Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Then It Could Be Told: book review

The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, by Peter Hennessy. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 2002, xxi + 234 pp. ISBN 0 713 99626 9.

   Even before it starts, this book plunges the reader into the nightmare world it investigates, with endpapers (at front and back, produced more fully on pp 164-8) listing ‘Probable nuclear targets in the United Kingdom: Assumptions for planning.  This 1967 document of the Joint Intelligence Committee names 65 targets related to nuclear strike capability and 20 major cities, in every part of the country, so we can see just how close the perceived threat came to home.  The text fills in the details of what it would have meant.
   Peter Hennessy displays 'The Cold War state which British insiders built alongside the existing one, from roughly 1947 onwards' (p. xiii) and which his researches and discoveries, in the Public Record Office (PRO) and among surviving participant insiders themselves, have brought to light.  The nuclear factor was, as he says, central throughout the period and as such it is the focus of his study, presented in six fact- and figure-packed chapters (and earlier summarised to an appreciative audience in the Penguin History Lectures 2001).  Some of the material will be familiar, in general terms at least, to those who lived through that era, especially if they tried to expose and oppose the machinations of the Cold War state.  For surviving participant outsiders there may be a certain grim satisfaction in being shown how right they were, not only on the major issue of the scale of nuclear devastation and how close to the brink of it we came, but about the activities of Special Branch - they were watching quite a lot of us - and Civil Defence - no doubt many volunteers meant well, but what a grotesque farce it was.  These and other accoutrements of the Secret State are exposed extensively, though not exhaustively. 
  Although the author remains a corridors-of-power man, relishing contacts in the upper echelons, the unguarded remark of the once-powerful, and the machinations of government at the highest level, he accords sympathetic attention to the activities and viewpoint of dissidents, highlighting for example the ‘Spies for Peace’ episode of Easter 1963.  For him the surprising thing is not that a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) developed, but that it took so long, and he cites official statements and analyses which he considers would have kick-started it years earlier, if made known to the public.  In this context the Strath Report of 1955 was a primary source which was still closed to him at the time of writing but has since been opened by the PRO, perhaps thanks to his efforts in getting at and publishing its gist.  Those reviewers who have drawn the inference that after all nuclear deterrence worked (and that CND was wrong) are ignoring quite a lot of the story.  As Hennessy notes: It is simple to the point of being seriously misleading to suppose that the creation of a nuclear weapons capability on both sides of what became the Cold War offers an all-embracing explanation of why the nuclear taboo has not been broken…’  (p.xi)  It is easier to answer the question what if x number of bombs had been used (see Table) than what if they had never been invented or had remained the monopoly of one country plus or minus its allies, although in the second case, at least a vast amount of money would have been saved.
   The title gives a slightly exaggerated idea of the books coverage, largely limited as it is to the nuclear-armed aspect of the Cold War and to certain departmental sources - probably the most significant with regard to policy-making - in Whitehall: the Cabinet Office (which alone covers a multitude of sins), the Prime Ministers Office, and Defence.  One way in which the work could usefully be built on would be by looking in more detail at manifestations and ramifications of their policies.  For example, further material is available on surveillance of the peace movement, Admiralty reactions to anti-Polaris demonstrations, and on the war-games exercises and detailed plans drawn up by practically all and sundry.  To dip one’s toes briefly into these last, murky waters: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), as well as conducting elaborate Atom Bomb Target Studies all over the country (PRO: [National Archives ref.] MAF 99/562 1952 etc.) was diligent in considering matters ranging from seed supplies in wartime to monitoring of farm produce for radioactive contamination in wartime, the effects of radiation on bull semen, and the slaughter of livestock following nuclear attack.  All departments were required to think about and prepare for the prospect.  The Ministry of Labour would, via a National Service Officer, direct any person in Great Britain to perform any service of which he ['or she' is implicit] was considered capable, restrict workers from leaving jobs, and so on.  Defence Regulations covered nursing, police, fire, merchant navy; certain other industries and services.  The Home Office excelled both in scaring scenarios and hilarious absurdities, with its much-satirised sixteen pages of Advice to the HouseholderPublic control after attack was the subject of special consideration; Civil Defence Wardens, and/or your local Street (Party) Leader, would coordinate the effort and should be obeyed.  Church bells were to be rung to signify fallout coming within one hour.  Housing and Local Government proposed arrangements for emergency sanitation and storing of water.  Under a dispersal policy ‘priority classes’ including pregnant women, children, and disabled, totalling about 9.5 million or 43% of the population, were to be moved from major centres to reception areas.  Even the Ministry of Pensions and National Assistance was ready at one stage, if there was a nuclear war, for the NA Scheme to be modified and known as the War Assistance Scheme.  An Index of Official Announcements on such matters was held in readiness for eventual broadcasting. 
   One finding that emerges from documents and interviews is that the state was not so monolithic, and did not present such a united front with its allies, as opponents often tend to assume. There are recurrent allusions to anxiety about the chances of US over-reaction to Soviet ‘provocation’, and the USA wais frequently portrayed as a threat to world peace (plus รงa change), needing to be restrained by British reasonableness (well, perhaps some change there), for which British nuclear clout – ‘enough nuclear power to prevent foolish decisions to our detriment by the US’ (p. 62) – was seen to be required. 
   In spite of the end of the Cold War and its effects on international relations, the final chapter reminds us powerfully that this is far from being all over, past history in a supposedly, in some ways, more secure world.  Several nuclear bunkers may now be derelict or refurbished as tourist attractions, but the top people still have their bolt-hole and every British Prime Minister has to decide whether to authorise, for posthumous implementation, mass murder on an awesome scale.  Nuclear submarines carry sealed orders, ready in the event of that say-so to go and kill - whom? - when the rest of us are dead. 
  In spite of its subject, this is an entertaining and not an over-long or difficult read, with the bonus of sharing the author’s pleasure in his research, and triumph at finding the odd significant gem whose sensitivity seems to have escaped notice, lurking in an obscure file.  While it is an excellent introduction, there are several areas in which the story could be expanded, and it is reasonable to hope is likely to be, with researchers taking an interest in the topic.  Many files are there to be explored and new ones being released all the time, so that more works of this quality and accessibility may be produced on Britain’s nuclear past, reaching as it does into our present and future.  
First published in the journal Medicine, Conflict & Survival, 2003.

From inside the book's back cover
Extract from PRO file HO 226/71:
Casualties from a heavy nuclear attack on the United Kingdom  1958
HO Scientific Advisers Branch
 Casualty estimates for ground burst 10 Megaton bombs, Table1:
No. of Bombs
No. killed (no evacuation) 000s
 The comment is added that estimates are almost certainly too low.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Stornoway and the Strategists

Masters of War

When the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) chose to develop Stornoway out of fifteen possible airfields for NATO's use, officials in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence found that such a proposal was likely to arouse strong local opposition. For some, in this unemployment black spot, the prospect of job creation would outweigh other considrations, but there were enough dissenting voices to send a good few memos and minutes flying around Whitehall. How to deal with those ungratefully reluctant participants in the Cold War effort? - without of course telling them much about what that effort consisted of, and what risks closer participation in it might entail. There were security objections to explaining "operational reasons" for the plan, nevertheless a local enquiry might have to be held.

Pesky Politicians and Contumacious Clerics

Secrecy was prominent among the concerns of the by then long-established Labour MP for the Western Isles. Malcolm K Macmillan, who wrote in September 1958 to complain of the mysterious activities of "surveyors and officials running loose" worrying his constituents, and to request details about the prospects of demolition. Croft lands, with some (Ross & Cromarty) County Council and croft houses, were being looked at in May that year, and the men at the Ministry had cannily decided to extend the lease on Melbost Farm, on the outskirts of the town, to save compensation later. (Melbost Beach, formerly a cherished amenity for townspeople, had been lost in the MoD takeover, along with other land including the old golf course, during the Second World War. Militarisation of the wider area dates back at least to the First World War and it continues.) 
A view of Stornoway in 1959
                With the national ban-the-bomb movement still in its early days there was not much sign of specifically anti-nuclear activity in the Western Isles, but it was clear to many that having defence planners eyeing up your back yard as a place to park and service state-of-the-art equipment was undesirable on several grounds. By early 1959 the Free Church Presbytery of Lewis was taking a principled stand; in a letter they outlined their fears, from noise to risk of war: the threat to existence itself as well as to "moral and spiritual welfare" and the traditional way of life. They blamed the policy of sacrificing the Hebrides to the interests of the industrial south and insisted that, if it came to the worst, it would be better to lose young men from the island through emigration - to seek employment - than to have hydrogen bombs stored there.
                In a response addressed to the Reverend Macaulay on 10 February, Number Ten offered the assurance that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan felt the "inconvenience" would be less than predicted, and would be "loyally accepted". In contrast to the church stance, the Town Council debate on the issue was apparently swayed by the "jobs first and foremost" line (advocated forcefully by a local schoolmaster) if not by the spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice, and it decided to take no action.

More trouble than it's worth?

Without seriously entertaining the notion that the people who lived in the place should have a real say in what was going to happen there, the chaps at the desks, ready as they were to do SACLANT's bidding, were having a few second thoughts. All this fuss being stirred up might lead to Parliamentary Questions (and answers) and "other political transactions". The Scotsman on 1 April 1959 published a description of the proposed airfield. There was some worry as to how the paper had got the information, and surmise that the leak might be not unconnected with the recent visit of US and RAF personnel to Lewis, which had included an overnight stay at a hotel in Stornoway - the suggestion being that conviviality may have overcome discretion. Altogether the "present project" might prove troublesome and should perhaps be re-examined. It showed signs of being expensive, inconvenient, and a political embarrasment: in fact "Stornoway could be a thorn in our side".
                Pressure was on for an early decision, and surveys would be required. On 21 April a statement was obtained of aircraft that would use Stornoway in war - not of course for public distribution, although Macmillan, the MP, was to be "reassured" that NATO only came in for occasional exercises, "or, of course, for war". The files do not record his reaction to this consoling thought. In any case he and others continued to express opposition. They were told in May that plans were not yet firm enough to say if anyone would be evicted; anyone who was would receive compensation but no firm decison had yet been made. In June the County Council of Ross and Cromarty expressed support for a Free Church protest of two months earlier and voiced complaints over the lack of information. It was regarded as doubtful whether a public enquiry would satisfy the Free Church.
                Behind the secrecy, admittedly, there seems to have been a genuine absence of clarity. By now "root and branch reappraisal" was being advised, for whatever mix of logistical, bureaucratic or policy reasons. Occasional unexpected or intriguing comments crop up amid the files' officialese. A confidential note, signed "Tom", to the head of Special Branch asks "Could we have a word? - about precisely what, or whom, remains unspecified. Another note-writer in what presumably is an example of Civil Serive humour would like an assurance that the "Brahan Seer or any other Gaelic clairvoyant has nothing to say that would save us wasting our time." Meanwhile, although some think there is no alternative, other locations are being canvassed, Benbecula among them.
                In the USA, where else, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic eventually opined that although Stornoway was the only one suitable among those offered originally "for wartime support", they could perhaps use Lossiemouth. Whitehall sent Lord Forbes on a visit and observed that while there were political objections to Stornoway and financial ones to Lossiemouth, the latter was becoming more favoured as the recipient of this dubious honour, with Stornoway relegated to being a "hideaway" due to its perceived lack of logistic facilities. A "Siting branch" would be set up there in May 1961, while lucky old Macrihanish airfield in Argyllshire came under "development for NATO" in its turn in the early 1960s, attaining the status of "probabIe nucIear target" by 1967.

Cold War Coasts

As early as November 1948 the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the RAF agreed that Stornoway aerodrome would be available for use in emergency by short-range aircraft on Atlantic flights. It featured in TOP SECRET and NATO SECRET documents, and was marked on homegrown UK Coastal Command (CC) plans dated 1957 as providing facilities including storage tanks. A visit was made on 19 and 20 March 1959 with the remit of considering it with regard to deployment of one CC Shackleton to Stornoway on outbreak of war and at periodic intervals in time of peace, and determining its suitability as a wartime (supporting) operational base for No. 210 Squadron. Formal agreement for use in war had not yet been reached at Air Ministry or Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation level, but permission had been granted for an on-site review.  "Tentative agreement" had been reached on Shackletons deploying to Stornoway in peacetime, on condition, among other techinical specifications, that there should be no interference with civil aircraft movements.
                A "third use" for this handy outpost, UK, was that it would be required to implement CC dispersal plans for Phase 1 of a future war: as a war station to provide fuel and refuellers, domestic and technical accommodation, weapon storage, essential commmunications and heavy ground equipment. One may speculate whether, as seems likely, the existence of this list would have brought the place to the interested attention of Soviet intelligence.
                Reporting on 14 April 1959, the visitors gave their verdict that Stornoway could be used as a hideaway base in "extreme emergency" only, scheduled to supply fuel to enable eight Shackletons to fly back to Ballykelly. Operations were at present out of the question due to deficiencies of accommodation and of medical and other facilities. Stornoway was, hjowever, noted as being earmarked for development by NATO, with £2.5 million already allotted in the sixth tranche of NATO's Infrastructure Programme. If this went ahead as planned the deficiencies would be made good. It was decided that transfer of fuel should proceed anyway, in case of delay. A newspaper account about the airport being flooded by the sea in December 1959 was added to the file, and may have increased misgivings, but "rehabiitation of Stornoway airfield" went ahead. CC planned that when completed it would be used as a deployment base, under Air Ministry control within CC and under RAF command in peacetime (as at Macrihanish).

Brave Britannia's Bombers, or, Anyone for Plane-Spotting?

An update in July 1963 particularised aspects of wartime use as an RAF/CC dispersal base for Shackleton Squadron, i.e. six aircraft with air and ground crews, and as a US Navy dispersal base for one  Squadron, P2V (Neptune) and emergency land-on facility for carrier-based aircraft. Occasional essential use in peace was also planned, for both NATO and national exercises and in national surveillance operations in time of tension, as part of the North Norwegian Sea area. Transits (flying over) would be necessary in peacetime for practice, to familiarise pilots with the area. An RAF Holding Party would be in place.
                Much of the subsequent business concerns the minutiae of maintaining personnel in the style to which they were accustomed (the idea of bomber-command type caravans was found not to be practical in the rugged climate) and a certain amount of sorting things out with the Americans and between ministries. The record of modifications and delays goes up to 1967. "Local political difficulties experienced during early development planning" were relegated to background briefings; the project's history from November 1955 was cited to explain why plans had now to be modified at a late stage. Stornoway was deemed "likely to be an important NATO base for some years to come" in view of the input of resources. It had its spot on a swathe or continuum from Ballykelly in Northern Ireland through Macrihanish (an emergency deployment, wartime, base for two Shackleton Squadrons), although unlike those places it does not feature on the Joint Intelligence Committee's list of "where the nuclear bombs would fall in wartime". (1)
                The early 21st century has brought plenty of reminders that the Hebrides sea area is still a favourite arena for war games. Exercises are mounted with scant regard for the convenience or safety, even in the shortest term, of the islands' inhabitants.Incidents such as those of 2002 - the civilian aircraft ordered to change course, the damaged nuclear submarine - could no doubt have been worse, and that is perhaps also the best that can be said in summarising the history, so far, of Lewis in its strategic context.

Based on research in the National Archives
Originally written around late 2002.
Previously unpublished.

1. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State. Allen Lane, 2002; endpapers [below].

"Probable nuclear targets" including Macrihanish
Postscript: Apparently Orkney was in the running too...
"Nor did anything come of newspaper reports at the end of 1957 that Orkney might be chosen as a missile launching site and that the United States was interested in the former RNAS airfields... Orkney was going through a bad economic patch at the time with the consequent depopulation problems, but even so the idea of a missile site in the islands was received with very mixed feelings - but it did not happen either." - W.S. Hewison, This Great Harbour: Scapa Flow. Birlinn, 2005; p.335 (Orkney Press 1985)

Further documentation on the militarisation of many areas of the country
(June 20040. No relation to the 'Heritage' publication of the same title.

13-year-old writing in Stornoway school magazine 1961.
Latin: melius = better; dulcius = sweeter; semper = always; ludere = to play.


Monday, 14 March 2016

The Lighter Side of Protest

Invited c.2010 to supply anecdotes about the 1960s, a former member of Aberdeen YCND came up with the short compilation of memories below. 

Individuals’ names have been replaced by YC1, YC2 etc. (for Young Comrade/ Young Campaigner).

Sometimes you just had to be there...

Singing on the bus going to a demo, to tune of ‘We Shall Overcome’: ‘Aibirdeen for the Cup – some day...’

YC1 selling anarchist newspaper, singing sotto voce ‘Oh Freedom over me..’ and adding ‘It was raining at the time...’

YC1 going in to Lodge Walk [police station] to be questioned by local CID about some incident: ‘If I’m not out in an hour, call the police.’

YC2 used to denounce British subservience to US policy, saying ‘’We are tied by the balls to America’. Once he was giving the  same speech to the Student Christian Movement at a joint meeting with Students’ CND and caught himself in mid-flow: ‘’We are tied to America by the -- strings of finance!’

A custom arose for a few people to stay over at a comrade’s house at the weekend when his mother was out. One week YC3 was stopped on the way by police and had to empty his pockets, which contained a toothbrush among other things.  ‘I always carry a toothbrush on Fridays,’ he explained (pause, dead-pan) ‘ - Religion.’

Sometimes irrelevant or absurd slogans were frivolously added to the serious ones in the interests of general confusion, such as ‘Restore the Stuart Monarchy’ among the anti-war messages, or SEX alongside SAW (Scots against War) – later rationalised for public consumption as Society for the Extermination of Xenophobia.

Student on a grant, faced with a fine to pay: ‘The state giveth and the state taketh away...’

The Press and Journal (or was it the Evening Express) did a write-up on YCND and the anarchist connection, which YC4 read out with great gusto substituting ‘Aibirdeen’s ‘YC5 and YC3’’ as the subject, in extracts like (adapting a quote from police)  ‘We are interested in all YC5 and YC3’s nocturnal activities...’

Flower power had a certain appeal c1967; there was even an attempt or two to put it into practice by presenting the forces of law and order with assorted specimens (‘Hae a floo’er’), possibly with the dubious (from a peace-and-love point of view) motive of annoying them more than anything.

The fashion for eastern mysticism had some echoes too, notably on a demonstration advertised as ‘Coulport-Come-All-Ye’ (1967? [1966]) which ended up with some desultory chanting of ‘mantras’ after a lot of fairly pointless wandering about the countryside. This episode was satirised in ‘Megaton: the [short-lived]’magazine of Aberdeen YCND’ under the heading ‘Om Sweet Om, or Coulport-Where-Were-Ye’… ’

We (YCND and anarchists) used to meet in the Trades Halls, Adelphi, off Union Street on a Sunday afternoon. One week a couple of lecturers from the university came along, apparently out of curiosity. They were surprised to find how youthful the gathering was, and one of them, a psychologist, offered us  [the anarchists] his cellar as an alternative meeting place (perhaps he wanted to observe us). We tried it but it didn’t really suit, although our standards weren’t high. At one point someone was investigating one of the holes in a wall, and someone else yelled ‘Dinna dae that, it’ll be all full of rats and mingin mice!’

YC5 wending his way homewards after a convivial evening in a student residence, flourishing a stick: ‘Death to lamp-posts!’ ‘Death to Corporation things on wheels!’

YC5 trying to persuade YC4, who was still adhering to the SLL [Socialist Labour League] at the time, to come along to a folk-song event: ‘We’ll sing “Trotsky was a good lad”!’

On the plinth
King Edward’s statue in Union Street was a favourite point for (small) demonstrations and vigils. YCND held a fund-raising fast there for War on Want over Christmas 1965. We wanted to pitch some sort of tent but this wasn’t allowed because it was ‘against the bye-laws to have an erection in the vicinity of King Edward’s statue.’ Later it was the scene of some puir daft Goons-meet-Situationist would-be ‘happenings’… 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

YCND: When it was all kicking off in Aberdeen

(Extracts edited and expanded - it was a minimalist sort of diary - from diary entries by a 17-year-old first-year student at Aberdeen University in the mid 1960s)

CND-related Diary 1964-65: From a small student society to an active group in the town 

            Year                 Date                 Event/Note
"One should always have
something sensational to read..."
October    1964             Wed. 14th         CND Hop

November 1964             Fr. 2nd              Lumpentrot (Marxist Soc. hop)
November 1964             Thu. 19th           CND Meeting
November 1964             Mon. 30th         Anti-Apartheid Meeting 7.30

Feb.     1965                 Th. 4th              CND Meeting

March   1965                 Fr. 5th               Meeting that wasn't; leaflets; Vietnam; Apartheid debate
March   1965                 Sat. 6th             Vigil 3.30 - 5

April     1965                 Fr. 16th             CND bus from Aberdeen to start of Easter March

April     1965                 Sat.16th            Easter March: High Wycombe - Uxbridge, 19mls.
April     1965                 Sun.17th           Easter March: Uxbridge - Wembley - Ealing Common, 14mls.
April     1965                 Mon.17th           Easter March: Hammersmith - Hyde Pk. - Trafalgar Sq.

May      1965                 Sun. 2nd           May Day March, 2.30; CP: "A merry May Day, comrades."
May      1965                 Tue. 4th            Meeting of Students' CND with Students' Christian Movement
May      1965                 Sun. 9th            Afternoon with YS comrades
May      1965                 Mon. 10th          Press & Journal re. Cowdray Hall heckle & walk-out
May      1965                 Fr. 14th             "Helping the police with their enquiries." 
May      1965                 Tue. 18th           CND AGM
May      1965                 Thu. 20th           Leaflets. Oxford Union debate, majority of 27
May      1965                 Fr. 21st             Vietnam meeting 7.30

June     1965                 Sun. 6th 2.30     YCND in Trades Halls, Adelphi; folk-club; visitor from C100
June     1965                 Sun. 13th 2.30   YCND; folk-club, Martin Carthy
June     1965                 Mon. 14th         YCND bods in Falkland (Cafe) - also later mentions
June     1965                 Wed. 16th         mini-van; "working for the party in darkest Mastrick"
June     1965                 Sun. 20th          YCND, Civil Defence sub.cmte; folk-club
June     1965                 Mon. 21st         YCND at St. Mary's Youth Club
June     1965                 Wed.. 23rd        "St. Mary's Folk Song Clique"

June     1965                 (Fr.) 25th           Dundee stopover on way to Glasgow
June     1965                 Sat. 26th           FASLANE; Demonstrators fined at Dumbarton, 

Aberdeen student at Faslane in June 1965
(not the writer of this diary or blog)

June     1965                 30th                  Lobby of Parliament re. Vietnam

August  1965                 3rd                   Court cases in Dumbarton
August  1965                 6th                    HIROSHIMA 20th anniversary
August  1965                 Sun. 8th            "RSG"
August  1965                 Mon. 30th         Freedom: Scots Against War again

September 1965             Sat. 11th           PORTON; London
September 1965             Sun. 12th          London: Hyde Park; CUCaND* meeting, Housmans (Tariq Ali)
September 1965             Thu. 16th           London: Freedom Press

October    1965                 Fri. 1st              YCND, Falkland
October    1965                 Sat. 2nd            Students' Societies Morning. "Reception for Wilson at Dyce"
October    1965                 Tue. 12th           CND meeting
October    1965                 Fr. 22nd            Lumpentrot (Marxist Soc. hop)

*CUCaND = Colleges and Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Looking back 45 years later, the diarist as above recalled "the mid-sixties Aberdeen YCND, a phenomenon worthy of being written up in its own right":
"Attracting 70 or 80 to meetings at its height, its activities included white-washing slogans on the streets, a money-raising fast for War on Want, raids on the nearest Civil Defence centre, leafleting at Edzell USAF base, a protest fast at Rosyth naval dockyard, producing 2 or 3 issues [more, actually] of a magazine, Megaton, and, for some of us, supporting local busmen and paperworkers' struggles and trying to sell Solidarity round high-rise council flats - not to mention organising sundry demos, late licences, folk-song sessions and weekends in the hills." 

For more on the group and what happened next see: 
(includes another diary from 1965, by a 15-year-old schoolgirl)