If nuclear war had come . . .
It’s not just statues and sculptures that tell the story of Britain’s past – our landscape is dotted with rather more ugly and functional structures hinting at what’s gone before. Steven Russell reports
IT’S about 20 years since the end of a Cold War that saw America and the Soviet Union squaring up to each other, knuckledusters and knives barely concealed behind their backs. Britain, standing four-square with its special friend, found itself on the frontline of a nuclear poker game. As author Nick Catford points out, the UK didn’t just have American atomic bombers based on East Anglian airfields, it also hosted long-range radar and strategic communications systems, intelligence establishments and missiles that “while nominally British were in fact under the absolute control of the United States”.
It gave our island a front-row seat for any nuclear Armageddon. “To counter this threat Britain became the most densely enbunkered nation in the world.”
It’s those architectural remains – often eerie, decaying and vandalised – that subterranean photographer Nick showcases in Cold War Bunkers.
The book’s not a military or political history of the Cold War but a tome concerned with modern-day archaeology, he says – “pictures of the recent past, obscure structures that survive in (or more frequently under) the British landscape; secret structures that were seemingly essential to Britain’s survival for a relatively brief period but which have since, for the most part, slipped quietly into oblivion”.
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His photographic overview recognises underground, semi-underground and surface bunkers built to protect a host of bodies. These include central, regional and local government, military organisations, radar systems, the Civil Defence organisation, the Royal Observer Corps, United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, and public utilities.
With East Anglia on the British frontline, it’s not surprising we had our fair share of concrete bolt-holes. Bawdsey, for instance, was part of the Rotor radar system the UK built rapidly after the Second World War so it wasn’t caught unawares by slowish Russian bombers armed with conventional or atomic bombs – should they ever appear in the skies.
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The nation was jolted into action by the Soviets’ nuclear test in 1949 and the start of the Korean war.
Nick explains that the Bawdsey bunker has a complex history. It was due to open at the start of 1952 but the site did not become operational until 1954. It had 10 radar heads and there was another type on a remote site just over a mile away on Alderton Marshes.
In 1963 Bawdsey was reduced in status to a satellite of Neatishead, about a dozen miles north-east of Norwich and within the Norfolk Broads. Then, in the mid-1970s, the Suffolk station was placed on “care and maintenance” status.
The story doesn’t end there, because in 1979 it reopened as a Bloodhound Mk2 missile site with a new administration centre set up in the old Rotor bunker.
“The termination of the Bloodhound programme did not mark the end of Bawdsey,” writes Nick. “From 1984 to 1985 the underground bunker was refitted to serve as the Interim Alternative War Headquarters for RAF Strike Command while the new permanent Strike Command bunker was under construction at High Wycombe.
“In 1990 the bunker was finally abandoned and all the entrances filled with concrete.”
The book contains, too, a couple of photographs of the hardened anti-aircraft operations room at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, where an interim AAOR was set up to safeguard the Harwich area while a permanent bunker was built at Mistley.
The Mistley Anti-Aircraft Operations Room cost �500,000 to construct in 1951 for the Royal Artillery (War Office). It was built to a standard design, with one floor and both entrances above ground and the other floor below. Its job was to control anti-aircraft guns around the ports and shoot down any Soviet bombers.
The bunker was sold to Essex County Council in 1963 for just �5,250 and became one of four sub-control centres (with Harlow, Chelmsford and Billericay) reporting to county control at Chelmsford.
By 1966 Mistley had become the main headquarters for the county, as a proposed new Chelmsford HQ had not yet been built. From 1968 until the early 1980s it trod water on a “care and maintenance” basis, later becoming the standby control for Essex when the new centre in County Hall opened in 1984.
The bunker remained operational until 1993, when it was decommissioned at the end of the Cold War.
Perhaps the most intriguing local-ish bunker is at Kelvedon Hatch, near Brentwood in Essex – interesting because it’s open to the public. (See www.secretnuclearbunker.com)
Part of the Rotor radar network, it was a three-level sector operations room opened in 1953 to co-ordinate surveillance and interception by radar stations in the London area. It was built on land requisitioned from the Parrish farming family.
“Like all the other SOCs, Kelvedon Hatch was rendered obsolete by 1958,” says Nick. “Between 1964 and 1968 the bunker was converted into a Home Office Sub-Regional Control with responsibility for the London region.”
Had it been pressed into genuine service it could have housed up to 600 military and civilian staff – and potentially even the Prime Minister – who would have had to pick up the pieces (and look after rather shocked survivors) following a nuclear strike.
Happily, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s spirit of glasnost – which gave new freedoms to his people from the late 1980s and which spread beyond Moscow to the West – dramatically eased tensions and the chances of conflagration.
The Government, chary of annual bills of a few million pounds to keep the place in a state of readiness – just in case – ruled it surplus to requirements. In the early 1990s it was sold back to the Parrishs.
Virtually all the bunkers of the nuclear age proved to be bridesmaids who never became the bride.
The Rotor programme was always a bit too “Second World War” and the advent of high-speed, high-altitude bombers by the mid-1950s marked the end for the anti-aircraft guns and their operations rooms, says Nick.
“Similarly, the increase in aircraft speeds exposed the weakness of the existing radar control and reporting system. The laborious, two-stage, landline re-transmission of track data via the Sector Operations Centres was simply too slow and was a factor in the decision to abandon them in 1958.”
By the end of the decade, manned bombers had been superseded by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, “against which no defence was possible, and almost the whole Rotor system was abandoned”.
The regional war rooms – a dozen in the provinces and four more for Greater London– fared little better, he adds.
“Conceived in 1951, they were designed to fulfil what was essentially a Second World War civil defence rescue and recovery role which was at odds with the reality of nuclear war.
“In the early 1950s the effects of the atomic bomb and its mode of use were envisaged in terms of it being no more than an extraordinarily powerful conventional bomb... and the concept of radioactive fallout was little understood.”
But nuclear weapons required a vastly different approach. “The magnitude of destruction would be so immense that short-term rescue and recovery would be an irrelevance and, while the initial damage by blast and fire would be immediate and catastrophic, the effects of radiation and of comprehensive social breakdown posed the most intractable problems in the medium term.
“What was required was not a bomb-proof headquarters with a small staff oriented towards conventional civil defence but a much larger, fallout-protected centre – a true Regional Seat of Government – from which all aspects of civil government could be exercised autonomously for a prolonged period.”
Almost all bunkers are now abandoned: knocked down so land can be redeveloped, or wrecked by vandals. Others have become overgrown, or even transformed into cowsheds. A few have found new – and often commercially sensitive – uses as high-security storage facilities or data centres.
The awful prospect of mutual assured destruction, by nuclear warheads slicing through the skies, meant none of the structures, services and systems were ever used in anger, the photographer reflects.
“The Cold War was a virtual war, with no battles and few victims; a war, arguably, with only victors and no losers. As such, there are no memorials in the conventional sense to the more than 40 years of preparation for what never came.
“But the bunkers in this book themselves stand as monuments to this period and to the provision of what may, in the final analysis, have offered no more than a ringside seat for the complete annihilation of the United Kingdom.”
n Cold War Bunkers is published by Folly Books at �24.99