Image: Hack Green: http://www.hackgreen.co.uk
It isn’t every cold war secret bunker that advertises itself on brown road signs, but then Hack Green is something of an exception to many rules.
For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there was always a vague and uncomfortable frisson that the strange pamphlet, Protect and Survive, sent by the Government to every house, might someday actually be necessary. Not that I ever imagined digging out our garden to cover some spare doors that we had placed over the space under the stairs in readiness for a nuclear event. It was more of a gut fear that the excellent drama Threads might have some basis in future horrors.
Action on Attack Warning. Check you have sent the children to the fall-out room. Check you have turned off the gas & electricity. Check you have shut all the widows & closed all curtains. Check you have remembered to push in any aerial on your radio.
HMSO Protect & Survive Pamphlet.
This is not the place to debate whether such horrors have worsened or faded, but I like to think that we learn from previous generations’ mistakes, and so a trip to Hack Green is very much part of that.
There is also an amusing reason to make the trip: if you have ever worked for a Government department in the UK, you’ll spot various generations of civil service furniture carefully laid out in the building. Remember that time when a lofty “Grade 7” manager could expect a rug and a coat stand? And a chair with arms? You’ll find them there. Along with those mightily uncomfortable green desk chairs and the accompanying metal desks.
Commenting on Government statistics on the effects of nuclear incidents & war, the Leeds City Council, Peace & Emergency Planning Sub-Committee said “ A politician uses statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost-for support rather than illumination”.
Not far off the beaten track in Nantwich, Cheshire, Hack Green bunker is mostly concealed by a large green mound as you approach the site. It had previously been used as a decoy site to avoid bombing at the railway in Crewe, a major transport hub. In 1941, Hack Green was selected to protect the land between Birmingham and Liverpool from hostile attack.
It is thought that in a nuclear war the UK would expect 200 megatons of nuclear weapons to be delivered against approximately 80 targets.
Central Office of Information 1980
A top secret plan called Rotor was devised to place 1620 radar screens into bunkers covering the UK. RAF Hack Green was given the role of protecting Britain against the perceived Soviet threat of both conventional and nuclear war. Using new long range radar, Hack Green could give warning to enable the RAF to intercept, and also enable the Victor V-Force nuclear bombers to launch a retaliatory attack.
RAF Hack Green was closed in 1966, with its role being transferred to RAF Lindholme. It was to gain a new role in civil defence following two developments in the 1950s and 1960s: thermo-nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Secret plans were drawn up to manage the country’s affairs through seats of regional government, and Hack Green was purchased to be converted into a protected seat of government. At a cost of some £32 million, the bunker was converted into a vast underground complex. It had air conditioning, life support, nuclear fallout and decontamination facilities, emergency water supplies and the ability to support the civil servants and military personnel who would provide regional government in the event of a nuclear attack.
In 1985 Somerset council was given £20000 towards the cost of refurbishing its Civil Defence HQ. When inspected by the Home Office it was found to have an outside toilet.
It is a sobering experience to enter the bunker and see the incoming missile maps that would have lit up had nuclear war begun. Displays would have indicated the time to impact while attack-warning sirens sounded across the country. Particularly chilling for me was to see the map outlining the impact of an attack on Birmingham, the city in which I now live. Hack Green has a broadcast studio, where messages would have been conveyed to the public. Can you imagine how it would have felt to sit there, and do the best you could to provide information in such frightening circumstances?
The local government central nuclear civil defence HQ in Sheffield in 1984 was a broom cupboard. (Sheffield was a Labour controlled Nuclear Free Zone)
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war, some weapons were decomissioned and others updated to Trident. Robert Siebert began the task of curating these important pieces of recent history by setting up the exhibits at Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. He managed to acquire the last two remaining WE 177 400-kiloton nuclear weapons via the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, and have them made safe for exhibition.
Visiting Hack Green bunker is a strangely warming experience. As you enter the complex, you pass a small cinema room, where a series of public advice films, including “Duck and Cover” are playing. There is a large cafeteria, where you can sit with a coffee and a bun, and listen to children calling happily as they run around the exhibits with their parents. Then you work your way along the signposted tour, and your blood begins to run cold as your imagination works its way through the what-ifs. It’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like for those required to work in the bunker. Seeing the grim rows of metal cots, the on-site hospital and the red emergency phones really does call into question whether this was an exercise in hope or futility. I emerged, sadder, wiser, but strangely hopeful. And pleased that office furniture has made vast improvements in ergonomics.
Factoids courtesy of Hack Green’s website and the interwebs.