Burlington: Central Government War Headquarters

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Burlington: Central Government War Headquarters

The phone exchange at Burlington - then the second largest phone exchange in Britain

Following the end of World War II and the calamitous descent of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, Britain was plunged into the uncertainties of the nuclear age - where the prospect of nuclear annihilation was an ever-present background threat.

For ordinary people, this meant a steady drip-drip of 'what to do in a nuclear attack' style information, but for those in power it meant making serious practical calculations as to what would happen to the governing infrastructure if the Cold War ever went 'hot'.

The precedent for underground government facilities had been set during World War II with Churchill's famous war rooms. Out of sight of Luftwaffe planes and heavily fortified underground, the Prime Minister and his cabinet would be able to operate in safety during heavy bombing raids.

Following the war and the advent of nuclear weapons, it was clear that the threat to the political infrastructure of the company was now a good deal more serious than mere bombs. It was decided that a facility should be built that was capable of housing the entire apparatus of government in the case of a direct attack on Britain.

The site chosen was outside the village of Corsham in Wiltshire. Under the gently rolling hills, a munitions dump had already been built in the 1930s. One of three such facilities, the site was already excavated and accessible only by a one and a quarter mile long tunnel from the main trainline to a vast storage area dug from pre-existing mining tunnels.

Work began in the late 1950s under the auspices of the then Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and the codename SUBTERFUGE.

The intention was that the entirety of the Government could be moved there at short notice and remain functional in complete isolation for several months. As such, accommodation and facilities for a staggering 4,000 people were built. This included a hospital, underground reservoir of drinking water, the second largest telephone exchange in the country, a BBC television studio and endless kitchens, laundries and storage area for huge amounts of food. Movement around the base was facilitated by 60 miles of roads.

To maintain the security of the site's location, the majority of the civil servants and ministers were never told where they would be taken in the case of an attack. They were instead given meeting points where they would be taken to CGWHQ via road, rail and air.

In fact, by the time the facility was completed, it was clear that the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile had rendered such a facility almost pointless. Designed on the assumption that London itself would be the target of any nuclear attack, the development of missiles that could be re-targeted to any point meant that almost literally nowhere was safe from nuclear strike.

Nonetheless, the facility was kept operational until 2004 when the lake and the fuel were drained and the site decommissioned. Since then the site has been offered for sale, with suggested uses ranging from a colossal wine cellar to a visitor attraction.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 28th December 2012 | © Weird Island 2010-2018
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