Where Did The Government Go

In the late 1930s, as war loomed, government planners contemplated the effects of a massive and sustained air attack on London - effects that were expected to be as bad as later envisaged from an attack with atomic weapons. The effects would be widespread. As well as the immediate loss of life and damage to buildings would be the general disruption caused by for example the loss of communications infrastructure and the inability of people to travel. As well as the immediate effects on the civil population which were met by Air Raid Precaution measures the government had to ensure that its operations which were then firmly based on central London could continue. These activities termed “continuity of government” or “the machinery of government in war” could cover many levels of the governmental and administrative machine. At the top is the decision making apparatus centred on the War Cabinet with the heads of the armed forces and advisors. Below them, at national level would be the various layers of the civil service together with quasi-governmental bodies like the BBC, General Post Office, British Railways, etc who would implement and add to those decisions. Consideration would also need to be given to the continued operation of the monarchy and Parliament. Probably around 150000 people fell into these categories and this number would rise steadily during the war.

The initial plan was to relocate the machinery of government to the suburbs of north and northwest London. A bombproof citadel known as PADDOCK was built at Dollis Hill for the War Cabinet with supporting bunkers at Cricklewood and Harrow. The bulk of the civil servants would be accommodated in neighbouring schools and colleges left empty by evacuation.

The plan was however changed. Now, the seat of government was to remain in London for as long as possible and protected accommodation was developed. The most famous was the bunker under the New Public Buildings (also known as George Street) which was partly occupied by the Cabinet War Room. Other citadels were developed, notably the Admiralty Citadel which was in fact built illegally on part of St James’s Park and the “Rotundas” which were built off Horseferry Road in the massive holes originally dug in the previous century for gas holders. As well as these citadels a series of reinforced “steel framed buildings” were constructed in central London.

Although the upper levels of government would remain in London to act as a “nucleus” the plan was to evacuate the majority of civil servants, mainly to seaside resorts that would have empty hotel accommodation. In this way for example the Ministry of Agriculture established a major presence at Colwyn Bay. This was the “yellow move”, but a last ditch “black move” was also planned should London become unusable or threatened by invasion. Under this plan the nucleus would relocate to planned accommodation in the west midlands eg the War Cabinet would move to Hindlip House near Worcester and Parliament to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The “black move” was not implemented but it was reconsidered in 1943 in the face of bombardment from what would become the V-weapons. By this time there was sufficient citadel and steel framed building accommodation to accommodate around 10000 key personnel in central London under what were called “Crossbow conditions”. If the bombardment became severe and prolonged non-essential workers would be stood down whilst the nucleus would live and work in the citadels and basements. The Cabinet War Room would still be the hub. Accommodating around 400 its main function was to collect and process information about all aspects of the national and world situation, to brief the decision-makers and then disseminate those decisions. However it was realised that the bunker was not bomb proof and the Horseferry Road Rotundas, code named ANSON, were developed for Churchill, his family and the War Cabinet. ANSON could accommodate up to 2000 people under a concrete slab twelve feet thick. Supporting the various citadels was a series of communications tunnels dug under Whitehall to carry the vital telephone and telegraph cables linking them to each other and the outside world.

When planning began for World War 3 in 1948 the initial idea was that the government would remain in London as before although there would be a partial evacuation of up to 20000 civil servants. This move however was not to protect them but to free up accommodation for the expected expansion of government and the influx of allied staffs. By 1950 the plan had evolved. The bulk of the civil servants would now progressively leave as conditions required but the nucleus of government would for practical and morale reasons remain in London using the same citadels and steel framed buildings as before. The nucleus was restricted to the 5800 these buildings could accommodate and would consist of essential people from the government, civil service and armed forces together with representatives from allied governments and bodies such as the Bank of England, Boards of Nationalised Industries, the Red Cross, TUC and major companies such as ICI.

The strategic thinking at this time was that World War 3 would be a prolonged struggle like its predecessor. The A-bomb would devastate the centre of some cities, notably London, but the citadels were considered proof against it. The need was for the government machine to continue indefinitely in the face of the bombardment so as well as plans to protect the nucleus plans were made for government departments and related bodies throughout the country to continue to operate in a process known as “due functioning”. These activities would be assisted by hardened communications links such as the underground telephone and telegraph switching centre in Holborn and the Backbone microwave relay chain.

Parallel with these plans for the continuity of government a new civil defence organisation was developed. The country continued to be divided for the purpose into regions each lead by a Regional Commissioner operating from a new purpose built protected Regional War Room. The Regional Commissioner’s main function was to direct the life saving activity of the civil defence organisations but if necessary he could, in a repeat of World War ll plans assume all the powers of central government and run the region. This was however only expected to be for a short period if communications were disrupted. The Regional War Rooms would report to a Central Government War Room. The plans for this appear to have been somewhat tentative but it would probably been established in the Rotundas and perform the same role as the old Cabinet War Room.

By 1954 the hydrogen bomb was beginning to enter the equation. The planners under Thomas Padmore, who had been involved with the planning since 1948, continued to think in terms of the nucleus operating from London but now government responsibilities would be delegated much more to the regions eg the regional offices of Ministries. But, as a safeguard a reserve protected seat of government would be developed away from the capital known initially as SUBTERFUGE and which would take over should the nucleus in London be unable to function.

But whilst Padmore was considering the immediate effect of the H-bomb on the “machinery of government in war” the Strath Committee was considering its wider effects. Their report is still classified but it concluded that just ten 10 megaton H-bombs hitting British cities would cause such destruction and, more importantly, produce so much radioactive fall-out that normal life and normal government activity would become impossible and these effects would last for months, possibly years. As a result much of Britain’s defence planning was radically reconsidered. The delegation of government operations to the regions would be increased and the role of the Regional Commissioner increased. He would now operate from a joint Civil-Military Headquarters with a staff of around 300. More significantly, London would be abandoned as the seat of government. The nucleus of government would now move to the SUBTERFUGE site late in the pre-war precautionary period. This nucleus would discharge only those core activities such as war fighting and control of strategic supplies which could not be done at regional level. It would also give strategic direction to the Regional Commissioners.

SUBTERFUGE was developed at Corsham near Bath using a massive underground factory built during the last war. Planning and building however proceeded slowly and it was not until 1957 that the basic accommodation for the planned 4000 staff was nearing completion. The massive communications system requiring over 1000 staff was however not completed until 1962 and possibly was never fully operational. Tentative plans were made to occupy the site in 3 days but, except for a few senior members, the designated personnel were never warned of their expected wartime role, nor, for reasons of security, were exercises held there. As a reserve a second site was planned at Rhydymwyn in north Wales using tunnels dug during the last war to store poison gas but these plans were never developed.

Slowly it was realised that the chaotic conditions which would follow the immediate and all-out attack with H-bombs which was expected at the start of a war would not just paralyse the country temporarily; the effects would last for months if not years. SUBTERFUGE would only be able to give at best a general direction to the country. Consequently, the regions were seen as even more vital as the effective level from which central government would operate and their capabilities were extended. From the early 1960s, the Regional Commissioners would be government Ministers and would have full powers to govern their regions from new hardened Regional Seats of Government (RSGs) each with a staff of around 430. RSGs were introduced in 1961 and shortly after a further tier, the Sub Regional Headquarters was introduced between the RSG and the local authorities at county level to allow the RSG to concentrate on strategic direction. In effect, the RSG would make policy, the SRHQ would decide how it would be implemented and then the local authority Controller (the peacetime Chief Clerk) would use the local government employees as the regional civil service. The operational role of the nucleus at BURLINGTON as the SUBTERFUGE site had been renamed by this time was now to act as the core seat of government for the survival and reconstruction and significantly to act as the alternative centre to London to authorise nuclear retaliation. It would house the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff and their advisors and secretariat staffs together with elements from the various ministries, BBC, etc. If knocked out the senior RSG would take over as the central government for what was left of the country. There was no place for Parliament in this system. Its role would be to vote through the pre-drafted emergency legislation giving full power to the war cabinet and Regional Commissioners and then disperse.

The Berlin and Cuban crises in 1961 and 1962 showed that the world could move from peace to war in a much shorter period than previously envisaged. Consequently, plans were now to be based on a warning or “precautionary period” of only 2 - 3 days. This would not give time to man the emergency central government war headquarters which was now called TURNSTILE and consequently the single site idea was abandoned in favour of one based on PYTHON GROUPS. Up to eight such groups would be set up in the precautionary period, each consisting of up to 150 people under a senior minister designated to act as Prime Minister and supported by 2 other ministers. The groups would be dispersed throughout the country and have their own army radio system (CONRAD) to link them and also connect them to the Regional Commissioners. At the same time the idea of manning the RSGs pre-attack was also abandoned due to manning problems and the fact they were now expected to be specifically targeted but also because of the constant restricting problem which had affected the effectiveness of all civil defence measures for years - that of cost.

The idea was now that the Sub-Regional Headquarters (now renamed Sub Regional Controls) would be set up pre-strike. The Regional Commissioner and his staff would disperse in groups around the region and when conditions permitted would gather at an “accretion point” to establish what would effectively be the capital for the region and try to set up a regional central government. Similarly the surviving PYTHON GROUPS would come together, possibly at the TURNSTILE site to form a limited national government.

In 1968 civil defence was mothballed. At the time the “machinery of government in war” would have been based initially on the SRCs which would have been tasked with picking up the pieces. The RSGs and central government nucleus would then be set up as conditions permitted to provide a semblance of central government based on regional structures This information is all based on files from the Public Record Office although many details remain classified. No files are yet available for the period after 1970 but the available evidence suggests that the PYTHON idea continued at least into the 1980s. The plans for the regional level of government also continued but by 1984 the idea of a regional seat of government established post-attack was abandoned. From now on the Regional Commissioner would be based from the outset in one of the regional government headquarters (RGHQs), the former Sub Regional Headquarters/Sub Regional Controls, in the region. He would continue to govern the region concentrating on policy making until some form of national government could be established, either from witnin the RGHQ structure or a re-appearance of the Prime Minister, to give some limited national policy once communications allowed. The implementation of these decisions would be the responsibility of the local government Controllers at County and District level as had been the case since the mid-1960s. As in the 1960s emergency legislation was drafted to legitimise the delegation of all government powers at both national and local level to the Regional Commissioners and Controllers.

The main change in the 1980s was the increasing emphasis on providing government in war before a nuclear attack in what was known as the “transition to war and conventional war” period. The initial idea was to use the regional headquarters but this was soon abandoned in favour of giving a war role to the Regional Emergency Committees (or RECs). These dormant bodies consisting of representatives of government departments, the emergency services, armed forces, etc had existed in for decades ready to respond to a civil emergency but they were now to be tasked with co-ordinating wartime government activity at regional level. At central government level the idea was still to set up departmental “control points” overseen by a Central Government Control Point. This would no doubt be established in one of the emergency facilities in the capital such as the PINDAR communications and conference centre built in the 1980s under the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

With the end of the Cold War plans for civil defence and with it the infrastructure for regional government was were rapidly scrapped. Local authorities and government departments no longer maintain active plans for home defence.

This article is based on research for my 2 books on the history of Cold War civil defence - Control Chain and Plan for Survival.