This paper is loosely based on a talk given at the Heritage Open Days in September 2013 for the Dean Heritage Centre.
In all the euphoria that came with the liberation of the suppressed people of the Eastern Bloc, it is easy to overlook that when the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war did not.
Today there remain some 12,000 active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of just 9 countries [a]. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it is the United States and Russia who harbour over 90% of these [b], shared roughly equally as it was during the Cold War.
The battle of ideology might have come to an end with the dissolution of the USSR, yet the destructive armaments which made the abstract of political and economic doctrines a terrible, threatening reality remains.
But of what importance is this to the people of the Forest of Dean, then or now?
Firstly, our incumbent MP for the Forest, Conservative Mark Harper, is a strong supporter of nuclear weapons [c]. Secondly, it probably less well known that in the early 1980’s, our county – Gloucestershire – was THE most targeted rural county in the UK.
Why? The answer is simple, but chillingly as relevant today as it was in 1980: GCHQ.
2013 saw Cheltenham’s Government Communication HQ feature regularly in newspaper headlines thanks to the revelations of US intelligence whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. He uncovered GCHQ’s pervasive role in an array of scandals over internet privacy. GCHQ was implicated in covert deals with internet service providers and the developers of computer operating systems to guarantee ‘back-doors’ into everyone’s private data. Their success in this work saw them re-sell their services to the US government. GCHQ has of course been at the forefront of intelligence, surveillance and code-breaking for over half a century and it is for this reason it undoubtedly has always been and remains a very high-value target.
Back in the 1980’s British Civil Defence and NATO-wide exercises predicted a range of nuclear attack scenarios to make their war games theoretically more relevant to how war might actually play out. These games were influenced by the strategic thinking of the British Government who at the time believed that a nuclear war was both survivable and ultimately winnable. This philosophy was based on the idea that there existed such a thing as ‘limited nuclear war’. But the Soviets rejected this concept entirely. They believed that once nuclear weapons were used in the theatre of war, there would be an unstoppable cycle of retaliation and escalation. Indeed, their systems were automated based on that very premise as to ensure a retaliatory strike would occur even after receiving a surprise attack.
At this time Brezhnev was ending his term as Soviet leader and nearing the end of his life. He was thus easily influenced by his paranoiac head of KGB, Yuri Andropov. Together they launched a secret international surveillance project called ‘Operation Ryan’ to find out when and under what auspice the West was to launch their surprise attack on the USSR.
The world will never know how close we were to an automatic nuclear war when the West ploughed on with their exercise ‘Able Archer’ in 1983, but the Soviets were certain that the exercise was the very cover they had suspected would be the trigger for that surprise launch by NATO forces. And this was also the year US cruise missiles was went ‘live’ in the UK.
It is with this polarisation of the British strategic view compared to the Soviet stance which lead a team of British academics (Openshaw, Steadman and Greene [d]) to build a body of evidence to counter the British idea that the ‘Protect and Survive’ attitude meant we’d prevail in a nuclear war.
Together the academics built a computer program to collate all the grossly over-optimistic British attack scenarios and compare them to US war games and planning and all available Soviet data on the subject. They’d supplemented this with analysis of strike impacts from peer papers from the likes of the British Medical Association in order to build a more realistic view of what might really happen.
They had no need to exaggerate their claims. The 11 attack scenarios they built from this deeper review of the data spoke for themselves: the picture was far less optimistic than the Thatcher government would have us believe. And it was for those of us living in Gloucestershire, Openshaw et al predicted that in even in the most limited attack our county would endure a predicted casualty rate of 70%.
Even when putting aside their concerns for Russian rejection of the British notion of a limited nuclear war, their scenarios ranged from the lowest probable strike to a massive, total attack. Over half of the 11 attack scenarios posed by Openshaw et al saw Gloucestershire shoulder a 97% or higher casualty rate.
Other rural counties only saw that level of destruction at the total-war end of the spectrum. On the other hand, Cornwall never had more than 17% in all scenarios. Somerset peaked at less than 30%. These figures were based only the initial blast and immediate radioactive fallout casualties. Wider fallout would of course travel with the wind so even Cornwall and Somerset would not have been safe.
At this point the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ was only just being more widely accepted as a probable outcome of a sizeable nuclear exchange. This foresees a prolonged winter lasting years where sunlight would diminish but skin cancer rates rocket through the destruction of the ozone layer. A nuclear winter would devastate the environment with the obvious impact of our food supply and agriculture. Perhaps the blinding flash of the 97% wasn’t so bad after all.
But there’s more to Gloucestershire than GCHQ. There’s also the USAF base at Fairford (you may recall Stealth Bombers left Fairford bound for Iraq in the 2003 war), plus the secondary targets of 2 civil nuclear power stations on the Severn. One of these is still being decommissioned today while at the same time being re-developed to 3-4 times the size. Back in the 80’s though there was also a National Grid Strategic Reserve Depot in Cirencester and our Civil Defence Sub-Regional HQ bunker at Ullenwood which had the extra role of being the national Anti-Aircraft Operations Room.
In 1966/67 the Joint Intelligence Committee drew up a revised list of probable Soviet targets, which included GCHQ [e]. They expected it to receive two 1MT bombs (a direct ground strike) plus two 500KT bombs (air-bursts). Air bursts are used to knock-out electronic, communication and radar devices. So 4 nuclear strikes on GCHQ alone, but for comparsion please remember that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in WW2 was only 12.5KT. Our county was predicted by the optimistic British to receive almost 3,000 times the destructive power.
Yet incredibly, another exercise conducted in the same late 60’s period, ‘Grass Seeds’, saw Civil Defence and Council planners consider Gloucestershire as the ideal place to receive nuclear war refugees from Birmingham and London. Both the attack scenario papers and what is presumed to be the Chief Executive’s review of the exercise written months later are available for review at the Gloucestershire Archives. This demonstrates that Openshaw et al were right to question the logic of British defence planning. On one hand Gloucestershire was being played as a safe haven for refugees (although there is some pretty grim reading in the document, with the docks used as a makeshift prison camp, and the old market as a rest area) on the other hand central government were writing us off with 4 nuclear warheads.
The possible targets on the Soviet list doesn’t stop there. Our county is literally surrounded by high-level targets. The highest of these has to be the national Seat of Central Government at Corsham (only 30 miles from the Speech House as the crow flies) where the Prime Minister would retreat to at the time of war.
Then there was a Cardiff branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and even closer there was the huge US weapons store at Caerwent.
Nevertheless having painted such a depressing picture of our assured destruction, not all levels of British government embraced Conservative optimism and bravado. Our neighbouring council, Gwent County Council were one such example.
Gwent CC refused to do anything more than the absolute minimum when it came to new civil defence and emergency planning laws. There was no money for massive civil bunkers so the Government insisted that Local Authorities educated their citizens in ‘Protect and Survive’ and conduct civil defence exercises and prepare for council continuity. But Gwent CC exploited the ambiguity of the new law and issued a pamphlet to the public in 1983 which ‘declared its opposition to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ [f].
They went further stating that Gwent CC ‘will not hide its view that war planning can be used to persuade other nations of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war.’ [g] And even more candidly sought to answer the difficult question of survivability and limited nuclear war: ‘There could be survivors but the Council fears that any nuclear exchange would escalate to all out nuclear war. In that event, Home Defence measures could not prevent the end of civilisation as we know it.’ [h] Certainly not the normal council circular one might expect to find in your local library. Gwent’s position, you will note, is remarkably similar to both Soviet views on the folly of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, and in keeping with Openshaw et al on the topic of optimism. Gwent predicted a 500KT bomb for Caerwent and also cited concerns over the civil nuclear power stations on the Severn [i].
Like much of history, the facts reveal a massive topic. Even on a local level the documents available and wider literature, as well as the testament of Royal Observer Corps or peace veterans form the body of a time we think is entirely behind us. But returning to my opening words, those warheads remain or have been replaced with more accurate equivalents. And so does the most appealing target in GCHQ. Let us hope this is one of those rare occasions where humanity might learn from history. One might say that this time our lives depend upon it.
[a] ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’
[c] Mark Harper was previously listed as a supporter of the ‘Freedom Association’, a conservative group which believes in strong defence, including the nuclear deterrent. And, of course, this is also current and former Conservative government policy. But Harper’s own interest goes beyond this, calling and hosting his own public debate on Trident Renewal in Highnam in 2007 in which he invited specialists from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) to speak in support of nuclear weapons, NATO and the British deterrent. Over 200 of his constituents at his public meeting overwhelmingly voted against Harper’s support, but when the vote came in Parliament, Mr. Harper still voted for Trident.
[d] ‘Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack’ by Openshaw, Steadman & Greene (Basil Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1983)
[e] cited in ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: the passive defence of the Western World during the Cold War’ by N. McCamley (Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2002 (2009 edition)).
[f] ‘Gwent and Emergency Planning’ (Gwent County Council, 1983)