Corsham Bunker

Fascinating article on the Corsham bunker, the secret underground UK site the government was to retreat to in the event of a nuclear war.

Until two years ago, the existence of this complex, variously codenamed Burlington, Stockwell, Turnstile or 3-Site, was classified. It was a huge yet very secret complex, where the government and 6,000 apparatchiks would have taken refuge for 90 days during all-out thermonuclear war. Solid yet cavernous, surrounded by 100ft-deep reinforced concrete walls within a subterranean 240-acre limestone quarry just outside Corsham, it drives one to imagine the ghosts of people who, thank God, never took refuge here.

Posted on February 7, 2007 at 2:40 PM • 47 Comments

Comments

C. CretagentmanFebruary 7, 2007 3:29 PM

"According to a spokeswoman at the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Corsham has not been superseded by some new bunker."

Whether they will actually provide protection or not, I think most governments have the equivalent of a protective bunker. Every few months they run the drill, escort the PM into the plastic bubble, and congratulate themselves on beating the last drill by three seconds. It just feels like good security.

And whether it be bunkers, or planes, or ray guns: If you get a look at it, then it means they already have something "better" behind the curtain. That may or may not be a good thing, but it's just the way it works.

Stephan SamuelFebruary 7, 2007 4:26 PM

I'm not sure I understand the point of these bunkers. Country A launches nukes at Country B, sending the "leaders" of Country B into the bunker. What exactly are the "leaders" of Country B supposed to do after they've pressed all the blinking red buttons labeled "Launch"?

I put leaders in quotes because I think the bunkers beg the question of who gets to go. Did they invite Bruce Schneier? I think he's done more to advance society than, say, Peter Pace, who may be an exemplary general, but may not do much for the society that ensues after the apocalypse.

If it's not an apocalypse, all that needs to be done is ferry the head of the country onto their big, hardened airplane and send them to the part of the world that isn't glowing green.

Terry ClothFebruary 7, 2007 4:57 PM

How did they keep it secret? With ``100ft-deep reinforced concrete walls'', it took a lot of workers to build, and I really doubt that each and every one of them was given a Top [Most? this /is/ the UK :-)] Secret clearance. The cover story must have been outstanding for there to have been no rumors. Or maybe, as per standard in times path, they were all buried in the walls when the job was over?

P-O-EFebruary 7, 2007 4:58 PM

Who is allowed to go into the bunker, er, mine shafts, the male to female ratio and how long they'd need to be down there is fully explored in the last 10 minutes or so of the movie Dr. Strangelove.

Gentlemen, we must close the mine-shaft gap!

SurvivorFebruary 7, 2007 4:59 PM

"Margaret Thatcher was shown a £40m estimate for a refit of the Corsham bunker. She refused to pay, arguing that it was no longer necessary."

I'm glad to say that history has vindicated her decision but this made me think - how do you put a value on defence against a nation by large-scale atomic attack?

My heart says that Thatcher made the right choice because in the worst case scenario, things would have been so awful that it's hard to think through the full consequences and at the time there was little reason to suppose it could happen.

My head says that although there was "little" reason to expect nuclear armageddon, the possibility surely could not have been ruled out entirely and £40m was affordable by the nation.

SurvivorFebruary 7, 2007 5:14 PM

@Stephen Samuel

"I'm not sure I understand the point of these bunkers."

I think they do make some sense. Imagine 75% of the population of your country are slaughtered by nukes. Do the remaining millions just shrug their shoulders and live of looted food until they starve? If you believe in the concept of a nation then you have to have some planning and co-ordination. In World War II Britian was, practically speaking, a communist country - I don't mean adopting Marxist theology and suchlike but the government centrally controlled a great deal of the economy to ensure that people were fed (ration coupons) and the economic output was focussed on the war. Modern liberal states are not very practical when a country is engaged in a fight for national survival.

That said, however, a network of smaller, distributed bunkers/administration centres might make more sense. See below ...

@Terry Cloth

"How did they keep it secret?"

You are right. Even without CND informing the Soviets, it would have been impossible to keep this secret for long.

ProhiasFebruary 7, 2007 5:15 PM

The last people you want protected in a bunker when there is large scale annhilation are politicians. When the future evolution of a race or humankind if left in the hands of a few people, you might as well roll with the dice.

"If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." Sun Tzu, the Art of War.

UNTERFebruary 7, 2007 5:52 PM

@Stephan Samuel

Don't you remember Dr. Strangelove? We need a small number virile men (or at least a steady supply of Viagra) and hot, nubile women willing to do their national duty (for the Fatherland, and all that).

And don't forget the mineshaft gap!

Paul McLellanFebruary 7, 2007 6:07 PM

I used to live in Bath (near Corsham) and I recall everyone seemed to know that there was an underground complex at Corsham. Maybe it was because my father was in the Royal Navy and so I moved in navy circles, but I don't think it was all that secret (of course I had no idea how big or deep it was, or anything).

-- paul

AlanSFebruary 7, 2007 7:30 PM

"The last people you want protected in a bunker when there is large scale annhilation are politicians."

I don't know. Pack them all in. Once they've closed the door, paint a great big bullseye on the top of the thing.

Bill NaceFebruary 7, 2007 8:29 PM

"The last people you want protected in a bunker when there is large scale annihilation are politicians."

Wasn't there a story in the Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy about packing all the lawyers and hair-dressers into a spaceship when the planet faced armageddon (and then rejoicing once the spaceship had departed)?

I hope all the HHG fanatics will pardon my poor memory.

quincunxFebruary 7, 2007 10:14 PM

Uhm, to anyone confused, the bunkers are for the political and money elite and no one else. That is their sole purpose.

It merely reflects a simply truth that very few will admit: the state is a criminal gang. It protects itself and its most powerful allies first and formost at your expense. You are just sheep.

AlanSFebruary 7, 2007 10:32 PM

"Uhm, to anyone confused, the bunkers are for the political and money elite and no one else. That is their sole purpose."

Of course. I also read somewhere that the plan for this bunker was to pack in as much gold and cultural treasures as possible. Pack in a few plebs or some gold? Oh, lets take the gold.

If a nuclear war starts, the pols have obviously failed to do what they were elected to do so why would anyone want to keep them around, never mind continue to take orders from them? I suspect the bunker is as much about protecting themselves from their angry electorate as it is from the nuclear weapons.

the other GregFebruary 7, 2007 11:39 PM

The kind of armageddon they were contemplating, it would serve them right to have to live in the aftermath.

Dom De VittoFebruary 7, 2007 11:41 PM

I spent my first 20 years living around 10 miles from this, and never knew about it.

But with Salisbury plain not far (25 square miles or wargames arena), who know what's under that.....

Oh, and I AM NOT A SHEEP: I AM A NUMBER!

Ping-Che ChenFebruary 8, 2007 1:32 AM

To my understanding, the "bunkers" are only effective when nukes have a long warning time (back in the age when all nukes are launched by bombers or ICBMs), and the accuracy was bad. Now bunkers are not that effective as even ICBM can hit the target within about 150m radius. And the nukes can be launched from the sea, with very little warning time. So the "replacement" for bunkers are airplanes. It's almost impossible to hit a flying airplane with a nuke, so it's relatively safe to fly in your own airspace assuming no enemy airplanes are around.

John DaviesFebruary 8, 2007 2:49 AM

"Wasn't there a story in the Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy about packing all the lawyers and hair-dressers into a spaceship when the planet faced armageddon (and then rejoicing once the spaceship had departed)?"

That would be the Golgafrincham 'B' Ark containing telephone sanitisers amongst others. Ironically the remaining two thirds of the population, having got rid of the useless third, then died from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. The threat was a mutant star goat I believe.

PaeniteoFebruary 8, 2007 3:54 AM

@Ping-Che Chan: "It's almost impossible to hit a flying airplane with a nuke, so it's relatively safe to fly in your own airspace assuming no enemy airplanes are around."

No, I don't think that you would want to fly over your own country when nukes are coming down.
A nice, somewhat remote, piece of ocean sounds much more attractive -- if over land, you would at least avoid to fly over anything 'interesting' (say, cities and military installations).

Carl ThorpFebruary 8, 2007 4:16 AM

I remember in the early 1990's I was looking at joining the volunteer Observer Corp in the UK. To my surprise I found there was a small bunker a mile from where I lived. These unpaid heros were trained to leave their familes behind and live in a hole in the ground not much bigger than your average living room. They where then tasked, once the bombs had dropped, to leave their shelters, retrieve film from external cameras, take fall out readings etc. and report back to a central command post. All dressed in nothing more than rubber boots, waterproofs and an industrial face mask purchased from the local harware store.
This may sound slightly rediculous or even commical. However, their role was critical in plotting fall out patterns, evacutation routes etc. They probably would not have survived an all out attack, but would have been important in case of a smaller scale attack. In the late 90's they were disbanded as they were no longer considered nessecary. In fact the whole concept of co-ordinated volunteer civil defence seems to have been largely forgotten. Yet, in the uncertain times we have ahead, and with the likelhood that any attack would be in a limited area rather than an all out attack, should we not reconsider the need to prepare for the unthinkable. At the very least they could assist in recovery from other incidents should as natural disasters.

StudentFebruary 8, 2007 4:41 AM

Well, I wonder if this kind of bunkers really makes sense from a security standpoint.

If the goal is to avoid a war where nukes are used I think "If the nukes starts flying you are going to get hit" is a very good motivation indeed for the politicians. In general we can assume that the politicians either have time to press the button (in which case the bunkers gives them bad motivations) or does not have time to press the button (when the bunker wouldn't help much).

On the other hand it's not a bad idea to build nuke proof military installations. That way you lower the risk of the enemy succeeding with a first strike and the value of the first strike is significantly lowered, which might not make it worth the cost.

Sweden built most of the military installations to withstand nuclear attacks for a number of years. This included coastal artillery, hangars and dry docks. The rationale was that they are less likely to use nuclear weapons if they know that the effect will be limited.

WierdoFebruary 8, 2007 6:39 AM

@Student;

It is good that you have chanced upon the blog of the master Bruce. Hope that you may be adopted. Here you shall learn that it is not the answer which is at question, it is the question which is the answer.

One asks not: does it "really makes sense from a security standpoint"?. One asks "who's security makes this sense?". With the right question; the answer will come to mind. (in this case: "not yours").

Nick BrookeFebruary 8, 2007 8:29 AM

@the other Greg:

I thought the idea of these bunkers was to preserve a non-irradiated meat supply for those of us left OUTSIDE the bunkers to enjoy, following the all-out nuclear holocaust caused by the fools penned up INSIDE the bunkers.

I'm not sure how they sold it to the "cattle" in the bunkers, though...

Maj EdFebruary 8, 2007 9:05 AM

The point of the bunkers was, like many aspects of nuclear strategy, a bit non-intuitive. Like any other defensive measure, it was designed to convince an enemy that he was incapable of launching a disarming first strike.

The world's largest nuclear force is helpless if there's no one around to give the order to launch it. So, a tempting strategy for an attack on that power would be to eliminate all the leadership in a "de-capitation" strike. There are several ways to mitigate this threat: ranging from the plausible (e.g. establishing an automatic succession to the chain of command) to the nightmarish (e.g. a deadman switch-triggered retaliatory strike). On that list of countermeasures is protecting the leadership by splitting it up and putting it in protected locations. Not every bunker has to work and not every national leader has to survive. As long as only one does and he maintains communication with the retaliatory forces long enough to give the order to attack, then the decapitation strike is a failure.

Here's the last brain-twist -- the enemy has to be convinced of this. It doesn't matter if your nation has a perfect plan to protect its leadership in wartime if the enemy still thinks he can eliminate it. In that case, the deterrent has failed. So, the enemy must remain uncertain about his chances of a successful attack. That's a stable deterrent. And that's why we have bunkers.

ProhiasFebruary 8, 2007 10:50 AM

"So, the enemy must remain uncertain about his chances of a successful attack. That's a stable deterrent. And that's why we have bunkers."

Then we shouldn't spend all these millions building it. It is top sceret anyway so build something that is a total hoax but projects to everyone concerned (including insiders and well designed leaks) that it has 100 feet of concrete etc.

Maj EdFebruary 8, 2007 11:34 AM

@Prohias:

I guess I should have said "And that's why we built bunkers." In the mindset of the late 50s, when nuclear deterrence was seen as inherently unstable, any measure that would conceivably stabilize the situation was worth considering. Given the state of the art of weapons (inaccurate first-generation ballistic missiles with CEPs measured in miles, slow bombers which could be intercepted) during the period, a bunker (whose precise location was not known to the Soviets) gave its inhabitants a fair chance of survival. At least long enough to order retaliation. By the early 60s, bunkers were no longer viable because weapons (and intelligence information) had improved. That's why the US switched to a system of airborne command and control aircraft (NEACP, TACMO, etc.). Same concept, but different mechanism for surviving long enough to order retaliation.

In the end, though, the thing to remember about these bunkers (and the subsequent airborne platforms) is that they were designed not to rebuild the nation after an attack, but to convince an enemy that no matter how well he executed a surprise attack, he'd suffer unacceptable losses in the end. Post-attack recovery was certainly something taken into account, but it wasn't the primary purpose building the shelters.

Tom ThumFebruary 8, 2007 1:05 PM

@Prohias:

The point of actually building them is to ensure enough people know about it that the enemy learns of it. If it's a secret it's not a deterrent, if it's obviously a false front it won't deter, so we make it real even though it's ludicrous in hindsight.

Having a separate bunker for the pols accomplishes a few more goals - they're more likely to appropriate funds for the actual military bunkers, they're less likely to be under military feet in an actual crisis, and once we get them all in there who says we have to dig them out again?

XellosFebruary 8, 2007 2:32 PM

"If it's a secret it's not a deterrent"

Bringing to mind other Dr. Strangelove quotes:

President Merkin Muffley: How is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically and at the same time impossible to untrigger?
Dr. Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the FEAR to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand... and completely credible and convincing.

and

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn't you tell the world, EH?

UNTERFebruary 8, 2007 2:39 PM

@Tum Thum:

Which once again reminds me of Dr. Strangelove, with the secret Doooomsday Device, kept as a surprise for the Soviet Premiers birthday party. Unfortunately, it fails to work as a deterrent, since before his birthday as it's a secret, but works as trajedy -- the deadman's device was already activated.

Ahh, one of the greatest movies every made --- madness sure has an ability to rev up the creative juices. Just like the Manchurian Candidate...

UNTERFebruary 8, 2007 2:40 PM

Sadness -- Xellos beat me to it, with the exact quote. Xellos, you get $1000 virtual ;)

AnonymousFebruary 8, 2007 3:28 PM

"Wasn't there a story in the Hitchhiker's Guide Trilogy about packing all the lawyers and hair-dressers into a spaceship when the planet faced armageddon (and then rejoicing once the spaceship had departed)?"

"That would be the Golgafrincham 'B' Ark containing telephone sanitisers amongst others. Ironically the remaining two thirds of the population, having got rid of the useless third, then died from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. The threat was a mutant star goat I believe."


Sadly (according to the HHGG) the 'B' ark occupants were our ancestors.

JilaraFebruary 8, 2007 6:21 PM

I live relatively near an interesting storage facility: it's where the IRS stores old tax records in an underground bunker housed in an old railway tunnel, which will protect them in the event of all-out war. Isn't it nice to know that, in the event of a nuclear holocaust, they will still be able to audit your old tax returns?

WestCountrymanFebruary 9, 2007 11:22 AM

@Survivor

"That said, however, a network of smaller, distributed bunkers/administration centres might make more sense. ..."

These existed as well, the so-called "Regional Seats of Government" mentioned in the article; a program that started in the 1950s and was outed by CND in the mid-1960s. A group styling itself "Spies for Peace" broke into one of them and released photos of the interior, as I remember it didn't look very impressive for a place that was supposed to coordinate efforts to maintain order over a large part of the country after a nuclear strike.

I recall a comment in a newspaper that the RSGs had gone unremarked for so long - at least by the general public - mostly through through careful site selection and misdirection. There wouldn't have been any visibly obvious security measures during construction, but the locations chosen wouldn't have had many passers-by who might wonder whether rather a lot of concrete was being poured into holes in the ground; when the work was finished the above-ground part looked to be just another of the many unmanned premises dotted through the countryside that give access to water pipelines, main telephone trunks, and the like. And as long as there wasn't a crisis serious enough to activate them, they'd only get the occasional visit from a few 'workmen' obviously there to do routine inspection and maintenance of whatever function was their cover story.

Security by obscurity, in other words, which eventually failed when a sufficienty motivated group sought out information about government planning for the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

travelgirlFebruary 9, 2007 3:52 PM

@prohias

One would assume there are people who could take advantage of such a situation, where all of the politicians were located in one supposedly-safe enclave. To wit, there's a quote from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A Heinlein) that seems apropos here:

"Man, I think we should stop hitting Cheyenne Mountain."

"Why?"

"It's not there any more."

WestCountrymanFebruary 11, 2007 5:31 AM

Extensive information/ speculation about Corsham, RSGs, UK government planning for nuclear exchange and its consequences, from a left of center viewpoint, at

http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/features/sfs/new_page_1.htm

Corsham is file 4. Caveat lector, I really cannot estimate how accurate the material is, however on reflection I think must apologise and withdraw the charming account of site selection and camouflage that I posted earlier, remembered from a contemporary newspaper comment when I was still at school[*]. Plausible for smaller locations, perhaps, but not for something as major as an RSG.

[*] There was rumour of a bunker on moorland just a few miles outside town, which even reached the regional TV news, probably the main reason the episode sticks in my memory.

another bruceFebruary 12, 2007 3:19 AM

i knew a girl back in the hood where i grew up whose family had a bomb shelter. she lost her virginity in it.

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