This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine.
On a warm summer’s morning, there can be few better places to visit than York. This ancient county town is a gem, bristling with buildings renowned for their long histories and aesthetic beauty.
Unfortunately, the York Cold War Bunker isn’t one of them. Tucked away in a quiet suburb a mile or so west of the city centre, this stark, rectangular, concrete structure will never thrill the senses in the way that nearby York Minster or Clifford’s Tower will.
But then again, the bunker was never designed to be a thing of beauty. Its role was always grimly utilitarian – and that was to be the eyes and ears of Britain’s authorities if the country came under nuclear attack.
When the bunker was built in 1961 – at the height of the Cold War – that nightmarish scenario was casting an ever longer shadow over the people of Britain. With relations between the west and the Soviet Union rapidly growing more hostile, Soviet bombs getting more destructive (capped, that year, by the explosion of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever to be detonated) and more and more of them pointed at Britain, the government began ramping up plans for protecting its citizens in the event of a Third World War. The York Cold War Bunker was an integral part of those contingencies.
The bunker was designed to be staffed by 60 members of the Royal Observer Corps, all of whom would have rushed to the relative safety of the facility in the event of a nuclear attack. Yet these highly trained volunteers wouldn’t have been here for their own protection. Instead, as Rory Cormac, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, explains, they would have had the grimmest of tasks – monitoring the effects of a nuclear strike on the York region.
“It was their job to calculate where the bomb had hit, how big it was, the levels of radiation it was producing and where that radiation was heading,” says Rory. “Using this information – gleaned from a network of 31 regional centres like York around the UK, plus 1,500 smaller sites – the authorities would then have hopefully been in a position to build up a picture of what was going on above ground: how many people were likely to have died, where it could move troops, was it safe to sound the all-clear?”
The York Cold War Bunker contained enough rations to sustain the volunteers for 30 days. As soon as you enter the blast-proof doors, it soon becomes clear that they would have spent those 30 days operating under the most trying of circumstances.
The first priority when entering the building was to remove radiation from your body – which meant showering three times, one of them with your clothes on. “This, they reckoned, would remove 90 per cent of the radiation,” says Rory.
Descend a level and you reach the dormitory, which had the capacity for 20 people – the 60 workers operated on an eight-hour shift pattern. This floor also houses the toilets (which could be flushed just once every eight hours) and an ejector room designed to pump out human waste.
But it is when you descend yet another level, deep into the bowels of the bunker, that you enter the business area of the facility: the operations room. In the event of a nuclear attack, this would have been a whirr of activity – commanders sat around a triangulation table assessing the information they’d received from observation posts; plotters tracking fallout directions in mirror-writing on Perspex boards; communication staff transmitting data to regional government via teleprinters; and observers poised to shout the code word ‘Toscin’ in the event of another bomb exploding.
“You can only imagine the enormous psychological strain these people would have been under when they were working down here,” says Rory. “Not only would they have been cooped up in this concrete box under the ground for up to 30 days, under great pressure to get the job done, they would have been wondering what had happened to their family and friends – and considering what kind of world awaited them when they emerged back above ground.” To hammer that point home, the operations room was decorated in a mixture of oranges – to help the volunteers focus – and calming greens and blues to reduce the risk of suicides.
One of the first things to strike you when you walk around the operations room is that the equipment within it is incredibly primitive. Looking back from the digital era, Perspex boards and chinagraph pencils appear almost quaintly antiquated. Yet the computer age did, to some extent, reach the bunker operations room – and it arrived in the shape of AWDREY (aka the Atomic Weapons Detection Recognition and Estimation of Yield device). Able to ‘see’ up to 150 miles on a clear day, thanks to a sensor mounted on the bunker’s roof, AWDREY transmitted data about nuclear explosions to all other group and section headquarters. Yet she wasn’t infallible: lightning strikes and firework displays were known to send her haywire.
Exploding into action
For much of its operational history, the York Cold War Bunker would have stood silent – this inactivity punctured by regular training exercises (the observers were required to report to the bunker one night a week and every other Saturday, as well as taking part in quarterly nationwide operations). But there was one period when the bunker was fully manned 24-hours a day for a full week – and that was the Cuban missile crisis.
As US president John F Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in some high-stakes sabre-rattling (during which the Soviets deployed ballistic missiles just 90 miles from the US coast), the York observers were on red alert.
“The Cuban missile crisis was the closest the world came to a nuclear war and the only time that this facility was at its highest state of readiness,” says Rory. “With an American listening post at RAF Menwith Hill just down the road, the people here were well aware that, if a Third World War kicked off, York would be firmly in the firing liwne. It must have been a really scary time.”
The world would find itself on the nuclear precipice once again 21 years later – this time as a result of a Nato military exercise called Able Archer. “This was just a standard exercise,” says Rory. “But relations between the United States and the Soviets were so poor – and the exercise itself so realistic – that some members of the Soviet top brass were convinced that it was a cover for a genuine attack, and started agitating for a first strike themselves. That was the terrifying thing about the Cold War – nobody wanted a world war but, so pervasive was the paranoia in both camps, that misperception and miscommunication could easily lead to disaster.”
Third World War
The Able Archer incident may be nowhere near as notorious as the Cuban missile crisis but, in many ways, it was just as scary – and that’s because, by the 1980s, both armed camps possessed enough weapons to destroy the world many times over.
“In the 1950s, military planners regarded nuclear bombs as tactical weapons, launched in support of, for example, a massive invasion of Soviet land forces, and designed to target military facilities,” says Rory. “Within a few years, the bombs had become so numerous – and so powerful – that the planners were now targeting cities with the aim of wiping out entire populations. The Third World War would have been a war not of conquest, but annihilation.”
All of which begs the question: was there any point to the York Cold War Bunker? Why spend 30 days underground tracking the movement of radiation when all that remains a few metres above your head is a post-apocalyptic wasteland?
“You could argue that there was an element of futility to places like this but they were better than doing nothing and the York bunker could have played a valuable role depending on the strength and location of the bomb dropped,” says Rory. “In some ways, despite being semi-secret, their most important function was a public relations one – both in reassuring the public that the authorities had a plan, and also warning the Soviets that we were prepared for war and would fight back.”
On a national level, that fightback would have been co-ordinated from a government bunker deep in the Wiltshire countryside. Codenamed Turnstile, this huge, spartan facility would have housed Britain’s top political and military brass in the event of a nuclear war. There they would have been joined by broadcasters from the BBC, in order to transmit messages to what remained of the nation. “In fact, one of the ways in which Britain’s nuclear submarines were briefed to check if the levers of government were still operating was if they could pick up Radio 4,” says Rory.
Thankfully, these contingency plans were never implemented in a live crisis and, in 1991, after years of détente and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the York Cold War Bunker was decommissioned.
The Cold War might be over. The threat to Britain’s security might have changed beyond recognition. But 25 years later the York Cold War Bunker – which is open all year round – still stands as a fascinating, if unsettling, reminder of when Britons lived their lives in the shadow of nuclear war.
The Cold War: five more places to explore
1) Greenham Common (Newbury, Berkshire)
Where women held a peace camp
Greenham Common was in the news throughout the 1980s as the RAF airbase – and its Cruise missiles – became the focus of nuclear disarmament protests, spearheaded by the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Today the site is common land incorporating rare lowland heathland – with full public access.
2) Hack Green Nuclear Bunker (Cheshire)
Where you can see nuclear weapons
This 35,000 square foot underground facility would have been the centre of regional government had nuclear war broke out. Today this visitor attraction is home to decontamination facilities, operations rooms and the largest display of nuclear weaponry in Europe.
3) Drakelow Tunnels (Kidderminster)
Where a secret bunker was sited
This massive underground tunnel network began life as a factory for the Rover car company in the Second World War, before being converted into a top-secret nuclear bunker in 1961. Today, it is open to the public and is being converted into Britain’s biggest Cold War museum.
4) The Imperial War Museum (sites across the UK)
Where Cold War exhibits reside
The IWM is a treasure trove of exhibits dedicated to conflict over the past 100 years, including information on secret warfare in the Cold War, film footage of the Korean War and one of only two surviving models of the cancelled 1950/60s aircraft, the TSR-2.
5) The National Archives (Kew, London)
Where you can read official papers
There are few better places to gain an insight into government thinking during the Cold War than the National Archives. Documents available for public consumption at the archives include the authorities’ advice on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear attack.
Rory Cormac is associate professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. Words by Spencer Mizen.