Part 2. Burlington and the CGWHQ

Introduction to Part 2

As Part 1 of this ‘e-book’ showed, by the mid-1950s planning in Britain to ensure that a central government could continue to function after a devastating nuclear attack had evolved from simply using the London bunkers left over from the last war to protect a small nucleus of rulers into a much larger plan developed by the Padmore Committee centred on using a large underground facility known as SUBTERFUGE from which a nucleus of central government could oversee the recovery of the country. Part 2  will reveal the planning, building and organisation of the unique ‘Central Government War Headquarters’ or ‘CGWHQ’ as it was often called.

The Prime Minister approves the CGWHQ

The ministerial group which had been considering Padmore’s earlier plan had suspended their deliberations pending consideration of the Strath report but when the revised report was presented to the Prime Minister (now Anthony Eden) he referred it back to the ministerial group for further consideration. They accepted the revised plan and it was formally approved by the Prime Minister in September 1955 when Padmore’s Committee were told “The Prime Minister has approved, as a basis for future planning, the Working Party’s report on the machinery of government in war”. This lead to a letter from the Ministry of Works to the Treasury asking in classic civil service language for formal approval of the £1,200,000 (some £20m in today’s money) to cover the expected cost and saying “I am directed by the Minister of Works to state for the information of the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury that a scheme for the wartime accommodation of the essential nucleus of Her Majesty’s Government has been approved by the Prime Minister. The Minister of Works has been instructed to put the work in hand subject to the normal procedures for financial control…” The work “…involves the preparation of underground space formerly in use as a wartime factory, for use as office space, living and sleeping quarters for Ministers, senior officials and ancillary staff numbering 4000”. The £1,200,000 excluded furnishings and communications expenditure. £400,000 of it was for Surveyor’s Services including the walls, the protection of ventilator shafts and the provision of emergency storage underground, and the remaining £800,000 was for Engineer’s Services including ventilation, refrigeration, dehumidification and the conversion of plant. No provision was made for office and canteen equipment which was estimated at £50 per head. The figure of 4,000 was an arbitrary one based on a rough estimation of the numbers that the site, which was now to be confined to part of Spring Quarry could accommodate rather than the number of people that would actually be needed. However, by early 1956 4,000 had become accepted as the maximum or target figure and would influence all future planning.

By mid-1956 Padmore started making detailed plans and was writing to all the government departments asking them what, if any, role they foresaw for themselves in the central nucleus and how many places they wanted there. He added that his Working Party was not looking beyond what would have to be done in the first month or two after attack. The government for the recovery after this period would be left to be decided at the time. Surprisingly, up to this time although the physical concept of the CGWHQ was well developed little thought had been given either to the work the departments would be doing from SUBTERFUGE or to the numbers of people they would want or need to do it. The departments, never ones to downplay their roles came up with figures which seem to have taken Padmore by surprise and a lot of juggling of numbers was made over the next few years to keep under the target figure of 4,000.

A significant difference between the new plan and the earlier ones, including the wartime moves, was the fate of the vast majority of civil servants who would not have a war role. This was outlined in a memo circulated in 1957 on the arrangements for civil service personnel in war. It said that there would be no general evacuation from London or other cities of most civil servants. Only those who would go to “specific war stations for essential duties post-attack essential to national survival” would leave. Government departments with regional offices could plan to use them and even increase staffing there although no additional accommodation could be earmarked. The bulk of the civil service would be told to follow the instructions given to the general population which was basically “stay put”. If possible after the attack they should report to the nearest office of their own department or the nearest Labour Exchange to provide general staff to reinforce the regional administrations. The reconstruction of the larger government machine would be improvised in the light of conditions after the attack.

The Work Begins 

While the departments were considering what to do at the CGHWQ planning for the construction work was started. Padmore’s Working Party (as the Committee was now often called) delegated the task of making the detailed plans for the organisation, staffing, functions and layout of the seat of government in war to a new Planning Team set up under A J Platt, another Treasury official. The tasks given to the Planning Team illustrate the sheer scale of the undertaking. They would –

  • Identify the facilities and services needed to enable all the staff including the War Cabinet to perform their functions.
  • Quantify the requirements for accommodation, equipment, material and personnel.
  • Work out how the headquarters would work as a whole
  • Plan the physical layout of the headquarters.
  • Determine the best methods to man the headquarters and draw up mobilisation and transport plans.
  • Plan for the peacetime maintenance of the site

The initial working assumptions set in 1956 by the Planning Team of what was by now becoming recognisable as the Central Government War Headquarters were –

  • A central nucleus of 1000 decision makers
  • Supported by communications and common services staff
  • Self-contained accommodation for 4000
  • The fullest practical protection against blast, fall-out and gas.
  • 250 individual combined office/bedrooms for senior staff.
  • 150 rooms for offices for 3 – 4 people
  • The rest of the working accommodation would be divided into large rooms to hold upwards of 50 people
  • Apart from the senior staff everyone would sleep in bunked dormitories.
  • The male to female ratio would be 3 to 1
  • 2 canteens, one to cater for 2000 on a 24-hour 3 shift basis, the other catering for 2000 working a long day.
  • 3 war rooms – for the central Cabinet War Room, a civil defence war room and a Commanders in Chief war room. Other smaller war, operation or map rooms were suggested for such active departments as the fire service, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the UK Commanders in Chief Committee
  • Accommodation would be on a strict utility basis with no special rest or recreation rooms.

Roadway, Area 11(Dom Jackson)

One fundamental problem that the Planning Team had to consider at the start was how the headquarters would work at the basic level. Two fundamentally different concepts of how the seat of government (including the regional headquarters) could function in war had emerged. The first had the seats of government, both national and regional, operating as a single command headquarters (the “command concept”) whereas in the second they would work, as in peace time, as an aggregation of departmental representatives with individual ministerial responsibility and departmental staff reporting to ministers and senior staff at the centre with the Regional Commissioners only acting as co-ordinators. This departmental approach had served in World War 2 but the Working Party considered it would not work in World War 3.Their interim report submitted in May 1956 said they had decided to go for the simpler command system rather than a departmental one i.e. orders would go from central government working as a unified decision making body to the Regional Commissioners rather than from a departmental minister at SUBTERFUGE to departmental representatives at the regional headquarters. The Regional Commissioner would be the absolute authority for the region and not just a co-ordinator of departmental functions. They also decided that rather than delegate specific functions to the regions the Regional Commissioners would be given unlimited authority to do anything they considered necessary but with specific powers being retained by the centre.

But it seems to have been quickly realised that there was a serious flaw in the basic plan. The idea was that one site, probably the smaller MACADAM would be fully manned in the pre-war Precautionary Period by “the second eleven”, while the other would only be made ready to receive “those exercising supreme control” who would leave London at the last moment. But it was recognised that this second group might not escape, especially after the Soviet Union developed H-bomb tipped ballistic missiles. As work on MACADAM in the wartime tunnels at Drakelow was not to be started until after SUBTERFUGE was complete, a process that would take several years, this could mean that there would not be a central government at all if SUBTERFUGE were knocked out, especially given the unprepared state of the regional headquarters. So within a year the working plan was modified and MACADAM was, to all intents and purposes, left out. Given this problem the Planning Team recommended that SUBTERFUGE should be fully manned with the first eleven of ministers and a full support staff at an early time in the Precautionary Period ready to receive the Prime Minister and his final party. If the Prime Minister did not make it to SUBTERFUGE they would be able to act as the nucleus under the most senior minister there. This change of emphasis lead to the suggestion in 1957 that the MACADAM site could be used as the joint civil/military headquarters for Midland Region, the predecessor to the Regional Seat of Government.

The new strategy would be dictated by the scale of the damage and the paralysing effect of fall out. As many central government functions as possible would be devolved to the enlarged regional headquarters which, now under the direction of a government Minister acting as the Regional Commissioner, would be responsible for the day-to-day running of the post-attack country. Any government function not vital to immediate survival would be put into ‘cold storage’ to be reinstated weeks or months after the attack. The much reduced central government in SUBTERFUGE would confine itself to the most important, strategic matters. Implicit in this post-Strath strategy was the idea that SUBTERFUGE’s role was no longer to direct the war. There would be no war to direct, only the survival and reconstruction phases which would follow the short destructive phase.

The Planning Team suggested that for the day-to-day working of SUBTERFUGE there should be an inner core of Ministers and Chiefs of Staff with their senior advisers and joint civil-military staffs and secretariats in immediate support. The various departmental support groups would then be sited around this inner core. On this basis there would be 3 groups in the inner core –

A. The war cabinet organisation consisting of the Prime Minister and a small group of senior ministers forming the War Cabinet which would be in almost permanent session in a Conference Room overlooking the World Wide Map Room. In attendance would be the Chiefs of Staff and a combined Cabinet/Defence Secretariat. Total staff here would be about 140.

B. The home defence organisation for dealing with affairs on the home front and co-ordinating the work of the civil and military organs of government and of the state corporations, private industry, etc. The team suggested that this should be headed by a Home Defence Official Committee formed from senior officers of the main due functioning departments such as the Home Office, Scottish Office, Ministry of Health, etc and the army’s C-in-C UK Land Forces. It would co-ordinate activities and take decisions or refer them to the War Cabinet. This committee would need a conference room overlooking the Home Front Map Room. This would primarily be an intelligence and display centre for regional reports. One task of the map room would be to plot the national fall out situation using data from the national warning and monitoring organisation and in many ways it seems to have taken over the functions of the Central Government War Room which still existed, possibly more in theory than in practice, in the London Rotundas. It would have 217 staff.

C. The overseas liaison and diplomatic organisation which would include the main military contingent and foreign ambassadors, High Commissioners and foreign liaison staffs.

These 3 groups would be physically close to each other and the communications centre.

Outside the inner core areas would be –

D. The remaining staffs of the civil departments both due functioning ones and “cold storage” ones. The latter eg the Inland Revenue would not have any real function in the survival period.

E. The remaining staffs of the service and supply departments.

East Main Road by Area 13 looking west (Dom Jackson)

East Main Road by Area 13 looking west (Dom Jackson)

Some basic work had started on the infrastructure in 1954 on lavatories, lighting, canteens and plumbing but detailed plans were not drawn up until July 1956 when the contractors started work with the construction of a concrete blast wall between 41⁄2 and 6 feet thick completely enclosing the underground working areas. Heavy reinforced concrete blast protection was also being provided at the heads of all vents, lifts, flues and escalators. At this time the infrastructure work was expected to take about 3 years to complete of which the first 9 to 12 months would be largely taken up with planning and pre-contract work. The planners tried to use as much of the remaining wartime fittings as possible. The ventilating fans and the compressors to work the sewage ejectors were re-used but the original pipes carrying water for fire fighting had to be replaced.

Blocked exit from Area 20. (Nick Catford)

The original cost estimate for the construction works and the plant (excluding furniture and communications equipment) was £1.2 million (roughly £20 million today). This however steadily crept upwards particularly as parts of the wartime factory’s plant were found to be inadequate for the new requirements, but the expenditure was buried in the budgets of various departments and never came to the attention of Parliament or the press. This was at a time when defence expenditure was being squeezed and SUBTERFUGE probably accounted for up to 10% of the entire home defence budget in the late 1950s. At the time, apart from the underground posts for the Royal Observer Corps, the CGWHQ was the only significant home defence expenditure. Its development should have been paralleled by purpose built regional joint civil-military headquarters and Sub Regional Controls to form a unified infrastructure for the machinery of government in war but these were constantly deferred for lack of money. Even with its high status the work on SUBTERFUGE proceeded slowly, with much of the delay caused by the interminable references to different committees and the need to have every cost overrun approved.

However, whilst the infrastructure work was progressing there was still a considerable amount of operational planning for the Planning Team to do as is shown in the following list of work to be done drawn up in January 1957 –

  • Determine the War Cabinet Organisation, its numbers, working arrangements and designate the staff.
  • Determine the staff requirements for the Home Defence Organisation eg map room and designate them and decide the working arrangements.
  • Consider the Diplomatic Organisation. Confirm the contingents from Commonwealth and allied countries. Consider the working arrangements. Consider what information could be given to Commonwealth and allied governments.
  • Departmental groups – determine numbers and support staff, room plans, furniture requirements.
  • Establishment – determine numbers for accounts, welfare, printing and messenger services. Determine arrangements for discipline, prepare standing orders, prepare phone directory, consider medical and morale problems.
  • Camp services – determine requirements for camp services eg camp commander, stores officer, canteen staff, sanitation and cleaning, fire precautions. Prepare mobilisation scheme. Determine requirements for bedding, food, medical supplies, etc and arrange provision. Decide allocation of dormitories, dinning rooms, etc.
  • Movements – prepare and maintain a co-ordinated plan for the movement of all staff and records

By 1957 the following major structures were complete –

  • perimeter walls
  • general partitioning
  • the installation of various types of plant eg the diesel generating sets to work the ventilation and lighting, laundry, bakery and kitchen equipment.
  • installation of oil storage tanks
  • 3 lifts and one escalator
  • emergency water system
  • emergency sewage system
  • air conditioning and ventilation plant including filters to keep out radioactive fall out
  • internal communications systems including the Lamson tube network

The Work Progresses 

The Chiefs of Staff were concerned that until the CGWHQ was completed there was no protected or organised place for the nucleus. This lead the Working Party to consider, in early 1957, if the site could be used immediately. In fact, it had been proposed as early as November 1956 that the site even in its unfinished state would provide a better site for the seat of government than the London citadels.

The Working Party now decided that the key factor determining the site’s operability would be the availability of communications. After an initial planning process, which might take a month, they thought that the site could be made usable on a crash basis in a week but the communications would be limited and vulnerable. However, the situation would be much better if 6 months were allowed for planning and preparation. The debate about crash plans dragged on into 1959 and became tied in with a campaign by the Home Office to accelerate home defence planning generally which at this time was being prepared to a long timescale with very limited money.

However, construction was sufficiently advanced by late 1957 for plans to man and operate from SUBTERFUGE to be included in the Government War Book, often known as the GWB, which laid down all the measures needed to move the country to a state of war. However, these plans included the warning that “Measures necessary for the activation of the Headquarters would have to be improvised but doubtless the Headquarters would be manned after a fashion within seven days”. But despite this, in late 1957 the construction work was slowed down as part of a general cost saving exercise which affected the entire civil defence building programme.

Some thought was given at this time to manning the CGWHQ. The basic aim was to fully man it within 48 hours although it was accepted that this would require the maximum pre-stocking of furniture, food, essential records and so on, and also the preparation of a comprehensive programme for activation. Actual activation of the site was to be divided into 5 stages –

  1. Opening up the headquarters, switching on plant, breaking out stores, setting up signs.
  2. Switching on and warming up the communications facilities.
  3. Opening up the war rooms and establishing the intelligence and secretarial elements
  4. Moving in and shaking down of the main departmental contingents.
  5. Reception of Ministers and Chiefs of Staff.

This is of course a very logical progression. The problem is that it would obviously have taken many days – days which would probably not have been available. By the early 1960s the basic plan was to do everything as quickly as possible once the manning orders had been given. This would probably have meant people arriving in the wrong order with perhaps GPO engineers trying to connect telephone extensions whilst departmental staff arrived and started looking for their offices and desks.

The massive blast cap over exhaust shaft E3

By June 1959, the project was about 65% complete and some £1.02m had been spent. The bulk of the infrastructure was complete. The main work outstanding was the provision of concrete caps to the ventilation shaft heads, emergency water and sewage systems, air conditioning plant including the fitting of filters to prevent entry of fall-out and the internal communication system. None of the new communications facilities had been installed but a 500-line automatic exchange with a 4-position manual switchboard already existed at the site as a legacy from its wartime role, together with a separate 12-position switchboard to provide trunk and local services. The external communications systems, although being planned, were not due to be installed until the structural work had been completed.

Although nothing had been done to stock the site with food, water, etc it was thought it could be pressed into service albeit with a reduced compliment of 2000 staff. Moreover, the conditions would be very basic and the site could not be relied on for continuous occupation.

In June 1959 a report to the Prime Minister said that the site could probably take 1500 on a crash basis but the staff –

  1. Would be exposed to fall-out
  2. Could only stay underground for a short time (possibly a fortnight)
  3. Would be poorly served with communication facilities.

Shortly after this report the Cabinet discussed the progress of the site and the extent to which it could be used in the near future. Although the Prime Minister had authorised construction in 1955 it had never previously been discussed in Cabinet. The Cabinet were now told that the plans assumed that the main party of ministers, officials and the Chiefs of Staff would occupy STOCKWELL (as SUBTERFUGE was now called) during the Precautionary Period before nuclear attack but the Prime Minister with a small party of very senior ministers, officials and service advisers might wish to stay in London as long as there was any hope of averting war. This touches on one of the core problems with the CGWHQ. If it were manned its secrecy would be lost but if manning were delayed the staff, and in particular the Prime Minister and his senior advisers might never reach it. The working idea was that it would be manned in 2 or 3 days near the start of the 7 day Precautionary Period which would precede the attack and allow for preparations to be made. But in Exercise Felstead held in 1962 when the top level plans for “transition to war” were tested the simulated Cabinet were not able to justify giving the order to man TURNSTILE until the seventh day of the Precautionary Period which was theoretically too late.

East Main Road. (Nick Catford)

East Main Road. (Nick Catford)

The Cabinet were told that the large numbers of officials needed to organise the national food supply could not be housed at STOCKWELL and that the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) had found an alternate site at Aberystwyth. This plan arose from discussions between MAFF officials and Padmore in 1956 when Padmore wrote to MAFF saying “The Working Party recognise that the problems facing your department in war are of a special nature in that you will have to call into being a completely new nation-wide food control system under close central direction. We would not therefore wish to question further your plans for establishing a Food Department Headquarters at some place outside the central government headquarters”. By 1958 the department had secured agreement that the university buildings in Aberystwyth code named ARARAT would be earmarked for it although the university authorities were not informed. In 1960 when the ammunition sub-depot at Monkton Farleigh a few miles from the CGWHQ became available there were discussions on its possible use as the MAFF war headquarters to take up to 1000 staff under the code name GULLY but the idea was not pursued.

The Spring Quarry site had originally been requisitioned from its owners but in 1959 negotiations were opened to compulsorily purchase it. The owners did not object but the case had to go to the Lands Tribunal to settle the price. Needless to say the Ministry of Works gave only the minimum of information to the tribunal about the state of the quarry.

East Main Road at Area 9. (Nick Catford)

East Main Road at Area 9. (Nick Catford)

At this time costs were an increasing concern. The defence budget was geared up to providing the nuclear deterrent and civil defence, even something as central to the plans as the CGWHQ, ranked low in the list of priorities. But the Ministry of Works kept finding problems. In September 1957 it asked the Treasury for more money for the ventilation system as the existing floor ducts were inadequate and a new plant room was necessary. The original estimate for this work went up from £17,135 to £155,000. Shaft headworks also needed considerable modification and strengthening. The new works were so extensive that they would delay the project by 12 months. The need for further expenditure discovered in 1959 was equally unwelcome. A report highlighted the need to improve the standard of finish in the Post Office areas, to extend the Lamson tube system from the original 3 stations to 26, redesign the blast protection and improve the hospital’s facilities. Further expenditure was then needed for additional ventilation to take away the heat generated by the communications equipment and additional fire fighting facilities including changes to the wartime fire mains, smoke extraction and emergency lighting.

By May 1960 under an interim plan the site could have taken 3000 and interim operational orders were dawn up and issued to Establishment Officers to be put into a Top Secret Annex of their Departmental War Books covering such things as drafting in communications and maintenance staff at the start of a Precautionary Period, sending one month’s rations and stationery for the CGWHQ to what had been designated as Check Point, distributing furniture, putting up internal signs and sending an advance party. By the end of 1960 the bulk of the furniture, stationery and canteen equipment had been delivered underground and food stocks were available. But by mid-1961 the communications were still only about 10% complete although some 3 months later the GPO reported that of the 1500 telephone extensions 60% were ready with the remainder being completed within the next 4 weeks. In September 1961 the Ministry of Works reported that BURLINGTON was ready for use except for the testing of some plant and bringing in 140,000 gallons of fuel which would be stored in a series of tanks underground. But the planned emergency rations had not been stocked and no firm plans existed to obtain fresh food supplies. Sometime in 1961 the signs for the various areas were put up and possibly the ones for the names of the roadways which in would have announced that this was now something very different from a wartime factory.

The CGWHQ becomes operational 

By August 1962 the construction work was complete. All the telephone circuits had been made, together with 50% of the telegraph circuits. The massive amounts of emergency food, furniture and stationery were on site (estimated at the time to take up 200,000 cubic feet of space). This was not however distributed to the various rooms where it would ultimately be needed. Instead, like most of the communications equipment which would follow, it was stored in a few places, usually in its original packaging ready to be installed on the day. This was to disguise the site’s function and help to reinforce part of the cover story that the site was a government stores depot. The departments had drawn up lists of staff, manning instructions had been issued to Departmental Establishment Officers and a transport plan completed. To all intents and purposes the emergency government war headquarters was operational.

Stored chairs waiting delivery to their Areas

Stored chairs waiting delivery to their Areas

In mid-1963 the Cabinet Secretary reported to the Prime Minister that the site was ready. Capital costs had been some £2.5m, equivalent to some £40m today and more than double the original estimate. Annual maintenance costs were £150,000 plus some £500,000 for rental of communications from the Post Office. (The Post Office, also known as the GPO, was a nationalised industry and effectively a government department until 1969). The same report however expressed fundamental doubts about the entire concept of a protected single nucleus of central government and suggested that it was possible if not probable that the Soviet Union knew of the site and its purpose.

Procedures to alert staff to move to the CGWHQ were incorporated into the Government War Book. Once the decision to man had been taken they would be communicated to the offices concerned by code words. The relevant code words and their meaning in the 1966 edition of the GWB were –

  • Grandee Bravo 3 – warn designated staff for service at TURNSTILE
  • Grandee Delta 4 – TURNSTILE to be manned against all contingencies
  • Grandee Hotel 1 – transfer control from London to TURNSTILE

An interesting point to emerge here is the idea that control would be formally transferred from London implying that this would take place before the nuclear attack. This might have been the situation in the early days of the CGWHQ and it may have been planned to issue a Royal Proclamation announcing that Government had moved from London (although this would surely have had serious security implications even if the Government’s destination was not mentioned) and that Regional Government had been implemented. However by this time the expectation was that the CGWHQ would simply take over when Whitehall, and probably the Prime Minister, were taken out by the first bomb.

Aerial view of the site looking north

Plan of the surface features of the site.

Outline plan of Spring Quarry.

The Infrastructure of the CGWHQ site 

The CGWHQ was developed in Spring Quarry, a name which predates it but still continues in use. The quarry is south-west of the small town of Corsham in Wiltshire between Chippenham and Bath in the south west of England. Although called a quarry the site is in fact completely underground and is accessed by several lifts and slope shafts. Spring Quarry was one of several sites in the area which were used from the nineteenth century to mine an oolitic limestone known as Bath stone for building.

This stone occurs in fissured beds varying between 5 and 10m thick overlain by approximately 12m of coarser grained rock (known locally as Rag) with a variable thickness over this of layers of sand clay and rock (called Forest Marble). Depending on the surface contours the total thickness of the overburden is of the order of 24m.

There are underground routes linking Spring Quarry with 2 other quarries on the north side known as Browns Quarry and Tunnel Quarry. It is bounded on the north side by the Box railway tunnel although the track bed is some 75 feet above the level of the quarry workings. The southern part of the quarry continued to be used by the Admiralty for storage and doors were provided to connect the two, while the parts to the west and east were left largely undeveloped.

Spring Quarry had been used by thousands of workers during the Second World War when it had been largely self-contained. Many of the workers had lived in specially constructed hostels on the surface. Most of the original factory site was taken over and the protected area taken for the CGWHQ measures some 2300 feet from east to west and 900 feet from north to south. The main area is some 140,000 square yards gross or 93,000 square yards net. The operational areas, which are all on one level, are around 90 feet below ground level. The original quarrying operations had left randomly scattered pillars of rock varying in size and shape from 100 to 1000 square feet supporting the roof and these take up some 22% of the floor area.

Entrance to Passenger Lift 1. (Nick Catford)

A supporting pillar in Area 2. (Bennett/MOD/EH)

Water treatment plant Area 11. (Nick Catford)

When the conversion work started some of these pillars were strengthened with concrete and in some areas the roof was reinforced with girders. The height of the accommodation areas varied from 12 to 20 feet. The original, often wide, roadways were kept, and the remaining areas partitioned off into rooms of varying sizes and shapes, signals areas, dormitories, kitchens, canteens, a hospital and a laundry.

The CGWHQ site would need surprisingly large quantities of water. This was distributed throughout the site from a pressurised 250mm diameter main fed from the public supply which enters the complex at emergency exit B. If this were disrupted during war water could be taken from an underground culvert and treated before being stored in tanks capable of holding 97,000 gallons. There was also a spring in the complex at the base of Air Shaft B3. Two further tanks located in the east cold sink held 400,000 gallons of water to provide cooling water for the air conditioning plant, and 275,000 gallons was stored in Area 11 to provide cooling water to the diesel generators. Significant amounts of water percolate through the rock into the so-called lungs to the east and west of the operational area and this is drained by gravity to a pumping sump in the east lung. From here it is discharged via a culvert into a storm water drain in the adjacent Box tunnel.

To maintain environmental conditions a substantial amount of ventilation, refrigeration and electrical power generation equipment was required with some of it dating from the time of the wartime factory. When converted the main protected area (sometimes referred to as ‘The Keep’ or the ‘Citadel’ in the later years) was flanked by 2 areas known as West Lung and East Lung. These ‘lungs’, which still contain remainders and reminders of the original quarrying, were used as air supply reservoirs for personnel and equipment needs within the protected area and were served by several air supply shafts.

The lungs have protected supply shafts terminating at ground level although a number of them have been capped over the years. The environmental conditions within the lungs are fairly constant at around 12 degrees centigrade and 95-100% RH.

The main air supply comes from the west lung cold sink and passes through the west ventilation and air conditioning plant. Ventilation was provided by central plant which could take in 84,000 cubic feet per minute of fresh air, exhaust an equal quantity if all the fans were running and recirculate 428,000 cubic feet per minute.

Inside West Lung (Dom Jackson)

Air drifts. (Nick Catford)

AC Plant  in Area 10. (Nick Catford).

The air is conditioned by two sets of Sulzer compressor evaporator-condensers installed in 196. Each set comprises two units (duty and standby) rated at 250 tons each of refrigeration capacity. The  units operate in a heat pump mode, using waste heat from the condenser, to heat incoming air. One set (of 2 units) is located in the east end and the other set (of 2 units) in the west end of the facility. Air is drawn in via the east and west ‘lungs’, treated (dehumidified, warmed and filtered etc.) and delivered via an extensive network of air drifts which run around much of the boundary of the site etc. and is distributed via a comprehensive under floor duct system. The air traverses the Areas, under the influence of the main fans before entering the roadways etc. which act as the return ducts. Air filtration is by electrostatic filters which remove dust and other particles from the incoming air.

The facility was originally served for heating and cooking by an underground steam boiler house which by 1980 was no longer serviceable. However, heating was found to be unnecessary due to the waste heat being emitted by the refrigeration plant used for dehumidification.  The complex contained 31 ablution blocks for both male and female staff. The effluent drained by gravity to an ejector station in Area 11 and was pumped from there to the surface main drainage system. Similarly, kitchen waste was pumped from a further ejector station to the surface mains system. Sewage was discharged via an 8 inch diameter pipe to the public sewers in the surface plant yard. In an emergency it was possible to discharge effluent into Box Tunnel under gravity.

Compressed Air  Tanks in Area 11 (Nick Catford)

Generators (Nick Catford)

Generator Hall (Nick Catford)

Standby power was generated at 11KV by 4 Mirrlees 12 cylinder V type diesel generators (type JVSS12) which were made in 1960. When examined in 1981 the engines were found to be good condition although a report said they had been found to be unreliable by other operators. The generators were fed with Grade A diesel fuel from 12 nearby tanks which could hold 176,400 gallons.

Area mains power switch.

The electrical distribution was comprised of an 11 KV ring main fed from the surface which originally supplied 34 500 KVA transformers giving a total transformer capacity of 17 MVA. The electrical equipment was refurbished in 1981 but by 1982 some of it was reaching the end of its designed life.  The complex was liberally supplied with personnel accesses, lift accesses and escape routes both to adjacent underground workings and to the surface, although over the years some of these fell out of use. In 1981 access could be made by –

    • 7 airtight doors to adjacent areas available as emergency exits.
    • 2 passenger lifts (PL1 and PL2)
    • 1 slow goods lift (GL1)
    • 2 fixed staircases

There were originally also a machine lift (‘ML1’, but by 1980 this was unused and the shaft capped) and an escalator (escalator A).

Escalator A Area 11. From the early 1970s this was usable only as a fixed emergency exit. (Nick Catford)

There were also numerous ventilation and exhaust gas shafts –

  • Exhaust gas shafts – 1 diesel engine exhaust
  • 1 Boiler House flue (B2 & B2a)
  • Ventilation shafts – 5 (B1, E2, E1a, E1 and B3)

The Layout of the CGWHQ

Internally, the CGWHQ was divided into 24 Areas with each Area being served by a system of roadways and walkways.

The main uses for each area as developed in the late 1950s were –

  1. Plant – west ventilation and air conditioning plant, main air intake (this area also contained the original factory telephone exchange).
  2. Board of Trade, HMSO, Office of the Minister for Science, Lord Chancellor’s Department, Customs and Excise, Treasury, Inland Revenue. Dormitory.
  3. Furniture store, dormitory when manned, Post Office stand by diesel generator.
  4. Furniture store, dormitory when manned.
  5. Furniture store, dormitory when manned.
  6. ‘Top Kitchen’ – kitchen, canteen.
  7. Bakery
  8. Post Office, main GPO telephone exchange.
  9. Hospital and main stores, on manning dormitory for 450.
  10. Ministry of Transport.
  11. Plant – east ventilation and air conditioning plant, domestic water treatment plant and storage tanks to provide water for domestic use and fire fighting in the event of mains failure, lagoon containing cooling water for power station and engineering equipment fed from the underground stream, sewage ejector station, electrical sub-station, PL2 (2 lifts, but not used in peacetime).
  12. “Bottom Kitchen’ – Kitchen and dining area (part of the original laundry was relocated to this Area in 1975). ‘
  13. Ministry of Power, Ministry of Agriculture.
  14. War Cabinet, Cabinet Secretariat, Chiefs of Staff Organisation, PM and senior ministers (180 working spaces).
  15. Camp Commandant, Establishment Officers, public address system, Lamson exchange, dormitory for 700.
  16. BBC, COI, Ministry of Health, Home Office, Ministry of Housing and Local Government, UK Land Forces (UKLF), Scottish Office (250 working spaces).
  17. Ministry of Aviation, Ministry of Labour, UKLF.
  18. UKLF, Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry.
  19. Workshops, boiler house, fire station, main power house and oil storage tanks.
  20. Laundry (possibly later food store for biscuits).
  21. Communications centre, signals organisation divided into 6 groups.
  22. Colonial Office, Commonwealth Relations, Foreign Office.
  23. Fuel storage.
  24. Water treatment, water storage, sewage ejector (possibly only part of Area 24 was included within the CGWHQ boundary).

The drained lagoon in Area 11. This contained water for the plant and a small rowing boat was kept for its maintenance. (Nick Catford)

Dough mixer in the ‘old’ bakery. ©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH

Kitchen appliances in Area 12. (Nick Catford)

The accommodation space of the CGWHQ was divided into 3 categories –

1. The inner core of the headquarters was Area 14 with domestic and working accommodation for the Prime Minister, the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff, their supporting staffs and their Map Rooms.

2. Nearby were the governmental departments which would have the most active roles to play –

a. service departments (Air Ministry, War Department, Admiralty, UKLF and Ministry of Supply)

b. ‘due functioning’ departments (MAFF, Ministries of Health, Local Government, GPO, etc) together with the extensive communications areas

c. other departments (Transport, Trade, Labour, Works, etc)

d. ‘cold storage’ departments which did not have an immediate function in the survival period such as the Treasury, HMSO and Lord Chancellor’s Dept)

3. General purpose space (Camp Commandant, dormitories, canteens, hospital, etc).

The rooms in the working areas were divided into 4 basic types and the official lists of furniture for each type hint at the spartan conditions the occupiers would meet when they went underground –

Type A rooms

These would serve as combined working and sleeping quarters for the more senior staff who needed to work on a 24 hour basis. The furniture for one person consisted of –

  • ‘Bedstead, emergency metal folding’ 1
  • ‘Mattress, hair and fibre’ 1
  • Blankets 2
  • Sheets x2
  • ‘Pillows, millpuff’ x2
  • Pillow slip x2
  • Bedspread x1
  • Wardrobe x1
  • ‘Table, emergency folding wood’ x1
  • ‘Chair, tubular arm metal nesting’ x1
  • ‘Chairs, wooden fold flat’ x2
  • ‘Mats, coir coloured 4’ x 2’3”’ x1
  • ‘Filing cabinet, steel 2 drawer’ x1

Each room would also have an ash tray and a waste paper bin.

Type B rooms

These would serve as working space only. Each individual occupant would have a ‘table, emergency folding wood’ and a ‘chair, tubular arm metal’. The room would also have a waste paper bins and ash trays.

Type C rooms

These would be maps rooms, conference rooms, etc of various sizes and furniture provision would depend on the potential use

Type D rooms

These would serve as dormitories for varying numbers. Furniture and bedding would be similar to the Type A rooms but without the tables, metal chairs and filing cabinets.

Servery, Area 6. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

Furniture: recently laid out to show how a bedroom might look. (Nick Catford)

Dough mixer and mixer bowl (right) in Area 7 Bakery.

There were also a few ‘VIP’ rooms for Ministers and the most senior officials with the Prime Minister being allocated VIP1. This designation may however not have referred to the quality of the accommodation but to the type of telephone connection installed in the room. An early suggestion that Ministers and senior officials should have more comfortable furniture than enjoyed by the rest of the staff was not pursued.

In the working areas there was extensive partitioning resulting in many, often quite small rooms but in the areas used for dormitories and canteens the areas were much more open. Overall, there were 584 working rooms. In most of the rooms the dividing walls did not extend to the roof but were left with a gap of around 2 feet which was finished with mesh to allow for air circulation.

By the middle of 1961 the massive amounts of office and other furniture, stationery and canteen equipment had been delivered and stored underground. The list of materials stored on site indicates how large an operation it was and included –

  • 250 Bedsteads
  • 1925 2 tier bunks
  • 4600 mattresses
  • 15340 sheets
  • 4600 pillows
  • 6500 pillow cases
  • 310 bedspreads
  • 5125 towels
  • 225 canteen tables
  • 2320 dinner plates
  • 2320 cups, breakfast
  • 2320 cups, tea
  • 1152 tumbler, ½ pint
  • 2320 fork, dessert
  • 1160 fork, table
  • 1160 fork, fish
  • 2320 spoon, dessert
  • 11 trolley, tea
  • 1500 basin, pudding 3”
  • 4 cleaver, butcher
  • 9 dust pan
  • 16 spoon, kitchen 12”
  • 12 sieve, chip potato
  • 342 cloth, tea
  • 28 galls liquid detergent
  • 24 brush, nail bristle
  • 4 weighing machines
  • 4260 lockers
  • 2320 table, folding 4’6” x 2’3”
  • 2120 tray, filing fibreboard
  • 2000 bin, waste paper
  • 250 cabinet filing 2 drawer
  • 100 cabinet filing 4 drawer
  • 9086 chair, fold flat
  • 547 chair, tubular small
  • 300 chair, open arm nesting
  • 106 mirrors
  • 3290 rug, rubberised back
  • 1994 ashtray 4” circular glass

The CGWHQ was in essence an underground office and communications complex with domestic hostel facilities. Huge amounts of basic office supplies were stored on site, often in heavy duty cases which would enable them to last indefinitely. The original list of items held included –

  • 11,300,000 sheets of duplicating paper
  • 100,000 plain gummed labels
  • 12,000 toilet rolls
  • 750 shorthand notebooks
  • 700 pencils, lead, ordinary, HB
  • 25 boxes of white chalk (each with 144 sticks)
  • 1000 erasers, pencil
  • 10,000 ball point pens, refillable, black
  • 100,000 rubber bands

There were also 400 typewriters

Apart from a few items which needed to be turned over annually the majority of these supplies would be untouched and unconsidered for the next ~15 years until it was decided that the amounts held could be reduced.

Part of Area 9, the main stores holding area. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

Some of the 2000 waste paper bins located on site. (Steve Fox).

HardTack ‘biscuits’ left in the CGWHQ. (©Bennett/MOD/EH).

As well as the above items the HM Stationery Office also arranged for copies of some reference books to be held at the site at the request of the various departments and many of these were updated annually. The list asked for by the BBC is both odd and interesting consisting as it did of –

      • Cassell’s Encyclopaedia of Literature
      • Guide to the House of Commons
      • Holy Bible
      • Kessing Contemporary Archives
      • Modern English Usage (Fowler)
      • Oxford Dictionary – shorter
      • Roget’s Thesaurus
      • Russian-English Technical and Chemical Dictionary
      • Statesman’s Year Book
      • Times Atlas
      • Titles and Terms of Address
      • USSR Atlas
      • Who’s Who (International)

Looking after the staff 

To feed the planned 4000 staff 2 fully equipped industrial-scale kitchens and a bakery were installed under the direction of the Army Catering Corps. The range of the equipment in the kitchens and the amount of general kitchen equipment, crockery, etc was vast. It was hoped that a supply of fresh food would be laid in as part of the manning operation and then replaced as necessary by the army from the depot at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. But in the probable event that fresh food could not be obtained standard army ration packs would be used and 120,000 rations in 6000 boxes were held. These, together with 1500 tins of biscuits were stored in huts on the surface. This was a security precaution as the existence underground of these rations would not fit with the cover stories. It also allowed half of them to be changed very year without compromising the security of the underground site (this change over needed 16 10ton lorries). The working idea was that emergency rations would be used for the first 2 or 3 days of manning until fresh supplies started to arrive and later if fresh food was not available.

The NAAFI would also supply an initial stock of canteen items such as toilet requisites, chocolate and cigarettes although given the inevitable chaos the would surround the manning and operations of the CGWHQ it is hard to imagine that such pre-war niceties would have been seen on the day.

The CGWHQ would also be dry. A bar had in fact been considered and rejected in 1957, with the Planning Team reporting that “The provision of a wet canteen for the sale of spirits and beer had been considered and decided against in view of the austerity conditions which would prevail at SUBTERFUGE, the number of additional staff required to run a wet canteen and the difficulties of arranging supplies of beer”.

Food preparation area, Area 12. (Nick Catford)

Kitchen in Area 6. (©Bennett/MOD/EH)

The relocated laundry in Area 12  (Dom Jackson)

To cater for non-physical needs there would be a welfare officer and the army would provide 2 padres – one Church of England and one Roman Catholic. Among the pre-stocked items were an altar cover, an altar cross, 100 Army Prayer Books and 100 Roman Catholic Prayer Books. There were also 3 designated recreation areas although ‘facilities for recreation are limited’. 

One of the wards fitted with furniture recently by the maintenance staff. (Nick Catford)

The site would need its own medical facilities although the extent of these was the cause of much debate. The original plans included a fully functioning hospital with an operating theatre, dental surgery and 40 single bed wards. The cost of this, requiring as it did its own independent ventilation system was prohibitive and the requirement was reduced to only 6 small wards with consultation and treatment rooms, dispensary, dental surgery, X-ray room, small kitchen office and store. A surprisingly comprehensive range of drugs, medicines and other medical supplies was held. The aim was simply to keep the staff fit for work. Once operational, if staff were seriously ill they would be sent elsewhere for treatment.

There was an industrial scale laundry originally in Area 20 but some of the equipment was relocated to Area 12 when the accommodation was reduced in 1975. This was only for “house keeping washing”, mainly bedding. The staff would be expected to wash their own clothes by hand in sinks provided although there were no obvious places set aside for drying the wet clothes.

The staff would be told that their food and accommodation would be provided free (although they were also told that the normal subsistence allowance paid to civil servants working away from home would not be paid). Normal accounting functions would not be needed as the headquarters would have no spending functions as such and anything it needed would be paid for by the appropriate department. But some accounting would be needed for local purchases, canteen purchases made by staff and pay to the staff (this would be of a standard sum per person as anything else would be too complicated). This would be funded by drawing a cheque on the occupying department to be cashed locally (This idea was included in the planning assumptions without, apparently, any thought or appreciation of the likelihood of a banking system existing after the attack or of a commercial distribution system which would be able to sell anything the CGWHQ might want to buy).

Toilet Block: Sinks for hand-washing of clothes. (Steve Fox)

Ironing station, in Area 12. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH).

‘Walk in fridge’, Area 12. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

The Role of the CGWHQ 

It was always been seen as axiomatic, at least by the civil servants involved, that government and particularly central government, as near to the peacetime system should continue during and after a war. The Home Defence Review of 1960 echoed this approach when, in discussing the purposes of home defence, it said “There is one type of home defence measure which must be maintained whatever view is taken of other measures – namely some provision for carrying on the government of the country (including the provision of emergency headquarters for central government and a regional organisation, together with their essential communications). The Committee consider that any Government must fulfill the duty of providing, so far as it can, for the maintenance of a framework of administration under all circumstances”. The CGWHQ, like its predecessors in World War 2 was set up to provide this “machinery of government in war” both in terms of a function and a place to carry it out.

General view inside an Area. (Steve Fox)

When it was first conceived in 1953 the ‘central government nucleus’ site was planned to be a reserve for Whitehall in case that key area of central government activity were destroyed. From the site, a nucleus of the main decision makers would steer Britain through what was expected to be a lengthy World War 3. They would be supported by their advisers and representatives of all the government departments, nationalised industries, etc that would have a role in directing and supporting the military effort and the home front. This concept had really changed little from the days of World War 2 when the nucleus operated from the Cabinet War Room, and the War Rooms of the various fighting services and the “due functioning” departments. With the change in strategy brought about by the Strath Report SUBTERFUGE would take over from Whitehall at the start of, if not actually before, the outbreak of hostilities, but its planned role would now not be to direct a lengthy war. Instead, it would direct, at the strategic level, the immediate and urgent struggle for survival after Britain had been destroyed as a political and economic entity by Soviet H-bombs.

The structure designed to govern and administer a shattered Britain would be very different and markedly less democratic than its peacetime predecessor. The basic plan for this wartime government, or to be more precise for post-war government as the war itself was expected to end almost as soon as it had started as all the belligerents were destroyed in a barrage of hydrogen bombs, was summarised when the initial planning for the CGWHQ started as –

  1.  “SUBTERFUGE would house a central nucleus controlling the higher direction of the war, together if possible with supporting HQs required to administer essential controls.
  2. There should be a maximum degree of devolution from centre to the regions.
  3. The central organ of government should attempt to discharge only those functions of government which must be discharged in one place and that place would be the seat of supreme control; and only such of those functions as directly affect the nation’s capacity to survive thermo-nuclear attack.
  4. On the threat of war Regional Commissioners would be appointed and established with their civil and military advisers in operational HQs away from target areas.
  5. After attack the traditional system of government of Ministerial and departmental responsibilities will, at both central and regional headquarters give way to a system whereby each HQ will operate as a single entity i.e. as a command post. This system of government would come into full operation when the seat of central government moved to the emergency HQ or nuclear attack had occurred.”

In 1961 Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, wrote a private paper on cabinet government. In it he described government in war as being based on “…a very small nucleus at the centre concerned in the main not with matters of internal domestic concern but rather with those outward-looking activities of government which must be carried out if we are to remain in control of our affairs – contacts with others and liaison between civil and military power – and the maintenance for as long as possible of the supremacy of the civil power”. He then added “We plan to maintain central direction of that sort, even in the most rudimentary form, for as long as possible in the intensive period of nuclear attack and – and this is the point I want to stress – the capacity to re-assert civil control and, as soon as possible, central political control, for the period of recovery after the initial nuclear phase”. Brook expected civilians to stay in control. There would be no martial law. Although the Strath report had suggested that in the worst affected areas “…the local military commander would have to be prepared to take over from the civil authority…” this was not followed up in subsequent consideration and at all times the planners were anxious to ensure that government at national and regional level remained in the hands of the elected government through ministers at the central and regional headquarters operating within the rule of law.

The strategic role of the CGWHQ and regional government 

A early report from 1956 said that the first requirement would be “a machine of government to take the country through the attack and survival periods i.e. until central government can be organised on a larger scale”, adding that “SUBTERFUGE is concerned only with the national struggle for survival, control of military and civil defence authorities, supervision of the central control of essential supplies, shipping, and communications, and communications with the civil population. Most functions of government which could not be done by the nucleus or regional headquarters would cease.”

Following further consideration of the role of SUBTERFUGE and the regional joint civil/military headquarters in 1957 the concept of regional government was expanded. SUBTERFUGE fitted into the new concept of decentralised or regional government that would create “a machine of government, which relied on the effective executive organisation at regional level and the paramount consideration is to be a truly regional system of government operating under effective control by Regional Commissioners”. It would be a “nucleus of central government to whose directions Regional Commissioners would be subject and which itself would discharge those functions of government which must be discharged in one place and that place the seat of supreme control.” The apparent assumption was however that the ministers at the CGWHQ would consult the Regional Commissioners individually or collectively before making decisions which would affect their regions. The Regional Commissioners would be in charge of running the regions on a day-to-day basis and apart, from some matters “specifically reserved for the centre” such as control of strategic stocks of food and fuel, would only refer to the CGWHQ on matters affecting other regions or of national importance.

At this time some of the senior planners still considered that the central nucleus might stay in London and the need for a co-ordinating centre to be used in such circumstances was considered. Although it was not pursued at the time in the following decade this idea developed into the Cabinet Control Room which would in turn evolve into the Whitehall Situation Centre and the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (now better known as COBRA).

General view of an office area. (Steve Fox)

To test the ideas the planners were developing Exercise Cloud Dragon was held in 1959 to consider the functions to be carried out at the CGWHQ. It found that generally the working principles were valid and that day-to-day control of matters such as life saving activities and law and order could only be dealt with at regional level. In the attack period the central authority would be limited in the operational field to co-ordinating the regions. All operational matters should be left to the Regional Commissioner although his staff should be able to consult experts at the CGWHQ.

A lengthy and quite critical report made in 1963 by the Ministry of Defence on the Machinery of Government in War, by which time the CGWHQ had been renamed TURNSTILE, said “Plans for the maintenance of government in war are based on the assumption that in the face of nuclear attack there would have to be a departure from the traditional system of individual ministerial responsibility and departmental control to a system of regional government by Regional Commissioners”. The report went on to say that the essential features of this system are “…firstly, the establishment in a war time headquarters of a nucleus of central government to whose directions Regional Commissioners would be subject and which would itself discharge those functions of government which must be discharged in one place and that place the seat of supreme control”; and “secondly, the appointment of a senior minister in each region as Regional Commissioner who would have full powers of the Crown and Government in his Region subject only to his acting in accordance with any instructions or directions which might be given to him by central government…” The report continued “Following attack therefore central government could not rely on being able to do more than give broad policy directions to Regional Commissioners who for the immediate aftermath at least would have to rely largely on the resources of their own Region with little or no help or direction from the centre.” The ability of the CGWHQ to establish a degree of control would depend on its basic ability to establish itself as a functioning headquarters with the necessary communications and the extent of the disruption nationally, particularly to communications caused by the attack. The CGWHQ would need to receive regular reports (known by the military jargon as situation reports or “sit reps”) in a standard format from the Regional Seats of Government (RSGs) and other national organisations but whilst the communications between the RSGs and the CGWHQ were well planned the same could not be said for those between the RSGs and the various local authority, departmental, military and other regional level organisations on which the RSG would have to rely to build up a picture of its region for its own use and to pass on to the CGWHQ. Indeed, although it was sometimes stated that civil and home defence would really have to grow from the bottom up, with local communities organising themselves at the outset, before the next level of the control chain from local authorities through the regional controls could really start to function, the reality was that the further the planning went down the control chain the less planning, especially realistic planning, there actually was.

Domestic facilities in Area 14. (Steve Fox)

In 1958 the communications planners calculated that manning the communications systems, such as telegraph machines, that the departments, etc were asking for would need 1600 people against a planned maximum number of 1040. This lead to a realisation that some of the departments were not following the command post concept under which the CGWHQ would only deal with the highest levels of strategic decision making while delegating operational activities to lower controls. The Home Office, for example, planned to control prisons and children’s homes directly from the CGWHQ. New directives were therefore issued telling the departments to plan on the basis of only carrying out at the nucleus those functions which could not be carried out elsewhere and where decisions could only be made at the highest level. Functions should be restricted to broad policy e.g. relations with overseas governments, supreme military control and central control of strategic stocks of food and fuel.

The message should have been that the CGWHQ existed to receive and assimilate as much information relating to the state of the country and the world as a whole, and then to make and pass out very broad policy directions to the Regional Commissioners, military commanders and the headquarters of the departments and industries such as the Ministries of Agriculture and Transport who would have the role of implementing those decisions. However, the staffing lists suggest that throughout its existence a lot of people at the CGWHQ would have been given roles or at least job titles that implied a more operational function.

The military seemed to have been particularly slow to adapt to the idea that they would have to relinquish a lot of control to local commanders and also to the fact that post nuclear attack their main role would be to assist the civilian authorities in the survival period particularly with the maintenance of law and order. Whilst the expectation was that the war in Europe would be over in a matter of days sporadic fighting might continue in other parts of the world. Any such fighting would be a matter for local commanders, perhaps with the support of surviving embassies and diplomatic staff. The military had a particular problem, in that during much of the late 1950s and early 1960s, they expected to direct at least the start of World War 3 from the CGWHQ. This meant they would need it to be a fully active headquarters not just in the destructive phase and beyond but in the precautionary period which would precede the arrival of the H-Bombs, and which would involve mobilisation and perhaps some conventional fighting. This was out of line with the idea that the CGWHQ would only become active after the attack and the clash of ideas was never satisfactorily settled despite numerous lengthy reports on the matter.

A Change of Role 

In 1961, a study was made to consider to what extent STOCKWELL, as the CGWHQ was now code-named, could take over central government functions in a precautionary period. It was suggested that most of the important tasks could be carried out from Whitehall but with STOCKWELL, once manned, taking some of the massive load of preparing the country for war. But in opposition to this idea it was said that manning STOCKWELL and the RSGs early in a crisis would denude Whitehall of many of its Ministers and senior service and civilian personnel at the very time when they would be needed most in Whitehall.

Hospital, Area 9. Note the better quality of the finish here (Dom Jackson)

The idea of using the CGWHQ to assist Whitehall generally was not pursued but other practical problems were worrying the senior planners and matters came to a head later in July 1961. Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary told the Prime Minister that up to then it had been planned that the Prime Minister would make the decision in a period of tension whether or not to move with the nucleus to STOCKWELL, and facilities were being installed to authorise nuclear retaliation from there. But the planners increasingly realised that in the period of tension the Government’s main task would not be to prepare for war but to try avoid it and at the same time keep Parliament and the public informed. STOCKWELL would take up to 2 weeks to become fully operational and any move to it would reduce the government’s ability to communicate with allies, etc at exactly the wrong moment. Whilst some ministers could move to STOCKWELL in the precautionary period under cover of the less-secret movement to the regional headquarters it would be extremely difficult for the Prime Minister to move before the outbreak of hostilities, unless he considered that nothing more could be done to avert war. Norman Brook thought that if the Prime Minister stayed in London there would be no point in providing him with protected accommodation as it would not remove the problem of dislocation and would not survive an attack. He therefore suggested that the central nucleus of government, except for some ministers who would be sent to the regions and STOCKWELL, should stay in London. The Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan) agreed “So long as I stay in London” and directed that “planning should proceed on the basis that central government will remain in London throughout the precautionary period, that the machinery of government will function broadly as it does in peace and that the Prime Minister and his colleagues (with the exception of any who may be sent to Regional Headquarters and to BURLINGTON in order to man the governmental organisation for the survival period), will work at their normal places. Planning of BURLINGTON will continue on the assumption that its functions are –

  1. Acting as the seat of government in the period of survival and reconstruction.
  2. To be the alternate centre to London for authorising nuclear retaliation.”

Conference / Map room in Area 10 – dressed with original items in recent years by the mines staff. ( Nick Catford)

This change of role was passed onto the Establishment Officers of the various departments who would send staff to the CGWHQ so that they could consider the possible impact on staffing numbers. They were told that the “Central nucleus will remain in London throughout the Precautionary Period”. The previous plan had been that the CGWHQ would be manned late in the Precautionary Period and that control would be transferred to it then. Now it would take over at the end of the Precautionary Period. Anyone reading between the lines of this memo would realise that the Precautionary Period was expected to end with the arrival of the first H-Bombs. And the assumption was that the first targets would include Whitehall. In other words, the central nucleus of government would not leave London. This of course did not apply to those who would leave to man the CGWHQ, the RSGs and the lower sub-regional controls but it did mean that the bulk of the civil service and even the Prime Minister, senior ministers and advisers were expendable. In view of the secrecy of the matter most Establishment Officers were not told about the nuclear retaliation role. Instead they were told “One function dealt with in the Prime Minister’s directive will be known to the relevant departments through other channels”.

This change in emphasis meant that while BURLINGTON would still be manned in the precautionary period it would have no initial role and central government would continue from London as usual. This caused problems for the civil and service departments as it meant that they would have to staff their peacetime offices at a time when they would be fully stretched and at the same time provide staff for BURLINGTON and the Regional Seats of Government.

Norman Brook’s report said simply that the Prime Minister should “remain in London” where he would be at the centre of the Whitehall communications network in contact with UK and NATO headquarters, the Foreign Office and civil departments. There was a notable absence in his advice about what would happen to the Prime Minister after an attack had been detected and judged to be a nuclear attack with London as a target.

Operation Visitation 

There was always a possibility that the Prime Minister would have a chance to get away from London so an escape route was devised and a plan put together called Operation Visitation. Under this plan RAF helicopters would assemble and refuel at RAF Northolt on the outskirts of London ready to dash in to collect the Prime Minister and his immediate team probably from Horse Guards Parade and fly them to Corsham. The helicopters would not be on permanent standby for the operation so would take time to prepare and get to Northolt. This plan is obviously absurd for at least 2 reasons. Firstly, the Prime Minister and his team of senior ministers, service chiefs and advisers would be in London ready to authorise the RAF to launch an attack on the Soviet Union. Implicit in the plans was that this would only be in retaliation for a Soviet first strike and logically a target for the first attack would be Whitehall from where the Russians would assume a UK nuclear attack would be instigated. The RAF could not be released until the first Russian H-bomb exploded, probably over Whitehall, vaporising the Prime Minister and his advisers. They would then not be in a position either to authorise retaliation or get to the (remains of) the helicopters. They could of course not assume that any unidentified aircraft or even missile spotted on radar would be carrying an H-bomb and order the retaliation under a process known as “launch on warning”.

Secondly, at this time the spectre of ballistic nuclear missiles was entering the equation bringing with it the idea of the “four minute warning”. This meant that a Russian missile would be detected by the Fylingdales early warning radar (actually operational from 1964) 4 minutes before impact. Ignoring the earlier point, and assuming a policy of “launch on warning” rather than the safer “launch on attack” one, the Prime Minister and his party would have 4 minutes to receive the warning in Downing Street, authorise our attack, get themselves sorted out, leave Downing Street by the back entrance, run across Horseguards Parade, jump into the helicopters which would then take off and fly to a safe distance outside the blast zone. This timing is hardly realistic.

Approval to establish the nuclear retaliation cell at TURNSTILE (National Archives/Steve Fox)

In reality, it seems implicit in the new strategy that the Prime Minister and those who stayed behind with him would not leave. Not only would there be less chance of the Prime Minister escaping from London but it was possible that London could be taken out before the order to release the UK nuclear forces could be given in a so called “bolt from the blue” attack. To guard against this possibility “nuclear deputies” were introduced. These were 2 senior ministers chosen personally by the Prime Minister who would be available to give the order to retaliate if the Prime Minister, for whatever reason, was not able to do so. One of these deputies would go to the CGWHQ in the Precautionary Period where a small 6 member nuclear retaliation cell would be established probably 48 hours in advance of the main manning. The other would go directly to the headquarters of Bomber Command. From 1969 with the advent of the submarine based Polaris force he would have gone to the naval headquarters at Northwood. However, it appears that by April 1964 the CGWHQ would not be used for retaliation as there was no longer a requirement for a deputy to go there. There would however have been a practical problem for the nuclear deputy at the CGWHQ. If he and the supporting cell went to Corsham before the main manning order were given there would be no staff there to support them and in particular no one to operate the vital communications needed to link them with HQ Bomber Command and special arrangements were apparently made for this. It was also a fundamental tenet of the main plan that no communications would be made from Corsham until at least late in the Precautionary Period to avoid compromising its security so any circuits could not be tested.

Up to this time responsibility for planning the CGWHQ had been held by the Treasury but in June 1962 it was transferred to the Cabinet Office.

Re-establishing government 

A 1963 report on the military functions of central government in war stated in passing that “The desirability of re-establishing full central Government control as soon as possible after attack is accepted”. There was no explanation as to who had accepted this desire and it is interesting to see that an earlier draft said “All departments and services are agreed on the desirability of re-establishing full central government as soon as possible after the attack” although “…the extension of central Government would be a gradual and uneven process”. It was axiomatic, to the pre-war leaders at least, that a return to the pre-war status quo was the way into the future.

A significant role expected of the CGWHQ, once the initial survival period had been endured and the country moved into the recovery phase, would be to start the restoration of a national central government in place of the post-strike federal system with virtually self-governing regions responsible to the centre only for certain restricted higher functions. However, this return to normality was simply not planned for. It was enough to set up the CGWHQ for strategic direction and the RSGs for day-to-day governance and say this would continue for as long as necessary. The 1963 report on the military functions of central government in war echoed this medium term approach to planning when it said that “The civil aim in the post-attack phase is to marshal all resources in the UK to the restoration of national life and the maintenance of law and order”. It did not attempt to project this beyond the post-attack phase into what might be the longer term recovery phase by setting out how national life would be restored. Giving the CGWHQ this role would be vital for a return to the status quo ante bellum, but it was always acknowledged that the CGWHQ would be too small to run the country so this role seems at odds with the reality. We can also note that the general assumption of home defence plans from the 1970s onwards was that the structure of the country would have to be organised from the bottom up by local groups based at county, district or even parish level rather than by top-down methods.

Some of the ’90 days stores’ held of spare parts, etc.

Planning and stocking were made on the basis that the CGWHQ could operate independently for at least 30 days although parts and spares for machinery and plant to last for 90 days were held. The Ministries of Agriculture and Transport worked to a 3 month period on the assumption that it would take this long to arrange for supplies of food to be acquired overseas and transported to the UK. However, it was expected that because of its communications and other facilities the CGWHQ would continue to be the working centre of government until well into the recovery period even though ministers and staff might move into more suitable above ground living accommodation once the danger of further attack and fall out had passed.

The Day to Day Role 

The principal role of the CGWHQ was to make and implement plans at a national or strategic level to restore the fabric of the state and the nation. However, there seems to have been little consideration as to how this might be done or what the 2000 embunkered decision makers would do on a day to day basis to achieve the broad aim. It is possible that individual departments considered what would be expected of their contingents and drafted instructions on how to achieve this but there is a noticeable absence of any actual documentation suggesting this was done in the National Archives and no suggestions in the minutes of the high level committees that departments had ever considered it.

Perhaps the first job of the relocated and reduced central government would be to establish itself and gain acceptance as the legitimate government of and for the country to the survivors at home and any foreign governments. The Prime Minister and the senior, and therefore probably the best known, Ministers might not have escaped London so the ministers who had made it to Corsham might be relatively junior and unknown to the public. And no one had voted for any of them as Prime Minister. The armed forces, government departments and local authorities might be more likely to accept them as the legitimate source of authority but would the ordinary people? Would they follow the orders of someone they knew little of who represented the remnants of a government that had lead them into nuclear annihilation? How could the new rulers impose their will? They would only have the power of persuasion using the very limited radio messages the War Time Broadcasting Service could transmit to those survivors able to hear them. As the fall out cleared they would, perhaps, try to visit the people but this would have a very limited impact. Ultimately, if the ordinary people decided that the Corsham elite had no legitimacy the government would have to resort to coercive, albeit technically legal, action using the police and the armed forces, insofar as they had survived. In normal circumstances the majority of the nation accepts the decisions and laws of the democratically elected government and for those who do not there are a range of judicial measures backed up by the police, the courts and prisons. In the post-nuclear world these judicial sanctions would be difficult to enforce and of doubtful effect.

All these restrictions on the ability of a central government to impose its will would apply equally to the Regional Commissioners trying to impose their authority at the regional level and to the local authority Controllers who would have the immediate role of restoring order and applying any civil defence measures at the local level.

But the CGWHQ was not set up just to restore central authority. It had to plan and reorganise all aspects of national life which had been destroyed or disrupted by the attack, whilst at the same time ensuring that the necessities of life were available immediately the bombs stopped falling. There were some 2000 decision makers. What decisions were they expected to make? As mentioned earlier, there are no known plans for what they would actually do on a day-to-day basis to hold the state, nation or society together and then return things to the pre-war position. One comment, perhaps founded more on hope than reality was that the decision makers at Corsham would be used to carrying out their pre-war functions and these would carry across into the post-war world. But would this be the case? The actual affects of the nuclear attack could not be predicted. The attack might be made with one bomb or a hundred. Some areas notably East Anglia with it large number of airbases may well have been devastated but other areas, for example in Wales or the north of England, may have suffered little direct effect. The assumption however was to assume the worst case although this always left millions of survivors. So Corsham would have had to be ready to cope with this.

Our peace time society is incredibly complex and interdependent. At its heart is the market economy. All the goods and services people need are provided through the market mechanism of supply and demand. This in turn is supported by the banking system. The various agencies of government at all levels then exist to ensure that this system works and that the people are looked after.

The post-war world would be a very different place. The market system, matching supply and demand to supply consumer needs would have collapsed. With factories not producing most people would be out of work and not receiving wages. There would be no banking system and money would probably have no value. The majority of service industries would simply be irrelevant in the struggle for survival. The market economy would have to be replaced, and replaced quickly by a command economy in which the government directs all economic resources – labour, raw materials, capital, etc in the ways envisaged by Marx. In peace time, our civil servants police the market economy stepping in to make it fair, protect consumers, provide national infrastructure etc. Could they, and in particular the 2000 at Corsham, invent and direct a command economy? If they could, could they do it in a matter of days?

Consider the case of the national grid supplying the country with electricity. This would inevitably be knocked out in an attack. Repairing any damage so that the electrical supply could be restored would obviously be central to survival and recovery and would have to be organised on a national basis. In peacetime, it was the role of the Ministry of Power to give the strategic direction whilst the nationalised power companies actually generated and supplied the electricity. Even if some power stations were able to continue post-attack many of the power lines and pylons would have been damaged or destroyed. In normal times the companies had engineers to assess the damage. Their office staff could then contact the suppliers of the pylons, etc. Those suppliers would either supply from stock or more likely would order parts or raw materials from secondary suppliers. These suppliers may have needed to import raw materials. The new pylons would then have to be delivered to where they were needed, erected and new cables connected. And so on. Post-attack the assumption would have to be that none of these organisations would exist and that if they did their ability to function would be severally restricted. Could the representatives of the Ministry of Power at Corsham take over and organise the replacement pylons? This situation would be repeated endlessly – how are damaged roads to be repaired, how is food to be processed, how are the thousands of chemicals in day to day use to be supplied, who will drive the trains, how will workers be paid, how should priorities be decided and so on. Is it credible to expect the nucleus at Corsham to understand and react to these situations and then direct the necessary resources to solve them? Their colleagues at the regional level would also be in the same position.

The assumption was that the nation state would have to be rebuilt completely but the people who were put in place to do this were simply the ones who had maintained the old order, the pre-war bureaucrats and administrators. They were not chosen for of their personal strengths and abilities but simply because at the time the lists were drawn up they were doing a job which was seen as important to the continuing operating of their department. Would they be the best people to make the necessary post-war decisions and then implement them or find other people who could? Surely there would be a need for other experts, for scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, sociologists, etc but apart from a few scientists there were no places for them.

We only have to look at some of the job titles given in the Corsham accommodation register to question the usefulness of many of the roles to be performed. The War Office, which looked after the army would have 14 people from the Director of Army Legal Services, 15 people from the War Office Director of Ordnance Services and 3 from the Director of Fighting Vehicles. UK Land Forces would have 7 people working for the Chaplain-General and an Assistant Director of Public Relations.

Why did the Ministry of Housing and Local Government need a map room for “Care of the Homeless; local government and related questions” when looking after the homeless was a task for those much lower down the control chain at the level where they could actually interact with those affected . What would the 16 people and their clerks and typists from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and National Assistance Board be doing? Their Minister would also be there. Did the Post Office need both a Principal (Overseas Mail) and a Senior Inspector (Overseas Mail)? Why did the Admiralty need an Air Commodore and 4 Wing Commanders as Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic liaison when they would only have a role after the war was over, and in any case NATO would be running the fighting, and why are these apparently RAF officers?

And it is tempting to suggest that the selection reflected the class system of the times as invariably the very top people from departments were chosen for Corsham. What did these people know of how their departments and industries functioned at the level where they impacted on the survivors? Who, for example, would be more useful in working out how best to communicate with the survivors – a newspaper editor or the Director-General of the Central Office of Information who actually had a place. What did the Minister for Housing and Local Government actually know about the realities of local government? Was it necessary to have both the Secretary of State for the Colonial Office and the Secretary of State for the Commonwealth Relations Office both of whom were supported by their Permanent Under Secretaries of State? Could their roles not have been done by the Secretary of State for the Foreign Office who also had a place?

The original role of Corsham was to run a lengthy war fought mainly with conventional weapons during which time the nation would continue largely as it had done in peacetime. This plan was modified slightly over the years, but once the decision to build the CGWHQ had been taken the concept perhaps became unchallengeable and unchangeable. The physical preparation of the site and its functioning became paramount. It could take 4000 people so 4000 jobs were found. No one seems to have asked what, on a day-to-day basis, it would do and how this would be done. Perhaps it was thought that the situation would be unknowable so that the best that could be done was to put in place some people with the skills which might be useful. Or perhaps, the question was simply too difficult, and the history of home and civil defence is littered with such questions which it was simpler to pass over or defer than to tackle.

Emergency laws 

The system of government being planned for post-Armageddon Britain would be almost dictatorial but despite this there was a constant concern amongst the planners that the rule of law should be maintained whatever happened. It would be a dictatorship but a legal, legitimate one. This would mean bringing in emergency laws, as was done extensively in the last world war, to legitimise the government’s need to take more, and often, drastic powers. Throughout the Cold War various Emergency Powers (Defence) Bills and supporting Regulations were drafted ready to be rushed through Parliament to give the War Cabinet at the CGWHQ and the Regional Commissioners almost unlimited legal powers. The law supporting the actions of ministers and Commissioners, whilst being legitimate and constitutional, having been enacted by the emergency legislation passed by Parliament or at the least given constitutional approval by being made under the Royal Prerogative (exercised, in practice, as usual by ministers rather than the Sovereign) would be, by any definition, draconian and far from the normal concept of democracy.

It should perhaps be mentioned in passing that whilst the embunkered rulers would have unfettered legal powers to do as they thought necessary this would be very different from having the physical power to enforce their decisions given the expected breakdown of the norms of society and the difficulties of maintaining law and order in a world where everything had changed over night and most people would be looking at a very bleak future – if they saw any future at all.

The Defence (Machinery of Government) Regulations would be made under the authority of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. This would be rushed through Parliament in the days leading up to war to legitimise the system of Regional Government under which Regional Commissioners could be appointed to regions and assume all the powers and functions of any government minister. The Regional Commissioners could also use any of the Crown’s prerogative powers and, if necessary, make any law by an obscure constitutional device known as an ordinance. In effect, this would allow a Regional Commissioner to do anything as long as it had not been specifically “reserved for the centre”.

These regulations did not however provide for central government in the changed circumstances following a nuclear attack which might include the loss of the pre-war Prime Minister and Cabinet so the Defence (Machinery of Government) (No 2) Regulations were drafted in 1963. These allowed that in war “any three or more authorised Ministers acting together shall have the power, so far as it appears to them necessary to –

a) Exercise any power vested in Her Majesty (including the power to appoint Ministers) …

b) To give directions to any Regional Commissioner…

c) To arrange for a person to perform the functions of any Minister or government department

d) To make ordinance laws over any matter.”

The first page of the draft Defence Regulations for the new government (National Archives)

These Regulations would allow a group of ministers at the CGWHQ or any reserve to effectively, if necessary, set up a new central government and jointly act as Prime Minister or appoint a new Prime Minister. But the civil servants drafting the regulations did express their concerns that this might give rise to problems in determining which 3 ministers would form this supreme tribunal or indeed if ministers were found at 2 different sites which group would be supreme.

The plan envisaged and laid down in the Government War Book was that the Bill and Regulations would go through Parliament in a day or so, as had happened at the start of the last war. But it emerged in various exercises that this might not be possible. Although the Bill and the Regulations had been drafted in advance it would be left to the decision of the Government on the day to decide whether or not to pass them into law. Once the drafts had been finalised they could be placed before Parliament but only if it were sitting at the time. Then there might be problems in arranging for it to be signed by the Privy Council on behalf of the Sovereign and then there would certainly be delays in printing and distributing the final laws. To get round this, it was frequently suggested that the laws could be finalised and even put onto the statute book in advance but this was always seen to be too problematical. Once the laws had been passed there would be a Proclamation, presumably broadcast on the radio, announcing that the government had moved from London to the CGWHQ (although obviously no locations would be given) and that ministers there were now in control. The assumption of power by the Regional Commissioners and their names and the extent of their powers would also be announced.

As a briefing note introducing one draft said “This would, of course, amount to a totalitarian regime; and although, in the circumstances of a nuclear attack, such an arrangement would be inevitable there are obvious objections to it becoming known that the Government contemplate so absolute a departure from normal constitutional procedures…” The proposed emergency legislation was therefore never made public.

The Internal Organisation of the CGWHQ 

A tea trolley, vital for civil servants ‘whatever the circumstances’. (Steve Fox)

From the outset the intention was that once it was fully operational the staff of the CGWHQ would work as what was termed a ‘command post’ operating as a single unit rather than a collection of independent departments all reporting to their own ministers and permanent secretaries as was the case in normal peacetime government. However, whilst the CGWHQ was actually being built little real thought was given to how it would actually work on a day-to-day basis. In mid-1961 along with the general increase in the pace of planning further thought was given to the practical aspects of the way the headquarters would work at the highest level. The ideas were recognised as tentative and the Prime Minister had instructed that it would be undesirable to make elaborate plans in advance as the CGWHQ would be operating in a very different world with a fundamentally different structure than the one the civil servants had grown up with, and from an untested site. Things might be changed at the time but the working assumptions for the top levels of the decision making organisation was –

  1. Following the model successfully used during both world wars it was assumed that a War Cabinet would be established consisting of the Prime Minister and 5 other ministers acting as “the ultimate source of authority” with the Chiefs of Staff and others in attendance as necessary. The War Cabinet Organisation would include the Secretary of the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of the Defence Staff, and would provide a combined military/civil secretariat supporting the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff. The Prime Minister would probably take over the duties of Minister of Defence. The Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary would probably also be in the War Cabinet but the Prime Minister might appoint other members on the basis of seniority and experience rather than their (former) departmental roles. This structure meant that operationally, below the War Cabinet the work would be divided into broadly two areas. The overseas sections would consider foreign affairs and anything to do with the war whilst the home defence sections would concentrate on the domestic situation.
  2. Some documents suggest there would have been a Home Defence Committee responsible for co-ordinating military and civil agencies of government on matters affecting the conduct of the war.
  3. Beneath the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff Committee would function in more or less its normal way in dealing with purely military matters. Below the Chiefs of Staff Committee would be the UK Commanders in Chiefs (UKCICC). It should be noted that the Chiefs of Staff would have been particularly busy as they were pencilled in to attend meetings of the War Cabinet and the Home Defence Committee as well as their own Chiefs of Staff Committee.
  4. The home defence block would be under the immediate supervision of the Home Defence (Official) Committee formed from civil servants and military personnel and with its own secretariat. This committee would have day-to-day executive functions in the battle for survival and would probably work on much the same lines as the peacetime Official Committee on Emergencies. Its terms of reference would be –
    1. to co-ordinate the work of the civil and military organs of government and of the state corporations, private industry, etc on the home front
    2. to give decisions on such work in accordance with delegated authority or within the framework of official policy
    3. to submit other questions for decision by the War Cabinet

This committee structure shows the idea of a command post with decisions being made by multi-departmental teams rather than by individual government departments making decisions under the authority of their Minister.

The main Cabinet map room with meeting room behind the glass on the right.

The military elements supporting the War Cabinet were the Joint Intelligence Committee and its staff, the staff of the Chief of the Defence Staff and a Map Room staff. The Map Room would collect and analyse all the available information about the situation of the country to support the decision-making committees. It would be the core of the Cabinet War Room within the nucleus of central government and the more important decisions would come from it. The main Map Rooms were built so that they could be looked down into from an adjoining conference or meeting room through large windows.

The role each due functioning department would play was reconsidered several times together with the numbers required to carry it out, usually with the aim of trying to reduce numbers. By 1961 the roles were becoming established and for a cross section of departments can be summarised as follows –

Foreign Office

To act as a channel of communication with allied and neutral governments. Provide information for the Cabinet about developments in other parts of the world, etc.

Scottish Office

To assist Scottish Ministers and keep in touch with general government policy. Central control of civil defence operations in Scotland.

Ministry of Housing and Local Government

Concerned with the major questions of policy on evacuation, maintenance of water and sewerage, plant, first aid, repairs, care of the homeless, disposal of the dead, demolition and clearance of debris. Maintenance generally of local government.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Restoration of effective national control of procurement and distribution of food supplies. Obtaining food supplies from overseas would have been one of the most important functions of the CGWHQ and one which would be reflected it its organisation and that of its successor. From the mid-1950s the Foreign Office had considered approaching Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA to discuss post-attack food deliveries but although the 1962 Government War Book provided for the setting up of machinery to obtain food from abroad in reality little actual planning was done really because it was too difficult. At the same time, it was accepted that the food would have to be paid for although it was sometimes hoped that the Commonwealth countries at least would extend credit if not actual charity. To assist with obtaining food (and also to control British forces overseas if contact with UK was lost) the High Commissions and embassies were grouped on a regional basis. Generally speaking the UK’s war plans were not discussed with the Commonwealth countries, nor, except on as limited a basis as possible, as part of NATO planning with our allies. It can be added that there were no plans to repatriate embassy staff from enemy countries and the diplomatic posts were told that in the event of a war the staff were to destroy documents and try to avoid capture.

Ministry of Works

The movement on a national basis of heavy construction plant. Advice on location of stores up and down the country. Assistance in reassembly of the government machine.

Post Office

To maintain telecommunications with the rest of the country and with countries overseas. Maintain essential long distance circuits and associated installations required by the fighting services. Support the Co-ordinator of Radio Plans (War).

Armed Forces

The actual role of the military at the CGWHQ was considered on several occasions since the earliest studies. In1961 the Chiefs of Staff Committee set up the Emergency Government War Headquarters Inter-Services Committee with the delightful acronym of EGWHISC (try saying it out loud) to review the Chiefs of Staff organisation at CGWHQ and the roles and functions of the staffs of the 3 services and to try to co-ordinate all the matters involving the services. At this time it was thought that the role of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chiefs of Staff in supporting the War Cabinet would be to –

      • Provide military advice to the government about aid to the civil power
      • Give broad general direction to the UK Commanders in Chief committee (UK CICC)
      • Provide military advice to the government about worldwide operations
      • Give operational guidance to commanders overseas
      • Provide advice to the government on the military aspects of planning for reconstruction

Canteen space in Area 12 with furniture put out by the mines staff. Note pallets of stationery in the background. (Dom Jackson)

The Chiefs of Staff would give strategic direction to overseas commanders but this would be severely restricted by lack of information and communications, and in any case most of UK forces would be operating under NATO rather than national command. They would however retain control of any remaining nuclear forces.

Kitchen equipment in Area 12. (Nick Catford)

UKCICC would take over responsibility for all British forces in the UK post-attack, excluding those retained by the Chiefs of Staff Committee for active military operations, including defence against invasion (although it was assumed that invasion was unlikely on the unmentioned basis that post-nuclear strike there would be nothing left worth invading). Its basic role was to assume responsibility for implementing inter-service plans for home defence in the UK including service assistance to civil authorities. Within this structure the Commander in Chief UK Land Forces would exercise operational and administrative command over all UK based armed forces and the land defence of the UK, and give military support to the civilian authorities particularly in the field of maintaining law and order. This was seen as the military’s main role post-attack. Under him would be the Royal Navy’s CinC Home Station and the RAF’s Commander Home Defence Forces. The Regional Commissioners would be authorised to “control” any unallocated armed forces in his region but there was to be a restriction in that this meant they could only allocate tasks to the military. The actual conduct of operations – command – would be retained within the military command structure.

But as late as 1963 reports were still saying that the military functions of TURNSTILE as a whole had not been fully defined although they were assumed to be –

  1. the provision of military advice to the government
  2. the conduct of military operations worldwide, including nuclear retaliation
  3. provision of military support to civil authorities in the UK
  4. defence of the UK against external threat

Operational efficiency 

One factor which was hardly considered by the planners was that of basic operational efficiency – how would the CGWHQ actually function on an hour to hour basis. The concept envisaged a complete civil and military central headquarters with several thousand people, a major but untried communications system and all their domestic accommodation and facilities being set up from scratch in a matter of days. No training was allowed at the site and this lead the Ministry of Defence to suggest that a dummy site should be set up for the purpose but this was turned down. A 1962 report by the Chief of Staffs Committee aimed “to draw attention again to the limitations of the site as an operational headquarters in war” pointing out that it would take up to 4 weeks to install and work up the communications required by the armed forces. The report suggested that the concept was fundamentally flawed because –

  1. “There may be little or no warning of a Soviet attack in which to declare a Precautionary Period and man and prepare the site
  2. Making the communications systems operational will take longer than presently likely to be available”
  3. It is vulnerable to destruction by a chance near-miss
  4. There will always be the risk of CGWHQ being compromised and destroyed
  5. The needs of security to avoid d. on present plans does not appear to be reconcilable with the present requirements for early manning and activation of communications.”

However despite these flaws the plan suggested there was no viable alternative and the flaws could be overcome.

The War Cabinet organisation 

The War Cabinet was the central decision making body and source of authority in the CGWHQ. It included Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff together with their intelligence and support staffs as shown in the diagram below –

War Cabinet Organisation
1. Prime Minister and War Cabinet
a. Prime Minister 1
Secretaries and personal staff 8
b. Other Ministers of War Cabinet rank 5
Personal staff 10
2. Chief of the Defence Staff and staff
Chief of the Defence Staff 1
Staff officers 4
Support 7
3. Civil Secretariat
Cabinet Secretary 1
Support 7
4. Military Secretariat (Chief of Staff Secretariat) 13
5. Ministry of Defence
a. Deputy Secretary and support 5
b. Directorate of Forward plans 2
c. Chief Scientific Adviser 2
d. Co-ordinator communication policy 2
e. British Joint Communications Electronics Board 11
f. London Communications Security Agency 2
6. Joint Planning Staff 9
7. Joint Intelligence Staff
a. Secretariat 6
b. Senior representatives 8
c. Intelligence staffs 42
8. Combined registry and committee and distribution sections 18
9. War Cabinet signal registry 16
10. Typing pools 15
11. Prime Minister’s Map Room
   a. Captain RN 1
   b. Admiralty component 10
   c. War Office component 11
   d. Air Ministry component 10
Total 227

The War Cabinet organisation was the operational heart of the CGWHQ, it was therefore located in the heart of the site in Area 14.

Room allocations in Area 14

Room layout of Area 14 (note – on this plan east is at the top)

1 Telephone delivery room 38 Civil secretariat, staff officers B
2 War cabinet minister’s staff 39 Chief of Def Staff personal staff B
3 War cabinet minister A 40 Deputy Chief of Staff A
4 War cabinet minister’s staff B 41 Secretariat, staff officers
5 War cabinet minister A 42 Chief of the Defence Staff A
6 War cabinet minister A 43 Staff officer B
7 War cabinet minister’s staff B 44 Map room
8 War cabinet minister A 45 Cab Office conference room & waiting room
9 War cabinet minister’s staff B 46 Deputy/Under Sec Cabinet Secretariat (civil) A
10 War cabinet minister A 47 Secretary/Deputy Secretary Cab Secretariat (Mil) A
11 War cabinet minister’s staff 48 Cab Office Conference Room & waiting room
12 Ministerial conference room 49 Map room staff
13 Ministerial conference room 50 Officer in charge map room
14 Typing section 51 Map room staff
15 Typing pool of 10 52 Draughtsmen & clerical staff map room
16 Registry and distribution staff 53 War Cabinet signal registry
17 Director, LCSA 54 Joint Intelligence Committee director’s bedroom D
18 Deputy Director, BJCEB A 55 MI5 & MI6 representatives
19 Co-ordinator C-E policy A 56 Joint Intelligence Committee
20 BJCEB 57 JIB representatives
21 MI6 communications staff 58 Director GCHQ & GCHQ
22 MoD Director of Forward Plans 59 Senior service representatives
23 Minister A 60 Planning staff
24 MoD support staff 61 Intelligence staff
25 BJCEB support staff 62 Private secretary’s bedroom
26 MoD Chief Scientific Officer 63 War Cab secretariat staff
27 Chiefs of Staff conference room 64 JIC sleeping accommodation
28 War Cab secretariat conf room 65 MoD sleeping accommodation
29 Under Secretary, MoD A 66 Minister A
30 Deputy Secretary MOD A 67 Minister A
31 Clerical staff B 68 Minister A
32 Clerical staff, Chief of Staff Org. 69 Minister A
33 Private secretaries 70 Joint Planning Staff Assistant Sec
34 Prime Minister’s office 71 Joint planning staff clerical
35 Prime Minister’s bedroom 72 CIA liaison
36 Cabinet Secretary A 73 Foreign office monitors
37 Private Sec to Cabinet Secretary 74 GCHQ communicators

(B=office, D=bedroom, A=combined office/bedroom. LCSA = London Communications Security Agency, BJCEB = British Joint Communications Electronics Board).

Staffing the CGWHQ

A nominal maximum figure of 4000 was imposed for the CGWHQ at a very early stage probably on the basis of the perceived physical capacity of the site and the planning teams constantly battled to keep the demands of the various users down to this total. The 4000 were not all to be decision makers. There would be many administrators and common service staff as well as people running the “hotel”. And a quarter of the total would be needed to run the massive communications network.

Conference / Map room – Area 10, note raised viewing area – through windows to rear. (Steve Fox).

Sewing machine demonstrating the extent of the equipment held. (Nick Catford).

Part of the workshop area in Area showing the Metal Workshops. (Steve Fox).

An early paper on staffing from 1958 gives the following functional breakdown of part of the then planned staff of 4046 –

War cabinet organisation 228
Home defence organisation 278
Overseas liaison and diplomatic organisation 172
Signals organisation 1040
Service and supply departments 317
Due functioning departments 757
Other departments 146
Common services 588
Common services would run the “hotel” side of the CGWHQ and included –
   Camp commandant 3
   Housekeeper 3
   Catering and canteen 244
   Medical 41
   Sanitation, cleaning and laundry 75
   Security 12
   House engineer and fire precautions 150

Included in the contingent from the Lord President’s Office would be a “scientific high command” consisting of 6 “individual scientists of outstanding ability selected for their imagination and versatility who might be helpful in dealing with unexpected problems”.

In 1962 the planned staff totalled 3780. The main groups were –

1. War Cabinet Organisation

Consisting of 211 people, this would be the hub of the nucleus and would be physically based at its centre. There would be 24 in the Prime Minister’s office supported by their direct advisers, Map Room and support staff. Accommodation was provided for 18 ministers but not all of these would be part of the War Cabinet organisation.

2. Home Defence Secretariat.

This unit of 103 people would also be at the heart of the HQ responsible for monitoring and directing the ‘battle for survival’ on the home front.

3. The Establishment Officers Branch.

With 60 people this branch would be responsible for much of the internal running of the HQ

4. Armed Forces.

These would form a significant proportion of the operational staff. It would have 626 people drawn from the Admiralty (124), the War Office (172), the Air Ministry (126) and UK Land Forces (204)

5. Departmental Contingents.

These were drawn from most of the departments and ministries of the government and the size of the contingent of each one reflected its importance in the battle for survival. The largest, with 208 staff, came from the Ministry of Power although 84 of these were part of the NATO wartime oil organisation. The Ministry of Transport was also well represented with most of its contingent being concerned with shipping reflecting the importance of seaborne imports particularly of food and oil post-attack. The Post Office supplied 154 (excluding those GPO staff manning the communications systems) and the Ministry of Agriculture 80. The ‘cold storage’ departments who had no immediate role in the survival period such as the Treasury and the Inland Revenue had only nominal numbers of staff.

6. Signals Organisation.

Essentially, the CGWHQ was a massive communications centre and the signals organisation was the largest group in the headquarters with 1219 members. The armed forces would each supply a significant number of operators for their own communications centres as would the Foreign Office but 584 of these people would come from the Post Office mainly to operate the telephone and telegraph networks. There is an interesting possibility that the Foreign Office signal operations would have been served by an unusual all female voluntary organisation known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or FANY.

7. Common User Staff

These 409 people would be provided by UK Land Forces and would provide the domestic services such as catering and medical.

8. Guard Company.

This unit of 103 soldiers would also be found by UK Land Forces. Rather oddly, these troops would not be quartered underground but in the huts on the site which had been used to store the food stocks before these was transferred underground.

9. Site Maintenance Staff.

The Ministry of Public Building and Works would find 53 people who would be responsible for the maintenance of the fabric of the HQ together with all its electrical and mechanical plant, air conditioning systems, sewage works, etc.

The original plan envisaged rooms being found for 15 Ambassadors (including the Ambassador of the Irish Republic) and 8 High Commissioners but by 1961 they, like representatives from the Trades Union Congress and the British Employers’ Confederation were no longer on some lists although one mentions spaces for 33 ambassadors. The 1961 internal telephone directory shows rooms set aside for US and French representatives. In an interesting correspondence between the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office in 1963 the Foreign Office said we “…are currently considering whether it would not be preferable to leave the French out of the arrangements – which would then be confined to the diplomatic representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States”. But the Foreign Office ruled that, as the French had nuclear weapons, it would be better to retain contact with them. In 1964 space had been reserved for the US (6 places), France (4) and Commonwealth (12-18).

Choosing the people 

By 1958 preparations had advanced to the point where the Treasury, which had overall responsibility for planning the CGWHQ and its operations, had settled the numbers of staff and issued broad guidance to departments on their selection. The individual members of staff were to be chosen on the basis of their ability to do a job in the CGWHQ, which usually meant they were designated because they had a comparable job in peacetime. They were not volunteers and the vast majority of them were not told of their wartime designation. Although the debate about whether or not to tell people of their wartime role continued for many years it was constantly over-ruled by the need to maintain security. Even when permission was given to inform some designated RSG staff of their wartime roles those people allocated to the CGWHQ remained in ignorance.

Virtually none of the designated staff would have had any prior knowledge of their designated war role but it was implicit in all the planning that they would simply do as they were told on the day and go to Corsham without question or complaint. There is no sign in the files that the planners ever seriously considered the idea that the designated staff would not. These were days when most of the designated staff would have done National Service, would have served in the last war and were perhaps more likely to take orders that their contemporaries today. It was assumed that the more senior staff would be more likely to follow the instructions than perhaps more junior staff particularly women with families but no further thought was given. But perhaps it should have been because when, in 1961, some 40 senior people designated for positions in RSGs were told of their role a third of them said they would be unwilling to go.

One suggested solution to staff not turning up on the day was to provide a margin of staff to fill the gaps, although this would be difficult as many staff were self-selecting as a result of the job they did in peacetime. In 1961 departments were still told to nominate an extra 33% of their contingent but these people would not travel from Whitehall when the manning order was given. One suggestion made in 1961 that was not pursued was that when informed of their unexpected role the designee would be given “a printed appeal on expensive paper from the head of the civil service or even the Prime Minister”.

One concern which worried some, but not all, of the planners was the position of the families left behind. To the planners this invariably meant wives, ignoring the fact that many of the staff, particularly in the junior grades, would be female. The Memorandum of Guidance to Establishment Officers on TURNSTILE said “There will be no special arrangements for evacuating the dependents of selected staff. Consequently those with family responsibilities who wish to act outside any Government dispersal scheme will have to make such arrangements [for their families] of their own as time and circumstances permit…” But this question of families kept cropping up throughout the cold war, not just in relation to the central government nucleus but to every other level of control down to the local authorities. The usual response was that the wives and children would be included in any general evacuation scheme (although in reality as the Cold War progressed, and a general evacuation of people from the cities was steadily forgotten, this option became less and less likely). It also seems to have been assumed that staff would somehow continue to be paid during their residence at the wartime headquarters and that their salaries could be paid directly to their spouses.

Allocating roles to named people had actually started in 1957. Establishment Officers were told to select staff who would be “physically and psychologically” able to stand up to the conditions. Working conditions would be “austere and crowded” and “there is no room for passengers”. No one with a poor sick record, physical handicaps or claustrophobia should be considered and “adaptability, team spirit and steady temperament are necessary as well as physical fitness”. A later brief from 1959 said of the health of the designated staff “In view of the conditions at the headquarters persons in poor health, particularly those suffering from respiratory ailments and physical handicaps likely to cause difficulties in getting to the headquarters or in getting about when there, those needing a special diet and people known or thought to suffer from claustrophobia should not be selected”. Another version of the guidance from 1962 said “Conditions will be crowded and austere and staff of all grades may have to perform unfamiliar and possibly uncongenial tasks under great stress. Steady temperament, adaptability and team spirit are the qualities needed”. Physical fitness was included as a condition in the 1959 brief but was not mentioned in the 1962 version.

Shower block. (Nick Catford).

As the designated staff were not told of their potential war role they could not be trained for it. This meant not just training for a specific job such as a map room plotter but also for any general understanding of the effects of nuclear weapons, the post-nuclear world and the control organisation of which the CGWHQ was only the top tier. Although it was assumed that many of the staff, particularly the more senior ones, would be doing similar jobs to those they did in peace many of the more junior staff would not be and would be working in unfamiliar roles or with unfamiliar equipment. It was frequently suggested that all staff involved in home defence should be given some basic training eg on the effects of nuclear explosions, the scale of the expected damage, the home defence control structure etc but this would have meant implying that the trainees would have a wartime role and bring some very unwanted publicity to the whole home defence organisation. Consequently, although exercises like Fallex62, a national home defence exercise held in 1962, invariably found that lack of training was a problem it was decided, essentially for security reasons not to give any. One suggestion for the CGWHQ staff was that the headquarters would not be able to really do anything for a couple of weeks after the attack until things settled down and organisations like the RSGs could start sending in situation reports. The staff could then be trained or train themselves during this time. Eventually, by 1964 once it had been accepted that senior staff for the RSGs could be told of their wartime appointment and so receive some training, it was decided that some CGWHQ staff could receive training. However, this would be restricted to only 100 people and, to avoid revealing the existence of the CGWHQ they would be told that they were being trained as a general reserve for the RSGs. In practice, it is doubtful if any training was ever given.

This lack of training or even awareness of what World War 3 might be like and what could or should be done after it was a major weakness in the planning for the CGWHQ which tended to concentrate on the infrastructure of the site and then making paper plans. Nothing was ever tested. Would the 4000 or so designated staff actually be able to get to the CGWHQ? Who knew how the lifts at the site worked, how food would be delivered, menus prepared and served? Would the designated communications staff know how the equipment actually worked assuming it was wired in and powered up on the day? Would the staff eg from MAFF know who was outside for them to give instructions to or receive information from? The proverbial devil is always in the detail and there is no sign in the released documents that the details was actually planned for let alone tested and trained for.

The Area 9 Hospital Sluice Room. (Nick Catford)

During early planning for World War 2 extensive plans had been made to evacuate the general civil service from London but this was not to be repeated for World War 3. By the late 1950s the plan had been drawn up saying that there would be no general evacuation for civil servants beyond those going to “specific war stations for essential duties post-attack essential to national survival”. But the balance of the civil service would be expected to follow the instructions given to the general population which was to stay put and carry on with their work for as long as possible. After the nuclear attack they should report to the nearest office of their own department or to an office of the Ministry of Labour to provide general staff to reinforce the regional administrations.


In 1961 senior officials started to think about the roles to be allocated to Ministers in a war emergency and to divide the ministers between those who would be needed in London during the Precautionary Period, those who would be sent to the CGWHQ and those who would be sent to the regions to act as Regional Commissioners and their supporting Ministers. Although it was usually stated in documents at the time that these appointments would be made on the day lists were drawn up and approved by the Prime Minister in advance although the Ministers themselves were not told of their designated role.

Potato chipping machine, Area 12. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

Hobart dishwasher and waste disposal unit. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH).

Two ‘Deep fat fryers’ in Area 12. (©Bennett/MOD/EH)

In August 1962 the Ministers who would stay in London would be –

    • Prime Minister
    • Home Secretary
    • Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
    • Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and Colonies
    • Minister of Defence (in practice it was planned that once war had broken out the Prime Minister would assume the role of Minister of Defence)
    • Minister Without Portfolio
    • Chief Secretary to the Treasury
    • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (as Leader of the House (of Commons) he was assumed to stay with Parliament)
    • Secretary of State for Air
    • Minister of State at the Board of Trade
    • The Lord Chancellor
    • The Attorney General

Those Ministers who would go immediately to BURLINGTON would be –

    • Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State
    • Chancellor of the Exchequer
    • The Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food
    • Minister of Health
    • First Lord of the Admiralty
    • Minister of State, Home Office
    • Minister of State, Foreign Office
    • Minister of State, Scottish Office
    • Minister of State, Colonial Office
    • The Solicitor General

The more junior ministers destined for the CGWHQ would travel with the rest of the staff but even while BURLINGTON was being manned the Prime Minister would be expected to remain in Downing Street at the centre of an established support and communications system until all hope of averting war had gone. He and a few chosen senior people might then make a last minute dash for Corsham by helicopter as part of Operation Visitation which was discussed earlier. The composition of the Prime Minister’s helicopter Party was fixed at 25 –

    • Prime Minister and 2 personal staff officers
    • The 12 most senior ministers who had remained in London
    • The Chief of the Defence Staff and the 3 Chiefs of Staff
    • The Secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee
    • The remaining 4 places would be filled at the last moment.

The decisions about ministerial roles was apparently initially done without considering the actual number of ministers available. In fact, so many ministerial roles were created that there would not be enough people available to provide Regional and Deputy Regional Commissioners for the RSGs and Sub-Regional Commissioners. This lead to suggestions that people other than active ministers such as Privy Counsellors and even members of the opposition parties might be appointed to these roles.

Transport to the CGWHQ 

Getting the 4000 staff to the relocation site quickly, secretly and in an organised manner would be a major undertaking. The basic plan from the early days was that the site would be manned in the Precautionary Period as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. The staff would establish themselves and then wait for the Prime Minister’s party to arrive in the last moments of peace. Their arrival would effectively signal the transfer of power from Whitehall to Corsham.

Although outline plans had existed for a couple of years formal interim operational orders for manning STOCKWELL were issued in November 1960. These were followed a year later by more definitive ones. These manning orders said that once the order, taken from the Government War Book, had been given the Cabinet Office would set up the Burlington Control Unit to handle the manning of BURLINGTON. At the same time the departmental Establishment Officers would give the designated members of staff the “First Information Slip’ which told them for the first time that they had been chosen for war role.

Copy of page one of the ‘First Information Slip’ (National Archives/Steve Fox)

The First Information Slip was addressed personally and started “Detailed plans made to meet the present emergency involve the movement of certain staff from this department. You are one of a number of key personnel selected for duty at an important war-time headquarters for the department. So far as anyone can say at the moment you may be there for about one month”. It went on to say that “You should now return home, pick up the personal effects you wish to take with you, make whatever pay arrangements you wish (…) and return immediately to this office informing the Establishment Officer of your return”. They were told “… not to reveal to anyone beyond your immediate family that you are going to the headquarters…” Baggage would be restricted to one suitcase and they were specifically told not to bring a radio or a camera but “clothing may be informal”. They were advised to take some pocket money and to draw an advance on salary. Mail could be sent to them via a specially allocated army postal address (BFPO 4000) but “Facilities for entertainment will be limited. It is therefore suggested that you take a book or so with you”. Staff would also be able to draw some cash whilst at the CGWHQ and later plans would be drawn up to ensure that £20,000 in cash could be drawn from a local bank to provide for this. The money would, in theory at least, be used to purchase sundry items provided by the NAAFI.

On their return to their office the Establishment Officer would give the designated staff a very general briefing. They might then have to sleep in their offices until the final order to move was given. When it was they would be given the “Second Information Slip” saying “The order to man these headquarters has now been given and you will follow the instructions given to you by your Establishment Officer”. This second letter gave them little more detail than the first one and neither of the information slips gave any indication of where they were going or what their role would be when they arrived. In 1961 passes were printed and distributed in wax sealed envelopes to Establishment Officers to be held in a “container suitable for Top Secret material”.

The early interim manning scheme envisaged a fleet of 200 coaches ferrying the staff from London. To preserve secrecy the coaches would drive to a check point several miles from the CGWHQ and then return empty. Fifty other coaches would then ferry the staff to the site itself. These would be backed up by the use of some private cars although this option seems to have been discarded early on in the planning process.

Kensington Olympia station in the 1950s. (JL Smith)

By 1961 responsibility for the move had been taken over by the War Office from the Ministry of Transport and the transport plan had been simplified. Now the London based departments would be responsible for organising the transport of their contingents to Kensington (Olympia) railway station near Earls Court in west London from pick up points at places such as Horseguards Avenue, the South Rotunda and Dollis Hill. At the station, and under the direction of the army, they would assemble in the goods shed ready to board main line trains which would join the mainline west at Clapham Junction. The first trains were expected to be ready within 2 to 6 hours of the order to man, thereafter 6 or 7 trains would be needed leaving at 2 hourly intervals. In 1961, when the total staff figure was about 4100 it was expected that 2706 of the staff would come from London and a further 406 from elsewhere. These figures excluded the guard company and the military personnel involved with the common services. A ‘second station’ is mentioned in one report which would be ‘in the provinces’ and would serve staff working at ‘out stations’ i.e. not in central London. This was possibly in Bristol. The trains would take staff to ‘Check Point’ from where they would be taken to the main site. However, even had all these plans worked like clockwork there would still have been delays, for example, if the manning order were given at night or at a weekend. Manning the site was never rehearsed and hardly anyone knew the details. So actually getting the people underground on arrival at Corsham using the available lifts and escalator could have been chaotic. Once underground, they would face the problems of finding their working and sleeping places in an untested and hastily prepared site. Once at CGWHQ the staff would be isolated. They would not be allowed above ground nor to communicate with their families.

The first page of the draft House Rules (National Archives/Steve Fox)

The House Rules drafted in 1964 give some further insight into life in the headquarters. Security was stressed and the identity card had to be carried at all times. People had to remain below ground unless they had specific permission to leave and they could not visit other departments (the individual working Areas were largely isolated with very few entrance doors from the roadways). Private telephone calls could not be made under any circumstances. Shifts, where appropriate, would be from 0500 to 1300, 1300 to 2100 and 2100 to 0500. Breakfast would be served from 0400 to 0600, lunch from 1200 to 1400 and supper from 2000 to 2200. Tea would be served to anyone at 0100, 0900 and 1700 principally from “tea points” in the canteens but also from tea trolleys. There would be a shop “open for the sale of toilet requisites, cigarettes and other goods”. No laundry would be available for private clothing which would have to be washed by the individual in the basins in the wash rooms. Sheets and pillow cases would be laundered centrally.

In 1962 as part of the major NATO Exercise FALLEX-62 Britain held a local transition to war exercise known as Exercise Felstead which considered some of the problems associated with manning the CGWHQ. For security reasons the BURLINGTON site was not used. Instead, the old Central Government War Room in the Rotunda was pressed into service and it was partially refitted for the purpose. The exercise found that if the managers in Departments and Ministries did not know which of their staff had been designated for the CGWHQ they might have problems when those people suddenly left for Corsham. More interestingly, the Ministry of Education which did not have a big role in the exercise considered the effects on the staff directly concerned. Their report suggested that there might be objections from some of the staff when they were simply told without any prior warning to prepare to go to their “war station”, others would demand more information and some would no doubt simply refuse to go. The report pointed out that there was no advice on what to do with such defaulters. Should they be immediately disciplined (eg suspended from duty), be dealt with later or simply be ignored? Exercise Felstead also envisaged a 4 day period between the designated staff being given the first information slip telling them to prepare themselves and return to their office and actually being dispatched. This gap was thought to be too long especially as it would cause problems given the poor domestic facilities in those offices.

Check Point 

The Planning Team decided quite early that everything and everyone that was destined for the CGWHQ would first pass through an outer site which came to be known simply as Check Point. The idea of Check Point was to protect the secrecy of the headquarters site and to avoid any congestion occurring there. Everyone detailed for the headquarters whether they arrived by train, helicopter or private car would report to Check Point and then be taken onwards in an army lorry. Check Point was also used as an assembly point for the army units with roles at the headquarters and for receiving supplies. Security would be strictly enforced and anyone turning up without the correct identification would be “held and discretely guarded”. It was expected that all the staff would pass through Check Point in a matter of hours.

Part of the double-fronted Tea-Bar in Area 12. (Dom Jackson)

Check Point would play a vital if low key role in the operation of the war headquarters and its location was treated with the same degree of secrecy as the headquarters itself. However, War Office records show that it would have been at Warminster some 10 miles south of the main site. On the receipt of the code word, which in the early 1960s was CARONIA, the Garrison Commander at Warminster would arrange for Check Point to be manned. The comprehensive Top Secret manning instructions said that as part of the manning process for the CGWHQ 7 trains from London would arrive at Warminster station (‘Check Point Station’) at 2 hourly intervals. From there a fleet of 22 army coaches, driven by civilian drivers, would take the staff and their luggage to the cinema block of the School of Infantry which was based in the town and which would be designated as Check Point. As the headquarters staff arrived they would be given a ‘stew meal’ from a field kitchen. Once the code word DETONATOR was received Check Point would start moving the staff, irrespective of rank or status, to the headquarters in a fleet of 3-ton army lorries. For security purposes the route would not be sign posted but would be patrolled by a section from 158 Provost Company, Royal Military Police (less it horses – it was a mounted police unit).

The Mobilisation Instructions drawn up in 1961 for the HQ Warminster Garrison, which would be formed in war from the School of Infantry show that this headquarters based at Warminster would have a bigger role than that of acting as a staging post for the staff of the CGWHQ. The garrison would set up TMC S30 (Temporary Mobilisation Centre) to mobilise the GHQ of UK Land Forces which would remain at Warminster and provide common user staff “for administration at Tactical GHQ [of UK Land Forces] and an associated HQ to be set up elsewhere”. The CGWHQ was, even in these secret mobilisation instructions, not mentioned although they said that TMC S30 would also establish and administer Check Point through which all the personnel and stores for the Tactical GHQ and its associated HQ will pass adding that “The code word for the location of the Tactical HQ and its associated HQ is BURLINGTON”.

TMC S30 would be responsible for the reception and mobilisation of the various units which will move to an “undisclosed location” at any early stage with 4000 passing through, of whom some 3500 would arrive by train, and afterwards act as the administration echelon from the outside world to Burlington.

Coffee machines (supplied by ‘Stotts of Oldham’) in the Area 12 Tea-Bar. (Dom Jackson)

The centre would liaise with the Garrison HQ for the provision of stores, rations (including NAAFI supplies), etc required by the Camp Commandant, Burlington. Once Burlington was manned the Officer Commanding, Check Point would place demands for 4000 rations per day with the Garrison HQ then TMC S30 would draw 6400 rations daily from the Central Command Depot at Bulford on Salisbury Plain 4000 of which will be required for a “refugee commitment”.

The Royal Army Service Corps were tasked with providing 60 3-ton trucks to convey the initial stores and personnel to Burlington and then, presumably, to ferry the daily food supplies from Bulford. This would be a round trip of some 90 miles. The mobilisation instructions also say that helicopters and light aircraft could land on the cricket pitch at Warminster Garrison.

The responsibility for manning and preparation of the site rested with the Camp Commandant (Designate). The first person to hold this post was Lt Col Hugh Gregory. He took on the task in 1963 and finally relinquished it 20 years later when he was 69. He had semi-retired when he took on the post and continued to be responsible for its maintenance and in particular the supplies of food and materials working, to preserve secrecy, from his own home. In the event of war he would have been recalled to the colours to take up his active post.


Above all, the CGWHQ site had to be a major communications centre. It was equipped and stocked to function for up to 30 days completely divorced from the surface and so without extensive, survivable communications to points throughout Britain and the wider world the CGWHQ would be deaf, dumb and blind. The communications would probably then allow, if not require, the site to be used as the government’s main communications centre throughout the survival period and into the reconstruction period beyond. The scale of the communications planned and finally installed at the relocation site was in every sense gigantic and within Britain was only matched for size by the systems installed in and around Whitehall. The telegraph centre alone was 5 times larger than any other centre in the UK. The Post Office’s communications installation even merited its own codename of “Woodlands”.

GPO converter and equipment Area 8. (Dom Jackson)

GPO Telephones and their signage (©Bennett/MOD/EH)

Telephone frames in Area 8. (Nick Catford).

At the start of the planning process it was decided that the various communications systems would not be installed until the building work had been completed but a dedicated Communications Working Party was set up at the outset to plan the installations.

Over the years several committees would meet to consider the communications equipment and procedures including the Emergency Government War Headquarters Inter Services Committee, or EGWHISC, which was set up rather late in August 1961 mainly to consider the overall military services communications requirement.

The main means of communication with the outside world would be by telegraph by which typed messages could be sent and received along a cable. When received the message could be printed onto a paper copy or imprinted onto a paper strip where the individual letters were represented by a series of holes or perforations. This paper strip could itself either be fed into a printer or into another transmitter to be sent onto another station. But the capacity of the system was limited and the transmission times were slow. The telegraph capacity would be supplemented by standard telephone facilities.

The telephone and telegraph circuits were either carried on dedicated point-to-point private wires which were routed away from potential target areas or on cheaper rented GPO trunk lines, although these were more vulnerable because they were routed through major cities which might be targeted. The circuits would mainly go through RAF switching centres particularly the major switching centre in South West Control situated a few hundred yards to the north of the CGWHQ site which would give connections to the various military networks as well as to the public trunk network. Additionally, many domestic lines would also be available through up to 11 GPO exchanges. Both line-based systems were vulnerable in that the lines themselves could be destroyed and the exchanges and their associated repeater stations put out of action. But despite the concerns a study concluded that overall the GPO networks were flexible and versatile and between a third and a half of the circuits would survive an attack.

Woodland’s main distribution frame. (©Bennett/MOD/EH)

The main GPO PMBX Operators positions in Area 8. (Nick Catford)

Directory enquiry desk.(©Bennett/MOD/EH)

As the lines were expensive to rent and carried a high staffing requirement the Planning Team were constantly fighting off demands for additional circuits. These demands were judged against a set of basic assumptions which also show how the CGWHQ was intended to function –

  1. Direct links should only be provided to outside headquarters which have to be controlled directly from the CGWHQ
  2. If control can be exercised by some means other than an independent link it should be used
  3. Circuits to provide alternative channels in the event of loss or interruption of communications with a particular headquarters should not be demanded.
  4. The minimum use of direct telephone links (i.e. private wires) and the maximum use of Post Office and other telephone networks should be made.

By 1958 the principal external communications links had been settled on as –

a. 3 telegraph and 5 telephone circuits to each Regional Headquarters.

b. For the service departments and the Ministry of Defence there would be circuits to various naval, military and air headquarters both at national and NATO levels, to switching centres on the Defence Telecommunications Network and terminals of their overseas networks. (The service departments wanted cipher equipment on all their telegraph circuits).

c. For civil departments –

i. Home Office circuits to Royal Observer Corps Sector Operations Centres.
ii. Foreign Office circuits to their communications centre and out-stations.
iii. Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation circuits to rail, air transport and port and shipping headquarters.
iv. Ministry of Power circuits to petroleum, electricity, gas and coal headquarters.
v. Ministry of Agriculture circuits to their due functioning headquarters.
vi. Central Office of Information circuits to BBC wartime headquarters and news agencies.

Communications equipment in Area 21. (Nick Catford).

In reality, most of these local and regional headquarters planned for the civil services were never actually built.

As well as the circuits within Britain dozens of connections were needed overseas to allied and commonwealth governments, British embassies, NATO centres, military headquarters, etc.  In 1958 a long-term plan was drawn up of the number of circuits needed. But as none of them would be available for several years emergency use could be made of the circuits originally installed in the wartime factory. The planned and actual number of circuits available in 1958 was –

Long term plan Available
Internal phones 1500 500
Inland phone circuits 500 22
Inland telegraph circuits 140 22
Overseas phone circuits 35 2
Overseas telegraph circuits 35 2

In total, the 1958 plan required 767 circuits which would cost £610,000 to establish and then £919,000 (some £17m in today’s money) a year to rent and maintain. This compares with the initial cost for the building work of £1.2m and total annual Home Defence budget at the time of about £20m. The costs lead to some debate in the early 1960s as the lines were being installed about how they should be paid for, which really meant which department would pay the bill. Eventually it was decided that the costs would fall on the budgets of the individual user departments but the bulk of the infrastructure related costs would be met by the Post Office as the nominal occupying department.

Cable inlets to one of the ‘lungs’ (Dom Jackson)

The telephone and telegraph cables left the site at four points via ventilation shafts and then, at the surface they ran in 24 inch deep trenches. From there the majority were carried in the Post Office’s 3 main emergency systems – the skeleton cable network of secondary carrier and co-axial cables planned to avoid major towns and city centres, the Backbone radio network and the “all underground scheme” which involved installing underground transistorised amplifiers on certain cables to replace conventional amplifiers which were normally housed in above-ground repeater stations. There would also be many last-ditch connections into the Emergency Manual Switching System of emergency manual switchboards designed to provide a last-ditch basic trunk telephone network across the country.

A dedicated spur to the GPO’s Backbone radio system was also installed and a tall lattice-work mast, which became known as Fiveways, was built for it close to the site. In fact, it seems that the mast was initially considered primarily to support the extension of television services to the West Country but by 1958 it had been decided that the mast would be complementary to the backbone radio relay scheme. The construction of the mast supported the cover story that the site was a communications facility and also provide cover for aerials that the army were considering installing locally. The radio link into the Backbone radio network was completed in 1964. There was also a standby radio system provided by the army to link to the regional headquarters.

The telephone plan required a PABX (private branch exchange) capable of taking 1600 (2000 in one document) extensions (1394 were actually listed in the 1957 plan) supported by a manual switchboard with 40 positions each with 15 cord circuits for connecting to outside wires. A separate switchboard with 14 positions each with 8 cord circuits was installed in the same room for an overseas service. In addition, forty VIP’s rooms would be given special access to 2 manual positions.

The magnificent manual switchboard was located Area 8 in the northern part of the site together with the main telegraph rooms. This area also contained a GPO repeater station, a teleprinter exchange and the internal automatic exchange. The repeater station and teleprinter exchange had a peacetime use requiring the permanent presence of GPO engineers. There would also be extensive cipher equipment. For the inland telegraph service there were about 500 teleprinters of several different types with special equipment for overseas telegraphs. The planners anticipated 1000 telegraph messages would be sent each day.

All incoming and outgoing written messages were handled in the communications centre further south in Area 21. This was subdivided into 5 operational groups because of the different ways the users handled messages –

Group 1 Cabinet Office
Group 2 Admiralty
Group 3 Air Ministry
Group 4 Foreign and Commonwealth relations
Group 5 War Office, Home Office and civil departments.

Each group was sub-divided into –

  • A message centre concerned with the incoming and outgoing messages including an office area where incoming and outgoing messages could be filed and distributed, and
  • A signals element concerned with the transmission and receiving of the actual messages and with the technical handling of the equipment including the ciphering machines.

These signals centres were grouped around a large central area used as the main combined teleprinter room. Other rooms in Area 21 serving the signals organisation included cryptographic workshops, stores, a strong room, cipher office, a room for the Chief Signals Officer, apparatus and teleprinter rooms, messengers’ lobby, tube exchange, routing room, registries and counter rooms.

Room 14 in Area 21, the War Cabinet signals group. (Nick Catford)

A Creed ” perforator no 45″ in Area 21. (Nick Catford)

Creed tape printer . in Area 21 ©M.A.  Bennett/MOD/EH

A progress report in May 1960 showed that the site was still reliant on the wartime factory’s communications facilities but the need had now been significantly reduced to –

Inland phone circuits 300
Inland telegraph circuits 225
Overseas phone circuits 37
Overseas telegraph circuits 46

In some ways the number of decision makers and administrators that could work at the CGWHQ was dictated by the available communications. The message handling systems, telephone exchanges and in particular the telegraph machines were very labour intensive, and whilst the administrators would work whatever hours were needed the communications personnel would work in three shifts which effectively tripled their numbers. The usual working figure used for the communications operators was 1024 although at one stage this was projected to rise to 1600 which lead to a reconsideration of the site’s role and the rigid imposition of the idea that it was to be a high level strategic decision making battle headquarters and not responsible for any tactical or day-to-day control. Most of these people would be peacetime telephone and telegraph operators employed either by their own departments and services in Whitehall or by the GPO.

Undulators in Area 21, for converting incoming morse signals to paper tape. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

As with furniture and stationery, most of the telephone and telex equipment was not installed in their final rooms for security purposes, and circuits were not connected. But it was estimated that, if the order to prepare the site were given on Day 3 of the Precautionary Period, 80% of the communications could be working by Day 6 although the necessary lines to Bomber Command needed for the nuclear deterrent could be made ready within 12 hours. This was more than sufficient given the limited need for communications in the early days after the attack when the main task of bringing order to the country would lie with the RSGs. However, some estimates suggested it might take up to 3 weeks to have all the communications functioning.

The BBC at the CGWHQ 

The BBC Studio Room with window to the broadcast Cubical, note: acoustic treatment on walls. Area 16. (Robin Cherry).

The BBC had been allocated places at the CGWHQ from the outset. In a post-nuclear world where people would be pinned to their houses and have no information about events in the outside world the provision of information was seen as vital and the best way to provide this was by radio broadcasts. In the late 1950s plans were made for a national broadcasting operation called the War Time Broadcasting Service or WTBS. This would be complemented by local broadcasts from the regional headquarters giving more local news and announcements about emergency feeding arrangements, etc. When the CGWHQ was being planned it was hoped the WTBS would provide a 24 hour radio programme broadcasting news, ministerial announcements and the like together with some music and light entertainment “to relieve the stress and strain”, However, it was realised that few regional broadcasting facilities existed even into the 1980s, and in the 1950s and 1960s most radios relied on mains electricity which, it was assumed, would not be available post-attack. The WTBS plans for the survival period were therefore scaled down so that the planned entertainment content would no longer be broadcast. Instead, the WTBS would only broadcast for a few minutes hourly providing information only. There was an initial suggestion that the WTBS could be run from the CGWHQ but this was quickly seen as impractical on the grounds of space and staff and the WTBS continued to be based at Wood Norton near Evesham where the BBC had originally set up emergency facilities as part of the wartime Black Move. BBC facilities were however installed in the CGWHQ with a studio and an office covering 800 sq feet. As well as allowing ministers, including the Prime Minister, to broadcast from the CGWHQ the BBC staff could advise the government on broadcasting in general.

The BBC’s secret 222 Committee laid down in 1958 that the role of the BBC staff at the CGWHQ would be –

  • The provision of facilities to enable Ministerial and other broadcasts to be made from the Seat of Central Government,
  • To provide advice and recommendations about broad policy and to give technical advice about broadcasting,
  • To communicate and liaise with the main BBC centre of broadcasting at Wood Norton and BBC representatives at the Regional Commissioner’s headquarters.

The CGWHQ had an internal public address system to broadcast messages and, apparently music, around the site which was connected to some 250 loudspeakers spread around the complex.

Original MAP Factory Public Address equipment., dated 1943 . Updated in the 1970s (at the rear of the photo). (Nick Catford).

To help pass written messages around the site and particularly to and from the communications centre a large Lamson tube system was installed with 40 individual tubes connecting to a central station. The Lamson system would reduce the need for messengers but there would still be regular “messenger runs” between the areas with 10 messengers operating to a regular timetable.

Main Lamson Message Tube exchange room. (Nick Catford).

The Lamson system Fan Chamber. (Nick Catford).

Lamson Tube Message System termini (send and receive).

A central post room would be set up in Area 15 to handle all incoming and outgoing mail which would be subject to censorship. The Forces Postal and Courier Communications Service would provide a twice-daily air courier service between the central headquarters and the civil defence regional headquarters. The staff could, in theory, send and receive letters using the dedicated BFPO number mentioned earlier, although how this would work in a bomb blasted Britain is a matter for speculation.

One report recommended that 3 helicopters should be allocated to the headquarters. Six jeeps would also be provided to carry visitors or senior officials on outside visits together with three motor cycles for dispatch riders.

… Continue to Part 3. Python and the end of the Cold War

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