It isn’t every day you get to see a bit of secret Britain… especially Cold War Britain. In the grounds of Bracher’s Solicitors in Maidstone there is just such a piece of the hidden Britain – a bunker designed for the monitoring of nuclear explosions and fall-out.
Medwaylines (a website well worth visiting for interesting historical information in Kent) give the following account:
The Royal Observer Corps (ROC) was a civil defence organisation operating in the United Kingdom between 29 October 1925 and 31 December 1995.
In 1925, following a Defence Committee initiative undertaken the previous year, the formation of an RAF command concerning the Air Defence of Great Britain led to the provision of a Raid Reporting System, itself delegated to a sub-committee consisting of representatives from the Air Ministry, Home Office and the General Post Office. This Raid Reporting System was to provide for the visual detection, identification, tracking and reporting of aircraft over Great Britain, and was eventually to become known as the Observer Corps. The Observer Corps was subsequently awarded the title Royal by His Majesty King George VI in April 1941, in recognition of service carried out by Observer Corps personnel during the Battle of Britain.
With the advent of the Cold War, the ROC continued in its primary role of aircraft recognition and reporting, and in 1955 was allocated the additional task of detecting and reporting nuclear explosions and associated fall-out. Between 1958 and 1968 a countrywide building programme resulted in a network of 1,563 underground monitoring posts being built thoughout Britain. It would be necessary for control centres and ROC posts to be occupied for a period of between seven and twenty one days following any nuclear event.
By 1965, thanks to advances in (radar) technology, most roles and responsibilities relating to aircraft had been withdrawn and the ROC assumed the role of fieldforce for the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, (UKWMO) a role which the ROC continued until the early 1990s and the cessation of the Cold War.
The bunker that forms the study of this blog article was opened in 1960 and provided an air conditioned headquarters to monitor and coordinate information from numerous monitoring stations regarding nuclear fall-out, assimilate all the readings and projections, and pass this onto the relevant Civil Defence authorities.
The bunker is split across three levels. The entrance is above ground, which leads down into a partly submerged level. The lower level is completely underground, providing many feet of protection from potential nuclear fallout. Much of the machinery remains in tact today, though the site is now primarily used as storage – there is evidence that this nuclear-proof filing cabinet is being made more visitor friendly by the removal of the solicitor’s files and IT equipment… which is a very good move in my opinion.
We were given a tour of the building by Group Captain Bryan McCarthy of the Royal Obeserver Corp. He was stationed at the bunker for many years and he provided an entertaining (and detail-packed) run down of how the bunker operated. Whilst much of the ‘day to day’ equipment is no longer there, he managed to describe the set up so precisely that it was easy to imagine what a hive of activity this place was when operational.
Two air locks were in place – one at the main entrance and one at the rear.
British Telecom provided the telephone communications on site and had personnel stationed there all the time. Radio communications were also handled by a dedicated communications team, so the bunker was in constant contact with the outside world.
The next photo shows the hub of the bunker. During it’s operational phase readings from other stations were received and collated here on charts and maps there were constantly updated to show potential fall out zones etc. The pertinent information required included readings on the height at which a bomb detonated, wind speed and wind direction – these were all used to calculate the potential damage. This information could then be used in the even of a detonation to warn and re-route if necessary, incoming allied planes.
Calculations were made regarding the exposure times that were considered to be safe. So, for example, if a bomb detonated near Canterbury charts would be created on when, and for how long, survivors could go out and be exposed to the radiation without harm.
If you have a passing interest in anything historical, the bunker is well worth checking out. To book and find out more information on availability, check out the Maidstone Museum website.