by Frank E Earp
The Day They (nearly) Dropped The Bomb, Or What Did You Do In the Nuclear War Daddy?
If you were born in the 1980’s or sometime thereafter, unless you’ve heard about it in history lessons at school, you will be asking; “What Bomb?” For those who genuinely don’t know, the answer is the ‘A’ Bomb, (Atomic) or ‘H’ Bomb, (Hydrogen) depending on which nuclear warhead the Russian missile falling in you front-garden was carrying. Either way, impact would have resulted in a massive radioactive explosion which would have made a mess of the lawn and flowerbeds. The question posed by the second title can be responded to by the answer; “Survive you idiot! Otherwise I would not be talking to you now”!
So, what am I really talking about here? The answer is the period of time known as ‘The Cold War’ and what might have happened if this had developed into a full scale ‘Nuclear War’. The Cold War was a period of political and military tension existing between the former Soviet Union and NATO, – of which Britain was a part. Although dates are disputed, The Cold War lasted some 43 years, – well over half of my life, – between 1947 and 1990. Both sides in this conflict possessed nuclear weapons capable of ‘mutually assured destruction’. It was the threat of the use of such weapons, – resulting in the extinction of all life on Earth, – which prevented actual military conflict.
Nuclear weapons in the form of the A bomb were first developed by the U.S. towards the end of W.W.II. Their first, – and thank goodness only use, – were the two bombs dropped by the Americans on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Aug. 6th and Aug. 9th 1945. In Hiroshima, the direct effect of the bomb killed 90,000-160,000 people and in Nagasaki, 60,000-80,000. By the end of 1947 Russia and the Soviet Union had acquired the atomic bomb, along with aircraft capable of delivering the weapon on targets within all NATO countries.
With mounting tension between the opposing factors, both sides began to consider the possibility of a ‘Third (Nuclear) World War. Whilst NATO military tacticians decided where to drop their bombs on the Soviet Union, other Government officials considered where the enemy might effectively drop their bombs on NATO targets. In Britain a list of 81 potential ‘first strike’ Soviet targets was drawn up.
It might surprise the reader to find that Nottingham was included in the list of major target cities. Nottingham, it was decided, would play host to a 10 megaton ‘Air Burst Bomb’ delivered directly over the centre of the City, – Market Square. As the name implies, these weapons once released from a high-flying aircraft, descend on a parachute to a height of around 800 feet before detonation. This method of delivery greatly increases the power of the blast wave over a much wider area whilst minimising potential radioactive fallout. This single bomb would have resulted in the total destruction of buildings in the City within a 4 mile radius of ‘ground zero’ – as far as Arnold and Bestwood to the north, Bunny and Gotham to the south, Wollaton and Bramcote to the west Netherfield and Colwick to the east. Irreparable damage would have been done to buildings within a 6 mile radius, moderate to severe damage within a 16 mile radius and light damage at 24 mile radius.
None of this takes into account the effects of the heat and resulting fire-storm generated by such a devastating explosion. With a temperature of an estimated 10 million degrees generated at the ‘hyper-centre’ of the explosion, all matter is instantly vaporised. Carried by the shock wave of the explosion, the heat generates a massive firestorm igniting all flammable material for many miles around. It is safe to say that in an instant, the City of Nottingham would have ceased to exist.
However, our theoretical bomb would not have been the only one dropped on the County. It was believed that a second air-burst bomb would have been used against the power station at Radcliffe-on-Soar in the second wave of bombings. As if these two bombs alone where not enough to destroy our fair City, the Soviets had also planned to drop a bomb on Leicester. Larger weapons were also expected to fall on Birmingham and Manchester which would have resulted in great damage to both the north and west of the County.
As the 1940’s passed into the 50’s both sides continue to develop nuclear weapons and planed for their use in a potential conflict. It was quickly realised that this would be a war like no other and the victor would be the one that best survived the conflict. As a direct consequence of this, great effort was placed in planning for survival. These plans were based entirely on the effects of the only actual use of the A bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, weapons technology rapidly outpaced any possible survival plans. Both sides developed larger and more powerful bombs, – the H bomb, – and improved methods of delivery via ‘Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles’ carrying multiple warheads.
The question of ‘survival’ after a ‘first strike nuclear attack’ became one of near obsession for the Governments of both sides involved in the conflict known as ‘The Cold War’. Neither side wished to be remembered in history, – if history would have existed post nuclear conflict, – as being the first to use nuclear weapons. This meant that for the military planner, it was surviving long enough to retaliate against the enemy’s first strike, to be able to deliver your own nuclear arsenal. Alongside this aspect of survival Governments, including the British, planned for the survival of the State.
The first priority considered was a military one, – in the event of a nuclear strike, the ability to continue to protect the State and conduct the war effort. Again, any planning was based on experience of W.W.II and came under the jurisdiction of the old W.W.II Civil Defence, – which had been reinstated with the start of the Cold War in 1948. To facilitate war time operations a number of strategically placed command centres were needed. It was quickly realised that London would be a prime target and the Capitol was considered as a separate case. The remainder of the Country was divided into 12 regions – making 13 in all. Nottingham became the centre for District 3, North Midlands.
In 1953 work began on the construction of specially designed nuclear shelters designated as Regional War Rooms, (RWR’s). These buildings were designed to be able to survive all but the direct hit of a nuclear bomb comparable to those used in W.W.II, – including radio-active fallout. They were expected to support a staff of around 45 persons and to be used as a regional command and control centre. As a part of the overall operating system a number of small Civil Defence bunkers were constructed throughout each region. These were not intended as civilian air-raid shelters, but rather 2 to 3 person underground observation post. One of these was located on farm land at the Nottinghamshire ‘beauty-spot’ of Misk Hills between Hucknall and Annesley previously the site of a W.W.II air-raid shelter.
Nottingham’s nuclear bunker was built on Government land on Chalfont Drive, Aspley. The building, – built from reinforced concrete, – was constructed to a standard design, consisting of two levels, one below ground and one above, with the main control room spanning both levels. Building work on most of the RWR’s, including Nottingham, was not completed until 1965.
By the early 1960’s, – the time when construction of the majority of the bunkers had only just been completed, – the concept of RWR’s had become redundant and was superseded by the idea of having Regional Seats of Government (RSG). It was decided that whilst central government would effectively remain in London, the regions would become self-autonyms. Post nuclear attack each region would be administered by a Regional Commissioner, of Cabinet rank who like some ‘Feudal Overlord’, would hold absolute power in their post nuclear attack world and would govern the surviving populous from their concrete fortress.
Most of the existing RWR buildings did not fit with the new plans and were quickly replaced with new designs more fit for purpose. However, three original sites, those at Nottingham, Kirknewton, West Lothian Scotland and Cambridge were retained. Those at Kirknewton and Cambridge were enlarged by simply adding a new large block at one end of the building. However, the Nottingham Chalfont Drive site proved more problematic as it was built on a tightly packed Government estate which left little room for a large extension. To solve the problem of space a three-level extension was built butting on to the southern end of the war room. This had two short storeys, with the first floor sunken slightly below ground level. This effectively brought the roof level of the extension level with that of the existing building. A third storey was the added extending over the extension and the entire length of the existing war room. This floor was cantilevered, jutting out at one end and the two sides. The overlap was supported along the sides on concrete stilts and two side stairwells and at the northern end by an emergency staircase from the top floor directly down to ground level.
By the time Nottingham’s nuclear bunker was complete a new and more devastating nuclear weapon, the Hydrogen bomb, had entered the arsenals of both sides. This rendered the all of the new RWR’S anachronistic. Instead of a long and protracted war, planners now anticipated a short and devastating attack on Britain’s major cities and infrastructure. As most of the RSG’s were built close to a major city, attack on the city with an H bomb rendered them obsolete.
Once again the nuclear bunkers received a name change and new designations. Although used for a number of obscure and irrelevant purposes, including a store room, the Chalfont Drive building, – affectionately known locally as ‘The Kremlin’, – remained until 1992, in a state of operational readiness against the day they might drop the bomb over Nottingham’s Council House. In Aug. 2009, a planning application was submitted for the building of 450 – 500 new houses on the bunker site and surrounding redundant Government building. As a part of this application the actual site of The Kremlin would be incorporated into a Peace Garden in which its harsh concrete outline would remain. Ironically, any actual work on the development must wait until the Land Registry, – which currently occupies a building on the Chalfont Drive relocate to alternative office accommodation in Nottingham.
The Government’s plans for survival of the State in a post nuclear attack and the building of nuclear bunkers to facilitate survival were of course ‘top secret’. However the construction of and later extension to a large windowless concrete building, – with a giant radio mast on its roof, – on a Government estate at Chalfont Drive, did not go un-noticed. Even during the height of the Cold War, the building became known as the Kremlin and was recognised by locals for what it was, a nuclear bunker. Whilst doing my research for this article, I was amazed to find that Nottingham possessed a second large nuclear bunker. In 1988, just a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, plans were submitted for the building of a single storey office with basement. The basement in question was in fact an 11 room nuclear bunker complete with metal blast proof doors, plant room and air filtration system. The office building is now part of Rushcliffe Borough Council’s Recycle 2go Scheme and its nuclear bunker is apparently used for general storage.
We have seen how the Government made elaborate plans for the survival of the State in the advent of nuclear war but what of the general public in all of this? Whilst Government officials and their Civil Servant staff were ensconced in their nuclear bunkers what was expected of the rest of the general population of Nottingham and everywhere else for that matter? The answer came in the late 1970’s early 1980’s, in the form of ‘Protect and Survive,’ a Government, Civil Defence information series. This Government initiative was intended to inform the British citizens on how to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. It consisted of multi-media information, including pamphlets, radio broadcasts and public information films.
Central to the program was a booklet called appropriately ‘Protect and Survive’ with these comforting words on the front cover; ‘This booklet tells you how to make your home and your family as safe as possible under nuclear attack’. It was full of such useful information such as how to create a family safe room from wooden doors and black bin-liners full of garden soil and advice such as; post nuclear attack, the greatest service you could do for the survival of the human race was to kill any fly you came across. I suppose that the real value of the booklet lay in the fact that any survivor would have had a supply of toilet paper.
The Protect and Survive booklet had been adapted and upgraded in 1976, from an earlier document ‘Advising the Householder on Protection against Nuclear Attack’ first published in 1963. This in turn had been produced from a 1938 leaflet called ‘The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids’. It was intended that the booklet would be made widely available to the general public, -as the Government of the day put it, – “during a grave international crisis when war was imminent”. However, existence of the document came to the attention of the general public through a series of letters published in The Times newspaper in December 1979 and later articles in January 1980. Following a debate in Parliament, the booklet was formally published in May 1980. It was made available on demand at the exorbitant price of 50 pence, £6 in today’s money. Just over 2,000 copies were ever printed, many of which were distributed to local authorities and public services. Today the few remaining copies are still available again on demand from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office’s.
In the 1990’s with the end of the Cold War and the Government’s abandonment of its nuclear civil defence policy, it was acknowledge that the whole Protect and Survive programme had very little real value beyond providing the general public with a positive focus in the last days before a nuclear war. I suppose it was better than a simple message saying “You’re all going to die!” broadcast by the B.B.C., – although this would have been nearer to reality and a lot cheaper.
Assuming you wanted to survive a nuclear attack how would you know it was time to retreat to your shelter made from doors and black bin bags full of half your garden? The answer lies in the good old-fashioned ‘air raid siren’. In the late 1960’s a number of air raid sirens were installed on the roofs of public buildings in Nottingham, – amongst these were the Council House and Wollaton Hall. A siren had been placed on the Hall roof in 1939 before the outbreak of W.W.II and had seen action throughout the war. The new siren was part of ‘United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation’ (UKWMO) set up to deliver the infamous ‘Four Minute Warning’. This was a public alert system conceived by the Government during the Cold War and was operable between 1953 and 1992.
The words Four Minute Warning became synonymous with the threat of a Soviet nuclear missile attack. It was derived from the supposed length of time taken for a detected launch of a missile and its impact on a target in the U.K. With the development of the German V2, Britain had suffered missile attacks during W.W.II. These impacted on their targets without warning as at this time there was no way in detecting their launch. By the 1950’s advanced radar technology meant that missiles could be tracked from their launch to impact. From 1958 to 1963, the modified radio telescope at Joderll Bank in Cheshire was used by the R.A.F as a detector. Linked directly to the detection network, sirens throughout the Country, – including those in Nottingham would automatically sound to announce the pending doom.
Like everyone in the World of my age, 63, I have spent a large part of my life living under the shadow of nuclear war and can quite rightly claim to be a survivor of the bomb. However, I have another claim to fame that only a chosen few can boast of. I survived, – all be it badly burnt, – a nuclear explosion in Nottingham. Not an actual one of course, I think the reader would have heard the bang. Let me explain. Back in the 1960’s, as a 13 or 14 year old St. John’s Ambulance Cadet, I volunteered or was perhaps volunteered by my seniors, as one of several hundred casualties in a large scale combined Public Services and Civil Defence exercise. Although I have clear memories of the day’s events my aged memory does not allow me to recall the precise location of the venue. Something at the back of my mind tells me it was somewhere in North Notts. and Sherwood Forest.
Where ever the venue, we arrived early one Saturday morning a group of nissen-huts. Here, with several hundred other ‘actors’ of all age groups we were given our briefing. Some received stage makeup depicting hideous wounds of various kinds. Others, myself included, had luggage labels attached to our person with a precise description of our supposed condition. My label said ‘full thickness third degree burns over entire body’ and I was told to fane unconsciousness. We were then driven over to the ‘film set’ for our adventure.
The sight which greeted us when we disembarked from the back of a military truck was a truly amazing one. Here was a complete purpose built ruined village. Perhaps the most talked about feature amongst my fellow Cadets was a red telephone box with every pain of glass blown out, against which was leaning the wreckage of a burnt out vehicle. We were told that one special casualty would be ensconced in the box and it was to be a set-piece puzzle for our rescuers has to how to get them out.
Small groups of us were conducted on a tour of the ‘village’ and given a place to await rescue. Mine was a large pile of bricks outside a ruined house on a side street. Other casualties were given the role of walking wounded and were instructed on how to wonder the streets in a suitable and realistic manner. Once the village had been populated with its post nuclear attack inhabitants, some small (controlled) firers were lit and the air was filled with the smell of wood smoke. A pre-arranged signal was given and the exercise began.
After waiting what seemed like hours on my uncomfortable pile of bricks I was attended by Civil Defence personnel in there dark blue/black battle-dress uniforms topped by a white W.W.II tin helmet. After a quick assessment of my supposed injuries, – which involved reading the label attached around my neck, – I was carried off to an evacuation on a wooden door recovered from the ruins. Here, I was thankfully transferred to a more comfortable stretcher which was then loaded into the back of a four birth Civil Defence Ambulance.
My part in the exercises was not yet over. The old bone-shaker of an ambulance transported me and my three fellow survivors to an emergency hospital facility. Here we were greeted by medical staff and subjected to supposed treatment which in my case included being placed on a saline drip. I remember being told not to move as the needle, not actually inserted had been secured close to the vein in my arm. The last experience was my being transported on a trolley on an hair-raising trip along a long corridor to a burns unit. Thankfully this turned out to be a debriefing room with awaiting refreshments. So ended my day as a survivor of the atomic bomb!