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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Nuclear attack? Wear stout shoes
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online

hydrogen bomb poster
The public had to be informed without being "scared stupid"
The question of how to cope if terrorists strike is one of today's worries. Forty years ago people were coming to terms with a different threat - a nuclear attack. So how did the authorities expect them to cope if the worst happened?

"Stout shoes", whitewash and warm overcoats were to be the main line of defence against an atomic strike for Britain's civilian population during the Cold War.

The advice on how to survive a nuclear winter was issued in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of nuclear war closer than ever before.

Civil defence plans had written off the chances of those living in the immediate vicinity of an attack. Instead, the advice focused on improving the chances of those who lived further away from the initial blasts.

What to do if you live in flats or bungalows

An information booklet, Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack, was published to tell people how they could survive atomic war.

The leaflet forms the basis for an exhibition, Secret State, which opens next week at the National Archives in London. While its tone may seem naive from today's standpoint, it is at the same time reassuringly homely.

'Travelling rug'

The precautions for leaving the house after an "H-bomb" sound more like advice for a chilly day in the Home Counties, rather than the beginning of a nuclear winter.

People are reminded to take a "travelling rug" with them if they have to flee their homes - and drivers are asked to offer a lift to their neighbours.

Fall out
Advice about the risks of nuclear war was issued in 1963

"If you have to go outside put on gumboots or stout shoes, a hat or headscarf, coat done up to the neck, and gloves," readers are advised.

The preparations for an attack also emphasise how people could make their own homes safer, such as building an internal "fall-out room", sealed against radioactive dust.

Householders are told to use the cupboard under the stairs as a "core shelter" and that whitewashing the windows would "greatly reduce the fire risk by reflecting away much of the heat".

This advice was designed not to panic the public, giving the impression that nuclear weapons would not disrupt everyday life for long.

Striking a reassuring tone, the guidance talks of storing enough tinned food for a fortnight. And this eerie image of post-nuclear normality is continued with a picture of a man in a cardigan cradling a cat - and the message "Do not forget your pets."

There are no images of death, injury or treating radiation sickness - except a reminder to pack a first-aid kit with aspirin, bandages and a "four ounce packet of baking powder".

Bunker staff

But there were other official preparations under way which showed more starkly what was really expected.

People were told to put on "gumboots or stout shoes"

The exhibition has documents showing what government departments really anticipated from war.

While householders were being told to stock up on sensible clothing, the minister of housing and local government was making preparations for "disposal of the dead", mass homelessness, house demolition and maintaining the water supply.

There is also a fascinating confidential letter which was to be given to civil servants assigned to work in underground bunkers during wartime.

To be issued when a nuclear attack was imminent, it set out instructions for travelling to an undisclosed "headquarters" - probably one of the 12 seats of regional government from which the country would be run.

"You are one of a number of officers who have been selected for duty at an important wartime headquarters. So far as anyone can say at the moment, you may be there for about one month."

Staff were to be told to go straight home, collect a few personal belongings and to "make whatever financial arrangements you find necessary". Presumably this meant signing a will and saying goodbye.

Underground headquarters

They were then to be ordered to return immediately to receive directions to the "headquarters". The location and purpose of their work was to be kept secret, with communication with their families to be by post.

Whitewashing windows was a protection against "heat flash"

Even though this letter would have been issued in the most extreme of circumstances, it still has a bureaucratic obsession with detail, explaining how pay would be arranged and who to contact about getting an advance ("not in excess of 5 in any one week").

It also advised that "facilities for entertainment or recreation at the headquarters will be limited" and that people travelling to the secret "headquarters" should bring a packed lunch.

Stephen Twigge, head of research at the National Archives, says the documents reveal the mixed attitudes towards preparing for the threat of war.

Government hideaway

The authorities wanted to give the public useful advice - but "without scaring them stupid".

Officials had private forecasts of 12m deaths if Britain was attacked

There were also those within government who thought it was a waste of time planning for what would be complete devastation.

Mr Twigge says there were confidential forecasts that 12 million would die in the initial attacks, with many more to follow. And as such, the Treasury argued that civil defence booklets were a waste of money on what could only be a "cosmetic" exercise.

Another unknown factor for planners, he says, was how many of the 5,000 to 6,000 staff selected for working in the bunkers would really have left their families and gone underground.

The exhibition has documents showing references to the proposed wartime seat of government, believed to be in a former underground factory in the west country.

Looking at parallels with contemporary terror fears, he says it has been a constant dilemma for governments to find ways to advise the public about threats, without panicking them by showing how vulnerable they are to disaster.

The Secret State exhibition runs from 2 April to 14 August at The National Archives in Kew.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I lived most of my childhood in genuine fear of a four-minute warning and often used to mentally plan what I would do with that time, depending where I was (at school, at home etc). Even as a child I thought hiding under the stairs was not going to work. My biggest fear was dying without my parents. Or losing a pet because of food shortages!
Naomi, UK

Although the threat of nuclear war seems less prominent now than in the 1960s the danger is still very real, and our defence against attack is still near to useless.
Peter, UK

I was 13 at the time and, like most children of that age, was oblivious to the sense of fear felt by adults that must have existed at the time. Reading about it now, it all seems so bizarre but gives food for thought. What if......?
Bob Richards, United Kingdom

In the early 1980s when I was secondary school in Croydon we had nuclear bomb drills, where the local sirens would go off and our teachers would instruct us to hide under the desks. Apparently a 1 inch thick melamine desk can protect you from a nuclear blast!
Liz Grayson, UK

The gumboot and sensible coat advice wouldn't have seemed so odd in the 60s. I recall a hosue fire and several burglary spates when I was growing up in London. Each time the men were out is overcoats and wellies - as if they would afford them some protection against flames or assailants. My father was among them and generally would don gumboots and his cap for taking charge - perhaps big boots gave him confidence.
Duncan , UK

I remember being woken up at dawn one morning in the mid 1970s by my parents who took me downstairs to the front door. I remember the droning sound of the 'warning' siren droning and although I didn't know what it was, I can still picture the look of horror on their (my parents) faces.It was years later that my parents explained that the siren turned out to be a newly installed emergency signal at the local chemical factory, and that it was set off accidentally by an over-enthusiastic cleaner!
Alan, England

Reading this article I am struck by how little things change. I recently sat on a pan-London contingency-planning team, and heard the cosy "get in, stay in, tune in" adice given to the public, and yet also heard confidential information about handly little "inflatable morturaries" that could be set up in a matter of hours in London open spaces to cope with the vast numbers of expected dead in the event of a terrorist attack. I can't help but wonder what the dire consequences of this "public panic" might be - other than the suggestion from the public that perhaps people other than government officials might possibly be given the option of surviving a terrorist attrocity, if that's not too much trouble?
E. Wild, London

I worked on the communications links in some of the civil defence bunkers during my time in the army during the 70s. I came to the conclusion that the best place to be during a nuclear attack was at ground zero.
Chris, UK

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