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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Where have all the nuclear wargames gone?

The world keeps changing and the war planners of the UK are now facing an old threat. On the extremes of the normal distribution of potential futures is a limited nuclear strike on major British cities. London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester. 

Of course, it would take an unexpected confrontation rapidly escalating into war in which the other side, faced with loosing, using a limited nuclear strike. Inevitably old nuclear weapons, poorly maintained launched by a reluctant armed forces (who would not their home country to be nuked until the rubble of their cities glowed) would not be a comprehensive attack, but some warheads would explode and some cites would be partially devastated. There is even the possibility that an American ally, such as the UK, would be the target of the strike. This would make the point to NATO while hoping the USA will not then use nuclear retaliation just because an ally was hit. Would they risk Washington because Milton Keynes had been blown up?

While the UK obviously has the strategic warfighting plans from the Cold War, what it does not have is a complete collection of the wargames run at regional and sub regional level. During the Cold War, game after game was run about managing the situation up to, including the attack and post-strike recovery. The last alert was in 1991 during the 1st Gulf War. A cadre moved into the bunkers, small arms were issued, landmines and barbwire were moved to the key sites. The bunkers would have been operational within 1 hour and fully manned in 4, perhaps less. 

However, the Cold War was over and Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister decided that the UK was no longer under threat of attack and dismantled the bunker system. The problem is the local warplans that had been developed over the decades were largely typed, but a few were produced using the early word processors (Word Star etc…) and they were largely lost. Some no doubt reside in the secret government archives which exist around the UK (but not in Scotland), but with few archivists and practically no librarians, the archives are stuff full of the good, the bad and the ugly in impenetrable mountains. 

I remember seeing a few selling on ebay and I came across a few in long ignored filing cabinets in bunkers, but I have no copies. 

So if anyone has hidden away regional and sub regional plans from these wargames (or exercises) about how society would be managed when facing the worst, do let me know. At the moment I have none and I would like to produce a book documenting these lost wargames from the Cold War.


  1. Using The National Archives' Discovery search engine set to 'other repositories' (ie, not TNA) might through up interesting material. I've done some simple and obvious searches (eg, "war AND game", "nuclear AND war AND planning" and "nuclear AND emergency AND planning") without finding anything that looks definite. But you will have a better idea of what your looking for and how they might be described.

    The only two things that I thought you might want follow up is that the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) have the records of the Association of Country Councils, which include corresp on emergency planning; and secondly, that the Lidell Hart Centre for Military Archives at KCL has the following intriguing sentence in it's description of Col Toby Messenger's papers "and papers relating to Messenger's position as Scientific Advisor (Nuclear) to Northhampton County Council (NCC) Emergency Planning, 1980-1993, including an appreciation of Exercise WET FINGER run by the NCC, [1988]". The papers seem to be unlisted, save a simple scope-and-content description.

    I don't know if Wet Finger was a wargame, but I'm prepared to bet it was interested in wind-distributed fallout.

  2. It might be worth contacting the BBC Written Archives - . Apparently they have the Cold War 'War Book'.

    Have you contacted the Ermergency Planning College at Easingwold? Or the Cold War Study and Research Group? A note in their newsletter might be useful.

    Have you seen this?

    1. I will look into this. Starting with the Emergency Planning College.

  3. I'm looking forward to this. There is quite a lot at the national archives on Exercise Square Leg and Hard Rock some on Regenerate.

    On the hobby front, there's Mike Hayes "Warlord" (1966) and Games Workshops version "Apocalypse" (1980), which were contemporary with the period.

  4. Mike Hayes (the creator of Warlord) re-released it as Classic Warlord and is very happy to talk about it.