It’s the most ter­ri­fy­ing doc­u­ment in Bri­tish history: a se­cret brief­ing pa­per show­ing just how a Soviet nu­clear strike would have un­folded here. As it’s made pub­lic for the first time, DOMINIC SANDBROOK says it raises chill­ing ques­tions for to­day

Daily Mail - - Life - by Dominic Sandbrook

NU­CLEAR war has come to Bri­tain, lev­el­ling our cities, killing mil­lions and leav­ing the wretched sur­vivors in a new Dark Age, scrab­bling like rats in the ru­ins of civil­i­sa­tion.

In the streets, ghostly fig­ures stag­ger in search of food and wa­ter. At spe­cial Gov­ern­ment de­pots, armed po­lice stand guard, ready to shoot loot­ers on sight.

And in count­less homes across the coun­try, griev­ing fam­i­lies are holed up in their makeshift fall­out shel­ters, their food sup­plies dwin­dling as the corpses in their liv­ing rooms be­gin to rot.

It sounds like some ter­ri­ble night­mare. Yet in re­al­ity, this was Bri­tain in 1981 — or it could have been.

For deep in the bow­els of the Na­tional Archives, in the leafy streets of Kew, West Lon­don, is per­haps the most ter­ri­fy­ing doc­u­ment in our history.

Nor­mally it is kept hid­den from view, but to­day it goes on pub­lic dis­play as part of Pro­tect and Sur­vive, a chill­ing new ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plor­ing the story of Bri­tain in the Cold War. Step by step, the top- se­cret war- game ex­er­cise, co­de­named Win­tex-Cimex 81, sought to test Bri­tain’s pre­pared­ness for a Third World War. It ex­plained how the planet stum­bled to­wards Ar­maged­don, lead­ing to the night­mar­ish scenes above.

This time­line de­scribed in the doc­u­ment be­gins in March 1981, the hey­day of the Cold War, when the cap­i­tal­ist West, led by Mar­garet Thatcher’s Bri­tain and Ron­ald Rea­gan’s America, con­fronted the Com­mu­nist East, ruled by Stalin’s heirs in the Krem­lin.

The en­vis­aged slide to war has been pre­cip­i­tated by a Soviet build-up in the Balkans, Moscow’s hard­lin­ers hav­ing de­cided to take ad­van­tage of the ap­par­ent weak­ness of the re­ces­sion-hit Thatcher and Rea­gan gov­ern­ments.

As the in­ter­na­tional mood dark­ens, ri­ots break out in Bri­tish cities. Even as Bri­tish troops are sent to strengthen NATO forces in West Ger­many, thou­sands of stu­dents march for peace.

Within days, rail­way sta­tions are over­whelmed by peo­ple flee­ing the cap­i­tal, while ma­jor roads from Lon­don, Manch­ester and Birm­ing­ham are choked with traf­fic.

The gov­ern­ment de­clares a state of emer­gency. But al­ready shops have run out of coal, oil, bat­ter­ies and can­dles, while many phar­ma­cies have run out of first-aid sup­plies.

On Satur­day March 14, with the first re­ports of clashes in the Balkans and the Mid­dle East, a mas­sive anti-war demon­stra­tion in Lon­don’s Trafal­gar Square at­tracts ‘ prom­i­nent Leftwing MPs, lead­ing trade union­ists and per­son­al­i­ties from many walks of life in­clud­ing sport and show­biz’.

But it ends in chaos, with the po­lice wad­ing in to ar­rest the Labour leader Michael Foot and the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, Robert Runcie, who have been caught up in the fight­ing.

By the fol­low­ing evening, war seems in­evitable. East­ern Bloc forces have over-run Yu­goslavia, and the gov­ern­ment an­nounces that an at­tack on the West is ex­pected ‘ within hours rather than days’.

The mood is close to panic. The news­pa­pers are full of ‘ Pro­tect and Sur­vive’ ad­verts, ad­vis­ing peo­ple on how to build shel­ters in their own homes and urg­ing them to stay in­side un­til they hear the all-clear.

On Mon­day, March 16, the first Soviet at­tack comes, the Krem­lin’s bombers pound­ing Bri­tish bases. The United King­dom is now at war.

The next day, as fresh at­tacks de­stroy Bri­tain’s air de­fences, the scenes in the streets are said to be ‘ rem­i­nis­cent of Viet­nam . . . as fam­i­lies with chil­dren push over­laden su­per­mar­ket trol­leys along the roads out of cities’.

Some 15,000 peo­ple are flee­ing to the West Coun­try and Wales ev­ery hour to seek refuge in the coun­try­side. In ru­ral ar­eas, farm­ers are forced to use shot­guns against ‘ma­raud­ing bands of youths’.

At last, on the morn­ing of March 20, Mrs Thatcher’s War Cab­i­net meets to con­sider the worst. With Soviet forces break­ing through in West Ger­many, de­feat seems in­evitable. There is only one op­tion left.

NATO com­man­ders have asked per­mis­sion to launch nu­clear weapons at en­emy bases in East Ger­many, Cze­choslo­vakia, Poland, Hun­gary and Bul­garia, in a last, des­per­ate at­tempt to save the West from col­lapse.

‘Never be­fore,’ record the of­fi­cial min­utes ‘had a Cab­i­net been faced with such a grim choice be­tween ca­pit­u­lat­ing to a pow­er­ful and malev­o­lent ag­gres­sor, and em­bark­ing on a course of ac­tion which could end with the de­struc­tion of civil­i­sa­tion. But the choice had to be made.’

Mrs Thatcher gives the go-ahead. Be­fore dawn the next morn­ing, the mis­siles are launched. And by the time Bri­tain awakes, the nu­clear holo­caust has be­gun.

There the doc­u­ment ends, with Western civil­i­sa­tion on the brink of ut­ter de­struc­tion.

Now it reads like some wild ex­er­cise in para­noid fan­tasy, but back then the sce­nario de­scribed seemed all too real a pos­si­bil­ity. Our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren may find it hard to be­lieve, but be­tween 1945, when Europe was di­vided be­tween Com­mu­nist East and demo­cratic West, and the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989, Bri­tain really did live in gen­uine fear of nu­clear Ar­maged­don.

As the Kew ex­hi­bi­tion shows, this was a con­flict that seeped into al­most ev­ery as­pect of daily life. It was a war of spies and se­crets, mis­siles and rock­ets, con­sumer plea­sures and state surveil­lance.

But it was also a cul­tural strug­gle for hearts and minds, from Ian Flem­ing’s best-sell­ing James Bond books in the Six­ties to the tri­umphs of Se­bas­tian Coe, Steve Ovett and Da­ley Thomp­son at the boy­cott-hit Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Cold War Bri­tain was a world of de­cep­tion, de­fec­tors and dou­ble agents, from the in­fa­mous Cam­bridge traitors to Soviet de­fec­tors such as the heroic Oleg Gordievsky, who gave Mar­garet Thatcher vi­tal in­tel­li­gence on the weak­ness of the Soviet regime in the Eight­ies.

Among count­less en­thralling doc­u­ments, the Na­tional Archives ex­hi­bi­tion con­tains a list of po­ten­tial traitors com­piled by Ge­orge Or­well for MI5 in 1949, among them the Left-wing ac­tors Char­lie Chap­lin and Michael Red­grave, the his­to­rian E.H. Carr and the Labour MP Tom Driberg.

We know now that Or­well was right to fear Com­mu­nist sub­ver­sion. But what, I won­der, would he make of the fact that the cur­rent Labour leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, was once a con­tact for the blood- drenched Cze­choslo­vakian se­cret ser­vice?

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s most abid­ing lesson, which even now seems the stuff of night­mares, re­mains the mind- numb­ing ter­ror of nu­clear apoca­lypse.

The drop­ping of atom bombs by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki in 1945 had made an enor­mous im­pact on world opin­ion. ‘The time

Roads clogged with peo­ple flee­ing the cities

is short,’ writes Labour’s Prime Min­is­ter Cle­ment At­tlee in one doc­u­ment. ‘I be­lieve that only a bold course can save civil­i­sa­tion.’

He was unswerv­ingly com­mit­ted to Bri­tain’s na­tional se­cu­rity, and in­deed it was At­tlee and his For­eign Sec­re­tary, Ernest Bevin, who were the key fig­ures in es­tab­lish­ing NATO, the al­liance that won the Cold War for democ­racy and which cel­e­brates its 70th birth­day this week.

As Bevin told his Cab­i­net col­leagues in 1946, Bri­tain could not just rely on the Amer­i­cans, but must have its own nu­clear de­ter­rent. ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, what­ever it costs,’ he said bullishly. ‘We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’

Bri­tain did get its own bomb in 1952, but fears of Soviet nu­clear at­tack ran very high.

Dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis ten years later, many peo­ple were lit­er­ally un­able to sleep, ter­ri­fied that they would wake to see a mush­room cloud from their bed­room win­dow.

The ex­hi­bi­tion has great fun with the short films and leaflets in the gov­ern­ment’s ‘ Pro­tect and Sur­vive’ cam­paign, which was pre­pared in the mid-Seven­ties to use in the event of war. The aim was to re­as­sure peo­ple that they could sur­vive a nu­clear holo­caust.

Yet few were per­suaded by the cam­paign’s make- do-and­mend, Blue Peter- style ad­vice about how to build their own fall­out refuges.

On pa­per the short films sound al­most bor­ing: ‘Ma­te­ri­als to Use for Your Fall- Out Room’, ‘Wa­ter and Food’, ‘San­i­ta­tion Care’. Yet even now there is some­thing hor­ri­bly haunt­ing about the of­fi­cial ad­vice on how to dis­pose of the bod­ies of fam­ily mem­bers.

‘If any­one dies when you are in your fall­out room, move the body to an­other room in the house,’ the nar­ra­tor says sternly. ‘La­bel the body with name and ad­dress, and cover it as tightly as pos­si­ble in poly­thene, pa­per, sheets or blan­kets.’

Few of us, I imag­ine, would rel­ish wrap­ping and la­belling the ra­di­a­tion-rav­aged body of even the most an­noy­ing rel­a­tive. Yet the re­morse­less logic of the Cold War meant that peo­ple gen­uinely had to think about such is­sues. The ex­hi­bi­tion even in­cludes a re­con­struc­tion of an or­di­nary fam­ily’s fall­out refuge, com­plete with makeshift toilet, tinned Fray Ben­tos pies and a packet of Charles and Diana-themed liquorice.

In­deed, in 1981 the Daily Mail re­ported on the Ideal Nu­clear Shel­ter Ex­hi­bi­tion, held in North York­shire. ‘YOU CAN SUR­VIVE and it will be worth sur­viv­ing,’ read one brochure. ‘Re­mem­ber Hiroshima? It’s now a bustling city.’

And what if the worst had hap­pened?

In 1983 a study by the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mated that 33 mil­lion peo­ple would be killed in a Soviet strike. But they would have been the lucky ones.

Far bet­ter to be killed at once, than to find your­self dy­ing slowly of ra­di­a­tion sick­ness in a post- apoc­a­lyp­tic waste­land, where civil­i­sa­tion had col­lapsed.

To any­one born after the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, all this must seem like an­cient history. And in some ways, the Cold War looks like a lost age of sta­bil­ity and cer­tainty, when the Western world was led by states­men (and one woman) be­side whom to­day’s politi­cians look like gib­ber­ing pyg­mies.

Yet the shadow of the bomb has never en­tirely dis­ap­peared. And in to­day’s frac­tious world, where pol­i­tics seems to be spi­ralling to­wards the ex­tremes, the shadow of the Cold War looms rather too large for com­fort.

Far from be­ing de­feated, the virus of Com­mu­nism has never gone away. In­deed, since the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Left-wing ex­trem­ism has been rein­vig­o­rated, with to­day’s Labour Party, once a bul­wark of our Cold War con­sen­sus, hav­ing been taken over by Marx­ist zealots.

The Na­tional Archives ex­hi­bi­tion may be a chill­ing lesson in the fragility of our civil­i­sa­tion. But it is also a re­minder that we only en­joy the free­doms of democ­racy and cap­i­tal­ism be­cause our pre­de­ces­sors were pre­pared, if necessary, to stand up and de­fend them.

Would we have the courage to do the same? Would we, like our fore­bears, have the guts to re­sist the zealots who would de­stroy our free­dom?

That, I think, is the most chill­ing ques­tion of all.

33 mil­lion Bri­tons would be killed in an in­stant

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