Bunkering down for armageddon in Lancaster

The 'mushroom cloud' created by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945.
The 'mushroom cloud' created by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945.

Seventy years after nuclear bombs were dropped in Japan, GREG LAMBERT uncovers Lancaster’s secret nuclear bunker and reveals how our district might have coped in a Cold War attack.

Deep in the bowels of Telephone House in Lancaster lies a claustrophobic maze of dimly-lit corridors and heavy prison-style doors which clang when they slam shut.

There is not much down there now, just a few barren rooms, a power generator and a few empty shelves.

But for the strange presence of a fixed ‘escape’ ladder leading up into a hole in the ceiling, it could be a typical basement in any of the city’s buildings.

Except this one contains echoes of an eerie secret from the past.

During the Cold War, the Fenton Street office housed an emergency bunker to be used in the event of a nuclear strike on the Lancaster district.

Although the bunker didn’t ‘officially’ exist, it was common knowledge amongst British Telecom staff who worked at Telephone House until the basement area was cleared towards the end of the 1980s.

Mike Dent, who worked for BT in the late 80s and early 90s, said: “There used to be an emergency telephone exchange in this area of the basement, as well as bunk beds and desks with phones.

“There were also boxes of food rations down there too, of dried and tinned food.”

Experts from Britain’s first ever peace research centre, formed at Lancaster University in 1959, produced a booklet in 1982 called ‘Target North West’.

This research, carried out by Robert Poole and Steve Wright from the university’s Richardson Institute, confirms the existence of the bunker.

It also gives a sobering insight into what might happen in the event of a nuclear attack on Lancaster and the reasons for the Telephone House hideout.

It said that in the event of a war, the Post Office Telephone Preference System could cut off 95% of lines to receive incoming calls only, while giving priority to lines “vital to the prosecution of war and national survival”.

The bunker was home to an emergency switching room with considerable capacity to keep telephone lines operational in the event of disaster.

It is frightening to think that such a facility was needed.

But in a post-World War II world and following the devastation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks of 1945 in Japan, there was a genuine fear that nuclear weapons would decimate the globe due to political tensions between West and East.

Poole and Wright estimated that a concerted nuclear attack on specified targets in England and Wales could kill 75% of the population and wipe out virtually all our industrial resource base.

They wrote: “Although there is no reason to suppose that Lancaster will be a nuclear target, it is a typical modern town and can serve as an example.

“We do not see Heysham Nuclear Power Station as a likely target since 60% of such a detonation would be dissipated into Morecambe Bay but should it be subject to attack naturally there would be devastation in that area.”

But Poole and Wright did analyse what might happen should such an unlikely event occur.

They said that in 1982, the county’s emergency plan would involve evacuating everyone living within a kilometre, some 3,550 people at the time, to rest centres.

They scoffed at this notion, saying that: “Even in peacetime, evacuees would have to brave outdoor radiation and might well be safer at home. After a nuclear attack no-one is supposed to move for at least 14 days, much longer, with that level of radiation about. Huge areas of the region would be destroyed, rest centres and their potential occupants alike.

“The truth is nothing will be done, nor could it be.”

They also revealed that in 1982, the county emergency planning standby headquarters was in the basement at Lancaster Town Hall.

Although it had been reinforced in 1980 and could hold 80 people, they said “the protection offered will be no greater than that to be found in a private house”.

A Lancaster City Council spokesman said no such facility exists at the town hall today.

‘Target North West’ also analysed how Lancaster and district’s health service might cope with a nuclear attack in 1982.

Its conclusion? Not very well.

Quoting direct from Lancaster’s emergency health plan of the time, Poole and Wright said that in the event of nuclear war, patients would be passed on to six Casualty Control Centres (CCCs) at schools, manned by nurses, dentists, volunteers, even chiropodists and opticians - “almost anyone who is not frightened of blood”.

Doctors would have been “an absolute luxury” and confined to hospitals.

Hospitals would have been guarded by police and would only admit from CCCs, sending patients home to make room for casualties. Only emergency cases and women needing caesarian sections would be admitted.

Beaumont hospital in Lancaster and the Queen Victoria hospital in Morecambe would have closed, with the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and Moor hospitals staying open with a skeleton staff of volunteers.

But most of these procedures, claimed Poole and Wright, would have been rendered pointless by a one megaton bomb direct hit on Lancaster or Heysham as that would have destroyed all hospitals.

In the event of a direct hit, five other casualty collecting centres could have been established at Bailrigg, Galgate, Hornby, Silverdale and Borwick, alongside an emergency operating theatre at St John’s Hospice, then in Silverdale.

The old Pontins Holiday Camp at Middleton was also earmarked as a possible refugee centre for people fleeing into our area in the event of a blast at another nuclear site, such as Sellafield (then Windscale).

Thirty-three years after the ‘Target North West’ research, emergency planning in our district is more out in the public domain.

The District Emergency Plan, prepared by Lancaster City Council and including many partner organisations such as police, fire, Heysham Power Stations and the local hospitals trust, is available to view on the internet.

Thankfully tensions between the USA and former Soviet Union began to thaw in the mid-to-late 1980s with the signing of arms control treaties, and the Cold War officially ended in 1989.

BT staff moved out of Telephone House in the late 1990s and today the building is home to various local businesses including a security firm and a dentist.

But the basement remains, a chilling reminder of a time when Lancaster was prepared for unthinkable horror.

*Coun Karen Leytham, cabinet member with responsibility for Environmental Health, said: “The city council has a lead role to play in ensuring that the Lancaster district has plans in place and is prepared for emergencies such as flooding, flu pandemics, dangerous buildings, pollution and chemical incidents.

“These plans are regularly tested to ensure they are up to date and can be quickly put into place should the need arise.

“In the event of an emergency much of our role is to support the ‘blue light’ services. To that end we operate a duty emergency incident officer scheme, whereby a trained officer is available 24/7 all year round to respond to requests from the police, fire brigade and ambulance for local authority assistance.

“The council would also assist in helping the community to recover, which may involve dealing with both the physical scars and the psychological ones, from the rebuilding of houses to assisting in the rebuilding of people’s lives.

“We also provide business continuity advice to local companies and organisations to ensure they can continue to operate in the event of an emergency.

“More information is available on our website at www.lancaster.gov.uk/emergency.”