Tameside and the Cold War: If Nuclear War Affected Our Borough

What if the bomb dropped in our area

Recently, the Public Records Office revealed Queen Elizabeth the Second’s ‘armageddon’ speech in advance of a nuclear attack. Written in 1983, this would have been the last thing viewers and listeners would have heard prior to an attack.

Though the Cold War begun in 1947, relations between the US and USSR superpowers deteriorated to a point where nuclear war seemed inevitable. This was more so in the 1980s when the Conservatives were allied with the US forces. As a consequence, CND membership increased, Manchester became the first UK city to become a Nuclear Free Zone, and our fellows in Westminster released a supposedly useful little book called ‘Protect and Survive’. The threat of nuclear war would be a gift for satirists, particularly Andrew Marshall and David Renwick with ‘End of Part One’, ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Whoops Apocalypse’. On a more serious side, Barry Hines’ ‘Threads’ scared 8 million viewers on BBC Two on the 23 September 1984 at 9pm (just the thing to watch before school or work).

Away from the cathode ray tube, Tameside in the 1980s was pretty grim excluding the threat of nuclear war. Its proximity to Manchester city centre and British Aerospace’s factories would have meant most of the borough’s 220,000 citizens would have been killed. Ashton-under-Lyne is less than 20 miles from BAE’s Woodford plant and Manchester Airport with Chadderton being less than 10 miles.

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Protect and Survive

Most of the material in Protect and Survive was based on the government’s Public Information Films narrated by Patrick Allan.

Fallout Shelters

There was no provision for communal fallout shelters for the plebiscite. Instead they would have had to shelter at home which would have been more dangerous. Tameside’s wide variety of terraced housing stock would have meant residents using the pantry or cellar as inner refuge. Therefore the fallout room was likely to have been the kitchen. Occupants in modern houses, devoid of pantries would have been less fortunate. Their inner refuge would comprise of three or four doors propped up against a kitchen or lounge wall, and probably would have been less durable.

Residents in high rise flats on West End, Richmond Park, Hattersley and Haughton Green would have had to shelter in the basement. If outdoors they encouraged people to shelter in a safe place (though they recommended, first and foremost staying at home). For some people, this would have meant the Scout Canal Tunnel in Mossley or the M67 bridge over the Peak Forest Canal.

According to Protect and Survive, the fallout room and inner refuge arrangement was ‘designed’ to last 14 days after attack. Duncan Campbell’s War Plan UK book (1983) thought otherwise. I would say that persons in Tameside’s more modern housing stock might have had less chance of surviving than those in Edwardian terraced houses. No allowances were made for the stability (or lack of stability) of dwellings built with non-standard methods (for example, the BISON building system on Ashton’s West End estate, or the corrugated houses on Pimlott Grove, Newton).

At present there is no sufficient detail as whether any public shelters were built in Tameside. Or as to whether improvised facilities could have been made available in church crypts or the cellars of local pubs and public buildings. Some could have took refuge in the caves near Brinksway Bridge in Stockport, or the ones opposite Merseyway Shopping Centre.

Food

In Protect and Survive, they recommended that each household had 14 days worth of non-perishable food.

With the slightest rumour of enemy advances, Ashton-under-Lyne town centre and Tameside’s eight other towns would have been most chaotic. Redmans would have had a run on corned beef in the indoor market. The then new Presto store under TAC would have resembled Gunfight at the OK Corral with similar results elsewhere. Fine Fare Hypermarket would have been similarly manic, maybe more so with the M67 and A57 being closed to civilian traffic.

Radio

In 1983, there was no such thing as Tameside Radio, and the Stalybridge Reporter was a broadsheet title. Any announcements would have been covered the national stations and BBC Radio Manchester. Piccadilly Radio may have suspended its normal programming.

The radio would be used to broadcast warnings in advance of a nuclear attack and post-war announcements. Shortly after an attack, details of reconstruction duties would be detailed.

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Preparations for Nuclear War

Till the end of the Cold War, local government officials would take part in simulation exercises with attack scenarios. This would prepare them for eventual nuclear attack with reference to changed roles after an attack. One such exercise was Square Leg. It assumed that 131 nuclear missiles would descend on the UK with a total of 205 megatons. From a population of 55 million, it was estimated that 53% of the population would have been killed.

Such operations would have been carried out by Tameside MBC and Greater Manchester County Council.

Roads and Rails

A sizeable number of the borough’s roads and railways would in a state of emergency be deemed Essential Service Routes. As a consequence, all residents would be barred from using the borough’s principal roads in favour of military traffic. Scheduled rail services would be cancelled. In 1983, the then mothballed Woodhead line might have been reopened for military traffic.

In Tameside, the following roads may have been deemed Essential Service Routes:

  • A57 (Denton – Hollingworth);
  • A627 (Bardsley Brow – Gee Cross);
  • A635 (Roaches – Fairfield);
  • A662 (Edge Lane – Ryecroft Hall);
  • A6018 (Wakefield Road/Stamford Street – Back Moor);
  • A670 (Ashton-under-Lyne – Haddens);
  • M67 (full length from Denton to Mottram-in-Longdendale/Hattersley).

Bus services throughout the borough would have been postponed, as the Essential Service Routes would have affected most of Greater Manchester Transport’s services. This would have affected the 211, 216 and 236 in their entirety. Delays would have been experienced on Crescent Road and Lumb Lane with increased traffic affecting the 346 route for instance.

Communications

Non-essential calls would have been suspended by means of the Government Telephone Preference Scheme. Unlike the Telephone Preference Scheme which stops you from being mithered by cold callers, access to the GTPS would be granted to a tiny majority of the population. In our borough’s case, that would have meant the leader of Tameside MBC Roy Oldham, Tom Pendry, Robert Sheldon and Andrew Bennett, and high ranking civil servants.

After an attack, Greater Manchester’s more limited telephony service would have been served by a communications mast in Heaton Park. This formed part of a national network known as Backbone. The mast at Heaton Park would work in concert with the Post Office Tower in London and Kingsway Tower in Birmingham. This would have depended on the state of the mast. It was claimed in War Plan UK that the parabolic antennae would have been affected by radiation. Thankfully, the aforementioned three towers have a peacetime use, and one which ensures the swift operation of our internet and telephony services.

Closer to home, the communications mast at Saddleworth was part of the Backbone network. Emergency services communications probably would have been served by the Werneth Low masts as of now.

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The Four Minute Warning and Regional Government

In the event of nuclear war, administrative functions undertaken by the Greater Manchester County Council and Tameside MBC would have been taken over by a seat of Regional Government.

Each part of the United Kingdom was federalised into regions similar to today’s European Parliamentary Constituencies and numbered. From 1948 to 1968, there was a number of regional War Rooms headed by Civil Defence Corps and Tameside’s nearest was in Fulwood Barracks, Preston. Greater Manchester came under Region 10.

By 1983, our Regional Government HQ moved to a purpose built bunker in Hack Green, Nantwich. This move was necessitated by flooding at a previous facility in Southport and lack of protection at Fulwood. There was a sub-HQ on Mill Lane, Cheadle. Each RGHQ included boarding facilities for its staff, proper sanitation and, as was the case in Hack Green, a small studio for the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service.

Our borough’s police stations were equipped with warning sirens. If in the event of a nuclear attack, there would have been three different types of signals:

  • Attack Warning: a rising and falling tone, four minutes before attack;
  • Fallout Warning: three loud tones, either a whistle or bang;
  • All Clear: a steady tone.

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After the Attack

Residents were expected to stay in their inner refuge for 48 hours. By which time the fallout dust would have settled and it would have been safe to venture out again. Though non-perishable food could remain in good condition throughout the next 13 days after the blast, water supplies would have been questionable. The mains supply would have been jeopardised, and families could have tried a drop of River Tame’s finest after boiling the contents on a primus stove.

As a consequence of the poor sanitation, cholera and dysentry would have reached levels last seen in the Victorian age. Concentrations may have been higher given the amount of terraced housing and density of the Tameside area.

With food running low, and some personal supplies affected by the impact, supermarkets may have been looted. Hungry persons would have been stopped en route to Fine Fare by armed guards (which could have been anyone from military personnel to traffic wardens). Fresh crops on Ashton Moss’ market gardens would have been irradiated and unlikely to return to pre-attack levels thanks to changes to the climate.

A fortnight on, Tameside’s survivors would be billeted for Reconstruction Duties. Survivors in very good health would meet at a given point, which would have been announced on the radio. The meeting point would have been somewhere central like Stamford Park or the Open Market in Ashton-under-Lyne. The purpose of Reconstruction Duties would have been to restore as best as possible the locality’s road and rail networks, and the demolition of dangerous buildings.

They would have worked for food instead of monetary reward, though there was provisions to continue Social Security payments. Food would have been sourced from storage depots, and the nearest one to Tameside was in Burtonwood, Warrington.

Months on from the blast, there would be a nuclear winter, which was colder and darker than a typical 1980s winter in Tameside. The thinning of the ozone layer – as is the case with the Greenhouse Effect – would have meant more ultra violet light and deaths from skin cancers.

Homeless survivors would have been evacuated to new homes well away from their families. People would have been coerced to house them.

Law Enforcement

Britain, in the midst of a nuclear war would have been subject to Martial Law. Subversive people would have been incarcerated, and this may have meant Trade Unionists as well as members of extremist groups. Manchester Airport would have been taken over by HM Government with civilian flights cancelled.

After the attack, makeshift facilities would have been procured for secret courts and cells. Duties hitherto taken by police officers would have seen troops and traffic wardens running G Division [Tameside’s Greater Manchester Police district].

Temporary internment camps would have been set up in the borough. For instance, this would have meant holding pens at Stamford Park tennis courts, the ‘Red Gra’ at All Saints R.C. High School, or the emptied outdoor swimming pool at Dukinfield Astley High School.

Health

In advance of a nuclear war, long term patients would have been moved out of Tameside General and Hyde hospitals. This would make way for eventual post-attack casualties. With the lack of electricity post-attack, vital medical equipment and anaesthetic would have been unavailable – something we take for granted now. Even the buildings themselves would have suffered some damage after the blast. Temporary triage facilities may have been set up in local clinics and nursing homes.

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Other Observations

Political Opposition

The borough had its own branch of CND. There was also the Saddleworth Peace Group whom were similarly like minded. Labour was firmly against Trident and favoured, in the 1983 General Election Manifesto, unilateral disarmament. Some MPs at the time, like Denis Healey, favoured multilateral disarmament.

Fine Art

In 1984, the then fresh-faced Marple born artist John Kimpton painted a series of portraits under the theme of Nuclear Nightmares. His portraits of persons after the attack was akin to Threads being captured on canvas. With Barry Hines’ docudrama fresh in the memory, or soon to leave an imprint on the nation’s psyche, Mr Kimpton’s work was the subject of a one-off documentary for Granada Television.

In more recent times, the Nuclear Nightmares series of paintings have been exhibited at The Oakwood pub in Glossop.

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Over To You

Before I close, what memories do you have over the threat of nuclear war? Did you join CND or the Saddleworth Peace Group? Did you fear the possibility of a post-nuclear war Tameside. If there’s any glaring omissions, feel free to point them out.

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4 thoughts on “Tameside and the Cold War: If Nuclear War Affected Our Borough

Add yours

  1. Just rewatched Threads and it’s still as powerful today as presumably it was when I last saw it and indeed when it was first released.

    Something that is generally skirted over when situations such as this are speculated upon is the assumption that the people in charge of governance of the country keep level headed whilst sheltering in their bunker. I would think that the loss of communication with their families (either through death or the forced telephone outages) and uncertainties as to the real course of events outside, would lead to nervous paralysis, a form of shellshock perhaps that would cloud reasoned judgement.

    I hesitate to say, enjoyable article though 🙂

    Like

    1. Hi Ady,

      That is very true, not only about the power of ‘Threads’ but also the ability of the officials to remain level headed in the situation. Barry Hines’ film is probably an accurate enough portrayal as to how they would have reacted.

      As well as being a proud owner of ‘Threads’ on DVD myself, I have read Duncan Campbell’s ‘War Plan UK’, and he was convinced that the whole governmental setup would have fallen apart. And of course, families would have been on edge with the lack of telecommunications. If there was social media around in 1983, heaven help us (some people would rather send an email or tweet instead of writing a message or talking to them in person).

      For the last few months, I had always wondered how Tameside would have coped in a nuclear situation, and this formed the basis of this article. In my early years, I always thought an underground reservoir off Mossley Road was a nuclear fallout shelter!

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  2. Although way too young to remember much of the 80’s and the cold war, thinking what could have happened is too scary to contemplate. Indeed, in the days around my birth the Soviet paranoia combined with a NATO simulation very almost brought us to the brink.

    I discovered ‘Threads’ a few years ago and apart from a short clip I have never watched it and probably never will. I’ve lived in Greater Manchester for eleven years now but was born and bred in Barnsley and I really don’t want to see apocalyptic Sheffield which of course was just a few miles down the road. By all accounts, the scenes around the area were very recognisable. Too close for comfort.

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    1. It never ceases to amaze me how we never got to the Sheffield post-attack scenario. An almighty ‘phew’, yet whilst Soviet paranoia was at its height, I was starting school, and trying to understand my subjects better, let alone the Cold War. Whilst I was starting nursery school, President Reagan was scaring the living daylights out of us with the Star Wars Program.

      I’m glad we never saw the Egg Box disembowelled (though it was demolished and replaced by the wonderful Winter Gardens), nor the deck access flats in Hillsborough exploding.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

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