Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Chronicling the unthinkable. The history of the Central Government War Headquarters (BURLINGTON).

It’s been a busy few days for the author, and time to sit, think and then write has been in short supply. One of the challenges of writing a blog is to be able to have the space to think through the issue, and identify one’s own views on a subject prior to writing about it. Although the author hasn’t had much of a chance to do this recently, it perhaps is a useful way of highlighting a new website which warrants much wider attention.

During the Cold War the Civil Service found itself being asked to ‘think the unthinkable’ and provide advice to Ministers and consider planning for the continuity of the State during the transition to war, through to the point where nuclear weapons were released, and then finally how to pick up the pieces again in the aftermath of the conflict.

This is perhaps the most serious and difficult task asked of any civil servant – how does one consider the acts which may well lead to the deaths of millions, and then consider how to continue Government and rebuild in the aftermath? If anything, this is perhaps the one time when someone really does need the space to stop and think about an issue.

For decades much of this planning remained Top Secret, and it was only really with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act back in 2004 that many files, often unseen for years, were released slowly into the public domain. These files tell the story of how the UK Govt planned to continue providing some form of government, even after a nuclear strike.

The full story of the post war planning has been covered in the superb book ‘The Secret State’ by Peter Henessey. This account looks at how the UK planners considered many issues linked to the fighting of a nuclear war, including the niceties of nuclear command and control. One site which is discussed at length is the so-called ‘Central Government Headquarters’ at Corsham in Wiltshire, often known as the ‘BURLINGTON’ bunker.

This site, built on a disused WW2 underground aircraft factory was converted at significant cost in the 1950s to provide a central HQ for UK Government, and at its peak had over 4000 bunk spaces and a vast area of offices, communications centres and life support. It really would have been the home for Whitehall in the event of war, right up until the mid-1960s when alternate plans were developed.

Corsham is a fascinating site, and one that remained Top Secret until late 2003, when it was finally declassified ahead of the FOI Act. Since its declassification, the author has been lucky enough to visit the site for tours on several occasions, and to see where the most difficult decisions a UK leader would ever face could have been taken. It is a chilling site, with an air of malevolence hanging around it, as its labyrinth corridors and rooms sit decaying, awaiting a mission that never came.

The reason why Corsham matters to the author is because it highlights one of the difficulties in trying to deliver effective defence policy. How can one plan the unplannable and put into place arrangements that can never be tested, trialled or worked through, and on the day of implementation be put into place against the greatest disaster ever likely to befall humanity? More parochially, it shows the difficulties in planning, by showing that when construction on the site began, it would have delivered an immensely capable HQ, but it was obsolete within two years, due primarily to unforeseen weapon developments.

This is perhaps a good way of realising why many projects seem to perhaps be less efficient than perhaps the public would hope – people have to work with concepts that may be difficult to plan for, and provide equipment against assumptions which are difficult to test. When the international environment changes, one has to try and work out how to incorporate a previously vital, but now immediately obsolescent, capability into a new role at short notice. The story of Corsham beautifully illustrates these points, in a particularly serious way.

The reason why this all matters is because an outstanding new website has been set up to chronicle the history of Corsham. Steve Fox, a historian possessed with considerable reserves of stamina and a willingness to keep hammering away at FOI requests has spent years compiling probably the first history of the site and its role. He played an immense role in working through hundreds of files of correspondence, often spotting tiny details hidden in a morass of trivia, which in turn has helped build a picture of how the site would have worked.

Humphrey has a long standing interest in Cold War era continuity of government planning, and has been fortunate enough to correspond with Steve over the years on Corsham and other matters. The work that he’s has done has been superb, and it represents probably the only history of the Corsham facility that will ever be published.

The work is testament to the power of the FOI Act, and an excellent demonstration of the level of planning and commitment by the Civil Service to seriously trying to govern Britain in the aftermath of the unthinkable, quite literally down to the provision of tea leaves. The link is below, and the site is now permanently linked on the right of this page. Steve has done an incredible piece of work, and deserves huge plaudits for his efforts in putting this all together. Humphrey strongly recommends that those of you with an interest in all things Cold War, bunkers and contingency planning, pay a trip to the following link:


  1. In Canada we have the "Diefenbunker"!

    Mark Collins

  2. Have a look at Sub Britannica

    Fascinating stuff

    A couple of deeper links to Corsham related items

  3. Well, it all sounds a bit Dad's Army crossed with Yes Minister now, but I can assure everyone it was bloody serious at the time.
    We were in the West Atlantic in October 1962 and were not even bothering to write letters about goodbye. It didn't help when we were boarded by a bunch of American Marines looking for A-Bombs hidden in 28,000 tonnes of crude oil. They were very serious indeed.
    Twenty five years later, I tangled with Yes Minister again when I was invited to partake in some follow up to the Corsham Idea and asked to advise HMG on the best way to keep UK Inc going in the event of another A-Bomb. This time the problem was Al-Qaeda and, again, it had to be done from underground.
    I had visions of the aftermath when civil servants would pop up like gophers in a desert and rule the world.

  4. Steve Fox has done some brilliant work in this area. Was going to mention his previous work, Struggle For Survival, but I see someone has beaten me to it. :-)

    1. Should have also have mentioned that there is an excellent new book on Corsham also out by Nick Catford - Burlington: The Central Government Emergency War Headquarters at Corsham.

  5. It always amuses me that it's existence was kept a secret for so long. The Soviets had it cracked by the early 60s, MI5 realised this when the Soviet Naval Attache was found drunk in a local pub. (It seems he was snooping about and got distracted by some of the local ales. It could happen to anyone.)
    The locals knew as well, for years they found themselves giving directions to various lost military officers, saying words to the effect of 'looking for the secret bunker? turn left at the Dog & Duck'.
    (It's worth noting that TURNSTILE / BURLINGTON wasn't the only underground facility in the area and some are still extant.)

  6. Not entirely Top Secret - it's mentioned in Campbell's "War plan UK", and that was published in 1982!