Nuclear War in Coventry: Perspectives from the 1960s

‘Seventeen years ago, man unleashed the power of the atom. He thereby took into his mortal hands the power of self-extinction.‘ – John F. Kennedy (1962)

…by Nick Edwards.

nuclear bomb image

Have you ever wondered what nuclear war would look like from Coventry?

In light of the University of Warwick’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2015, the Modern Records Centre has been asked to digitise certain documents dating back to the university’s inauguration decades ago. This includes a collection of student publications preceding what is now The Boar, the university’s current student newspaper. Amongst a 1966 edition (May 25) of the Giblet, a weekly satirical student publication, the usual accounts of student hijinks are suddenly broken up by a few bold words: ‘GIBLET AND THE BOMB.’

The reader is then presented with a series of articles reflecting an era when the threat of catastrophic war was reality rather than retrospection. The articles were prompted by the 1965 release of Peter Watkins’ The War Game, a documentary-drama depicting the effects of nuclear war on Britain. The effects of the documentary were such that the BBC decided to ban its broadcast on television the very same year, while its distribution via cinemas continued. Consequently, the documentary stirred the fears of many who watched it, particularly for the writers in the Giblet.

Coventry: Ground Zero

One article titled ‘H-BOMB ON COVENTRY’ provides a pretty harrowing narrative, regaling the reader with a scenario where Coventry itself is the target of a nuclear strike. The description of the attack itself, sobering in its impassive delivery, begins:

‘Slightly off course, a 2-megaton bomb, equivalent to 2,000,000 tons of TNT, hits ground zero at Tollbar End, South-East of the City Centre […] A ring of total destruction, radius 2 miles, is the effect of fire and blast shock immediately around ground zero.’

The narrative continues, detailing the near-total destruction of Coventry – the further blast and heat radius damage, and the immediate irradiation coupled with fallout from a potential attack on Birmingham.

Below is a simulation of a 2 megaton bomb on Coventry in the same area:

Suffice to say, the University of Warwick – along with the Modern Records Centre – would probably not fare so well in the above scenario.

‘Attack warning RED!’

In the event of a nuclear attack on Coventry, who would you turn to?

The Civil Defence Corps (CDC), established under the 1948 Civil Defence Act, was a volunteer civil defence force administrated by the British government with the aim of preparing and assisting British citizens in the event of war. The roles were similar to those of their predecessors during the Second World War, but now with the added possibility of a nuclear attack. The CDC was the final wave of defence in the face of potential annihilation – but how prepared were they?

It must have been a terrifying thing to imagine that the CDC might become a necessity. It was a brutal reminder of the possibility that nuclear deterrence could fail even in the face of mutually assured destruction. For the writers of the Giblet it must have been even worse when the CDC admitted to basing their preparations on somewhat generous hypothetical scenarios:

• That the attack would be limited rather than a saturated bombing

• That the bomb would drop on a ‘conveniently non-central area’

• That all essential CD personnel would be free to perform their functions

• That the British public would remain orderly and not panic

The last point had probably afforded itself by the efforts of the British government, who sought to romanticise public spirit in the face of the destruction wrought by the Second World War. The Coventry blitz killed an estimated 550 citizens, many of whom had succumbed to their injuries in the weeks following. It is likely that a 2 megaton bomb, killing anywhere up to 100,000 people in the first instance, would cause a far more adverse effect on psychological well-being of survivors. Perhaps this is why The War Game shocked the public so much – to see that for once, the British public were not portrayed on television as tea-drinkers with an impenetrable mental fortitude in the face of destruction.

Shadows of a World War

The Giblet articles betray a growing unnerve amongst the British public during the height of the Cold War; a chilling sensation that perhaps the policy of deterrence, lauded as the ultimate bastion against the encroaching Soviet Union, would itself become a catalyst for mankind’s downfall. Such feelings are hardly surprising given the events of the 1960s. Public demonstrations against nuclear weapons were steadily garnering support, spear-headed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which organised the famous 160,000-strong Aldermaston marches in 1961. The following year, the unthinkable came close to reality as the Cuban missile crisis threatened to drag two superpowers beyond the event horizon of a nuclear war that could have consumed Britain along with much of the civilised world.

The 1960s were a dark and foreboding time for many who feared the nuclear bomb – the literature of the time certainly indicates this. As a final thought, published in the Giblet is Peter Porters’ Your Attention Please, a poem depicting the final government radio announcement before a nuclear attack. It ends thusly:

‘All flags are flying fully dressed
On Government buildings – the sun is shining.
Death is the least we have to fear.
We are all in the hands of God,
Whatever happens happens by His Will.
Now go quickly to your shelter.’

Original copies of the Giblet are available at the MRC, but unlikely to be published digitally until 2015. 

Giblet article ref: UWA/PUB/GL/20

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