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


1 Comment

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One response to “UK Cold War Evacuation Plans

  1. Mat

    The blog’s author probably knows the following tid-bit of information, but I’ll post it in case others find it interesting:

    One part of the shelter-in-place advice that the government gave to British citizens in the early 1980s (when I was a young boy, growing up in a small countryside town in Britain) was to construct a very shallowly-buried shelter not dissimilar to the WW2 Andersen Shelters erected in many British gardens – with the exception that the the cold war shelter would be a few feet more deeply buried in the earth.

    Another piece of advice was to stack materials such as a wooden door, couches, and books in such a manner as to produce a ‘den’ within a home, that would supposedly help cut down on the rads received by the occupants, sheltering ‘safe’ inside their den.

    Having read up on cold war civil defense since then, I’m aware that both concepts originate from the decades before the 80s. I’ve seen Soviet and US materials containing similar advice for citizens of the USSR and USA.

    However, even as a young boy, it seemed to me that the basic premise of such flimsy shelters was to ensure the convenient burial or cremation of anyone unfortunate enough to be caught up in the nuclear blast.

    A few years ago, I read an article by a chap who actually managed a nuclear bunker (now decommissioned) …and he said that persuading the population to make and hide in such shelters – in effect, getting them to willingly participate in their own self-cremation and self-burial – was, to the best of his knowledge, the actual intent of the government’s advice.

    Leaflets encouraged citizens to prepare their shelters well in advance of an actual blast, at times of heightened conflict or tension – for example, if a non-nuclear conflict broke out with Warsaw Pact forces. In other words: getting the turkeys to prepare for their own slaughter.

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