When two tribes go to war

Long-time reader, second-time commenter Ian Evans was in the Royal Observer Corps in York at the end of the 1950s. Here he describes how the ROC, in addition to retaining something like its planespotting functions during the Second World War, took on the job of measuring the Third:

When I joined the ROC (1958) it was still pretty much an RAF auxiliary, officers with handlebar moustaches and all. We spotted, reported and plotted aircraft in a very similar manner to our WW2 predecessors, though things had been simplified and speeded up, with special procedures for fast low flying aircraft (Rats). The nuclear reporting role was just being introduced, the observer posts were given “bunkers”, a small underground room with bunks and stores, airlock and reinforced tunnel to the surface, a nuclear burst recorder (a souped-up pinhole camera), a pressure recorder to measure the blast strength, a Geiger counter to measure the fallout, and individual dosimeters (we were rather cynical about these).

The operating theory was that there would be sufficient political warning for the observers to man their posts, they would wait for the noise to stop, surface, extract the recording paper from their recorders, read off the bearing and altitude of the burst and the peak overpressure. This would then be phoned in to Group HQ where we would plot the (hopefully several) bearings, and get the position of the detonation. Then, using the reported overpressures, plus sets of tables and nomograms we woud evaluate the bomb power and report back to…..anyone still alive. After that the posts would report radiation levels at regular intervals until…

Which is quite a terrifying job description (luckily they didn't have to do risk assessments in those days!)

But, of course, there was plenty of terror to go around. Long-time reader and commenter CK pointed out a 1982 BBC documentary called "Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon" (written and produced by Mick Jackson, director of Threads) about the effects of a nuclear war and how civilians should prepare for it.

(Parts two and three: `Are you prepared to use force to keep others out' of your shelter?) One of the sources cited at the start is Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan's classic The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Department of Defense and Energy Research and Development Administration, 1977), which is now available online.

The title of this post, of course, comes from Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 1984 classic "Two Tribes":1

Aside from the general Cold War theme, the link with the rest of this post is the voice at the start of the video which says, '... the air attack warning sounds like. This is the sound', followed by a siren. The voice belongs to actor Patrick Allen, who had previously said similar things as the narrator of the British government's series of civil defence films, Protect and Survive, successors of the ARP pamphlets of the 1930s. Inevitably, the films are also all available on YouTube.

Thank you to CK and especially Ian for their comments.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. I didn't realise that the title comes from the opening narration in Australia's own great contribution to the end of the world, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior: 'For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.' []

14 thoughts on “When two tribes go to war

  1. CK

    Hey Brett, thanks for the acknowledgment and glad you liked it.

    I'll wrap it up after this, but I was trying to remember the name of another. It was 'The War Game' by Peter Watkins filmed in 1965 for the BBC, and so shocking (and honest) that it was banned from broadcast by the Beeb until, I think, the 1990's.


    It's been described as 'worst-case' scenario, but despite the mid-60's kitchen-sink elements it's still pretty creepy.

    How cynical was HM Government? Well just look at this missive called "Protect and Survive" issued in the interests of civil defense.


    Still, a more upbeat title than "Corpse Management and Minimisation of Fire Risk in Case of Unfortunate Events"

  2. Chris Williams

    British civil defence in the age of the h-bomb was always a joke. The a-bomb, less so. OTOH, UK expenditure on civil defence fell to a trickle after its late 1950s peak. 1957 was the year of the Soviet H-bomb-carrying ICBM, so it wasn't quite so stupid as all that.

    The revivial in the 1980s always struck me as more about galvinising social support for rearmament than as a realistic project. Incidentally, for a chunk of the early 1980s my dad had a place in the local 'bunker', but the rest of the family didn't. I think that he dealt with this by deciding that it was unlikely he'd ever have to face that dilemma.

  3. Post author


    Thanks, but this time I beat you to Protect and Survive :)


    True, but civil defence was a joke everywhere in the nuclear age. I think the USSR spent more on protecting its civilians than the US by a factor of 5 or 10 or something, but it was still grossly insufficient. Of course anything like sufficient and they'd probably have had to cut the defence budget massively ... So perhaps we can conclude that while a little bit of civil defence was useful as a sop to assuage public opinion, a lot was counterproductive in terms of actually preparing to fight the Hot War.

    What did your father do to get a place in the bunker?

  4. Chris Williams

    I think that the 'nuclear age' is a bit of a misnomer. Having a fission bomb land on or near you isn't very nice, but in the context of 1945, it's not appreciably different from having a visit from several hundred B29s or Lancasters. Hydrogen bombs are another kettle of cobras altogether.

    My dad worked for the local education authority, and he was responsible for (among other things) managing school kitchens. This put him in the 'emergency feeding' loop.

  5. Post author

    Yes and no. Of course H-bombs were something else entirely. But my guess would be that if Britain was relatively well prepared for A-bombs, it was precisely because of the legacy of the Blitz, both in terms of experience and institutions. The US had neither: it would have been starting from scratch. So they effectively didn't bother. The USSR had much experience with civilian devastation, at least, which I guess may have been part of the motivation for their relatively greater civil defence efforts. The nuclear age wasn't uniform, I suppose.

    Also: even A-bombs meant that, if another war came, the devastation of cities -- at least big chunks of big cities -- was assured from the start, without the need to build up really huge bomber fleets first. One bomber gets through your air defences and boom, goodbye Whitehall and everything else within a couple of miles. You had to be ready to face the consequences of that. So, while I agree that 1 A-bomb = 1 really big conventional raid, that doesn't mean the fact that it was just one bomb didn't change the equations for a lot of things.

  6. Chris Williams

    This brings up a central issue for the whole airminded concept, doesn't it? We know that the history of scares, from the Sacareships onwards, was one of scaremongering, and in practice, it wasn't going to be as bad as that. But there's a moment, some time between 1945 and 1970, when it becomes pretty clear that the ol 'We're all going to die 4 minutes* into the next war' meme is now actually true. At that moment, the question of 'why were they scared?' may still have a number of different, interesting answers, but there's also one big answer lurking there: 'Because they had every right to be.' Does it change the analysis? Need it?

    *A British thing, based on a perhaps erroneous estimate of what Fylingdales would be capable of. For Americans, '30 minutes' probably had equal cultural salience.

  7. CK

    The point being, I think Chris, that by then personned bombers had become irrelevant to the whole concept of mass destruction (Although I'm sure the good citizens of Vietnam would disagree. But you know, that was 'conventional warfare' so it doesn't count).

    Terror bombing had by the '70's passed well and truly to ICBM's and submarine launched ballistic missiles.

  8. Roger Todd

    Hate to be anal, but you refer to '...a 1982 BBC documentary called “Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon” (written and produced by Mick Kennedy, director of Threads).'

    The producer of 'A Guide to Armageddon' and 'Threads' (and, earlier, the excellent James Burke documentary series 'Connections') was Mick Jackson. The narrator of 'A Guide to Armageddon' was Ludovic Kennedy. I suspect you may have conflated their names...

  9. Roger Todd

    My point is that Mick Jackson is referred to as Mick KENNEDY. A small matter, but it's probably as well to be correct about these things.

  10. Post author


    A very good question! I'd answer both no and yes. No to first order, because it's fear of bombing/nuking/etc which is important, and that doesn't necessarily depend on whether the fear is justified or based on reality. Yes to second order, because the fact that the power of nukes had been very effectively demonstrated in 1945 had no rival for the KOB era, unless it was in the period 1937-8 (Guernica to Canton). That must surely intensify the fear somewhat, if there's just no denying it.


    Thanks, you're quite right, and I can even tell you how I conflated them: I was going to say '... and narrated by Ludovic Kennedy' but decided not to before typing it, but evidently the names got jumbled in my head. Ludovic's revenge.

  11. Roger Todd

    You don't want a dose of Ludovic's Revenge...

    I've just realised that CK was probably baffled by my correction of the name given in the article because I SHOULD have prefaced it by pointing out that it was directed at Brett - as it is, it looks like a direct reply to CK's post immediately preceding. Apologies to CK.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, Brett!

  12. Ian Evans

    A bit more on the ROC, it wasn't a "job" for most of us - we were part time. Two hours a week, plus weekend exercises and annual camp. I, and a couple of mates from school, joined for the chance to get very familiar with the RAF's flying machines. They used to put on an "airday"when the personnel from several ROC groups would gather on one of the local RAF airfields for a good day's flying display from as many RAF, RN and NATO aircraft as could be persuaded to turn up. Everyone got a free flight as well. There was more; our crew, crew 2 (of four shifts of plotters) had a female crew officer, who was happy to scrounge flights for "her lads". So, we spent many happy summer evenings trundling through the Yorkshire skies in Valettas, Varsities, Beverleys, Hastings, Ansons. Ah, the music of the prancing pistons! Eh?
    The nuclear reporting role started after I joined and built up slowly. We had some liasion with Civil Defence, but watching them spend an afternoon running 200 yards of telephone cable wasn't very inspiring. Visited their "proper" nuclear bunker, disguised as a farm, in country north of York, well below the surface, with accommodation for 200 or so.
    A few years later, during the Cuba crisis, all the stories, rumours, etc came pretty sharply to mind. I crossed London on the Friday, visiting friends south of the capital, and did wonder if I'd be coming back.. in any recognisable form.

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