A thoroughly fascinating and horrifying look at the state of British civil defence in 1980 hosted by a strikingly young Jeremy Paxman. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 triggered a new age of fear in the west about the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union with Europe sandwiched in the middle. This in turn sparked questions about Britain’s preparedness for such an eventuality as well as inspire a new wave of anti-nuclear protests.
Those who have seen the BBC’s Threads docudrama will see a lot of familiar scenes only this time acted out with the people who would have really carried out those roles had war broken out. Threads used both this program and a later program made by the BBC in 1982, QED – A Guide to Armageddon, to formulate its frighteningly realistic script before it aired in 1984.
The documentary makes note of the relatively small amount spent on civil defence compared to the immense sums of money spent on the nuclear deterrence itself. It also makes clear the belief that if the deterrence remains effective then the need for a permanent civil defence force is negated.
For those with an interest in both history and nuclear weapons, this is well produced and must-see program from that troubled time which hopefully has now passed.
The following is a booklet issued to members of the Civil Defence Corps and the British emergency services to inform them of the advice that would be given to the general public in times of heightened tension with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While it outlines the advice the government would give at such a time it was not intended for general public use.
This booklet was kept in use until the mid-1980s when it was replaced with an updated version that had more detail on the effects of nuclear fallout but retained the same basic advice. How effective these measures would have actually been is debatable. The cynical historian would argue that advice such as this had more to do with making the public feel like they could do something to protect themselves should nuclear war break out rather than genuinely useful advice.
In 1980, the UK government conducted an Exercise codenamed Square Leg which looked in to the effects of what they deemed was a realistic nuclear attack on the British mainland. They estimated that the country would sustain an attack with the destructive power in the region of 205 megatons. This would see almost 53% of the UK population – 29 million people – killed in the first few hours with another 19 million people dying in the following days from injuries and radiation.
The trouble with these figures is that Square Leg was heavily criticised as being – if you can believe it – optimistic and conservative. Critics argued that the UK was so densely populated with many strategic and military targets packed closely together that the Soviet Union would have allocated many more weapons to Britain than the government had estimated.
This reinforces the key point of nuclear weapons in that they are so frightening that they prevent a war rather than be a tool for war. We can only hope that the powers-that-be continue to remember that point.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is understood to be trying to establish a more decisive role for the British Treasury in the construction of the Royal Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines to replace the ageing Trident-equipped Vanguard-class. Critics have pointed out that the Ministry of Defence has a poor track record in the delivery of major projects highlighting the delayed and cost-overrun Astute-class submarine project.
The government is expected to announce the formation of a new special new authoritative body that will be put in charge of the ten year project to replace the four submarines with the new Successor-class. The chancellor wants to guarantee that the two main contractors, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, meet a strict 10-year timetable that would allow the Royal Navy to replace the Vanguard-class by 2028.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon is expected to set a price for replacing the Trident fleet when he publishes the upcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015) on November 23rd. The Successor-class is due to cost up to £40bn and MPs will be asked to approve the “maingate” phase of the project next year.
Just to let you know I have recorded the opening segment of the very first Defence of the Realm Podcast which will be uploaded on to Defence of the Realm’s YouTube page. I will apologise now that I do stutter in places as I have never been great at public speaking but I am hoping over time this will improve. If the Podcast does take off I would also like to have others join in for a particular topic. If you might be interested then please let me know.
At present the topics for the first Podcast will be;
A fascinating account of the birth of the British nuclear program and the Anglo-US hostility it generated. Additionally, I have covered the testing of the first weapon in a previous article you can view here.
The Operation: Hurricane atomic bomb was Britian’s first nuclear weapon. Development of the project began following a secret cabinet meeting of the British government in 1946 after the US passed the McMahon Atomic Energy Act of 1946 which barred the British and anyone else from gaining access to nuclear test data from the Manhattan Project despite Britain contributing its own scientists to the development of the American program. These scientists would ultimately work on the British bomb which received the codename “Hurricane”. As a result the weapon greatly resembled the American “Fat Man” weapon which was dropped on Nagasaki.
The design of the weapon incorporated a hollow core consisting of 7kg of plutonium. There were other designs planned including the use of Canadian manufactured plutonium for a Canadian nuclear weapon program. The Canadians, like Britain, had contributed scientists to the Manhattan Project and now felt shut out by the US who seemed determined to hold a monopoly on nuclear weapons. However only the British 7kg core design was used in the test.
The weapon was ready for testing in 1952 by which time the Americans had lost their nuclear monopoly to the Russians who detonated their first weapon in 1949. Working in conjunction with the Australian government, who were the only British Commonwealth country with the vast expanses of territory needed for safe testing, the islands of Monte Bello off the north west coast of Australia was selected as the test site. Instead of being dropped by an aircraft or on a fixed land platform it was instead placed inside a decommissioned River-class frigate, HMS Pym. Reports claim that at the time there was a very real belief by British intelligence that any pre-emptive attack from the Communist block would begin with suicide ships being charged into major naval installations with a nuclear weapon onboard,
The test was carried out on the 3rd October 1952 and catapulted Britain (and by association Australia and Canada) in to the nuclear age becoming the third nuclear power. The blast was 25 kilotons in power and left a saucer-shaped crater on the seabed 20ft deep and 980ft across. The test results were used to develop more effective nuclear weapons in the future that included American made warheads after the US amended the McMahon Atomic Energy Act in order to promote commercial nuclear development and better equip its allies in the face of an increasingly powerful nuclear Soviet Union.
Effect of a 25 kiloton nuclear weapon detonated in the centre of London (Nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap)