Struggle for Survival

Governing Britain after the Bomb

Steve Fox


File 9    Central Government in War in the 1980s  back to contents
Conventional war – COBRA and PINDAR  
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Even though the planners assumed throughout the Cold War that governing the country on a national scale would be impossible after a major nuclear attack they always saw the need for some form of central government, albeit in a much reduced nucleus form. In the late 1950s, this would have been based at the Corsham site giving strategic direction to the regional governments and to foreign affairs. Later this idea was replaced by the much smaller scale Python concept that would still oversee foreign affairs and retain some semblance of a central government. In the 1950s and 1960s the existence of a Central Government War Room which would co-ordinate both civil defence operations and civil administration was publicly admitted albeit on a very limited basis. But since the start of the care and maintenance period, there has been no public acknowledgement that any special post-war central government function or facility exists. Preparations for the “continuity of government”, to use a phrase used by American civil defense planners, is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. They refuse to release any information about the plans so any comments about the machinery of government in war above the regional level after 1968 are necessarily speculative. But there are some hints available.

The circulars on regional government issued in 1973 and 1984 refer to the Regional Commissioners being responsible for domestic and internal affairs which implies, albeit by default, that some other body would exist to run at least external affairs, notably ending the war, and possibly some domestic matters which needed to be dealt with on a national scale. Delegates to Exercise Regard were told that central government would be re-established by merging the regional teams and that the RGHQs could not expect guidance from central government in the immediate survival period because central government would be in the business of receiving information, not giving it. This seems to confirm the existence of a post-strike central government albeit in a limited strategic decision making role rather than a broad based executive one.

The 1979 Joint Service Manual of Home Defence showed “central government” and “defence staffs” as collocated, although significantly there would be a “liaison link” to the UK Commanders in Chief Committee (Home), which would be responsible for all military home defence activities. Under the original TURNSTILE concept this committee was located with the other service chiefs and the War Cabinet. But this was not the case under the Python Concept implying perhaps that something at least similar to it was used in the 1970s. There is however no evidence that this concept was actually adopted and it may have been replaced by a return to the idea of using permanent sites for central government which would be orientated towards the new problems of transition to war, conventional war and a limited nuclear attack rather than the massive strategic attack envisaged in earlier decades. This suggestion is perhaps supported by the wave of new bunkers built in the 1980s for central government.


The problem of transition to war

The TURNSTILE and Python Concepts were designed to cope only with the aftermath of an all out nuclear war. No significant period of conventional fighting was expected prior to the nuclear attack so there was no need to plan for the continuity of government during a conventional war. This changed with the new strategic doctrine introduced in the late 1970s. This expected what was called a period of “transition to war and conventional war” which would require all levels of government to move to a war footing and then continue to operate throughout the period of conventional fighting. This would entail massive disruption to the normal life of the country and new demands being put on the governmental and administrative system and is in many ways a return to the “due functioning” ideas of the early 1950s. 

Until this time, little thought had been given to the period leading to war. The War Books said that departments would set up Control Points, headed by the Cabinet Office Control Point (known as “Cockpit” until the late 1960s then “Monmouth”), to oversee the implementation of War Book messages. However, these were little more than a contact point with a permanently manned telephone. By the late 1960s thought was being given to setting up a new facility which was referred to by various titles such as the Whitehall Situation Centre and the Central Operations Room. In a 1971 report its main purpose was said to be “…to enable the government to co-ordinate executive action to the requirements of NATO” which implies a war role however, at this time, which was one of considerable industrial unrest, it was suggested that it would also “fulfil a useful function in relation to civil emergencies…”. A briefing document gave it 3 specific functions –

1.           “Central point for collection, collation and display of information

2.       Additional facilities for briefing officials and ministers

3.       A point at which the principle staff would be and where decisions would be made.”

This facility would soon acquire the designation as the Cabinet Office Briefing Room popularly known as COBR or COBRA. By the 1980s COBR had become the term for both the facility and the Cabinet Committee consisting of senior ministers and representatives from relevant central government departments which would co-ordinate the Government’s response to any crisis.

Any serious crisis would be monitored by the Civil Contingencies Unit. This was set up after the Miners Strike of 1972 when the then existing Home Office Emergencies Organisation was found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Unit would be supported by the crisis management facilities of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. Actual management of the emergency would be lead by the Civil Contingencies Committee which was first established in 1974. This is a mixed Cabinet Committee consisting of senior ministers and representatives from relevant central government departments. The peacetime terms of reference for the committee are “to co-ordinate the preparation of plans for ensuring in an emergency the supplies and services essential to the life of the community; to keep those plans under regular review; and to supervise their prompt and effective implementation in specific emergencies”. If war seemed likely the Civil Contingencies Committee might be replaced or supplemented by a War Cabinet (constitutionally established as a Cabinet Committee) made up of the Prime Minister, a few senior ministers, defence chiefs, intelligence advisers, etc.

The 3 functions given above for COBR are remarkably similar to those given for the 1939 Central War Room. But there is an important difference. COBR is a suite of offices within the Cabinet Office building and as such would not give any protection against an attack. With this in mind it is interesting to note that from the 1980s a large complex was built under the Ministry of Defence Main Building just off Whitehall centred on the bunker developed there in the early 1950s and known as PINDAR.

Design work for Project PINDAR started in 1979/80 but the main construction contract was not awarded until 1987.  The project was beset with problems such as design changes, arguments between the contractors and the government agencies, arguments within the civil service as to which category of expenditure it would be put under (in other words, who would pay for it) and chronic cost over-runs  and was not completed until 1992 at a reported cost of £126 million (of which £66 million was for communications). The delays in completing the PINDAR complex has lead to some speculation that a temporary site was fitted out a few miles away in the redundant tunnels dug in the 1950s for the Kingsway trunk telephone exchange.

It has been referred to in Parliament as a “joint operations centre” to “…provide the Government with a protected (author’s emphasis) crisis management facility.” The PINDAR complex could provide a secure meeting place with extensive communications and accommodation facilities that would survive up to and even beyond a nuclear attack. If the Second World War is taken as a model then perhaps COBR could act as the Cabinet War Room supported by PINDAR in times of actual war to provide the necessary facilities for the Cabinet and other Ministerial and Official Committees, together with their staffs to receive and act on information from all government departments, UK and NATO military headquarters, allied governments and other government agencies such as the Regional Emergency Committees. Its role is described in one file as "...offering accommodation for all Ministers and staff concerned with the central direction of the nation in transition to war". In fact it, has been described specifically as a facility for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room although this was considered sensitive. Conveniently,  the Defence Situation Room was also located in the complex allowing the funding of it to be described as "refurbishment of the MoD Defence Situation and Communications Centre for use by military operational staff." Originally PINDAR was planned as a relatively small, short term facility but by the mid-1980s its role had changed to one where it would be used much more often and for longer periods. The fact that one of the modifications added at this time was the installation of EMP or electro-magnetic pulse shielding suggest that the plan was to continue to use it after a nuclear attack.

In addition to PINDAR, each of the armed forces has its own central bunker. These were used during recent conflicts such as the Falkland and Gulf Wars but they were supplemented in 1996 by the new Permanent Joint Headquarters. This is located in a large refurbished bunker at Northwood in north London and acts as the central command headquarters for all strategic military operations.

Most Government departments and some non-governmental organisations such as the BBC and BT would have their own Control Point. Each department would also have its own contingency plans (the War Book) detailing the various steps necessary to meet each stage of a crisis. Authority to implement the emergency measures would come from the Central Government Control Point. Actual implementation would then be the responsibility of the Secretary of State or Minister in charge of the individual department.

As a crisis developed, the Whitehall machine would gear itself up for the expected extra demands. There would be similar demands placed on the regionally based parts of the administration including the local authorities and public utilities. To assist these bodies the SRHQs were apparently given a transition to war role in around 1980. This was hinted at in the notes drawn up for Exercise Regenerate that was developed in 1981 as a course at Easingwold for designated SRHQ staff. The Regenerate scenarios showed emergency powers being granted to Regional Commissioners who took up their posts shortly after the conventional fighting started. They also suggested that regional policy in the pre-nuclear period, decided by the Regional Commissioner and his Regional Policy Group would include such things as control of wage rates, restrictions on bank lending and compensation for requisition.

This revised role for the SRHQs was also mentioned in 1981 by the head of F6, the Emergency Planning Services Division of the Home Office responsible for regional level home defence. At a planning meeting he said, “We intend to reconsider the need for two levels of government above the county and to consider whether there might not, in crisis and conventional war, be a more positive and dynamic role for dispersed regional government...”. He suggested that this might be a type of regional emergency committee, not only assisting with the extra load on government but introduced because regional government would be more effective and efficient post-strike if it had been involved since the beginning. But rather than use the SRHQ teams in their bunkers the Regional Emergency Committees, which had existed in embryonic form at least as early as the 1950s for peacetime emergency purposes were given a formal transition to war role

Each region would have a Regional Emergency Committee, or, as it was usually referred to, a REC although Northern Region would have 2. It would be chaired by the Regional Director of the Department of the Environment and include representatives from most government departments, local authorities, the police, military, and other appropriate organisations such as British telecom

The RECs had no permanent structure or offices and would meet in a suitable government office in its region as required. Circular ES2/1984 suggested that a REC in a region would only be activated if required and went on to give its function as “...ensuring that resources under the control of civil authorities were deployed and co-ordinated in the way most beneficial to national interests: acting as a clearing house and allocating priorities as necessary, for requests for assistance from all public authorities; acting as a channel of communications between central government and the local authorities and other bodies; and keeping regional government headquarters, once manned, of the situation in the region.”. The actual wartime terms of reference quoted by McGuire add that the “...way most beneficial to national interest” would be in accordance with the priorities laid down by the Transition to War Committee[1] and the War Measures Committee of the Cabinet and it would report to these two bodies as occasion demanded. The RECs would also “...give sustained and positive publicity to government policy as directed by the Standing Committee on Information Policy or the Press Working Party.”. The Emergency Planning Guidelines for Local Authorities refer to the REC responding to requests “...from all public authorities” whereas the less public wartime terms of reference refer to “...requests from the military authorities for civil assistance and requests from civil authorities for military assistance.”. This firmly suggests a role for the RECs in putting the country onto a war footing and assisting the deployment of armed forces, both British and allied. The Chairman and members of the REC would not have any specific powers unless these were granted under emergency legislation. Instead, they would act under the authority of their parent Minister.





Terms of reference within the delegated powers: -


a.        To ensure that resources over which civil authorities have control are deployed and co-ordinated in the way most beneficial to national interests in accordance with the priorities laid down by the Transition to War Committee and the War Measures Committee;


b.       To act as a clearing house and to allocate priorities as necessary, for requests from the military authorities for civil assistance and requests from the civil authorities for military assistance;


c.        To act as a channel of communication between central government and local authorities and other bodies in the region;


d.       To give sustained, positive publicity to Government policy as directed by the Standing Committee on Information Policy or the Press Working Party;


e.        To report to the Transition to War committee and War Measures Committee as occasion demands;


f.         To keep Regional Government HQ, once manned, informed of the situation in the Region.


(As given to the Region 10 Regional Co-ordinators Meeting in 1985 and quoted by Stella McGuire in “Emergency Legislation and Civil defence in UK NATO”)


The impression given is that at the start of a crisis central government would keep in contact with the local authorities and other relevant bodies in the regions through normal peacetime channels. As the crisis deepened and the need to co-ordinate effort and resources increased the RECs would be activated primarily as a means of communication but also possibly as an intermediate level of decision-making.

The RECS were involved in all the regional based local authority exercises in the 1980s. Two of the aims of Exercise VIREG were “to examine the relationship between county and the REC” and “to test procedures/liaison between counties and the REC”. The REC was simulated at the exercise control point at the Home Office. It told counties when to collect RADIAC[2] kit, to announce rationing and to accelerate the discharge of hospital patients. However, the simulated REC only met once for 2 hours to discuss the refugee problem and the government departments involved in the exercise answered most local authority requests to the REC directly themselves, although in war this might not be a practical option. In the post-exercise report the Department of the Environment said that “ is incorrect to assume that once RECs are convened they move into permanent session and assume executive powers similar to those of regional government. When RECs are activated (individually or collectively) the Secretariat would become a permanent reporting centre but the committee itself would only meet as a clearing house when there was business to discuss...” The REC’s main function “would be to resolve conflicts in priorities as required and to keep central government informed of the situation in their region.”

However, the original declared aim of the RECs either seems to have been diluted or forgotten. They were little used in the regional exercises after Vireg even though the exercise aims continued to include them and McGuire quotes a Cabinet Office spokesman as saying in 1987 that the REC was “...a local forum to resolve problems”. This is in many ways contradictory to the written guidance given in the earlier circulars and the lack of clarity would not have helped the local authorities at a time when simple, unambiguous lines of command and communication would have been vital.


[1] The role of this committee was “To advise Ministers, as required, on the implementation of the Government War Book and to co-ordinate Departmental action in a national emergency”.

[2] RAdioactivity Detection Identification And Computation equipment were hand held devices to monitor fallout. They would have been issued in large numbers to Royal Observer Corps personnel, the police and local authority staff.

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