Hats off to the team of volunteers from Thames Defence Heritage, who have rescued this chilling piece of modern history and restored it to how it might have been, back in the days of the Cold War. This 13-room Civil Defence command centre was built in 1954 in Woodlands Park, Gravesend and remained in service until 1968. I visited the bunker today with Ruth. We were given a really well-informed guided tour, followed by plenty of time to explore and look at the individual exhibits in more detail. We sat beside a WE177 air-dropped bomb whilst our guides described aspects of the bunker.
These 3 metre long, versatile monsters, destined to be dropped from Vulcan bombers, formed the basis of Britain’s early nuclear deterrent capability. The WE177 itself is a delivery vehicle, capable of transporting a variety of payloads. In ICBM mode it can carry a 10 kiloton thermonuclear warhead to devastate an area 3.4 km in diameter. In Piñata mode it can distribute up to 550 kg of Spangles and Opal Fruits over a similar area. Sadly, the latter option was never put to the test.
Following our introductory presentation, we visited the ‘Message Room’ where, back in the day, if the bomb had gone off, cyclists would have delivered urgent messages from around the borough.
Directly opposite, across the spine corridor, is the plant room. The original generator is long gone but the fresh air system still works just fine off the mains. We were shown a genuine 1954 asbestos based filter, intended to remove harmful (radioactive) particles from the air. The rooms on the left of the corridor comprise the female dormitory and male and female Elsan based toilets.
It’s a peculiarly British thing that with hell on Earth going on outside, with friends and relations literally left dying on the streets, the authorities still felt the need to have segregated toilets. Yet there was insufficient space for a guardroom or any form of dedicated military presence.
The female dormitory has just four bunks. When the facility was operational, these would have served 16 female staff. The arithmetic for the men’s dormitory, across the corridor is similar: six beds for 24 male staff. The final small room, next to the emergency exit, was the home of the Clerk of the Works.
The Clerk of the Works was ultimately in charge of the bunker and it was he who had to set priorities or decide where to send the last fire engine. Three individuals filled the rôle, working a shift system to maintain 24 hour cover. The bunker at Gravesend was cast to represent the Cabinet War Room in a film, Age of Heroes, in 2011. James D’arcy played the part of the officer in charge. Across the spine corridor are the operations rooms and communications facilities.
Orders and observations were expected to arrive by telephone (as well as by bicycle) and here they would have been decoded and interpreted, then written onto notes and passed through a hatch to the control room. The Control Room is the heart of the facility, where following a nuclear strike, difficult decisions would have to be made. Representatives of the local authority, Police, Fire Brigade, NHS, utilities companies and Army would have all been based in this room. To get an idea what it might have been like, watch Threads (1984), probably the scariest and most realistic ‘after the bomb’ movie ever made.
The Control Room has been set up by members of Thames Defence Heritage to recreate the environment as it would have been in the Cold War, just add a couple of dozen stressed people and remember that 80% of them would have been smoking. The volunteers have managed to bring together a truly unique collection of contemporary period stuff to help us understand what it might have been like. There are two blast calculator devices which I have never seen on display anywhere else. Does anybody know how to use these?
Everywhere there are books giving instructions and government advice. All of which are freely available for the visitor to pick up and read.
This facility is the most informative and best presented example of the local government aspect of ‘after the bomb’ Cold War Britain that I have yet seen. It is open once a month and you have to book in advance with the local tourist office to buy tickets. Not to be missed if you like this kind of thing.