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Architects of Armageddon: the Home Office Scientific Advisers' Branch and civil defence in Britain, 1945–68

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 October 2009

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, Brunswick Street, ManchesterM13 9PL, UK. Email:


In 1948, in response to the perceived threat of atomic war, the British government embarked on a new civil defence programme. By the mid-1950s, secret government reports were already warning that this programme would be completely inadequate to deal with a nuclear attack. The government responded to these warnings by cutting civil defence spending, while issuing apparently absurd pamphlets advising the public on how they could protect themselves from nuclear attack. Historians have thus far sought to explain this response with reference to high-level decisions taken by policymakers, and have tended to dismiss civil defence advice as mere propaganda. This paper challenges this interpretation by considering the little-known role of the Home Office Scientific Advisers' Branch, a group of experts whose scientific and technical knowledge informed both civil defence policy and advice to the public. It explores both their advisory and research work, demonstrating their role in shaping civil defence policy and showing that detailed research programmes lay behind the much-mocked government civil defence pamphlets of the 1950s and 1960s.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2009

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1 The Hydrogen Bomb, Home Office pamphlet, Her Majesty's Stationery Office (hereafter HMSO), 1957.

2 The Defence Implications of Fallout from a Hydrogen Bomb (hereafter Strath Report), 8 March 1955, National Archives (hereafter TNA), CAB 134/940, HDC(55)3.

3 Daily Mirror, 2 August 1963, 6.

4 F. Boyd: ‘Home Office told off by MPs: promises but not actions’, Guardian, 26 November 1963, 15.

5 M. Hartley-Brewer: ‘Nuclear reactions’, Guardian, 27 December 1974, 12.

6 D. Campbell, War Plan UK, London, 1983, 81.

7 Campbell, op. cit. (6), 84–5.

8 P. Hennessy, The Secret State, London, 2003; M. Grant, ‘Civil defence in Cold War Britain, 1945–68’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, London, 2006; and M. Grant, After the Bomb: Civil Defence and Nuclear War in Cold War Britain, 1945–68, forthcoming 2009.

9 F. M. Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, Stanford, CA, 1983, considers the role of American nuclear strategists – the so-called ‘nuclear priesthood’ – in formulating the country's nuclear war plans, although it does not focus specifically on civil defence. S. Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Cambridge, MA, 2005, considers the life and work of the notorious RAND strategist Herman Kahn and explores how his advice on civil defence was received by policymakers and the public.

10 D. Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970, Cambridge, 2006.

11 The CDJPS included representatives of the Home Office, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Health, the Scottish Office, the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Transport as permanent members. Members of other departments with civil defence responsibilities – including the General Post Office (GPO), Admiralty, Board of Trade, Ministry of Food, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Ministry of Fuel and Power – attended as required. See NA HO 357/1, CDJPS(48)1, Civil Defence Joint Planning Staff Terms of Reference, 25 March 1948.

12 Civil Defence Planning Committee: Terms of Reference and Composition, 6 September 1955, TNA CAB 134/1208, CDPC(55)1.

13 Sir Edward (Talbot) Paris, Who Was Who (A. & C. Black Ltd), accessed at; obituary of Sir Edward Paris, The Times, 29 August 1985, 12; and ‘Scientific Adviser's Branch, Home Office: Sir Edward Paris, C. B.’, Nature, 13 March 1954, 473.

14 ‘Scientific Adviser's Branch, Home Office: Dr. R. H. Purcell’, Nature, 13 March 1954, 473; obituary of Dr R. H. Purcell, The Times, 10 July 1969, 12.

15 Henry Anthony Sargeaunt, Who Was Who (A. & C. Black Ltd.), accessed at

16 ‘Retirement of E. Leader-Williams’, Fission Fragments, Issue 8, June 1966, 4, TNA HO 229/8.

17 ‘Retirement of Thomas Martin’, Fission Fragments, Issue 6, October 1964, 6, TNA HO 229/6; Browne, Janet, ‘Officers and council members of the British Society for the History of Science, 1947–97’, BJHS (1997), 30, 7789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 ‘Retirement of Dr. J. McAulay’, Fission Fragments, Issue 20, August 1973, 3, TNA HO 229/20.

19 ‘Retirement of Mr. G. R. Stanbury’, Fission Fragments, Issue 11, March 1968, 8, TNA HO 229/11.

20 ‘Retirement of Frank H. Pavry’, Fission Fragments, Issue 21, April 1977, 3, TNA HO 229/21.

21 The ‘Morrison’ shelter, named after the wartime Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison, was an indoor shelter, resembling a steel table with wire mesh sides, which was designed to protect its occupants from falling debris during air raids.

22 ‘History of the Research and Experiments Department, Ministry of Home Security, 1939–45’, by A. R. Astbury, Ministry of Works, 1946, TNA WORK 84/1; and ‘Retirement of E. Leader-Williams’, op. cit. (16), 4.

23 Email from Ann Hockenhull, 8 January 2008.

24 ‘Retirement of Frank H. Pavry’, op. cit. (20), 3.

25 ‘Retirement of Mr. G. R. Stanbury’, op. cit. (19), 8.

26 ‘Assessment of the damage and the number of casualties and homeless likely to result from an attack on Glasgow with an atomic bomb’, Home Office Scientific Advisers' Branch (hereafter HOSAB), 1953, TNA HO 225/34.

27 ‘Research on blast effects in tunnels with special reference to use of London tubes as shelter’, HOSAB, 1963, TNA HO 225/116.

28 Note of a meeting of the Working Party on Shelter Policy, 10 June 1955, TNA HO 322/364 WPSP(55) 1st Meeting.

29 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 12 April 1954, TNA HO 338/63.

30 Background and Policy for Civil Defence Planning, Civil Defence Committee, 7 July 1948, TNA CAB 134/82, CDC(48)10 Revise.

31 See ‘Notes on the occupancy of shelters during attack by V1 weapons on London, 1944’, HOSAB, 1948, TNA HO 228/1; ‘The economic and social effects of the German air attacks on certain British cities’, HOSAB, 1949, TNA HO 225/13; ‘An assessment of the effects of an attack on an average area of Inner London with nerve gas’, HOSAB, 1948–50, TNA HO 225/5.

32 L. Arnold, Britain and the H-bomb, Basingstoke, 2001, 16–18.

33 Several authors have identified the Lucky Dragon incident as a turning point in perceptions of the H-bomb. See, for example, Arnold, op. cit. (32), 19–20; S. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Cambridge, MA, 1988, Chapters 10 and 11.

34 Arnold, op. cit. (32), 56–7.

35 ‘Fatal casualties likely to result from an air attack on UK cities with 20 atomic or hydrogen bombs of varying power’, HOSAB, May 1954, TNA HO 225/52; ‘Provisional estimates of the results of a hydrogen bomb explosion’, HOSAB, May 1954, TNA HO 225/55; ‘Seriously injured casualties likely to result from an attack on UK cities with 20 atomic or hydrogen bombs of varying power’, HOSAB, September 1954, TNA HO 225/58.

36 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 31 January 1955, TNA HO 338/63.

37 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 7 February 1955, TNA HO 338/63.

38 Strath Report, op. cit. (2).

39 Strath Report, op. cit. (2). See also Hughes, J., ‘The Strath Report: Britain confronts the H-bomb, 1954–1955’, History and Technology (2003) 19, 257–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a detailed analysis of the content and recommendations of the report.

40 The shift towards the strategy of deterrence was a gradual one, but by 1954–5 it had become the dominant philosophy, as expressed in the 1955 Statement on Defence. See ‘Statement on Defence 1955’, 6–7, TNA DEFE 13/64.

41 For example ‘Meeting of the Home Defence Committee’, 27 October 1955, TNA CAB 134/940, HDC(55) 2nd meeting. The interdepartmental conflicts over civil defence policy are also explored in some detail in Grant, Matthew, ‘Home Defence and the Sandys Defence White Paper, 1957’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2008), 31, 925–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 ‘Meeting of the Home Defence (Ministerial) Committee’, 20 December 1955, TNA CAB 134/1245, HD(M)(55) 5th meeting.

43 A key turning point in shelter policy was the Home Secretary's proposal for a nationwide public shelter programme, which was rejected in October 1955. See ‘Note by the Home Secretary on Shelter Policy’, 25 October 1955, TNA CAB 134/1245, HDC(M)(55)10; and ‘Meeting of the Home Defence (Ministerial) Committee’, 27 October 1955, TNA CAB 134/1245, HDC(M)(55) 2nd meeting.

44 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 4 February 1957, TNA HO 338/63.

45 A. G. Gross, The Rhetoric of Science, Cambridge, MA, 1996, 15.

46 ‘The safety–cost relationship for certain types of surface and trench shelter’, HOSAB, 1953–4, TNA HO 225/48.

47 ‘The safety–cost relationship of certain basement shelters and a comparison with surface and trench shelters’, HOSAB, January 1954, TNA HO 225/49.

48 ‘Shelters in central high risk areas’, HOSAB, October 1954, TNA HO 226/32.

49 ‘Note of a meeting of the Working Party on Shelter Policy’, 28 October 1954, TNA HO 357/19, CDJPS(S)(54) 4th Meeting.

50 ‘The safety–cost relationship for certain types of surface and trench shelter’, op. cit. (46).

51 ‘The safety–cost relationship for certain types of surface and trench shelter’, op. cit. (46).

52 Latour introduced the idea of a ‘black box’ to explain how, once scientific facts are constructed, the process which led to their construction becomes hidden. B. Latour, Science in Action, Cambridge, MA, 1987.

53 L. Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, Ithaca, 2004.

54 Strath Report, op. cit. (2).

55 Blake Odgers to Leader-Williams, 20 May 1954, TNA HO 338/18.

56 ‘Some aspects of shelter and evacuation policy to meet H-bomb threat’, HOSAB, April 1954, TNA HO 225/54.

57 Civil Defence Inter-departmental Structural Precautions Research Committee: Interim Report on Grades of Protection and their Application to Buildings of Four or More Storeys, 3 September 1948, TNA CAB 134/82, CD(O)(48)21. This was the report of an interdepartmental committee whose members included the branch's Leader-Williams and, occasionally, Purcell.

58 ‘The standard of protection of trench shelters’, HOSAB, September 1952, TNA HO 225/31.

59 ‘Gamma ray penetration of grade A concrete shelters: comparison of dosage and casualty estimates’, HOSAB, 1953, TNA HO 225/41.

60 ‘The safety–cost relationship of certain basement shelters and a comparison with surface and trench shelters’, op. cit. (46).

61 The report of the British Mission to Japan, published in 1946, had explained the effects of blast, fire and radiation on various structures – including shelters, houses and factories – and on people, and had used the information to estimate homeless and casualty figures for an attack on a typical British city. See The Effects of the Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Report of the British Mission to Japan, HMSO, 1946. Scientists such as William Penney, who in 1948 was directing research at Fort Halstead in Kent (the precursor to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston), were also key sources of atomic information. Penney had worked on the development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, had been one of two Britons in the observer plane at the bombing of Nagasaki and had also been invited to take part in the United States' atomic tests at Bikini in 1946, along with several other British scientists. See L. Arnold, A Very Special Relationship: British Atomic Weapon Trials in Australia, London, 1987, 14.

62 Arnold, op. cit. (61), 6–7.

63 S. Glasstone (ed.), The Effects of Atomic Weapons, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc for the US Department of Defense and US Atomic Energy Commission, 1950. A new version published in 1957, entitled The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, was revised to take into account the hydrogen bomb.

64 Pavry to Glasstone, 2 February 1965, TNA HO 338/59.

65 ‘Notes on the Chief Scientific Adviser's work for civil defence’, 5 November 1948, TNA HO 205/361.

66 ‘Research relating to Civil Defence against Atomic Warfare: report for the period 30 June 1952 to 30 June 1953’, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, 1953, TNA ES 1/895.

67 Arnold, op. cit. (32), 75.

68 For a detailed study of the DRPC, see Agar, J. and Balmer, B., ‘British scientists and the Cold War: the Defence Research Policy Committee and information networks, 1947–63’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1998), 28, 209–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Their study shows that the DRPC did not initially have complete access to atomic information and were excluded from atomic decision-making, but later became more involved in atomic policy. On Tizard's life and his efforts to integrate science and the state see R. W. Clark, Tizard, London, 1965.

69 ‘Retirement of Frank H. Pavry’, op. cit. (20), 3; and ‘Retirement of Mr. G. R. Stanbury’, op. cit. (19), 8.

70 ‘Future atomic trials’, Official Committee on Civil Defence Sub-committee on Scientific Research and Technical Development, 1 October 1954, TNA HO 338/29, CD(O)(SRTD)(54)4. The Sub-committee on Scientific Research and Technical Development was established in 1954, chaired by the then head of the Scientific Advisers' Branch, Ronald Purcell, to help coordinate the increasingly complex research requirements of different civil departments.

71 ‘Civil defence and future atomic trials’, HOSAB, 30 September 1954, TNA HO 338/29.

72 File on Use of Water for Washdown Purposes, Home Office Scientific Advisers Branch, 1957–61, TNA HO 338/82.

73 Report on fallout distribution experiments at Electricity Generating Station, Durnsford Road, Wimbledon, on 12 January 1963, Porton Down Physics Research Division, 1963, TNA HO 338/75.

74 The Protection of Your Home against Air Raids, Home Office pamphlet, HMSO, 1938.

75 Advising the Householder on Protection against Nuclear Attack, Home Office pamphlet, HMSO, 1963.

76 ‘Preliminary note on refuge rooms’, E. Leader-Williams, 21 May 1955, TNA HO 338/18.

77 Report on ‘Rose Cottage’ experiments, January 1956, TNA HO 338/18.

78 The delay between the suggestion in 1955 that a pamphlet should be prepared and the final publication of the pamphlet appears to have been due to uncertainty about what the pamphlet should contain and how it should be distributed. The Berlin Crisis in 1961 gave a renewed impetus to the preparation of a pamphlet for the public, and initially the Home Office proposed to distribute twenty million free copies to British households in the event of a crisis. Concerns about cost, speed of printing and the possibility of causing public panic led to a decision in early 1962 to market the pamphlet as a training booklet for members of the civil defence services while putting it on sale to the public in peacetime. Additional material was to be issued to the public via the press in the event of an emergency. See NA CAB 134/1480, Meetings of the Official Committee on Civil Defence 1961–2; and NA T 227/1526, Expenditure on Production and Distribution of Householder's Handbook, 1961–4.

79 ‘Note of a meeting on methods of blocking windows’, 1 May 1956, TNA HO 338/19.

80 Letter to Falfield Civil Defence School, 1956, TNA HO 338/18.

81 Note of visit to window-blocking experiment, Falfield, 12 July 1956, TNA HO 338/19.

82 Note on fallout shelter experiment and newspaper clipping, 28 August 1959, TNA HO 338/104.

83 Note on Royal Observer Corps exercise, April 1964, TNA HO 338/104.

84 ‘Experimental determination of protective factors in a semi-detached house with or without core shelters’, HOSAB, January 1964, TNA HO 225/117.

85 ‘Experimental determination of protective factors in a semi-detached house with or without core shelters’, op. cit. (84).

86 Ian Roy (O Division, Home Office) to J1 Division, Home Office, August 1957, TNA HO 338/19. O Division was responsible mainly for shelters, while J1 Division was responsible for advice to the public, amongst other things. See Figure 1.

87 Ian Roy (O Division) to J1 Division, August 1957, TNA HO 338/19.

88 Z. Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, Ithaca, NY, 1989, 98–102.

89 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 19 November 1958, TNA HO 338/63.

90 Chief Scientific Adviser's Weekly Meeting, 17 May 1954, TNA HO 338/63.

91 Report of a conference of the Regional Scientific Advisers for Civil Defence at the Civil Defence Staff College, ‘Training of technical reconnaissance officers’ by T. Martin, June 1957, TNA HO 228/20.

92 At the first meeting to discuss the journal in August 1960, Leader-Williams commented, ‘Although [the crossword] could be used to teach C. D. jargon, its chief object [is] to amuse.’ Note on Meeting on the new SIO bulletin, August 1960, TNA HO 338/59. (Sample clue – ‘No fun kicking this about (8)’. Answer – ‘Fireball’.) Much of the material in Fission Fragments, including the crossword, was created by members of the branch, although cartoons and some relevant articles were borrowed from other newspapers and magazines.

93 R. Taylor, Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement, 1958–1965, Oxford, 1988, 257–62.

94 For example Nuclear Weapons: Manual of Civil Defence, vol. 1, Pamphlet No. 1, HMSO, 1956; and General Information: Civil Defence Pocket Book No. 3, HMSO, 1960. Manuals such as these were intended for ordinary (non-scientific) members of the Civil Defence Corps, but were not restricted and could be purchased by members of the public. They generally included more technical detail than the pamphlets aimed at the public.

95 Interview with Peter Balmer, 21 May 2008, at CHSTM, University of Manchester. Balmer was an SIO from the late 1950s until the organization was stood down at the end of the Cold War.