Saturday, 6 April 2019

Of chickens and atomic demolition munitions

Letter sent to Daily Mail:

I read with great interest Dominic Sandbrook’s feature article on ‘The Real Doomsday Book’ (Daily Mail,  4 April 2019, about the new display at the National Archives on “Protect and Survive “concerned with Britain and nuclear weapons

Fifteen years ago this month, another a blood curdling exhibition opened at the National Archives Called ‘Secret State,’ it unveils some of the most terrifying secrets of the Cold War.

During my visit, one stunning revelation jumped to my attention from the exhibition boards displaying original Official Documents from the 1950s and 1960s: Swansea ( near my hometown of Neath)  was listed as one of the 20 major cities in a Top Secret report ‘Probable Nuclear targets in the United Kingdom: Assumptions for Planning’- prepared by the Joint Intelligence Committee. (Annex A, File TNA: DEFE 4/224, dated 2nd November 1967). The JIC is a hitherto obscure body which came to public prominence during the Hutton Inquiry hearings into the mysterious death of Dr  David Kelly. The documents displayed at the ‘Secret State’ exhibition brought the nuclear threat the planet faced in the 1950s/60s alive in a frightening fashion.

One document –the ‘Strath Report’- prepared in 1955, so secret it was not publicly released until last autumn, was the best estimate of the atomic boffins of what would have happened if Britain was attacked by the Soviet Union with just 10 Hydrogen (H-) bombs. Its conclusions, made available only to ministers in strictest confidence, detailed in graphic terms the disaster that would have befallen Britain.

Professor Lord Peter Hennessy, the curator of ‘The Secret State’ exhibition described the ‘Strath Report’ as the “most chilling document ever prepared for British Cabinet ministers.” I agree, and would add: before or since.

The combined explosive power of these 10 H-bombs would, the ‘Strath Report’ stated, be the “equivalent of 100million tonnes of TNT explosive,” going on to reveal “This would be 45 times as great as the total tonnage of bombs delivered by all the allies on Germany, Italy and occupied France throughout the whole of the last war.”(ie World War II)

Twelve million people would be incinerated in the first few seconds with another four million seriously injured, even before the radiation clouds had made their poisonous way across the country.

The ‘Strath Report’ asserted “Hydrogen Bomb war would be total war in a sense not hitherto conceived. The entire nation would be in the front line…life and property would be obliterated by blast and fire on a vast scale.”

And yet in all this overwhelming and depressing material on destruction there were some instances of black humour.

Scientists working on an atomic land mine - meant for deployment underground in Germany’s northern plains - realised that it could fail in winter if vital components become too cold, so they explored ways of keeping the inner workings warm. One proposal put forward consisted of filling the casing of the mine with live chickens, which would give off sufficient heat - prior to suffocating or starving to death - to keep the delicate explosive mechanism from freezing.

Despite the potential importance of chickens to the project, the mine was codenamed ‘Blue Peacock’. This story was mischievously revealed on 1st April – but it was true!

Despite the potential importance of chickens to the project, the mine was codenamed ‘Blue Peacock’. This story was mischievously revealed on 1st April – but it was true!

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