The bleak truth about a nuclear winter in Norfolk during the Cold War

PUBLISHED: 17:53 13 November 2018 | UPDATED: 17:53 13 November 2018

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied


Norfolk author Jim Wilson – who appears in a Channel Five programme Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain – has written a series of books on the Cold War and speculates on what could have happened to the region if the Cold War had turned ‘hot’.

Michael Portillo in nuclear war suit with Mark Sansom in nuclear bunkerMichael Portillo in nuclear war suit with Mark Sansom in nuclear bunker

For a former Secretary of State for Defence to compare planning to survive a nuclear apocalypse as being ‘in the realms of fantasy’ and ‘farcical’ does little to bolster the confidence of those of us who lived through the menacing days of the 1962 Cuban Crisis.

But that was Michael Portillo’s verdict on his visit to East Anglia’s last hope of succour and survival – the Cambridge-based regional seat of government (RSG) which he explores for his Channel Five programme ‘Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain’ on Friday at 9pm.

The role of the RSG, under a commissioner of Cabinet rank invested with draconian powers over life and death, was to direct the ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘survival phase’ of the post attack nuclear winter: in short to try to ensure at least some resemblance of the ‘nation state’ remaining regardless of how many of its citizens might be killed.

Portillo was Defence Minister between 1995 and 1997. He was nine when Khrushchev embarked on his tit-for-tat plan to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off America’s east coast. I was 27 with a wife and a three year old son to worry about.

Michael Portillo outside nuclear bunker (C) Channel 5Michael Portillo outside nuclear bunker (C) Channel 5

Our nearest neighbours were V-bomber aircrew from RAF Honington. In the grim vernacular of the time they were part of the ‘deterrent’ against nuclear war. Remember the acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction)? I had just witnessed, in my role of EDP reporter based at Thetford, the building of nuclear missile bases at Feltwell, North Pickenham and elsewhere across East Anglia to house American Thor rockets. Bases the UK Chiefs of Staff had told Ministers were vulnerable, represented an insurance policy for the US, but for us constituted a heightened danger.

We were the Soviet Union’s prime target. Nowhere else were so many first-strike targets per acre. East Anglia housed not just Thor missiles, but a large proportion of the UK’s nuclear armed V-bombers, and of course American nuclear armed aircraft at high alert on East Anglian USAF bases.

Those Norfolk and Suffolk based Thor missiles – the ‘other’ missiles of Khrushchev’s Cuban adventure - formed part of the reason why the Soviet leader decided to take the risk of secretly deploying nuclear forces on Cuba. It was a time when neither America nor the Soviet Union had developed inter-continental range rockets which could strike their targets from home soil.

On both sides of the Cold War fence intermediate range missiles at readiness in friendly countries were the solution. Khrushchev had a perfectly legal international treaty between two sovereign states, the Soviet Union and Cuba, just as America had valid treaties to base missiles here in East Anglia, in Italy and in Turkey.

Cold War East Anglia. Pictured: Author, Jim Wilson. Picture: SuppliedCold War East Anglia. Pictured: Author, Jim Wilson. Picture: Supplied

What was OK for the Pentagon should be OK for the Kremlin, Khrushchev reasoned - his only mistake was to deploy his missiles in secret and then to lie about them in the forum of the United Nations.

Friday’s programme, in which I play a small part, looked back to the NATO exercise ‘Fallex’ in September 1962 which aimed to war-game command and control across NATO. It rehearsed the role of Britain’s 12 RSGs and the UK’s likely fate, based on realistic assessments of where and in what strength the Soviet attack would fall. This was just weeks before the Cuban Crisis broke.

The subsequent report on how or if the nation state would have survived, remained ‘top secret’ until 2005. Had we known then what it revealed about the fate of East Anglia, those who lived here through the rest of the Cold War years might not have slept quite so soundly.

In the post-exercise report the whole of the Eastern Region was declared to have suffered devastation on such a scale as to render it a ‘Z zone’. What did that mean? The report spelt it out: ‘Because of the extensive damage and fall-out from radiation, the lack of communications and power, and the impossibility of regarding the region as a viable administrative and economic unit it was concluded it would be necessary to abandon the region.’

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: SuppliedCold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied

Water supplies would have been contaminated. Food supplies would run out. There would have been little hope of those few left alive being rescued. Farmland would have been rendered unusable, perhaps for a century or beyond. The scenario postulated an attack of 200 megatons – a nuclear bombardment on that scale would have exceeded 50 times the total tonnage of all bombs dropped by the Allies during the whole of WW2.

Because the eastern region contained the greatest number of strategic targets a significant proportion of a Soviet attack would have been targeted on us.

The grim statistics predicted within a short time the whole of the eastern region would be covered with heavy radiation fall-out exacerbated by the predominate winds: these were the terrifying findings kept safe within the confines of the secret state.

Subsequent to Cuba, plans for administering East Anglia in a nuclear conflict were re-thought – at least for the chosen few who would be in the comparative safety of protected accommodation.

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: SuppliedCold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied

Instead of housing the RSG in the semi-subterranean bunker at Cambridge, in 1968 the capacious, better protected, and fully underground bunker at Bawburgh, alongside Norwich’s southern bypass (A47) took on the role, enlarged by the addition of a fourth floor to provide a canteen and dormitories for 220 people.

I spent most of my national service between 1953 and 1955 in the Bawburgh bunker, which at that time served as headquarters for the air defence of the Eastern region. Radar technology made the Rotor system, of which Bawburgh was a part, redundant by the mid-1960s and the well equipped, virtually self sufficient bunker, at its deepest 125 feet below ground level, was regarded as a safer bet than the Cambridge war-room.

Despite this, I recall one very senior police officer allocated a place if nuclear war threatened saying that when the time came and he had to choose between family and duty he doubted he could have abandoned his family.

In the 1990s the government sold off such redundant but expensive ‘bolt holes’ and Bawburgh is now in private hands, its security even tighter than when the RAF were its occupants.

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: SuppliedCold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied

All that can be seen of it looking down the tree-lined drive from the round-about off the Watton road close to what is now a woodland burial ground, is a small inoffensive looking bungalow which was the bunker’s guard room and entrance, and a tall communications tower. Internally, the bunker had three floor levels with glass walled offices overlooking an operations floor dominated by a huge map of the region. How much of it still exists is a good question which those who served there when it was RAF Bawburgh would like to know the answer to.

God forbid that it may be needed again, but it is as well to remember that an estimate of nuclear warheads assessed by the Federation of Atomic Scientists as recently as June, calculated that some 16,185 still exist stockpiled in nine countries, 15,000 of which are in US and Russian hands.

As Harold Macmillan wrote in his private diary at the time of the Cuban crisis: “To us who face 500 of these Soviet missiles trained on Europe there is something slightly ironical about 20 or so in Cuba aimed at America - but as I told the President, when one lives on Vesuvius one takes little account of the risks of explosion”.

For those of us living in East Anglia Vesuvius was too close for comfort, particularly when a former holder of office as Defence Secretary says he feels “Blackadder’s Baldrick must have been the mastermind behind those facilities built supposedly to protect us in the 1960s and beyond”.

Cold War East Anglia. Picture: SuppliedCold War East Anglia. Picture: Supplied

* Jim Wilson OBE is author of Cold War: East Anglia, Britain on the Brink and Launch Pad UK.

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