Life in a nuclear bunker: Food for thought
1. General history of the Cambridge Regional Seat of Government site
Visitors to Cambridge come to enjoy the historic buildings and cafes, but very few will be aware of the relics of a very different history, and possible food situation, associated with the city. Just 20 minutes’ walk south of the centre lies the Brooklands Avenue Regional Seat of Government (RSG), a large bunker-type building which would have been one of eleven administrative centres across Britain, had nuclear war broken out in the 1950s or 60s (Wikipedia 2018, URL below). Recently the current owners of the RSG bunker, kindly arranged for a visit by Subterranea Britannica . The government/defence history of the site goes back to World War Two, prior to which the site had been part of the large gardens of Brooklands House, Brooklands Avenue, with Hobson’s Brook just to the west . This brook was deepened and widened during World War Two, partly to alleviate flooding problems (its shallow gradient meant it was prone to silting), but also to form an anti-tank barrier as part of the system of ‘stop lines’ (Pillbox Study Group, 2018, URL below). It would scarcely be an obstacle to today’s tanks but these machines were much smaller in the 1940s. There is a relic of this era just north of the RSG bunker where a WW2 pillbox (sealed up) still exists, now almost hidden in brambles and trees. Given the rationing situation that existed in the UK in WW2, with U Boat raids on food convoys, one has to wonder how long the rest of the UK could have held out if German forces had occupied the fertile farmlands of East Anglia and much of the Fens.
By 1950 the government had built administrative offices over much of Brooklands House gardens. About the only relic of the administrative offices still surviving is a short stretch of disused footpath opposite the WW2 pillbox, There is now a modern residential development (Accordia Living) covering the site of the 1950s offices; fortunately the RSG bunker itself, with its 5 foot concrete walls, was simply too hard to demolish, and in fact has gained Listed Building Grade Two status; the presence of asbestos is also a deterrent to the bulldozers. Instead the RSG was acquired by the University of Cambridge in the 1990s, and lay empty after much of the furniture and moveable equipment was removed. The only action the RSG saw was dummy-run drill evacuations into the facility from the now-demolished government administration offices next door. The University plans to use the building for controlled-temperature and secure storage. The massive construction design has ensured the RSG is (almost) waterproof. On a visit in May 2000 the Cambridge News reporter noted the total absence of any life inside, ‘no spiders, ants or moths’ (Cambridge News, 2017). Visitors will indeed note the almost total absence of any cobwebs, a sign that nothing can live inside due to lack of food and especially water. However in 2018 a few stalactites are starting to form in the ceiling of one room and some water staining on the floors in places prove that water can finally penetrate even a nuke-proof building, given enough time. Ivy and trees growing around can also threaten and crack even five foot concrete, and this greenery is in the process of being removed.
2. Construction and usage of the Cambridge RSG bunker site from 1953
Cambridge RSG was constructed in two phases; the first, smaller, northern, construction dates from 1953 and was later more than doubled in size with a southern addition in the 1960s. The original building was more military-focussed, to monitor the progress of World War Three in the event of a nuclear war with the USSR, using A-bombs similar to those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A key feature of the 1953 building is the map room with its curved reinforced Perspex viewing windows.
Other photos of this room, which used to be 2-storey with a viewing balcony area above before an extra floor was inserted, also other photographs of the RSG, are available online at Subterranea Britannica (2001), URL below
By the 1960s it was clear that nuclear war could be much more devastating than what Japan suffered in 1945, with the advent of the much larger yield H-bombs. In October 1961 the USSR detonated the Tsar Bomba (King Bomb) over Novaya Zemlya, which if dropped on London would have destroyed an area from Brighton to Cambridge in one burst. The Tsar Bomba was the largest practical nuclear device possible, since any larger explosion than that would have punched through the Earth’s atmosphere and ‘wasted’ much of the blast effects out into space.
The RSG was now a complete mini-government site, with all the functions of a normal country (see below) with only three small entrances (two now sealed) from which civil servants could monitor what was going on outside, make broadcasts (for whoever was left to listen to them), organise rations distribution and generally try to maintain some semblance of a normal administration. The BBC actually has a rather generous allocation of rooms compared to say police or fire. One of these rooms is shown below; in a rare case of ‘helpful’ damage, some of the sound insulation has been pulled off the wall, revealing the method of construction of this insulation here.
There was also a room for an ‘illustrator’; presumably they intended distributing paper based publicity as well as radio broadcasts. How this would have been done from a sealed bunker in a nuclear war situation is unclear.
This RSG would therefore have been rather similar to the RSG centre in Nottingham, with its kitchens and dormitories. The entire Cambridge RSG building was now a place where several hundred civil administrators and military could exist for some weeks until it was safe to venture outside, with sleeping, eating and washing facilities.
One major thing missing in such an environment would be privacy, and private possessions. For some, it would have been a considerable walk, of perhaps 100 feet, from their dormitory to the toilets. Meanwhile although almost all the furniture had been stripped out, apart from some government-issue chairs scattered around the building, a few personal lockers remained. These were about the size of the similar vertical lockers often found in school changing rooms, with a footprint area of barely one square foot, and contained a small area as a hanging rail and some tiny shelves for underwear, shirts, shoes, etc.
There was effectively no room for any personal possessions such as books, so there would be very little entertainment or distractions to pass the time. The most one would have had would be a few tattered photographs of one’s friends and family left outside. The offices, however, all contained mirrors, so at least one could look smart, important for morale perhaps in a nuclear war. Of course the rooms now are considerably barer than they would have been in use, but the mirror must still have done very little to alleviate the Spartan-ness of the painted brick walls, the strip lighting, the unchannelled wiring and the dark metal filing cabinet. Not to mention the continual lack of a window, or any natural light at all.
There are of course the usual toilets and shower cubicles, probably not over-provided for population of 200+ males and maybe 100 females. There can’t have been more than ten shower cubicles in total, both sexes. Hopefully there was a good supply of Imodium, because any gastric illness would have spread like wildfire in such an environment. Water would have been in short supply, yet essential for hygiene; the WHO (2013), URL below, suggests a minimum of 50 litres per person per day for uses including clothes washing and sanitation as well as drinking, cooking and washing food, and personal hygiene, showering and hand washing. They didn’t have low water use toilets in those days, so for 400 people for 28 days they would have needed a minimum of 500 cubic metres of water, a tank 10 x 10 x 5 metres, which seems larger than the actual tank they had. There was no sign of any borehole to tap into extra uncontaminated supplies underground. This is also odd because Cambridge Water states that much of its water today comes from boreholes (Cambridge Water 2018, URL below). There would be no subversive pilfering of loo rolls either; one roll survives in the bathroom area, its end clearly stamped ‘Government Property’.
The kitchen area had been moved from the 1953 bunker into the new building, presumably into a much larger area to cater for many more people. Food would have been stored in the pantry where the shelves were labelled, not with actual food product names, but with order code numbers. One can only wonder what foods 3800, 3805B, 3818 or A/CS 860 represented, or how stocks would have lasted, or been replenished. One lonely carton of milk (Express, semi-skimmed), long since dried out, complete with ancient desiccated mould, remains forlornly on the shelves next to the electric oven. The larder seems quite small to have to store enough food for 400 people for 28 days, a total of 33,600 meals. In fact the stationery cupboard seemed larger. However the tea urns are large enough, and the old copper cylinder for boiling water is still present.
Another culinary feature notable by its absence here is any large chiller / refrigerator room. In late April it was pleasantly cool inside the RSG, maybe 10 to15 C, when it was 25 C outside; the bunker would take several months to heat up and cool down again with the seasons. However with large numbers of people inside, along with electrical equipment, the ambient temperature would have risen, spoiling many foods quickly. Likewise, cooking dry foods such as rice and pasta could have been problematical with a limited water supply. There were no doubt standalone fridges, but tea and dried biscuits must have been a dietary staple of the post-nuclear war scenario.
There were plenty of signs of the technology of the day still remaining, as much for protection from blast as for maintenance of life afterwards; blast doors, air conditioning, along with considerable amounts of telecommunication and other electronic equipment.
3. A surreal normality in nuclear war
There is often a strange comfort in maintaining a surreal semblance of normal routines in times of catastrophe. Anthony Beevor (2002, p.9) writes of how Berliners, in January 1945, still commuted to work in trams with shattered windows (which the Germans kept running through the intensive Allied bombing) to turn up for work in the frigid windowless unheated shells of offices and factories where there was nothing to do because of a shortage of materials. The administrators who were fortunate enough (perhaps, unfortunate enough?) to have a place in the RSG, rather than having to risk being fried outside, posted pictures as reminders of what the outside world (used to) look like. See also Varsity (2018), URL below. The reported picture of the squirrel was missing on our April visit, but the RSG is not a rodent friendly area anyway.
It’s always good to be able to tell your children of what the planet did look like before the all-out nuclear war. Naturally there would be children of course, although there is far more space allocated to male dormitories than female ones, perhaps reflecting the working practices of the 1960s, before gender equality was known about in the workplace. Normal life would very soon be resumed of course, as testified by the government departments allocated space within the RSG. There was as you would expect a sick bay; disturbingly small, perhaps for a complement of three to four hundred people, who would also be suffering severe psychological stress and probably a poor diet, as well as lack of sunshine, exercise, and maybe some physical injuries if they were a bit late in reaching the RSG shelter. Perhaps there would be some triage with the mildly sick still sleeping in the dormitories and the hopelessly ill just being abandoned. Also how would they have got outside to dispose of the dead?
Another disturbing small pair of rooms is the Commissioner of Justice and the Clerk of Court offices, just downstairs and across from the Sick Bay. There’s not a lot of room for witnesses, judicial records, law precedents and the like. Also there’s no obvious jail area. Like the sick, would there be a sort of judicial triage, with minor offenders being cautioned or fined – well actually penalised in some other way, like being made to clean the toilets; fines would have little significance once World War Three broke out. Meanwhile anything more serious would result in being shot?
Other psychological comforts missing were, there was no library, so no light reading, no crosswords or Sudoku to pass the time when off duty. In fact there would be very little sense of time passing, with no diurnal rhythm to go by, and there was no sign of fittings for clocks either. There might have been portable battery clocks – until the batteries ran out. Also there’s no sign of a chapel. There’s an aphorism “There are no atheists in the trenches”, meaning people’s need for spiritual solace rises in times of crisis. Not in this bunker though. Likewise, no gym for exercise, and hopefully the recreation room would have had room for a snooker table or other leisure equipment. Almost every space, however, was functional, for running the region or for basic vital survival functions, eating washing and sleeping.
Even more surreal is the collection of offices on the first floor of the newer building entitled National Assistance Board (unemployment benefits and care homes for the elderly and disabled), Ministry of Pensions, Board of Trade, and HM Treasury. One wonders what sort of unemployment benefits would be available during and after a nuclear war, what the level of pensions would be, how much international trade would be going on, and what would the income tax rate be? There is even a ‘General Post Office’ room, evoking perhaps images of a determined stoic postie delivering mail through a nuclear wasteland, much like the iconic picture of a milkman doing his rounds in the London blitz.
4. Back to normality
After an exploration of almost 2 hours we emerged back into the sunlight. Cambridge was still there, despite the best efforts of politicians in many countries around the world right now. No doubt many of appreciated what was there; the dark claustrophobic corridors and maze of rooms, the sinister atmosphere accentuated by the bare walls and in places they were even painted a dark shade of blue; hardly the most comforting hue for living with in a huge concrete tomb whilst knowing that the world outside is being blasted to Armageddon. But on reflection it may be what is not there that is the scariest; no outside windows, no natural daylight. None of the small everyday comforts we so often take for granted in the normal outside world.
Given the facilities that appeared largely absent from the bunker, in terms of physical recreation and spiritual comfort, it is hard to see how the occupants would have emerged in a healthy state, physical or psychological, to deal with the stressful job of reconstructing East Anglia and the world beyond after a nuclear war. Without the real-life run of using this bunker, which fortunately we have never had, these shortcomings would not have been apparent. Probably some military psychologists would have been designing a better more user-friendly bunker for World War Four, if anybody was left around to fight it that is. However, perhaps as of now, all those who would become politicians of the world’s major countries should have to spend a week in such a bunker, living as the residents of the Cambridge RSG would have done, with the same food and sleeping conditions, isolated in what could at any time have become a huge concrete tomb. Maybe the world would then become a safer place than it is now.
Beevor, A (2002), Berlin; The Downfall 1945.
Cambridge Water (2018), http://www.cambridge-water.co.uk/home/about-us
Pillbox Study Group (2018), http://www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk/uk-defence-locations/stoplinenew/
Subterranea Britannica (2001), http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/c/cambridge/index.html
Varsity (2018), https://www.varsity.co.uk/features/15092
Wikipedia (2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_seat_of_government