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The Comedy of Errors

Out of Time: Life in Nottingham During The Cold War

17 June 19 words: Emily Thursfield

Our regular history features takes a look at just how close Nottingham came to being obliterated during the Cold War...

Our city has an entangled history with the Cold War – the period of political and military tension between countries in the capitalist West (Britain, the US, France) and the communist Soviet Union. The fractious relationship was born from a post-World War II insecurity on both sides over their respective political and economic systems; the Soviets were convinced of America’s determination to destroy communism, and the US feared that Stalin would infiltrate the West and dismantle their way of life. Despite never escalating to full-scale armed combat, the Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1990, and included some now infamous events such as the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race.

This conflict was also responsible for a huge threat that we still face; nuclear weapons. The US conducted its first nuclear explosion in 1945, dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 226,000 people. The power and dominance of the US was obvious, but it wasn’t long until their Eastern enemy developed their own nuclear weaponry.

Life after WWII in Nottingham was arguably as good as life post-war could be. More fortunate than most large British cities, we were subjected to relatively few German air raids; apart from the damage caused during the “Nottingham Blitz” on 8 May 1941. With much of the city centre intact, the city council were not under immediate pressure to rebuild. Industry was strong, with the three major companies - Boots, Raleigh and Players - continuing to prosper.

But in August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb, ensuring that the US and Britain were fully aware that they remained determined to infiltrate the West. The newly-formed NATO began developing precautions against nuclear attacks; while one group of military tacticians plotted where to drop bombs on Soviet territory, another was tasked with predicting where the Soviets would detonate their bombs in Britain. A list of 81 potential targets was drawn up, with Nottingham named as one of the most likely destinations.

It was thought that Nottingham would be the target of a ten megatron air bomb, dropped on the heart of the city: Market Square. A bomb of this power would have resulted in the total destruction of buildings within a four mile radius; with an estimated temperature of ten million degrees at the hyper-center, all matter would instantly have been vaporised - everything as far north as Bestwood, south as Gotham, west as Wollaton and east as Colwick.

It was also believed that the power station at Radcliffe-on-Soar would be targeted during a second-wave of bombings. With NATO predicting that Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester would also be targeted, there was concern that the entire north-to-west of the country would have been wiped out.

Both sides continued developing their nuclear arsenal during the fifties, and it soon became apparent that the side who won this “war” would be the side who best survived a nuclear blast. As such, work began on keeping our city safe. The main priority was the survival of the state, the protection of military and government officials given utmost importance. A number of command centres were also built and the country was divided into thirteen regions, with Nottingham being the centre for the north Midlands.

It was thought that Nottingham would be the target of a ten megatron air bomb, dropped on the heart of the city: Market Square

In 1953, the construction of specially designed nuclear shelters, also known as Regional War Rooms, began. They were designed to survive all but a direct hit of a nuclear bomb, protecting occupants from any radioactive fallout that could occur. Nottingham’s RWR was built on government land in Chalfont Drive, Aspley. Constructed completely with reinforced concrete, the two-floor structure was to be used as a regional control centre, expected to support 45 staff and protect government officials. As part of the overall operating system, several civil defence bunkers were also constructed in each region – Nottingham’s was on the site of an old WWII air-raid shelter between Hucknall and Annesley.

By the time construction was completed in 1965, RWRs had already become redundant. Instead, it was decided that the central government would remain in London and all cities would become autonomous. Each city would also be given a Regional Commissioner of cabinet rank; post nuclear-attack, this official would hold absolute power in governing the surviving population of the area. In 1959, the Home Office issued a specification for an expanded network of bunkers, with space for 300 staff and the ability to run unaided for several months. However, a financial crisis and new assumptions about Soviet strategy meant Nottingham became one of only three destinations that did not receive new bunkers.

Bunker construction was done in complete secrecy, with Parliament, the public and the press completely unaware of the progress. But this didn’t stop the locals from catching on to what this big, windowless building was – nearby residents even nicknamed it “The Kremlin.”

As for the majority of the Notts populace, provisions for surviving a nuclear attack included the installation of air-raid sirens in the late sixties, on top of both the Council House and Wollaton Hall, which would each emit what became known as the “Four Minute Siren”; the supposed length of time between the detected launch of the weapon and its impact on the target city. Residents would then retreat to their makeshift bunkers, built using instructions from a government-issued pamphlet called Protect and Survive.

There’s little doubt that, had the Cold War reached the nuclear conclusion most had anticipated, Nottingham would have been wiped from the face of the earth

By the time the extension to the Chalfont Drive bunker were completed, the site was again rendered obsolete; both the East and West had successfully developed hydrogen bombs, predicted to be over a thousand times more powerful than the A-bombs used on Hiroshima. The Aspley structure would have had no chance of survival.

In the end, neither the West or the Soviets wanted to go down in history as the first side to use their weapons of mass destruction, and the Cold War ended with the disbanding of the Soviet Union in 1990. Across the country, the RWRs were quickly adapted and repurposed, however “The Kremlin” remained in operation until 1992, in case the Council House was targeted. Since then, the building has been used for a number of purposes, including as a storage room for a furniture company. In 2009, a planning application was submitted for the building of 500 new houses on the surrounding site, with the idea of incorporating the structure into a Peace Garden.

It was later revealed that there were two more purpose-built bunkers in Nottingham: one is now part of Rushcliffe Borough Council’s Recycle 2go Scheme, and is used for general storage, and the other was auctioned off to the public in 2015. It’s clear that, due to the constant game of catch-up being played with the building of provisions, Britain was not prepared for the fallout of a nuclear war. There’s little doubt that, had the Cold War reached the nuclear conclusion most had anticipated, Nottingham would have been wiped from the face of the earth.

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