Those of us of a certain age will remember only too well the pervading threat of nuclear war during the 1960s and 70s and its gradual demise during the 1980s. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signalled a new era and in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Cold War officially ended.
But in those intervening years, from the mid-fifties onwards, the UK government began to protect the country from a nuclear attack. Over 1500 nuclear monitoring posts were constructed at a distance of about 15 miles apart. The Royal Observer Corps, who had been used during World War II to identify enemy aircraft, had a new role in staffing these posts.
Only a small number of ROC bunkers have been preserved for posterity, one in my own town of Holbeach in Lincolnshire. A charity, Heritage Lincolnshire, has, over the years, managed to gather together the items that would have been kept in the bunker during the Cold War years. On a regular basis they open up the bunker for small groups of visitors to discover more about the vital work of the ROC during the years of nuclear monitoring.
A couple of weeks ago my son Rory and I donned hard hats in order to clamber down the vertical ladder into the Holbeach bunker. I didn’t even know where it was, which is a shameful admission. It was only a few minutes drive away (we could have walked!) in a field just north of the town. I couldn’t believe I’d not noticed it before, this large, dark green metal box, fenced off from the road.
After a safety briefing, our small group had the pleasure of meeting our guide, Charles Parker, who had amassed 29 years of service with the Royal Observer Corps. Charles spent 45 minutes enthralling us with the history of the ROC post and showing us how the equipment worked in the event of a nuclear attack. There were a number of tours that day and Charles kept going with his engaging talk for each eager group.
Three ROC personnel would have staffed the post in time of a significant nuclear threat. In the meantime, regular practices took place. Charles pointed out the features of the post visible above ground including the bunker hatch with the attached Ground Zero Indicator and the baffle plate of the Bomb Pressure Indicator.
Underground, once the vertical ladder had been tackled, the surprisingly roomy bunker came into view as our eyes adjusted to the dimmed light. We saw where the three men worked, slept and cooked. There was also a separate area which housed a chemical toilet.
We heard how the government broadcast warning system would give notice of a nuclear attack and the lucky Number 3 Observer would climb the ladder to start up the siren outside, before quickly returning. The bomb blast would be measured, with the figures radioed in to the triangulation team at HQ in Lincoln. These figures, along with those from the fall-out indicator, would be added to similar data from other posts, plus local weather forecasts, to determine where the bomb had exploded and where the fall-out was likely to land. Each member of the team wore a Personal Dose Rate Meter and their roles would have been rotated depending on the levels of radiation exposure.
Over time, technology improved so this forecasting could be done by satellites. The threat of a nuclear attack also subsided so all the posts were decommissioned in 1991.
When we climbed up to the surface again I had a chat with Frank and Jean Saunston. Frank was the Chief Observer for the ROC in Holbeach and now aged 92 and wearing his old ROC uniform, he was delighted to talk to visitors, giving them first-hand stories of his time in the bunker. He also told me tales of his time in the war. He had been part of three different commands, including RAF Bomber Command and Coastal Command. I was fascinated to hear of his involvement in Operation Manna towards the end of the war, when Lancasters from the RAF dropped food supplies instead of bombs onto German-occupied Holland. Over 3000 sorties were made, dropping tinned food, dried food and chocolate to help feed Dutch civilians at risk of starvation. It was a real pleasure to talk to Frank and appreciate how much he did in both the war years and the post-war years, manning the ROC post.
Rory and I both felt very privileged to have visited the bunker, especially as I had only learned about the free tours a couple of days beforehand. Heritage Lincolnshire is a charity which maintains this site, as well as a number of other buildings in the county, ensuring our local history is preserved. Local volunteers keep the ROC post in good order. It’s thanks to them we have this extraordinary piece of history on our doorstep.