Wartime Broadcasting Service

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BBC Radio recording studio at the Cultybraggan nuclear bunker, Perthshire, shortly before it was dismantled in 2014

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.

Origins and history[edit]

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, Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh were attacked by the Luftwaffe.

In the post-war era, plans were revised so that the Wartime Broadcasting Service would have coped 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 providing "instruction, information and encouragement as far as practical by means of guidance, news and diversion to relieve stress and strain". "Diversion" was to be in the form of music and selected pre-recorded programmes.[1] BBC executives drafted a schedule made up of music, drama, comedy, and religious programmes to be broadcast over a period of 100 days after a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.

The BBC had studios and production equipment at many government nuclear bunkers such as the Central Government War Headquarters at Corsham and the Regional Seats of Government.

By the end of the decade, existing transmitters had been fitted with emergency diesel generators and fallout protection.

From the 1980s, the BBC planned to broadcast for only a few hours a day and for a few minutes each hour, the intention being to conserve the batteries in domestic radios. There was to be no entertainment content for this reason and so that official messages could 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.

Post Cold War[edit]

With the Cold War having ended, the BBC and British Telecom developed the National Attack Warning System in 2003. This system was able to warn by television, radio and telephone (the latter only in some areas) of an impending attack using existing infrastructure. The BBC was capable of doing so within ten minutes using their existing broadcasting procedures. By the time of the 2011 digital switchover, this was becoming obsolete because television and radio have limited warning capability.[2] According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, there were suggestions that the warning message would be recorded by Jill Dando, actress Joanna Lumley or Carol Vorderman.

[3] Under the Broadcasting Act 1980, the government still has the legal right to take over editorial control of radio and television in the event of a national emergency. Also, the BBC agreement allows the government to ask the BBC to broadcast messages in an emergency:

"If it appears to any UK Government Minister that an emergency has arisen, that Minister may request that the BBC broadcast or otherwise distribute any announcement or other programme."[4]


The decision to activate the service would have been taken at Cabinet level late in the crisis phase. On being given the order, the BBC and ITV were to suspend normal programming, broadcast the frequencies for the Wartime Broadcasting Service and go off-air an hour later (with television used only to broadcast Protect and Survive public information films and unavailable after an attack due to its susceptibility to electromagnetic pulse). At this point, one single national programme would have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from Wood Norton. This would have consisted of official government announcements and information interspersed with filler material, such as music, news and warnings. The four-minute warning itself was to have been injected from a special studio at Broadcasting House and been broadcast nationally on all television and radio stations when a coded signal from RAF High Wycombe was given. This studio would also have been 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 have been a regional service tailored to local needs located in regional seats of government. Regional controllers were to use these smaller BBC studios to give out local messages to communities and would have been manned by BBC staff. If conventional air attacks destroyed peacetime broadcasting facilities, the Wartime Broadcasting Service would also have been 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."[5]

Staffing the bunkers[edit]

Indeed, choosing staff was very difficult. In the early days of the Wartime Broadcasting Service, BBC staff were assigned to the bunkers. Later, they were invited, but some staff opted out because either they were not allowed to take wives and children with them, saw them as pointless, or were sceptical as to whether it would work. They were not allowed to tell their families on grounds of national security. For instance, Huw Weldon "refused to take part in matters dealing with war time broadcasting".

The WTBS bunker at Wood Norton would be manned by ninety people, including the head of BBC Radio 4, BBC engineers, twelve news editors, sub editors, announcers and what was ominously described as "two nominations from Religious Broadcasting". Regional Seats of Government would have similar arrangements, staffed by people from BBC local radio.

When staff were selected, they would be given a letter giving basic information. If war loomed closer, a second letter would be sent, telling them:

"You have been selected for emergency duty and you will be going to " (location would be given in the letter). It rather delicately told BBC staff: "The length of your stay cannot be foreseen, but it might be several weeks." Therefore, they were advised to take clothes, soap and towels enough to last a month, as well as books and "small recreational items".[6]

Although those selected were not given extra pay, they were paid a £250 advance on their wages.

Programmes for broadcast[edit]

Initially, a post-attack statement (see below) was to be broadcast confirming a nuclear strike had hit the United Kingdom and warning of the dangers of fallout. It would have been broadcast every two hours on all radio frequencies set aside for the BBC for the first twelve hours after the attack. The script was released 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 Rodgers 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 have been broadcast in order to conserve energy.[7]

Official post-attack statement[edit]

The following is the script of an official statement that would have been 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):[8]

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[edit]


  • "BBC post attack broadcasting plans". Archived from the original on 29 May 2010.
  • File 16 Civil Defence Communications and Warning, from Subterranea Britannia accessdate=2009-10-04
  • Script of the BBC's post-attack statement accessdate=2009-10-04

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Subterranea Britannica File 16
  2. ^ "The National Attack Warning System". Civil Defence today. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  3. ^ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/would-really-happen-britain-came-nuclear-attack/
  4. ^ "An Agreement Between Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation" (PDF). BBC Trust. December 2016. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  5. ^ BBC Post-attack broadcasting plans
  6. ^ "The BBC's detailed plans for nuclear war – BBC News". BuzzWare. 24 July 2016. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  7. ^ "BBC News Magazine". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  8. ^ BBC Transcript to be used in the wake of a nuclear attack