Saturday 20 July 2013

Part 1: Two minutes from a Nuclear World War

When I get a question from the younger generation on the lines of "How do you feel now about events in the Cold War?” I usually look them straight in the eye and say "I feel that it is a miracle that I am able to stand here and talk to you".   Seeing the startled look on their faces, if they are sufficiently interested, I go on to outline just a few of the events which "nearly blew us all to Kingdom come".   The first big scare came early in the Arms Race, when computers were a lot less sophisticated than they became later on;  the watchdog computers in the USA predicted that a shower of Russian missiles were on the way. Fortunately it was discovered, before the countdown was completed, that the "missiles" were in fact "meteorites".    A similar scare occurred a year later when the computer interference turned out to be a "flock of geese" then shortly afterward was termed a "moon echo". 

We all know that the Cuban Crisis made the world hold its breath. The outcome was hailed as a victory for the United States as the Soviets withdrew their missiles, but behind the scenes there were frantic negotiations between the adversaries; in return for the Soviet decision, the USA had to withdraw their missiles from Turkey, and their naval fleet from certain waters in the Far East.  However, some years later the public were completely unaware of a stand-off, every bit as dangerous, which occurred in the middle of the Atlantic. The Soviets lined up a row of nuclear submarines 400 miles off the coast of America.   The Americans threatened to blow them out of the water unless they were removed. What went on thereafter remains a mystery, but not long afterwards the Soviets announced that one of their submarines was missing.   The others we knew had by then been removed.

Some years later the now sensitive American computers picked up what was thought to be heat from the launch of Soviet missiles.  The red telephone link between the two superpower leaders was now in operation, and the panic was quickly dampened down when it was discovered the heat was the result of a fire on a pipeline taking oil from Siberia to Moscow. Two events which occurred nearer the end of the Cold War eclipsed all the others. The first involved a NATO fleet which gathered off the north-east coast of Scotland. Before it left, American jets from their carriers carried out mock bombing raids on villages along the east coast of Sutherland, which caused much alarm, some villagers feeling it was the real thing. This convoy, dominated of course by the Americans went full steam ahead towards the Russian coast and the sensitive Murmansk peninsula where a lot of their nuclear weapons were held.  Only after the end of the Cold War did we get to know from a former KGB officer that the order to blow the fleet out of the water was only cancelled at the very last moment.  Had it happened it would have heralded the start of World War III.

The last and most serious event was almost farcical in its outcome, and shows how close we came to nuclear annihilation. All the linked American computers showed the same picture, a shower of incoming missiles heading for the United States. The full launch countdown was put into operation. At Headquarters where the final button would shortly be pressed making the launch irreversible, a young officer who had only arrived from Training School that day, suddenly said "Wait a minute; I've seen that before, it's from a training tape!"   The operation to launch was cancelled 2 minutes 12 seconds before the final signal would have been given.  It emerged that a training tape had been fed into the live circuit in error!

Part 2: Superpower Propaganda

We were well aware during the Cold War that propaganda was rife by both "East" and "West".   In the UK we were told how the poor people behind the Iron Curtain were kept entirely ignorant of what the Kremlin was doing, and of course we always had reservations  about what the American public were told, which persists to this day.  Well, from my observations over the years this secrecy code seems to be an obsession with the British Establishment!

During the Cold War, CND got a lot of information about what it was seeking from the USA and Canada, and what may surprise a lot of people from the Soviet Union which periodically released accurate figures of the missiles they possessed.   During the Cold War a leading local Tory approached me and told me that the Soviets were launching 2 aircraft carriers and 4 nuclear submarines every week, and in case we were attacked from the Atlantic we must have all our nuclear weapons ready to be launched at a moment's notice.

Ignoring the fact that all our weapons were pointing the wrong way, I asked him how firing off all our nuclear weapons would protect us, and was it not the case that because of these weapons, and of course the 50 American bases spread around Scotland, that made us a target?   Did he not know I also asked that the noisiest of the aircraft screaming above our heads every day and dumping their bombs on the Tain Range were American F1-11s, and were rehearsing flying below the Soviet radar to make a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, which would start World War III.

I don't think this chain of thought had ever entered his head.  The truth is that the Soviet nuclear weaponry was always about 5 years behind that of the USA, but as each new type of missile was created by the Americans, the Soviets followed suit, with the exception of the neutron bomb, which if exploded in the air would kill all human life below it with its deadly rays, leaving everything else undamaged. The Soviets named this "The Capitalists Bomb".

The British media often portrayed the Soviet threat as a huge Russian bear with claws outstretched towering above this poor defenceless country.  This was even shown on BBC TV in a programme showing how our Tornado aircraft were constantly intercepting Soviet jets attempting to fly into our airspace, whereas the fact was that 99 per cent of our Tornados were being trained in low flying to penetrate the Soviet Union below its radar defences.

As for current propaganda, I have a penfriend in Washington DC (where big protests were made daily against the Iraq War) who regularly sends me cut-outs from newspapers from all over the USA.  What has surprised me is that in so many of these, serious questions have been raised about the Lockerbie trial and the guilty verdict reached on Megrahi, which of course on this side of the Atlantic we have never heard about.

Part 3: The Worst of the Dirty Tricks

We only know a fraction of what went on during the Cold War as the two Super power blocks bid for military superiority over each other. The American spy plane which was shot down by the Russians, with the pilot paraded for all to see, was an event they tried quickly to forget. There were however two dirty tricks by the Americans, one of which plunged the depths of depravity.   Both involved forthcoming elections in neutral countries.

The first involved Sweden.  Elections were due and opinion polls were showing that for the first time the "Left” would gain a decisive victory.   A week before the election the Government of the day announced that they had trapped a Russian Spy submarine in the waters near Stockholm having sealed off the exits.    The Russians immediately denied that they had any submarines anywhere near the area.   This came across strongly in the Soviet press, and none more so than the "Soviet Weekly" published in English.   Now watching Soviet propaganda over the years, when this was rumbled it always ceased, so I became suspicious on the persistence of the Soviet denials.  The day after the elections the submarine was allowed free passage into the Baltic.  The result of the election was a win for the "Right".   The issue was never spoken about again.

There was an occurrence in Japan which had similarities, but of a much more serious nature.  Again the "Left" were predicted to win in the approaching elections and whilst Japan was a neutral country, the Americans did not wish to lose whom they regarded as an ally in seeing what the Russians were up to.

The Americans had planes, used for both military and civil purposes which were practically identical.  One of these military planes flew into Soviet air space towards their sensitive area around Vladivostok.     It was immediately intercepted by Soviet jets and escorted out of the area.   Two hours later another jet of similar design flew into the same sensitive area. The pilot did not respond to messages, so the Soviets shot it down.  It contained over 100 civilian passengers, mostly Japanese.  Former American President Nixon had been told not to go on that flight (shades of Lockerbie?).    The outcome of the election was that the "Left" had been routed.   An American Senator, who said that he would never rest until he found out who was responsible for interfering with the internal workings of the fated plane, was found dead in suspicious circumstances two weeks later.

Part 4: Phone Tapping and Censorship

The first CND groups in the Highlands were formed in Alness, Dingwall and then Inverness.  We took the film "The War Game" around the Highlands to towns and villages with new groups forming wherever we went.   We went on to reach a total of 22 groups with total membership of over 2,000.   Situated so far apart (e.g. 50 miles from Dingwall to Ullapool) we decided to form a Highland Federation of CND Groups and hold monthly meetings at different venues (around 50 people usually attended), with the host group accommodating the visitors, so many a ceilidh went on long into the night.

Bruce Kent, whom I took around on his first Highland tour, was puzzled how, wherever we went, be it Cromarty, Fort William or Stornoway we all knew each other!    I became the Highlands & Islands delegate to Scottish CND and went on to become a member of their Executive and Convener of the influential Campaigns Committee.

We all soon became aware of a hollow sound when we phoned each other, or even an echo of our voices coming back.   We felt our phones were being tapped. We didn't need to wait long for our fears to be confirmed.  One evening I was speaking to a colleague in Edinburgh (we had a fixed time for phoning each other) but as there was not much new news to talk about that night and the line was bad, we decided to hang up, but before we could do so a young voice said "Sir, may I have your permission please to switch this recording to the other channel".  There was a "click" and the line became crystal clear.

 The Federation combated this by using public telephone kiosks and phoning each other at set times.  A few years later it seemed for a while that my telephone line was clear, but one evening I received a strange phone call.  A caller with a slow, broad, Scottish accent said "John, is that you, it’s me".  I hadn't a clue who this "me" might be, but I said "Yes, I'm here".  The caller then said "Well I have news for you; the woodpeckers haven't gone away you know.  A member of the greater spotted woodpecker group took up residence 60 paces from where you are now standing in a South South West direction yesterday".

I thought at first that this was a silly prank then suddenly the word "woodpecker" came into my mind, yes this was the code name of the Soviets "Over The Horizon Radar" which came from behind the Urals to try and intercept military telephone conversations or what our own intelligence services had picked up.   The 60 paces took me across the road to the foot of the telephone pole where obviously a new listening device had just been installed.   I keep this caution until this day, talking on the phone to one of our MSP's recently, we fixed a time for him to call me on a subject which we did not wish to disclose.

The final incident was somewhat amusing.  A new road, the A835, to replace the old single track was being constructed outside the front of the house and in the process the telephone line to the house was cut in error.   The local BT engineer came quite soon afterwards but said, on giving lots of apologies, that he would have to consult his manager.   So his boss arrived a couple of hours later but left quickly without commenting. Finally, late in the afternoon, a gentleman in a hand-tailored suit and collar and tie appeared.  He looked out of place with the tin hat perched on his head and looked a bit embarrassed as I watched him climb up the pole.  He didn't utter a word.  The local engineer, whom I knew, told me that he had come up all the way from Perth!

Some 30 years ago I was invited to address the National Conference of the Scottish National Party on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).   The SNP Conference was nothing like what you will see these days on TV, they were much smaller of course, and everyone seemed to know each other, so I was greeted with much interest and curiosity.

My speech was listed to be broadcast live on BBC TV which added to the atmosphere.  I began by telling the audience that when the American Generals gathered in the Pentagon to rehearse their procedure for fighting and winning a nuclear war in Europe, and in so doing using millions of human lives like pawns in a game of chess, our country, Scotland, merely referred to as Section 75, would be wiped off the map in a matter of minutes.

I was only half-way through my first sentence when the BBC faded me out, and replaced my broadcast with an unscheduled edition of "Andy Pandy".   My father-in-law, not known for his interest in politics, however, had sat himself down in front of the TV with a wee dram by his side.  My mother-in-law told me later that when I was faded out he got to his feet and had she not been there he would have put his boot through the telly!   Not at all characteristic!    I am sure a lot of others felt like doing the same.

Part 5: The Arrival of Trident at Dounreay

When it became public knowledge that the middle section of a Trident submarine complete with nuclear reactor would be coming to Dounreay to be tested in the Nuclear Propulsion Test Establishment, known locally as HMS Vulcan (situated next door to the Dounreay Experimental Fast Breeder Reactor), the Highland Federation of CND Groups met to discuss what to do.   It was decided somewhat reluctantly that as Trident would come ashore on nearby Sandside Bay on a Wednesday and be safely within Vulcan the following day, it would not be possible in the short time available to organise a meaningful demonstration in an isolated spot many miles from the main population centres.  However a much smaller demonstration would be held in the neighbouring town of Thurso two weeks later, and a petition presented to the Commander of the Vulcan Base.

A scheme was hatched by the Highland Federation of CND Groups to put out false information to see what would happen (long before this, we knew of course that our phone lines were being tapped).   Hazel, for example, would phone me from Cromarty asking whether I knew that an extra 10 buses would be coming from Manchester, to which I would reply, expressing complete disbelief – "surely not on top of the dozen we already know about".  And so this went on with Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow adding to the numbers!   So, when the big day arrived, Sandside Bay was empty of protestors, but packed with hundreds upon hundreds of policemen!

However, one of our members, Eddie from Golspie, who somehow or other always managed to get things wrong, stuck a few CND banners on his sidecar, hopped on his old motorbike and drove up the road and onto Sandside Bay.  He was immediately surrounded by a hoard of police.  They crawled under his motorbike, and almost pulled the old Velocette apart!   The fact that Eddie was coloured, spoke with a Cockney accent and was somewhat confused may have added to the police anxiety, but in the end it was a very relieved man who arrived safely back in Golspie that Evening.

When the threat of a nuclear attack on Britain became a possibility, the Government of the day decided to issue a booklet titled "Protect And Survive".   It was a gift for CND. It taught the public how to whitewash their windows, to build a nuclear shelter under the table with such items as suit cases and old boxes, and how to fill a survival kit which could be carried on the back.   To add insult to injury, it informed those uninjured survivors how to prepare a meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding!

CND, with such groupings as "Scientists Against Nuclear Arms", "The Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons", "Ex-services CND", which even included retired generals, were able to give the public true information.  We explained how a nuclear bomb exploding 50 miles away would blow the glass out of every window, that the flash would set the curtains on fire, that every petrol station would explode in a fireball and that anyone caught in the open air, say playing golf, would be immediately blinded by the flash, their eyeballs would simply melt and roll down their cheeks.

CND brought out a serious of booklets, and a paperback of 270 pages all titled "Protest and Survive" (Penguin Label).  These did not attempt to rubbish "Protect and Survive", the booklet itself did the job itself for us, but it gave facts and information, articles by scientists etc.  I befriended Brigadier Harbottle, best known for commanding the peace keeping forces in Cyprus (early in his career he lost an arm in combat).   He travelled north and stayed with us for several days.  He spoke to several Highland groups.   He surprised everyone by telling us that throughout the Cold War, generals from east and west would meet to discuss the situation.  On one occasion he told us that the Russians brought out a map, not one that you would immediately recognise, but one with Russia in the middle and the American bases which completely surrounded her – "believe me" he told us "they were shit scared".

Against all this doom and gloom, it was necessary to have some fun to keep our spirits up. With the help of a Scottish University we were able to produce some official looking paper, and make up a list of our own survival kit. The pack to be carried on the back was first to be filled with such sensible items as a torch with spare batteries, a box of matches, a first aid kit and bandages, and then, 2 bottles of Whisky, 6 tins of Heinz beans, a heavy hammer etc…soon the pack would be weighing several stones.   Round the neck and leaning on the chest a gas mask, over the left shoulder a coil of rope, in the right hand a large spade, in the left hand a large cooking pot with a teapot inside, and finally a broom to be carried in the only remaining place available!

Part 6: Friends in High Places?

During the height of the Cold War period when the threat of a nuclear attack became realistic, governments prepared secret plans as to how local Authorities, Police, Rescue Services etc. would operate.   Packages of sealed instructions were delivered by hand "to be opened only when a state of emergency was declared".  It appeared that I had friends in high places, as a copy of instructions in a plain envelope (place of posting unknown) would reach me the following day.  My first reaction was that the contents were false and were put out hoping that we would publish them and so totally discredit CND.   However, when I found out that no other sections of CND had received anything similar, I began to feel that what I had was authentic, and when investigative journalist Duncan Campbell published a book titled "Beneath The City Streets"  which the authorities first tried to ban, this collaborated some of the information I had received.

This made me realise that I had to be cautious about what I published.  The contents were terrifying.   Local authorities were told to take over golf courses for mass graves.   People so badly injured that they would be unlikely to recover would be shot.  Those understood to have suffered fatal doses of radiation were termed "zombies".   Special concentration camps were to be set up on the Salisbury plain to intern "zombies" who were not to be given any food rations.   The fantasy of being able to undertake these tasks was obvious from the start – after the chaos of a nuclear attack, with whole towns wiped out and roads throughout the country destroyed, where would this huge manpower appear from to perform even a fraction of what was proposed.

One of the first tasks as soon as a state of emergency was declared (i.e. before a nuclear attack) was to pick up subversives i.e. people who might inspire widespread revolt among the public and would block roads etc.  I assumed that I would be included on the list, so I had arranged to vanish. Where I would be residing in comfort would be the last place in Ross & Cromarty that they would look for me!   (to this day my wife doesn't know where this was to be.  I had a fear she might be tortured).   Soon I discovered, much to my surprise, that the task of rounding up subversives would be performed by the Royal Observer Corps.

I knew that part of their training was to plot where nuclear bombs had fallen and report this to a central H.Q. but surely picking up subversives was far beyond their call of duty, but at this time of course, the whole country would be under a sort of "Marshall Law".  I got a tip off that I could expect a visit as part of their training on a specific day – a Sunday – so I decided that I would sit in the sun by the roadside and see what was going to happen.  In mid afternoon a vehicle pulled up, the driver and co-driver swapped places by running round the back of the truck whilst I cheered and clapped, much to their discomfort.

We had assumed that attempts would be made to infiltrate our ranks, so we kept a sharp look out for this.  The first occurrence was when we held one of our regular meetings of the Highland Federation of CND, this one being in Fort William.  Scottish CND had told us to expect one of their volunteers as a visitor.  He was exceptionally well dressed, appeared to have plenty of money, but seemed to have little knowledge of CND – which would not be unreasonable however if he had only recently joined.  After the meeting, he began asking personal questions which made us somewhat suspicious.

Next morning he appeared at breakfast in this magnificent pair of silk pyjamas.  One of our key members, who co-ordinated activity on the West Coast (and who was reputed to have got married in his wellie boots) took one look at this apparition and in utter amazement blurted out "Good God".   I spoke to Scottish CND the following Monday who already had suspicions about our visitors, so he was politely told that they wouldn't need him anymore.

The Scoraig Peninsula in Wester Ross can best be reached by boat, unless you are prepared to tackle the difficult track over the mountains.  It was occupied mostly by drop-outs who had come to seek a better way of life.  Most had left secure jobs.  We had a Civil Engineer, a scientist from Plessey who had objected to his involvement in the making of arms, and had come to Scoraig where he was making violins, and some other well educated people.  Almost all were members of CND. They decided to have a big Festival, CND based, and to invite groups of all kinds (not just CND) from all over the UK.   It was a huge success.  Two small boats ran continually ferrying people, tents, etc across the water.  I was in charge of the Scottish CND stall.  People were sitting around in a large circle on the grass in the sunshine early in the Saturday afternoon, speeches and entertainment would come later.  I had a sudden thought, would there be a visitor from Special Branch?

I thought I would just look around the crowd.  I spotted this young girl who seemed unusually dressed for someone attending a rural festival.  I kept an eye on her.  She got up casually, went one way and then the other, but gradually getting closer to the stall.  Eventually, she came right up.  "Hello" she said with a smile.   "I'm from "Psychiatrists for Peace" – a group I had never heard of. She began by asking me what political party or group I belonged to, and after I told her "none" she began to talk about left wing ideals which she said she was strongly in favour of, to see if I agreed with her.  So after a while having this friendly chat I casually asked "Can I ask you a question?"   "Certainly" she replied.  “How long have you been in Special Branch?"   She almost collapsed in a heap.  Grabbing her by the arm I asked "Are you a good swimmer, its only 5 miles to the mainland, but there is an alternative, there is a boat leaving in five minutes, be on it".  She ran down the path and onto the boat.  I watched from a distance until the boat left.  Somehow, I felt a bit sorry for her.

Part 7: We have crossed the Rubicon

The arrival of Cruise Missiles and the setting up of the camp at Greenham Common, along with the building of Trident brought a new dimension to the Cold War.  Firstly "Trident".   In the earlier years, the adversaries targeted each other’s cities.  Now whether a nuclear bomb exploded on the east side of Moscow or the right side of London, the cities would be destroyed, and because of this, a sort of nuclear deterrence did in fact exist.  But Trident was a new weapon with extreme accuracy (said to be capable of hitting its target within 100 metres) so instead of being targeted on cities it was targeted on the Soviet's nuclear silos.

But with the Soviets reciprocating, tension was increased with the belief that whoever fired first would win. This was typical of the mindless thinking of the Cold War era.   Canadian meteorologists, the experts in this field, published a report which said that even in what turned out to be only "a limited nuclear exchange", so much dust would be created that the sun's rays would be obscured, setting in motion a “Nuclear Winter" in which all the seas would freeze, lasting for up to ten years, and as was said at the time "the survivors would envy the dead".

The arrival of Cruise Missiles was a shattering blow for the Soviet Union.  A nuclear attack could come from any point of the compass and the missiles fired from air, sea or land.  A massive new radar system would be needed over many thousands of miles, the cost of which would be insurmountable.  How could the funds be provided?   In the years following the revolution the Soviets were able to grow almost all the wheat they needed to feed their population in southern areas of Siberia, but from 1938 the weather turned much colder and this came to an end. So, the Soviets had planned to divert the course of two rivers which flowed aimlessly into the Arctic, southwards into the arid areas of central Asia.

The monies already provided were then diverted to the creation of the new radar system, and one of the most ambitious projects in human history abandoned.  Militarily, the Soviets, for the first time in their history, changed their constitution to allow nuclear weapons to be moved in to their satellite countries.  This meant, for example, that their SS 20 missiles could now hit the Outer Hebrides which had been earmarked by the West for the disembarking of troops and equipment from the USA as danger mounted.  Whilst all this was going on anti-nuclear campaigners in the Highlands were becoming aware that some kind of adaption was being made to some of the low flying military aircraft, and soon the news broke "Cruise Missiles".

The planes above our heads would be flying below the Soviet radar in a surprise attack. These actual planes were being trained to start  World War III.  We stepped up our campaign against low flying.   I wrote a pamphlet "Low Flying your questions answered", the 5,000 copies produced were in demand from all over the Highlands and we soon ran out. Groups further south affected by low flying produced their own copies, and a strong campaign was mounted in the Borders centred in Cumbria.

I spoke at the Annual Conference of British CND in London, and the Low Flying issue was, on a vote, raised to the second highest campaigning issue behind Trident.   It was decided to hold a national protest in Hyde Park, following a walk through a central London.  The Highland CND contingent, 50 strong, arrived in North London and decided to walk across London with our new recruit, a canvass Loch Ness Monster.  Operated by 5 people inside it, it looked almost alive as it waggled along with legs going in different directions.   In its mouth it carried a placard "Nessie wants no more monsters in Scottish lochs".

Much to our surprise the police stopped the traffic and helped us across the city, and on our way back helped us to carry Nessie and our banners with such comments as "This is far better than being at the football match".   This was the biggest rally ever held in the UK with over 750,000 attending.  This figure was given to me by the police with whom I had spent part of the time.  Needless to say, the BBC and the Tory Press played down the extent of the rally, whilst the TV showed a group of anarchists throwing bottles at the police which had no connection whatever with CND.

Soviet cameras were there in plenty, and their representatives approached CND for someone to speak to them officially.  I did the job.  I did not spare my words – I condemned the Soviets and America and her allies equally, both threatening to bring the world to extinction.  With the arrival of Cruise Missiles, I stressed that the ability to check the number of nuclear weapons on each side had ended, that Strategic Arms Control was now a thing of the past – “We have crossed the Rubicon”.

Next day my talk was broadcast on Radio Moscow and accurately translated into five languages including a broadcast in Russian within the USSR.   However, when the Soviet negotiators on Arms Control met the West again in Geneva a week later (they had been doing this for months and achieving nothing) they suddenly got to their feet and with the words "We have crossed the Rubicon" walked out.

You can imagine how I felt especially as this was blazed on front pages of newspapers across the world the following day.  Fortunately, the Soviets returned to the negotiating table the following week and meaningful discussions began in earnest between the Superpowers, which finally led to the historic meeting in Iceland when both sides agreed to substantial reductions in the number of nuclear weapons held.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1990, he praised CND and the other Peace Movements in the West, which he said "showed the Russian people that they too could oppose unpopular governments".    The Berlin Wall came down, and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet equivalent of NATO, dismantled in 1991.  Sadly, I feel, NATO lives on, a relic from the most dangerous period in World history.