English Heritage and the Cuban Missile Crisis

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Albert Einstein.

It’s such a mournful sound; the Banshee wail that rolls across the valley from the Plymouth Naval dockyard a mile to my house every Monday morning at 11.30 sharp!

It’s never late.

You see – that’s when they test the warning system – if we hear it at any other time it means there has been some kind of accident on a nuclear submarine. We are meant to stay in our homes, close the windows, listen to the local radio station and wait for instructions from the local government.

I feel better already.

HMS Victorious in Plymouth Naval Base

At one time, these sirens were all over the towns and cities of this country, before they were removed in the 1990s. Built originally to warn of impending Nazi air raids, these machines lived on with the new role of announcing that in 4 minutes there would be a nuclear attack. They would to test them once a year; it would be announced on the BBC. A chilling sound would waft across this Green and pleasant land.

Should we hear those death knells then we were to follow the instructions laid out in a bizarre and ridiculous booklet called “Protect & Survive” issued to all households in the 1980’s. We were instructed to make shelters inside our living rooms using the doors removed from the hinges and then covered in sandbags. The windows were to be whitewashed to deflect the initial flash that “could” cause fires inside the house. Of course, the actual blast following on at the speed of sound would blow the windows in, and probably the house too. But hopefully, you and your family would be fine under your doors covered in sandbags.

You would then wait for instructions from the government who had slightly better facilities – deep underground in reinforced concrete bunkers that were dotted about the country equipped with generators, air filters, radios and telephones with huge reserves of food and water. Once the dust had settled, so to speak, they would co-ordinate the restoration of society and get everything up and running again. Why the government was not immediately laughed out of office is beyond me. People took the precautions seriously for a while. But nobody really believed it, then or now.

English Heritage, a quasi government body charged with protecting and preserving the Architectural Heritage of this country has just issued a new list of buildings and sites that need preserving. Their portfolio goes as far back as the Norman and Saxon Churches, mediaeval Castles through 1930’s cinemas, the new architecture of the post war 1950s and as up to date as 1980’s ghastly office blocks. Top of the latest list are the “Cold War” bunkers of the regional emergency Regional Seats of governments (RSGs) and the concrete hangers where the American and British Nuclear strike forces sat in readiness for 20 years to scramble at a moment’s notice off into the skies to destroy the USSR.

It is not popular with the British Public who see these   “eyesores” as not worth saving.       But to me, these ugly,  brutal

functional grey concrete structures, these blots on the landscape,


The deserted nuclear bunkers at Greenham

are our past and must be kept for future generations as a reminder of our folly.

This is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Cuban missile crisis – that single most dangerous moment in the history of mankind – when a handful of men held the fate of everyone in their hands. For 13 days Washington, Moscow and Havana carried out a macabre dance of death with the future of mankind. It is no exaggeration to say the whole world paused, waited and prayed. Everyone knew, after the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, – that were mere fireworks compared to what the world now possessed – the consequences of the crisis descending into war.

I loved my school days; yet of all those happy years I can only recall one lesson in any real detail. It was a period of “Current Affairs” and it was taken by the headmaster, never before or since, had he taken lessons. It was just before that day of reckoning in 1962 when the Russian ships and their deadly cargo of nuclear rockets en route to Cuba were required to turn back or the shooting would begin.    He pulled no punches, taking us through every detail of the situation

The Blockade of Russian ships bound for Cuba.

and the various ways it could play out.  I doubt many of us fully understood the politics, or still less any notion of the true facts of the situation; but we well knew that we were in huge trouble.

In the blink of the other man’s eye, we emerged unscathed, although we were not out of the woods – indeed we were being walked deeper into the cold war forest. It seemed as though they were preparing for the nuclear slaughter, as though really welcoming it. These men had become so powerful and intoxicated with their weapons of mass destruction – it looked as though there was no hope.

Little wonder then that a generation growing up with the threat of nuclear extinction could not be expected to think or behave as if it had a future ahead of it. One of the key factors in the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s was not an implosion of moral values; but an underlying feeling that everything was threatened by nuclear annihilation.

So why wait?   Let’s make love now- let’s make music, let’s take drugs – what? Are they going to kill you or something? America was bombing Vietnam back beyond the Stone Age whilst also facing-off with the Russians in Europe. Across the continent were thousands of battle tanks, troops and aircraft, the two superpowers poised nose tip to nose tip just waiting for a chance to throw a punch. Yer? Yer?…. So what ‘you gonna do eh? ……Come on then, I dare you...and so on.

They edged a little close to each other. American Cruise Missiles carrying nuclear warheads were deployed in Britain. Our country had become for America the unsinkable aircraft carrier in Europe. This was a serious escalation of the cold war. Suddenly, the weapons were there for everyone to see. There was enough nuclear fire power there to kill a hundred million people in a matter of seconds.  These missiles were on mobile launchers and each day they would leave the Bases and travel around the countryside.  As though they were going to work in the morning.

The 20th century was born cowering in the trenches, and never managed to climb out of them.

To the credit of the British Peace Movement; 30 thousand angry women went to the base and camped there to bring attention to the issue and demanded that these hideous things be removed. There was one organised protest when 70 thousand women joined hands; circling the base and then stretching across the country side to the perimeter of the

50,000 Women of the Grenham Common Peace camp encircle the base, home to the 501st Tacticle missile Wing USAF, armed with multiple warhead cruise Missiles.

Aldermaston weapons factory – home of the British Bomb. In 1991, as part of a treaty on intermediate range weapons, the cruise missiles were removed back to America. Left behind; those grey brutal concrete bunkers in which the missiles were housed that English Heritage now wants to preserve.

The last Greenham Common protester left the Peace camp 19 years after her first day at the fence.

Now that the world’s economy has collapsed and Britain is under the yoke of austerity cut backs on welfare, social services, the police, the army, our libraries, and our fire brigades; the Government want to renew the Submarine based nuclear weapons system; Trident.        If you are going to kill millions of people you want state-of-the-art equipment to do it with. A snitch at 84 billion pounds over the next 50 years.

Eighty four  Billion Pounds!  That is a stagering amount of money to spend on weapons that no one can ever sanely use.   If pounds were seconds; 1 million seconds are 11 days.  I billion Seconds is 32 years.  And these idiots want spend 84 times that, which incidently is 2,688 years worth, whilst through the coming winter and subsequent winters old age pensioners in 21st century Britain will die of hyperthermia because they cannot afford the energy to keep warm.

The women of Greenham Common wouldn’t allow any men to protest with them. Who can blame them when on TV we see the same arogant dull government men in their identical suites and ties espousing the same justification for having weapons of mass distruction for the last 50 years.

It is true that the one thing we learn from History is that we learn nothing from history.

As a small child, I once overheard the grown-ups discussing nuclear weapons. “You know, they fly round all day and night, with those nuclear bombs on board. It only takes someone to push the wrong button and we’ll all be killed”   I took it all in.

That night laying in bed, listening to the slow drone of turbo prop airliners as they began their approach to London Airport, I thought  they were all carrying atomic bombs and that at any minute they would make that terrible mistake. I was completely traumatised. Eventually, sleep rescued me.

A small thing really, but every Monday morning at 11.30 Sharp, the wailing Banshee from the dockyard takes me straight back under the blankets of my childhood.

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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14 Responses to English Heritage and the Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. I spent some time with a bitter taste in my mouth for Albert Einstein after learning about his personal life. Then, when I struggled with my own, I forgave him. And, it was easy, because he spoke the truth. We are cavemen. But, still, I wish we weren’t.

  2. Never has more truth been spoken than we learn nothing from our history, I weep for us nearly every single day.

  3. TBM says:

    I hadn’t heard that quote by Einstein but it is very telling. Humans and their incessant need for conflict is terrifying.

  4. I love the way this post took me on a powerful journey – it is sad that history can teach so much and yet people don’t listen.

  5. katecrimmins says:

    I remember at least once when I was in grade school around 1958-59, we had an air raid drill where we were all instructed to crawl under our desks. I can’t imagine how much protection that thin piece of wood would have done. There was a basement that we could have retreated to instead.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for visiting. Given that after a nuclear blast, electricity, gas, water, food, medicine, transport and communications will be instantly disabled for months. Under the desk, under the floor – it matters little. At least the school people were doing what they thought was the best at the time.

      Do come back.

  6. hearabout says:

    As a passionate historian I would disagree with your verdict, that “one thing we learn from History is that we learn nothing from history” That might seem like the truth in many ways – given the perpetual political skirmishes and ongoing international conflicts. Yet, there is a distinction between history, which can teach us valuable lessons and in my opinion does evolve and move – even in babysteps – in a more positive direction. The United Nations, the European Union, the International Criminal Court. All are distinct post-second world war developments worth recognising.
    Yet, I would be wary to mix up history with human nature. Human nature is irrational, prone to conflict, proud, erroneous, but at the same time we see compassion, activism and the strive for more. This conglomerate shapes politics, society and culture what will ultimately turn into history.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      I was merely quoting AJP Taylor another passionate historian. It’s a great line. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used it, because I agree with most of your optimism. With repect to my posting, I have less optimisim that the people who insist on having these vile weapons are in control of their actions. Mr Taylor also said that “War is not inevitable until it breaks out” The two nuclear super powers have been so close to nuclear conflict on a number of occasions due to faulty radar equipment, misinformation and those unbiqutous flocks of birds.

      Thanks for reading.

  7. I think I have a few of your seashells. Thanks!

  8. TAE says:

    Thanks for writing this and including your personal experience. My generation grew up in the shadow of Chernobyl, and I think (and hope) that we won’t forget it, when it’s our time to make decisions. I also think that our representative democracy should be updated, and that we should, maybe even have to, get rid of these self-serving “man in suits”.

  9. I live in Miami most all my life and was early teen Cuban Missile Crisis. It was terrifying – just 90 miles away ! I heard about your seashell collection. I did the same with my atmosphere collection.

  10. john zande says:

    A great read. History, especially if its ugly and malformed like these nuclear relics, should be preserved. In Washington i spent a week (i could have spent 10 weeks) roaming through the various Smithsonian museums. In the Air & Space museum (if you haven’t already seen) they have the wooden firing pins for Little Boy on display. Being so close to them made me physically ill. Literally, i had to fast-track it outside for air. It was odd, but the best experiences are the odd one’s.

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