Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: In the late 1970s, the government put together a series of public information films, Protect and Survive. And I believe in the early 1980s a pamphlet was delivered to most British households giving them an idea of how they might survive a nuclear attack. And it is going back to very practical levels of defence that you might see from Second World War advice. Buildings, shelters within the home, making sure you have provisions. Now that ends up being ridiculed by the left in the political scene in Britain and actually by quite a few people who have an understanding of what nuclear weapons can potentially do.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 secondsSo if you look at the pamphlet written by the historian Professor EP Thompson, Protest and Survive, he advocates support of the campaign of nuclear disarmament because he can see no future that is in any way tolerable should nuclear weapons be used. Further, you get to 1982, and Raymond Briggs, who is well known for Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman, produces When the Wind Blows, which is a parody of, if you like, the belief of a 'Blitz spirit' as applied to Protect and Survive. So we actually have official government policies in terms of what individuals might do should the Soviet bombers get through being widely ridiculed.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 secondsAnd I think you need to consider that The War Game in 1965 was pulled by the BBC, fearing that it was too realistic to be shown on British television at that time. It had a limited release in America and actually won the Oscar for Best Documentary. 1984, again the height of Cold War tensions between Reagan and the Soviet leadership, the BBC show Threads, which details a fictional attack on Sheffield and follows on from the American The Day After in 1983. I would argue that probably the most disturbing and depressing two hour drama documentary the BBC have ever made.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 secondsAnd it portrayed a frighteningly realistic landscape, both figuratively and literally, as to what Britain would be like if atomic weapons fell on us. Now during this week's topics, we're talking about defending the skies. And one of the things that you might want to just consider is how the tactic of offence or defence is used during this time. Now principally, we've been talking about intercepting bombers or shooting down bombers. But for many people the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was critical to stop any nuclear strike or any conventional war breaking out with the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Now this is, I think, a problematic stance.

Skip to 4 minutes and 2 secondsThere are a number of people who argue now that, because we did not have a major war with the Soviet Union, mutually assured destruction was successful. I think mutually assured destruction was only successful in avoiding war with the Soviet Union. Please look at the record of conflicts all the way from 1945 through to Gulf War I and you will understand that the presence of nuclear weapons did not deter armed conflict around the world, including involving the superpowers. Now the fact that Britain had a strategic nuclear deterrent, whether by the Air Force or otherwise, may have been the best form of defence.

Skip to 4 minutes and 47 secondsBut it's an almost perverse form of defence, and you can think of it in terms of Robert Oppenheimer's analogy of two scorpions in a jar. One stings the other, the other will have the opportunity to sting back, both die. And the concept of mutually assured destruction is associated with a number of individuals, principally Americans, Johnny von Neumann, the Eastern European scientist who emigrated to America, and Robert McNamara, Kennedy's secretary of defence. Now we've talked about nuclear weapons. We haven't really talked about the devastating effect of nuclear weapons. We're not going to dwell on it too much now. But I'd just like you to think on this. The warhead that was atop the Thor intermediate-range nuclear weapon was 1.5 megatons.

Skip to 5 minutes and 44 secondsThat is 100 times bigger than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. The Yellow Sun weapon had a 1-megaton yield. Red Beard as a tactical nuclear weapon had a dialable yield but would be the equivalent at the bottom end of the Hiroshima bomb. And when we look at WE 177, the final free-fall bomb that the RAF used into the 1990s, the last version of that had a yield of 190 kilotons. So that's putting it in the region of about 12 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Now what we might mean by a tactical weapon when the yield is 12 times the devastating effect of Hiroshima is something we might want to debate further in the course.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 secondsSo there is a certain issue about the escalation of nuclear development, whether it be through the delivery systems or the size of the weapons, that really put the world at risk and genuine risk through the Cold War period. And I don't think personally that risk has ended. Combined, the Soviet Union and America have about 15,000 nuclear warheads. Now I think in Britain's case, there was never any intent for first strike. But we had a particular role within the NATO alliance, and certainly the strategy with Polaris was largely to destroy Moscow.

Skip to 7 minutes and 35 secondsSo one of the arguments in terms of defending Britain's skies has been put forward that, during the Cold War period, the fact we had a credible retaliatory force discouraged the Soviet Union even considering hitting us with nuclear weapons in the first place.

Civil Defence

Civil defence and M.A.D.

In this step we consider the following:

  1. Centrally organised civil defence was formally ended in 1968. In its place the Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ civil defence provision was widely derided in the 1970s and 1980s.
  2. Did the nature of any Soviet strike on the UK render civil defence redundant?
  3. The doctrine of MAD dominated the 1960s and 1970s. Strategically, there was never any question of first use of strategic nuclear weapons.
  4. How about in a theatre role and the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons?
  5. With conventional armaments, the RAF were committed to both first-strike of Warsaw Pack forces, and airspace defence.

Further references

The Civil Defence Association produced a pamphlet in 2005 covering Britain’s history of the service, which can be downloaded here.

The ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films have been declassified, and The National Archives has mounted one of them here. The BBC ten years ago also mounted a summary of the films, which can be found here.

If you remember ‘Protect and Survive’, please comment below.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London