The War Game: Civil Defence

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Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War the British Government turned its attention to the realities of an impending confrontation with the USSR. The somewhat comprehendible devastation of atomic weapons, however, quickly surpassed by the advent of the Hydrogen Bomb (also known as thermonuclear weapons). This new age of ‘atomic warfare’ heralded a completely different scale of devastation which was orders of magnitude worse than that seen or imagined before.

This week on the podcast we discussed Peter Watkins’ seminal 1966 nuclear war film ‘The War Game‘. We were joined by Julie McDowall and we dug into the story and background to the film. One element we discussed what Watkins’ preparation and research.

The British government had published a series of information pamphlets during the 1950s which were predominantly aimed at those organising what was optimistically known as ‘Civil Defence’. From reading these pamphlets it quickly becomes apparent that following even a fairly limited thermonuclear exchange there would be little of civilization left to defend. Below are some photos from an original Civil Defence pamphlet, that I own. It was published in 1956 and is one of the first government publications which discusses the effects of the ‘H-Bomb’.

The contents page shows the various effects, impacts and ‘protections’ Civil Defence personnel could expect (Matthew Moss)

We don’t know if Peter Watkins had access to this or similar pamphlets while researching for the film but we do know the government were reluctant to give him direct access to government experts and materials. These pamphlets would have been relatively easy to get hold of and were not classified. Indeed this one could be purchased for 2 Shillings and 6 pence.

The first chapter looks at the ‘features of nuclear explosions’. Documenting the different types of ‘burst’ or explosion – being air or ground, an important differentiation as it impacts the amount of radioactive fall out.

The features of a nuclear explosion (Matthew Moss)

Chapter three is titled “Nuclear Radiation Hazards” and documents the various effects of alpha, beta, gamma and neutron radiation. The chapter discusses what offers protection from radiation and the distances it can reach depending on the bomb’s yield and of course lethal dose thresholds.

Radiation hazards (Matthew Moss)

At the centre of the pamphlet is a section with various photographs taken during atomic and hydrogen bomb testing, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of some of the Civil Defence equipment. The last photo shows a diagram of the likely path of fall out from a ground burst nuclear bomb hitting the northwest of the UK – a single bomb would have contaminated a vast swathe of the country.

Rather handily the pamphlet tells you how to protect against fall out contamination. Some strong books, gloves a scarf and a beret should do the trick – with the caveat of course that this offers no protection against gamma radiation! Note how the Civil Defence worker on the right had tide his cuffs tight with string.

Protective clothing for Civil Defence personnel (Matthew Moss)

Finally, we have a very useful diagram showing the effects of a 10 megaton ground burst bomb at various distances. It details what Civil Defence personnel can expect to encounter from ground zero to 20 miles out. Fires, blast damage, lethal radiation doses and debris and the heat and flash effect.

The effects of a 10 megaton ground burst bomb (Matthew Moss)

It makes extremely grim reading which Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1966) perfectly brings to the screen. It was documents like this and discussion with experts which Watkins based the scenes in the film on. What the reality of a full-scale nuclear war would or would have been like we do not know. But the devastation would surely have been beyond our imagination.

I also did a quick little video flicking through the pamphlet on my YouTube channel, you can watch that below:

Listen to our episode on ‘The War Game’ here

Matthew Moss

Matthew Moss

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