Part 2 of my visit to RSG6, the nuclear bunker at Warren Row.
I took a trip up visit RSG6, the nuclear bunker at Warren Row.
Growing up in the eighties I had what would probably be considered, an unhealthy obsession with nuclear war. Thoughts of the apocalypse, Armageddon and mutual assured destruction filled much of my waking imagination. This was both grim fascination and outright fear, I would often lie awake at night worrying that the end was nigh or wonder if I would wake to see a mushroom cloud from my bedroom window, showering radioactive fallout on all and sundry. I think this obsession was fuelled by the general early to mid eighties cold war paranoia presented to me in the news reports that I overheard and watching TV programs such as ‘Threads‘ and the animated ‘When The Wind Blows‘ and reading books at school such as ‘Brother in the Land‘ , ‘Z for Zachariah‘ and ‘Children of the Dust‘.
Perhaps the foreboding presence of a ‘secret’ government nuclear bunker nestled in the hills outside of the village where I grew up had something to do with it? I was vaguely aware of the bunker at Warren row or ‘RSG6′ as it was officially (unofficially) known, but I only really came to understand what it was when it was sold off in the early nineties after the collapse of Soviet Communism and the end of the cold war. By then my fear of nuclear Armageddon had passed and I was much more interested in girls, drinking, dancing all night in fields and generally enjoying the hedonistic atmosphere of the early nineties.
On moving back to the same village a few years ago my interest was rekindled as I often passed the bunker on afternoon dog walks through the woods. I began with some serious investigations into the fascinating history of this cold war relic, and was literally ‘blown away’ (ahem) with what I found.
The Regional Seats Of Government
As the cold war endured and the very real and possible threat of the United States and the Soviet Union entering into full scale nuclear conflict became apparent, the UK government decided a network of bunkers was required. Not for the use and protection of the UK civilian population – they had the handy ‘Protect and Survive‘ leaflet to protect themselves against nuclear Armageddon. The UK bunker network was proposed to enable the continuity of government after a nuclear attack on Britain, funded by the UK tax paying public – who would be left out in the cold as soon as the bombs started falling. What government officials thought would be left of Britain needing to be governed after full scale nuclear annihilation is anyone’s guess, but the civil servants in Whitehall began one of the most secretive public projects of the 20th century.
The bunkers were built as a means for the Government to survive and continue to function in the aftermath of a nuclear war, the aim being effective control of the recovery period.
Bunkers were built by local authorities for their localised emergency planning and Civil Defence and Utility providers of water, gas and electricity also built scores of bunkers and hardened stores all round the country to house engineers and supplies that could ensure essential infrastructure services were able to be repaired and supplied during the recovery period. Many of these bunkers were converted from suitable World War Two sites, (especially the WW2 radar stations and Anti-Aircraft Observation Rooms), but many were built from scratch at a great expense from the 1950’s right up until the late 1980’s to early 1990’s.
The bright sparks running the UK had come to the conclusion that a thermonuclear apocalypse might render traditional forms of communication incapacitated. What was required to steer a fragmented country properly in the inevitable nuclear winter was a post war regional government that would enable local authorities to take direct control of their regions (what was left of them), without needing guidance from a central government. This line of thinking became the foundation for the network of ‘Regional War Rooms’, sorry I meant ‘Regional Seats of Government’, no wrong again I meant to say ‘Sub Regional Headquarters’, nope what I meant to call them is ‘Regional Government Headquarters’! Luckily the officials in Whitehall saved UK voters the worry of having to democratically elect the chosen few who would staff these bunkers and rule over a post apocalyptic Britain; they probably thought they were too busy preparing their ‘inner core refuge‘. The staff was generally high ranking military personnel and local authority big wigs, not a single one of them elected to their positions or accountable to the public.
The UK was carved up into 12 regions each having its own bunker from which to coordinate rebuilding after the war. These remained fairly constant from the 1950’s onwards, with a few changes in the locations of sites. The biggest change came in the 1980’s when the Thatcher administration changed the name of the bunker network to its final designation of ‘Regional Government Headquarters’. In this time many of the bunkers received significant upgrades and three were purpose built. RSG 6 was finally decommissioned in this period being replaced by purpose built RGHQ at Kingstanding Nr Crowborough.
RSG 6 became infamous in the Sixties for reasons to follow, from the mid 1960’s to the 1980’s the networks were as below;
Region 1 – North – Catterick Camp, Yorkshire RSG1
Region 2 – North East – York Castle RSG2
Region 3 – North Midlands – Nottingham War Room RSG3
Region 4 – Eastern – Cambridge War Room RSG4
Region 5 – London – Original War Rooms retained RSG5
Region 6 – Southern – Underground WW2 Aircraft Factory (Warren Row) RSG6
Region 7 – South West – Bolt Head ex ROTOR Station RSG7
Region 8 – Wales – Brecon Barracks RSG8
Region 9 – Midlands – Underground WW2 Aircraft Factory (Drakelow) RSG9
Region 10 – North West – Preston Barracks RSG10
Region 12 – South Eastern – Tunnels under Dover castle RSG12
Northern Ireland – Gough barracks, Armagh RSGNI
Scotland was subdivided into:
North Zone- Anstruther underground ex ROTOR station
Western Zone – Torrance House former Anti-aircraft operations room
Eastern Zone – Kirknewton regional war room
with the Headquarters being at Barnton Quarry near Edinburgh (ex Rotor Station)
For more information on the background and history of the network and the sites take a look at this excellent site.
RSG6 at Warren Row was not purpose built as a nuclear bunker it has a long and interesting history. It began life as a chalk mine and then at some stage during Word War 2 it became an underground aircraft components factory, I assume to keep it safe from bombing raids. It seems it was kept operational by the MOD until 1958 when it was decided that this would be the perfect location for the Southern Region seat of government – RSG6. It was in the period of heightened cold war tension of the early Sixties that the Government initiated ‘Programme X’ that would establish each of the bunkers within each region. Warren Row was selected as the base for the Southern Control Region, what information I can find out about it does not create an appealing picture of subterranean comfort. An official assessment of the bunker in 1966 describes it as “primitive, unhealthy and in parts unsafe”. Each RSG was supposedly able to support around 450 active members of staff for a period of two weeks, but Warren Row only was ever able to accommodate 240 people in anything close to realistic comfort.
It would seem that throughout its operational life RSG6 was dogged by problems caused by its damp location, limited size and restricted communications equipment. In fact due to not having its own efficient communications, the nearby older and better-known ‘Region 6 War Room’ was proposed to be used as its communication centre. This site in Reading was replaced by the site in Warren row when the RSG plan was put into action because it was thought to be not adequately protected from the new types of hydrogen bomb. Why it was then retrospectively selected as the site for Warren Row to use for all its communication requirements is anyone’s guess. You may wonder how the two sites were to be connected for these vital communications functions to take place, perhaps a deep underground cable connected the two bunkers? Not quite – the powers that be decided that during and after a thermo nuclear assault on Britain, an over ground telephone cable would be sufficient to keep both centres in touch with each other, not underground, but an over ground telephone cable! I’m no expert on the matter, but on more than one occasion I’ve seen telephone poles come down in recent winter storms, not sure how they would go up against the rapid release of energy from a high-speed nuclear reaction?
Situated about 50ft underground, the site forms a U shape, and then main tunnel is about 1000 feet long with an entrance shaft at each end. Around 42 offices and service spaces make up the bunker along with large drinking water tanks that was supposed to last two weeks until the residents would reappear and find other sources of uncontaminated water, not sure where this was to be found but there you go. At some stage a proper air conditioning plant was installed, but apparently high humidity remained a problem and was almost impossible to control.
Given the shoddy state of the bunker and its poor provisions for personnel and communications you really do wonder why the government bothered at all, and you really have to consider what was going on in the heads of the planners in London. Most politicians were well aware of the effects of a nuclear attack by the early sixties, especially the post attack devastation. Recent computer modelling estimates the duration for a nuclear winter to be around 20 to 30 years, so two weeks water supply seems rather a cavalier estimate. The bunker residents wouldn’t really have fared much better than the poor civilians of Region 6, but work on the bunker and preparations continued in total secrecy … until this is on one fateful day in 1963.
The Spies For Peace
The peace movement in Britain had been growing since the 1950’s and by the Sixties it was part of the growing counter culture. The younger disenfranchised generation in the UK was attacking the absurd and reactionary social conditions in the country. Traditional bastions of the church, state and military were being challenged by the ever growing groups of peace activists, socialists, anarchists and normal people from everyday walks of life who were crying out for change.
In 1963 a group of activists demanded more than another march or peaceful protest, they wanted to attack the very heart of the establishments military state apparatus. It was this group shortly to be named ‘The Spies For Peace’ that blew the lid of the biggest government secret of the 20th Century and changed British society forever. What they revealed was the primer that for the first time made people stop and think and question the very government and military that most people had an unshakable faith.
“In many ways Britain was still trilby hats and brown raincoats. And then this happened. It helped to create the political culture that was the Sixties.” “In many ways we were surprised by the effect,” says another, “because if people stopped to think, they did know that there would be this system for the survival of the government. But the idea that people had to spy on their own government to get the truth out – this was a very fertile idea, the idea that it was right to ask questions, to battle them for the truth.”
Having heard rumours of the bunker they group set out one winters afternoon to see if there was any truth in them. After trudging around woods they chanced upon a wooden gate behind it was a brick boiler house with a ramp leading down to some steel doors. Unbelievably the place was unguarded, on trying the door to the boiler house they were amazed to find it unlocked and entered. Finding a steel staircase behind another door they descended into the secret government headquarters, Regional Seat of Government number 6. Quickly they grabbed whatever materials they could, papers and maps from desks and then hotfooted it out of there – vowing to return.
On the second visit the covert operation came better prepared, the site again was unguarded – but the boiler house door was locked, which they quickly picked and entered again. They spent much longer this visit, taking photographs, tracing maps and going through every desk drawer and cupboard that they could find copying every secret document and file that they came across. What they left with would lift the lid on the whole covert government, which cost millions of taxpayer’s money. It wasn’t the revelation of the site that caused such a shock to the system, but it revealed to the general public for the first time that the UK government was planning only for the survival in a nuclear attack of an elite group, a group that had had no democratic selection whatsoever. It presented to the nation the facts that the powers that be understood just how catastrophic a nuclear attack on Britain would be and that the population would be left out in the cold, while having paid for the bunkers that would protect only civil servants and a military elite. It was a watershed moment in British history, the UK Government had to be spied on by its own public in order to find truth.
The group printed a leaflet that outlined exactly what they had found and distributed to newspapers, protesters, MPs, activists and celebrities of the day. The effect it had was nothing short of groundbreaking; the government got wind of the situation and issued a “D” notice to prevent any media coverage. But it was just too big a story and too irresistible for the media of the day and it made front-page news. Protestors and campaigners converged on the Warren Row site (as can be seen in these photographs taken at the time) and news of the events went global. The group took considerable risks if caught would have faced harsh punishments for the treasonable offences, they were careful to take every precaution possible to avoid capture. Until very recently the identities of the group have never been known and nor have they been caught.
The revelations printed in the leaflet and the actions of the ‘Spies For Peace’ helped to begin the culture of direct action that became more and more prevalent throughout the rest of the century and is common to us now. They showed society how normal people can effect radical change, and that established authority cannot be trusted to look after the best interest of its people, that government secrecy should and needs to be questioned.
So next time you take a walk and come across a strange concrete structure that seems out of place, dig a little deeper and like a small group of activists did in 1963 ask questions – you never know what you might find …