Hack Green Nuclear Bunker
By Chrissy Brand
Published in Radio Active (January 2003)
“Right under the noses of the one million inhabitants of Cheshire lurks a secret government building; Hack Green Nuclear Bunker”
From the late 1970s and through the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the British government invested in Cruise Missile systems and extravagent Home Defence plans in the form of underground nuclear bunkers to house key military personnel and civil servants, should the unthinkable happen.
Cold War in Cheshire
The success operation of the system of nuclear bunkers installed across the United Kingdom, and other NATO territories, depended upon the latest communications devices. In the peaceful surroundings of Cheshire lies a building that was designated as the regional centre of government for the north-west of England should the Cold War have ever escalated to a nuclear war.
This relic of the Cold War that recently came to light is set in rural south Cheshire. Under the noses of the one million inhabitants of Cheshire, in one guise or another for the past 50 years, firstly as a RAF base and then as a sinister Home Office building; Hack Green Nuclear Bunker (cue dramatic music). The history of military sensitive locations such as Hack Green cannot fail to be of significant interest to anyone who follows military or communications matters.
Whilst to the north of the county Jodrell Bank is famous for the output of its radio telescopes project set up in 1947 to scan space, (and expertly covered in last July’s Radio Active by Lawrence Harris), over the same period of time to the south of the county Hack Green had been maintaining top secret status.
Cold War Conduct
The Cold War reached its dangerous zenith by the early 1980s. Nuclear weapons were building up on both sides, and the Soviet Union gerontocracy headed by President Leonid Brezhnev was in conflict with the right wing ideology of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. Hundreds of thousands of anti-nuclear protestors (such as CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) took to the streets in west and east and the spectre of a nuclear attack was prevalent in the public mind.
The Cold War really commenced after World War II, when the ideological differences between the Allies that had been put aside from 1939 to 1945 became insurmountable. The Soviet Union and Communism’s influence on eastern Europe increased, sometimes by force and sometimes by the ballot box.
To counter what they saw as a threat, the western Allies formed NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in 1949. The Eastern European countries formed their own military alliance six years later, the Warsaw Pact. From there on the nuclear age started to spiral out of control. The 1950s and 1960s saw the nuclear age escalate with the production of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
NATO and the Warsaw Pact continued to stockpile a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the world several times over. Near-war scenarios and clashes were somehow overcome, such as the 1962 Cuba Missile crisis. Presidents came and went in Washington and Moscow, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan; Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev. It wasn’t until Gorbachev initiated policies of glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s, that the Cold War really began to thaw, melting away with the Warsaw Pact finally disbanding in 1991.
Despite occasional agreements to limit nuclear weapons, such as the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) in 1972, the world was under the constant threat of a nuclear war between east and west, be it intentional or accidental.
Setting off to investigate Hack Green on a chill winter's day certainly helped recreate the mood of undercover agents in trenchcoats and trilbies. Being followed from the M6 heading towards Hack Green by a juggarnaut from Moscow added to the atmosphere. The sight of an articulated lorry with cyrillic script stating it had arrived overland from Moscow would have triggered a major security alert a couple of decades ago. In the early 21st century it is an example of how times have changed and how the victors of the Cold War were international commerce and the free market.
The site of the Hack Green bunker is well hidden, as you would expect, located amidst Cheshire farmland, not far from the town of Nantwich, where the salt mining industry once thrived. (Nantwich, Middlewich and Northwich being Cheshire’s equivalent of the infamous salt mines of Siberia, but without the political prisoners).
I drove through winding country lanes and eventually came across some fenced off fields. Through the wire fence I could see a bland low brick ochre coloured building. Atop this is a 35 metre radio tower, and in a field to the left is a radar antenna. This is a Marconi type 264 A/H radar antenna installed in 1962 as part of Hack Green’s Air Traffic Control role.
Hack Green History
Hack Green’s military history stated in World War II and remained highly sensitive until declassification in 1993. In 1941 RAF Hack Green became one of the 21 U.K fixed radar (Radio Angle Direction and Range) stations, and was amongst the 12 that were also fully equipped with search-lights and fighter aircraft control.
In the 1950s it was used as part of the secret radar network codenamed Rotor. Rotor was an upgrading of the nation’s radar network and involved placing 1620 radar screens into bunkers across the U.K. Working at the base at that time were 18 officers, 26 NCOs and 224 corporals.
By1958 RAF Hack Green had become part of the U.K ATC (Air Traffic Control) system, providing safe radar-assisted flying for military and civil aircraft. This operation was transferred to RAF Lindholme, Yorkshire in 1966 and RAF Hack Green was shut down.
Ten years later in 1976 the Home Office Emergency Planning Division bought the abandoned station from the Ministry of Defence. It had a new role, to become the centre of regional government in the event of a nuclear war. The British government designated 11 Home Defence Regions covering the U.K. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were assigned numbers 1, 11 and 8 respectively. England was divided into 8 geographical regions. Region number 10 was split into two with 10:1 covering Cumbria and Lancashire and 10:2 covering Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire.
So from 1976 to 1984 Hack Green was rebuilt as a secret nuclear bunker, at a cost of £32 million. It covers over 35,000 square feet on three levels, and the money bought protection, but a daunting prospect, for 135 civil servants and military personnel. These would be amongst the survivors should a nuclear device detonate in the north west.
A complex communications infrastructure included a BBC studio and telecommunications links to the other Home Defence Regions and key government and military installations. The bunker was also equipped with a generating plant, air conditioning and life support, nuclear fallout filter rooms and emergency water supplies.Going Underground
Before entering the reinforced concrete bunker I had a look at the cockpit section of a McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom II, on display outside the entrance. This was designed as a fleet defence fighter for the U.S Navy, with the U.K the first country to import them, back in 1964. Now acknowledged as the most potent jet fighter ever, the 5,195 that were made over a 20 year period saw combat in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Vietnam. Leaving behind the cockpit of XV490, which saw 23 years service and is maintained by the Phantom Preservation Group, I entered the bunker.
The bunker is on three levels, with Underground Level One built to contain Government Headquarters, an administration centre and technical departments, and
Underground Level Two the location for a Communications centre, BBC studio, Scientists, Minister of State, and life support systems.
Commanding the bunker would be a Commissioner, either a minister or appointed civil servant, with his own quarters. He, along with a Principal Officer, Deputy Principal Officer, Deputy Secretary, Assistant secretary and a secretariat of seven would form the Cabinet of any post-war regional government.
The small BBC radio studio and adjacent office is part of a Wartime Broadcasting Service. A nuclear strike would disable television networks, so radios would be the main form of communicating to survivors.
Engineers would operate the equipment for broadcasts which would include emergency announcements and orders of the commissioner. Officers from the Central Office of Information would also provide bulletins and information to be transmitted, both in the build up to a war and afterwards. The Commissioner could speak directly to survivors from the BBC studio if he deemed it necessary.
There was a separate radio room for military communications to transmit and receive. The division between military and civilians could have only added tension at a time of tension and total uncertainty.
As well as the BBC, British Telecom had a role to play. Their equipment was used to operate the ECN (Emergency Communications Network). This was the Regional Government HQ’s own communications network which covered the whole country and was supposedly protected from attack. Latest messages from around the regions would appear on VDUs (Visual Display Units), this being an Internet equivalent of the time.
There was an distinct eerieness as I walked the cream and green painted corridors. Yellow and black radiation symbols marked off some areas, other signs reminded you to wear your dosemeter and murmured discussions could be heard in dully lit rooms. Teleprinters whirred, agonised screams emanated from sick bay, bleak tannoy announcements and sirens pierced the gloom. “Today’s Alert State is Bikini Black Alpha”, “Attack warning Red”…
The Sick Bay mentioned above was a small room with just a couple of beds and only two medics, a doctor and nurse. They were unable to help a dummy patient dying ftom radiation sickness, complete with plastic vomit in a bowl for added realism.
One large room contained a generator power supply.There are two large generators which could supply up to 600kVA, which is enough to light up a small town. All life support and air conditioning systems could be remotely controlled from this area. The air would be cooled, filtered, dehumidified and heated to maintain a 20° C temperature. There was an emergency water supply of 68,000 litres (15,000 gallons) which via the pumping station would reach all main services in the bunker.
For me, one of the most striking and unsettling rooms was also one of the most simple. One office houses 23 desks for Civil Servants. On each desk is a telephone and name plate showing the government department or agency represented. These included familiar departments such as the Departments of Health, Energy, Transport, Trade and Industry, Local Government, Home Office Emergency Planning and even the Inland Revenue.
Specialist departments, or individual civil servants, set up to deal with the situation in a post-nuclear world included a Property Services Agency, Refugees, Buffer Food Depot, a Burial and Disposals Officer, Judiciary and Water, Ports and Shipping. All of these posts would assist the commissioner should there be any non-contaminated region left to govern over.
A degree of normality is preserved by the tea urn in the corner, although I doubt if the loyal tea lady had a place reserved for her in the bunker. Whilst taking all of this in, I overheard a mind numbing discussion between some of the civil servants, advising a wartime radio broadcast to state that dead relatives and friends should be placed outside in the street to await twice daily collections.
Another civil servant announced the bearings of the latest bomb drops, information obtained from the Attack Warning room next door. Information of imminent missile attacks would have been received via the ballistic missile warning station at Fylingdales in Yorkshire, or the U.K regional air operations centre at High Wycombe. A further roomful of scientists would plot the spread of radioactive fallout and the movement of refugees across the country.
The equipment on display looked hopelessly out of date. Such is the advance in communications technology in the past decade, that even a current home computer seems more powerful. £32 million doesn’t go a long way and I can understand why the bunker was declassified and opened as a museum. Hopefully any replacement regional bunkers around the country might be able to invest in communications equipment with better longevity.
I can’t help but feel that whatever communications network is installed, a biological, chemical or nuclear attack would create such a hopeless situation in the vicinity that any emergency survival systems would be in vain. Better to evaporate at the epi-centre than to slowly starve underground with the civil servants.
The Government public advice films running at the bunker contain almost laughable advice in the event of a nuclear attack. Many of the public and the anti-nuclear movement thought they were nonsense even at the time. A 1970s British film advises on taking plenty of strong disinfectant and toilet paper with you into the home made fall out shelter (two doors propped against the wall). A 1950s American film suggests you fire-proof your home and ‘set aside a small supply of canned food; they’re safe from radioactivity. A radio will be important for receiving vital instructions’. Should you be caught outside at the time of a blast you need to ‘duck and cover’- the name of one of the more famous fatuous public advice films of the time.
A shower room in a bunker takes on a whole new meaning. Engineers who had to leave the bunker to service the generators would wear specialised clothing to protect against radioactive fallout, which would then be discarded. It was unclear just how many of these items of clothing there were. After a shower to remove any fallout, a quick check with a geiger counter was required before returning to the main bunker.
There are many other displays and attractions to investigate. The Radar Ops Room includes a history of radar from World War II to the 1990s, and includes a Nimrod airbourne radar display used for anti-submarine and search and rescue. You can see a World War II T1154 radio transmitter, which was the main transmitter used by Bomber Command during that war.
Take a close look at one of Her Majesty the Queen’s War telephones. These old style black and green telephones with a royal crest were installed at all Royal residences. They were connected to a voice scanner for secure and secret communications. If the U.K had been threatened by a nuclear war the Prime Minister, advised by the War Cabinet, would phone for Royal assent for the enforcement of the Emergency Powers Act, and the dissolution of Parliamnet, which would put the U.K onto a war footing. These days the Queen can presumably be contacted by an encrypted mobile phone.
Other items of interest include the history of the Royal Observer Corps, missiles such as a Chevaline nuclear warhead, geiger counters, a Soviet Enigma machine and an East German Morsegeber. The latter was an advanced transmitting and receiver unit used in the 1980s to send secret code in Russian Cyrillic, German, English, Morse or RTTY.
Elsewhere in the bunker there is an old military radio, for visitors to tune into war time broadcasts. Tuning in on 450 metres I heard some chilling news bulletins.
The Soviet threat room houses a fine collection of Warsaw Pact flags, pennants, uniforms, rifles and transmitting and receiving equipment, all set to the background of an echoing Russian radio broadcast. A NATO booklet from 1972 should be read, memorised and then destroyed- ‘The Warsaw Pact- Know their weapons and equipment’.
Soviet Union medal ribbons on display date from the Russian Revolution through the Great Patriotic War (Russian’s name for World War II) and onward. The medal for Order of Glory, Partisan of the Patriotic War, medals for the Liberation of Belgrade, Budapest. For the capture of Vienna, Odessa, the defence of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Sevastopol, the Order of Lenin. Has a single country ever issued so many different medals?
In the event of a nuclear war, or even a nuclear detonation, affecting north-west England, it is difficult to imagine that there would be many citizens left to for the elite personnel at Hack Green to actually govern over. Hundreds of thousands of those not vapourised at the epi-centre would be dying from radiation sickness within weeks. The remaining population, would either starve or be unable to survive from the desolated landscape. The survival of the fittest would take on a whole new meaning, with even the fittest liable to contract cancers of some kind or other. The explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 led to a dramatic increase in leukaemia, cancers and birth defects in the region. However, the Chernobyl disaster would be minor compared to a nuclear attack envisaged and prepared for by installations such as Hack Green by British governments since the 1950s.
Those of us that survived the Cold War unscathed can look back at it with some bizarre degree of nostalgia. With hindsight it was a period of peace, albeit an uneasy peace, in Europe. History and closure makes it easy to underestimate the dangers of conflict in that period.
Chillingly it seems to me that Hack Green and other similar installations are more likely to be needed in the current uncertain age. The threat of suicidal terrorists and unstable regimes using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons appears greater than the use by NATO or the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War. The legacy of nuclear arms and the dangers of their use by terrorists or rogue states has replaced the uneasy peace of the Cold War with perhaps an even more dangerous nuclear age in the early 21st century. Presumably there are modern day equivalents to Hack Green secreted away in the British countryside, with up to date communications equipment, and a similar restricted list of key personnel on red alert standby.
Hack Green will never have to be put on red alert or fulfil its original purpose. Instead, it serves as a chilling reminder of the Cold War. In 1999 it won a North West Tourist Board tourism award. It is open to the public at weekends in winters (although is closed for all of December) and daily from late March until October. Tel: 01270 629219. There are other similar bunkers open to the public around the U.K, such as the Underground Nuclear Command Centre near St. Andrews, and Kelvedon Hatch bunker in Essex.
You can round off the experience with a cup of tea in the NAAFI (the canteen for Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) , before perusing some of the unusual souvenirs on sale. These include Red Army hats and badges, British ration books, copies of the 1945 Radar Bulletin, and authentic Soviet Union Party membership books.
Personally I was so shaken by the whole experience that I just wanted to exit to the daylight to ensure that the world as I know it was still there. So it was a relief when I was back in the more familiar tranquility of Cheshire, sitting by Nantwich Lake, just three miles from the heart of the bunker. Out of range from the BBC Wartime broadcasts, instead I gratefully tuned the car radio to the lighthearted banter of BBC Radio Shropshire on 96.0 MHz. Rarely have I been so grateful for the inane chatter of a radio phone in, easing me back to reality and helping chase away the ghosts of Hack Green nuclear bunker.