA and Owen Greene’s London: After The Bomb in separate studies. A varying distances from London the effects on people are given, including flash-blindness at many miles from the city.

As well as the injuries caused to humans by heat, the documentary also covered the effects of heat on the city. The effects of heat, travelling in straight lines as light from the fireball, is shown to create an enormous ignition zone over London. As an example, the heat melts the bronze cross on top of St Paul’s cathedral, over five miles from the fireball buildings and vehicles spontaneously ignite. Metal sheeting on cars and buses warps and deforms, road surfaces melt and bricks and concrete char. Chillingly, the programme reports a fire zone of over 50 square miles. All of the findings are consistent with the mass fires seen during the Second World War and at Hiroshima.

Blast

As if the horrors of the fire were not enough, travelling at the speed of sound, only 17 seconds after the heat swamps the city, the blast wave strikes London “like a million ton fist.” The programme shows this shattering blast fanning out in all directions from the fireball crushing everything in its path. To give a sense of scale, A Guide to Armageddon shows an aerial map of London with blast rings at various distances and then describes the effect at each. At 1.5 miles it describes a scene of total devastation with no possibility of any building remaining standing. This area would be completely flattened by the blast.

Fall-out

The programme deals with the most sinister effect of nuclear attack, fall-out, as being the most hazardous to anyone who had survived the initial attack. It describes that a single bomb on London is very unlikely, and anything up to 30 could be possible and a third of these would explode on the ground. These would cause a deadly cloud of fall-out to cover the city in anything from minutes to days.

Protection from the Attack

The programme then goes into considerable detail about what the public can do to survive the attack. The vast bulk of literature, including Duncan Sandys 1957 defence white paper, informs us there is no defence against nuclear attack . However, in the interests of making this a balanced documentary this is attempted. However in trying to create protection from nuclear attack it in fact has the opposite effect and actually demonstrates that protection is impossible.

Delayed Broadcast

There can be little doubt as to the political sensitivity of “A Guide to Armageddon” as the broadcast was delayed. It was due to be first broadcast on 25th May 1982 but the BBC decided to drop the film “at short notice” because Alan Hart, controller of the BBC, was concerned because of the Falklands conflict and that the corporation thought it would be in poor taste.

Although the BBC denied that the film was being censored, as The War Game effectively was , there is the possibility that the film was withdrawn and possibly changed because of its content. There can be no dispute that the effects of nuclear war, civil defence and most importantly the odds of surviving such an attack were extremely controversial during the period. The War Game was itself still banned when A Guide to Armageddon was made, and it is possible this was another potentially difficult issue the BBC needed to handle with care. The Times went on to note that “the BBC is keeping its profile as low as the cabinet’s fall-out shelter. ”

Media Reaction

Like its successor Threads, portions of the media were startled by what A Guide to Armageddon had to say. It was revealing that when presented with the effects of nuclear war, some commentators were genuinely surprised by what the film broadcast. Although the film used some dramatic elements, Bryan Appleyard in The Times did initially complain of “hysteria ”but the right reasonably said “And what is wrong with hysteria? Contemplating 650,00 major burns cases occurring in three seconds is hardly conducive to an objective assessment of the virtues of the independent nuclear deterrent.”

Mick Jackson said he had already anticipated this and “that that a great body of scientific work was virtually unknown to the general public, and that to deal with particular elements the numbers of weapons, or the effect of blast or radioactivity ignores the way they and human factors interact. ”

Fred Rothenberg, an Associated Press Television Writer, said “There’s nothing namby-pamby about the way British television portrays the effects of nuclear war in “Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon,” and “the segments on how people should try to prepare for a nuclear attack take on the absurd air of a Monty Python skit ” which is a telling comment on the recommendations in Protect and Survive. Walter Goodman of the New York Times said: “Yet it would be a dangerous irony if television’s power to help us imagine the unimaginable should discourage us from thinking about the unthinkable. ”Made with the new Google Sites, an effortless way to create beautiful sites.Create a siteReport abuse