Struggle for Survival

Governing Britain after the Bomb

Steve Fox


File 1  The Death of Bristol back to contents
The effects of nuclear war - the civil defence response  
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The morning of 8 March 1966 dawned clear and bright. The few high clouds promised a sunny day, perhaps the start of an early spring. As the people of the small Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury started on their daily tasks many worried about the worsening political situation in Europe. But even while armies prepared for war village life had to go on – children went to school, groceries were delivered, cattle were milked. No one noticed the small dark speck high above them in the morning sky.


The Tu-95 bomber of the Soviet Air Force had taken off from its base in northern Russia 10 hours before. It crew were tired and frightened as the bomb aimer counted down the seconds to release. Suddenly, the huge aircraft jumped upwards now freed of the massive weight of its single hydrogen bomb. A short 45 seconds later the radio altimeter triggered the fusing mechanism and the bomb exploded with the force of 2 million tons of high explosive 5000 feet above the village church of St Mary’s. Almondsbury ceased to exist.


The village and its people were instantly vaporised leaving a crater 2000 feet across and 150 feet deep. People 5 miles away in Bristol, the bomber’s intended target, seeing the flash from the bomb hundreds of times brighter than the sun were blinded before they were struck by waves of searing heat and deafening noise from the blast. A minute later the blast wave arrived smashing buildings, throwing vehicles into the air and turning windows into blizzards of deadly glass that ripped though anything and anyone in its path. Even at this distance over 6000 fires were started in north Bristol. Fed by broken gas mains, the fires overwhelmed the fire services and merged into a conflagration that turned into a firestorm. In a matter of hours most buildings were destroyed and 80000 people were dead. Thousands of others were severely injured by burns, blast and flying glass or paralysed by shock.


But Bristol was not alone. Over the next two days hundreds of cities throughout Britain, Europe, North America and the Soviet Union shared its fate as World War 3 began and ended in a deluge of hydrogen bombs. Six more bombs hit Southwest England with a total explosive power of 13 million tons of high explosive. Over 450000 died. Thousands more would die over the coming weeks from the effects of radioactive fall out, untreated injuries, disease, riots and starvation.


The attack of course never happened. It was part of the background scenario for Exercise Grass Seed prepared by civil defence planners in 1966 to examine the problems of survival in Southwest England after a major nuclear attack. The scenario revealed the horrors and scale of the nuclear war the planners expected and tried to prepare for.


Although the planned official evacuation scheme had not started, over 100000 people had left Bristol before the attack. They joined over 3 million refugees from the Midlands and Southeast fleeing to the perceived safety of the Southwest. Every hotel and guesthouse had quickly filled and thousands were living in temporary accommodation in schools and factories. But many others were living rough in the open where they were caught by blast and fall out.


The desperate position of many refugees added to a rapid break down in law and order even before the attack. By D+7, 7 days after the attack the situation had reached crisis point as desperate people with little hope and faced with a total collapse of society behaved like savages. Householders were increasingly reluctant to take in refugees. Small towns and villages were particularly badly pressed and many formed armed vigilante squads refusing to allow anyone in or any supplies out. In the face of widespread looting and attacks on food supplies the Regional Commissioner exercised his unfettered legal authority and ordered drastic measures including public floggings and executions. The overstretched police and armed forces had to be withdrawn from many areas and were formed into a “striking force” which took on the worst areas of anarchy, using tanks to break down barricades. By D+20 law and order had been re-established in most areas but it existence was fragile.


Bristol was largely unaffected by radioactive fall-out thanks to favourable winds but elsewhere it proved deadly. Drifting on the wind, it silently and slowly killed thousands. There was no cure and the over-stretched medical workers were ordered not to waste their efforts on its doomed victims. The worst affected areas were called Z-Zones where the survivors had to stay under cover until rescued but many Civil Defence volunteers quickly exceeded their War Emergency Dose of radiation and soon all rescue efforts were withdrawn from the Z-Zones. In the region an estimated 85000 people were abandoned to die.


The Regional Commissioner ordered Bristol north of the River Avon and anyone still alive there to be abandoned. To the south of the river most of the injured found some form of medical facility although this was often primitive and with supplies and staff exhausted by D+20 treatment was virtually non-existent. People died in their hundreds. Mass graves were dug in hospital grounds and parks where the bodies of humans and animals were dumped without ceremony. There was no prospect of burying the tens of thousands trapped in smashed houses and in many places the dead rotted where they had fallen. The risk of disease was a major concern for the authorities but they were powerless to prevent it.


All roads to the north of the river were blocked by debris and wrecked vehicles. By D+20, the main roads were open from Bristol to the south and west but further road clearance work was stopped to preserve fuel and equipment. The public utilities were virtually wiped out by the attack. South Bristol had some supply of gas coming from Bath but its own gas production facilities were smashed. The entire region was without electricity and no generating stations were expected to be operating for at least 2 months. Supplies of petrol and diesel were short. There was no refining and many underground storage tanks were effectively sealed by the lack of electricity for pumping. As with all other supplies there would be no prospect of obtaining anything from outside the region for months, if not years. The police and armed forces were given priority with fuel for law and order work, followed by medical, welfare, public utilities and food distribution but some fuel had to be preserved for agricultural use in the future. Bristol still had some piped water supply although the quality was low and the sewage system was inoperative and likely to remain so for months. This would only add to health problems in the coming weeks and months.


The public telephone and telegraph service was non-existent and only civil defence controls had some very limited communications. Radio broadcasting was limited to a daily 5 minute bulletin from the Regional Commissioner giving news and encouragement but few people had battery-powered radios so most did not hear him. Attempts were made to set up local newssheets but there were no printing facilities in Bristol. In the absence of news rumours fed people’s fears.


Food was not an immediate problem. By D+20, most survivors in Bristol were being fed at outdoor emergency feeding centres. There were ample supplies of meat but a shortage of vegetables. Flour would last a few more days but bakeries and flourmills were unable to operate because of shortages of fuel and water. Salt supplies were exhausted and stocks held at council road depots to de-ice roads were being used. Consideration was being given to using pet food for human consumption. The feeding centres were however running short of fuel and with the poor weather, some were becoming unusable. Food poisoning was common in the unhygienic conditions.


Few people went to their peacetime jobs. There were attempts to enrol all able bodied survivors to do manual labour, help in food preparation, hospitals, etc but many were reluctant to move from their homes. The Regional Commissioner tried to keep the economy going by insisting that people paid for food but this proved unworkable and had to be abandoned.


Overall, although the survivors in Bristol were in a better condition than many others in the region their position was precarious. Theirs was a battle for simple survival from day to day. The old, the sick, the injured and the very young were doomed. There was little thought for the future. Many would not live to see it.


This was the horror of a full-scale nuclear attack in the age of what the strategists called Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD when they assumed that the next world war would start and end with an immediate all-out exchange of city-killing hydrogen bombs. The immediate effects were on a scale never before imagined but the long-term effects of radioactive fallout made matters worse. The combined effects would virtually destroy all vestiges of civilised life even in areas not directly affected by the explosions.


These are the events that civil defence planners prepared for during the Cold War. This book describes those plans.



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