Struggle for Survival

Governing Britain after the Bomb

Steve Fox


File 8   Rethinking Regional Government back to contents
Changes at regional level – Exercise Regenerate  
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Since the late 1950s, the planners had assumed that a completely new form of government would be needed after a nuclear attack – regional government. The basic reasoning was summarised by a Home Office representative speaking in 1982. He said, “Nuclear attack would, in all probability, cause such damage to everyday communications that our peacetime system of central government would become impractical. In many areas, telephone communications would be severely disrupted. Road and rail transport, and with them the postal service, would cease to be usable in anything like their present form so the mass of paper on which we depend in peace would not circulate. What would be needed would be a system that would operate over shorter distances with some prospect of success – quickly and decisively, with a much simpler structure than we have today. The answer is a form of regional administration, more autocratic in style to cope with the urgency of the critical situation as long as it lasts.”

When home defence was mothballed in 1968 the regional government structure started at the local level with the local authority Controllers. They would be directed by a Sub Regional Control and then in time a Regional Seat of Government would be established with the Regional Commissioner having full power to govern the region. This decentralised government was to continue throughout the 1970s and 1980s and it was described as “the machinery of government in war, which is designed as a whole to direct national survival”[1]. However, until some changes were introduced in the early 1980s to cope with the build up to war the system was not really “machinery of government in war” but rather the machinery of government after it given that the next war would last only a matter of days. There would be normal democratic government before an attack and regional government based on rule by Commissioners and Controllers after. Regional government would assume control “once the central government capability in its customary locations ceases to operate in wartime” and it would only be concerned with domestic and internal affairs.

In 1973, the plan was modified slightly. Britain had been divided into regions for civil defence purposes since before the last war and their boundaries had remained largely unchanged since then with the major exception of the London region, which had been divided between its neighbours. In 1973, some changes were made to the boundaries of the civil defence regions in England largely reflecting changes in local government boundaries. The northern regions were restructured, while the Southern and South Eastern Regions were merged which released the regional number 5 to be adopted once again by London Region, which had been re-established as a wartime region in 1971. Since the mid-1960s the regions had been divided into sub-regions each of which, in theory at least, had a Sub Regional Control. This continued but the number of sub-regions was now reduced from 23 to 17 and the Controls were redesignated as Sub Regional Headquarters (SRHQs). Scotland continued to be divided into 3 Zones under a Scottish Central Control while Northern Ireland still had its own Northern Ireland Central Headquarters. The nominal staff of an SRHQ would be 180.

The SRHQ would have no pre-attack functions. Instead, its role came after the attack when its function would be “to obtain, process and disseminate information about the extent and effect of the attack; to determine priorities and arrange for the re-location where appropriate, of resources to meet immediate needs; to co-operate and support the activities of county controllers; and to prepare the administrative groundwork for the establishment of regional government”. There is no mention of any life-saving role for the SRHQ that featured in the 1960s when the earlier incarnation of the SRHQ had as one of its principal roles the strategic control of the remaining civil defence organisation. Indeed, the 1973 Circular said clearly “...the SRHQ would aim at the conservation of resources...for longer-term survival...rather than short-term aid to the hardest hit areas.” Sub Regional Commissioners would be concerned with “the administration of justice, with the maintenance by the police of law and order and the general behaviour and morale of the survivors.” This was a reflection of the increased operational role given to the local authorities allowing the SRHQ to concentrate on the larger picture.

The 1973 plan continued the idea that the Regional Commissioner and his staff would be dispersed around the region pre-attack and then “as soon as possible, regional government would be established at a location in each region that offered the best surviving communications and accommodation for the purpose.”. It appears probable however that by the mid-1970s the idea of a separate, dispersed Regional Seat of Government team had been abandoned. Now the Regional Commissioner would only have a senior staff of about 18 with him and they would probably lodge in one of the SRHQs in the region until the regional level headquarters was set up. The title Regional Seat of Government was not used in circulars or briefing notes in the 1970s, although occasionally the term Regional Government Headquarters was used in contradistinction to Sub Regional Headquarters.

A wide ranging circular on “Machinery of Government in War” was issued in 1973. It said that “The primary task of regional government would be the production and administration of a strategic plan for the continued survival and eventual restoration of the region to a more normal pattern of life. The execution of regional strategy would depend upon the actions of local authorities, nationalised industries, reconstituted government departments and key sectors of commerce and industry.” This shows that the SRHQ was only a decision making body. It had no facilities to implement its decisions. This would be left to lower levels of the regional government system and in particular, to the local authority Controllers and their staffs who would effectively become the civil service of the regional government. There is no mention of any central government organisation or its restoration in the Circular but “In time, regional plans would be modified to come within national policy.”

Below the SRHQ, the plan was unchanged with local council powers vesting in an Emergency Committee but with Controllers running the counties and districts as part of the regional government structure. They would be answerable not to the Council or the Emergency Committees but to the Regional Commissioner. As well as working through county officials and District Controllers, the County Controller would have representatives of nationalised industries and the uniformed services on his staff.

Below the county level would come the districts (boroughs in London) with a District Controller and an emergency committee on a similar basis to those in the counties. The District Controller would be answerable directly to the County Controller, but there is no mention of him exercising full powers in the event of a failure of communications like the County Controllers.

The police would not be under the control of the County Controller. They would remain under the operational control of the Chief Constable who would be answerable through the Regional Police Commander (appointed from the Chief Constables in the Region) to the Sub-Regional or Regional Commissioner.

In February 1976, a Circular[2] was released on “Briefing Material for Wartime Controllers”. This gave local authority Controllers (Designate) some information which had previously been released to “...certain officers designated to be senior members of staff of regional and sub-regional commissioners in war” although the available evidence suggests that few if any such staff had actually been designated. The Circular was “Restricted” and only available to designated controllers or “exceptionally” and on a “strict need-to-know” basis they could make it available to other senior staff. Such secrecy would do nothing to help implement the regional government system should it have been necessary. The Circular outlined thinking on four areas that might be relevant to regional government and gives some idea of its expected role. The areas were – law and order, the use of surviving industrial resources, manpower and the collapse of the monetary economy.

 Law and order was expected to be a major problem after the attack and it was generally assumed that widespread anarchy would prevail unless actively prevented. The Circular however only dealt with what to do with offenders who had been caught. It said that emergency courts would be set up aimed at “anti-social behaviour of individuals which seriously interfered with the essentials of the life of the community”. There would be no appeal against their decisions. In post-attack conditions peacetime penalties would not be effective and “such penalties as communal labour, restricted rations and exposure to public disapproval might be appropriate for all but the gravest offences, but in the case of flagrantly anti-social behaviour there might be a need for harsher penalties than would generally be acceptable in peacetime.”. Reference was made to “provision for appropriate penalties, not normally available to courts...” and the use of juries for “capital cases”. It is apparent that corporal and capital punishment was envisaged (hanging had been abolished in 1965) and “Regional Commissioners...would be empowered to impose such penalties as they thought fit in the light of conditions and circumstances at the time.”. The Circular did not mention any law and order problems which might happen before a nuclear attack although in 1969 the Joint Intelligence Committee produced a comprehensive report on "The Security of the UK Base" which suggested that as tension mounted "motives of self preservation would become dominant in the public mind".

 The Circular also gave some indication of the widespread, if not total breakdown of industrial and commercial activities and the loss of power supplies that the attack would cause. Agriculture would have to “…revert to more primitive working” which really meant that survivors would be sent to work on farms to provide manual labour to replace machinery. People would be directed to work to sustain morale but there would be no effective way of enforcing this. The monetary economy would be wrecked but it was considered essential to establish a new system as soon as possible. This might take a year or more and until then reliance would be put on barter. The Circular said that “...the creation of a new monetary system would be a national matter and not one for which individual Regional Commissioners could devise their own policies.”. This is however at odds with exercise material from both the mid-1960s and early 1980s which envisaged individual regions setting up their own currencies and central banks with fixed exchange rates  to enable trading between regions in the local currencies.

When home defence was reviewed in 1981 the regional government system was essentially the same as in 1965 and had really evolved by default. The SRHQ and local authority levels were well established but the idea of the Regional Commissioner and his staff sitting in an SRHQ or scattered around the region waiting a suitable time to take over did not make much sense. There was also a need emerging for some form of regional level of administration in the newly conceived “transition to war/conventional war” period before strategic nuclear weapons were used. The idea of combining the top two layers of regional government had been considered in the mid-1970s and was apparently reconsidered as part of the Home Defence Review or by the Transition to War Working Party that had also been set up. Exercise Hard Rock for which planning started in 1981 worked on the existing basis of SRHQs being manned pre-strike but not having any executive function. They would oversee the situation for say the first 14 days post-strike before the Regional Commissioner took charge. But the outlines for the 1981 course for SRHQ staff called Exercise Regenerate assumed there would be only one tier of government at the regional level under the Regional Commissioner. More significantly, perhaps the course assumed that the SRHQ team would have a pre-nuclear strike function. It seems likely that this change came about as a result of the Review but it was not finally announced until 1984 as part of the “Revised Arrangements for the Wartime Machinery of Government”[3]. From now on only a single tier of government would be used at regional level. Each region would be divided into two zones (except London and Northern Ireland that would have only one each) although, in fact the regional boundaries had been changed in 1983. In Scotland, the East and West Zones were combined to become South Zone. In England, Regions 1 and 2 were merged as 2 Region allowing Scotland to become 1 Region. Northern Ireland became 11 Region. The regions continued to be called Home Defence Regions in most documents throughout the 1980s although on occasion they were referred to as Civil Defence Regions particularly by local authority planners whose interests were confined to the more parochial idea of civil rather than home defence. Traditionally, a change of name in home defence indicates a change of function and in 1983 the SRHQs had been redesignated as Zone Headquarters reflecting perhaps the idea of a pre-strike role and the elimination of the separate sub-regional and regional levels in the hierarchy. But, in 1985, they were again redesignated, this time as Regional Government Headquarters or RGHQs.



Home Defence Regions and sub-regions mid-1980s

The Regional Commissioner would be in charge from the outset taking over as before when the scale of attack made it necessary and central government could not operate. He would be based in one of the ex-SRHQs in the region that would now be called the RGHQ(C). He would have a Deputy Regional Commissioner in the other designated as the RGHQ(DC). Which one was which would be decided at the time. The SRHQs would have been responsible only for their sub-region pending the Regional Commissioner taking full command. But, the RGHQs did not have such divided responsibilities and the main purpose of dividing regions geographically was to determine which RGHQ the communications from the County Emergency Centres, etc would be routed to. Like the SRHQs and the SRCs before them, RGHQs were numbered according to their region and then by a sub-number such as 1.2 and 6.1, although in practice RGHQs were usually referred to by their location. In the RGHQ (DC) the Deputy Regional Commissioner would act under the direction of the Regional Commissioner or, if necessary, because communications were lost, or perhaps to be realistic the RGHQ(C) was destroyed, on his own. There would also be a small reserve team in each region capable of taking over from either or both main teams if necessary. In a training course called Exercise Regard, which is discussed later, the RGHQ(DC) was attacked and destroyed and the reserve team simply disappeared.

The Property Services Agency War Book from 1985 gave the functions of wartime regional government as

a. determining priorities between local authority controllers and other authorities,

b. control of broadcasting,

c. maintaining public order and the administration of justice,

d. allocation of assistance from the armed forces,

f. provisional fixing of any new agricultural and industrial priorities,

g. the subsequent co-ordination of the survival and recovery of the nation under central government control.

Draft Standard Operating Procedures for RGHQs written in 1988 suggested that an RGHQ would be manned in 2 phases copied from RSG practice –

  1. An initial advance party would open up the RGHQ, then -
  2. As the crisis deepened staff would be fully deployed and the RGHQ made operational[4]

Once manned the RGHQ’s first role would be to establish contact with the Regional Emergency Committee, the local authorities and other wartime establishments. It would then gather data about the region and wait.

Following the attack, the Standard Operating Procedures said that the RGHQ’s first task would be to ascertain the scale and pattern of the attack, the intensity and paths of fall-out and the probable extent of damage and casualties. This would primarily be the function the Scientific Team in the RGHQ. The tasks of departmental teams in this initial period would be to assess the information they received and apply it to their respective services.

The basic function of the Regional Commissioner and his staff would be “to co-ordinate survival and recovery operations.”. During the immediate post attack period their tasks would include – 

  1. Provision of information and guidance to the public
  2. Determining priorities between local authorities and other bodies
  3. Allocation of assistance from the armed forces
  4. The maintenance of public order and the administration of justice
  5. The fixing of agricultural and industrial priorities

The RGHQ has no role in assisting those directly affected by the attack. It would only be a decision making body and it would still be up to others notably the County and District controllers to put its decisions into effect.       

The expected role and operation of an SRHQ or RGHQ is seen more clearly from looking at exercise material prepared by the College. A course for designated senior SRHQ staff was planned in 1981 called Exercise Regenerate. Its main aim was to examine how those staff would cope with a “distraught and demoralised population, a fragmented infrastructure, critical and conflicting resource constraints and disrupted communications”, and then to meet them in the face of fall-out. The students would, as usual with such courses, role-play situations given to them by the “Directing Staff” provided by the College tutors against the background of a given scenario. The situations would reflect different phases of the wartime situation. Regenerate had 5 phases from a pre-strike period when central government would be dispersing and designated regional staff would find themselves acting as an executive arm of central government to a final one where they would have to “grapple with almost insurmountable problems associated with social and economic regeneration.”. The course was however never run but it provides some illustrations of the anticipated role of regional government.

After the nuclear attack, the Regional Commissioner’s team considered power distribution and its re-establishment, the ability of Controllers to impose their decisions, rewards for workers, working hours, industrial recovery, regional taxation, regional trade and later local elections. The region in effect becomes a state in its own right and there is no mention of any input from a national government as had been envisaged in the 1950s and 1960s. The introduction of regional currencies and taxes implies that this form of government would continue for a long time.

Exercise Regenerate was never run but from 1985, the College held a 2½-day courses called Exercise Regard, the aim of which was “to expose those designated for staff appointments in RGHQs to some of the problems and tasks with which they might be faced after a nuclear attack.”. Later this was expanded to include consideration of the relationships with other representatives within the regional government system.

Staff attended who would have formed the decision-making teams in the RGHQs and they came from a wide variety of central government departments. It appears that many if not most had no idea they had been marked out for such a designated role and it was suggested that the letter inviting them to attend the course should be used as an indication of designation. Secrecy was still prevalent and the course briefing notes stated firmly that “...the concept of training regional government officers and the fact that such courses are held are classified “restricted"”. The delegates on Exercise Regard received short introductory lectures on home defence and regional government at Easingwold followed by a visit to the nearby RGHQ at Shipton. The exercise was however not held at the RGHQ but at the College. The main part of the course was a desktop exercise to consider problems that might face the region after attack. The course was well prepared with inputs from various government departments including the Cabinet Office. After a standard lead-in scenario the exercise started at N+2 (rather than the usual D+2), 2 days after a nuclear attack during which the region had been hit by several nuclear bombs but was far from being totally devastated.

At N+2, in the “primary survival phase” there would have been little that could be done at regional level. The immediate tasks would be for the lower levels but there was the suggestion that the control chain would need repairing as 2 county main emergency centres had ceased to function and there was a widespread loss of communications. The early efforts of the RGHQ would be devoted to assessing the balance between resources and demands.

By N+14, the RGHQ was expected to be looking to make an impact on the regional situation and to establish itself as the effective governing body. It must provide some degree of law and order and public confidence before apathy and anarchy could set in. Its general tasks which the delegates were asked to consider problems about were given as -

Expected problems might relate to food distribution and the lack of electricity and other power sources. There would be a need to re-start industry and solve problems of absenteeism and how to reward workers in the face of the collapse of the monetary system. Re-establishing a means of exchange (i.e. money) was seen as vital to re-organising society. The situation varied widely across the region. In the worst affected areas there were “appalling and continuing mass burial problems” aggravated by some religious leaders objecting to mass burials. The question of redeploying or preserving medical resources was considered. The Regional Oil Emergency Committee asked the RGHQ to prioritise the use of remaining oil products.

 At the N+30, stage delegates were told to direct their thoughts to –

 The primary need at this stage was seen as maintaining the credibility of the regional government and to ensure its acceptability to the survivors. The Regional Commissioner would visit parts of the region. The economy should be regenerated and resources controlled and directed. One problem posed was how to react to the emergence of local leaders outside, and in conflict with, the legitimate leadership structure of regional government. In Exercise Regard Newark declared itself independent “under an able but despotic leading citizen” and with the acquiescence of the local police. In Exercise Regenerate a large part of east Scotland had declared itself independent under a local Parliament and supported by an army battalion. Should these people be stopped, if so how, or should they be accepted and integrated into the system? On a different level, one County Controller was being thwarted in his efforts by the Emergency Committee of Councillors which was co-opting members and setting itself up as a rival source of authority.

Delegates were told that at this time there would be no contact with central government, which “…would be in the business of gathering information not giving it out.”. Central government’s main concerns would be to establish contact with friendly overseas governments, to procure essential supplies and seek peace. It would be up to the Regional Commissioners to get their regions into shape ready for a return to a system of national government. There would be continuing problems of health care and disease control, food shortages and a need to establish inter-regional trade. Law and order would be a problem.

By N+60, 2 months after the attack, it was time for the RGHQ to review progress and consider recovery. The problems posed included how to re-establish some form of educational system, introducing a national policy for money and how and in what form to re-introduce democratic government.

In a College course for senior local authority staff called Exercise Hot Seat which was run throughout the 1980s the Regional Commissioner told the County Controllers at N+14 that “In order to promote survival County Controllers should carry out whatever actions are required to take control of surviving resources of all kinds, if necessary by requisition, and may effect within the county whatever movements of resources and population they deem essential for survival.”. Two months after the attack the Regional Commissioner was concerned to keep the momentum of recovery going. He was anxious to re-establish a money based economy, to restore property where it had been requisitioned or occupied, to restore democracy at least at local authority level and to secure the coming harvest if necessary by transferring people within the region to assist.

Regional government would have been introduced at a time when the nation had suffered the most destructive and traumatic event in human history. Every aspect of the nation’s life would have been brought to a sudden halt. As well as the physical damage and the problems of fall-out there would be the psychological impact on the survivors. Literally in a flash their ordered twentieth century lifestyle will have disappeared. There would be total confusion and fear. Those who looked to the future would see nothing. Some people would rise to the occasion, others would degenerate, and many would be too stunned to react at all.

Over this would be set a new system of government. A command dictatorship owing very little to the pre-war structures ingrained in the national consciousness. Run by a handful of people largely unknown to the survivors and who would have had very little preparation for the task placed upon them. If the various levels of regional government could actually be established and those designated took up their posts in the RGHQs and emergency centres would they be able to govern? The College Principal told delegates to local authority courses that it would be a battle for survival and recovery, “…a battle fought from command posts by local controllers heading their wartime headquarters staffs, not by management teams of chief officers responding to a Chief Executive’s peacetime management style, not by the remnants of central government departments and certainly not by committees; fought with what’s left of peacetime resources and nothing more. A battle merging into a long war of attrition between man and an unsympathetic environment in which his most valuable resource may be as much of the spirit as physical.”. In the nuclear aftermath “…all the associated extremes of hardship, strain, discomfort and want will be hitting a battered, shocked, sick, dirty, deprived, hungry and isolated people; people who had grown up in all the ease, comfort and benefits…of a modern society.”. Designated Controllers and their staffs were told that leadership would be paramount. Those put in authority would have to win the support of the survivors as there would be no means of commanding it. Controllers should seek consensus, to persuade people of the benefits or at least the necessity of actions many of which would be unacceptable or illegal in peacetime. There would be little time for consultation and deliberation. Decisions would have to be made quickly based on very little information but the Controller’s role would be to govern and administer which does not mean to dictate.

The Regional Commissioner and the Controllers would have a legitimate authority for their actions under the emergency legislation. However, there would be little democratic legitimacy behind it. The Commissioner would be a Minister and therefore probably a Member of Parliament but the Controllers would be unelected. The emergency legislation would be bulldozed through Parliament in hours without proper debate or perhaps simply imposed under the Royal Prerogative. The ability of the Commissioners and Controllers to make things happen would depend on the acceptance of the people. The pre-war structure of laws and the means to enforce them through the police service, courts and punishments would be largely irrelevant. The police would be hopelessly overstretched and pre-war punishments even if they could be enforced would have little meaning.

The problems of the governors would be worsened by the very factor that forced the introduction of regional government – the failure of communications. The amount of information that the governors would receive would be very limited, as would their ability to communicate with the survivors. The Commissioner would be almost totally dependent on situation reports from the Counties who in turn would rely on reports from the Districts. Where the information originated from would be an unknown factor.

Many of the more difficult problems that would face Commissioners and Controllers were simply ignored by the Circulars and College courses. It was assumed that all the designated staffs would report for duty, that all those who had been allocated roles in the war plans without their prior knowledge such as most local authority employees, teachers, nurses, traffic wardens and driving test examiners would play their parts; that the survivors would simply all do as they were directed, that requisitioned food and other resources would be handed over, that people would open their houses to refugees, that the sick would simply die quietly. Most College courses were really resource management exercises. There were a certain amount of resources available that had to be matched to certain problems. If the right requisition orders were made out, if the right food convoys organised, if the right roads were cleared, etc all would be well. The problems of what would happen if the decisions of the governors were ignored, if people or communities went their own way, if people refused to share scarce resources were largely ignored.


Return to normality?

Plans from the 1950s and 1960s envisaged a single devastating nuclear attack which would destroy the cohesion of Britain as a nation-state and which would take the regional government structures some years to restore even with some input from a nucleus of central government. This idea was moderated through the 1970s and by the 1980s, the planners assumed that the attack would be less devastating and possibly might not result in a nuclear exchange. If it did, the social and economic fabric of the country could possibly be restored in months rather than years although different regions would recover at different rates. As communications were restored central government would begin to take back control. The Commissioner would then, perhaps progressively, lose his devolved powers and regional government would operate as an arm of central government (ES2/1984). This Circular implied that the initiative to restore a national central government would come from an unspecified central government but Easingwold briefings suggested that a new central government would be formed by bringing together the regional governments. Generally, throughout the 1970s and 1980s there is no mention of a wartime post-attack central government either as a function or a facility in the way the CGWR was mentioned in earlier decades. For practical purposes, it was irrelevant. Regional Government would be all there was, all that was needed and all that would be able to function. However, whilst the imposed regional government would continue at the regional level more democratic government at local level would be restored “as soon as circumstances permitted”. 

[1] ES7/1973

[2] ES7/1976

[3] ES2/1984

[4] The draft procedures were considered during the two-day Exercise Regex held at Easingwold and the Shipton RGHQ in 1988 but it appears that they were never completed before the system was stood down.

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