The spying that went on in London and other cities was all part of a vast, complex game; an exercise in which the two mighty superpowers strived to gain the upperhand over one another.
Thankfully (and amazingly) the conflict they anticpiated for some 40 years never came to fruition.
Authorities in both the East and West made preperations for a predicted Third World War; a conflict which would have seen the use of nuclear weapons and would surely have slain civilization has we know it.
The British government were under no illusion- in a global nuclear war, London would have been a primary target. As such, covert preperations were made; plans which sought to protect the upper echelons of government and maintain command over whatever ruins were left.
Most of these plans were, of course, carried out in utter secrecy. However, if you know where to look, evidence of these candlestine preperations can still be seen in London today.
Let’s begin this tour with something a little out of the ordinary.
During the Cold War, East and West were locked in an arms race, both sides amassing vast stockpiles of the ultimate boys toys; everything from nuclear submarines to inter-continental ballistic missiles.
Thousands of tanks were also accumalated on each side of the divide; guns bristling and catterpillar tracks ready to rumble out in a head-to-head across the plains of Europe should war ever break out.
One such tank; a Soviet model, can be seen in London. Not in a museum as you might expect, but in a rather more unlikely setting…
The tank in question is a Russian ‘T34’, and it can be found on the junction of Mandela Way and Pages Walk; backstreets off of the Old Kent Road.
The tank has quite a chequered history. It saw active service during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when it was brutally rolled out to surpress peaceful protests against the leadership of the USSR.
Some 27 years later, the tank was put to more creative use when it was brought to London and employed as an extra on a film version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ (starring Ian Mckellen and featuring scenes filmed at Battersea Power Station).
After its thespian role, the tank was purchased by Russell Gray; a property developer. The story goes that Southwark Council had refused Gray permission to build upon the land he owned, so, as a sort of spiteful protest, Gray took the tank and plonked it down on the empty plot, where it remains to this day.
Over the past few years, the tank has provided a canvas for various street-artists; each one creating their own fetching design for the old Cold War relic. The tank is also nicknamed ‘Stompie’, in honour of Stompie Seipei, the 14 year old South African youth who was brutally murdered in Soweto in 1989.
‘The Kingsway Exchange’
Had the Cold War ever become hot, the reprucusions for the UK would have been grim to say the least.
As a small island, densely packed with cities and military instillations, sandwiched between the USA and the USSR, Britain would have been devastated in a nuclear war, the death toll running into tens of millions, with the less fortunate survivors suffering from horrendous burns, injuries and radiation sickness.
The authorities realised this of course, and many bunkers were constructed across the UK in preparation for a Third World War. The sole purpose of these deep-level shelters was to protect the machinery of government, both at a national and local level, and space in such strongholds was strictly reserved for a limited number of politicians and civil servants.
Having said that, the bureaucrats did have our interests at heart to some extent. In 1980, they released a short booklet to the public, entitled ‘Protect and Survive’. Priced at 50p, the pamphlet suggested ways in which to safeguard oneself against nuclear blast and radioactive fallout; mainly by utilizing doors, tea-chests and cushions- rather like a child building an indoor den on a wet weekend!
A series of videos were also produced. However, unlike the Protect and Survive booklet, these were never released to the public and were only intended to be shown during a period of international crisis in which war appeared inevitable. If such an occasion arose, normal TV programing would have been suspended, replaced by the BBC’s ‘Wartime Broadcasting Service’ in which the 20 videos would have been played on a constant loop. As you can see from this example, they were grim, eerie and, with their unsettling electronic jingle, did little to boost confidence:
Whilst we above ground struggled with makeshift protection and dinky, ‘Playschool’ esque advice, the privileged few would have been tucked up in their deep shelters, ready to bear witness to the end of civilisation as we knew it.
Although the majority of fortifications (such as the vast ‘Burlington’ complex in Wiltshire) were built in the countryside, evidence of bunker building can be spotted in London today; perhaps the most well-known amongst bunker-buffs being the ‘Kingsway Exchange.’
The Kingsway dates back to that other rapid period of shelter building; World War Two. It is formed by a series of long tunnels, stretching beneath Holborn, roughly in sync, and running below the London Underground’s Central line (apparently, the bunker is actually connected to Chancery Lane tube station via a private stair-case).
Evidence of the bunker is revealed in these ventilation shafts, which quietly stand guard as commuters rush by.
The Kingsway exchange was originally constructed towards the end of WWII in order to house government staff- civil servants from the Ministry of Works and London Civil Defence controllers. Experts from the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (a branch of M16, set up to help Resistance fighters battling the Nazis), were also granted office space here.
The squirriling away of these workers beside a busy tube station was not unique; General Eisenhower had his protected head-quarters located in a shelter beside Goodge Street station (just off of Tottenham Court Road).
After WWII, and with the emerging Cold War threat of atomic attack, the Kingsway was expanded and beefed up. Ownership of the bunker was transferred to the General Post Office (GPO) who, at that time, were also responsible for telecommunications.
A large telephone exchange was set-up deep within the complex and a large percentage of civilian calls made from London passed through here.
More covertly, the London terminal of ‘TAT 1’; a transatlantic telephone cable, linked to the United States was established in the secure tunnel. This came online in 1956.
Because of this important communication link, the Kingsway Exchange played a key part in providing the infamous ‘hotline’ which connected the White House to the Kremlin.
At its height, some 200 people worked in the Kingsway Exchange and in order to cater for this large workforce, the bunker contained a canteen and a bar- which claimed to be the deepest in the UK.
The fortification below Holborn also boasted its own artesian well, and fuel tanks capable of holding 22,000 gallons which meant, in the event of a nuclear strike, it could be locked down and run for up to six weeks.
The GPO Tower
Back above ground, the GPO were also responsible for building a far more well-known London landmark- the ‘GPO Tower’ …. Otherwise known as the ‘Post Office Tower’ or, as it’s called today… the ‘B.T Tower’.
For some 15 years, the GPO Tower was the tallest building in London (superseded by the NatWest Tower) and remains a famous site today, visible from many parts of the city.
The GPO Tower was celebrated for its revolving restaurant (run by holiday-camp giant ‘Butlins’ no less!), which made one complete revolution every 22 minutes. Sadly, due to security concerns, the restaurant was closed in 1980, and the public have been refused access to the landmark ever since (with the exception of the annual ‘Open House Weekend’, when those wishing to visit must provide security details before entering a lottery-draw to win one of the coveted tickets).
Despite being firmly embedded as a household name and major London landmark towering over the city, there is something rather surprising about the GPO Tower….
Until 1993, it was classed as an official state secret!
This covert status meant that it was not allowed to appear on any map. Taking photographs was also a no-no, and its address on Maple Street in Fitzrovia, was classified!
Why was this?
Well, the GPO Tower was in fact a key link in a system known as the ‘microwave network’ (nothing to do with the type of microwave you use at home to serve up a ready-made curry of course!)
Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data- some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the UK from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).
Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, ‘Backbone’ and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.
Quite how this would have worked, I’m not so sure- considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing…
The route of London Underground’s Victoria Line (also constructed in the 1960s), runs considerably close beneath the BT Tower, and urban legends abound suggesting that it is secretly connected in some way. As is Buckingham Palace… but I suppose that’s another story altogether!
Going back below ground, there is inevitabely a myriad of tunnels beneath Whitehall, the seat of government.
However, although the exsistence of such a complex is taken as red, the exact details on what exsists are a little shadier.
The most documented facility below Westminster is a series of tunnels known as ‘Q Whitehall.’
Like the Kingsway exchange, Q Whitehall began life in WW2, and was extended during the 1950s. Documents related to the Cold War extension are still classed as secret, and will not be made public until 2026!
Essentially though, the tunnels which make up the Q Whitehall network are service tunnels, carrying secure communication cables and connecting various government departments. It stretches all along Whitehall, right up to Trafalgar Square- in fact, one of the entry points to the system is rumoured to be via Craig’s Court; a tiny alleyway less than 200 feet away from the Square.
As the development of nuclear weapons progressed from atom bombs to hydrogen bombs, it began to dawn upon politicians that a major city centre would perhaps not be the safest place to be during a nuclear war. The main government war HQ was therefore established outside of London; moving to Corsham near Bath, where a truly vast bunker; a small, underground town, was established and was only declassified in 2004.
Pear Tree House
Although central government would have fled the capital in the event of a nuclear war, local authorities were expected to stay behind and take care of their boroughs. Each council was required to provide their own shelter; most of which would have been rather makeshift affairs, hastily set up in the basements of town halls and civic centres.
If a Third World War ever did break out, plans were drawn up which would have involved the UK being divided into regional sectors; each forming a mini-kingdom of sorts, where the controller would have wielded total power.
London was designated as ‘Region 5’ and, due to its size, was sub-divided into four different sectors, each with its own purpose built bunker- one in Wanstead (North-East group), one in Southall (North-West group; the bunker being built beneath a school!), one in Cheam (South-West group) and one at Crystal Palace (South-East group).
If you know where to look, the Crystal Palace bunker is still clearly visible and is one of the most unusual buildings in London…
Built in 1966, the bunker sits right in the middle of the large, Central Hill Estate… and right beneath a block of flats! The land upon which it sits was reclaimed from an old, WW2 bomb crater, created by one of Hitler’s ‘V2’ rockets; the prelude to the more advanced intercontinental missiles, which both the USA and USSR had poised at each other during the Cold War.
The flat-block is called ‘Pear Tree House’, and can be found tucked away on the corner of Hawke Road and Lunham Road. Eight, two-bedroom flats sit above the nuclear shelter- although, of course, none of the residents living in them would have been allowed access had the four-minute warning ever sounded.
Due to its blatant location, Pear Tree House attracted much attention from anti-nuclear groups, and was picketed by CND during the early 1980s; their protest posters plastered over the heavy blast doors.
The bunker remained active right up until 1993 and, by all accounts, little has changed inside, with paperwork strewn everwhere, and large, ominous bomb-plotting maps still tacked to the walls. The bunker’s communication aerials are also still in place, clearly visible on the block’s roof.
Pear Tree House, along with the three other shelters located within the London region, would have been answerable to a much larger bunker, which lay some 20 miles outside the city, deep within an Essex wood.
This bunker was known as ‘Kelvedon Hatch’, and was built to accommodate some 600 people. Constructed in the early 1950s, the bunker eventually became known as the ‘Sub-Regional Headquarters’ for London.
Essentially, this meant that if a nuclear war had ever struck the UK, Kelvedon Hatch would have been in charge of governing whatever was left of the Capital.
The fortified shelter (like other regional centres built around the UK), contained a fully kitted out BBC studio, from which the regional controller would have been able to broadcast instructions and information to survivors (although whether or not anyone above ground would have been alive to hear his words is debatable).
In the immediate hours following an attack, the broadcasts relayed from this subterranean BBC studio would have been pre-recorded and, in 2008, the National Archives declassified one such script. Taped in the 1970s, its words are chilling to say the least:
“This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible…
We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours’ time. Stay tuned to this wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.”
Safely stowed away in Kelvedon Hatch, the ‘Sub-Regional Commander’ (in peacetime, a high-ranking, local government councillor) would have been granted absolute power following a nuclear strike.
Emergency powers would have granted them the power to control food stockpiles (i.e withholding it from those who were ill or badly injured and therefore unable to work), rationing other commodities such as fuel, and organising survivors into conscripted work gangs. These workers would have been ordered to carry out all manner of tasks amongst the radioactive ruins; no doubt one of the jobs being the disposal of the countless dead.
Due to the high number of fatalities expected, sites for the largest mass-burial sites in London since the 1666 plague were earmarked; one of them being identified in this leaflet from 1982 (which can be viewed in the Imperial War Museum):
The Commander would also have been granted full control over law and order and, if any unlucky survivors happened to be caught looting amongst the rubble of London, emergency powers would have permitted their execution by firing squad.
Kelvedon Hatch, along with the rest of the UK bunker infrastructure, remained active right up until the early 1990s, and regular exercises were held in the Essex stronghold, in which the chosen few would spend the odd weekend acting out dress-rehersals for WW3.
Today, Kelvedon Hatch (which is just outside the Essex commuter town of Brentwood) is open to the public as a museum. If you fancy a visit though, be warned… it is an exceptionally creepy place, not helped by the fact that many of its rooms and displays are peopled by rather disturbing mannequins!
Thankfully of course, none of these sites were ever used for their intended purpose, and they now sit quietly in the background, oblivious to most people.
I’ll end this piece though with a chilling montage of how things could have turned out.
This brief clip is taken from a BBC documentary entitled ‘A Guide to Armageddon.’ Broadcast in 1982 as part of the scientific programme, ‘QED’, the terrifying episode examined what would happen to London if a 1-megaton nuclear warhead was exploded above St Paul’s Cathedral.
This clip is taken from the end credits and, using WW2 photos and primitive (although convincing) special effects, an imagined view of a nuclear-destroyed London is eerily captured. If you wish to view the entire programme, it is readily available on YouTube.
Don’t have nightmares!