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The Wartime Broadcasting Service was a service of the BBC that was intended to broadcast in the United Kingdom either after a nuclear attack or if conventional bombing destroyed regular BBC facilities in a conventional war (or during the conventional phase).

Kelvedon Hatch emergency broadcast tower, which would have transmitted official announcements after a nuclear attack on the UK.


Origins and history

The origins of the service lie in pre-World War II plans to disperse BBC staff to facilities such as Wood Norton to guarantee due functioning of the corporation if cities such as London, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh were attacked by the Luftwaffe.

In the post-war era, plans were revised so that the Wartime Broadcasting Service would cope with a nuclear strike by installing 54 low powered transmitters and keeping (what remained of) the main transmitter network in reserve, in case Soviet bombers used them to home in on targets. Although vague, plans from the mid 1950s were to provide both a national and regional radio service 24 hours a day (mirroring peacetime BBC operations at the time) with the objective of “to provide instruction, information and encouragement as far as practical by means of guidance, news and diversion to relieve stress and strain”. The word "diversion" may have implied entertainment, which was to be provided by records and pre-recorded programmes.[1] BBC executives drafted a schedule that comprised of music, drama, comedy and religious programmes to be broadcast over a period of 100 days after a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.

From the early 1960s onward, the threat was more likely to be from ICBMs rather than bombers (except in the early conventional phase) and the main transmitter network was brought back into use with the cable carrying the signal to the Droitwich transmitter diverted through Wood Norton (the hub of the WTBS). By the end of the decade, existing transmitters were fitted with emergency diesel generators and fallout protection.

From the 1980s until the end of the cold war, the BBC planned to broadcast for only a few hours a day and for a few minutes each hour. The intention being to save batteries in people's radios. There would be no entertainment content for this reason and partially so that official messages can get through. With the end of the Cold War, the BBC deactivated the studios and emergency transmitter networks in 1993 as surplus to requirements. Many of these studios have become exhibits in bunkers, like the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker, which have now been converted into museums.

With the end of the cold war, the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the threat of Islamist terrorism, the Wartime Broadcasting Service was rendered obsolete by changes in the political landscape. All warnings and information on a terrorist attack would now come from regular news channels in the form of an extended newsflash, interrupting and suspending programmes only for a few hours. A good example would be the coverage of the 2005 London bombings and 9/11, where the event was its own warning. However, under the Broadcasting Act 1980, the government still has the legal right to take over editorial control of both the BBC and what was called the Independent Broadcasting Authority in time of a national emergency.


The decision to activate the service would be taken at Cabinet level late in the crisis phase. On being given the order, the BBC and ITV would suspend normal programming, broadcast the frequencies for the Wartime Broadcasting Service and go off-air an hour later (television would only be used to broadcast Protect and Survive public information films and would not be available after an attack due to their susceptibility to electromagnetic pulse). At this point, one single national programme would be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from Wood Norton. This would consist of official government announcements and information interspersed with filler material, such as music, news and warnings. The four minute warning itself would be injected from a special studio at Broadcasting House and be broadcast nationally on all television and radio stations when a coded signal from RAF High Wycombe was given. This studio would also be used by government ministers to broadcast messages and announcements until the government left London late in the crisis phase (or during the precautionary period).

After an attack, there would also be a regional service tailored to local needs located in regional seats of government. Regional controllers would use these smaller BBC studios to give out local messages to communities and would be manned by BBC staff. If conventional air attacks destroyed peacetime broadcasting facilities, the Wartime Broadcasting Service would also be activated.

Regular drills and training exercises were held to give an air of realism, but many BBC staff saw them as pointless or declined to serve during a national emergency because they couldn't take their families with them. One anonymous insider said:

"I can't blame them for deciding there were better ways to go than to sit in a bunker with a group of local radio engineers."[2]

Programmes for broadcast

Initially, a post attack statement (see below) would be broadcast confirming a nuclear strike had hit the United Kingdom and warning of the dangers of fallout. It would be broadcast every two hours on all radio frequencies set aside for the BBC for the first twelve hours after the attack. The script was declassified by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act on 3 October 2008.

Jim Black, a BBC executive, compiled a schedule consisting of classic BBC drama, comedy and religious programmes to maintain morale. These included Round The Horne, I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, Hancock's Half Hour and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music. Drama programmes included The Afternoon Play and Thirty Minute Theatre. From the 1980s until 1993, the entertainment content was dropped and only official announcements would be broadcast.


Official post attack statement

The following is the script of an official statement that would be broadcast on the Wartime Broadcasting Service in the hours after an attack. It was recorded by Peter Donaldson, chief continuity announcer for BBC Radio 4 (the designated national broadcaster in a national emergency):[3]

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.

Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger. If you leave, you may find yourself without food, without water, without accommodation and without protection. Radioactive fall-out, which follows a nuclear explosion, is many times more dangerous if you are directly exposed to it in the open. Roofs and walls offer substantial protection. The safest place is indoors.

Make sure gas and other fuel supplies are turned off and that all fires are extinguished. If mains water is available, this can be used for fire-fighting. You should also refill all your containers for drinking water after the fires have been put out, because the mains water supply may not be available for very long.

Water must not be used for flushing lavatories: until you are told that lavatories may be used again, other toilet arrangements must be made. Use your water only for essential drinking and cooking purposes. Water means life. Don't waste it.

Make your food stocks last: ration your supply, because it may have to last for fourteen days or more. If you have fresh food in the house, use this first to avoid wasting it: food in tins will keep.

If you live in an area where a fall-out warning has been given, stay in your fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out. When the immediate danger has passed the sirens will sound a steady note. The "all clear" message will also be given on this wavelength. If you leave the fall-out room to go to the lavatory or replenish food or water supplies, do not remain outside the room for a minute longer than is necessary.

Do not, in any circumstances, go outside the house. Radioactive fall-out can kill. You cannot see it or feel it, but it is there. If you go outside, you will bring danger to your family and you may die. Stay in your fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out or you hear the "all clear" on the sirens.

Here are the main points again:

Stay in your own homes, and if you live in an area where a fall-out warning has been given stay in your fall-out room, until you are told it is safe to come out. The message that the immediate danger has passed will be given by the sirens and repeated on this wavelength. Make sure that the gas and all fuel supplies are turned off and that all fires are extinguished.

Water must be rationed, and used only for essential drinking and cooking purposes. It must not be used for flushing lavatories. Ration your food supply: it may have to last for fourteen days or more.

We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours' time. Stay tuned to this wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.

See also


External links


  1. ^ Subterranea Britannica File 16
  2. ^ BBC Post-attack broadcasting plans
  3. ^ BBC Transcript to be used in the wake of a nuclear attack


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