You might associate archaeology with the excavation of objects hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, but early in 2019 an assessment undertaken by Wessex Archaeology near Arborfield Cross, Berkshire, uncovered a relic of the rather more recent past. This was the roof of an Underground Monitoring Post dating to the 1960s, which was located at the extreme end of a trench. The Post’s location had been known, but until that moment it had been thought that the underground structure had been removed. Interestingly, ‘demolition’ in this case meant the removal of all surface features, restoration of the ground surface, and little else. As the roof area was exposed, it became clear that the operations room – about the size of a car-towed caravan – had survived. Holes in the roof provided a tantalising glimpse of a stark world dominated by fears of an attack with weapons of mass destruction.
The discovery serves as a reminder that the Cold War had the potential to impact all parts of the British Isles; nowhere was immune to the spectre of nuclear warfare, even rural Berkshire. Interestingly, most of the excavation team had never encountered the Cold War directly, any familiarity having been learnt at school. The questions came thick and fast. What went on in this tiny space? Was it secret? And just what can the study of a part of the past that, for many, still remains within living memory add to our knowledge of the period?
Archaeology is nothing if not a study of human behaviour. Contemporary archaeology challenges us to cohabit in the same intellectual space with historians, sociologists, and a plethora of other humanities-based disciplines. Contemporary archaeology also provides something no other period can: a chance to engage with those who experienced the monuments left in the landscape first-hand. Archaeological sites connected with the Cold War, in this case a Royal Observer Corps Underground Monitoring Post, provide an excellent example of the multi-layered approach needed to fully understand their place in the landscape.
The Observer Corps was formed in 1925 (the ‘Royal’ prefix was awarded after service in the Battle of Britain in 1940), primarily to track and report on aircraft movements. By the beginning of the Second World War, this had become a sophisticated network complementing the rudimentary radar coverage across the United Kingdom, and it was stood down on 12 May 1945 at the end of hostilities in Europe. The following two years saw a large number of radar stations closed, or mothballed under ‘care and maintenance’ (basically a euphemism for abandonment). However, it was not long before tensions between the former Allies threatened to reignite conflict in Europe, and by September 1947 the first cohorts of the ROC were back in uniform and conducting exercises with Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force.
In 1948, the first ‘conflict’ of the Cold War in Europe had erupted over the control of Berlin. The Berlin Airlift set the tone of superpower relations for the next 43 years – a decidedly complex one, especially after the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in April 1949. Many Second World War Posts were reoccupied, and by 1951 a new type of viewing platform, the Orlit Post, appeared across the landscape.
This latter construction was so-called because it was manufactured by Messrs Orlit, a company well-versed in quick-assembly concrete structures (the company also provided thousands of emergency houses in the immediate post-war period). A number of Orlit Posts survive in the landscape, often close to a later underground site; the monument type is widely accepted as the first example of a purpose-built structure of the Cold War period. At this time, Observer crews still undertook the aircraft-reporting role, but, unfortunately for them, a number of technical developments were to render the role obsolete.
As aircraft became faster (due to the jet engine), they were almost impossible to track by observation; then, with the advent of long- and short-range missiles, the ROC was rendered impotent. By the mid-1950s the very survival of the Corps was being considered. That is, until the findings of a secret Government committee were published in 1955.
Echoes of the H-Bomb
In 1952, the nuclear arms race took a sinister and dangerous turn. By this time, both the United States (on 1 November 1952) and Soviet Union (24 August 1953) had tested viable thermonuclear devices: the ‘H-bomb’ had arrived, and brought with it the possibility of limitless destructive power. It would be another four years before British teams caught up. With no comparable device available (the UK had tested an atomic device on 2 October 1952), and in an atmosphere of panic, Whitehall commissioned Sir William Strath to investigate the likely effects of a nuclear strike on the British landmass. What he reported in 1955 sent the Government into free fall. Strath concluded that even a limited attack, dropping H-bombs in the Irish Sea, would produce enough radioactive fallout to close large areas of the United Kingdom for years.
The development of the H-bomb substantially raised the prospect of a nuclear exchange, prompting East and West to declare the ‘defensive position’ of Mutually Assured Destruction (appropriately known as MAD). It was obvious that nothing could be done for those areas where weapons might fall, but lives could be saved if it was possible to monitor both the amount of radioactive fallout a detonation produced and forecast its progress across the landscape. So, on the verge of disbandment, the ROC was drafted into the Home Office and took up a new role: fallout warning and monitoring.
To remain effective during a nuclear attack, the whole network of Posts required modification. Most locations were retained (Arborfield Cross being one such example), although some Posts were moved to even out coverage across the whole of the United Kingdom. Then, from 1958, all 1,563 locations were provided with a protected monitoring Post. The new structure was, wherever the local geology allowed, totally underground: only an access hatch, ventilation shaft, and two metal tubes for instruments protruded above ground. The concrete bunker provided a ‘Protection Factor’ of c.1,500 for a crew of three (a two-storey house is, by comparison, c.15-24), ensuring reporting and monitoring could be undertaken in all but the worst radioactive fallout conditions.
The design was both simple and functional. A rectangular concrete box constructed on site comprised an entrance tower with a sump below. Off that, a small equipment room contained a chemical toilet and other essentials, while a control room held the equipment necessary for reporting the effects of any nuclear detonation. As active service could mean an extended period below ground, Posts were provided with bunks (the bunks at Arborfield Cross were still inside the sealed structure), emergency water, and food rations. A further vent tower was built into the end of the control room to provide a rudimentary airflow when surface conditions allowed.
Posts were clumped together in ‘clusters’, normally three or four in number; clusters were, in turn, organised into Groups, with a designated Protected Headquarters acting as a communication hub. (Arborfield Cross was built in January 1961, designated 14/K.2, and reported to 14 Group Winchester.) Groups then reported to a Sector Headquarters under the command of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO), where scientific staff assessed the reports before forecasting fallout patterns, distributing that information to Government, the military, and emergency services.
Maintaining a reporting network required a trained, dedicated staff who fully understood the effects of nuclear weapons. Moreover, they needed to be able to operate in unusual conditions and, if the worst happened, without distraction. It may come as a surprise, then, that most of the ROC were volunteers. The Corps had always relied on voluntary service by the general public, exploiting an interest in aviation and the Royal Air Force.
So, when the call came for members in the first months of the Cold War, a mixture of ex-Observers and new recruits joined up. When the ROC moved underground, it took the volunteers with it, although many resigned because the aircraft role – until then a major recruiting point – was to be discontinued. Initially 25,000 were employed across the landscape, crewing both the network of Posts and the 20-plus Group and Sector HQs. Then, in 1968, as part of the Wilson Government defence review, most voluntary organisations centred on warfare (such as the Civil Defence Corps and Auxiliary Fire Service) were disbanded. The ROC escaped the cull, although the number of members and of Posts were substantially reduced – 686 Posts closed, including Arborfield Cross, and the Corps complement was halved – and for the next 23 years a voluntary force of c.12,500 practised their drills in readiness for a nuclear strike on the British Isles.
As this is all recent history, the majority of the ROC’s material culture survives. Equipment, manuals, training scripts, recruitment leaflets, and uniforms are, for the most part, available online or in the collections of the growing number of Cold War enthusiasts and ex-Corps members. What this material is unable to convey is what life was like on the Posts, and the motivations that encouraged so many to take up membership of such an organisation. This is the point where modern archaeological research differs dramatically from that focused on periods beyond living memory. A substantial number of ex-Corps members are around to tell their story, and it is this that allows for the contextualisation of the official record with the real-life motivations, thoughts, and fears of those who prepared for the unthinkable.
In the years of aircraft-reporting, the reasons for joining the Corps were straightforward: if you were interested in aeroplanes and/or the RAF, then this was the place for you. Unfortunately, nuclear-reporting was far less glamorous, especially as it coincided with the rise of anti-nuclear groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). To encourage a steady flow of volunteers, the Home Office retained aspects of the ROC’s aircraft-orientated social activities. Aeroplane-recognition competitions, a rank structure, military-style uniforms, and summer camps on RAF stations continued, all aimed at aiding recruitment.
These tactics certainly helped, although, as you would imagine, there were a myriad of other motives for becoming an Observer. A recent study has identified a wide range of reasons for joining the organisation. Certainly, the Corps’ links with the RAF were important, with many volunteers citing the uniform and an interest in the service. It appears that this connection was particularly important to those who had not been able to join the military (often on medical grounds) or had recently retired from the Armed Services and felt they had more still to offer.
The Corps also offered a chance to ‘broaden one’s horizon’, and this was especially the case for women. During the Second World War, the first female Observers entered service, demonstrating overnight that the role suited everyone who was interested. So, when the ROC was re-formed in the early Cold War, both men and women were recruited. There was little distinction between the sexes: an Observer was an Observer, and women rose to the very highest levels in the organisation. This often flew in the face of the more traditional views of society, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some women joined because their spouse was already a member, or because it was thought by their families to be preferable to becoming a member of the Armed Services. For some it became a family endeavour: in certain instances, three generations served, and, not surprisingly, marriages ensued on quite a few Posts. However, by far the most reported reason for getting involved was ‘to do their bit’. This challenges the somewhat apathetic view of the general population that nuclear war was not only likely but could not be survived. Here was a group of volunteers who were prepared to help save lives, no matter how impossible the odds might be. This is particularly clear in the Observers’ view of disarmament groups.
The ROC became the focus of CND protests, especially through the 1970s and 1980s. Posts were visited twice a week by the crews, replenishing the emergency water and checking over kit. On a number of sites, they found Posts broken into, vandalised and, on occasion, burnt-out. Simpler, less destructive, but no less annoying tactics included filling all the locks with glue, and occasionally being greeted by a protest by local CND members. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the Observers viewed the CND with indifference: they suggested that the CND’s intentions were misguided, and it would be better to prepare for the unthinkable – at least lives might be saved if war did break out. This is detail that, overall, would not be recognisable archaeologically, nor, indeed, would the motives of those who crewed these subtle landscape features in defence against the most-devastating types of weapons.
The majority of the Royal Observer Corps and the landscape they inhabited was quickly stood-down in September 1991, considered part of ‘the Peace Dividend’ declared at the end of the Cold War. Most of the Posts across the United Kingdom are now abandoned, attracting just a few curious visitors or enthusiasts with an interest in the period. This in no way implies unrestricted public access, though – the majority reverted to the original landowner, and the lack of maintenance means they are, overall, dangerous to enter. It is not known how many survive; certainly, a great number have been ‘demolished’ over the years (or, more likely, the surface features have been removed as at Arborfield Cross).
Having said that, this is not a landscape dominated by decay. A growing number of Posts have been bought from landowners over the last 20 years or so and are being restored; these strange examples of ‘protected’ real estate are now changing hands at around £30,000 per Post. But the unusual thing is, most of the owners and activities they are undertaking remain secret – clearly the Posts continue to attract unusual behaviour well into the 21st century. Not all sites are inaccessible: the 20 Group HQ, located in York, is under the guardianship of English Heritage (see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/york-cold-war-bunker/ for more information about visiting), and a growing number of Posts are making their way onto heritage listings.
Restoration of Posts is another growing phenomenon, with many opening to the public, often crewed by the original Observers. Their continued presence forces us to acknowledge the very real fears of nuclear war in the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, their rural locations demonstrate that such weapons would have had a nationwide impact. One could argue that monuments to such a contentious past should be left to decay: that might be a fitting metaphor overall, although I argue that we need to understand the whole range of emotions that surround any monument to past conflict if we are to learn from them. With contemporary archaeology, we have the chance to do just that.
And so, back to Arborfield Cross. When I first approached the freshly uncovered bunker with Wessex Archaeology Project Manager Gareth Chaffey, I must admit it was with a certain amount of ‘professional arrogance’. ‘We know pretty much everything about these structures,’ I assured him. ‘After all, there were over 1,500 built and all are supposed to be similar’. The Post quickly dispelled that assumption. As if to underpin why modern archaeology is important, it displayed an interesting anomaly – which was surprising. All Posts were built under contract by local firms (my uncle had been involved in one near Scarborough, North Yorkshire) but, crucially, they had to be identical.
Arborfield Cross was reversed in its layout, and this had not just changed the access route. It meant that the operations room was also 180° out. This may not sound much, but the whole idea of Posts being identical was so any trained crew could use them in the dark. Had the developer got the plans back to front? How did the Post pass any acceptance checks? And was this the reason the Post was closed shortly after coming online? Currently, we simply don’t know, but it is an intriguing mystery.
The Post offered other investigative opportunities, as well. It appears that, after the bunker was decommissioned, its above-ground access and vent were broken up and the debris used to fill the access shaft, but this would not have totally filled the space, suggesting hardcore was brought from elsewhere to complete the job. By far the most interesting insights, though, came through a hole in the roof of the operations room, through which the team was able to view (albeit very fleetingly) the abandoned world of the Post’s crew.
The equipment had been removed in 1968, but the furniture appeared to remain in situ. The most surprising element was the remnants of the double bunk frames; until then, I think most of the team had assumed the Post was just a working area. Once they learnt that a crew on operational lockdown could spend weeks in that small space, the entire structure took on a far more sinister aspect. For me, the bunks serve to demonstrate a commitment to duty offered by a voluntary organisation, often placing themselves at risk in the process. The examination of this site polarised the attitudes of the excavation team, reminding us that archaeology is not a fixed series of identical features, especially when humans are involved, and that every nuance has a story.
And what of the Post’s future? Unfortunately, the site will be cleared, but this is not the end of the story. The local Arborfield Historical Society, working with Wokingham Borough Council, Balfour Beatty, and the ROC Heritage Trust, will be marking the site with a commemorative stone, in recognition of those volunteers who were prepared to face the most terrible of weapons and, in so doing, save lives.
Dr Bob Clarke is a Senior Researcher with Wessex Archaeology and an expert on the Cold War.