From 1947 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, secret bunkers sprung up across Europe in an effort to protect capitalist and communist states from potential nuclear attacks. Adam Bennett explores a secret metropolitan bunker in the Essex village of Kelvedon Hatch.
During the Cold War, the prospect of a nuclear attack was widely believed to be imminent. If a nuclear bomb had been dropped on London, millions would have perished and the few survivors would have struggled in residual temperatures of -20˚c, suffering from symptoms of radiation sickness and battling against each other for scraps of food.
When you visit the Kelvedon Hatch secret bunker it is left almost exactly as it was during the Cold War. Over 2000 telephone lines are still plugged into switchboards, gas masks hang on the walls and bunk beds are made for the 600 strong work force who would have fled to here in the wake of a deadly nuclear strike.
Whilst exploring its three floors escorted by an audio guide, you can learn how the bunker has been operated during the last 60 years. Firstly, it served as a ROTOR (air defence radar system) station where a team of WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) would plot the position of aircraft, and later it became the Regional Governmental Headquarters when it was often used for two-week mock war game exercises, as the government prepared for the worst.
Hidden away beneath a small farm cottage, the bunker was built in 1952, 30 metres below ground within walls of three-metre-thick concrete. It would have been the place where civil servants, scientists and key members of government – possibly including the Prime Minister – communicated with survivors and managed a nuclear survival program.
“In theory this would have withstood a bomb about half a mile away, however if it were to stand up to a biological and chemical attack now, I’m not so sure” explains Mike, whose father apparently sold the land to the Government for just £250 back in the fifties.
The bunker would have provided relief to those who could be saved whilst putting others out of their misery. It was from the communications room, complete with BBC radio studio, where civilians would have been told where food supplies were and where medical help could be found. As the commander in chief, the Cabinet Minister would have also had the power to issue euthanasia orders for the mentally handicapped, old, infirm and others deemed expendable.
You gain a sense of how much pressure would have been put on those assigned to work here after an attack. It is likely that their families were most likely dead or dying. There was also a strong possibility that, once all of the rations had been consumed, those in the bunker would not last much longer either.
With 600 staff working 7 days a week, it is likely that somebody would have fallen ill. As the nearest hospital would have been the other side of Manchester, the bunker had its own sick bay and operating theatre which also doubled up as a morgue. Dead bodies would have been put into a body bag and then a cardboard coffin. When the radiation levels outside had dropped sufficiently, it’s likely that dead bodies would have just been dumped out the back door.
Many who visit the nuclear bunker today suggest that there is paranormal activity here. So much so that much of the bunker’s visitors come for this exact reason – it was even included in hit show Most Haunted. However, owner Mike Parrish does not believe there to be any ghosts. He says, “I’m a total disbeliever. Everybody who brings a medium down here picks up somebody. It doesn’t mean to say they’re not here just because I don’t see them.”
Until 1994, when the bunker was decommissioned and opened to the public, it was under watch 24 hours a day by armed guards. A stream of British Telecom and other maintenance workers also visited every week to ensure that electronic and communications equipment were kept in a permanent state of readiness; should the unimaginable tragedy of a nuclear attack have occurred.
Four more bunkers to feel the chill of the Cold War:
Rennsteighöhe Nuclear Bunker, eastern Germany
Formally the East German Ministry for Security, the Rennsteig bunker was built during the 1970s and operated by the infamous Stasi. Visitors to the Stasi bunker can take part in a 16 hour overnight reality experience, donning the uniform of a National People’s Army, inclusive of gas mask to guard the bunker against attack, basic training and breakfast sports.
Plokstine Missile Base, Lithuania
Once a top secret base for Soviet nuclear weapons, Plokstine was built by 10,000 Soviet soldiers who used nothing more than shovels to dig out the missile silos. Four R12 nuclear missiles were kept here, aimed at different western countries including Great Britain, Turkey, the former West Germany and Norway. It was also from here where the missiles were transferred to Cuba fuelling the Cuban missile crisis.
Bunkr Parukarka, Prague
Designed to accommodate 5000 people in the event of a nuclear strike, on a tour of Prague’s nuclear bunker visitors to learn about the history of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Descend 15 metres underground and hear tales of spies, espionage, cold war refugees and political prisoners from a knowledgeable guide and take part in a gas mask workshop.
Bunker-42, Taganka Nuclear Bunker, Moscow
Built to house prominent Kremlin figures and their families, Bunker 42 is hidden 65 metres beneath the streets of Moscow. Entered through a hidden subway door, those visiting the bunker are escorted by knowledgable tour guides dressed as KGB Officers. There are also opportunities to try on nuclear survival suits.