The Secret State by Peter Hennessy

Would Stonehenge survive a thermonuclear attack?

The intense heat of a direct hit would certainly be hot enough to melt solid rock, but Salisbury Plain is not a key military target.  It’s probably far enough out of the way to avoid the most severe consequences.


It would be unaffected by the ensuing gale force winds created by the enormous convection currents that would follow shortly after a nuclear attack.  It would not  be harmed by the nuclear winter caused by the clouds of dust the explosions had thrown into the sky blocking the sun.  Granite is impervious to the deadly radiation afterglow that would kill any living thing in an instant.  So, probably alone of all the man made artifacts in Britain, the chances are that it would indeed survive.  But everything else would be destroyed, destroyed so finally that barely a trace if anything at all would remain.

You really are a shining little ray of sunshine on this podcast, Colin, you are probably saying to yourself.  Well I am afraid that is the effect of reading the latest edition of The Secret State by Peter Hennesey.

Few countries can have made the transition from overwhelming strength to complete defencelessness so quickly and brutally as Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century.  The turnaround in the country’s fortunes would have been felt by everyone, but particularly by those in the class used to governing it.

Take for example Winston Churchill.  In the early years of the twentieth century he was overhauling the Royal Navy to run on oil, making it not only the biggest but the most modern fleet in the world.  Britain’s unstated policy at that time was to have a fleet large enough to comfortably defeat the next two biggest fleets in the world combined.  With a formal empire that spanned the globe and an even larger informal empire based on trade and industry, it must have been inconceivable that the whole edifice would crumble.

But two world wars later, and above all thanks to completely unforeseen developments in military technology, by the 50s Churchill was presiding over a country unable to even defend itself against a deadly attack.  Nuclear weapons of huge destructive capacity were combined with missiles able to cross continents.  A densely populated country like Britain made an ideal target.   And its political position made it an inevitable one.

With the advent of bombs many thousands times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the realisation grew that the next world war would mean the total elimination of Britain as a civilised country and there would not be any survivors.

We find the one time bellicose warrior reading  to his cabinet an article by Donald Soper about the risks nuclear weapons posed.  Donald Soper was a leading Methodist minister and a leading light of CND.  He would have been astonished to learn that Churchill was taking him so seriously.

It’s often only when you start organising something that the reality of it sinks in.  I imagine this was how it was for the officials charged with preparation for nuclear war. The Secret State describes the procedures, necessarily highly secret, set up to cope with the possibility of an attack that in all probability would result in Britain’s  total destruction.  It must have really brought home to the people involved just how real the threat was.

A bunker was prepared under Box Hill in Wiltshire.   From here it would be attempted to maintain control of what was left of the kingdom.   It was planned in the age of austerity and was suitably Spartan.  Only the Prime Minister had a personal lavatory.   Deep under the sandstone hills, it would have been impossible to destroy.  But it would have been easy to detect once any communication was attempted, and its existence was in any case probably known to the Soviets.  An attack on the hill would have fused the rock trapping the inhabitants for the duration of the conflict.  Indeed, trapping them almost certainly for ever.

The Queen would be got onto the Royal Yacht which would be located in a loch somewhere in Scotland.  The mountains might afford some protection. So with an intact monarch and her Prime Minister still alive, although beyond reach, there was some slim hope of keeping the state intact.   It was necessary to plan for the possibility of the United Kingdom surviving a nuclear war.  The reality was that in the event of a Soviet attack within days the island would be rendered both uninhabited and uninhabitable.  Any survivors would survive only for as long as there supplies of food held out.

The nuclear deterrent was not in fact much more than a way of avenging any wrong done.  Nuclear powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons continually on patrol with a deadly payload to unload at Russia in the event that the Prime Minister ordered it.  If the Prime Minister was one of the victims of an attack?  There were two successors nominated by him.

The other people with their fingers potentially on the trigger were selected by the Prime Minister personally.  Harold Wilson for instance selected the dependable Dennis Healey rather than the often tired and emotional George Brown, who was the deputy leader of the Labour Party.

In the event of a total elimination of the government, the Prime Minister when he first gets into office writes ‘beyond the grave’ instructions to the captains of the nuclear submarines.  These are sealed, and are only to be opened in the event of a total breakdown of the state.  These are never opened and are destroyed when a new premier takes over.

And so the last act of the British state would be to unleash destruction on its last enemy.  A futile gesture in every way.

Suppose a thermonuclear war had broken out and these procedures put into place.  Europe would have been rendered uninhabitable.  Many centuries later when the radioactivity had died down and when natural selection had produced a breed of people able to cope with radiation levels that would kill us,  the continent might be slowly repopulated.

The newcomers would encounter the remains of a long vanished and long forgotten civilisation.  When they finally reached the northern island that had once been Britain and which had been the target of probably more nuclear missiles per square mile than any other the chances are that here even all remains would be gone.  But maybe, just maybe, the stones of what we know as Stonehenge would somehow survive, mute witnesses to the total destruction of a civilisation that had once strode the globe but which now was not even a memory.

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