Britain’s nuclear fears: preparing for armageddon

In the 1980s, as Britons’ fear of a nuclear war escalated, the government issued a raft of guidance on how to survive the apocalypse. But, writes Taras Young, if ministers expected a grateful nation to embrace their advice, they were in for a shock

A missionary preaches to the Native Americans of Massachusetts, c1650. By now, colonists were imposing their values on the indigenous population, encouraging them to dress like the English – and worship the English God. (Photo by Ian Tyas/Keystone/Getty Images)

In 1983, in the middle of a very ordinary London housing estate, a van driver called Ben Hayden unloaded his shopping from Sainsbury’s and started building his own fallout shelter. As he did so, armageddon seemed closer than ever. Following the relatively peaceful period of detente in the 1970s, during which diplomatic relations between east and west eased, tensions had again been stirred up by revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Western politics had shifted to the right, with Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in the UK being quickly followed by the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in the US. The pressure was rising to a point that hadn’t been felt since the Cuban missile crisis two decades earlier; for an anxious British public, nuclear confrontation seemed almost inevitable.

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When the government announced, in 1980, that the US would deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles on UK soil, the British public’s nuclear worries were brought to a head. “What pushed it to the front of people’s concerns was the plan to install short-range missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth, and the big demonstrations that the decision provoked,” says Philip Steadman, emeritus professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at UCL. “That made the issue more immediate and personal. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament became the bogeyman of the right, and there was an acrimonious and nervous political atmosphere.”

Ian Sanders, who now hosts the Cold War Conversations podcast, says the threat of nuclear war loomed large in the public consciousness. “It definitely felt like nuclear war could break out at any time, either by accident or design. As someone in my early twenties, with a life to live, it really did feel as though the end of the world could happen any moment.”

A little consumer test

To help prepare the people of Britain for a potential nuclear attack, in 1981 the UK Home Office published Domestic Nuclear Shelters. Available for just 50 pence, this slim pamphlet aimed to advise the masses on building their own fallout shelters. It gave basic guidance on constructing a hideaway where you could live for up to two weeks after nuclear attack, avoiding – hopefully – the worst of the radiation.

Hayden, a member of Tower Hamlets CND, decided to put this advice to the test in the most practical way possible. Following the instructions to the letter, he would perform what local punk poet Alan Gilbey wryly described as a “little consumer test”, putting up a fallout shelter in his housing estate and living there for two weeks. For Hayden, though, this was a sombre undertaking. “I’m building this seriously,” he told a local reporter. “When this shelter is completed, it’ll prove to everyone what a farce the arrangements for surviving after the bomb are.”

Hayden stocked the shelter with everything the government recommended, plus a few home comforts: plenty of tins of food, a bag of clean clothes, two water tanks, waste buckets, books, a sleeping bag, a pillow, a guitar, and his diary. Crawling into his makeshift home late on a Monday afternoon, he was upbeat as he adjusted to life in this cramped new world. On that first day, he wasn’t alone: journalists did their best to clamber into the shelter to conduct interviews; he heard people from the local estate talking about him (one opined that he must be a “nutter”); and local children gave him a fright by shouting down the ventilation shaft, their voices amplified in the enclosed, tube-like space below.

Protesters dressed as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in a makeshift nuclear fallout shelter, Manchester, June 1984. Left-leaning local authorities ridiculed the government’s Protect and Survive guidance (shown bottom of the picture) for being unworkable. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Protesters dressed as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in a makeshift nuclear fallout shelter, Manchester, June 1984. Left-leaning local authorities ridiculed the government’s Protect and Survive guidance (shown bottom of the picture) for being unworkable. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Soon, Hayden was questioning his own sanity. Four days in, he started to lose track of time, and there wasn’t enough clean air in the shelter to sustain a candle. “This place really begins to get on top of me,” he told his diary. “I get a slight feeling of claustrophobia, and I take a deep breath of smelly, stale air, and think to myself: ‘That’s better.’ As the second week began, the toilet waste he had collected had started to decay, causing the waste bags to leak. His urine bucket was full after 10 days; the food tins began to grow mouldy, and an infestation of insects had joined him in the shelter. “I’m reaching the end of my humour… I have no ability to concentrate on anything now; and spend my time just lying here feeling like a shit bag,” he wrote.

Beautiful mud

Happily, his two-week stint in the fallout shelter came to an end, and Hayden emerged into the sunlight. Walking out proved difficult – it was the first time he’d stood up in two weeks, after all – but he found he was not alone: as well as a delegation from the press and three television crews, around 200 local people had arrived to greet him. In the playground of a nearby primary school, children watched and cheered. “It was pissing down with rain, there was mud everywhere, and it was beautiful,” he wrote.

Spending two weeks in a makeshift nuclear bunker had been gruelling. But, while it had taken a psychological toll, Hayden was under no illusion that the experience had prepared him for the real thing. “The exercise has given me little or no insight into how I might cope,” he wrote. “To make more than a superficial comparison would be naive in the extreme… I was not alone. People came and talked and joked – and I looked forward to seeing them again. I knew I would.”

What the bunker experiment showed was that the advice presented by the government’s Domestic Nuclear Shelters pamphlet only seemed practical on the surface. Hayden had found it tough, and he had had all the advantages of building it in peacetime. With no geopolitical crisis, there was the luxury of time: the shelter took a week to construct and provision. Building materials were readily available; he had the money to buy them, and a plot of land to build on. And there was no nuclear attack to withstand; no blast to damage the outside of the bunker; no radioactive fallout to clog the ventilation pipes and his lungs; no confused and agitated survivors seeking food and shelter. His experience led him to be dismissive of the government’s advice. “This shelter shows it up to be entirely unrealistic,” he told a local reporter. “But I don’t think it’ll change anything.”

And perhaps one reason why the government’s advice was so ‘unrealistic’ was the fact that much of their guidance had not progressed beyond instructions that were created in the midst of the Second World War. During this conflict, the government had issued pamphlets not only on safety during air raids, but on how to best prepare homes for attack. This included guidance on the construction of Anderson shelters – essentially curved corrugated steel tubes, usually buried outside – and Morrison shelters: cheap metal tables with mesh sides, to be used indoors. These could be effective against Luftwaffe raids, but the end of the war brought with it a new threat: the atomic bomb.

Initial public information on the bomb assumed an air of the Blitz spirit: “At Nagasaki, nearly seven out of ten people within a mile from the bomb lived to tell their experiences,” claimed a 1952 pamphlet. “Shelters of the last war standard would give good protection against [an] atomic blast.” But, as both sides in the Cold War tested and refined the hydrogen bomb, with its mind-bogglingly destructive power, the magnitude of the threat really began to worry the British government.

Unlike some countries, however, Britain chose not to make provisions for costly communal fallout shelters as part of its civil defence plans. The onus was instead placed on individuals to find their own means of protecting themselves and their families. This was reflected in detailed public information booklets on the nuclear menace, prepared by the Home Office. The first of these, 1957’s The Hydrogen Bomb, sought to explain this new kind of weapon to the public; however, beyond a few basic diagrams, it gave no useful advice on how to protect yourself from its effects. Its 1963 follow-up, Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack, included a few practical measures on creating a fallout refuge, such as staying in a room in the centre of your home, blocking up windows with sandbags and heavy furniture, or hiding in a trench outside, “deep enough to provide comfortable standing room”.

Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack was roundly criticised. It was lambasted by members of the public, lampooned on the BBC’s satirical programme That Was the Week that Was, and even derided by the majority-Conservative Estimates Committee, who complained it gave the public “entirely the wrong impression”. In parliament, Labour MP Emrys Hughes condemned the booklet for providing impractical advice, and gave his own summary of the Estimates Committee’s position: “This thing is phoney; this thing is rubbish; put it in the waste paper basket!”

Fire and fallout

Following this debacle, new official advice about nuclear attack was slow to materialise. In November 1974, during Harold Wilson’s Labour government, Home Office officials came together to discuss the replacement of the unloved, and by now deeply outdated, 1963 guide. This led to the creation of a new public information campaign that was to become even more infamous than its predecessor: ‘Protect and Survive’.

Having learned from bitter experience, the Home Office was at pains to ensure that Protect and Survive – which comprised a series of TV and radio spots, as well as an accompanying booklet – would not gain adverse public attention. To that end, they opted to keep the programme under wraps until it was needed: only a small batch of booklets was printed in 1976 and distributed privately to those involved in emergency planning, such as chief executives of local authorities and chiefs of police.

Rendered in brown and orange, the cover of the Protect and Survive booklet evoked fire and fallout, with a nuclear family – father, mother, son and daughter – enclosed in a protective circle at its centre. Inside, though, the advice was remarkably similar to that of previous decades: know the warning signals, stay at home, construct an ‘inner refuge’, and ensure adequate water and supplies.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1980, when investigations by The Times and the BBC’s Panorama exposed the deficiencies of the British civil defence programme, that Protect and Survive came to prominence. The Thatcher administration, newly in power, found their hand forced by public and media demand. They gave the go-ahead for the booklet, with a few tactful changes, to be reprinted and put on sale.

Alongside Protect and Survive, a working group had been established to design and test fallout shelter designs. The outcome of their work, published in early 1981, was Domestic Nuclear Shelters. A pamphlet branded with the Protect and Survive logo, containing a potted version of the earlier booklet’s advice, it also gave DIY instructions for five types of fallout shelter. Two of these were unquestionably based directly on the Morrison and Anderson shelters designed in the Second World War. In fact, a larger, more detailed technical manual on shelter construction, which the working group developed for tradesmen and engineers, contained step-by-step instructions lifted directly – illustrations and all – from a 1942 guide to erecting a Morrison shelter. The most notable change was the removal of the pipe that one of the figures in the earlier guide had been shown smoking.

Quite daft proposals

The last-minute amendments to Protect and Survive weren’t enough to save it, and Domestic Nuclear Shelters, from ridicule. The campaign was a gift for leftwing local authorities, who viewed the idea of civil defence as unworkable and actively resisted central government’s attempts to shoulder them with the responsibility of managing the public in the aftermath of nuclear attack. The Greater London Council called the government’s booklets “quite daft”, while an episode of the hugely popular sitcom Only Fools and Horses, screened in 1981, played up the obvious inadequacies of the plans by having the flat-dwelling Trotter family construct a nuclear shelter on the roof of Nelson Mandela House, their central London tower block.

For academic Philip Steadman, the Domestic Nuclear Shelters booklet offered a useful way to interrogate the government’s planning assumptions for nuclear attack. “I got involved in various teach-ins and demonstrations, and thought to myself: ‘What can I do to help?’” he says. “I imagined that, being an architect, I might be able to say something about shelters, so I got hold of the Domestic Nuclear Shelters manual. I think it must have been there that I saw the Home Office estimates of blast damage. It immediately struck me that the calculations of areas of land affected couldn’t be right.”

Digging into the figures, Steadman discovered that the numbers the Home Office had come up with were wildly inaccurate. While Domestic Nuclear Shelters claimed that 5 per cent of the UK’s land area would suffer the serious effects of a nuclear blast, Steadman found at least 60 per cent of the population would be affected. He published his findings in New Scientist, which called the government’s figures “highly suspect”.

Not everyone was critical, though, and some took the governments advice at face value. Magazines such as Protect and Survive Monthly were ready to cater to their needs. Launched in January 1981, with a foreword by Leon Brittan, the minister responsible for civil defence, the magazine was a one-stop shop for the paranoid consumer. Early articles focused largely on shelter construction, but also covered the effects of radiation on agriculture, practical first aid, and even a guide to creating your own DIY fallout suit.

Largely focusing on shelter construction, Protect and Survive Monthly was a onestop shop for the paranoid consumer

Around them was a plethora of advertisements for pre-built fallout shelters, offering peace of mind – at a price. The government had encouraged the mainstream press not to run advertisements for such products, but readers of PSM had their choice of dozens, with names like ‘The SURVIVA’ and ‘FIBA-MOLE’. One advertisement even subverted memories of the Blitz spirit, showing an archive photo of smiling Londoners sheltering in a tube station, with the chilling caption: “Next time, it won’t be so easy to hide.” For those who couldn’t afford to build or buy protection, there was also the option of hiding in the natural fallout shelter provided by Britain’s disused metal mines.

Today, despite relations between east and west becoming frostier once more, the nuclear threat is far from most people’s minds. Yet nuclear weapons have not gone away, and their presence – combined with new risks driven by climate change – means that the Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight now as it has ever been. In an age of instant communication, social media and fake news, it’s unlikely that government advice of the kind seen during the Cold War will ever make a comeback. Hopefully, government communicators can learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

Taras Young is a writer and researcher. He is the author of Nuclear War in the UK (Four Corners Books, 2019)

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine