UK Cold War Evacuation Plans



During the Cold War the UK Government devised a number of plans for evacuating its cities if a nuclear attack seemed imminent. Some of these plans became public knowledge at the time. One chilling plan did not. It was kept secret because it involved trapping people in cities so that, in the event of a nuclear war, they would be killed and not prove an unsupportable burden on the survivors in the countryside.

Attack Scenarios

Several exercises were staged to try and assess the likely casualties from a Warsaw Pact nuclear attack on the UK.

1980 – Exercise Square Leg. This scenario assumed that the country would be attacked with 69 ground burst and 62 air burst nuclear warheads [air bursts cause less fallout] with a total yield of 205 megatons. Square Leg estimated that such an attack would result in 29 million dead (53% of the population) and 6.4 million seriously injured.

Operation Square Leg map

Operation Square Leg map

1982 – Exercise Hard Rock. This exercise assumed that there would be a conventional war in Europe lasting 2–3 days, during which the United Kingdom would be attacked with conventional weapons, then a limited nuclear exchange with 54 warheads being used against military targets in the UK. This limited The limited scenario estimated casualties of 7.9 million dead and 5 million injured. It was claimed that likely targets were removed from the scenario for political reasons. For example the nuclear submarine base HMNB Clyde [near Glasgow] was removed from the target list. There are several important nuclear targets close to Glasgow and they would certainly have been attacked with multiple warheads. Such an attack would have resulted in many millions of dead in Scotland.

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Police shooting looters post attack

Evacuation Plans

Given that a nuclear attack could kill tens of millions in British cities the government had to consider what its policies should be regarding evacuation.

Privileged Classes Plan

dispersal pass

Evacuation Pass

One plan proposed the following ‘privileged classes’ should be evacuated.

Children under 18. Those under 15 would be accompanied by their mothers. Children at boarding schools and similar establishments would travel in organised parties. Expectant mothers. The blind, crippled, etc.

This plan was obviously nonsense because –

1. It would be logistically impossible to move so many people.

2. The countryside [small towns and villages] did not have the facilities to support so many dependent people.

3. The plan would have saved people incapable of supporting themselves and left the young and able bodied to die in the cities.

Free to Flee Plan

A second plan was to allow a free for all. Anybody who could get out of the cities would be allowed to do so. This was also nonsense since the countryside only had the food and facilities to support the people who lived there. The millions fleeing from the cities would have stripped the countryside of food like a plague of locusts. Then everybody would have starved to death.

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Putting lime on bodies to prevent disease

The Containment Plan

A third plan was devised [but not revealed at the time]. People would be contained in cities by having the police and army close all roads out of the cities. If a city was destroyed the people in it would be destroyed as well and would not need to be fed. The people in the countryside would then have a chance of survival. There was a list of people who would be warned to evacuate before the barriers went up.

An added attraction of the plan was that most senior members of the government [politicians and civil servants] had houses outside cities. It was accepted that some people would escape but the vast majority would be locked in by barriers and traffic jams. The Containment Plan became unofficial government policy until the Cold War ended.

As that great British civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, said – ‘The history of the world is the history of the triumph of the heartless over the mindless.”

Link to ‘The War Game’ film

Link to ‘Threads’ film


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