Professor Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary, London University, and author of The Secret State, examines the ‘particles and patterns of the past’ to peer into the part of the post-war British state kept under wraps for the duration of the Cold War.
Catch-up history and the Cold War
It’s nine years ago, almost to the day I think, when I confessed to a gathering down here that I hoped to die here, and all the rest of it, and it was Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, Minister for Public Records who was opening the new education centre which has flourished, and I followed Derry.
I always had a slightly difficult relationship with Derry. It’s hard to believe but he thought, I suspect, that I was a rather flippant young man, and I said: ‘Lord Chancellor, you should know that I’m so in love with this place, the government department that exists to give me what I ask for, that I’m sure I will die here. I will see in the catalogue a file which is going to explain the British constitution, which I’ve been trying to understand all my adult life, and with mounting excitement I will go and collect it,’ (this was in the days when they had a counter) and I shall collapse from over-excitement, with my hand on the files, still unopened, with a smiling member of the staff here, giving it to me.’
And it was after that the staff said they were ‘very touched, and if your family agree to have you embalmed, we could put you in a sack in the stacks.’ So by this stage, Derry thought he was in the company of a lunatic, I think. But I meant it!
I meant it, and it’s a great pleasure to be here because it is one of my favourite places, full stop, the National Archives, and the service it gives is just amazing, not just to me, but to my colleagues and my students. It is a great, great national resource and a source of permanent delight and consolation and curiosity for me.
I want to talk a bit about the historian’s trade tonight; what we’re dealing with, when we think about it, what we’re constantly dealing with is unfinished business.
We are, or we should be, haunted by what we miss, let alone by what we fail to understand, in our attempt to pick up the particles and patterns of the past. Sometimes it’s a matter of big things, not just a question of granules or minute particulars. And it makes us edgy in the benign, old-fashioned sense of that word. A divine edginess perhaps, that runs alongside the divine spark of curiosity.
There is a sub-branch of our collected unfinished business, however, that brings a touch of the consummation that I mentioned a moment ago: Catch-up history. And it’s this that’s been the motivation for my writing ‘The Secret State’ in its original, and now in its new incarnation; to peer into that bit of the post-war British state, which for understandable and obvious reasons had to be kept under serious wraps, while the Cold War lasted.
The consolation for me is all the greater because I didn’t expect the Cold War to end in my lifetime. I thought the best we could hope for was what Eliot Richardson called ‘A safer, cheaper form of deadlock’, and the fact that the Cold War did end, without global war and nuclear exchange, remains, I think, the greatest shared boon of our lifetime, our shared lifetime, by a very long way.
Given my age, I am very much a child of what Michael Frayn has called the Uranium Age, in contrast to the Bronze Age and all the rest of it; the Uranium Age. Just like so many others, I think, looking across the room, I was a child who grew up in the shadow of the bomb, the first generation to do so.
And curiosity therefore about the Cold War is deep within me, and on that theme, it’s now become a cliché to upbraid the intelligence agencies of the NATO powers including our own, for failing to predict the demise of the Soviet Union and the politico-economic system on which it rested. I’ve never, never taken that view.
Even if MI6 had possessed a human agent inside Mikhail Gorbachev’s most innermost circle in the late 1980s, he or she would not have been able to outline the coming geo-political soft landing, in snatched conversations with his or her MI6 controller, because as Mr Gorbachev explained when he was in London last month, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the very last thing he intended.
He said to Mary Dejevsky: ‘We should have prevented it. Mostly though, I reproach myself, even today. I think we went too fast. A country with our history should have taken an evolutionary course. I said reforms would need 20 or 30 years but such passions were raging as Glasnost and Perestroika, and they gained pace. And the calls,’ he said, thumping the table, ‘were mostly to ‘go faster, faster’, to ‘go on, go on’.’
British intelligence, then, as always, was plagued by the old ‘secrets and mysteries’ problem. Now what do I mean by the ‘secrets and mysteries’ problem? Well during the Cold war, the hardest job intelligence had was to divine the mysteries of the other side; the intentions of successive Soviet leaderships, rather than the Soviet Union’s secrets, which were hard to get, but they were gettable.
The capability of the Warsaw Pact’s weapons, its order of battle; it was easier once the satellites were aloft, the American satellites after 1960. It was tough but you could always get those secrets. It was the intentions that were always the tricky bit.
But even if GCHQ had managed to wire up Mr Gorbachev’s little grey cells, they could not have presented the Joint Intelligence Committee in Whitehall with an advance copy of the story as it was actually to unfold, and as a friend of mine in the intelligence business said to me the other day, after the Gorbachev interview in the Independent, speaking of people like the former Soviet leader: ‘They are often mysteries unto themselves’. And I think we always have to remember that when we’re dealing with human intelligence: they are often mysteries unto themselves.
But back to our own British secrets, and the attempts of my own, my colleagues and my students, to get them out of the deep freeze; now, the deep freeze is here really, I think the National Archives is a great deep freeze. It contains frozen history. That’s what documents are, and what we have to do is warm them up until their metaphorical limbs begin to twitch a bit, their lungs to fill with air and they begin to talk to us – they begin to breath and talk and then we can talk back and we can interrogate them.
On the Cold War front we owe a very great deal here to William Waldegrave, John Major’s cabinet office minister, with responsibility for open government in the early to mid 1990s. William’s a great reader of history, and a considerable scholar and has a great empathy for our shared trade and interests, and it was a very considerable historical breakthrough, it turned out, when in an interview with me for the BBC 4 Analysis programme he invited historians to let him know which files retained beyond the normal 30 years they would like Whitehall to re-review, to see if they could now be released down here to Kew.
By the time Whitehall had stopped counting the fruits of the Waldegrave Initiative, as we called it, in 1998, some 96,000 files had been liberated by the process which continues to this day, some of them of a sensitivity that I still can’t quite believe has come out, but I’ll come back to some of those. The tally now, I reckon, must be well over a 150,000.
So the Waldegrave Initiative gave us a substantial new historical currency with which to trade and the product is growing, in the number of books, article at the PHD, Masters and undergraduate levels. And there is something in it for the secret world, because the Brits have always had this tremendous weakness for fantasy and intelligence coming together.
They’ll believe almost anything about the intelligence world, and it is greatly in the interests of our secret agencies, I think, that the genre is rescued from what you might call the airport book stall style of intelligence history, and the only chance you’ve got of that is to get through pro-active releases of the kind that we’ve had in considerable numbers since the 1990s. Of course the fantasists will always take over.
The other great area of fantasy for we Brits is the Royal Family, and occasionally the two come together: fantasy about intelligence, fantasy about the Royal Family, and it takes on a life of its own and there’s no hope! But at least we can try and this place is crucial to trying.
The flow of documents since ‘The Secret State’ was first published eight years ago has been rich and revealing. Let me give you a few examples from the contents of the new edition. Perhaps the most chilling and dramatic come from the plans for the final days and hours of peace before a Third World War engulfed the United Kingdom and a substantial part of the globe.
One piece of detailed planning was kept from ministers themselves: which of them would go to what bunker. Two files have been declassified since the first editions of the book. One contains the list drawn up for Harold MacMillan in September 1961 as the Berlin crisis worsened, and you’ll remember, some of you, the Checkpoint Charlie moment just a little bit later, with the tanks in Berlin facing each other just a few feet apart.
The other comparable list was shown to Harold Wilson in June 1966, at a time when we were threatened by nothing in particular, apart from a Sterling crisis and the possibility of losing to West Germany in the World Cup, so nothing changes there, does it?
Only the pair of ministers chosen by MacMillan and Wilson to be their deputies for nuclear retaliation purposes, lest the PM be out of reach or already wiped out by a bolt from the blue nuclear attack, knew of their bunker functions in advance.
The system, by the way, was new in 1961, and Harold MacMillan, of whom I was a great fan, signed off the appointment of the first two, with a characteristic dash of comedie noire and Shakespearian allusion: ‘I agree the following,’ he wrote, ‘First gravedigger Mr Butler, second gravedigger Mr Lloyd. [Signed] H.M, 6th October 1961.’
Apart from the deputies, and Wilson’s in 1966 were Bert Bowden and Denis Healey, none of the others knew of their fate until either came down here and found the files (there are very few of them alive, actually) or read the ‘London might be silenced’ chapter in the new edition of ‘The Secret State’. It’s interesting and reassuring for those of us of a certain age that Wilson kept his mercurial deputy George Brown, who liked a drink, well away from nuclear retaliation duties.
In June 1966, Brown was earmarked for the World War Three, War Cabinet bunker under Boxhill in the Wiltshire Cotswolds; the famous ‘Turnstile’ as it was codenamed, to which Wilson, his foreign secretary Michael Stewart, [and] his cabinet secretary…plus 23 other senior military official and diplomatic advisors would have been whisked from Horse Guards parade by RAF helicopters in the final moments of peace, preventive diplomacy having failed, and we know this from another new file since the first edition, codenamed ‘Operation Visitation’.
I got this wrong in the first editions of the book because ‘Operation Visitation’ came up on a little summary for the Queen, at the end of a little summary of the War Book and I thought as it was the last thing in the list, with its New Testament flavour, that it was a codename for nuclear retaliation. But it wasn’t, it was the plan to get helicopters from Little Risslington to Northolt to refuel, to Horseguards to Corsham.
There is a god of the Archives, ladies and gentlemen, there really is, and this scholarly deity shone on me just over a year ago after the Cabinet Office had convened quite a high level meeting which agreed to my request for a Central Government War Book; a Cabinet Office one which pulled all the other War Books together, and it was pretty sensitive, and it set a precedent, so it was quite a high level meeting. I asked for it in time to do a lecture in honour of the late Ben Pimlott and I got it, for 1971; more on that in a moment.
And after that meeting, a veteran official who’d given long service to what in the Cold War was called the Cabinet Office’s Overseas and Defence Secretariat, Nick Gibbons, remembered they had a special cupboard, access to which was restricted to a tiny handful of officials, in which they kept War Books and retaliation drills.
Some of you here may have been privy to that. A search was mounted and it was found in the Cabinet Office’s storeroom and also, mercifully, a key was found. And it was full of War Books, stretching from 1935 to 1979. It also contained Royal Warrants, ready for the Queen to sign, granting pretty well absolute powers, under the emergency legislation that would have been rushed through Parliament in the last days of peace before Parliament was prorogued for the duration of the war, to Cabinet ministers who were going to be in charge of the 12 civil defence regions in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with remarkable powers over everything really; far more draconian than any of the emergency legislation for the two World Wars.
And the Royal Warrant; the British constitution is a beautiful thing, it really is, and it’s a classic worded bit of British constitution, as you would expect:
‘Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and other realms and territories, QUEEN,’ (in capitals, quite right) ‘Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the faith, to our…’, and then you’d write in the name of the Cabinet minister, ‘Greeting!’ That’s the bit I like, they’re about to end up running shrivelled and irradiated little kingdoms, probably with damn all chance of survival themselves, but the Queen cheers them up.
‘Greeting! In pursuance of Regulation 42 of the Defence (Machinery of Government) Regulations we hereby appoint you, the said…'[insert name] ‘to be our Regional Commissioner for the purposes of those regulations, given at our court of St. James on the’ [insert date] ‘day of the’ [insert date]…’year of our reign by Her Majesty’s command.’
At the same time the bunker chiefs would have been given a sealed envelope (also in that cupboard) containing notes of guidance for Regional Commissioners telling them what their job entailed and what their functions were and which functions would be reserved for the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet in Turnstile under Boxhill.
The War Cabinet would have had prosecution of the war, relationships with foreign powers, for example, and indeed there were rooms down there ready for the leading High Commissioners from the Commonwealth, and our main allied Ambassadors, and the CIA liaison and all that; the special intelligence relationship was going to go to the Cotswolds too.
Again, this book of guidance, notes of guidance, was never seen by its intended recipients, ever, and none of them went to the turnstile either you see, it would have been attention seeking behaviour if the Prime Minister or Senior Cabinet minister had got off the train at Chippenham and had been seen flashing along the A4. So they never went.
Another historical breakthrough, of a physical kind this time, was the full avowal of Turnstile and its Cold War purpose by the Ministry of Defence in 2004. When I first visited part of it in 2001 it was still technically a deception, and if my information was right the Russians were still keeping an eye on it from a satellite going over the Bath area quite regularly.
And a good deal of shadow boxing went on because the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence had kindly agreed that I should go, and then realised that they’d made a mistake, I think, but being good and courteous people they didn’t rescind it. So I only saw part of it, and the wonderful RAF flight sergeant in charge of it, Andy Quinn, who became a great friend, spent a great deal of that first visit shadow boxing with me, trying to persuade me that I wasn’t quite on the right track when I was making all these claims for it.
But mercifully since 2004 when I’ve been again with my students, BBC journalists, colleagues, and former Turnstile initiates, Andy’s been able to show us the whole lot, including the Prime Minister’s immensely austere personal suite; it’s just carved out of the Bath limestone quarry, it’s extraordinary.
You know where the Prime Minister’s room was because you’ve got the telephone directory, but also it’s the only one with an en suite loo and bath. But it’s very, very primitive accommodation.
And it’s the Map Room where the retaliation would have been launched if the Cuban missile crisis had tilted into World War Three and Mr MacMillan had got there in time in the helicopters. And it’s like, from all the War films, you know the map rooms of Fighter Command, with a viewing area and so on.
It’s about 70 feet by 70 feet, carved out of the limestone quarry, and at one end is the British equivalent of Dr Strangelove’s big board in the film of that name, and because we are Brits and we don’t like any fuss and spending any money it’s a white chipboard number, really quite small, pinned to the limestone wall. There wasn’t an IKEA in 1960, but if there had have been that’s where they would have bought it from.
It is a most amazing place. The only official Cabinet Office meeting that’s ever been held there was in September 2008 when Mrs Tessa Stirling chaired her last meeting in charge of the Cabinet Office’s Advisory Group on Security and Intelligence Records. And as we work through the agenda, a fine film of limestone dust accumulated on our persons; very eerie place.
The Queen, by the way, was not destined for Turnstile. You remember that cover story that the Royal Yacht was a hospital ship at the time of war?… It was [actually] her floating bunker, and it was going to lurk in the sea locks off the North West coast of Scotland, changing from one to the other at night, with the mountains keeping the sub radar away from it.
And the British constitution, you see again, is a very beautiful thing even unto Armageddon. It was plain to everybody that once Turnstile started operating post attack, (and the Chiefs of Staff had a paper prepared on this) the amount of signals traffic pouring out of it would have given it away to Soviet detection, and they would have known what it was, pretty well, or that it was important, and they would have put quite a big mega tonnage of hydrogen bomb on the top of it.
And indeed, it’s only 100 feet from the surface. It’s 50 feet above the railway tunnel, if you’re going to Bristol via Bath. You can hear the trains, in certain bits of it, rumbling underneath you, and indeed the first graffito you see when you get out of the lift into the quarry itself is stuck here for all eternity, and indeed they would have been, because even if it hadn’t destroyed the whole place in one go it would have sealed off all the exits.
So the Queen – who as I was saying on the television at election time, is a Heineken lager monarch; there are certain parts of the constitution that only she can reach, one of which is appointing a Prime Minister – she had to be kept separate from the Prime Minister, didn’t she? So if the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet are wiped out, you can’t have the monarch wiped out as well.
So she was going to be on the Royal Yacht attended by the Home Secretary, and with the Home Secretary, and her Private Secretary and Prince Philip, she would have been able to have a…Privy Council, to appoint a politician out of the rubble to be the new Prime Minister.
Since the first editions of the book, we’ve just had a flicker of the Royal Yacht’s role appearing in the documents, just a flicker. After a Russian naval attaché was trailed to Corsham by MI5, just down the road from Turnstile in early 1963, (I thought it was Captain Ivanov, the man who was sharing Christine Keeler’s attentions with Jack Profumo, but it wasn’t. He’d been sent home in disgrace in January 1963; it’s another one) MI5 became increasingly aware that it had probably been rumbled, they knew something was up and they were sniffing.
And MacMillan is warned that the hole near Bath, as it was put to him by his private secretary, may well have been discovered and, in his usual pessimistic way, [wrote]: ‘Whichever hole we go to they will find out’, or words to that effect, he scrawled all over it.
But plans began for an alternative system which was implemented in May 1968; codenamed Python at that time (some of you may remember it who were privy to the innermost secrets) and there’s not much out on it even now because it’s the basis of the current system. It’s a disperse system of redoubts and bunkers.
There was going to be for example, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Engadine, which if my memory serves, was a helicopter carrier, I think for ministers, and the Royal Yacht comes up in the list of the floating bits of Python.
What other examples of Cold War catch-up history are there in the new edition? Well, declassification of the 1970 Government War Book has enabled me to reconstruct for the first time, in a new chapter called ‘Endgames’, much though not all of the sequence of decision taking by the simulated Cabinet and it’s transition to War Committee during ‘Exercise Invaluable’, which played out in the mercifully fictional lead up to the ‘global war of October 1968,’ after a change of regime in Moscow, that was the scenario,FF to a bunch of real aggressive nasties (that was always the scenario) led, fictionally again, to escalation that got out of control.
As some of you will remember it was pretty tense in the autumn of 1968, because Brezhnev had just suppressed the Prague Spring the previous August. And it goes right through as these exercises always did, they ran alongside the NATO Wintexes, or Fallexes as they were originally called, right up to R Hour, ‘R’ standing for nuclear release.
The 16 chapters in the 1970 War Book require the taking of 200 decisions, 200 separate decisions in a quite short space of time, certainly towards the end. 80 of them full Cabinet decisions, which is breathtaking for us, because the Blair Cabinets didn’t take 80 decisions in ten years, did they? But those were the days of proper collective Cabinet government. Mind you it’s having a comeback. It’s having the greatest comeback since Judy Garland, Cabinet government…!
There is a hidden Whitehall heroine in this story of the strange world of the War Books. She was called Mrs Beryl Grimble, an executive officer in the Cabinet Office who kept the War Books; this is what she did all the time, trim and up to date from 1958 to 1973. No computers, it was all scissors and paste.
She was known to her devoted staff, though not to her face I think, as the Queen of the War Book, or Auntie Beryl. She doesn’t normally figure in the pantheon of the great Whitehall figures of the post-war years, but she should do. I know she’s no longer alive, but I’ve tried in vain to find a photograph of her for the book, so if anybody knows of a way to find a picture of Mrs Beryl Grimble I’d be very grateful if you’d tell me.
She was one of those people who had to live on the dark side of the Cold War, pretty well all the time, who, now it’s safe, really do deserve their place in the historical sun. That applies to quite a lot of people actually, in the Home, Civil and Diplomatic Service, the Military or the Intelligence community.
I’ve put quite a lot about those who served the Queen on the dark side in the book. They tend to cluster around the first line of defence, which is Intelligence, and the last, the V Bomber crews and later on the submariner guards of the Deterrent, going right through to HMS Victorious which is on patrol in the North Atlantic this evening as we meet together.
And a special new chapter in the book is based on a documentary I did for Radio 4 in 2008 with my producer Richard Knight called ‘The Human Button’.
There’s coverage too in that chapter of what I call the ‘Appendix Z People’. Appendix Z was the special bit of the Government War Book dealing with nuclear retaliation procedures. Copies of it were kept separate from the rest of the War Book, and restricted to very few people. Again they turned up in that special cupboard in the Cabinet Office; there were the Appendices Z.
They were prepared for release, as were so many of the files I’ve talked about tonight, by my great friends and wonderful Records Officers in the Cabinet Office Alan Glennie and Nick Weeks.
One bit is euphemised in Appendix Z. It’s the very last bit; for the submarines, once the Polaris had taken over the role from the V Bombers in 1969, and (I’m summarising) ‘If all else fails, if all communications have gone, there are special communication measures in place’.
These are still there; they are the ‘Last Resort’ letters that new Prime Ministers have to write out, long hand, that nobody sees, with their wishes from beyond the grave, if we are wiped out by a bolt from the blue.
Mr Cameron was briefed by the Cabinet Secretary, which is traditional, but also now, we’ve got a new National Security Advisor, Peter Rickets, and he briefed as well so they did it together. There were four options. Mr Cameron had to choose one and write them down longhand, four letters; seal them, one for each safe of each Trident boat.
The options roughly speaking are: retaliate, don’t retaliate; if you don’t retaliate, find a neutral port, put yourself under the command of the Americans if they’re still there, or go to Australia. And the final one which is the one I’m sure the submariners would not be radiant about, well they would not exactly be radiant about any of them would they, but the final one [was for] the Captain of the boat to decide. That’s when you know your Prime Minister. Nothing prepares you for that I’m sure. It can’t really, can it? It’s quite extraordinary. But that bit is euphemised in Appendix Z.
The new edition of the book takes a look at the very swift construction too, of what I call ‘the New Protective State’ in the UK since the dreadful events of 9/11. A great deal of it, certainly compared to the Cold War Secret State, when the Cold War was chilling our bones, has been done in public. The Civil Contingencies Act, for example, is full of all of this and Whitehall and the Intelligence agencies too have been very open with Select Committees in the House of Commons, and in regular reporting on the construction of the new Protective State.
I am now rapidly trying to catch up with how David Cameron’s new National Security Council is working. I think it’s an idea whose time has come, even though some of you [attending the lecture, who] have been around the block a bit and have read the files in here will know, it’s roughly speaking Arthur Balfour’s Committee of Imperial Defence of 1904, with rather better IT; same idea.
I also have a treatment of what I call the deals between ministers and the Intelligence community in our tradition, and with Parliament and the public in an open society. For example, in an open society you reserve your clandestine agencies for the last five to ten percent of really opaque things, that you do need to know, that you can’t get through open sources or through using Customs and Revenue, the Police or the Armed Forces, but you actually limit it very, very seriously and carefully to the last tough bit, so that you don’t let it spill in to the relationship between State and subject. If you do, with the absolute minimum, and again for the minimum time necessary.
It’s intriguing to think about certain of the continuities and discontinuities of the shift from a Cold War Secret State to our new Protective State. The designers of the New Protective State, all of them thank heavens because we have a tradition of Crown Service, non-politicised Crown Service, so people run on from one administration to another. So as a result, pretty well all the designers of the New Protective State were Cold War reared.
And that experience, even though the threats are very, very different, really did help. I think Crown Service of our kind is a great advantage…not just in this world (in that sensitive secret world I’m talking about) but generally, and we must preserve it at all costs (if you don’t mind me preaching for a moment).
But perhaps the swiftest Cold War restoration in the hours and days after 9/11 was the practise of appointing two ministers as the Prime Minister’s deputies for nuclear retaliation purposes again. This had lapsed in what now seems that strange limbo period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the twin towers.
I remember when ‘The Secret State’ first came out; I went on Radio Five Live, which I don’t recommend. I was on with the American cast of ‘The Full Monty’, who were charming chaps but their knowledge of the Cold War was a bit circumscribed. And I mentioned the two nuclear retaliation ministers being re-appointed again on a personal basis, not on the hierarchy, after 9/11 and the phones went red, it being a talk-in, because the country seemed obsessed with the possibility of John Prescott being one of the nuclear retaliation ministers. So I was able to reassure the country that he wasn’t.
An example of continuity within discontinuity, as it were, is the Intelligence ‘secrets and mysteries’ equation. It’s been flipped. There’s no mystery about the intentions of Al Qaeda and its associates and imitators, the mystery is where they are; in our own backstreets? Which hotel room, with what rucksack or suitcase containing what kind of devastating kit? So it’s flipped over.
But there’s one specially chilling, almost uncanny, continuity that very nearly spans the period covered by the new edition and it’s this: In a report drawn up during the anxious early days of the Korean War in September 1950, just after a year after which the West had realised the Soviet Union had built an atomic bomb significantly sooner than expected, a highly sensitive Whitehall group working for the chiefs of staff under the harmless and deliberately misleading title of ‘The Imports Research Committee’, (and it was Stephen Twigg, a member of the National Archives, who found this, because I would never have looked for a file which said ‘Ministry of Supply Imports and Research Committee’; I mean, I’m pretty devoted to all of this but it takes somebody with the genius of Stephen to actually find this because it was pure gold, actually) and the Imports Research Committee were tasked with examining the possibility of a clandestine atomic attack on the United Kingdom launched by Russia.
They looked at the contingency of the detonation of an atomic bomb (I’m quoting now): ‘in a suicide aircraft’ (civil aircraft), ‘flying low over a key point’, and the IRC concluded: ‘It is possible to do it, and there doesn’t seem to be any answer to it. The crew in the aircraft in order to detonate the bomb at the right time would have to know what their cargo was and would therefore be a suicide squad. Short of firing on every strange civil aircraft that appears over our shores, we know of no way of preventing an aircraft that sets out on such a mission from succeeding.’
Fast forward 60 years to now, and consider today’s ‘cold rules for national safety’, to borrow a phrase of the great historians of Empire, Robinson and Gallagher. Think of the planners of 2010, and the small number of ministers, who include the Prime Minister and usually the Home Secretary, who have to contemplate an exercise; the contingency of another kind of potential suicide civil aircraft flying into UK airspace from the Middle East or North Africa, refusing to answer calls from air traffic control, losing height and soon to pass over the M25.
And they have the same feelings to feel as their equivalents in the early 1950s, as the Tornadoes from Leuchars are alongside it with their missiles primed, or the Typhoons from Coningsby are up there and the tanker aircraft are up there to keep them up there for as long as necessary and you’re reaching that point where you have to have political authorisation to shoot it down or not. It’s uncanny; it’s dreadful, absolutely dreadful.
Most of what I’ve had to say this evening is about the Cold War related sections of the book. It’s been a strange enterprise for me, writing it, because…I tend to write books about subjects which are very susceptible to Ealing comedy treatment, the British Constitution being a classic example, not heavy duty stuff like this.
But even with the relief of World War Three not coming to pass constantly in mind, it was tough to find any traces of Ealing comedy in this story, but I did find a few and I’m determined to end on them, so we can finish on a more cheerful note.
The first one or two friends here may know about and have heard me to describe before and again it was colleagues down here that helped me find these files; it came out in bits, actually, this particular story. The second story I think is new, but here’s the old story first: In the early 1960s British Intelligence warned that Soviet missiles could reach our beloved soil very swiftly if the Russians launched a ‘bolt from the blue’ nuclear attack, either from missile carrying submarines in the North Sea or low trajectory missiles from East Germany, and plans were laid to alert Harold MacMillan if he were out of town in the Prime Ministerial limo. The appointment of nuclear retaliation deputies was one of the outcomes of this review.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of the Defence staff, was very keen that like the American President, he should have an officer with retaliation codes with him all the time; the French President does now, the Russian President does too.
Mr MacMillan didn’t want any fuss, the Treasury didn’t want to spend any money, so a cunning plan of Baldrickian proportions was developed. First of all think of the cost of being a nuclear power (whether you were CND or not, it doesn’t matter), the training of the V crews, the cost of the V bombers, each hydrogen bomb cost £1,500,000 at 1960 prices; a lot of money.
But this is the last bit. This is the last bit – the ‘el cheapo’ bit. So the cunning plan was this: the Prime Minister’s car would be linked to the key Whitehall operations room, by the system then used by the Automobile Association for contacting the boys on those rather wonderful bikes in their flash brown uniforms who would salute you if they saw an AA badge on your car; the ‘Knights of the Road’. Do you remember them? They were wonderful; great style. And of course this is long before the days of car phones, let alone mobile phones.
Now three official cars were kitted out in the spring of 1962, in time as it turned out, for the unanticipated Cuban missile crisis the following autumn. The exchange of letters at the end of May 1962 between Brian Saunders, Private Secretary to the Minister of Works who was then responsible for the government carpool, and the very polished Tim Bligh, MacMillan’s principal Private Secretary in number 10, has to be read pretty well in full to be savoured properly
Saunders tells Bligh that the radios have now been fitted in three cars: ‘I understand that these radios are to be maintained by PYEs’ (that was an electronics firm then based in Cambridge) ‘and it will presumably be necessary for someone to make a daily or weekly call to the AA control station as a check that they are in working order. I understand that if an emergency arose while the Prime Minister was on the road, the proposal is to use the radio to get into a telephone. Perhaps we should see that our drivers are provided with four pennies.’
Some of you will remember that to get a phone box to work you had to put four pennies in and press button A. I should hate to think if you were trying to get change from a sixpence from a bus conductor while those four minutes are ticking by.
Tim Bligh as it turned out was on top of the problem. Replying to Saunders, he wrote: ‘The first sentence of your last paragraph is correct, but a shortage of pennies should not present quite the difficulties which you envisage.’ (This is lovely language now!) ‘Whilst it may be desirable when motoring to carry a few pennies in one’s pocket, occasions do arise when by some misfortune or miscalculation they have been expended and one is ‘penniless’. In such cases however it is a simple matter to have the cost of any telephone call transferred by dialling 100 and requesting reversal of the charge, and this doesn’t take any appreciable extra time. This system works in both normal and STD (subscriber trunk dialling) telephone kiosks and our drivers are aware of it.’
Now this being Whitehall (it’s one of the many reasons I’ve always admired Whitehall) there is a fallback plan forming in Bligh’s mind: ‘We are considering the possibility of this office taking up membership of the AA, which would give our drivers access to AA and RAC boxes throughout the country.’ Perfect!
Now for those sensitive to questions of national identity, only the Brits, of all the nuclear powers existing in 1962 and those to come, could have dreamt up a system like that, and indeed, if the Saunders/Bligh correspondence had leaked to the KGB resident in the Kensington Russian Embassy in London he would have thought it was a deception, if not a spoof, wouldn’t he? He simply would not have believed it!
Now my other Ealing moment is this: for years amongst the War Bookers a story swirled around about a leak; not to the Russians, not to the press, but to a part of Whitehall which was not involved in war-gaming as opposed to the real thing. It was the Civil Service Catering Organisation in Basingstoke, known as CISCO, and thanks to my friend Brian Gilmore, who played the Prime Minister in one of the 1970s exercises, this story can now be confirmed: ‘I do have an enduring memory,’ said Brian, ‘of being briefed. Should I discover that I had received a message which required me to communicate with the Chief Executive of the Civil Service Catering Organisation, I was on no account to do so.’
Why was that? ‘Because, in a previous exercise, the CISCO teleprinter in Basingstoke, had sprung into action, without [the words] ‘exercise, exercise, exercise’ written on [the print out. It read]: ‘Personal to the Chief Executive. Tell no one’, asking him to provision a whole set of bunkers in the South and the South West with enough food to last for three months. Scarcely pausing to say ‘Wilco’, said Brian, he did so, and the cash and carries of Hampshire and Berkshire were raided for beans, peas and tinned sausages, the costs of which were hidden away…in the Civil Service department’s estimates over many years, so the National Audit Office and the Treasury would never find out.
As to what happened to the peas, beans and sausages, ladies and gentlemen, that remains one of the ‘Great Remaining Cold War Mysteries’. Thank you very much