At the height of the cold war a key part of Britain’s nuclear preparedness and capability was the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) designed to detect a nuclear strike to the UK. Also a vital part of our nuclear defence was the WE I 77 free fall nuclear weapon.
The ultra secret system was designed to detect a missile attack on the U K and launch a devastating retaliatory attack. RAF Fylingdales in Yorkshire would have detected the missiles. Once the missile’s trajectory was confirmed by the NORAD strategic defence headquarters, deep underground in the Cheyenne mountain complex in Colorado USA.
The attack confirmation would be instantly transmitted to our primary war headquarters at UK Regional Air Operations Centre RAF High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. (UKRAOC). Deep underground at the UKRAOC war bunker, the incoming missile maps would come, alive, and time to impact displays would flash the deadly countdown to our nuclear Armageddon.
If it were for real, attack-warning sirens would sound throughout the UK. This would be followed by a fail-safe command system, which would ultimately end in the executive coded order being given by the Prime Minister to launch a retaliatory attack. Our Polaris submarines would fire their missiles. The V -Force strike bombers would fly at supersonic speed to deliver the deadly WE I 77 nuclear weapons to our enemies.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cold war ended. 1994 saw the BMEWS system dismantled and the WE 177 weapon system de-commissioned. In order to maintain our readiness for an attack, RAF Fylingdales was demolished and a new phased array early warning facility was built on the same site. UKRAOC closed their bunker and built a new high-tech primary defence bunker facility . Both these measures ensured that our defences were modern enough to take Europe and UK safely into the next millennium. The old BMEWS system, and the WE 177 weapons, that had served so well at the forefront of the defence of Britain had gone forever. Gone but not forgotten!
Dogged determination by Rodney Siebert the curator at Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker in Nantwich Cheshire, led to these vital pieces of recent history being saved for the nation. The true story of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war could at last be told. Deep underground in the heart of the old UKRAOC bunker the BMEWS equipment and displays remained abandoned. The WE 177 nuclear weapons were dismantled.
In the darkness of the abandoned bunker lay a cold war time war The nations nuclear defence frozen in time, when the nuclear clock stopped ticking and our nuclear weapons started to gather dust.
The nuclear bunker at Hack Green was a Regional Government headquarters, a vast 35000 sq. ft bunker, staffed by 140 government officials at a time of nuclear conflict. Re-built in the I 980s at a cost of over £32 million, the self-contained complex had decontamination facilities, it’s own power station, water supplies, radio communications, telephone exchange and much more. Built in secret and hidden from the public until de-classified in 1993.
1998 saw the bunker open for the first time in over 50 years. Rodney’s dream of a cold war heritage centre where the public could experience for themselves the government’s preparations for nuclear war was a reality.
Thousands of curious people have flocked to explore the bunker for themselves since it’s opening. Once through the massive blast doors they are transported into the chilling world of the cold war. They learn what living conditions were really like. Really getting to grips with reality of the nuclear threat, hearing the sounds even the smells of a working civil defence HQ.
Although people were fascinated to see the labyrinth of fully equipped rooms and spooky corridors, to Rodney something was missing, a key part of cold war history, that BMEWS system.
Also almost all of the deadly WE 177 nuclear weapons had been dismantled. They were still hidden deep underground and behind high security fences, guarded by armed guards and guard dogs. Rodney approached the government and the ministry of defence for help and the wheels of government started to turn at the highest levels. Air Chief Marshall Sir john Allison, Commander in Chief Strike Command, one of Britain’s most senior military commanders and well known for his support of the RAF heritage, personally facilitated the rescue of the BMEWS equipment.
The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston found the last two remaining WE 177400-kiloton nuclear weapons. A weapon that has 10 times the power of the nuclear weapons used at Nagasaki and Hiroshima during world war two.
During 1999 in much secrecy, remembering that both RAF High Wycombe and AWE Aldermaston are still amongst the UK’s most secret sites, technicians carefully dismantled the last remaining operational BMEWS equipment and displays. Ton’s of equipment were bought to the surface and transported under cover northwards to Nantwich. Equally carefully it was taken back underground and re-constructed at the bunker at Hack Green. In March of this year an unmarked RAF transport moved the two WE I 77 nuclear weapons quietly to the bunker whilst it was closed to the public.
From May 2002 the public has for the first time been able to see the ultra-secret BMEWS equipment that only a few of the UK’s military commanders and defence staff have been privileged to see. You will see the massive incoming missile attack maps, electronic displays indicate the chilling time to impact on our cities.
Threat warning boards tell you if the missile is real or just a false alarm. To the public however it will be very real. They will be able to experience a real attack warning. A warning that millions feared but was unheard, until now at Hack Green. You will see and be close to a real 400-kiloton thermonuclear weapon, which if detonated over a Russian city could have killed millions in a blinding flash. But don’t worry it has been made quite safe now.
If anyone doubts that the Soviet threat was real and that the government was prepared to defend it’s people, visit Hack Green Bunker to see for yourself.
Hack Green is the largest cold war facility now open to the public. Historians, schools and the curious who visit Hack Green will experience the cold war at it’s most sinister height. Chilling history it may be, but the bunker now offers a warm welcome to families looking for a totally different day out. The bunker is a huge adventure playground in itself. Younger children have bundles of fun as secret agents following the soviet spy mouse trail.
The bunker bistro now offers visitors a tasty alternative to the survival rations is was equipped to serve. When I spoke to Rodney about the bunker’s success and it’s new acquisitions. He said,
“I’m thrilled that so many have enjoyed what I set out to do. It is of national importance that Britain’s cold war heritage is preserved for future generations. So that they can see how close we came to oblivion, and that the sterling service given by thousands of members of the armed forces and civil servants, protecting and preparing for the unthinkable is recorded. The cold war is over, and the nuclear holocaust we all feared never happened.
I am pleased with the bunker now that the BEMEWS displays are here, and not many people have ever been close to a real nuclear bomb.
The nuclear weapon display has been further enhanced by the arrival & display of project “Chevaline” the multiple warhead strategic submarine launched nuclear weapon. However I was reviewing the bunker displays the other day and something is still missing from the story I am trying to tell. I must give Tony Blair a ring to see if he can acquire it for Nantwich!”