The build-up to the Cuban missile crisis, which took place 50 years ago this week, found Britain in frolicking mood. As we have been reminded over the past few days, while US generals sweated over blurry pictures of toxic warships, Britons were entranced by a Liverpudlian boy band celebrating their first chart success, and a Swiss amazon in a bikini innocently collecting shells on a beach. While Nikita Khrushchev plotted his hubristic way towards the Caribbean coastline, the US’s closest ally was preparing to unleash the Beatles and Bond on the world. It was a seminal geo-political moment: the nuclear missiles remained thankfully unlaunched, but has there ever been, before or since, a greater explosion of soft power?
Look beneath the surface, and of course there were more profound anxieties at play during that heady October of 1962. As the crisis brewed, Britain readied itself. Small concrete bunkers – some 1,500, spread across the country – were being prepared for activity. Members of the Royal Observer Corps were rehearsing drills that involved the bathetic opening of sardine cans in the face of thermonuclear meltdown. At the York Cold War Bunker, which I visited earlier this week, there are the inevitable “Keep Calm and Carry On” mugs for sale in a small shopping area. Never would that advice have sounded more ridiculous.
The bunker is an unattractive, vaguely sinister structure standing stubbornly opposite a housing estate on the outskirts of the city. It is run by English Heritage now, and its senior curator Kevin Booth is cheerfully planning commemorative events: a screening of Dr Strangelove (“It is already sold out!”), a photography exhibition, a half-term activity day. If you run a cold war bunker, important anniversaries of the Cuban missile crisis are serious windows of opportunity.
But here’s the thing: the York bunker, built just a year before the crisis, was never mobilised during that fraught autumn. The superpowers may have been playing some kind of Armageddon hardball, but the authorities in Britain were, well, keeping calm and carrying on. Waiting for a real emergency. Preparing for the big one. The big one never happened, which gives this bunker-turned-museum an extra poignancy. Open its padlocked doors, and it is as if the intervening years – detente, glasnost, the fall of the wall, all good friends – never happened.
I was shown around by Jim Millington, who was group commandant of the bunker from 1982 until its closure in 1991. He pointed out the pinhole camera left on top of the bunker to capture a snapshot of a nuclear blast. The image would be combined with similar pictures taken from other bunkers, and the strength and duration of the blast would be calculated. The information was put on a wooden slat, which was slotted onto a noticeboard which allowed for 19 more slats to be displayed. “I don’t think we would have got to 20,” said Millington softly. The bunker itself could have withstood any blast, he added, provided it was no fewer than seven to eight miles away.
It can be argued that structures such as the York bunker only increased, rather than assuaged, insecurity among the population. As the arms race intensified, it became clear that the atomic bombs in Japan had been baby blasts compared with what was now possible. How could a funny little shed in a Yorkshire suburb hope to deal with the consequences? People saw through the conceit.
Millington won’t have any of it. “You had to do something. You couldn’t keep your head in the sand. We did what we could to protect people.” Wasn’t he scared that the whole country might have been destroyed in the space of a few hours? “We always believed that the Soviets were interested in colonisation. They wouldn’t have carpet-bombed Britain because it would have made it uninhabitable. But that may have been just a pipe-dream.”
It wasn’t the most far-fetched theory of the moment. Booth says that one of the most pressing concerns in the event of nuclear alert was how to get the message to the prime minister if he had been in a car. “The advice was to get a radio signal to him asking him to stop at an AA box by the side of the road.” Dr Strangelove’s black comedy, it seems, was understated.
The York bunker may not represent the most glamorous side of English Heritage’s work, but I can think of few more instructive days out for a school trip. Think of the incredulity of today’s children as they survey these claustrophobic, isolated interiors – elementary computers, rudimentary telephones, no Twitter. The nuclear destruction of Britain was set to be chronicled by pencils and magic markers, like a Blue Peter project.
But there is also a richly elegiac feel to the whole project. This may have been the last time that human beings felt they could defend themselves against all-out attack from an enemy. We may have been fooling ourselves, but we believed, a little bit, in the possibilities of self-defence. Soon the disparity between warfare’s infernally sophisticated technology and the capacity of good, ordinary people to resist it became simply too great.
The bunkers all closed down in the 1990s, and the Royal Observer Corps went with them. No one talked about the big one any more, although there turned out to be several little ones to worry about. There’s a new Bond film out later this month, and Paul McCartney is still singing “Hey Jude” to the world. Keep calm, carry on.
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