Keep Out! Britain's Forbidden Places by Edward Couzens-Lake
There are, at a rough estimate, around 1,575 former Royal Observer Corp facilities scattered throughout Great Britain. The one at the top of Mill Hill in my home village of Brancaster in Norfolk had always held a grim fascination for me, which made it an easy choice to use as an example when I wrote about these ROC sites in my new book Keep Out! Britain’s Forbidden Places.
The site at Brancaster was, like its 1,574 peers, managed and staffed by volunteer members of the ROC. This was a civil defence organisation whose core role was to detect, identify, track and report aircraft flying over Great Britain, primarily those who either weren’t where they were supposed to be at any given time or, on a rather more sinister level, weren’t meant to be there at all.
Nice work if you were a plane spotter. But the role of the ROC’s volunteers took a big step into a rather dark place towards the end of the 1950’s when their personnel were advised that, in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, they’d be expected, without question, to seal themselves into their observation posts in order to provide essential and on-going data on the position and magnitude of any atomic weapons that were detonated during the conflict as well as providing meteorological reports on wind speed and direction. There was, of course, sinister intent behind this seemingly innocent meteorological request as this data would have been used to estimate where and when any radioactive fallout might occur.
It all seems, in glorious hindsight, a rather pointless exercise. If Britain had ever been subjected to the full might of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal then you would hardly need a few doughty individuals holed up under the ground to let you know where some of them had gone off.
Atomic bombs are not the most subtle of weapons and if one detonates, say, even within 100 miles of where you might happen to be at the time, then you’re going to know all about it. But no, for even as the four horsemen of the apocalypse were saddling up their steeds, there would still be a need for reports to be made and paperwork to be filled in. Which meant that, if half a dozen or so nuclear detonations took place across East Anglia, boxes had to be ticked and duplicates made.
Not even Armageddon can foil bureaucracy.
Life in the bunker would have been very uncomfortable for the volunteers who’d signed on to carry out the grim work required. First and foremost, they would have had to be prepared, at very short notice, to walk away from their family and friends, knowing that it was almost certainly the last time they would have seen them.
There would have been many, despite all of their best intentions, who would not have been able to do this and, subsequently, would simply not have turned up for duty. For those that did, initial contact would either have been made by telephone or by a knock on the door, a designated ‘team leader’ having been advised directly, would have called in to pick them up by car. They would have been expected, *conditioned* to leave immediately. No questions asked and no formal goodbyes, just a hurried and unannounced departure.
The bunker would have been well stocked with supplies. The MoD used a shop in nearby Hunstanton for the facility in Brancaster as the shop owner would also have been a volunteer. Most of the supplies provided would have been items that would have lasted for a long time (eg) tinned food and preserves and could have been stored away easily. Other items would either have been bought fortnightly (eg) biscuits, whilst perishables such as bread and milk would have been topped up on a weekly basis with the overall objective being that there were enough supplies provided to sustain the team of volunteers for at least three, maybe four weeks.
At the very top of the entrance tunnel was a raised plinth that was reached by climbing up a few concrete steps. This served as a vantage point for a clear view northward towards the coast which was just over a mile away. Leaving the bunker in order to carry out all of their readings and observations would, ultimately, have exposed the volunteers to the radioactive fallout that they were there to report on meaning that, ultimately, they would have died in the course of their duties.
A grim reality of this was the fact that, if one of them was dangerously and obviously exposed, it is probable that his or her colleagues would have refused them re-entry into the relatively (as its air was unfiltered and radioactive material would, eventually, have made its way in) safe and sealed world of the bunker.
A truly remarkable and very courageous group of people whose training was, ultimately, never required to be put into serious action.
Edward Couzens-Lake's new book Keep Out! Britain's Forbidden Places is available for purchase now.