It sounds like something out of a 1950s British comedy film. The ability of the United Kingdom to launch a counter-strike against a nuclear attack on the country in the 1960s was apparently dependent on the availability of four old copper pennies.
According to a new study of Britain in the 1960s, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties (Allen Lane, 2019), by the historian Peter Hennessy (pictured), the British Prime Minister’s official driver had to ensure that he had four pennies available at all times, so that the Prime Minister, if he was travelling outside London, could make a quick telephone call via a public telephone box to Whitehall’s operations centre to order a retaliatory nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
Although the USA had tried to persuade Britain not to develop a nuclear weapons capacity in the post-1945 period, the UK had gone ahead anyway and secretly invested huge sums in developing both an Atomic and then a Hydrogen bomb programme. By 1957, the RAF’s new ‘V’ (Vulcan) bomber force was fully operational, intended to be an independent nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union. Peter Hennessy has become one of the UK’s leading experts on the history of this side of Britain’s involvement in the Cold War.
Speaking about his new book at the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, Hennessy, who is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, revealed that documents he discovered at the National Archives, Kew, shine new light on the surprisingly bizarre emergency defence arrangements in place until 1970.
The emergency plans arose, said Hennessy, when the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) discovered in the early 1960s that Soviet nuclear missiles fired from the Eastern Bloc could reach Britain in four minutes. But Whitehall’s war planners realised there was a potentially fatal flaw in their defence preparations. Top Civil Servants became worried that, in the face of this increased Soviet threat, the-then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (pictured), might be out of London travelling on the road in his Rolls-Royce (his favourite car), but would be needed at very short notice to contact London to authorise a retaliation by the RAF’s V-Bomber strike force.
The solution put in place, revealed Hennessy, was to use the AA (Automobile Association) and its radio system (used by the AA to communicate with their mechanics on motorcycles), which would be linked up to the PM’s car, so that he could be reached anywhere at any time, and then the car’s driver could be told to find a telephone box so that Macmillan could contact Whitehall and issue the doomsday order.
However, the key Civil Servants behind this plan were also anxious that the driver be provided with four pennies at all times (the sum needed in those days to use a GPO phone box to get through). As one official noted in a secret note, ‘I should hate to think of you trying to get change for a sixpence from a bus conductor while those four minutes were ticking by’. In reply to this, Macmillan’s private secretary said not to worry because, if by some misfortune the pennies had been expended and the PM’s driver was penniless, there would always be the option of ‘dialling 100 and requesting reversal of the charge’.
In his new book Hennessy also writes that, whereas the U.S. President and the Soviet General Secretary had serving officers with them at all times, carrying nuclear retaliation codes and the equipment to transmit them, the British Prime Minister in the Sixties had to rely on the AA and small change! As Hennessy commented, it was ‘so English and so bizarre that had it appeared in an Ealing comedy it would not have been believed’. Yet this penny-pinching arrangement was apparently in place from 1962 to 1970.
There was also another quite dark side to these arrangements and, to use Hennessy’s words, the ‘whole grim business’ of planning for a nuclear war: in the event of a sudden nuclear attack on the UK that ‘wiped out’ Macmillan, a senior Cabinet or other Minister still needed to be available to authorise the RAF’s V-Bombers to drop their atomic weapons on Russia. Macmillan himself, with a macabre flourish, wrote to the Cabinet Office explaining the succession plans if this happened: ‘First Gravedigger Mr [Rab] Butler. Second Gravedigger Mr [Selwyn] Lloyd’.
Of course, all this was kept top secret and strictly confidential. Whether the Americans or the Russians were aware of or had any clues about the peculiar British arrangements is not known. Had the UK’s public realised what was in place for their defence, one can imagine many people would have thought it was some kind of practical joke. Yet it was chillingly real.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: Wikimedia Commons)