Part 3. Python and the end of the Cold War

Introduction to Part 3

Part 1 of the story of the Central Government War Headquarters looked at the preparations made to preserve the central government in World War 2 and then the early development of SUBTERFUGE. The story continued into Part 2 which covered the building and operation of the unique CGWHQ at Corsham. This part carries on from the end of Part 2 and completes the story of the CGWHQ and describes the schemes to replace it.

This part was updated in March 2013.

Security and the Central Secret 

The very existence of the CGWHQ site and everything about it was classified as Top Secret. From the start, knowledge of the site and its purpose was restricted to the minimum number of people. None of the departmental planners were told the CGWHQ’s location and visiting it was forbidden. There is a heart felt comment by a Ministry of Defence planner writing in 1962 that he had no idea where the site was and no one in the Ministry had been allowed to visit it although he was making decisions about how it would be used. Eventually, the Cabinet Office relented and allowed “one senior officer from each service in civilian dress to visit the site” but “they must be careful what they say because most of the workers there do not know what it is for.” The BBCcomplained, apparently without success, that unless they knew the location of the site they could not make plans to broadcast from it.

Abandoned bakery, Area 7. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

Restrictions caused by secrecy and security concerns had dogged the operation of the dispersal plans made before World War 2 and would have had a serious impact on the operational efficiency of the CGWHQ. But it was thought that, with the increasing Soviet nuclear capability, if the relocation site’s location and function became known it would be attacked and inevitably destroyed, and once manned and its communications, particularly radio transmissions, activated secrecy would inevitably be lost. In response, various options were contemplated including building a completely new site possibly bored into a mountain and the question of the designated reserve site was also reconsidered on several occasions. But ultimately it came down to a choice between operational efficiency and security, and the needs of security were held to be paramount. Because of this, it was felt that the implications of manning the CGWHQ were such that Cabinet could only take the decision to man in the light of circumstances at the time. This meant that the site would not automatically be occupied at the start of a Precautionary Period and consequently STOCKWELL could not be given a substantive pre-attack role.

As already mentioned, everything about the CGWHQ – both its role and location were strictly Top Secret and remained so for over 40 years. The aim of the comprehensive security precautions were stated in 1958 as being –

  1. To avoid disclosure of the location of the headquarters prior to manning and for as long as possible afterwards.
  2. To restrict to the minimum the number of persons who, having become aware of the location of the headquarters have further contact with the outside world.
  3. To deny entry to the headquarters to unauthorised persons

The measures to achieve these aims included –

  1. Any civilian staff designated before the start of a precautionary period should be positively vetted.
  2. All staff would be issued, at the last possible moment, with a special pass without which they would not be allowed beyond check point.
  3. A check point would be set up about 20 miles from the HQ. All staff, equipment, supplies, etc would stage through check point.
  4. Once the HQ had been manned no one would be allowed to leave under any pretext. Compassionate leave would not be allowed and it would be for the site’s Welfare Officer to do whatever possible to ease the minds of troubled staff. Arrangements to allow staff to exercise above ground would be decided at the time.

The security of the site was to be safeguarded by –

  1. All vulnerable points susceptible to sabotage would be enclosed within the perimeter fence
  2. A guard company would be provided within the perimeter fence and billeted on the surface
  3. Security guards would be stationed at all entrances above and below ground
  4. Visitors’ passes would be checked at the main gate and at the entrance to the lifts and again at the bottom of the lift.
  5. Visitors would only be allowed to leave if in possession of a special pass issued by the Camp Commandant.

However, in view of the stringent precautions against unauthorised access internal security patrols and measures were not considered necessary.

Equally stringent measures were introduced to protect knowledge of and documents relating to the CGWHQ. A Top Secret “Memorandum of Guidance to Establishment Officers” on TURNSTILE Planning issued in March 1967 said –

“a. The existence of arrangements for the maintenance of central Government in global war is CONFIDENTIAL provided that the context gives no indication whatever of the nature of these arrangements and b. The existence of a single relocation site of central Government is TOP SECRET. The codeword TURNSTILE is currently in use to describe the establishment. It is confidential unless used in a context which may imply the meaning in which case the document or conversation becomes SECRET”.

Domestic facilities in Area 10. (Steve Fox)

Three aspects were considered top secret – the “central secret”, that is the combined knowledge of the meaning and location of TURNSTILE, the knowledge of the location and purpose of the Check Point and any combination of facts about the size or physical characteristics of TURNSTILE which would assist the enemy to infer its probable location. Before a person could be informed of the central secret he had to be positively vetted and sign an Official Secrets Act declaration. The process of informing the person was known as indoctrination and was conveyed in a special interview by a senior officer when the security arrangements were explained together with the cover story and its use, which was equally Top Secret. The numbers of people knowing the ‘central secret’ was kept as low as possible, nevertheless, in January 1961 the Site Security Officer reported that 562 people knew it.

Documents relating to the central secret could only be typed or seen by indoctrinated personnel and passed only to a named recipient and were “accountable documents” subject to an annual audit.

Unilateralists and a D Notice 

Potato “rumbler” for removing skins, Area 12 Kichens. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

As laid down in the TURNSTILE Security Instructions the Whitehall Security Officer was responsible for authorising visits to the site but these were restricted to the minimum necessary to prepare for its proper functioning. No one outside the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the Post Office and contractors’ staff concerned with maintenance or new works at the site could visit without written authorisation. The implementation of the approved policy at the site was the responsibility of the Site Security Officer. However, he was not responsible for handling any “unilateralist demonstration”, which meant ban-the-bomb protesters. To avoid any suggestion that the site was special these situations would be handled by the RAF Officer Commanding 24 Group in conjunction with the Chief Constable of Wiltshire (who was given the cover story). The Site Security Officer was also responsible for local use of the cover story, for ensuring that activities at the site were conducted in a manner consistent with the cover story and keeping in touch with local feeling and speculation in order to assess

Copy of the D Notice covering the CGWHQ by referring to it as a communications centre (National Archives/Steve Fox)

Unilateralist type demonstrators might be interested in TURNSTILE on the basis that it was a headquarters of some sort or to find out its purpose but they and any of their activities should all be handled on the basis of playing down the importance of the site. No conspicuous efforts would be made to defend the perimeter even if this meant that some demonstrators would gain temporary access to the surface area and only the minimum number of civil police would be used. Unless the situation developed abnormally troops would not be called in. The press would be told, but only if they specifically asked that the site was a defence installation, a communications installation both civilian and military and an emergency store. On this basis the site was covered by D notice which was revised in 1962 asking the press not to publish information about “Underground sites…designed to serve as Regional Government headquarters or as communications centres in time of war”. If pushed the Chief of Public Relations at the Ministry of Defence was authorised to use the cover story.

Cover stories 

When work first began in 1954 it was thought that a cover story was not necessary because “on the surface the site looks like a medium sized POW camp”. In fact part of it was being used as a camp for displaced Europeans although by this time the underground areas had been cleared. In June 1957 MI5 reported that there was little local interest and generally people thought the site was something to do with the Admiralty. But as work progressed a cover story became necessary. A lot of the initial construction work was carried out on the surface and was obvious to passers by, and many workers would be involved with the work on the surface, then underground and later the fitting out, all of which would take many years. The story had to be good enough to satisfy the locals and workforce but not attract any particular interest from the press or the Soviets

Servery, Area 12. (©Bennett/MOD/EH)

The first cover story devised was that the site had been acquired during the last war, (a fact widely known in the locality) and was being tidied up for some general, unspecified war use. By the end of 1958 with partitioning nearly complete, provision of concrete protection to shafts started and the project some 65% complete it must have been obvious to anyone that this was going beyond tidying up. Security was again stressed and it was reported that “Care is taken by the Ministry of Works to ensure that all industrials employed by them and their contractors exclude all foreign labour and any local labour known to be of questionable type or origin”. Apparently the GPO was known to employ communists which raised further concerns. But by 1959 with, the imminent installation of the massive communications systems the idea of a purely civilian wartime use, for example as an art repository, would not match the physical work. A particular problem would arise from the need to label where the various communications circuits were going and, as these would be mainly military or government sites, it would be obvious to many GPO engineers that the originating site was a military or government one of considerable importance.

Brentford A.C Regulators. Area 21 (Room 25). (Dan McKenzie/MOD/EH)

The possibility of using deception plans, such as an announcement that the government would stay in London during a future war, was considered or leaking that MACADAM, the nominal reserve was actually the main relocation site. But a cover story to fit the circumstances was seen as vital and with the assistance of MI5 a new one was devised. This said that the site was intended primarily as a Post Office communications centre with other space allocated to a standby regional civil defence HQ and for government storage. The story, which itself was classified as secret, was not to be generally spread around. Instead it would only be given when it was thought that someone might stumble across the “central secret” and then only if absolutely necessary, and a report had to be made every time the cover story was used. At this time a full time Security Officer was appointed in Whitehall for the site whose main task was to vet staff who were, or needed to be, ‘indoctrinated’ into the central secret. The Security Service (MI5, or ‘Box 500’ as it was often called in correspondence at the time after its postal address) were actively involved in monitoring security and the cover story. They reported that local rumours suggested that the site was to be used to store Big Ben, as a refuge for the Royal Family or more likely as something for the Admiralty, which at this time were using other local quarries for storage, but generally the site provoked little interest. MI5 did however raise a concern that Hungarian refuges had been using the surface camp in recent years and, as many of them had returned to Hungary, they might have taken some observations back to the Warsaw Pact with them. The Security Service suggested that the idea that the site would be used by the Admiralty should be subtly encouraged but this raised a problem in itself because if the Soviets thought it was significant naval establishment they might attack it and destroy the CGWHQ by accident.

In late 1959 the Daily Express’s leading investigative journalist Chapman Pincher drafted an article mentioning ‘a huge underground city from which the nation would be controlled in the event of an H-bomb attack’. Before he could publish this he was apparently fed part of the new cover story and the article which finally appeared, whilst mentioning a ‘chain of H-forts’ (the proposed purpose-built joint civil/military headquarters for the Regional Commissioners) did not refer to an underground city. An odd problem arose in 1961 which could have compromised the security of the site. The local authority wanted to charge rates on the site and so it had to be valued on the basis of its actual or potential use. Obviously, local authority valuers could not be given access to the site but a compromise was quickly arranged which did not involve any leakage of the site’s true function.

By the early 1960s the Security Service was openly speculating that the Russians would be aware of the ‘central secret’ and a note from the Cabinet Office dated December 1961 said “We have substantial reason to fear that the Russians may have learned or may learn at any time the location and purpose of BURLINGTON”. Again, in July 1963 the Cabinet Secretary reported to the Prime Minister that “We have long recognised that the security of TURNSTILE is precarious”. He added that in 1961 the Security Service had assumed that the Russians would have made a serious attempt to locate the government’s relocation site and given their network of agents they could be expected to have found it. The Cabinet Secretary told the PM that it was obvious in 1959 that the journalist Chapman Pincher knew its location and purpose and in 1963 Chapman wrote that “the underground citadel for central government is somewhere in the west”. In July 1961 an investigation by the security services found that some unauthorised members of the armed forces and civil defence officials in the South West Region were aware of TURNSTILE. A further study the following year found that members of the county council, the fire brigade and armed forces locally were of the opinion that the site was of national importance and connected with the deterrent. Even if the central secret was not known to the Russians they were surely aware by this time that this was a site of considerable importance

Teleprinter Workshop in Area 21. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

So the cover story was again revised. The site was now to “provide regional organisations with stand by facilities for the maintenance of emergency services”, as well as a Post Office communications centre and general storage. But by this time the problem of the communications circuits was becoming serious. It was thought that about half could be connected and labelled without compromising the central secret and a further quarter could be disguised by connecting them to the neighbouring RAF South West Control communications centre and only connecting them through to their final destinations when needed. The remaining quarter could be disguised by only connecting them to a nearby repeater station with, again, the idea of connecting to the final destinations when needed. To fit in with the idea that the site was a store and a possible communications centre the large number of telephones and telegraph machines and their associated equipment were generally not installed in their operational areas but were stored in various rooms underground.

The cover story was not always needed as a Home Office note from 1963 showed when it said that it had evidence that the Spies for Peace believed that the Rotundas would be the wartime seat of government, adding that “care has been taken not to discourage this belief”.

The full cover story in 1967 was “The underground site is a defence installation for use in peace and war which houses one of a number of RAF and Post Office communications centres. It has also been developed to provide regional organisations in wartime with standby facilities for the maintenance of emergency services and public utilities. The remaining space is available for Government Department storage and includes a Naval stores depot”.

There seemed to be little further that could be practically done but it is interesting to note that, when in 1967 a letter was sent to Prime Minister Harold Wilson under the by-line of the Spies for Peace saying “The government has its own shelter system at Corsham, Wilts near Bath and it is believed that this complex shelter even extends to an entrance in the Box railway tunnel” it received little attention. The Cabinet Office recommended that the Prime Minister should to ignore it and that it “…should be played cool by all concerned”. This attitude is perhaps an indication of the declining importance by this time of the CGWHQ. But its secrecy was still to be upheld.

In any case it is possible that all the attempts to preserve the secrecy of the CGWHQ were by this time pointless. The files in the National Archives covering the early ideas about a cover story show that MI5 were being consulted on security and many of its letters were being signed by Roger Hollis. This is presumably the same Roger Hollis who was to become the Director General of MI5 and who many authors such as Chapman Pincher and Nigel West have suggested was an important Russian agent throughout the Cold War.

The Problem of the Neighbours 

At several times during the history of the Corsham site there were proposals from various parties to develop the surface areas of the surrounding military sites. These were invariably met with opposition from the Cabinet Office on security grounds and as a 1976 report put it “…with a large scale residential development on the “door step” of CHANTICLEER it would be possible for persons, undesirable from a security point of view, to reside there unnoticed” even though the development would be a mile from the main entrance.

There was a lot of concern at various times about the effect of other well known military sites in the area. This ranged from the idea that the Russians would attack these as targets in their own right and knock out the CGWHQ by accident to concerns that and explosion in the adjacent ammunition depots would damage the CGWHQ. The Central Ammunition Depot had 3 sub-sites in quarries around Corsham –

      • No 1 Hudswell
      • No 2 Ridge/Eastlays
      • No 3 Monkton Farleigh.

Inside the Tunnel Quarry ammunition store north of the CGWHQ site. Note the much higher standard of finish to that in the CGWHQ. (Nick Catford)

Hudswell was a mile from the CGWHQ and was considered to be a security risk as potholers might eventually find their way into the site from it. This warning was quite prescient given the amount of effort that some people of the “bunker hunter” fraternity took from the 1980s onwards took to infiltrate the CGWHQ site from adjacent underground workings. Hudswell was however earmarked as a site for a 100 strong joint RAF/civil air transport operations centre and it also housed various installations providing standby electrical power supply, heating, sewage, ventilation and water facilities. These would still be needed in wartime and additionally they provided underground living accommodation for all the staffs in the complex. It was also seen as somewhere to soak up surplus heat from the CGWHQ and as an expansion chamber to absorb some blast from a nuclear detonation.

There were other relatively secret military sites in the area. The RAF’s South West Central signals centre was underground at Hawthorn a short distance from the CGWHQ and some communications lines went through it to the CGWHQ. This was a focal point for the RAF’s telephone and telegraph communications in the south west. It was also used to store cryptographic equipment for the CGWHQ and also housed a large GPO repeater station serving the immediate area and in particular the communications for the CGWHQ itself.

In an emergency RAF Box would house the Air Ministry Telecommunications War Executive, the National Long Lines Agency and the Air Ministry Landline Record Section. It also housed a GPO repeater station and a UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation Sector headquarters which would, amongst other things, supply fall out information to the CGWHQ. HMS Royal Arthur a naval training establishment was located nearby on the surface to the south of the CGWHQ site.

Small number of Trestle Tables (Steve Fox)

As a postscript to the security issue there was an interesting ‘incident’ in 1976 when the Royal Navy commissioned a private company to make an aerial survey of the whole Corsham area which included Spring Quarry. This caused great concern and the resulting photographs were anonymised and passed to the RAF to see what they might reveal to an expert (i.e. Russian) interpreter. The RAF noted all sorts of signs such as military style flagpoles and anchor designs on well-tended lawns and concluded that there were substantial and significant underground facilities such as a major communications centre or a government headquarters in the area. The Cabinet Office however decided that it would be safer to allow the private company to continue with the work rather than bring attention to the area. It was however accepted that Russian satellites had been over flying the area for several years and could give equally good resolution photos. Even if they were not aware of the true purpose of the site they must certainly know by now that there was something significant in the Corsham area.

Level of protection 

Despite the high level of security and the cover stories it was always assumed that if the ‘central secret’ were discovered the Soviets would consider the CGWHQ a priority target. Was it therefore proof against an attack? Even though the site was deeply buried in hard rock the first work was to construct an internal blast wall designed to resist a blast over-pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (psi) completely encircling the underground working areas and separating them from the adjacent Admiralty storage areas. The access openings for stairways and lifts were protected by reinforced concrete head-works and blast doors also designed to take 80 psi. The main ventilation shafts were designed so that they did not open directly into the protected areas but into adjoining, relatively unimportant parts of the quarry which would act as expansion chambers and dissipate the blast.

The initial thoughts were that the site was protected against collapse or spalling caused by a 10 megaton ground burst weapon exploding within half a mile, but this was quite quickly revised to between 3⁄4 and 2 miles away. By the early 1960s the planners assumed that the Soviets would use smaller 3 megaton H-bombs and the safe distance from these would be one mile from the impact point. However, the accuracy of missiles expected to deliver these weapons had improved and if the missile had a 50% chance of landing within 1⁄2 mile of the site then there would be a 99% chance of it being destroyed, or as the report at the time put it, of the bomb “defeating the protection”. The site was however considered to be virtually invulnerable to an air burst.

Even if there was no significant damage to the underground areas a nuclear explosion could cause spalling and release large amounts of dust which could affect the more delicate communications equipment and damage mechanical and electrical connections. Strengthening the accommodation was considered but rejected as impractical mainly because of the expense, but also because it would encroach into the usable floor area and would require the dismantling of various plant and equipment including the lifts and escalators. And the resulting increase in the level of protection would not be significant. In the early 1970s a Security Service examination of the site suggested that it was vulnerable to an attack with chemical or biological weapons which lead to the recommendation that suitable protective clothing should be held there.

Water treatment plant in Area 11. (Nick Catford)

As well as physical damage to the site there was the problem of the various entrances and intakes which would allow a blast wave to penetrate the underground areas. One answer would be to seal all the entrances whenever there was a risk of attack. This would mean relying on recirculated air for days, if not weeks, when a nuclear attack was still possible as it was doubted if sufficient warning of an attack could be relied on to give time to close all the openings. The alternative would be to rely on blast valves and venturi tubes, and measures to disseminate the blast such as expansion chambers. The latter would be more convenient and research by the AWRE lead to adopting the venturi tube system as the main basis of protection.

The main problem was not however the vulnerability of the site itself but of its vital communications and in particular the cables these relied on. Most of these went through the neighbouring RAF communications centre which was not protected to the same degree and a 3mt bomb up to 31⁄2 miles away could be expected to put it out of action. Many of the lines also relied on unprotected surface repeater stations. The Backbone spur tower was thought to be vulnerable to a 3mt blast up to 10 miles away.

The Queen and Parliament 

The plans for the machinery of government in war made during World War 2 envisaged active roles for both the Sovereign and Parliament. The early plans for the Cold War saw  similar roles and protected accommodation was mentioned but apparently nothing came of this. However, as assumptions about the next war developed from the mid-1950s it was assumed that Parliament would have no active role in World War 3 beyond passing the emergency legislation as quickly as possible. This would enable the War Cabinet to introduce whatever secondary laws and regulations it wished and these would include using any of the constitutional prerogative powers vested in the Sovereign.

The early post-war years the planners seem to have thought that the Sovereign needed protected accommodation although it is not clear if this was a reflection of a perceived role for the Sovereign or just an instinctive assumption by senior civil servants that the Sovereign should be protected. The Padmore working party specifically opted not to give any suggestions as to the location of the Sovereign, and the Cabinet Office War Book drafted in 1959 said that there were no definite plans for the Sovereign. When the Cabinet was briefed on the CGWHQ in 1959 they asked if consideration could be given to accommodating the Sovereign there. This may be the reason for an odd scribbled note from 1959 found in one file saying that it would be possible to accommodate a Royal Party of up to about 25 within the CGWHQ, with the alternative being to select a house somewhere. However, there is nothing in the available documentation to show that either idea was pursued.

Later, a 1963 report said, “Members of both Houses would be expected to disperse to their homes or constituencies or (like members of the Royal family other than the Queen and Heir Apparent) to their country houses.” Unfortunately, the file in the National Archives from which this information comes did not answer the intriguing question of where the Queen would go.

A Cabinet Office file from 1964 shows that at that time not only did the Royal Household not have a copy of the Government War Book but it was not clear which government department was responsible for informing them of the implementation of the Precautionary Period. But in 1963 plans were drawn up for Operation CANDID to protect the Royal Family in war. Under this plan a reinforced Guards battalion 1300 strong and complete with armoured cars and a signal troop would provide a mobile escort and guard for the Sovereign and other members of the Royal Family. The impression given by Operation CANDID is that the Queen would leave London early in the Precautionary Period (if necessary, leaving the signing of the emergency Defence Bill into law to privy councillors) in a repeat of the World War 2 plan drawn up only 20 years earlier and find refuge in an isolated country house probably in the midlands (the usual royal residences such as Balmoral might be ruled out because they were well known). Prince Charles as the Heir Apparent would no doubt be found accommodation at a second site. CANDID was renamed SYNCHRONISE in the late 1960s and the papers covering this plan said that the Royal Family will move to their wartime place of residence when the government moved from London with an intriguing suggestion that the Royal Family would move from London by air. This plan however appears to have lapsed by the end of the 1960s which might imply something had taken its place.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor the Royal Household will discuss any aspects of the whereabouts of the Sovereign even during World War 2 on security grounds but there is an interesting possibility. In January 1965 the Prime Minister approved a revised plan which is discussed later known as PYTHON for the dispersal of the government nucleus “including the proposals as regards the Royal Family” and as part of which the Home Secretary would accompany the Queen to her “war station”.

The en-suite facilities for “special purposes” in Area 17. (Nick Catford)

As part of the PYTHON planning the administrator of the CGWHQ site, Colonel Gregory was asked, as the person who knew most about the site itself to consider how best to reduce the operational area and in his report from 1968 he said “The specially prepared accommodation in Area 17 is still required and the occupants will be in addition to the personnel mentioned above”. Later he recommended that only the eastern part of the existing CGWHQ site should be used for the revised plan together with Area 17 south which “…is still required “for a special purpose””. The Cabinet Office planners who at this time had little experience of the CGWHQ did not seem to know what he was talking about and unfortunately there is nothing else in the available files but the opening up of the site to a few select visitors has revealed an odd set of rooms in Area 17.

These appear to constitute a self-contained suite of rooms with a single door onto the corridor and which is completed to a higher standard than the main CGWHQ. The walls which are full height are whitewashed and have what may be bell-pushes of the type which might be used to summon people. This suite also contains 2 of the 3 baths in the site (the third being in the hospital). These rooms do not appear in any of the original planning documentation from the late 1950s and were probably not built at the same time as the rest of the headquarters. It has been suggested that this suite was for the Prime Minister but this does not appear likely as the original plans gave the Prime Minister a suite of 2 rooms in the heart of Area 14 where he would always be at the centre of things and this was repeated in the reduced plans in the 1980s. Moreover, Area 17 seems rather isolated and the suite far too big for the Prime Minister alone.

It is tempting to suggest that under the dispersed PYTHON concept this suite of rooms was available for the Sovereign and/or the Heir Apparent. Plan SYNCHRONISE envisaged the Queen leaving London at the same time as the government. But by this time “government” would not mean the group going to the CGWHQ but the PYTHON groups who would leave London before the attack. The idea of the Queen leaving by air might also suggest using helicopters which would be an ideal way of moving from Windsor or London to Corsham. Plan CANDID was effectively dropped at about the time that PYTHON became operational and the idea of fully manning the Corsham site was abandoned, and although the plan was supposed to be replaced UKLF were still asking the Cabinet Office in 1972 what the new plan was. Given that PYTHON and the abandonment of the idea of a fully manned Corsham were above Top Secret then it is easy to suppose that the original CANDID concept was abandoned in favour of moving the Royal Family to Corsham but that this fact was kept on a strictly need to know basis. This is however pure speculation and we will probably not know the Queen’s real “war station” until the National Archives release a file entitled “Protection of Royal Family in Emergency” which, given past experience, it will never do.

The London Citadels 

When in the mid-1950s Padmore suggested that all future planning should depend on SUBTERFUGE and its reserve he recommended that the London citadels which had, up to then, been intended to house the nucleus of government in war should be abandoned. But it was decided to keep them maintained until SUBTERFUGE was ready just in case they were needed.This activity would also hide the fact that they would not be used in war, knowledge of which would encourage a potential enemy, or anyone else interested, to look for their replacement. In March 1956 the Working Party considered the citadels to be “no better than death traps” and concluded that “it was fruitless to expect to be able control London from them after a nuclear attack”. The future of the citadels was however to be left in abeyance but the Working Party finally confirmed that Pirate had been cancelled and the Post Office could dispose of the stock of cast iron segments which it had purchased to build it. However, in the following year, in view of the progress made with SUBTERFUGE, it was decided to review the status of the citadels. The planners noted that virtually all the citadels were in and around the Whitehall area which would be a prime target for Soviet H-bombs. If the area were attacked, even if the citadels were not “in the crater” they would be badly affected by flooding and “oscillation of the structure”. It was therefore finally decided to quietly remove any defence use from the central citadels although the ‘peripheral citadels’ at Dollis Hill, Cricklewood and Harrow could be turned over to civil defence uses. In fact, the Dollis Hill site, better known as PADDOCK, had already been designated as the Regional War Room for London.

However, nothing was to be done to the central citadels to suggest that they no longer had a wartime use and the now former Central Government War Room in the North Rotunda was activated during Exercise Cloud Dragon in 1959. It was used to receive information from the National Warning and Monitoring Organisation and to allow for studies about how the CGWR at the CGWHQ should operate. In 1962 its rooms were used as the communications centre for the Fallex62 home defence exercise when it was given the codename of CHAPLIN.

It appears that SCOUT had not been used since it had been set up. In August 1957 the Ministry of Works approached the Cabinet Office, who seemed to have forgotten about it, to complain about the cost of cleaning and asking if they could remove the furniture for use elsewhere. After due consideration the Cabinet Office decided that it could allow this but on the strict understanding that the furniture could be replaced at 48 hours notice, which is odd given that they were saying that they would never use SCOUT. This lead the Cabinet Office to consider the future of a Mr King who seems to have lead a troglodyte existence for several years living in the Rotunda guarding SCOUT. Unfortunately the records do not reveal what happened to this unappreciated custodian.

In 1959 the BBC asked about their broadcasting facilities in SCOUT. They were told that although SCOUT would no longer be used as an originating point for Ministerial broadcasts they should not remove the equipment there, although any necessary ministerial broadcasts during the Precautionary Period would be made from No 10. In 1963 the Home Office reported that the unilateralist group Spies for Peace, who had revealed the existence of the Regional Seats of Government, were suggesting that the Rotunda would be the wartime seat of central government. The report added that “care has been taken not to discourage this belief”.

In 1958 the citadels were being used largely as general office space. The main users were:

Admiralty Citadel Admiralty for general office space, PBX, etc
Whitehall Gardens I War Office signals
Whitehall Gardens II RAF signals, War Room, Map Room, registry
North Rotunda Home Office (CGWR) and Federal exchange
South Rotunda War Office, Cabinet Office (SCOUT), GPO PBX
Monck Street unused
Colonial Office site unfinished
New Public Offices Cabinet Office, Treasury, Ministry of Works, Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
Curzon Street House Ministry of Education
Cricklewood storage of charts
Station Z Harrow radio sonde stores, balloon storage, library
Paddock Post Office engineering research department
Geological Museum NaturalHistoryMuseum

Reserve sites 

When Thomas Padmore made his suggestions for the preservation of the machinery of government in war in 1954 he recommended that a relocation centre should be built at SUBTERFUGE as a reserve seat of government for use if Whitehall became unusable. But following the Strath Report he recommended that any idea of the government remaining in London should be abandoned in favour of basing the wartime central government nucleus at SUBTERFUGE from the start of a global war, but now with a new reserve site to be known as MACADAM. This would be constructed and manned to serve as ‘The alternative relocation site of the central Government headquarters in global war’.

The code name MACADAM was used for this site from 1955 to 1960 when it was replaced by QUADRANGLE. This name continued in use until 1962 when it was replaced by LINSTOCK. This code word was withdrawn in 1965 and apparently not replaced.

Since Duncan Campbell’s revelations in “War Plan UK” published a quarter of a century ago it was generally thought that MACADAM, the reserve site for the central government war headquarters would be housed at the Valley Works site at Rhydymwyn near Mold in North Wales. This site included an extensive series of tunnels originally constructed during the last war to store chemical weapons. The tunnels were used into the 1950s and it appeared that some work had been done at the site after this time which fitted in with the idea that the site was at least earmarked as the reserve war headquarters. However, it is now known that in the early 1960s the tunnels were earmarked as a possible war time site for 2 NATO wartime agencies – the eastern branches of the NATO Oil Executive Board and the Defence Shipping Executive Board which would be located in Britain. These agencies had originally been destined for the main Corsham site but this would have caused some practical problems. There was a concern about allowing foreigners into Corsham before general manning, but more importantly, the agencies might need to use their communications pre-attack which would compromise the security of the site. But it was thought important to retain this obligation for the obvious wartime benefits it would give and, apparently of equal significance to our senior civil servants, the fear that the French would step in if Britain gave up the obligation. So the wartime site for the 2 branches was nominally relocated, without NATO being told, to the Valley Works site to protect the secrecy of Corsham. Paper plans were drawn up for the agencies’staffing, accommodation and communications there. This lead to the tunnels being ‘tidied up’ but it appears that no meaningful work was ever done. At the time various cover stories were considered for the Valley Works including one that the tunnels were to be used as the BBC’s Welsh wartime centre.

Discussions about relocating the agencies continued for several years until, in the late 1960s, they were finally found a home in the former RSG building in Cambridge which they would share with one of the Eastern Region’s RSG groups. Interestingly, the tunnels under Dover Castle were considered as a possible site for the agencies even before they were taken into use as an RSG. The Drakelow tunnels were also considered as a possible site. There were also tentative plans to use the Valley Works tunnels as a war time home for part of the Bank of England’s gold reserves under the codename of WELLBRIGHT and possibly for a civil defence Sub Regional Control. In 1968 D notice protection was withdrawn from the Valley Works suggesting that it was of no importance.

The Drakelow tunnels

Two of the entrances leading into the Drakelow tunnels, the proposed site of MACADAM (Steve Fox)

In fact, the plan from 1955 was to base MACADAM, the reserve nucleus, at Drakelow near Kidderminster in tunnels dug out during the Second World War for an emergency factory . However, the Planning Team decided at the outset that no work would be done either to prepare the site or to draw up detailed plans for its use until Corsham was completed. The original working idea was that a staff of some 1500 (2000 in some reports) headed by a team of Ministers and senior officials would occupy MACADAM in the Precautionary Period at the same time as SUBTERFUGE was being manned by support staff and possibly a few ministers. The Prime Minister and the ‘first eleven’ would however not leave London until the last minute and possibly not at all. If this happened or if SUBTERFUGE were not operational then the Ministerial Team at MACADAM would assume the role of the central government. This would mean having 3 teams or echelons ready to run post-attack Britain – the first eleven in London, another government in waiting in MACADAM and a third at SUBTERFUGE forming the basic organisation for the Cabinet when it left London.

In reality there would be many practical problems. Finding sufficient Ministers and staff for Corsham and the regional headquarters was a particular problem and this would only be worsened by the need to find 1500 civil servants and military personnel for the reserve site. Then it was unclear what its real role might be. If the main relocation site was operational MACADAM would have no role, but if it did take over control of the country its 1500 staff and very limited communications would seriously hamper its abilities to act, even ignoring the problem that the some at least of the Regional Commissioners might be of higher rank or status than those Ministers at MACADAM. These problems lead to the idea being put forward in 1958 that the site would not act as a true reserve but should be in some vague sense a ‘reserve of experience and expertise’.

By this time the Home Office were looking for sites for the planned joint regional civil/military headquarters and Drakelow was an obvious candidate. It was decided that the site was large enough to take the 450 staff planned for the regional headquarters and still have space for a reserve central nucleus. There were concerns that the existence of the regional headquarters, which was expected to become known, would jeopardise the secrecy of the reserve site and it was suggested that the 2 should be physically separated from each other inside the tunnels although other reports suggested that they could share communications facilities. The Drakelow site was established as RSG9 by mid-1961and was physically divided from the unused parts of the site which might be used for MACADAM.

LINSTOCK 

In 1961 a report suggested that the site could still be used as a reserve for central government but with a team of only 300. Even with this small number security was deemed to be a potential major problem and it was considered that the site had a poor level of protection against blast compared to Corsham. But once again nothing was done and in 1962 the plan was changed. LINSTOCK, as MACADAM had been renamed would now be a reserve but only for 100 staff although it would act as an accretion centre or rallying point for other staff (presumably including Ministers not occupied elsewhere).

LINSTOCK was given serious consideration in 1963 and plans to convert “Drakelow Phase 2” were drawn up. It was thought LINSTOCK could have 3 possible roles –

  1. In the event of a “bolt from the blue” attack before the main site and the regions were manned it would be the only central government. It would communicate with allies, give orders to the armed forces, show the population that the government still existed and provide a nucleus around which would centre the efforts to organise survival.
  2. If TURNSTILE were inoperative for any reason but the regions operational it would act as the nucleus
  3. If TURNSTILE were operative it would be a mere reserve.

The RSG servery at Drakelow. Had it been built LINSTOCK would have probably been similar (Nick Catford)

Outline plans to accommodate this LINSTOCK group within the Drakelow tunnels were prepared and a staffing list of 100 drawn up. This staff would include a Reserve Prime Minister who would also act as Minister of Defence supported by 2 Reserve Ministers, one for Overseas Affairs and the other for Home Affairs. They would be supported by a team of 37 officials to cover Cabinet Office functions, military affairs, overseas affairs and home administration. They in turn would be assisted by some 60 junior administrators, communications operators and domestic staff. If BURLINGTON were destroyed the LINSTOCK team could offer at least a nominal central government to give political direction to the armed forces, liaise with overseas government and at least suggest to the survivors that there was some overall political control.

Unlike earlier schemes these people would work in conjunction with the RSG team although at least initially the 2 sites would be kept separate for security reasons. The plan involved converting 45,000 square feet of the site to provide 30 individual offices and open working spaces. There would be only one bedroom (for the acting Prime Minister). The rest would sleep in dormitories. The space was lavish compared to the RSG and included a rest room, chapel, sick bay and a 600 sq foot strong room. Pre-attack LINSTOCK would be completely independent of the RSG but post-attack facilities would be shared. However, problems soon emerged over the cost of the necessary works which would now be 5 times the original working figure and the planners opted to “hasten slowly”. In reality work on LINSTOCK was suspended.

TACK 

Also in 1961, and in parallel with LINSTOCK, another idea known as TACK was developed. Under the TACK concept 4 small groups would be set up any of which could act as a nominal ‘third line reserve Seat of Central Government’. Each group would consist of a Deputy Reserve Prime Minister, one other Minister and 2 Private Secretaries. They would be supported by an official from the Cabinet Office and 6 from the military, together with 2 officials to deal with overseas affairs and 3 to deal with home affairs. There would also be a communications adviser, an information adviser and a scientific adviser. They would all be assisted by 9 junior administrators. In total each TACK group would have 30-50 members. The TACK concept was even more classified than TURNSTILE and partially to disguise it the cover story was disseminated that any of the RSGs could take over the central government and they would be ranked as Site 1, Site 2, etc with no locations given. In fact, the 1963 report on the Working Party on the Military Functions of Central Government in War which was compiled by planners with knowledge of virtually all the plans for the machinery of government in war mentions this, what it called, “batting order” of Regional Commissioners showing that they were unaware of TACK. The TACK idea was that one group would each lodge as an independent cell in the RSGs at Dover, Hope Cove, Reading and Shipton. The cell could be squeezed in the accommodation available in the tunnels at Dover but accommodation at the other three sites was essentially theoretical depending on purpose-built RSGs being built to replace the existing ad hoc premises. But by 1963 it was realised that there was no money for the additional infrastructure required and although it seems possible that some work was done at Dover the idea was held in abeyance.

A report in December 1964 on LINSTOCK and TACK concluded that “The finished canvas creates a dismal scene…” as not only had plans not been completed they were in a worse position than a few years before. LINSTOCK and TACK were both quietly forgotten.

New ideas 

In May 1963 following the Cuban Missile Crisis and increasing concerns about the vulnerability of TURNSTILE the Cabinet Secretary Sir Burke Trend submitted a report to Prime Minister Macmillan. In it he said “I undertook to let you have a report about the existing plans for maintaining central government control during and after a nuclear attack…”. The paper went on to say that TURNSTILE would be occupied during the Precautionary Stage, and from this one place, after nuclear attack would be controlled all measures necessary for –

    1. The prosecution of the war
    2. The conduct of Commonwealth and foreign affairs
    3. The maintenance, as far as possible, of the life of the country by means of a system of Regional Seats of Government where the Commissioners would have been told in advance on which matters they should act on their own initiative and on which they should (if possible) obtain direction from TURNSTILE

The first point of interest here is the suggestion that the CGWHQ would be concerned with war fighting. The basic assumption was that the CGWHQ would become operational only after a nuclear exchange had rendered normal government impossible. This in turn meant that the UK was no longer credible as a base from which to conduct any military operations and that the war, apart from local military operations outside the NATO area of operations, will have ceased. But apart from military operations and foreign affairs there is no role for the CGWHQ after giving advance instructions to the RSGs. We can also note in passing the absence in this document of any mention of TURNSTILE as a centre for nuclear retaliation.

General view inside an office area in the CGWHQ. Note the speaker above the clock, one of 250 throughout the site. (Steve Fox)

However, the Cabinet Secretary’s real purpose is seen in the original draft of the report which started “We are becoming increasingly uneasy about the existing plans for maintaining…” and he went on to describe TURNSTILE from where “would be controlled all measures for national survival” after nuclear attack as well as the prosecution of the war and foreign relations. Interestingly, it mentioned that Regional Commissioners “…would have been told in advance which matters they should deal with themselves and which they (if possible) should obtain direction from the central point of control…” But he said that the site would not survive even a near miss from a nuclear weapon. He said that because of concerns that the secrecy of the main relocation site had been compromised the Prime Minister had authorised the development of LINSTOCK in August 1962 as a reserve although no work had yet started at the site. At the same time TACK had been authorised and he said that the Dover RSG wass already prepared (although other documents imply that no physical preparations were made there).

The report concluded that the security of TURNSTILE may have been completely compromised and, if it had not yet been, then it was only a matter of time before it was. And if it were known it would be attacked and destroyed. The report added that “It is doubtful whether valid plans can any longer be based on the idea of concentration” and any alternative to TURNSTILE would suffer the same fundamental weakness. Not much confidence was put in LINSTOCK or TACK on the basis that they were housed in RSGs which were almost certainly known to the Soviets and if the Russians attacked them then they would inevitably, and by accident, knock out all the back ups to TURNSTILE. The suggested answer was to change to a completely different type of organisation based on dispersal, even mobility. But several other alternatives were offered –

  • The construction of a genuinely nuclear bomb proof redoubt
  • Flying the central government abroad to, say, Canada
  • Putting the central government to sea – above or below the waves
  • Putting the central government into a mobile column or columns of specially protected vehicles
  • Dividing central government control into a number of different functions which would then be dispersed on a self-contained basis around the country.

In fact, the dispersal idea had been expressed in greater detail in an early draft of the paper. This mentioned setting up several political as well as administrative units. After nuclear attack the senior surviving political unit would identify itself as the seat of government. Under this scheme “something would still remain at TURNSTILE because it is too valuable an installation to abandon entirely” and significantly for later developments it continued “…One point for examination will be the extent to which it might be possible to preserve TURNSTILE, for as long as we can, as a cover story for the new master plan. This in itself will be helpful if we can keep it in the plan but as something other than the potential seat of government”.

Kitchen equipment in Area 12 of the CGWHQ. (Nick Catford).

The report recommended that a study should be made. This received the Prime Minister’s approval and the report was completed by March 1964. It recommended “…a scheme of dispersal involving a number of Groups, initially referred to as ACID groups each with the power to take over the functions of central government in war, self-sufficient and in a pre-arranged order of priority; which would be determined by the seniority of the Minister in charge of each Group”. These groups would have the advantages over TACK/LINSTOCK in that they would not be tied to an RSG and each Group could have more than one potential site. TURNSTILE was still too valuable an asset to discard and its role would be studied further. The Machinery of Government in War Committee suggested it could be a group site and it appears this idea was initially adopted although there were concerns about its vulnerability. The role of each Group, which could be up to 150 strong, was summed up as to “Contain the potential supreme political authority, with vestigial administrative staffs” and to “…retain control of the conduct of the war, negotiations with other Powers, and overriding authority for the Regions…” The plan was approved by Prime Minister Douglas-Home in June 1964 and detailed planning proceeded although in the interim the existing CGWHQ plans would continue.

ACID and PYTHON 

The ACID concept was protected by a higher level of security than the CGWHQ termed “Top secret – ACID” and handling ACID related information was the subject of a special set of instructions. These said that “Information covered by the codeword ACID may not be revealed to, and ACID documents may not be seen by, anyone not specifically indoctrinated for the purpose”. Indoctrination could only be approved by the Chairman of the Machinery of Government in War Sub-Committee. The instructions said that “…every effort should be made to avoid committing ACID matters to paper”, typing could only be done by ACID indoctrinated personnel and documents must at all times remain in the possession of indoctrinated persons. If an ACID document had to be sent to another building “…it must be packaged by an ACID indoctrinated person in 2 covers, a box or pouch when used being treated as the outer cover”, the inner cover should be wax sealed an addressed personally to a named recipient, the outer one should be simply addressed and not marked Top Secret or ACID. (Similar instructions had been issued to cover TACK). By November 1965 the dispersal concept had been code named PYTHON and ACID Groups became PYTHON Groups.

Planning for the project which was overseen by the Home Defence Committee was intended to be a once – and – for – all matter with few material preparations so that once the planning had been completed it could lie more or less dormant. PYTHON planning was unaffected by the decision in January 1968 to put the bulk of home defence measures on a “care and maintenance” basis which effectively meant they were abandoned. PYTHON arrangements went live on 1 May 1968 and replaced the plans for a full scale CGWHQ. However, a report written shortly after suggested that some existing communications equipment at Turnstile could be moved to PYTHON sites but adding that, not only had none of the desired communications kit been installed at the PYTHON sites, the proposed costs had not been approved.

It was thought that PYTHON central government would still be viable if –

  1. There were 3 to 4 weeks of political warning of severe deterioration of the international situation prior to the outbreak of war (the then existing home defence plans assumed a 2-3 day warning period)
  2. Ministerial authority to take key measures to set up the control system were taken at the beginning of that warning period
  3. Some expenditure was allowed for specifically PYTHON purposes

The functions of PYTHON Groups were basically the same as had been given to the CGWHQ –

  1. The ultimate control of military forces in the UK and broad control of military forces overseas. The senior surviving PYTHON Group should (sic) be able to exercise positive political control over all nuclear forces.
  2. Conduct of Commonwealth and foreign affairs.
  3. Overall policy direction of the control of air transport, merchant shipping and ports.
  4. Ultimate control of essential resources and supplies, and of arrangements for resupply from overseas.
  5. Co-ordination of the activities of Regional Commissioners as necessary and possible, and resolution of questions involving more than one region which can not be resolved otherwise.

Directive to a Regional Commissioner (National Archives)

The directive drawn up appointing Regional Commissioners in the late 1960s told them that “It is intended that the central Government should continue to function from London until the attack” and then “…as long as Parliament was sitting and the central Government was in London then the ordinary forms of government would be maintained” and Ministers would be responsible to Parliament. But when the emergency Proclamation was made or the attack takes place the Regional Commissioner’s devolved powers would come into force. They would then exercise all the existing and emergency powers of Government within their region except those reserved to central Government. They were however told to take account of any direction that they might receive from the central Government. The directive appointing them as Regional Commissioners specifically laid down certain matters which would be “reserved for the centre” namely –

  1. Foreign and Commonwealth relations
  2. The offensive prosecution of the war.
  3. Control of shipping.
  4. The procurement and allocation of supplies from overseas

So, by default this list defines the role of the PYTHON groups (including the UK Supply Agency teams and the National Air Transportation Agency) and it is essentially the same as the list of roles given earlier, although the groups would probably have been able to do little until they were established in a proper accretion centre with, in particular, a comprehensive communications network. And, as far as is known, the Corsham site was the only place in the country suitably equipped. Significantly, the directive to Region Commissions also said “For the purposes of central government under the PYTHON concept, senior Ministers of PYTHON groups are deemed senior to all others irrespective of their peacetime seniorities.”

Post-attack, the activities of the surviving groups and sections would be co-ordinated by the senior surviving PYTHON group. One of its earliest tasks would be to decide on the best place to assemble, or accrete to use a favourite word of the time, surviving groups and sections. TURNSTILE because of its communication links, particularly with overseas agencies would be the primary accretion centre for the various groups and the aim would be to bring them together within 7 days after the attack had ended. Although, in theory at least any one PYTHON group could function as a nucleus and be in contact with all the necessary sites at home and abroad in practice, to be effective, all the surviving groups would be needed and they would need access to a major communications system to function successfully.

Each PYTHON Group would be lead by a senior minister designated to act as Prime Minister who would be supported by 2 other ministers charged primarily with overseas defence affairs and home affairs respectively. The Ministers would have advisers on overseas affairs, home affairs and defence questions at about Permanent or Deputy Secretary level, with military advice at four-star level (admiral, air chief marshal or general).

The early plans said that there should be 8 groups but although the exact number was and still is heavily classified it appears that there were originally 5. A few years later this may have been reduced to 4.

Bath in the hospital, possibly the only one in the original CGWHQ. (Nick Catford).

The letter of appointment to the Officer in Charge of TURNSTILE outlined the new plan and the place of TURNSTILE in it. The job of the Officer in Charge would be to bring TURNSTILE to a state of readiness for use by central government after attack, and for reporting after the attack on its readiness for use. It can be noted in passing that although strategic planning was increasingly moving towards the idea of an escalation to nuclear war which would mean a period of conventional war fighting this was really a continuation of the old CGWHQ idea of an immediate nuclear attack which would destroy the cohesion of the country and bring a halt to any large scale fighting. The Officer in Charge was told that plans for the maintenance of central government in war provided for the dispersal, before the attack, of PYTHON groups each headed by a senior minister. When government from London ceases the head of the senior PYTHON group will assume the duties of central government. The dispersed PYTHON groups will be supported by 3 dispersed sections each of two other important agencies of central government namely the United Kingdom Supply (or, in some papers Supplies) Agency (UKSA) and the National Air Transport Agency (NATA). There would be some 130 staff in a UKSA section including 10 commodities experts eg for milk, meat and tea from private industry and 50 in each NATA one. The PYTHON scheme would in total need some 1200 people.

UKSA and NATA

In some respects the provision of adequate arrangements for the procurement and allocation of supplies was the most important single aspect of PYTHON planning, and this, if not the viability of the whole concept, hinged on communications within UK and with certain places overseas. The role of obtaining supplies from overseas was given to the  UKSA groups but they did not appear in the original Python scheme. Home defence planning had long assumed that a UK Central Port and Shipping Headquarters would be set up at Corsham as part of the Ministry of Transport contingent there. Its job would be to liaise with the regional level Port and Shipping HQs and with representatives at many overseas ports to ensure that, on the outbreak of war, ships would be directed to suitable surviving ports, and later, that there would be ships available to bring supplies, in particular food and oil to Britain. This UK Central Port and Shipping Headquarters’ role would be closely tied to that of NATO’s Defence Shipping Executive Board (East) which was originally to have been located at Corsham. As PYTHON planning developed the importance of shipping grew and it was increasingly felt that a purely British group should be set up for the purpose and by 1966 the idea of a distinct UKSA forming part of the overall PYTHON scheme had been accepted

UKSA would also co-ordinate sea and air transport. A UKSA group was divided into a transport and oil distribution section and a procurement and allocation section both served by a common services group and an army CONRAD signal troop.

Woodwork shop, Area 11 of the CGWHQ. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

UKSA would be responsible for the procurement, allocation and sea transport of essential supplies for the UK and for overseas countries dependent on UK resources. This would be a major task but it also raised the question of how the imports would be paid for in a devastated world where the international payments mechanisms would have ceased to exist. Perhaps gold would have come into its own and in the 1960s ideas were discussed on many occasions to evacuate the Bank of England’s gold reserves from London to a place of safety. The site most often considered was the tunnels at the Valley Works near Mold under the codenames WELLBRIGHT and later FOLLIUM. But the idea was never practical. For example, the basic plan involved using 10 ton lorries making 250 round trips from London to Mold over 12 days. It was also pointed out that there was no Bank of England representative in PYTHON – so who would have the keys?

The principal tasks of the food element in a UKSA section would be –

  1. Making a broad assessment of the effects of the nuclear attack on food stocks (including the strategic food stockpile) and agriculture.
  2. Making a broad assessment of the likely food requirements in individual regions of the UK having in mind that many of the more remote and sparsely populated areas might have received very large numbers of additional population, and, when known, of overseas countries dependent on UK resources.
  3. Planning and executing the procurement of fresh supplies from overseas (to assist with this aim British embassies were grouped together and would assist UKSA with the availability and requirements for shipping. It would also be the UK point of contact with the NATO civil wartime agencies concerned with supplies).
  4. Controlling the allocation of fresh supplies (including the strategic food stockpile) and the reallocation of other existing supplies in the UK.

Abandoned bakery equipment in Area 7 of the CGWHQ. (Nick Catford).

Trade advisors for UKSA were selected in the late 1960s and “doers” were looked for. One potential candidate was dismissed as “…surely too old and too gentle”. In 1982 as part of a general review of civil preparedness the Ministry of Agriculture was asked by the Cabinet Office to review their designees for UKSA positions. The designees had to be “of good general health including mental stability” and “preferably be aged 45 to 55 years”. Unlike civil servants designated for post-war roles in the groups and sections these people were actually approached, asked to volunteer and were given a general briefing. They were told that they had been selected for “home defence duties in war, related to dispersed Government service out of London”. But they were not specifically told that there were no arrangements for their families. If they asked they would be told that some arrangements would need to be made with a hint that they could make their own arrangements.

The scale of the task faced by UKSA can be seen from a report by MAFF in 1960 on post-attack food distribution. This found that the UK would need to import around 1 million tons of food a month with the chief need being for wheat, sugar and carcase meat. It was expected that the eastern seaboard of the USA and Canada would be badly affected by the war and no supplies could be expected from there for 3 months. Argentina and the old Commonwealth countries might be less affected and willing to help but there would be the problem of payment. Overall it had to be assumed that no significant supplies would reach UK in less than 4 months.

The National Air Transport Agency (NATA) would “control comprehensively”, as part of central government, both the surviving strategic air transport force and the internal UK transport and communications aircraft. To this end, the idea was to disperse the transport aircraft of the RAF and British airlines to “haven” airfields around the country.

Transition to war 

By the end of the 1960s NATO, and by association British, strategy has undergone a major re-evaluation. The idea of a sudden devastating nuclear attack was dropped and replaced by one which envisaged a political warning period of several weeks and then a shorter military one when the Warsaw Pact would be seen bringing it forces to full readiness. If a war then started it would not “go nuclear” immediately. There would be a period of conventional warfare with Warsaw Pact ground forces invading NATO countries while their air and naval forces attacked rear areas, communications centres, supply dumps, shipping, etc. The effects of these attacks on the “home base”, as mainland Britain was referred to, would be handled by home defence organisations which in reality would have meant the very poorly prepared local authorities and the peacetime emergency services. As usual, the home defence planners were slow to react to the change. It was assumed that central government would continue as in peacetime with civil servants, etc staying at their desks unless bombed out of them (there would be no air raid shelters). Even if escalation seemed likely the civil servants would be expected to simply carry on. PYTHON measures would not be implemented until the later stages.

By this time the idea of a formal precautionary period in which to prepare for war had been abandoned in favour of a more flexible lead into war. Throughout the 1960s a number of codewords had been introduced which would trigger stages in a government alert scheme to bring the civilian institutions in the country to a war footing. The words were changed periodically although the meanings tended to remain the same.

In the late 1960s the first codeword was CLICK which required all government departments, the Post Office (still treated as a government department for war planning) and the BBC to review their TTW or transition to war plans. Permanent Secretaries of some departments would be at immediate notice to attend the Transition to War Committee and departments would submit proposals as to which Government War Book measures they might want to be implemented early. The Transition to War committee would be chaired by the Cabinet Secretary and would consist of the Permanent Secretaries of the main departments and representatives of the Chiefs of Staff. It would be in almost continual session to advise the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on implementing war book measures and co-ordinating departmental action. The Cabinet Office would set up the PYTHON Unit when CLICK was issued ready to co-ordinate PYTHON manning. There was an additional codeword, possibly just for Cabinet Office use, STUMP, which indicated that intelligence suggested that a member of the Warsaw Pact i.e. the Soviet Union was about to start a war against the UK or a NATO ally.

The second codeword, MANUSCRIPT told selected departments, the Post Office and the BBC to man the WTN or Whitehall Teleprinter Network, which connected all the main departments and ministries, on a permanent basis and to prepare to implement 24-hour working.

This was followed by FENCER which required selected departments and the BBC to implement 24-hour working.

The final codeword was JIGGER which meant that Ministers were ready to consider authorising all war book measures, and all departments and the BBC should prepare to implement war book measures when ordered. Once JIGGER had been implemented the war book measures would be decided on and passed out under the codeword TARPON for immediate implementation to bring the country to full war readiness.

The Cabinet would declare CLICK and JIGGER but the issue of the other 2 could be decided by the Cabinet Secretary. The Cabinet Office control point known as Cockpit and later Monmouth and then Newport would be set up on declaration of CLICK to co-ordinate the transition to war mechanisms.

The UK alert measures would be paralleled by a series of NATO code words designed to bring the alliance’s war machine to readiness. These started with the low level “state of military vigilance”. The formal alert system started with the “simple alert” to bring pre-positioned forces to a state of readiness. This was followed by the “reinforced alert” to bring NATO forces to the best position to meet an enemy attack. The “reinforced alert” would be followed by the final “general alert” which would be declared on the outbreak of hostilities. If matters developed very quickly the counter surprise military system could be implemented in 2 stages – “state orange” and “state scarlet”. The basic alert levels could be declared by NATO commanders but the higher level ones required government agreement and much of the Whitehall emergency communications apparatus during the cold war was dedicated to receiving and responding to alerts.

The PYTHON measures envisaged the PYTHON teams leaving for their war stations at some point during the escalation. There is no suggestion in the published plans of the Prime Minister and by association senior members of the Cabinet and their senior advisers leaving London. It seems that they would be expected to carry on from London although, unlike in the build up to the Second World War, no preparations or plans were made to provide protected accommodation for anyone.

PYTHON sites 

The sites for PYTHON groups and agency sections have never been disclosed and it is not certain if a handful of specific sites were earmarked or if there was a wide number available from which the final choice would be made on the day. Evidence suggests that the buildings concerned were in government hands and were permanently equipped with telephone lines and possibly at least one teleprinter to receive instructions from the PYTHON Unit set up in the Cabinet Office (although it appears these would be increased if possible at the time and the army would base a CONRAD radio team at each site to provide radio communication).

It seems likely that the original PYTHON (and agency) sites were chosen in 1966 although presumably these changed over the years. If we include agency sites and assume 5 PYTHON groups then we are looking for 11 sites and if reserves are included we are probably looking for at least 20 sites. It seems probable that the original plan was to base one group at Corsham although later reports suggest this idea was abandoned.

The Cabinet Office refuse to release the locations of PYTHON sites even ones selected some 50 years ago and it is tempting to attempt draw up a list of possible criteria. A few minutes thought might conclude that such a site would –

  • Be in government ownership.
  • Have existing domestic accommodation for say 150.
  • Have independent power and water supplies (implying a generator and a bore hole).
  • Have some fall out protection (at least the standard protection factor of PF400 required of regional bunkers – from purpose built hardened accommodation or a protected basement).
  • Be some way (10+ miles) from any likely target.
  • Be away from the public (which would mean not in a town but would not rule out. being at a military base)

With these criteria in mind it is possible to consider a few clues about possible PYTHON group sites. At this time, the mid-1960s, there was a lot of confusion about what would happen to the Bank of England’s store of gold held in London and there was a suggestion that during the precautionary period some of this might be moved to a safer place. The tunnels at Valley Works, Mold was one suggestion but another was the former ROTOR radar bunker at St Twynells in Pembrokeshire. In the end nothing came of these ideas but the National Archives files on the subject show that the St Twynells site was included in the list of possible PYTHON group sites. If this really was the case it makes other ex-ROTOR sites worth considering as potential PYTHON sites especially when we consider that apart from the large Sector Operations Centre rotor sites like Bawburgh and Shipton smaller ones like Hope Cove and Skendelby were adopted as regional level civil defence controls with staff complements similar to a PYTHON group. It appears however that nothing was done to refurbish the St Twynells site.

Initially RSG sites, which had become surplus following the decision in 1965 not to set up RSGs before the attack, were not considered as suitable sites because the Joint Intelligence Committee thought that as they were known to the Russians that they would probably still be attacked. But by 1967 the JIC had relaxed their position saying the RSG sites were no longer probable sites although they thought it would be “unwise to discount the possibility” that they would be attacked. With this in mind it is interesting to note an odd remark in one formerly Top Secret document suggesting that a PYTHON site owned by the Home Office consisting of 2 mutually dependent sites in the south east of England was no longer required. This might have been the former RSG site based jointly on Warren Row near Maidenhead and the old Regional War Room in Reading. If former RSG sites were used then Nottingham becomes a candidate and it makes the decision to locate the NATO agencies in the former Cambridge RSG more understandable. But considering the possible criteria suggests several other sites in the south east such as the civil defence staff college at Sunningdale Park near Ascot which was closed in 1968 to become the Civil Service College, the Foreign Office site at Wilton Park in Sussex and the police training college at Bramshill in Hampshire. Interestingly, it appears that Bramshill is the current relocation site for Parliament should it have to leave London for any reason. If Sunnigdale Park is a candidate then the other 2 civil defence schools at Easingwold and Falfield were possibilities.

The Appendix X to the 1968 issue of the Government War Book contained the manning orders for the PYTHON groups and the National Agency sections and included instructions (measure X5) that “Department concerned should implement forthwith plans to make the ship previously selected available as soon as possible to embark a PYTHON group at port to be designated separately”. The next instruction repeated the same words but this ship would embark a UKSA section. The Cabinet Office have said that there were 2 ships available for PYTHON purposes – the helicopter support ship RFA Engadine built in the mid-1960s and the Royal Yacht Britannia. This information would seem to negate the idea that the Queen would use Britannia as a floating bolt-hole in the event of war.

It seems likely that in or about 1980 the PYTHON plan was revised with a possible reduction in the number of PYTHON sites and teams. With this in mind it is interesting to note an unusual entry in the Government War Book for 1983 which said that as part of the preparations for war HMY Britannia would be converted to an Emergency Hospital Carrier and FYA Engadine’s role would change to one of a helicopter carrier. This information appeared in the main body of the War Book rather than in the more highly restricted appendices dealing with PYTHON arrangements and would appear to suggest that these 2 ships were no longer earmarked for PYTHON.

It is probable that the sites for the groups would have had telephone circuits either pre-existing or perhaps, if in government owned buildings, specially installed. However the main communication system would be a special home defence radio network known as CONRAD. This was a single channel HF radio teleprinter system which was improved by 1980 to a higher capacity, more mobile radio relay network. The original Conrad 1 system would have 66 mobile radio stations working through one (later 3) large lorry-borne GATEWAY stations serving armed forces headquarters, including the regional Armed Forces Headquarters, and links into selected radio stations to provide communications overseas. More importantly perhaps it would serve the dispersed PYTHON groups. The signals troops came mainly from Territorial Army signals regiments under the command of 2 (National Communications) Signal Group (later Brigade). It may be just a coincidence that, for many years, the headquarters of this brigade was located at Corsham on top of the CGWHQ site.

Manning PYTHON 

The Government War Book was classified Top Secret but even so a series of appendices to it were given an even more limited circulation than the main volume. According to instructions issued in 1968 in Appendices W and X of the War Book when the order to prepare what was referred to as the ACGWH (for Alternate Central Government War Headquarters) instructions would be given to prepare the various pre-designated but unnamed sites by installing additional telephone circuits, etc.

In a procedure virtually the same as that planned for CGWHQ staff in the early 1960s departmental Establishment Officers would warn the staff designated for PYTHON groups and National Agency sections who, until that moment, would have had no knowledge that they had been selected for a wartime role. Under PYTHON they would receive a preliminary warning before being given the “Initial Movement Instructions” (based on the old First Information Slip) which told them to go home, collect their one bag or suitcase and return to their office. In an exact repeat “clothing may be informal” and they could expect to be away for about a month. Families could write to them at BFPO4000, the same number as used for the CGWHQ. Food and accommodation would again be free “but may be austere” and “facilities for entertainment will be limited”. On returning to their offices the designees would be allocated to one of several Parties (Party Hotel, Party Kilo, etc) some of which would move in advance of the others. They would be held until the decision to man was finalised when they would be given the “Final Movement Instructions”. This gave them little real information but said that they were to act as inconspicuously as possible and would be briefed that they were “…a group of civil [and military] officials being deployed for Home Defence purposes”.

On the order to move they would be directed to one of 5 designated assembly points around Whitehall from where they would be taken to their “ultimate point of departure” by London Transport buses. There was also an “out of London check point” where non-London based staff would report. Military communications staff and BBC staff would also be informed and presumably would proceed independently or via the check point.

Unfortunately, the “ultimate points of departure” are not given not given although the instructions in the GWB mention reporting to check points such as Lime Street Station in Liverpool, Southend Airport and the Royal Greenjacket’s Depot in Winchester. These places may however only have been included for illustrative purposes. Interestingly, the implication is that the groups would probably be moved to their final destination by air.

Appendix X also included instructions for manning Turnstile by Party Romeo which seem to be virtually the same as for CGWHQ days (Check Point is specifically mentioned) but on a smaller scale. Party Romeo would be the support team to prepare Turnstile to receive the surviving PYTHON teams and then support them later.

Control Points and COBR 

The War Books said that departments would set up Control Points, headed by the Cabinet Office Control Point to oversee the implementation of War Book messages. However, these were little more than a contact point with a permanently manned telephone which would be set up on the issuing of the first codeword. By the late 1960s thought was being given to setting up a new facility which was referred to by various titles such as the Whitehall Situation Centre and the Central Operations Room. In a 1971 report this facility’s main purpose was said to be “…to enable the government to co-ordinate executive action to the requirements of NATO” which implies a war role however, at this time, which was one of considerable industrial unrest, it was suggested that it would also “fulfil a useful function in relation to civil emergencies..” A briefing document gave it 3 specific functions –

  1. “Central point for collection, collation and display of information
  2. Additional facilities for briefing officials and ministers
  3. A point at which the principle staff would be and where decisions would be made.”

This facility would soon acquire the designation as the Cabinet Office Briefing Room popularly known as COBR or COBRA. By the 1980s, COBR had become the term for both the Cabinet Committee consisting of senior ministers and representatives from relevant central government departments which would co-ordinate the Government’s response to any crisis and the place in the Cabinet Office building where it would operate from. One of the offices within COBR was the nuclear release room.

The 3 functions given above for COBR are remarkably similar to those given for the 1939 Central War Room. But there is an important difference. COBR is a suite of offices within the Cabinet Office building and as such would not give any protection against an attack. With this in mind it is interesting to note that from the 1980s a large complex known as PINDAR was built under the Ministry of Defence Main Building just off Whitehall based on the Whitehall Gardens bunker developed there in the early 1950s.

PINDAR 

Design work for Project PINDAR (named after an ancient Greek poet) started in 1979/80 but the main construction contract was not awarded until 1987.  The project was beset with problems such as design changes, arguments between the contractors and the government agencies, arguments within the civil service as to which category of expenditure it would be put under (in other words, who would pay for it) and chronic cost over-runs. It was not completed until 1992 at a reported cost of £126 million (of which £66 million was for communications). The delays in completing the PINDAR complex has lead to some speculation that a temporary site was fitted out a few miles away in the redundant tunnels dug in the 1950s for the Kingsway trunk telephone exchange, itself a development of one of the wartime deep level tube shelters.

PINDAR has been referred to in Parliament as a “joint operations centre” to “…provide the Government with a protected (author’s emphasis) crisis management facility.” The PINDAR complex could provide a secure meeting place with extensive communications and accommodation facilities that would survive up to and even beyond a nuclear attack. If the Second World War is taken as a model then perhaps PINDAR could act as the Cabinet War Room in times of actual war to provide the necessary facilities for the Cabinet and other Ministerial and Official Committees, together with their staffs to receive and act on information from all government departments, UK and NATO military headquarters, allied governments and other government agencies such as the Regional Emergency Committees. Its role is described in one file as “…offering accommodation for all Ministers and staff concerned with the central direction of the nation in transition to war”. In fact it has been described specifically as a facility for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room although this information was considered sensitive. Conveniently, the Defence Situation Room was also located in the complex allowing the funding of it to be described as “refurbishment of the Ministry of Defence Situation and Communications Centre for use by military operational staff.” Originally PINDAR was planned as a relatively small, short term facility but by the mid-1980s its role had changed to one where it would be used much more often and for longer periods. The fact that one of the modifications added at this time was the installation of EMP or electro-magnetic pulse shielding suggests that the plan was to continue to use it after a nuclear attack.

Any serious crisis would initially be monitored by the Civil Contingencies Unit. This was set up after the Miners’ Strike of 1972 when the then existing Home Office Emergencies Organisation was found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Unit would be supported by the crisis management facilities of COBR. Actual management of an emergency would be lead by the Civil Contingencies Committee which was first established in 1974. This is a mixed Cabinet Committee consisting of senior ministers and representatives from relevant central government departments. The peacetime terms of reference for the committee are “to co-ordinate the preparation of plans for ensuring in an emergency the supplies and services essential to the life of the community; to keep those plans under regular review; and to supervise their prompt and effective implementation in specific emergencies”. If war seemed likely the Civil Contingencies Committee might be replaced or supplemented by a War Cabinet (constitutionally established as a Cabinet Committee) made up of the Prime Minister, a few senior ministers, defence chiefs, intelligence advisers, etc.

A new role for TURNSTILE 

Abandoned CGWHQ communications equipment showing the effects of damp. (Steve Fox)

Although no longer required for its original role the Machinery of Government in War Committee decided in 1967 to retain TURNSTILE because, even though it might well be attacked, “Such costly headquarters should not be discarded lightly”. TURNSTILE was retained because of its value as an accretion centre if it survived. It was however realised that if TURNSTILE was retained and work and planning for the site allowed to continue, albeit in a reduced and disguised form, it would serve to keep attention from PYTHON on the basis that if it were abandoned people would inevitably wonder about its replacement. This meant that it would have a deception or decoy role, although this was a bonus rather than an additional role to that of an accretion centre. The fact that TURNSTILE was a decoy to stop people including the Russians from looking for an alternative to it was kept even more secret than the original “central secret”. Even some planners were not informed. Instead they were given a new cover story.

By this time the planners thought that the Precautionary Period which would precede the start of the war would only last 2 – 3 days rather than the 7 originally expected and this would not give sufficient time to man TURNSTILE on the planned scale. This allowed most of those who were in on the central secret to be correctly told that it would be impractical to try to establish the CGWHQ with the planned 4000 staff but it would be possible to move 600 -700 in the shorter period to produce an embryo of central government. This however was really the cover story to protect the PYTHON concept. Knowledge of the PYTHON concept was limited to a very small group of ministers and senior officials, and a wider circle of people with limited access to the machinery of government in war plans remained under the impression that the plan to activate the CGWHQ at Corsham during transition to war was still current.

A paper from July 1967 on manning scales for TURNSTILE under the PYTHON concept headed “Top Secret Acid – to be seen only by ACID indoctrinated personnel” said “… it is intended that TURNSTILE should be manned during the Precautionary Stage by a relatively small maintenance and communications party with the prime functions of providing suitable advice post-attack to the PYTHON Group in control on the advisability of using TURNSTILE as an accretion centre, notably its structural condition and communications and, if this accretion was agreed, of making preparations there for the reception of the PYTHON Groups (and perhaps of National Agency sections)”. The decision to send several hundred people in what was later called the R Group (possibly Party Romeo which was mentioned earlier when manning PYTHON was discussed) to Turnstile ready to support the PYTHON groups which were dispersed because the planners thought TURNSTILE might be attacked might seem strange but the reasoning was that these people would be in no more danger than if they stayed at their desks in Whitehall, etc. Planning proceeded on the basis that the number of staff at TURNSTILE post-attack excluding common services staff, etc sent there pre-attack would not exceed 600. The plans assumed that 2 PYTHON Groups, 1 UKSA section and 1 NATA section with a total staff 435 would survive the attack. This reduction in the numbers at TURNSTILE would allow the underground area used to be reduced which in turn would allow for a reduction in the permanent staff at the site. At the time about 50 people employed by the Ministry of Public Building and Works and 15 by the Post Office worked there.

The reduction in the role of Turnstile meant that its communications could be reduced, something the planners jumped at as it would mean reducing the line rental costs of telephones and telegraphs which was one of the major expenses of maintaining the site. A draft communications plan from early 1968 proposed private telephone wires going to most of the old Regional Seats of Government presumably on the basis that the lines already existed and might still be useful (or possibly that they had new roles), the local UKWMO group controls, several local Post Office telephone exchanges such as Worcester and Reading, military headquarters at home and in NATO, British embassies, etc. Some previously unmentioned sites were included in the plan such as a Railway National Headquarters in Stratford upon Avon, a headquarters of the Electricity Council in Laycock and an MI6 “war station” at Towyn in Wales.

Early planning for accretion of PYTHON groups in a smaller Turnstile envisaged the following people coming together to operate mainly from Areas 14 and 16 on what was termed a “broad functional basis” –

Python group staff
Prime Minister (presumably from P group) 1
Private sec to PM 1
Co-ordinators 2
Home Affairs Division  
Minister and Private Sec 2
Section A  
Economic functions, trade and transport, power, Post Office, public information plus clerical support 22
Section B  
Home Office, health service, housing & local gov, agriculture and food plus clerical support 22
Overseas and Supply Division  
Minister and Private Sec 2
Overseas section 13
Supply section (shipping, industry, food supply) plus clerical support 22
Diplomatic representatives 16
Defence Element  
Minister, Chief of Staff plus support 35
UK Supplies Agency  
Minister and support staff 5
Transport and Oil Distribution section  
Shipping 24
Oil distribution and air transport 8
Procurement and Allocation division  
Food, oil procurement and refining, industrial supplies 42
Statistical, intelligence and scientific staff 9
National Air Transport Agency  
RAF organisation 11
Civil organisation 11
Air traffic control 1
Meteorological 1
Operations room 4
Equipment and stores 3
BBC accommodation ?
Communications staff  
From Python group 60
From UKSA 25
From NATA 13
Medical 1
Common typing pool  
From Python group 12
From UKSA 6
Messengers and dispatch riders  
From Python group 12
From UKSA 6
Security guards and domestic Staff  
From Python group 12
From UKSA 6
From NATA 6
Camp Commandant and staff ?

These people would be in addition to the support staff already at TURNSTILE. The rooms nominally allocated to them showed that they would use the ones designated for similar core functions under the original CGWHQ layout with the Prime Minister using rooms 34 and 35 in Area 14 and with Room 44 again being used as the main Map Room.

The revised ideas meant that the exact numbers who would assemble at TURNSTILE post-strike was uncertain but a 1968 plan suggested having dormitory accommodation for 750 (including 100 female staff) in Area 15 with individual bedrooms for 22 VIPs in Area 22. The Prime Minister would continue to retain rooms 34 and 35 in Area 14. At this time the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works were spending around £120,000 a year on maintenance (£10,000 on cleaning, £38,000 on day-to-day maintenance, £22,000 on security and fire patrol and £50,000 on electricity).

Some time later a nominal total figure of 1000 to include the staff of the various maintenance and support elements as well as the PYTHON groups was adopted for planning purposes. A study made in 1978 said that that accretion would take place by N+30, that is 30 days after the end of the nuclear attack, and possibly by N+15. The nominal 1000 staff might then consist of –

      • 2 PYTHON groups (134×2)
      • 2 UKSA groups (145×2)
      • military support (86)
      • civilian support (100)
      • R Group (the advance party to prepare and the support the site’s operation) (256)

Food stocks would be held for the R Group for 30 days before the nuclear attack and 15 days after and then for the 1000 for a further 45 days. This reflects the idea that a war may have a conventional phase during which PYTHON would be manned but not have a role. Fuel would be stocked for 90 days but stationery and medical stores and other stocks for 60 days.

Around this time it appears that the PYTHON groups would be provided with 45 days of compo rations drawn from army food depots. This was to allow the groups to be independent for up to 30 days before the attack and 15 days afterwards. These figures suggest that the Python groups would be mobilised and dispersed at a much earlier stage in a crisis than envisaged in the days of the full-scale CGWHQ. It also suggests that the Python groups were expected to accrete within 15 days of the attack. Whilst Turnstile would have been stocked with sufficient to feed 1000 for 60 days after attack it seems possible that at least 2 other accretion sites were considered or at least contemplated although no details are available.

Changes at TURNSTILE

This reduction in numbers meant that the accommodation and stocks at TURNSTILE could be reviewed and reduced. One of the first signs of the reduction in facilities at Corsham was the removal of half the emergency compo rations in July 1968 by the simple expedient of not replacing the stocks due to be turned over.

Active consideration was now given to reducing the size of the maintained area underground. A report by the Ministry of Public Building and Works pointed out that the site had been built as a whole with, for example, the air intake and electricity generating station at one end and the water supply and sewage disposal at the other, and it would be costly to move some of the operations such as the hospital, telephone exchange and canteens. Colonel Gregory, as the man on the spot, was asked to draw up a scheme to reduce the operational area in use at TURNSTILE. He proposed restricting the active area to the eastern half of the site by dividing it along a centre line running north-south along South Main Road. When this was agreed a new dividing wall was built separating the 2 halves and a relatively flimsy roller-shutter was installed across East Main Road roughly where PL1 is situated.

Under the refurbishment the eastern half of the site was effectively barricaded off from the western half which would be largely abandoned. This was the simplest solution because the eastern section contained most of the indivisible features and independent air conditioning arrangements. Only the eastern section would retain air conditioning which was reconditioned although it would still be dependent on the main air intake and the main power house in the western section. Even if the western section were abandoned access would still needed to the plant and the section would need partial ventilation.

There was some debate over whether or not to move all the communications from Area 8 to Area 21 but in the end things were left as they were although the number of communications centres was reduced possibly to just one and some of the equipment upgraded. The BBC studio areas were modernised either at this time or later. Some of the laundry equipment originally installed in Area 20 was relocated to the kitchen and dining area in Area 12. The unwanted equipment along with a lot of the kitchen and bakery equipment was simply abandoned to slowly decay. To provide the necessary space in Area 12 one of the existing serveries and a tea bar were removed. Other changes were made to the infrastructure in the eastern half notably to the lagoon.

The reduced staffing numbers meant that less equipment was needed. Although it appears that some of the massive stocks were left untouched the number of beds was reduced to around 1000. The old mattresses were replaced with fire retardant ones and the metal wardrobes reconditioned.

Ground defence control centre in the QOC. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH)

The Ministry of Public Building and Works suggested some of the abandoned areas in the west could be taken over by the RAF as fall-out protected living space and this is probably the origins of the Quarry Operations Centre or QOC built into the north western corner of the CGWHQ area to provide a protected ground defence HQ for the whole site, a national war headquarters for the RAF Police, underground dormitories, a medical centre, etc. Some of the furniture and kitchen equipment for the QOC was taken from surplus stocks in the reduced CGWHQ.

The code words TURNSTILE, PYTHON and ACID were replaced in July 1970 by CHANTICLEER, PEBBLE and FILCH (although for the sake of simplicity this article will continue to use the word PYTHON). These changes were made as a precaution because a destruction certificate for a classified document could not be found, with the possibility that it had been lost. PEBBLE was changed to RUBBER in 1982 and then RUBY in 1983. FILCH was changed to CLARET and then SIPPET. From 1979 the codeword FLEX was allocated to protect those aspects of the arrangements at Corsham that might reveal that Corsham no longer hosted the CGWHQ.

The Revised strategy 

The PYTHON concept was based on the assumption that a war would escalate to a full scale nuclear exchange very quickly. However, by the end of the 1960s NATO strategy had changed. Rather than work to a 2-3 day Precautionary stage which would be followed by a nuclear exchange it was now assumed that there would be a political warning period following which a war would start with a conventional phase with both sides avoiding the use of nuclear weapons (except possibly tactical ones on the battlefield). The British view was that this phase would last up to 5 days but the US thought it could last 2 or 3 weeks. After this time the fighting would end in defeat, armistice or nuclear escalation. This meant quite radical rethinking as for example it implied that Britain would be exposed to conventional air and possibly missile attack on a sustained scale although this was not assumed to be on the scales seen in World War 2 and would be directed at military targets, particularly those associated with our nuclear strike forces, rather than civilian targets.

Room 30, Area 21, local telecommunications exchange supporting the communications centres, now showing the effects of damp. (©M.A. Bennett/MOD/EH).

During this period central government was expected to be carried on from London as in peacetime. This lead to a search for and examination of the need for protected accommodation for civilian and service departments although the general view was that this would not be necessary and certainly nothing like the arrangements put in place in 1939 would be needed. It did however impact on the PYTHON concept which was based on the concern that Corsham could not be manned in the 2- 3 days available whilst PYTHON arrangements could be implemented much quicker. But Exercise Beachcomber held in 1975 found that it would take up to 7 days to deploy to PYTHON sites which put a question mark over the basic reasoning behind the new concept. It seems likely that as a result the plan was modified so that only a nucleus of the groups would initially be deployed with the aim of becoming effective within 48 hours. The rest of the members would join later, possibly even post-attack. Another exercise, Precise, held in 1982 showed that the civilian posts for PYTHON had still not been fully filled and as with every exercise held at this level throughout the Cold War it found that communications were slower than desired.

There was also a practical problem arising from this change in expected timings. The NATO civil wartime agencies would be set up and would be functioning during this conventional phase including the NATO Oil Executive Board (East) and the Defence Shipping Executive Board (East) which were destined for the old RSG in Cambridge but the UK Supplies Agency which would play a major role in their operations would not be operating until the Python concept was activated by a nuclear attack.

CHANTICLEER and Albatross 

Traffic Hall, Group 5 Signal Centre, Area 21(©Bennett/MOD/EH)

Maintaining the site, now codenamed CHANTICLEER, was an expensive luxury at a time when most home defence and civil defence expenditure was pared to the bone. Some active consideration was made in 1976 as to whether or not it should be retained but it was decided that the situation was even more in favour of its retention than a decade earlier.

Although the communications had been reduced since 1967 the scale of the remaining communication facilities still made CHANTICLEER an excellent accretion centre, and an accretion centre for the various dispersed central government agencies was considered to be a necessity.

Plan showing in grey the reduced area of CHANTICLEER

Plan showing in grey the reduced area of CHANTICLEER

A report concluded “…as CHANTICLEER is such an excellent accretion centre if it survives, and costs so little to maintain, notwithstanding its assumed vulnerability it should be retained as an accretion centre unless there is an overwhelming case to the contrary”. In 1976 the site still had its original quantities of stationery and the perishable items were still turned over on a regular basis. Secrecy was still a priority as shown by the decision in the mid-1970s when Duncan Campbell, previously mentioned as the author of “War Plan UK” was prosecuted for possessing photos of amongst other things photos of Backbone masts, his photos of the Five Ways mast at Corsham were specifically and deliberately left out of the prosecution evidence.

There was now a surplus of space in CHANTICLEER. Some parts were taken over for other purposes and in 1977 it was considered as a war location for UK Land Forces. At one stage rations were held for only 250 people and that figure would only be reached after 30 days but the army ration packs were still turned over every 2 years and stored at the site. However, for planning purposes the total staff was usually assumed to be 1000. In terms of function the 1000 were expected to break down into –

Home affairs 100
Defence and overseas 150
Supplies (shipping, oil, food, etc) 200
Communications 150
BT areas 100
Administration and services 300

At this time the School of Infantry at Warminster, possibly still designated for a role as Check Point was tasked with providing a Special Duties Force which would take care of all the administration, domestic duties, etc at the site. The numbers for each role show how the potential manning of the site had fallen since its heyday. The Special Duties Force consisted of –

Administration 16 (Camp Commandant, Quartermaster, Chief Clerk, etc)
Fire Party 13
Guard Company 33
Messing section 25 (including 9 cooks)
Laundry section 9
Hygiene and medical section 19 (including a doctor and a dentist)
Motor transport 3
General duties 25

General view of Area 12 in the CGWHQ (Dom Jackson)

The Special Duties Force together with 41 building, construction and engineering staff provided by the Department of the Environment and 74 communications staff would now occupy the site at the start of a crisis but the site would have no role in any period of tension or conventional war. After the nuclear attack it would provide ‘…protected accommodation for selected control elements in the event of a general nuclear attack on the UK’ and act as an accretion centre for the PYTHON groups who would act as a basic central government. The plan was for the site to be manned covertly and be operational within 48 hours. It would then be able to operate independently for up to 30 days before a strike and for up to 60 days after.

Under the new reduced area concept only Areas 8 to 16, 21 and 22 at Corsham were retained in active use. But the site still needed maintaining and at one stage concern was raised that one of the ventilation shafts would collapse. Surplus equipment, notably for telecommunications, was often simply dumped into unused areas and left to rot.

A 1978 Cabinet Office paper said the role of CHANTICLEER was “…the planned growth centre for central government after a nuclear attack”. The paper went on to say that this reflected earlier ideas about how the next world war would develop when the assumption was that it would start with an immediate, and all-out, exchange of nuclear weapons and there would only be time for a “…crash dispersal of elements of central government” followed by accretion post-strike at CHANTICLEER if it survived in a useable form. In other words, the PYTHON scheme.

This strategic assumption had changed in the late 1970s. The new assumption on which all NATO war plans were being based was that a future war would now start with a period of conventional fighting. This would be on a continental, even world scale and would end when either a cease fire was arranged or the war went nuclear. How long the conventional stage would last was obviously unknown. British military planners worked on a period of a few weeks or as long as ammunition, etc lasted but the Americans worked on a period of a at least 3 months. If the planners ever thought that the conventional period would end when the Soviet Union defeated NATO they did not record the fact.

During this period of conventional fighting the country would have to support the armed forces and prepare for the possibility of a nuclear attack whilst being subjected to significant and prolonged air attack. The main targets for these conventional attacks were assumed to be military sites and those places, notably ports, airports and communications centres which would aid the war effort but the planners also assumed that the attacks would seek to destroy or disrupt the work of central government with Whitehall as an obvious target and so plans had to be made to cope with this. Studies were already under way into what would become PINDAR, the major protected facility under MoD Main Building near Whitehall which was discussed earlier but the planners now started to consider if CHANTICLEER could be for central government if Whitehall became unusable. This would mean CHANTICLEER could have 2 incompatible roles. It could be the post-strike accretion centre but it could also be a place from which at least part of the central government machine could operate during a conventional war alongside or as a replacement for the unprotected Cabinet Office Briefing Room (often called COBRA) and the heavily protected PINDAR. The roles were incompatible because if the site were used during a conventional stage its secrecy would be compromised so that it could not then be used as a later accretion centre. Alongside these ideas thoughts were also given to keeping CHANTICLEER purely as a decoy site with no actual wartime role or even abandoning the site completely.

The major part of the refurbishment work following from the reduction in area was completed in 1971. At that time the annual running costs were some £600,000 per annum of which the charges for the telecommunications facilities mainly made up of the annual rental for the private wires giving direct communications access to outside sites was some £500,000 – a figure which was considered to be unacceptably high. The communications facilities were subsequently reduced so that by 1976 the annual charges had reduced to only £80,000.

In 1980 the stationery stocks were reduced but they still included 3000 black ball-point pens, 4000 A5 writing pads and 3 million sheets of A4 duplicating paper. Stocks of toilet rolls were also reduced but now, perhaps of some comfort, they were to be ‘toilet rolls, soft’.

By this time some major defects were becoming apparent in the site’s infrastructure. Given the new concerns with conventional bombing attacks it was realised that whilst the numerous shafts giving access to the surface were designed to give protection against the blast wave from a nuclear explosion they were not proof against a direct hit from a conventional bomb which could penetrate the structure via one of the shafts and explode inside the working areas below. The planners also realised that it had no protection against a chemical attack nor from the electro magnetic pulse given off by a nuclear explosion which would damage or destroy electrical equipment even deep underground, particularly the communications equipment without which the site simply could not function. Other defects noted included the need to substantially replace the ventilation system, to replace the diesel generators, renovate the water supply plant and update the lifts and escalator. The latter no longer worked and could only be used as a fixed staircase for an emergency exit.

In 1981 the cover story was that CHANTICLEER was a planned growth centre for government after a nuclear attack. The phrase adding “…to which staff could be deployed before an attack” had apparently been dropped but this may just have been a simplification rather than an indication of a real change. The site was still thought to be a decoy to distract interested people from looking for the PYTHON scheme and it was thought that this story would actually be strengthened by the retention of the vast range of communication kit which still existed at the site and which was now over 20 years old. In practice, the live communications kit had been grouped into the Group 5 communications centre and may have been updated in the 1970s.

A check made in 1981 showed the position or proposed use of each Area –

      • Area 1 now wet – abandon
      • Area 2 used by RAF
      • Area 3 additional accommodation available to RAF
      • Area 4 future use uncertain – perhaps ration store – in use
      • Area 5 future use uncertain – perhaps storage of art treasures – in use
      • Area 6 now wet – abandon
      • Area 7 now wet – abandon
      • Area 8 BT area
      • Area 9 dormitory area
      • Area 10 office accommodation
      • Area 11 PSA workshops and water storage
      • Area 12 canteen/laundry
      • Area 13 offices
      • Area 14 office accommodation
      • Area 15 offices and dormitory
      • Area 16 offices and BBC studio
      • Area 17 now wet – abandon
      • Area 18 now wet – abandon
      • Area 19 PSA workshops and power station
      • Area 20 ration store
      • Area 21 BT area
      • Area 22 dormitories and office accommodation

The suggestion that Area 5 could be used to store art treasures is interesting. Since World War 2 there had been plans, usually quite vague, to remove some selected major pieces of art from London (and later Cardiff) in the run up to a war and take them to places of safety. By the 1980s the original storage sites had fallen out of use and Corsham could have been a replacement site albeit one which was not obviously developed. Area 4 was mentioned as a possible regional Armed Forces Headquarters and Area 21 was “full of obsolete communications equipment”. Areas 8 to 16, 21 and 22 were specified as TURNSTILE. By now there were now only 749 beds at the site. Despite the reduction in size in the occupied area annual maintenance costs in 1981 were running at around £300,000 per annum and operating costs, mainly electricity charges, at £200,000 per annum.

Telegraph equipment and rectifiers in Area 21. Note the 'fungal fan' on the wall. These fans are a result of the damp conditions and are by themselves famous. (Nick Catford).

Telegraph equipment and rectifiers in Area 21. Note the ‘fungal fan’ on the wall. (Nick Catford).

Apart from the provision of a new 1.125 million litre fresh water tank, an incinerator and a waste disposal unit there do not appear to have been many infrastructure changes at CHANTICLEER after the earlier refurbishment because in 1981the Cabinet Office commissioned the “Project Albatross feasibility study report” from the Property

Services Agency to look into the means of “providing a protected enclave within an existing underground complex… for selected government control elements in the event of a general nuclear attack on the UK”. The enclave was to have a design life of 25 years and take 1000 people and their associated equipment. It should be able to operate covertly for up to 30 days before a nuclear attack and for 60 days after (the stocks of rations were increased at this time to 60,000). During this time it should be able to operate in a completely closed down state for up to 7 days. It was thought that this could be done without extracting carbon dioxide from the air or adding oxygen as there would be a gradual leak of air from the facility which could be replaced by small amounts of air drawn in through the existing filters.

The hospital kitchen with equipment on display by the mines staff. The machine to the right of the kettle is a ‘Buttapatta maker ‘ for producing pats of butter. (Dom Jackson)

Unlike in earlier plans there was now a requirement for protection against conventional bombing. It was thought that a direct hit at the surface by a 1000 kilogram semi- armour piercing bomb would produce only minor spalling underground but a 5000 kilogram general purpose bomb could cause local collapse of the underground areas. However, there was more concern that these bombs could penetrate the protected headworks of the various shafts, entrances, etc and the study recommended reinforcing these. There was also a requirement to proof the complex against the electromagnetic pulse given off by a nuclear explosion which it was thought could damage electrical equipment, particularly communications equipment, even underground. The study however concluded that it would be expensive and difficult to protect against a pulse even 80 feet underground but nuclear, biological and chemical protection would be possible by installing decontamination rooms where people from outside could wash and change their clothes. The study also recommended a 4 metre thick reinforced concrete wall to surround the operational areas, extra protection for shaft entrances and blast valves and the building of internal shelters to protect people and essential plant from spalling and local collapse.

The Project Albatross study considered 5 schemes to incorporate various combinations of Areas but the common thread was that they all used space in the eastern half of the quarry beyond the existing CHANTICLEER boundary. All the schemes included a new lagoon to store water and replacement power generation, ventilation and refrigeration plant. Unlike the original scheme cooking would be based completely on army compo-type rations and most people would sleep in 2-tier bunks on a hot-bunk basis. At this time, and independently of Project Albatross, the planners were considering replacing the beds on the site, possibly with metal bunks which could be salvaged form the deep tube shelters in central London where they had been installed during World War 2. Replacement fire-proof mattresses were also discussed.

There were serious drawbacks with all the Albatross schemes. In particular, they would cost between £21m and £31m, would take 4 – 5 years to complete and the whole complex would be out of action during the refurbishment. Such work would inevitably draw attention to the site and compromise its security. Moreover, a potential enemy would realise that the site was out of action and go looking for an alternative – exactly the opposite situation to what the decoy site role was intended to produce although if it survived the site was still the obvious choice for an accretion centre especially as there was no obvious alternative site with the necessary communications facilities. But a new consideration was emerging that the cost of refurbishment and continual maintenance of the site could only be justified if it had a pre-nuclear strike role even if this compromised security so that it could not have a post-strike one. However, this extra expense (at least £14 million) would be hard to justify especially as it would be in many ways duplicate the new PINDAR facility which was expected to cost £13 million (in practice it cost many times this figure).

The machinery of government in war planning team were now actively considering abandoning the site but there were suddenly some developments –

  1. In 1982 the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell published “War Plan UK – the truth about civil defence in Britain” in which he described, albeit in general terms a “central war headquarters” at Corsham. This, of course, destroyed any chance that the Corsham site would remain a secret. However, far from being upset by this publicity the planners (very) secretly welcomed it because it greatly enhanced Corsham’s position as a decoy site to stop people be they Russians, nuclear disarmers or nosey journalists from looking for PYTHON.
  2. There was a growing school of thought that the conventional war fighting period might not be ended with a total nuclear attack but by one or more isolated nuclear attacks. If this were the case then Whitehall would be an obvious target resulting in the destruction not only of the peacetime central government apparatus but also COBRA and PINDAR.
  3. If the site were retained there would be little difference in the long run between the cost of simply maintaining it in its existing state and refurbishing a smaller part of it.

This lead to further consideration of a “reduced area scheme” which could be used for either role with the decision as to which one being made on the day. This scheme would only use Areas 8,9,10 and 11 together with as much of the existing plant and machinery as possible. East Main Road would be retained from PL1 to Area 11 with a spur to ML1. The reduced facility would be bounded by a security wall. Entrance would be via a refurbished PL2.

The scheme would still cater for 1000 people with the areas used as follows –

  • Area 8 would contain all the communications together with conference and briefing rooms. It would also be the main office working area able to take up to 500 people at any one time.
  • Area 9 would be the main dormitory area. There would be single bedrooms with en suite showers for 10 VIPs (Prime Minister, ministers and chiefs of staff) and 24 single bedrooms. Most of the staff would sleep in dormitories in 2-tier bunks. Existing toilets and showers would be used but chemical toilets would be provided as a back up.
  • Area10 would house the sick bay (the existing hospital area with a sick bay of 10 single beds, one operating theatre and associated facilities to cope with simple complaints) together with dining and rest rooms, the kitchen and a small laundry. A sealed off part of this area would also house new diesel generators and their fuel store.
  • Area 11 would house the existing lagoon and sewage ejector station together with a new reservoir with associated water purification and pumping plant

Passenger lift (PL) 2. (Nick Catford)

The scheme did not go ahead due to the inherent problems in the site, in particular its vulnerability to conventional attack and nuclear electro magnetic pulse, and the unreliability of some of the plant. By this time there was only one operational communications centre (in room 34 of Area 21). British Telecom, as the successor to the GPO reported that the telephone switchboard was 40 years old and recommended its replacement but the 1600 line Strowger type automatic exchange was still operational. The teleprinter equipment was obsolescent but considered good for another 5 – 10 years. The BT repeater station was still in operation although the TASS (teleprinter automatic switching system) was not. Much of the unwanted communications equipment in the other rooms was simply left because it was more convenient to do this than to recover it. And much of it is still there.

However, it appears that again nothing happened as a result of the feasibility study and in 1988 the Cabinet Office, faced with the growing costs and obsolescence of PERIPHERAL, as the site was now code named, commissioned a new Project Albatross Design Study which would continue the work of the 1982 study. It would now cost a ‘minimum area scheme’ but interestingly would also consider the possibilities of setting up the site so that it could be made operational within a 28 day period and examine the costs of completely abandoning the site. The latter would include making redundant the 40 or so people working at the site.

Part of the kitchen in Area 12 of the CGWHQ. (Nick Catford).

The study was based on using the same accommodation and numbers as before. Mention was made of psychological relief being provided by the Medical Centre but “Mortuary provision has not been considered”. Unlike with the original facility consideration was now given to working conditions and the general internal environment. It was suggested that “selected green foliage plants” would assist with purifying the air as well as having a psychological benefit. PL1 would be abandoned as the entry point in favour of PL2. The reduced site would not need continuous guard patrols and the plant would be run in fully automatic mode during normal conditions so that the dedicated maintenance staff could be reduced to 5.

The Study which included plans for a BBC studio was still based on 1000 potential staff and included lists of proposed telephone and telex circuits which is interesting to compare with the numbers actually provided 30 years before. Private circuits would go to –

  • the emergency manual switching system centres at Worcester, Reading and Merthyr Tydfil
  • Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQs – an evolution from the earlier RSGs) 7.1 (Chilmark), 9.2 (Drakelow), 4.1 (Bawburgh) and 1.1 (Anstruther)
  • UKWMO Bath
  • BBC Wood Norton and Caversham
  • MoD Rudloe Manor
  • NATO Civil Wartime Agencies, Cambridge
  • BT Defence Network at Shepton Mallet and Oswestry
  • Defence Communications Network Rudloe Manor
  • Rugby and Somerton radio stations
  • 14 circuits to various military HQs and communications sites such as Boddington, Croughton, Fylingdales and Pitreavie

There would also be 20 exchange lines.

This scheme was costed at between £27m and £36m with a construction period of 5 years. It was not pursued.

Myths and misunderstandings 

For many years before it was declassified many people knew or assumed there was something interesting at Spring Quarry but the understandable reluctance of the government to confirm or deny anything spawned a variety of myths about the site. Many related to its size. It was supposedly an underground city for 7000 people complete with rows of shops, 60 miles of roads, an underground railway and was powered by its own nuclear generator. However, the biggest myth and one which is still regurgitated dozens of times on the internet is undoubtedly the supposed existence of a full size pub underground, usually called the Rose and Crown and supposedly based on a Whitehall watering hole.

The platform area in the Tunnel Quarry ammunition depot.(Dom Jackson)

The ammunition depot to the north was known to have underground platforms which had been used to unload ammunition trucks during the last war. This lead to suggestions that trains full of civil servants would go directly from London and be taken inside the CGWHQ via this underground branch line. This also encouraged speculation that these railway lines or others deep inside Spring Quarry were used to hide a secret “strategic reserve” of steam trains. Perhaps these arrived on the secret underground railway line said to stretch from Whitehall to Corsham.

At one time the nearby RAF Rudloe Manor had some role in receiving reports about UFOs. As it was “well known” to believers in such things that “the government” had captured some of these “alien craft” and their occupants Spring Quarry was an obvious place to hide them. However, none of the visitors to the site since its declassification have seen anything, but perhaps this just means that the aliens have been moved elsewhere.

The regional dimension from the 1960s

As mentioned earlier, the CGWHQ would look in 2 directions. Its main role was to look outwards, to oversee as far as possible any remaining fighting, liaise with allies and to try to acquire food and other vital materials post-war. But it also looked inwards as the national governing body to organise the country in what were known as the survival and recovery stages after the nuclear attack. From the outset the CGWHQ was seen as being able only to provide a very limited government for the country largely because of its lack of information about what was really happening outside its cavern and its difficulties in communicating and enforcing its decisions. So from the time they conceived the CGWHQ Thomas Padmore and his successors saw that there would be a need for a lower level of government which would direct the struggle for survival at the regional level.

By the time the CGWHQ became operational things at the regional level had developed and the joint civil-military headquarters had evolved into Regional Seats of Government perhaps better known as RSGs. This change of designation reflected a change in emphasis in civil defence. It was realised that faced with the carnage and dislocation that would follow a hydrogen bomb attack the traditional “bringing aid and succour” approach to civil defence was not credible. All that could be provided was a framework of government to assist the survivors. The RSGs, each with a staff of around 450 working to the Regional Commissioner would effectively become the government for the region guided, if possible, once the chaos had started to clear by the CGWHQ. The CGWHQ would be there to show the survivors that there was still a central organisation with a civil government at the helm, to organise inter-regional assistance and to provide food, etc at a strategic level.

From about 1960 sites began to be found for an RSG in every region in England and Wales and for the Scottish and Northern Ireland Central Controls which were effectively RSGs. The initial idea was for purpose built surface block-houses built around a very heavily reinforced central redoubt but there was never any money for these and instead a series of ad hoc buildings were adopted and adapted. The sites and origins of the RSGs were –

Region RSG location origin
Northern Catterick Army barracks
North East York Castle/Shipton Castle/ROTOR radar site
North Midland Nottingham Extended Regional War Room
East Cambridge Extended Regional War Room
Southern Warren Row/Reading WW2 underground factory/Regional War Room
South West Bolt Head near Kingsbridge ROTOR site
Wales Brecon Army barracks
Midland Drakelow WW2 underground factory
North West Preston Army barracks
South East Dover Castle/Tunbridge Wells Old tunnels/Regional War Room
Northern Ireland Armagh Army barracks
Scotland Kirknewton Extended Regional War Room


Compared to the money and effort given to the CGWHQ the RSGs were poorly served. The sites took many years to become operational and were often barely adequate for the role. Many were too small to take the nominal 450 staff, some were on split sites, the barracks would all take many days and thousands of sand-bags to improve their protection and Warren Row was actually considered to be unsafe. At various times the Regional Commissioner and the RSG was supported by sub-regional level controls to form a regional government.

The basic role of regional government changed little during the Cold War and in 1985 it was given as –

      1. Determining priorities between local authority controllers and other authorities,
      2. Control of broadcasting,
      3. Maintaining public order and the administration of justice,
      4. Allocation of assistance from the armed forces,
      5. Provisional fixing of any new agricultural and industrial priorities,
      6. The subsequent co-ordination of the survival and recovery of the nation under central government control.

Organisationally, the RSGs were miniature versions of the CGWHQ. The Regional Commissioner would act as the Prime Minister for the region and would have virtually unlimited powers under the emergency legislation which would have been rushed through Parliament to legitimise what, at both central and regional level, would be a dictatorial system of government. The Regional Commissioner would be supported by a team of civil servants and members of the armed forces together with a large communications team. Like the CGWHQ, the RSGs would be self-sufficient for at least a month although unlike the CGWHQ they did not have food and other supplies pre-stocked. The RSGs would be in contact with the CGWHQ by land-line and would send regular situation reports to inform the CGWHQ of the effects of the attack and the developing situation afterwards. The Regional Commissioner would in turn receive strategic level instructions from the CGWHQ.

As with the CGWHQ Government departments and other bodies maintained lists of people designated for roles in the RSGs who were never told of their potential war time roles. Unlike, the CGWHQ the RSG teams received a little training and the RSGs were occasionally exercised although this would have been totally inadequate to prepare the staff for their role. The roles of the RSGs and the CGWHQ although considered in very broad terms were never spelled out in any detail and all concerned would have been in the unenviable position of having to work out what they were supposed to do and how they should do it on the day.

The RSGs as fixed sites were abandoned in 1965 and for the next 15 years the plan was that the Regional Commissioner and his immediate team would be dispersed around the sub-regional level controls in a similar way to the PYTHON teams for central government. At a suitable time post-strike they would link up with the teams in the lower level controls to form the government for the region. By the early 1980s it was realised that this idea was impractical and it led to the final evolution of wartime regional government with most regions having 2 Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ) with the Regional Commissioner based in one and his deputy in the other each supported by a team of about 130 although with the same basic role as the much larger RSGs.

The end

Brentford Electro-Mechanical Power Regulators in Area 21(Bennett/MOD/EH)

The Corsham site continued to be maintained throughout the 1980s. But with the end of the Cold War it was little more than a white elephant. In 1991 the Official Committee on the Machinery of Government in War decided to put all PERIPHERAL arrangements onto a longer warning basis and a start was made on emptying various tanks and running down stocks although many things particularly the huge stocks of stationery were simply left where they were. Perhaps as a sign of the changing times a study made in1990 looked for and found that there was some blue asbestos and radon gas which, given the poor ventilation, was at unacceptably high levels.

In 1991 BBC still had a broadcasting studio and a monitoring studio at the site. There were 2 circuits from Caversham to Wood Norton (a telephone circuit and a 4-wire music-quality broadcasting circuit) which were routed through PERIPHERAL and which could be broken and taken for PERIPHERAL use if required. The telephone exchange was however closed.

In the 1990s the site was costing some £500,000 a year to maintain and 4 people spent approximately half of their working time there. But the site was allowed to deteriorate and by the end of the decade it was considered uninhabitable. In 1999 the Cabinet Office again contemplated the future of the site now known as EYEGLASS. Ownership of the site had been transferred from the Property Services Agency to the Ministry of Defence in March 1991 for administrative convenience but the Cabinet Office retained its interest in areas 12 -16 and 21 and 22. A letter to the Ministry of Defence in June 1999 said “…what the (draft) paper concludes is that the site has subsequently (since 1991) deteriorated to such an extent that it would be very costly to keep it open and that, coupled with other MOD developments of the Corsham estate, it no longer remains viable to do so. Moreover, the need to retain the site has reduced in the current changed strategic circumstances. The only pragmatic way forward would, therefore, appear to be to include the site closure costs in with those of the other 2 underground sites that are also owned by MOD as part of the overall estate development plans”. The other 2 sites mentioned formed RAF Rudloe Manor and the former CGWHQ became known as Site 3

Matters slowly moved to a conclusion. As the Ministry of Defence website said, when announcing the declassification of Site 3 “In recent years contingency plans have been developed that have greater relevance to the strategic threat faced by the UK. There is therefore no longer any requirement to maintain this facility even at minimal standards of upkeep. Also the whole of the site will be developed within the Corsham Development plan, a PFI initiative…” The Development Plan covered all the sites in the Corsham area and was intended to create a “communications centre of excellence”. So what was once the most secret place in Britain became public knowledge as a result of simple economics.

On Christmas Eve 2004 the Ministry of Defence quietly put a notice on its web site announcing that “A formerly secret Government underground site near Corsham in Wiltshire, which was a potential relocation site for the Government in the event of a nuclear war was declassified at the end of 2004”.

This was the first official acknowledgement of the existence at Corsham of the central government war headquarters, a fact which had been one of Britain’s biggest secrets for some 50 years and closed the story of the central government war headquarters.

Since its declassification the underground site has had a chequered history and its future is far from clear. In 2013 parts of it were given the status of a protected monument by English Heritage.

The final part of this work contains many more photographs, etc relating to athe CGWHQ.

… Continue to Part 4.  Additional Photographs

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