Struggle for Survival

Governing Britain after the Bomb

Steve Fox


File 5   The Regional Seats of Government back to contents
The what’s, where’s and how’s of the RSGs  
struggleforsurvival AT next file


By 1960 planners in both central and local government were beginning to think that the peacetime local authorities would not be able to cope with the huge problems that the country would face in the post-attack period. Strategists now also thought that the attack, perhaps involving 150 hydrogen bombs each of 3 megatons, would be directed at the many airbases and missile sites around the country capable of launching nuclear weapons as well as the cities. This would mean the destruction and particularly the resulting fall-out would be spread over more of the country than previously envisaged. These problems were considered in 1960 during studies known as Ace High and Cloud Dragon which found, amongst other things, that a more active system of governmental control would be needed. This lead to the setting up of The Bishop Committee to consider the findings on the basis that “the UK would cease to exist as a corporate political entity” after an attack.

The Committee’s conclusions were given further weight by the Berlin Crisis which grew during 1961. One of its main recommendations of the Committee was that the regional control system should be made operational and although this would be expensive the go-ahead was given to implement “Programme X” to build the headquarters by 1966. The title “joint civil-military headquarters” was now dropped in favour of “Regional Seats of Government”, although they were usually simply referred to as RSGs. The new name was adopted to emphasise the RSG’s new role as a policymaking body rather than one directing the immediate life saving effort. The Home Office described the RSGs as “the lynchpin of the preparations for survival” which would “provide a system of administration and marshalling of supplies and services”. It would have no role in the pre-attack period and unlike its predecessors the RSG or perhaps more correctly their Regional Commissioner would now automatically assume power after a nuclear attack with no suggestion that it would only do so if it lost contact with central government. The RSG would now be the central government for its region until central government could be restored at the national level.

Although the idea of an RSG was introduced in 1960, no operating procedures were written to guide its staff until they were needed for the large scale Exercise Fallex62. This was a NATO wide exercise held in September 1962 for which 6 RSGs were activated. These procedures said the real task of the RSG would lie in the weeks and months after the attack in what would have been essentially the task of putting the social and economic structure of the region back together from what would have been, even in the least affected areas, at best a much damaged starting point. Even if the region was not physically affected by blast, fall-out would affect people’s ability to move about, refugees would be a problem, the national distribution system for food and other essentials would have broken down, there would be no imports of food, the national electricity grid would have been put out of action, there would be no effective national leadership and underlying everything would be a sense of confusion, despair and fear for the future.

The Regional Commissioners “would not try to restore anything like normal conditions, but would see that law and order and some machinery of administration was maintained, to see that the best use was made of remaining resources, and to keep in touch with the population”. The Region would probably be on its own and reliant on its own resources for months rather than weeks, until some effective central government could be restored. During this time the Regional Commissioner “would have to exert far more control over the production and distribution of commodities and over the activities of local authorities, public utilities and commercial undertakings than would be tolerable on the part of government in peacetime”. As an example Exercise Grass Seed held in the Bristol sub-region in 1966 envisaged the Regional Commissioner deciding not to abandon parts of Bristol and authorising an increase in the War Emergency Dose of the civil defence workers. He had insisted on payment being made for all food and meals provided by the emergency feeding centres in an attempt to keep the cash economy going. He visited many places “offering encouragement” and made broadcasts to the people. In the wake of a total breakdown in law and order “The Regional Commissioner pronounced drastic measures for the enforcement of law and order, such as death and flogging for looting, and … these sentences have been carried out on the orders of the Summary Courts of Justice”. The Regional Commissioner would also pronounce on such matters as the direction of labour, building priorities, energy usage, restarting the education system, currency (including the possibility of a separate regional currencies with differing rates of exchange for inter-regional trade), and major population movements within the region and perhaps to other regions.

As a Whitehall in miniature, the RSG would include representatives of all the central government departments who would have a role in the survival period and beyond. The staff of an RSG was nominally around 430 and a full list of them and their departments in 1963 is given in the appendix. The scope of the RSG’s role is well illustrated by the inland transport contingent. As well as the Regional Transport Controller and his deputy this would include a Regional Bus Controller, Regional Goods Vehicle Controller, Divisional Road Engineer and Regional Railway Liaison Officer. Most of these people would have come from private industry rather than the civil service. Similarly, appointments would be from trade representatives for the food supply and energy industries. The major banks would supply representatives to assist the Treasury contingent in organising the region’s economy. The military would still have a major role in preserving law and order and the RSG would continue to serve as the District Headquarters for the armed forces under the Regional Military Commander.


 The internal organisation of an RSG

The role of the RSG was to be the central government for its region for an indefinite period and the operational procedures generally reflected standard civil service practices. There were however some significant differences. The civil servants would not be acting as representatives of their own Ministries or Ministers but as members of a joint team under the Regional Commissioner. Decisions would have to be made quickly and with relatively little information, methods which would no doubt come as a shock to many.

The RSG would have a nucleus or core consisting of the Regional Commissioner, the Deputy Regional Commissioner, and the Principal Officer supported by the Secretariat with its Information Unit. This nucleus would correspond to the peacetime “Number 10” and the Cabinet Secretariat. In support, it would have a civilian combined operations staff, scientific advisers, legal advisers and so on. Under them would come the representatives of the various departments involved in home defence (which would be virtually all of them with the notable exception of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office whose peacetime tasks would in war be reserved to the central government nucleus), the uniformed services (military, fire, police and civil defence) together with a large supporting staff.

The working structure mirrored that of peacetime cabinet government with the major decisions being taken by the Regional Commissioner’s Committee consisting of the Regional Commissioner, Deputy Regional Commissioner, Principal Officer and Departmental Heads who would meet daily. Its decisions would be put into effect by the Secretariat acting like the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat. There would also be committees formed to oversee particular areas such as communications. Ad hoc meetings of departmental representatives would be arranged by the Secretariat, which would also circulate the decisions. Many decisions would need to be made in committee as most would effect more than one department for example the decision to evacuate a badly affected area would involve transport, feeding and billeting.


Within the Secretariat, the Information Unit would be responsible for building up and maintaining the strategic picture of what was happening in the region. It would also use this information to forecast longer-term trends and needs. The Information Unit would also compile the twice-daily situation reports, which would be sent to other RSGs and the central government nucleus. Each RSG would have a small BBC sound studio to allow the Regional Commissioner to broadcast to the survivors giving them information and trying to maintain morale.

The Combined Operations Room under the peacetime Regional Director of Civil Defence would direct the strategic reinforcement of affected areas in the life saving phase. The armed forces contingent would principally be concerned with the provision of “aid to the civil power” which was generally taken to mean assisting with the maintenance of law and order. It might be mentioned in passing that martial law was not considered. The Regional Military Commander would be constitutionally under the direction of the Regional Commissioner. He would command the military forces but their actual control was left to the military. Similarly, police forces would remain under the operational control of the local Chief Constables although overall command of the police would be vested in the Regional Police Commander who would come under the direction of the Regional Commissioner.

Supporting the nucleus and the operational staffs was a substantial “common services” contingent under a Chief Clerk. They would be responsible for providing clerical, typing and duplicating services. The Chief Clerk was also responsible for stationary supplies although departmental representatives would be expected to bring specialist materials, reference works, maps, etc with them. Rather than use many large maps they were equipped with a projector that could take ten-inch square acetate maps that could then be used to show fall out zones, etc. Each RSG had a BFPO (British Forces Post Office) address and outgoing mail would not be censored. This service presumably only relates to the pre-attack period, as there was not expected to be a functioning postal service afterwards.

Unlike the Regional War Rooms RSGs would have to operate on a continuous basis for a long time and they were expected to be self-contained for 30 days. Communications and canteen staff would work on a two-shift basis providing 24-hour cover but most operational staff would work as necessary. Most RSGs had well a equipped kitchen and canteen. Rations of fresh food if available and an initial supply of 30 days composite rations would be provided by the army who would also provide the kitchen and security staff. According to the draft operating procedures tobacco, cigarettes, sweets and toilet requisites would be on sale at normal retail prices possibly organised by the NAAFI. Spirits and canned beer would also be available. These items were not permanently held at the RSG and in reality, given the short length of time which would have been available to bring the RSG to operational readiness it seems very unlikely that anything other than the basics could have been organised. The Chief Clerk would be responsible for keeping stock records and could also make cash advances of salary of up to £5 per week for staff in need. After the pre-stocked stores had been used the Chief Clerk would be expected to organise their replacement. These feeding arrangements however were largely theoretical. In 1964 The Home Defence Committee decided that the Ministry of Agriculture would be responsible for stocking food supplies in the form of ration packs for all non-local authority civil and home defence staff. These included approximately 7200 manning the regional government system, 11000 in UKWMO (see File 16), 3800 from the power industries, 12000 from the Post Office and some 3000 in ports and shipping, mainly dockers moved to the emergency ports and anchorages under the powers to direct labour from the emergency legislation. However, as so often happened apart from meetings and memoranda nothing happened until 1972 when the Ministry of Agriculture announced that in view of the moratorium on civil defence expenditure it could no longer undertake to supply food and the regional controls and other organisations would have to arrange for their own stocks before the attack. The Post Office and UKWMO did however obtain ration packs for their people.

Each RSG also had a Camp Commandant who would be responsible for the building and its physical facilities. His initial task was to prepare the site, allocate rooms to the various uses, and acquire furniture and rations where necessary. This role would have been particularly important in the ad hoc RSGs based at barracks. The Camp Commandant was also responsible for ensuring the reserve water and fuel tanks were full but it was expected that water rationing would be necessary if the main supply failed. At some sites, Elsan toilets would be available if the sewers became unusable. A generator would be available to provide power for the inevitable loss of the main supply and some RSGs would have used Calor Gas for cooking.

The RSG would be manned at some time during the precautionary period. Initially a small team from the Home Office, possibly from the Regional Director of Civil Defence’s staff, would be dispatched to prepare the RSG. But actual activation or overt preparations would be delayed for as long as possible so as not to alarm or alert the general public or to give them the idea that the government thought the much-vaunted nuclear deterrent had failed.

The Camp Commandant would also be responsible for security and reception of the staff. They would be instructed to arrive at the RSG independently or in small groups At all the RSGs some staff would have come from London whilst others would have come from regional offices of their departments. Many of the junior staff would have come from local offices of central government. Most of the staff would have slept on 2 or sometimes 3-tier iron bunk beds in dormitories although where space permitted the senior staff had single beds in their offices. Bedding was provided but there does not appear to have been any facilities for washing it or clothes, although showers were provided. The living accommodation was generally very spartan and conditions, even in the better RSGs would have been far from pleasant particularly after several weeks of occupation.  


The RSG sites

Under Programme X the old plans to build 6 specially designed buildings as joint civil/military headquarters at Hexham (North region), Shipton (North East), Reading/Oxford (Southern), Taunton (South West), Llandridnod Wells (Wales) and Lancaster (North West) were revived. They would have had 57000 square feet of usable accommodation and cost about £2 million, equivalent to £25 million today. To retain some secrecy they would be referred to as “Home Office Training Establishments”. Sites for the remaining RSGs were quickly acquired. In Nottingham, work was already under way on an extension to the original Regional War Room and a similar extension was started at Cambridge. The tunnels at Drakelow had already been acquired as had those under Dover Castle. The purpose built RSGs would take several years to complete and until then barracks in Catterick, York, Preston and Brecon were earmarked as emergency regional headquarters and in Devon the ROTOR station at Bold Head was fitted out.

 By 1961, some RSGs were becoming operational and some exercises were held such as De Novo in Eastern region and Mercian Trump ll in the Midland. There were however no procedures written and the regional civil defence staffs still tended to consider the short-term problems much to the annoyance of the Home Office.

But, the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises in 1961 and 1962 showed that a war could develop much quicker than previously planned for and consequently following a rather rapid home defence review the assumption of a 7 day Precautionary Period was reduced to one of 2-3 days. The RSGs particularly those in ad hoc accommodation could not be prepared in time and the purpose built RSGs became, at least according to the Home Office, a necessity. They had however become a source of heated debate between the Treasury and the Home Office which centred on cost rather than need and eventually a decision was made in December 1964 by the Prime Minister “to delay any further consideration”. In reality, the idea of purpose built RSGs was abandoned.

The shortened warning period had other effects and for example, there were doubts as to whether the Regional Commissioners could be appointed in time. One Ministry of Defence report doubted that little more than a start could be made on the necessary preparations in this short time and said “It is quite clear therefore that much of our present ability to react effectively to a crisis developing as quickly as the Cuban affair is severely limited”. The massive nation wide evacuation scheme could not possibly be completed in this time frame and although subsequent plans to evacuate fewer people from the major cities and only moving them up to 50 miles were suggested following the 1965 Home Defence Review evacuation as a strategy was effectively abandoned.

Another plan rendered unworkable by the shortened precautionary period was the one to evacuate the Bank of England’s gold reserves from London. The plan which had been in the Treasury War Book since the 1950s was to take the gold, under military escort to the Valley Works at Mold which was at the time also nominally the reserve emergency central government war headquarters, where 10000 square feet of floor space was reserved. Other sites which had been considered were the former ordnance factories at Brackla and Swynnerton (both also used for civil defence controls) and the old ROTOR site at St Twynells in Wales. The plan was reconsidered in 1964 when the Treasury War Book was being revised but no decision was taken about its future. There is a file retained at the PRO dealing with removing the reserves from London between 1964 and 1968 but it is not available to the public. However the allocation of an army battalion in the MoD War Book from the late 1960s to guarding the gold reserves suggests that plans of some sort still existed into the 1970s.

The impetus that the RSGs enjoyed from 1960 to 1962 did not last and by May 1965 no major exercises had been held involving RSGs for nearly 3 years and four of them had not been activated for a longer period. In May 1964, planning had started for an RSG exercise to be held in May 1965 called CIVLOG65 but this was overtaken by events which resulted in a major change in the structure of the RSGs.

The list below shows the designated RSG sites in April 1963. They were a motley assortment of buildings with perhaps one overriding similarity – they were cheap. All the sites were already in government hands and to some degree fitted with communications and domestic services.


              Region                              Site


1 (Northern)                        Gaza/Sandhurst Block, Catterick Camp

                                             (support : RAF Catterick)

 2 (North Eastern)               The Keep, York Castle - interim location

                                            (support : Imphal Barracks)

 3 (North Midland)              Chalfont Drive, Nottingham

                                             (support : Bestwood Lodge, Arnold, Notts – interim location)

 4 (East)                               Government Buildings, Brooklands Ave. Cambridge

                                             (support : The Leys School, Cambridge)

 6 (Southern)                       Warren Row, near Maidenhead

                                             (support : none)

 7 (South Western)            Kingsbridge, Devon *

                                            (support : Marine Hotel, Salcombe, possibly BRNC Dartmouth)

 8 (Wales)                          Depot Barracks, Brecon

                                            (support : Lansdown Restaurant, Brecon)   

 9 (Midland)                        Wolverly Near Kidderminster **

                                            (support : HQ 48 Division TA Shrewsbury)

 10 (North Western)          Fulwood Barracks, Preston

                                            (support : Imperial Hotel, Blackpool)

 12 (South Eastern)           Dover Castle

                                            (support : another part of the Castle)

 Northern Ireland                Gough Barracks, Armagh

                                            (support : not known)

 Scotland                            Scottish Central Control, Barnton Quarry, Edinburgh

                                            (support : Tulliallan Castle, Kincardine)

 Scotland                            vicinity of Torrance House, East Kilbride

(Western Zone)                 (support : Torance House)

 Scotland                            Civil Defence HQ Kirknewton

(Eastern Zone)                  (support : Howden House, Kirknewton) 

Scotland                             Civil Defence HQ Anstruther

(Northern Zone)                 (support : not known)


*    more commonly known as Bolt Head

**   more commonly known as Drakelow


On a regional basis the sites were –

Region 1 (Northern)

North Region’s RSG was to be at Catterick Barracks although no purpose built or special accommodation was available. Existing buildings would have to be modified with their doors and windows blocked and the walls sandbagged. The resulting accommodation was considered adequate but it would take several hundred men at least 2 days to prepare.


Region 2 (North Eastern)

Initially North East Region’s RSG site would have been in York Barracks but by 1964 it had relocated to Shipton to the north of York where it was housed in one of four massive 3 storey underground bunkers built in the early 1950s as Sector Operations Centres (usually known as SOCs) for the short-lived RAF Rotor radar scheme. Whilst completely self-sufficient the bunker was shared with Royal Observer Corps Sector Control which had stayed behind when the RAF had moved out and this caused serious space problems. At an almost identical SOC at Kelvedon Hatch, which was at this time used as a smaller Sub Regional Headquarters the lack of space, meant that some bunks were put into the long entrance tunnel. A long-term solution was to add a fourth floor to these already massive buildings to house dormitories and extra fuel and water tanks. This was eventually done at Shipton but in the meantime some of the RSG staff would have to use York Barracks with the old Regional War Room at Leeds acting as its communications centre.


Region 3 (North Midlands)

The regional War Room site at Nottingham was not designated for use under the “joint civil/military headquarters” plan and a site in Grantham was earmarked. However, by 1959 revised assumptions about Soviet targeting strategy put Nottingham into a “neutral area” as far as fall out was concerned and plans were quickly made to build a major extension to the War Room. The War Room was left as the core of the new RSG3 and retained its original plant rooms but extensions were added at the sides with concrete walls about 2 feet thick. A new third floor was then added so that the RSG had over four times the space of the War Room. The lower floor of the War Room was partly underground and this extended to provide space for large water and diesel tanks. The resulting building was full of narrow corridors, small rooms and staircases which would not have helped operational efficiency. It was however much larger than most RSGs and could accommodate 400. The extension work was completed by 1964 but soon after the plans were changed and permanent RSGs were no longer maintained. The Nottingham building was however kept as a potential “accretion centre” for the new style RSG Groups and as a possible sub regional headquarters.  The building, which is in the middle of a sprawling complex of government offices, acquired the nickname of “The Kremlin” sometime in the 1950s and this is still used today. 


Kitchen at Nottingham in 2004


Region 4 (East)

East region actually had a surfeit of suitable accommodation. It had two of the massive Rotor SOCs at Bawbugh near Norwich and Kelvedon Hatch near Brentwood both of which were used as Sub Regional Headquarters. RSG4 was located at the Regional War Room in Cambridge that was extended by 1964 with a 2 storey windowless extension with walls some 2 feet thick to the side of the War Room that added some 30000 square feet of floor space. The first floor housed the dormitories and domestic accommodation whilst most of the operational areas and plant were on the ground floor. The old War Room was integral to the construction and housed the Regional Commissioner and his team and the communications.


Region 6 (Southern)

Southern region was particularly badly prepared. The main RSG site was at Warren Row near Maidenhead which was acquired under Programme X. It used part of an underground chalk quarry that had been taken over as an aircraft components factory during the Second World War and subsequently used as a store by the Science Museum. The “New Mine” which became RSG6 consisted of a meandering brick lined tunnel about 300 yards long with an entrance at each end. The tunnel was generally about 15 – 20 feet wide and one level high with the office accommodation formed by partitioning spaces off to one side. In some places, the tunnel was high enough to squeeze in a second floor that was used for dormitories. In 1964 it could only accommodate 250 of the planned 430 staff in conditions which were described as “primitive, unhealthy and in parts unsafe”. The rest of the staff would be housed in, or near, the Reading Regional War Room which would also serve as the communications centre, although its effectiveness is questionable as the two sites were only linked by vulnerable overhead lines.


Main entrance to Warren Row, now a commercial store, in the 1980s


Region 7(South West)

RSG7 was one of the earliest RSGs and was based in a former RAF Rotor Ground Control Intercept station. This 2-storey bunker was built on the surface at Bolt Head on the south Devon coast. The roof and walls were about 2 feet thick which would give adequate protection against fall-out. The bunker was quite small and a large unprotected building nearby was converted to be used for domestic accommodation. Even so, the whole site could only take 250 staff. Although it was used during the 1962 Exercise Fallex62 the site’s emergency generators and some other building works were not ready until 1964. The site is rather exposed and close to the sea, which no doubt accounts for its 1960s local codename of Gull Perch.

At this time the South West Civil Defence Region consisted of 12 Civil Defence Corps Authorities – Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester City, Plymouth, Swindon and North East Wiltshire, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly. In wartime they would be divided into 7 Groups which would report to the RSG – Gloucestershire, Swindon, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall. Bristol together with Bath and neighbouring parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset would form the Bristol Sub Region with its Sub Regional Control at the civil defence school at Falfield. Most of the Group Controls would be established in County Halls although a wide range of buildings were earmarked for the lower Area Controls for example Area 71A would use the Guildhall in Bath and Area 76A The Old Rectory in Honiton. The vast majority of the designated Group and Area Controllers were former army officers.


Region 8 (Wales)

Wales was badly provided with suitable accommodation. Although several Second World War underground stores were available, RSG8 was housed in the barracks at Brecon. It suffered the same basic problems as Catterick and could only accommodate 100 people.


Region 9 (Midlands)

RSG9 was housed in an underground factory dug into a remote bracken covered hillside at Drakelow near Kidderminster during the Second World War. The accommodation consisted of a network of square tunnels about 16 feet wide laid out on a grid pattern. Originally, the tunnels provided some 250000 sq feet of floor space but the RSG only used half of this and at one stage it was suggested that they could also accommodate one and possibly two Sub Regional Headquarters as well. As at Warren Row the offices were partitioned along the tunnels.


Region 10 (North Western)

At one time, it was proposed to use a World War Two underground bomb dump at Harpur Hill near Buxton as RSG10. This massive site could have housed the RSG, its support staff, a Sub Regional Control and a wartime headquarters for the Ministry of Agriculture. However, installing land line and radio communications to the site proved to be prohibitively expensive came to nothing and the RSG was located in the barracks at Preston.


Region 12 (South East)

During the Napoleonic wars, a series of tunnels were dug under Dover Castle to accommodate troops. Further tunnels were dug during the Second World War to serve as military headquarters, dressing station and communications centre. These were taken over in 1960 to be developed into RSG12 but as elsewhere matters proceeded very slowly and the conversion was not completed until 1964. The operational hub of the RSG was on the lowest level of tunnels known as “Dumpy” which consisted of a series of narrow tunnels lined with corrugated iron linking larger rooms. Accommodation, canteen facilities, plant rooms and oil and water storage tanks were installed on the upper two levels. The middle level of tunnels ended at the cliff face and although blocked off faced out onto Dover docks, which made the site vulnerable to any attack on these strategically important facilities. Unusually for a bunker a lift was installed connecting all 3 levels to the surface and the winding gear together with offices were housed in an anonymous windowless building in the castle grounds where it was passed by thousands of tourists who were completely unaware of its function or what lay beneath. Part of the site is open to the public and the restaurant and kitchen occupy the same area as the old RSG canteen.


              Dormitory - Dover


The control chain in Scotland and Northern Ireland was slightly different to that in England and Wales because of their differing political systems.

A Scottish Central Control was planned in 1948 and built to the standard regional war room design at Kirknewton near Edinburgh. It would be under the direction of a Scottish Minister rather than a Regional Commissioner and had two outposts or Zone Controls based on Glasgow and Edinburgh. By 1959, the country was divided into 3 zones: Northern, Eastern and Western reporting, under the joint civil/military headquarters scheme to the Scottish Central Control in the barracks at Lanark. In 1960, building started at the Kirknewton site to extend it on similar lines to the development at Cambridge. At this time the RAF’s former 3 level Rotor bunker at Barnton Quarry in Edinburgh, a few miles away, was adopted as the Scottish Central Control, the equivalent of an RSG, to operate under the Secretary of State for Scotland. Some reports suggest that when Kirknewton’s redevelopment was complete it resumed its role as the Scottish Central with Barnton Quarry being redesignated as the Eastern Zone Control.

The Northern Zone control was established by the mid-1960s at Anstruther in Fife in a 2 level RAF underground Rotor bunker.  A new control was proposed for the Western Zone at Lanark but this was scrapped in favour of using a former anti-aircraft operations room[1] built for the army in the early 1950s at East Kilbride.

Below the level of the zones, Scotland was divided into 20 civil defence groups and then areas, sectors and warden’s posts as in England and Wales.


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland had its war room in Belfast but by 1959 plans were made to establish a Northern Ireland Central Control (also called the Northern Ireland Civil Defence Headquarters) at the Gough Barracks in Armagh. This plan was delayed for several years in part by a petty squabble between government departments about who would fund the cost of the single landline to the STOCKWELL central government headquarters. Northern Ireland was then divided into 8 Areas and then district or sub-controls and then sectors as elsewhere.



London posed a major problem for the civil defence planners because of its size, population, communications links and particularly its place as the centre of government. These made it an obvious target. The early 1950s plans divided the capital into 4 sub-regions each with a War Room and Sub Regional Commissioner. A London War Room was never built although nominally the World War 2 bunker at Dollis Hill served as the Joint Civil/Military HQ for the region. But by 1959 the planners had accepted a plan which had been under consideration since 1956 that London would not be a separate region in wartime. Its sub-regions, increased from 4 to 5 in 1958, were now to be allocated in war between East region at Cambridge and South Eastern region at Dover. London region would however continue to exist for peace time planning purposes.

Early plans for the 5 London sub-regional controls were extremely vague and the general idea was to locate them well outside the London area preferably alongside the control for the neighbouring Civil Defence Corps group for example at Chelmsford and Maidstone. By 1960 the ROTOR bunker at Kelvedon Hatch was adopted as the control for the North East sub-region (5.1) although this would continue to use the old Wanstead control until 1962. The former war room at Kemnal Manor was no longer available and Fort Bridgewoods at Chatham was nominally the SRC for south east London possibly using the former AAOR site. The south west SRC was nominally at Cheam although by 1960 the idea of using Stoughton Barracks at Guildford was under consideration and this was later adopted. The former north London control at Mill Hill may have been allocated to the northern sub region (5.5) leaving the north west without a control until the premises at Southall were adopted, although there is a possibility that the Dollis Hill War Room could have been used.

The distinction between a wartime and a peacetime organisation appears to have caused some problems amongst the planners but it continued although in 1965 London lost its formal numerical classification as No 5 region possibly to help with establishing the formal communication links with the wartime RSGs. North West London was now allocated to Southern Region with its SRHQ (probably) at Warren Row. The numeral 5 was now adopted by South Eastern Region (formerly 12 Region) with the SRHQ at Dover covering south east London and the nominal one at Guildford covering the south west. The north and north east areas were covered by Eastern Region SRHQs at Hertford and Kelvedon Hatch.

In some cases, the RSGs were not large enough to accommodate all the 430 or so staff. In addition, some agencies such as the army and MAFF would require additional accommodation for their regional staff or those who did not need to be in the RSG itself. This lead to the majority being allocated support headquarters in nearby accommodation chosen to provide living as well as working accommodation but with no special protection against fall out. The support headquarters for RSG4 at Cambridge was for example to be The Leys School, a large imposing public school a few hundred yards from the main RSG site.


Staffing the system

The Regional Commissioner’s in the War Room era would have been, like their World War ll predecessors members of the “great and good” probably with a military background and in 1948 a list of potential Regional Commissioners had been drawn up. Certainly, the majority of the Sub Regional Controllers who were appointed were ex-generals or colonels although at least one was a local businessman. There was also a suggestion that if necessary County or Town Clerks could be appointed to this role. At the local level the civil defence organisation would have been lead by the Group and Area Controllers supported by the County Clerks and the authority’s full time Civil Defence Officer.

The War Room staffing was the responsibility of the Regional Directors of Civil Defence. The staff would have been a mixture of “professionals” from the Civil Defence Corps, police, fire brigade and health services with some volunteer scientists acting as Scientific Intelligence Officers. They would be supported by a “common services” staff mainly operating the communications systems. These would have been junior civil servants apparently mostly from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Unusually for civil defence, junior civil servants were actively sought or “trawled” in civil service jargon to volunteer to work in both the regional war rooms and the CGWR.

When the RSGs were introduced, the Regional Commissioners would have had a different role from their War Room predecessors. They would now primarily be lawmakers, long-term representatives of the central government with almost unlimited power to govern. The only authority that could over-rule a decision of a Regional Commissioner would be the War Cabinet. These Regional Commissioners would be appointed from “Ministers (or persons of ministerial status)” or “senior ministers” and each would have a junior minister as a deputy but they would probably not have been cabinet ministers. In practice, ministers might be in short supply.

The 23 Sub Regional Commissioner posts would have been filled by Under Secretaries, the third highest rank in the civil service. (Many of the most senior civil servants would have to be with their Ministers). This helps explain the remark in a Home Office paper that “manning the central government war headquarters would denude Whitehall of senior officials”. 

There were frequent concerns expressed throughout the 1950s and 1960s that there were insufficient volunteers from the civil service and these shortages caused problems during exercises. In some cases, Civil Defence Corps members were called on to assist with communications although manning the War Rooms was not a Corps function. These shortages became more acute with the introduction of the RSGs with their much larger staffs especially when this was coupled with the need for the central government rather than the local authorities to find the staff for the Sub Regional Controls (and later the Sub Regional Headquarters) as well as the central government nucleus at the same time. The bulk of the domestic and communications staffs for the RSGs would have been provided by the Territorial Army although the latter in particular would have been a problem as the signals units were only at half their established strengths.

Apart from a few senior appointments, the staffs of the Government War Headquarters and the RSGs were not told of their wartime designation although civil service personnel departments selected all staff, either by name or post down to individual typists. This would cause obvious problems when the decision was taken to man the RSGs. But it was felt that to tell people they were earmarked for a wartime role would cause problems with and between those selected and not selected and with the trades unions, and bring unwanted publicity to the plans. This idea of not informing staff seems to be in contradiction to the idea that there were insufficient volunteers but the volunteers would have formed a pool of potential staff and the people who actually took part in exercises were not told if they were the people earmarked for a war role. There were no special arrangements to look after the families of staffs in the various controls, but at this time it was expected that there would be a general evacuation from the major cities of all children accompanied by their mothers together with most disabled people.

In 1961, the Ministerial Committee on Civil Defence considered the problem of the lack of volunteers and asked Ministers to encourage volunteering in their Departments. They also considered offering volunteers additional payments or, significantly, making provision to safeguard their families. Nothing however was done at the time to encourage more volunteers although in 1964 the Committee finally agreed that senior staff could be informed of and trained for their wartime roles. In 1966, some senior staff for the RSG Groups were appointed and junior staff were designated but not informed of their roles. None of the Under Secretaries destined for the newly designated Sub Regional Controls were informed of their wartime role.

In 1967 the Home Office again made attempts to consider staffing the RSGs and SRCs and Establishment Officers of various government departments were asked to look for volunteers who would be “…physically fit and psychologically able to withstand adverse conditions”. People with a poor sickness record, a physical handicap, suffering from respiratory ailments or who needed special diets would not be suitable. Normal security vetting would be applied but no “special check” would be made on police records but “The selection of unilateralists should be avoided as far as possible."[2]. The problem of what to do about the families of RSG and SRC staff was also reconsidered but no answer was found and it was considered insignificant compared with the other problems which would exist in the period leading up to war such as the setting up of emergency ports and the transferring of dockers from major ports like London and Liverpool. This provided a good excuse to defer further consideration of the problem. Some Departments however continued to keep lists of nominal staff for the SRC and RSG teams well after the system was mothballed under “care and maintenance” in 1968 although in 1972 only 807 of the required 1604 staff had been nominated for the SRCs.

The majority of the RSG staff would have had no idea of their wartime role until they received a letter from their personnel department telling them. A draft call-up letter in a Ministry of Health file informed the recipient that they had been “…selected for duty at an important wartime HQ. So far as anyone can say at the moment you may be there for about a month…” The letter told the civil servant to go home immediately and pack their personal effects. They were warned that they would have to do their own washing but “clothing may be informal” and as entertainment would be limited they should take some books. They were allowed to draw up to £25 in advance of their salaries but should make arrangements for their salary to be paid to their spouse. Apart from this there was no mention of what their families should do. The newly appointed staff would travel to the RSG independently using their own cars or by train for which a railway warrant would be made available. This of course ignores the reality that at this time the railway network would have been totally disrupted by the needs of the armed forces and the plans to evacuate civilians.

It was expected that most staff would not need any special training but this did not apply to communications staff. Originally, the army would have manned the communications centres in the RSGs and other regional controls but by the end of the 1960s this was no longer practical and consideration was given to recruiting volunteers from local civil service offices who would be trained in communications procedures in peacetime ready for a wartime role.

The training need applied to a more limited extent to the scientific teams and in 1967 the Royal Observer Corps agreed to provide up to 12 Observers at each SRC to assist the scientists particularly in plotting fall-out.


Spies for Peace

The Regional Seats of Government, and in practice most other civil defence activities were virtually unknown to the general public until a group of “ban the bomb” protesters broke into the RSG at Warren Row in 1963. Calling themselves “Spies for Peace” they wrote a pamphlet described by The Times as “a crudely produced collection of what are claimed to be factual details, annotated with uninformed conclusions” giving the general locations of the RSGs together with a broad, albeit politically biased, description of their roles and staffing. The pamphlet which in reality was very accurate was widely distributed amongst the marchers on the annual Aldermaston to London “Ban the Bomb” march in time for several hundred of them to leave the route and, to the concern of the official organisers, head for Warren Row a few miles up a narrow side road. The protesters found that the RSG site was unfenced and, again to quote from The Times, “several hundred bearded youths and their dishevelled female friends” promptly picketed the main entrance to the bunker. This resulted in some minor scuffles and arrests. The pamphlet called “Danger! Official Secret RSG6” was quickly copied and distributed in thousands around the country despite attempts by the police to prevent it. The RSGs in Cambridge and Edinburgh were picketed soon after. The matter was even debated in Parliament where the Prime Minister deplored the actions saying that the RSGs were no more than places from which the Regional Commissioners would operate. Several people were arrested and the security services were ordered to find the authors but never did.

 The government argued that whilst the locations of the RSGs was not secret it would be contrary to the interests of the country if their functions and functioning were widely known, although thanks to the Spies for Peace and probably the government’s reaction they now were. The British press were hit with a D Notice forbidding publication but this did not apply to the foreign press. The episode blew over after a couple of weeks but the RSGs were now in the public domain.

 The episode inspired a protest song about the Warren Row bunker, which is near, what some have said, is the appropriately named village of Wargrave –


    Near a neat little town they call Wargrave

    there’s a funk-hole they’ve built underground

    but it’s on the D-List, so it doesn’t exist

    and it’s no use you poking around.


    But ask your best friend and he’ll tell you

    The place is called RSG6

    An establishment for the establishment

    And not for us tax-paying hicks

Shortly after the Spies for Peace affair the Joint Intelligence Committee suggested that because the RSGs were now known to the enemy, they might be targeted in a future war and this was one of the factors leading to their abandonment. The Spies for Peace would not have known this but would no doubt have hailed it as a victory if they had.


[1] In the early 1950s over 20 anti-aircraft operations rooms were built to control anti-aircraft guns in Gun Defended Areas throughout the country. They were similar in size and appearance to the Regional War Rooms

[2] Unilateralists believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament.


                                        back to contents                                      next file