The end of RSG12
In 1988 the Home Secretary replied to a question in Parliament that asked about “the alterations to the radio station at Kings Standing” by saying “…part of this site is being developed as an administrative centre for use in a possible emergency. It is not the practice to give detailed information about facilities of this kind. The building is not intended for use by the general public.” This announcement went unnoticed but hid an interesting development. The “administrative centre” was in fact a new regional government headquarters bunker and was being built in East Sussex which was part of home defence sub-region 6.1. This sub-region as many knew, thanks to the activities of the anarchist group “Spies for Peace” in 1962 and then the writings of, in particular, Duncan Campbell in the 1980s had had its headquarters bunker at Dover Castle for over 25 years. Had those interested in such things noticed this development they might have asked - what has happened to the Dover bunker? Thanks to recently released files at the National Archives we now know it had been abandoned, secretly, some 4 years earlier. But why? This article answers that question and in doing so looks at the history of the Dover bunker, the reason why it was suddenly abandoned and the context in which this happened.
Regional Seats of Government
During World War 2 a highly effective, national system of civil defence evolved in Britain. This system lapsed with the end of the war but was re-instated as the Cold War developed. If war came the country would again divided into regions each headed by a Regional Commissioner who would co-ordinate the local civil defence forces and, if communications with central government broke down, act temporarily as a prime minister for the region. In the mid-1950s heavily protected Regional War Rooms were built to serve as their operational headquarters. This scheme of civil defence was designed to cope with World War 2 type conventional (ie high explosive) bombs and even atomic bombs but as the Strath Report, written in great secrecy in 1955, showed the new hydrogen bombs which the Soviet Union was expected to have available from the late-1950s would produce results of a completely different magnitude. The death and destruction would be on a biblical scale and beyond this deadly radio-active fall-out would confine people to their homes for weeks. The central government would not be able to function even if it survived and so the Regional Commissioners would now need to act as the government for their region for months, possibly years, until a newly constituted central government could take back control. To do this they would need larger staffs and larger headquarters. This lead to the development of the Regional Seats of Government (or RSGs). The original plan was to have a purpose built RSG in each region but by the late 1950s this proved to be unaffordable and the RSGs were established in a motley collection of existing premises.
Civil defence Region 12 which covered south-east England was to have its RSG, called RSG12, in the Regional War Room at Tunbridge Wells, although this would be too small and so its accommodation would have to include 6 of the wooden “temporary office buildings” which had been built on the site during the last war. These “TOBs” would need to be reinforced with a “steel shell” and/or hundreds of sandbags to protect the staff from fall-out. This solution was obviously far from satisfactory and luckily before conversion work started the Ministry of Works which was responsible for all government building projects found a potentially much better site for RSG12 at a large underground site in the grounds of Dover Castle. Until 1958 this site had been occupied by Dover Garrison but was now vacant.
The Home Office made its first survey of the site in 1960 and acquired it in 1961 but extensive plans to convert the site were not drawn up until 1963-64. The RSG was partially ready to be used during the large scale NATO sponsored exercise Fallex62 in 1962 although the full RSG complement of about 450 people did not take part. It was however far from complete at that time and it appears that the original Tunbridge Wells War Room acted as the main communications centre for the RSG. Like all other civil defence facilities it was not manned during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. A report from February 1965 said the RSG or “Crown Building, Dover” as it was sometimes officially called could be occupied but it was not to be fully completed until early 1966.
The 3 levels
According to a 1975 report “Dover Crown Building was a subterranean complex dug out of the chalk cliff adjacent to the grounds of Dover Castle. It consisted of 3 main underground levels interconnected with a passenger lift and various stairways. Each level was formed by interconnecting galleries that open out into rooms and larger areas of a variety of sizes”.
The earliest of these levels (actually, geographically, the middle one) was originally dug as a series of casemates or “casemated barracks” with inter-connecting tunnels from 1797 to 1810 during the Napoleonic wars to house several hundred soldiers based at the castle. These casemates were used during World War 1 as offices and stores. The level was subsequently enlarged considerably during the Second World War and was used by the Army, Admiralty, the Post Office and the War Department.
The upper level was built in 1941-42 as a Medical Dressing Station originally with 8 wards, an operating theatre and ancillary services. The lowest and largest level, with some 30,000 square feet of usable space, was constructed in 1942-43 as a military combined headquarters and was usually referred to simply as the CHQ. Similar sites were constructed at Portsmouth and Plymouth. The Portsmouth headquarters was used in 1944 as the main command centre for the control of allied naval and land forces during the D-Day invasion with the site at Plymouth acting as a subsidiary communications centre. The Dover CHQ may have had a minor role in the radio deception plan for D-Day. There are suggestions that the Dover site was originally intended to be the headquarters for Operation Roundup but no conclusive evidence of this has appeared. Roundup was a plan to invade France in 1943 directly across the Straits of Dover. It was originally sponsored by the Americans but abandoned as impractical.
From top to bottom these 3 levels have become known as Annex (or Annexe), Casemate (or Casemates) and Dumpy. The dormitories for the RSG’s staff of some 450 together with a sick bay were set up in the Annex level. Casemate level housed the kitchen, dining room, stores, boiler room and the main generator which was installed in 1968. The operational areas together with communications areas, the BBC studio and conference rooms were housed in the Dumpy level. Each level had a variety of plant and machinery reflecting their original purposes.
Annex level is some 260 feet above sea level and has over-cover of chalk and soil varying from 53 to 24 feet. Casemate has over-cover of 88 to 74 feet and Dumpy 137 to 124 feet.
The title “casemate” appears to be original and to date back to the origins of these tunnels as casemates (although strictly speaking a casemate is a fortified place housing a gun, and the Dover casemates have never been so armed). Annex and Dumpy appear to be more recent names and there is no record of them being used before the RSG was built. The name “Annex” may have simply been adopted as meaning an annex to the casemate level. The origin of the name Dumpy is unclear. Possibly it refers to the dumps of spoil dug out from the casemate tunnels and simply dumped onto the cliff face at the level of the CHQ. A National Archive file covering the building of the CHQ, or as the file calls it the “Dover Battle HQ” mentions two remote wireless transmitter and receiver stations built near Dover to serve the CHQ and calls these Dumpy A and B but as the file never refers to the CHQ itself as Dumpy there seems little likelihood that it was called Dumpy at that time. However, one thing is certain - Dumpy is not an acronym for “deep underground military position yellow”. This probably originated as a joke but has been endlessly repeated on the internet and, by this repetition has acquired the status of a fact in the same way that the fabled “Rose and Crown” pub in the central government war headquarters at Corsham became a “fact”.
The designations of the levels as Annex, Casemate and Dumpy probably came into use as the site was developed as RSG12 because the site which is on 3 levels with many different access points and inter-connecting stairways was so complex that a simple way was needed to help those using the site to find their way around.
There is another rumour about the RSG site which, thanks to the internet, has become an accepted “fact”. This is the existence of a hidden or lost level of tunnels called Bastion. In reality, despite many serious researchers looking for any written record of this lost level nothing has ever been found at the site, in the records held by English Heritage which now owns it or in the National Archives. Neither has English Heritage found any physical evidence of it despite investing considerable time and money in looking.
RSG12 would be responsible for helping local authorities and the Civil Defence Corps respond to the initial effects of a nuclear attack and then gradually to restore, as far as possible, some degree of normal life for the survivors by establishing a government for the region. To assist with the initial survival and recovery stages regions were divided into 2 or 3 sub-regions each with a Sub Regional Headquarters (or SRHQ) to take some of the work-load. Nominally, RSG12 was supported by SRHQs at Guildford and Tunbridge Wells although, to what extent these existed outside the Home Office’s plans is unknown.
The south-east home defence region had the number 12 because when the regions were first established at the outset of World War 2 it was part of Region 5 which included all of London. It was soon realised that this was too big to be practical and the rural counties were put into a separate region numbered 12 and this number was used into the Cold War.
By 1965 with the home defence budget becoming increasingly squeezed the Home Office reluctantly accepted that the permanent RSGs were too expensive to maintain. They were therefore abolished as permanently established sites. The idea now would be that an ad hoc regional seat of government would be set up at some convenient place when post-attack conditions allowed and in the meantime Sub Regional Controls (or SRCs) as the SRHQs were now designated would try to manage the initial survival and recovery operations. At the same time London (then Region 5) ceased to be an independent civil defence region and responsibility for it post-attack would be divided amongst the neighbouring regions. This allowed Region 12 to be re-designated as Region 5 and in war it would be responsible for the counties of Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Surrey and the London boroughs south of the Thames. The new Region 5 had 2 sub-regions with SRCs at barracks in Guildford and at the former Dover RSG. To confuse matters further in 1973 London was re-established as a wartime region and became Region 5 again. The south east region was also merged with the neighbouring southern region and the new, much larger region was designated as Region 6. The counties which were part of Region 5 now formed sub-region 6.1. Sub region 6.2 was made up of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire. At this time the SRCs were re-designated, again, as SRHQs. Despite the changes in title there was no change in function although the numbers of people who would man the headquarters kept being reduced. As an RSG Dover had a nominal staff of 450, as an SRHQ it would have only 200 but nothing was done to reduce the size or facilities at the site and all 3 levels were still used.
In 1968, civil defence was placed under a “care and maintenance” regime to save money. This state of affairs continued until 1979. During the intervening years little was done to improve the existing civil defence infrastructure but some planning, which cost little, continued. The Home Office did however draw up a “schedule of requirements” for an SRC building in 1972 which lead to it asking the Property Services Agency, the successor to the Ministry of Works to investigate the state of the existing SRC/SRHQs.
Dover in the 1970s
The report on what was now SRHQ 6.1 at Dover said that it had dormitory accommodation in the Annex level for 230 in 2-tier bunks which implies that some had been removed since the site ceased to be an RSG. The original kitchen facilities appear to have been retained at Casemate level as the study said that these were more than adequate but it did say that the tunnels used for the purpose opened out onto the “goods entry path” (ie the terrace running directly along the cliff face and the current entrance into English Heritage’s Hellfire Corner attraction) via a single steel door adding, significantly for later developments, that there was a need to consider blast protection for this door and the kitchen vents.
The report continued saying the origins of the RSG/SRHQ as a building on 3 separate levels each of which was built at a different time and for different purposes resulted in the ventilation and air filtration systems being a complete muddle. There appeared to be a significant number of openings via entrances, ventilation inlets, exhausts for the mechanical ventilation system, air inlet and outlet pipes for the emergency generator, water pipes, fuel pipes, etc into and out of the underground areas which would weaken any resistance to blast and more significantly possibly allow air contaminated by radioactive fall-out produced by the nuclear blast to enter the accommodation. This weakness is further commented on where the study said “…as the accommodation is below ground level blast protection is automatically covered with the exception of ventilation fresh air inlets and exhausts, and other openings to the cliff face.” The study found fault with the many vent shafts to the surface (and out to the cliff face) which together with the lift shaft made sealing the building against the ingress of fall-out impractical. There was however little consideration of the building’s ability to resist blast, which the various openings, and the way 3 of the tunnels on Casemate level were only sealed off from the outside world by a brick wall, could only have reduced.
Once the mains supply had been cut following nuclear attack water would be taken from a buried 24,000 gallon capacity storage tank with pipework connected to Casemate and Dumpy levels. There was also a buried 10,000 gallon capacity tank feeding a secondary distribution system via a 4,800 gallon tank at the top of the emergency staircase from Annex level.
There was an emergency standby generator rated at 327kVA in the Casemate level which was adequate to supply the electrical needs of all 3 levels. It seems that the original RSGs only had this one generator which by the 1970s was considered inadequate and the study recommended installing a second, smaller generator which could supply the essential load if the first one failed. Oil for the generator and boiler was stored in a 10,000 gallon tank installed in an old magazine at the surface level. This fed daily use tanks in Annex and Casemate and was sufficient to cover all normal loads 24 hours a day for 40 days.
The main entry point to the site was via an entrance at Annex level from the Cannon’s Gate Road. However, the study added that this entrance was “locked up” and the main entrance was via the 8-man lift. This had probably been installed between 1966 and 1968. It served all 3 levels and had its exit via what the report described as a “small brick building at the side of the approach road”. The building is however much larger inside than it appears. It has 2 floors and contains the lift machinery, an office for the PSA and store rooms. At one stage all the radio equipment which should have been installed in the SRHQ was stored here probably because of the high humidity in Dumpy level where it should have been kept.
All the communications areas were on the Dumpy level which had the message/counter room, teleprinter room, switchboard room, tape relay centre, GPO apparatus room and the main radio room.
The basic impression given by the study is of a once well-established facility which was now suffering from a lack of maintenance and refurbishment and which needed a lot of work to bring it to an operational state, and then more to up-date it to the current standards laid down in the Home Office’s requirements paper. The study did however make some recommendations to improve the site and in particular suggested that given the smaller staff of an SRHQ (about 200) compared with the original RSG (about 450) unused areas in Casemate and Dumpy could be used for dormitories. This would mean that Annex would not be needed (except possibility as an entrance) and this would considerably reduce the problems of ventilation, the vulnerable openings and the daily cost of running the site.
However, at this time (the late 1970s) there was still no money available for civil defence and little was done following the study. In 1979 some areas were sealed off, the ventilation system improved and the site partially rewired. The fire precautions were inadequate and to partly improve them a number of wooden partitions were removed together with 200 mattresses. As no mention is made of any replacements this implies that there were now no mattresses for the nominal 200 staff. It appears that SRHQ 6.1 was far from operational and this was confirmed during Exercise Square Leg held in September 1980. This was a national home defence exercise during which all the SRHQs would be partially manned. However, Dover could not be used because -
- It (still) did not conform to the fire prevention regulations.
- Its urinals were in “a disgusting condition” and it had no functioning WCs
- All the furniture had been removed
Civil defence has always been rather a political football and the incoming conservative government elected in 1979 announced that it would receive more attention and more money. The “review of civil preparedness for home defence” which followed the election heralded some wide ranging improvements including, as the Home Secretary told Parliament in August 1980 “…additional expenditure on … the sub-regional headquarters for decentralised government.” Money was now to be made available to bring the SRHQs to an operational state within 5 years.
|sub-region||site||situation||state of readiness|
|1.1||-||new building needed, to start 1980-81||no HQ|
|2.1||Shipton||structural alterations needed, to start soon||no HQ|
|3.1||Skendelby||structural alterations needed, to start 1979-80||useable with reduced complement|
|3.2||Loughborough||new building completed, communications being installed||when communications ready|
|4.1||Bawburgh||new generators needed, in hand||now|
|4.2||Hertford||additional generator needed, finish 1978||now|
|5.1||Kelvedon Hatch||improvements to generator room needed||now|
|6.1||Dover||minor adaptations needed, start 1981-82||now|
|7.1||Ullenwood||new building needed (Chilmark), to start 1982-83||now, with reduced complement|
|7.2||Hope Cove||improvements needed, to start 1981-82||now|
|8.1||-||new building needed, no funds||target 1985-86|
|9.2||Drakelow||building unsatisfactory, minor works in hand||now with some drawbacks|
|10.1||Southport||present building unsuitable||doubtful|
|10.2||-||new building needed, to start 1978-79||target 1981-82|
|Table 1 - the SRHQ estate in England and Wales in 1977|
Overall, the SRHQ situation was dire (see Table 1). At this time Scotland had 3 Zone HQs (equivalent to SRHQs) and a Scottish Central Control but 2 of them needed to be replaced and a third needed refurbishment. In England and Wales 3 sub-regions had no SRHQ. Eventually these would be built at Hexham (SRHQ 1.1) and Hack Green (10.2) although the SRHQ in North Wales (8.1) was never built. The other 14 could be used but were not up to standard. SRHQ 7.1 was still in the inadequate premises at Ullenwood although a replacement site had been found at Chilmark in 1973. Some initial design work had been done at that time before the project was shelved for lack of funds. Skendelby (3.1), Dover (6.1) Hope Cove (7.2) and Drakelow (9.2) required substantial adaptation and refurbishment. Only 3 of the 17 English and Welsh SRHQs were fully operational.
A new plan
In March 1981 the Home Office drew up a list of priorities for the PSA to work from. New SRHQs at Hexham and Chilmark headed the list and money was made available to complete them in the 1981-82 financial year. The Home Office also detailed work it wanted for the other SRHQs but for some unknown reason Dover was not mentioned.
However, it seems that the PSA were still working on the ideas for Dover from the 1975 study and in May 1980 it had asked the Home Office for a response to its suggestion of incorporating the dormitories into the Casemate level. Perhaps the Home Office did not want to commit itself at that time and the PSA had to chase for a reply in October. Surprisingly, the Home Office then replied very quickly. It said that it was now only interested in the Dumpy level and the western most chambers of Casemate and wished to seal these areas from the rest of the Casemate level. The existing kitchen/canteen area should be retained in Casemate and the dormitories and sick bay relocated to it. Two new generators should be installed in Dumpy. Improvements to the ventilation system were asked for and the existing toilets and showers were to be refurbished. The lift was no longer required and entrance to the site would be via the Casemate entrance in Cannon Gate Road (this is the entrance with the World War 2 signs “Vice admiral Dover” and “fixed defences Dover” rather than the current entrance to “Hellfire Corner”) and a decontamination room would be needed at the entrance. The Home Office said it was generally happy with the “protection factor” but asked if the southern end of the casemate level tunnels (which opened onto the cliff face) met the desired PF figure of 400 (The protection factor, or PF, is a measure of the degree of protection against the effects of radioactive fallout that a building can give its occupants). It also asked the PSA to consider what blast protection there was for the existing ventilation intakes at the Dumpy level.
At a subsequent meeting with the PSA in May the Home Office asked for all this work to be completed by September 1982 to avoid budgetary problems. The need for improvements to the ventilation system was stressed as the BBC had already removed their equipment and the GPO was having problems maintaining theirs because of the high humidity. The PSA then queried if a new feasibility study was needed as the Home Office’s ideas seemed to be based on the one drawn up in 1975.
The need for a new feasibility study was accepted but almost immediately the Home Office asked for the toilets in Casemate and Dumpy to be renovated and for all outstanding repairs and redecorations in all 3 levels to be completed in a matter of months. This was to enable SRHQ 6.1 to be used in Exercise Hard Rock, a nationwide home defence exercise scheduled to take place in autumn 1982. This exercise ran into many problems at the planning stage and, in fact, never took place.
The new feasibility study was available by August. The PSA confirmed that a refurbished SRHQ to fully meet the Home Office’s criteria, in particular for 25,000 square feet of secure accommodation with blast and fallout protection and capable of functioning independently of external sources for up to 30 days, could be built but, mainly because of the reduced staff numbers needed in the SRHQ and the consequent saving in space for both working and domestic accommodation the PSA suggested that space for the dormitories, which under the earlier study would be relocated to Casemate, could now be found in Dumpy together with the kitchen and canteen facilities. The Annex level could be abandoned and Casemate only used for some plant, water and fuel storage and access. This would simplify the layout of the site, solve many of the problems with ventilation and be significantly cheaper than using both Casemate and Dumpy levels.
The study gave some details of the structure of the site saying that the tunnels of Annex and Dumpy levels had metal linings backing onto chalk supported by steel colliery arches. The floors were concrete. The Casemate tunnels were mostly brick lined. The floors were variously concrete, stone flags and suspended timber. But the study added that the condition of the tunnels varied from good to derelict, saying that the absence of clear directives and lack of funds has resulted in variable levels of maintenance with a concentration on the areas most used. Despite mechanical ventilation humidity levels were high and the deterioration of decorations, fixtures and furniture was widespread.
The Home Office design brief for an SRHQ called for 25,000 square feet of usable space but in practice there were 27,000 and this excluded a planned mezzanine level in dumpy giving 1,000 square feet to be used for water tanks. (This planned mezzanine appears to be the reason why there are piles of concrete beams in Dumpy even today). The Cannon’s Gate Road entrance would be rebuilt incorporating a steel external door and a decontamination unit added (These units had not been installed in the original RSGs and had a simple shower which anyone coming into the complex from the outside could use to wash off any radio-active fall-out). Two new 100 Kw generators would be installed in Dumpy. An emergency exit would be provided using the existing spiral staircase from Casemate and a ventilation shaft. There would be extensive capping and sealing of the numerous open shafts which would not be needed in the scheme. The existing lighting was adequate but the emergency lighting would be updated and extended. Dehumidifying plant would be installed in the areas with sensitive equipment together with modifications to the ventilation and extraction systems some of which at this time had only recently been installed.
The planned work would cost some £530,000 and take 2 years to complete during which time everything would be removed from the site and the SRHQ would be out of commission.
The Home Office approved the PSA’s scheme in and they were instructed to start drawing up detailed plans and to seek tenders for the work which would be spread over the financial years 1982-83 and 1983-84 with some minor work expected in 1984-85. However, the Home Office asked for the start of work to be deferred until mid-October to allow for SRHQ 6.1 to be used for exercise Hard Rock although the minor work on decorations, etc previously mentioned were to be made. A progress meeting was held in May 1982 when amongst other things an existing well was discussed as an emergency source of water (many SRHQs had boreholes to supply such emergency water).
While the refurbishment of SRHQ 6.1 was being planned other significant developments were made affecting the SRHQ estate and the way in which Regional Government, which would be introduced after a nuclear attack made normal central government impotent. The system introduced in the 1960s envisaged the regions (except London and Northern Ireland) being divided into 2 sub-regions each with a protected SRHQ. The Regional Commissioner and a small staff would find some bolt hole in the region just before the attack and leave the staff of the SRHQs to cope with the initial effects of the nuclear attack. The SRHQs would co-ordinate the work of the local authorities, armed forces, etc in the aftermath of the attack but with changes to local government in 1972 the County Councils now had a bigger role in civil defence and the role of the SRHQs was much reduced. Their main role would now be to co-ordinate the actions of the counties and then to plan and prepare for the re-introduction of a central government at national level. The Commissioner would move to a suitable site to set up a government for the region when fall-out and communications allowed, take over from the SRHQs and act as a central government for the whole region. This was always a wasteful system and in April 1983 a revised scheme was introduced under which the Regional Commissioner would be based in one of the region’s SRHQs directing its operations from the start with the assistance of a deputy commissioner based in the other SRHQ.
The 1980 government review led to the decision to bring the SRHQ estate to full operational readiness. Immediate priority was to be given to the sites at Hexham, where work actually started in the autumn of 1981 and Hack Green as the other SRHQs in these regions were considered inadequate and Chilmark. Although these would be relatively cheap as the sites were already owned by the government and had some basic services connected, nevertheless they would absorb all the funds available for SRHQs in 1981-82. Planning to convert Hack Green (a former partly underground RAF ROTOR radar station) had been complete by 1979 but there were no funds to pursue the project. The next on the priority list were North Wales and Lancashire. In fact an SRHQ existed in Lancashire in the basement of a government office block in Southport. But this was thought to be inadequate and suffered from major flooding problems caused by a fractured water storage tank. It was not considered cost-effective to make it operational and the Home Office hoped find new sites for both sub-regions where completely new SRHQs could be built using the plans drawn up for the one to be built at Chilmark.
Consideration of sites in North Wales and Lancashire suggested by the PSA led to the Home Office investigating their proximity to probable nuclear targets. This appears never to have been taken into account before perhaps because up to this time the Home Office had had little, if any choice in its sites. However, the Home Office now compared the positions of its SRHQs to the latest nuclear target list drawn up in 1979. The findings would spell the end of the Dover bunker.
The target list
Some people have assumed that the Dover bunker was abandoned because of its closeness to the port of Dover. This would be of strategic importance in moving British and American forces to mainland Europe which would make it an inevitable target for a Soviet hydrogen bomb should war come. If the port was attacked with a hydrogen bomb the nearby bunker would surely be affected. However, if that was the case why was the bunker built and then retained for over 20 years? The answer is simple - in those years neither the bunker itself nor the port were considered to be targets. To examine this surprising statement further it is necessary to look at Soviet nuclear targets in the UK, or to be more accurate what the British planners assumed would be the Soviet’s targets.
From the mid-1960s the Joint Intelligence Committee, on behalf of the Cabinet Office, compiled a “…list of potential nuclear targets in the United Kingdom” based on its ideas about Soviet war aims which was “…for use as assumptions for planning purposes…” particularly in home defence.
The target lists were “top secret” and issued in numbered copies to named individuals. This secrecy is rather incongruous as the “targets” are on the list because it was assumed the Soviets knew about them so they were not being kept secret from them. They were probably to be kept secret from the British public. This may have been to avoid the sites being subjected to political demonstrations but more likely because it contradicted the government’s “stay put” policy. Throughout the Cold War the planners argued that to evacuate people away from likely targets would save lives but a credible means of doing so was never devised. So evacuation was replaced with a policy of “stay put” with the advice to the public to remain in their own homes because no place in the UK would be any safer than any other from the effects of a nuclear attack. Given this public policy the government could hardly allow the release of information showing it actually believed that many places, and in particular the larger cities would actually be targets.
The latest available target list is from 1972 and has 93 “probable targets” divided into the same 4 categories used in the 1966 one -
- Targets related to allied nuclear strike capability (centres of government control, bomber bases, etc)
- Bases for seaborne nuclear strike forces (ports for aircraft carriers, UK and US Polaris submarine facilities, etc)
- Major cities and towns (included on the basis that their destruction would reduce the country’s will to continue the war)
- Targets relating to air defence (control centres, fighter bases, BMEWS, radar stations, etc.).
Both lists included all the old RSG sites (which by then had ceased to be regional seats of government) as “possible” rather than “probable” sites on the basis that the Soviets might still believe they were “centres of government control” with a pre-attack role. However, the Home Office had always objected to these sites being included and the working lists tended to exclude them completely so that for practical planning purposes RSG12 and its subsequent re-designations were assumed not to be potential Soviet nuclear targets. Neither were the town nor port of Dover included in the lists. This was because our planners assumed that the next war would start (and end) with an (almost) immediate full scale nuclear strike by both sides. There would be no time to move any significant reinforcements to Europe before the attack and no reason to do so after. The assumed targets were all directly related to the UK (and the US’s) ability to launch a nuclear strike or, in the case of the cities which would be attacked, to reduce the nation’s will to continue the war. So as far as the British defence planners were concerned Dover was not a target.
As mentioned above, these target lists followed the 1960s assumption that World War 3 would inevitably and immediately “go nuclear” but by the late 1970s NATO strategy, which the UK government followed, assumed that the Soviets, given their overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons would not, at least at the start of a war, use their nuclear weapons and neither would NATO given its policy of “no first use”. NATO strategy assumed that this initial “conventional phase” at the start of World War 3 would last up to 30 days during which time a ceasefire would be arranged. (Although a more likely assumption would have been that the Soviet Union had by then achieved its war-aims). During the conventional phase of fighting British forces together with tens of thousands of American and Canadian troops and their vast numbers of vehicles and tons of supplies would pass through British ports and airports on their way to the continent. Ports like Dover would be vital to this cross-channel deployment.
In 1979 a new list of probable nuclear targets was compiled. Unfortunately, it has not been released at the National Archives but there are some clues in some documents that have been. The list appears to have included 112 probable nuclear targets in 4 categories -
- Allied nuclear strike capabilities and associated facilities.
- Centres of political administration and (22) major towns and cities
- Air defence facilities
- Naval bases, ports and airports associated with the movement of reinforcements.
The first 3 criteria cover the same categories as the 1966 list but now there is the inclusion of ports and airports. As stated earlier we do not have this list of probable nuclear targets but a 1982 Note by the Home Defence Sub-Committee setting the background for home defence planning is very revealing. It discusses the expected strategy to be adopted by the Soviet Union saying that while it may follow a conventional strategy it sees nuclear weapons as simply another weapon to be used to achieve its aims and so a nuclear strike may occur at any stage even before or during what NATO might assume to be a stage limited to conventional attack, and so nuclear weapons might be used against the same targets as conventional ones. On this basis it is likely that the 1979 nuclear target list is essentially the same as the conventional one drawn up in July 1982 (see Table 2) and the information disclosed by the Home Office files appears to confirm this. The important factor for this discussion is that the port of Dover was now listed as a conventional target and apparently this meant it was now also a nuclear target and, as been said before, the Dover bunker site overlooks the port and the ends of the Casemate tunnels which open directly on to the cliff face can be seen from it. The actions of the Home Office confirm this conclusion.
|a. Nuclear||b. Air Defence||c. Nuclear Associated|
|Clyde submarine base||RAF Waddington||Criggion|
|Devonport Dockyard||RAF Kinloss||RAF High Wycombe|
|RAF Honington||RAF Leuchars||Whitehall complex|
|RAF Marham||RAF Coningsby||GCHQ Cheltenham|
|RAF Kakenheath||RAF Wattisham||Northwood|
|RAF Upper Heyford||RAF Leeming||RAF Pitreavie|
|A&AEE Boscombe Down||RAF Marham||RAF Bawtry|
|RAF Saxa Vord|
|a. Air Defence||b. Nuclear||c. Nuclear Associated||d. Maritime Forces|
|RAF Benbecula||RAF Macrihanish||RAF Fylingdales||Chatham|
|RAF Bishops Court||RAF St Mawgan||RAF Alconbury||Portland|
|RAF Boulmer||RAF Lossiemouth||RAF Fairford||Portsmouth/Gosport|
|RAF Brize Norton||RAF Wethersfield||RAF Greenham Common||Rosyth|
|RAF Portreath||RAF Bentwaters||RAF Oakhangar|
|RAF Ash||RAF Woodbridge||Prestwick|
|RAF Staxton Wold||RAF Mildenhall||RAF West Drayton|
|RAF Stornoway||RAF Cottesmore|
|RAF Brawdy||RAF Wittering|
|e. Re-supply and Reinforcement|
|a. Secondary Re-supply and reinforcement|
|a. GCHQ sites||b. Communications Sites|
|Bude||RAF Rudloe Manor|
|Harrogate (Menwith Hill)|
|Table 2 - likely targets for conventional attack|
The problem of Dover
When the Home Office looked at the 1979 nuclear target list it measured the distances from its SRHQs to the targets on the list and considered what effect a hydrogen bomb of the expected size on the assumed target would have on them. It came to the following conclusions -
- Completely outside the area of expected damage
- 1.1, 2.1, 7.2, 8.2, 10.2
- Within the ring of lightest damage
- 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 7.1, 9.2, 10.1
- Within the ring of moderate to severe damage
- 3.2, 6.2, 9.1
It concluded that SRHQs 3.2 (the newly converted cold store at Loughborough), 9.1 (former ammunition stores at Swynnerton) and 6.2 (the basement of a recently built government office block in Basingstoke, and the second SRHQ in 6 Region) were close enough to a target that they could suffer significant damage from a nuclear attack on it but the real problem was Dover which was put in a category of its own.
Dover stood alone as “collocated with a military target” half a mile from the bunker which was expected to be attacked with a 1 megaton ground burst hydrogen bomb. This “military target” is almost certainly a reference to the port but it may also be a reference to the communications facilities in the area. If it did not refer directly to the port then if these communications facilities were ignored the port itself would still be a target. This is shown by the inclusion of nearby Folkestone as being another target which would be attacked with a hydrogen bomb.
The port of Dover would play a vital role in to reinforcing NATO forces in Europe. This would involve vast numbers of soldiers, with thousands of vehicles and huge quantities of stores, ammunition, etc from Britain, the US and Canada using the port. And it was now on the list of probable targets. If the SRHQ was vulnerable to an attack on the port, which it overlooked or some other nearby military facility then its survivability had to be questioned. If it would not survive the expected attack there was no point in retaining it.
In September 1982 the Home Office asked its Scientific Research and Development Branch (SRDB) to consider the vulnerability of the Dover SRHQ. This was now urgent as the refurbishment, now budgeted at £647,000, was due to go out for contract with an actual start planned for November.
The SRDB’s report started off with the rather scathing remark that the figures the Home Office used to consider “vulnerability” came from a 1950s civil defence booklet which dealt with the effects of an H-bomb on ordinary houses. It pointed out that SRHQs were much stronger than houses and designed to be proof against a blast overpressure of up to 1.5 pounds per square inch, which might be expected within half a mile of a 1 megaton air-burst. It then mentioned that the Dover SRHQ was however particularly vulnerable because of openings at the Dumpy level for air filtration and the generators, some of the casemates actually opened onto the cliff face (albeit bricked up) and the lift shaft would allow blast to reach all levels. It added that a considerable part of the tunnel reinforcement braces were severely corroded by rust.
The SRDB report said that if the blast occurred within half a mile of the SRHQ (the Home Office put the bunker half a mile from the port) all the entrances would be obliterated and the occupants entombed. The tunnels housing ventilation and plant systems would be destroyed and blast would propagate through the casemates which would wreck Casemate and continue down into Dumpy wrecking equipment and causing casualties. Some parts of the SRHQ might survive but overall the SRHQ would be so damaged as to make it useless. Destruction of access roads would also cut it off from the outside world.
The communications equipment, without which the SRHQ staff would be deaf, dumb and blind, was particularly vulnerable. The new cliff top aerial tower (so new its feeder cables into the SRHQ had not been installed), the British Telecom frame room (said to be housed in a brick building on the cliff top which the SRDB people could not get into “…despite half-open and very dilapidated doors”) and the Dover telephone exchange through which most of the telephone and telegraph wires to the outside world would pass would be wrecked. The SRDB concluded that unless the communications circuits could be refurbished (at enormous expense) there was no point in going ahead with the planned refurbishment.
The Home Office had already come up with 4 possible responses if the survivability of the Dover SRHQ seemed unlikely -
- Continue with the present plans.
- Cancel the refurbishment but retain the ZHQ. (In 1982 the SRHQs were briefly designated as Zone Headquarters following the practice in Scotland but this would not describe the increased role following the change in regional government and this was abandoned in 1984 in favour of the new designation of Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ)).
- Stop using Dover as a ZHQ and operate the whole of 6 Region from the ZHQ at Basingstoke.
- Stop using Dover as a ZHQ and replace it by -
- A conversion of an existing building within the £647,000 budget
- A completely new building which would mean abandoning plans for new builds for 8.1 or 10.1 (work was due to start on 7.1 which could continue)
The Home Office had already decided that options 1. and 2. would be foolhardy, especially as the proposed relaxation of the security classification of the locations of SRHQs would lead to more people knowing of and therefore criticising their location. The third option was contrary to the policy laid down by Ministers that there should be 2 SRHQs in each region.
However, by this time the Home Office was reconsidering the policy of having 2 fully protected (and therefore expensive) SRHQs in each region. They were thinking if, for example, sub-region 8.1 in North Wales really needed an SRHQ built to the usual protection standards of being able to resist a blast over-pressure of 1.5 psi and having a “protection factor” against fall-out of at least 400. The sub-region only consisted of 2 counties, was not near probable targets and had a relatively small population so it was unlikely to be adversely affected by blast or fall-out and there would be little for it to do so, even if an SRHQ was needed, it could be set up say in an existing basement thereby saving a considerable amount of money.
By contrast, unlike sub-region 8.1, 6.1 consisted of 4 highly populated counties and 6.2 added another 4. There were several probable targets in the region which, in any case, might be flooded with self-evacuees from London. So region 6 would need 2 protected SRHQs. Unfortunately, there were problems with the other SRHQ in 6 Region - SRHQ 6.2 at Basingstoke. This was built on a sloping site partly under the Civil Service Commission office complex in Basingstoke. Part of the structure was exposed with a car park on the roof. Water penetration from the car park was a serious problem and there were concerns that the office building might collapse during an attack burying the bunker or that some of the large pre-cast concrete panels might be blown off the building and damage it. It was also relatively near to probable nuclear targets and the SRDB recommended increasing the protection by reinforcing the roof slab and bracing the internal columns.
Dover is abandoned
By October 1982 the Home Office minister Patrick Mathew had agreed with his civil servants that it was not practical to fully protect the Dover SRHQ and to continue with it would be foolhardy so the only option was to abandon it. The only practical course to replace it was under option 4, and the shortage of funds meant that unless an existing suitable (ie cheap) site could be found in government hands other parts of the SRHQ building programme would have to be abandoned to free money for a new 6.1. In practice, this would not be much of a problem for the Home Office as the PSA had been unable to find a suitable site for either 8.1 or 10.1. In any case the Home Office were now thinking that a fully protected, new-build costing perhaps £6m could not be justified, and that a PF of 100, even 50, might do for rural sites away from likely targets. But the Minister insisted on a minimum PF of 100 for the new 6.1.
The Home Office accordingly wrote in, October 1982, to the PSA who, after months of work, were about to start on the refurbishment of Dover saying that the SRDB had concluded that Dover would not survive a nearby nuclear blast and it was not practical to reinforce it so Ministers had decided it would be “indefensible to retain the site”. The Home Office asked the PSA to begin a search in 6.1 sub-region for a site, particularly on Crown land suitable for adaption although the nominal complement for an SRHQ had (again) been reduced from 186 to about 119 which meant that sites could be smaller and therefore cheaper. The PSA replied, politely, that “It is unfortunate that vulnerability to blast was not identified by the Home Office much earlier in the planning phase…” They did however add that they would start a search. The PSA were also asked to look for existing premises for 8.1 and 10.1 which could be without blast protection and only have a PF of 100.
It appears that by early 1984 the Home Office had simply abandoned Dover although it was not transferred to English Heritage until 1986. There is no evidence that any consideration was given to retaining it until a replacement was available. All 3 levels were acquired by English Heritage which, in 1990, opened the Casemate and Annex levels as a tourist attraction highlighting the role played by Admiral Ramsey’s HQ in casemate during the evacuation from Dunkirk.
The PSA find Crowborough
The PSA started to search for a new site in sub-region 6.1 in early 1983. It considered a site in Chatham (probably HMS Wildfire) but by March 1983 the Home Office had acquired “… first refusal on a Foreign and Commonwealth communications station soon to be vacated at Kings Standing” which could be converted for £1m with a start to be made in 1984. This “communications station” was in fact centred on a large bunker built during World War 2 on an exposed site in Ashdown Forest at Kings Standing near Crowborough in East Sussex, some 60 miles east of Dover. Originally it had housed a radio transmitter used to transmit “black propaganda” into Nazi Germany. After the war it had been used by the BBC and the Diplomatic Wireless Service of the Foreign Office and at times it had been suggested as an emergency transmitter site for the Wartime Broadcasting Service. It had however ceased to be used in 1982 and would have been ideal for the Home Office’s needs. It was in the centre of the sub-region but relatively remote from any large town. It would also be a cheap site for a new headquarters not only because it was already owned by the government and had major services such as water and telephone lines installed but it had a large well maintained bunker which was about the right size for what would now be designated as a Regional Government Headquarters or RGHQ.
By this time the Home Office’s already modest budget for civil defence was being severely squeezed as county and district councils built their emergency centres as they were required to do by the revised civil defence regulations imposed on them in 1983. They were entitled to a grant from the Home Office to cover 75% of the costs of these centres but little if any new money was made available to the Home Office for this. So something had to give and the RGHQ estate was an obvious target. This meant that the start of RGHQs 8.1 and 10.1 would now be delayed, possibly until 1986-87 and the work to reinforce 6.2 put back despite the need to have this, the only existing RGHQ in 6 Region, operational. Dover was no longer included in the lists of RGHQs but the new site referred to either as Crowborough or Kings Standing was included from mid-1984. Preliminary discussions on conversion of the Crowborough site (at an estimated cost of £1.13m - a long way from the £647,000 the Home Office originally had to spend) had started in early 1984. When construction eventually started the completion date kept slipping back, possibly because of the perennial problem of funding. Table 3 shows the state of the RGHQ estate in 1984.
|Due for completion within the next 12 months|
|Existing sites due for major refurbishment which could be used in an emergency|
|4.1||Bawburgh (due to start 1985-86 for £620k)|
|5.1||Kelvedon Hatch (due to start 1985-86 for £570k)|
|Projects not yet started|
|6.1||Crowborough (due to start 1985-86 budget £1m)|
|8.1||Llandudno Junction (due to start 1985-86 budget £1.26m)|
|10.1||Site to be found to replace Stockport (start 1987-88, budget £1.5m)|
|Table 3 - Status of the English and Welsh RGHQs at the end of 1984|
As well as their role as centres of regional administration and government the RGHQs were a key hub in the government communication network which would come into operation with the implementation of regional government. At this time the RGHQs had communication links to neighbouring RGHQs, UKWMO (Royal Observer Corps), regional Armed Forces Headquarters (AFHQ), BBC local radio offices, BBC transmitter sites, county main and standby emergency centres and BT exchanges. The post-strike radio links to the AFHQs and RGHQs, a system known as CONRAD, would also allow the RGHQ to contact the central government nucleus. The loss of Dover meant for example that the 4 county council main emergency centres (and their reserves) would not be able to communicate with each other or with other RGHQs. By November 1984 these lines were connected to 6.2 although the counties were not told. When new message switching communications equipment was installed in the RGHQs in 1989 the switch destined for 6.1 had to be temporarily set up in 6.2.
The Crowborough bunker appears to have been handed over to the Home Office in 1989. However, there are suggestions that water seepage problems delayed completion of the final communications fit and it is possible that this replacement RGHQ 6.1 was never fully operational before all expenditure on the RGHQs was stopped in 1990 with the end of the cold war.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
This study has concentrated on RGHQs in England and Wales. For completeness Scotland and Northern Ireland should be mentioned. They also had SRHQ/RGHQs but they were controlled at the local level by the administrations in those two countries although the UK government’s Home Defence Committee was responsible for ensuring that all the RGHQs wherever they were fitted into the national pattern. Before the 1980 review Scotland had 3 Zone Headquarters (ZHQ) at Barnton Quarry, East Kilbride and Anstruther working to a Scottish Central Control at Kirknewton. After the review the East Kilbride and Barnton Quarry sites were disposed of leaving Kirknewton as the South ZHQ and Anstruther the North. However, neither was considered satisfactory and plans were made to replace them. In 1986 building work started on a new northern RGHQ at Cultybraggan which was completed in 1991. A site for the southern headquarters was purchased near Galashiels but the plan was abandoned. In 1992 Anstruther was disposed of and in the following year Cultybraggan was transferred to the MoD.
The situation in Northern Ireland is unclear but in 1983 3 civil defence centres were planned to house the teams for a RGHQ, a reserve RGHQ and 4 area controls. The RGHQ was built at Ballymena and completed in 1989. Plans for the other 2 sites, at Craigavon and Omagh were not pursued.
The end of the RGHQs
With the end of the cold war the original requirement for hardened bunkers ended although there were some debates about what to do with them. Should they, for example, be retained to serve as communications centres in the event of some national emergency? In 1991 the Home Office made a final assessment of its RGHQs prior to determining what should be done with them and Table 4 shows the state English and Welsh RGHQ estate at that time. However, the RGHQs had really become expensive white elephants and in 1992 they were all disposed of. The Crowborough bunker was transferred to Sussex Police and they have used the site and the bunker for training and occasionally as the site of “Gold Control” for major civil incidents.
|Considered to be operational|
|Non-operational but in a reasonable state|
|10.1||replacement for Stockport|
|Table 4 - The RGHQ estate (England and Wales) in 1991|