Update – please note that this exhibition at the National Archives has now finished. However, continue with my post below to see my personal highlights from it. In addition, my further Cold War posts include:
This November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; a landmark event which effectivley marked the end of the Cold War.
In honour of this occasion the National Archives in Kew have been hosting ‘Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed’; an exhibition displaying artefacts and key documents- many of which were once top-secret- illustrating the impact this 45 year long period, with its threat of nuclear annihilation, had on the UK.
The exhibition has been running since April and it’s only now that I’ve had a chance to visit. And as someone who is fascinated by this period of modern history, I’m very glad I did!
Much of what’s on display is deeply disturbing and, in some cases, grimly risible. Although the exhibition is relatively small, there is still a lot to digest; including tales of spies, absurd governmental policy and the Cold War’s impact on popular culture.
‘Protect and Survive’ runs until November 9th 2019 so try and catch it now if you can, especially if you have an interest in the 20th century’s trials and tribulations.
As part of the season, there are still two events left: ‘Fall of the Wall Late: Pop Culture and the Cold War‘ (November 1st) and ‘The Most difficult thing‘; a conversation with author Charlotte Philby; granddaughter of the notorious spy and Soviet defector, Kim Philby (November 5th).
If you can’t make it to Kew in the short time that’s left however, here are my top picks from the exhibition.
The National Archives: London Metropolitan Police Special Branch Report on George Orwell
Dated 20th January 1942, this document predates the Cold War by several years.
Although Britain and the USA were allied with the Soviets at this time, there was still a deep suspicion of communism in the West, as demonstrated by this report which focuses on Eric Blair- aka George Orwell.
According to this secret report, the author- who worked at the BBC and would later go on to write ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’- is described as having “communist views” and dressed “in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.”
The National Archives: The “Naughty Document”
This document which, at first glance, looks more like a betting slip, also predates the Cold War- although it gives a hint as to what was to come.
It was scribbled late one night in 1944 by Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill and suggests ways in which Eastern Europe could be carved up once WWII had reached its conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, Churchill wanted this piece of paper to be kept strictly hush-hush; he specifically referred to it as being “naughty.”
The National Archives: Churchill's Letter to the Queen
Staying with Churchill, this letter was written by him in July 1954 during his second tenure as Prime Minister.
It was addressed to Queen Elizabeth II (a little over a year after her Coronation) to inform the Monarch that the government were considering building a hydrogen bomb. The go-ahead to create this ultimate weapon was given ten days after this letter was penned.
Britain began testing such weapons- which were many more times powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki- in the late 1950s.
These tests were conducted deep in the Pacific region and many young servicemen were ordered to bear witness to the hellish detonations.
One such veteran, David Hemlsey- who was just 18 at the time- recently gave an account of his experience, starting with a description of the x-ray effect created by the explosion:
“If I was looking at you now, I would see all your bones…there was a rising, colossal fireball going up and thunder, lighting, you name it.”
” I think it was too much for some people- some of them were crying, asking for their mum.”
The National Archives: Bunker Maps
In the event of a nuclear attack the government planned to divide Britain into a number of regions, each of which would have been controlled by an appointed commissioner from a designated bunker.
In these command centres, maps similar to those pictured below would’ve been used to plot information. The first map shows the UK’s sub-regions as envisioned in 1960.
The second estimates the damage and fallout spread caused by a single H-Bomb on London.
The National Archives: Secret Manual for the Chosen Few
Very few people would’ve been selected to serve in the UK’s regional command bunkers. Had the call gone out, those who were chosen would not have been permitted to bring any family members along with them; a situation which no doubt would have dissuaded many from participating.
Those who did take the decision to go would’ve been provided with this manual, drawn up in January 1965.
The National Archives: Powers Over Life and Death
Had Britain found itself embroiled in a nuclear war, it was a given that general law and order would have ceased to exist.
As such, the commanders in the nation’s regional bunkers would have been granted draconian powers over whichever citizens had been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to survive.
Despite Britain banning capital punishment in the late 1960s, this would’ve involved powers over life and death- the ability to shoot looters for example- as detailed in this Parliamentary Bill draft from 1963.
The National Archives: Queen Elizabeth's Potential War Speech
Throughout the Cold War, the British government held regular exercises in which politicians and civil servants role-played potential World War Three scenarios. These war-games were highly detailed and took place over a number of days, simulating a period of international tension which would always culminate with the release of nuclear weapons.
The National Archives’ exhibition contains two manuals from such exercises, both of which took place in the early 1980s.
The 1983 book (from an exercise code-named WINTEX-CIMEX 83) is of particular interest as it contains a mock- albeit highly believable- speech which would have been supposedly broadcast to the nation by the Queen just a day or so before an expected nuclear attack.
The image reflected in the picture above is from an episode of the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme entitled ‘If the Bomb Drops’. This was broadcast in 1980 and presented by a very young Jeremy Paxman. It can be viewed in its entirety below:
The Protect and Survive Campaign
The National Archives’ Protect and Survive exhibition takes its name from the title of a public information campaign which the government drew up in secrecy in the mid-1970s, the aim of which was to provide advice to the public had nuclear war loomed.
In the event that an international crisis spiralled out of control and nuclear attack seemed likely within days, the government would have activated the Protect and Survive campaign.
This would have seen free booklets- containing information such as how to construct makeshift shelters- sent to every home. Television and radio stations were to be shut down and replaced with a single BBC channel dubbed the ‘Wartime Broadcasting Service.’
This station would have broadcast a series of pre-prepared Protect and Survive information films on a regular loop.
With their simple animation and eerie, electronic jingles, these films make for deeply unsettling viewing.
A number of these films can be viewed inside the exhibition. Click below to watch an example: ‘What to do when the Warnings Sound.’
Following some debate as to what the government’s plans for nuclear war actually were, it was decided in May 1980 to make the Protect and Survive booklet available to the public for the princely sum of fifty pence.
Consequently the pamphlet, which essentially advised people to huddle in makeshift shelters with a stash of tinned food, immediately attracted ridicule for its naive approach.
As part of the National Archives’ exhibition, the curators have recreated an ‘Inner Refuge’ (a space designed to protect survivors from the first 48 hours of fallout) as suggested by the Protect and Survive booklet.
This cupboard under the stairs set up was expected to accommodate an entire family. A makeshift lavatory- designed in line with Protect and Survive’s specifications- is included here:
Whilst standing in this claustrophobic space, a vintage radio kicks in, broadcasting a chilling, pre-recorded, post-attack message scripted by the BBC.
To hear a similar re-creation of this message, click below:
BBC Wartime Broadcasting Service message
Visiting the National Archives
Opening times (for the Exhibition, shop and cafe):
First Sunday of every month 11:00–16:00
Closed on other Sundays and Mondays
The exhibition is on until 9 November 2019.
Entry is free.
How to get there:
The nearest stations are Kew Gardens (District and Overground lines) and Kew Bridge which is served by South West Trains from Waterloo.
The nearest bus routes are 65, 237, 267 and 391.
Pedestrian access is via Ruskin Avenue. The National Archives are fully accessible for disabled visitors.