Friday, December 05, 2008

How Britain prepared to kill 20 million people

Britain's Cold War - A Vulcan bomber, Hawker Hunter fighter and Bloodhound Missile. The National Cold War exhibition. RAF Cosford.

Because of some research I did in the dim and distant past, I've maintained an interest in British nuclear weapons and policies. So I really enjoyed Prof. Peter Hennessy's programme for Radio 4 called "the Human Button", about the people who have and still are responsible for Britain's nuclear forces. A lot of the people who had had some role at the heights of the Cold War in this system, from senior politicians to the 23 year old V-Bomber pilot signing for his first nuclear weapon seemed to take the attitude of "best not to think about it too much", but of course they all clearly did and have done so much more since.

One of the things that I didn't know before but was mentioned in the programme a couple of times was in 'the letter from beyond the grave' that is sealed in the then Polaris and now Trident submarine's safe. These letters written by every prime minister when they come into office set out the wishes of the prime minister to the submarine captain in the event that the UK has been effectively destroyed by nuclear assualt. These letters are destroyed unopened when the prime ministers change and only one prime minister has revealed what his said. This included that the captain should, once having followed the proceedures to make sure that there is no chain of command in the UK, attempt to put himself and his ship under Australian command. I wonder if anyone ever asked the Australian government what they thought of this - that in the event of the destruction of the UK, they could become by default a nuclear power?

By the way, the title of this post is from a discussion in the programme over whether Britain would have responded if deterrence failed. Callaghan said probably, Dennis Healey - to his credit - said not.


Anonymous said...

Which prime minister was it?

Keefus said...

Good programme.

I remember being told, as a schoolkid in the 70s, that as the Vulcans would be flying low under Soviet radar, they would be effectively flying suicide missions against Russian cities. This was presented as a noble and honourable thing for them to be doing.

Odd that.