Tsar Bomba: the world’s biggest nuclear detonation
It’s the stuff of nightmares, writes BTN’s Duncan Little. The largest man-made explosion is, quite frankly, unimaginable. Such was its scale that the flash could be seen more than 600 miles away, and, upon detonation, its mushroom cloud extended upwards by 40 miles. Its diameter spread itself over a distance of more than 60 miles. For some sense of its magnitude, Mount Everest is (nearly) six miles high.
Hundreds of miles away and the shockwaves caused windows to be blasted out. At nearly 60 megatons, the device is said to be 10 times more powerful than all of the bombs used between 1939 and 1945 and more than 1000 greater than the atomic bombs dropped on both Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
More frightening still is the notion that the 1961 detonation of Tsar Bomba was ‘smaller’ than its original target yield of 100 megatons. The ‘powers that be’ had decided such a device was simply too big. The aeroplane’s crew would have certainly died. As it was, they had a lucky escape having dropped the device which measured a whopping eight metres in length (with a width of more two metres). In fact, it was so big that it couldn’t nestle inside the plane – but had to be housed under it.
There was another consideration: fallout. The radiation cloud may have also adversely affected the aggressor. In short, a bomb of 100 megatons was theoretically possible, but simply not practical. And so, they settled on Tsar Bomba. This year marks the 60th anniversary since it was dropped over Novaya Zemlya (in the far north of Russia).
Facing such extreme weaponry, the western powers needed to mount a suitable civil defence response. Even before the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb, in 1949, the British had been trying to work out how to stay ‘safe’ from fallout. To do so, any blast would need to be measured and calibrated so the authorities could work out how to try to save the civilian population. The bomb’s yield and the wind direction would need to be known. A team would have to be stationed near ‘Ground Zero’ to monitor all of these details.
Civil defence: A system of bunkers
The solution was surprisingly simple. A system of Veryan bunkers was established throughout the whole country, and, in the event of a nuclear war, they would be manned by a team of three who would have spent weeks living and working underground. Their sole mission was to gather data about a blast and monitor radioactive fallout. Today, many of these Veryan bunkers have been demolished or sold off. There are, however, a few still dotted around the UK which are remarkably well preserved.
The Veryan Bunker, near Truro, Cornwall, was originally built some two years after the Tsar Bomba had set its grisly precedent as the world’s biggest weapon of its time. Today, the bunker is a brilliantly preserved example of the conditions the Royal Observer Corps volunteers would have lived under had the ‘balloon gone up.’
In July, 2015, I was lucky enough to film there and also to interview Lawrence Holmes MBE who is a member of the Royal Observer Corps Association.
Reaching the site is no easy feat. It was a hot summer’s day when Viewhear Productions’ Dominic Finan and I, laden with equipment traipsed across a multitude of Cornish fields to arrive at the site which hosts spectacular views. It was heavy work. We carried a multitude of battery packs (there’s no power in the underground bunker), lights, tripods, cameras, tapes, microphones and lots of bottled water (lugging kit is thirsty work).
It was well worth the effort and today Break Time News is delighted to host the results. It was a great opportunity to interview Lawrence about his life in the Royal Observer Corps (ROC), which he joined in 1953.
The first film allows him to tell us how he was trained by the ROC to track and report aircraft as part of defence exercises before the ROC took on its nuclear reporting role in 1955. Part Two also explains how ROC members would have responded if nuclear conflict had been triggered by a negative outcome to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
A subterranean world in one room
Conditions underground were fairly basic. A hatch opens to a vertical ladder which saw Dom and I carefully hoisting our kit down to a base plate next to a small chemical toilet. The main room measures five by three metres and is one metre below the surface. This is, apparently, enough to protect the crew from radiation by a factor of 1000.
Three feet below ground may not sound much but the ladder extends deeper as engineers needed to consider the construction of a fully operational monitoring room. And, in these cramped conditions, the team of three would have spent weeks, manning the monitoring station and taking it in turns to sleep in the two bunk beds.
Part Three sees Lawrence talk about how the crew would have survived during a nuclear war. He also explains about the exercises that were held throughout the year and the first indications that the crew below ground would have received had a nuclear blast detonated near to the post itself.
In this instance, one of them would have gone immediately to the surface to change the paper in photographic equipment before the fallout began. ROC crews would have remained in their three man observational Veryan bunkers for three weeks. During that time, they would have been reporting radiation readings once every five minutes from the relative ‘safety’ of being below ground.
Lawrence tells us about the various changes which happened to the Royal Observer Corps (part four) from 1968 onwards: how crews continued training through Nixon’s ‘détente’ of the 1970s until they were eventually stood down in 1991. Finally, he reflects on the unique quality of the Veryan bunker. It’s estimated there are only about 80 three-man ROC Veryan bunkers preserved in some way in the UK (from the total of just under 1600 originally built). Only about eight are currently fully preserved, equipped, and open to the public.
These interviews provide a rare glimpse into a remarkable life and how our nation tried to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.At time of publishing, the national Covid 19 lockdown means the Veryan Bunkers, which are owned by the National Trust, are closed to visitors. More information can be found at the ROC Association’s Heritage website: http://www.roc-heritage.co.uk/ To navigate to the Veryan Bunkers: click on ‘Further Research’ then ‘Preserved Posts’ then ‘England’ where you can scroll down to Veryan Bunkers). You can also find more information on the National Trust website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carne-and-pendower/profiles/veryan-bunkers