Britain’s secret plans for nuclear apocalypse
Amazing records of official preparations for World War Three in 1981 have been revealed by the National Archives. Just 40 years ago, the world was on the brink of war. How safe are we today?
Friday, March 13, 1981. The Soviet Union has invaded Yugoslavia. Within days, the Labour leader and the Archbishop of Canterbury are arrested at a peace march in Trafalgar Square. After British military bases are bombed, the United Kingdom unleashes 29 nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union.
On the morning of March 21, the Queen delivers a speech to the nation announcing the beginning of World War Three.
“Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me,” she reads.
This scenario is from the Wintex-Cimex plan, which was designed to prepare the West for nuclear warfare at the height of the Cold War. Now, it is all revealed to the public at the National Archive’s Protect and Survive exhibition.
The name comes from a booklet issued by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1980. Advice includes painting windows white to reflect the heat from radioactive blasts, alongside tips on how to label and store dead bodies.
Ever wondered how to build a nuclear bunker? At the exhibition, you can walk into a model hide-out. It is stocked with tinned pies and special edition Charles and Diana liquorice.
“We want people to think, ‘How would I have coped if the worst had happened?’,” says exhibition curator Mark Dunton.
Between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO allies (including the US and the UK) were locked in a tense stand-off with nuclear-armed Soviet Russia.
At low points like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the world was just seconds away from catastrophe.
“I hid under my blankets when I went to sleep for about six months, waiting for the missiles to drop on my house and melt my Star Wars toys,” said Justyn Taylor, who grew up in Cardiff in the 1980s.
There are over 14,000 nuclear warheads in the world today. While the threat has receded since North Korea tested a Hydrogen bomb in 2017, global tensions remain high.
Last year, it emerged that the world’s super-rich are buying nuclear bunkers in 15-storey underground luxury complexes.
Should we prepare for nuclear war? India and Pakistan, the US and North Korea — what would it take for these stand-offs to explode, even by accident? What’s more, new technology brings new threats. In his book Hacking the Bomb, Dr Andrew Futter proposes that a terror group could, one day, hack missile systems.
But according to deterrence theory, the threat of mutually assured destruction has kept the world at relative peace since the Second World War. “They make the cost of war seem frighteningly high,” wrote political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Is starting a nuclear war really in anyone’s interest? Perhaps it’s not time to build a bunker just yet.
- Should every family have a secret supply of food for emergencies?
- Is the world safer now than it was during the Cold War?
- Design and draw a sketch of your own nuclear bunker.
- Make a timeline of major events in the Cold War from 1945 to 1991.
Some People Say...
“The arms race is a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves.”Martin Amis
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The Protect and Survive exhibition opens at the National Archives in Richmond on April 4 — which marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of NATO. It closes on 9 November, exactly 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked a major thawing in relations between the West and Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.
- What do we not know?
- How close the world is to nuclear war. At the start of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock was developed to show metaphorically how close humanity is to destruction. Today, it is set at two minutes to “midnight”. The last time it gave so severe a warning was in 1953, at the height of the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.
- Labour leader
- The leader was Michael Foot, who was very left wing, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was Robert Runcie, who clashed with Margaret Thatcher.
- Unofficially nicknamed “Ma’ammageddon”.
- North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, an alliance formed against the Soviet threat.
- Cuban Missile Crisis
- A 13-day stand-off between the US and Soviet Russia after a US plane spotted Soviet missile bases in Cuba.
- Seconds away
- Even in 1995, at a time of relative peace, Norwegian scientists launched a scientific rocket which Russia mistook as a nuclear missile. Russian nuclear weapons were put on high alert and the “nuclear briefcase” was brought to President Boris Yeltsin.
- There was a high of 70,300 active weapons in 1986.
- Hydrogen bomb
- Although the claim was met with some scepticism, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake was detected at a seismic station.
- India and Pakistan
- The countries both claim the Kashmir region.