Historical introduction

In 1945, World War II came to an end. Stalin's communist dictatorship controlled the eastern half of Europe, while the USA ushered in the atomic age by dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan. For the next 45 years, the world was divided into two opposing groups: NATO (including Britain, much of Western Europe, and the USA), and the Warsaw Pact (Russia and most of Eastern Europe). They never came to all-out war, but in the period known as the Cold War they spent vast amounts of time and trillions of dollars planning how to fight each other. Much of this money was spent on atomic weapons, with every major city targeted by multiple nuclear warheads. If necessary, both sides were ready to launch all-out nuclear strikes, in which hundreds or thousands of atomic bombs would fall on Europe and North America, turning an entire continent into a radioactive wasteland.

Once nuclear weapons started to fall, it would be impossible to protect the vast majority of the civilian population, but that did not stop the major nations drawing up detailed contingency plans. Britain's plans included a number of different components. There were radar stations and observation posts to detect an incoming attack and measure its size and effects. In order to protect the nation's leaders a network of deep bunkers, proof against atomic bomb blasts, was built. These would house political and military leaders and their staff far underground, while on the surface everyone else would hide as best they could indoors, watching public information films on television, until at the end of the war their leaders would emerge once more to govern them.

While it is not surprising that our leaders would try to save themselves underground, it seems incredible that the British government could construct and operate a system of bunkers so secret that almost nobody knew about them for 40 years. Nonetheless, that is exactly what happened, and their existence was only revealed in 1993 when a number of deep bunkers across Britain were deemed surplus to requirements and put up for sale. Some were bought by companies for secure storage, but the bunker in Fife, Scotland, was purchased by enterprising entrepreneurs who decided to turn it into a museum dedicated to remembering those bygone days of nuclear paranoia and Mutually Assured Destruction. Thus on April 1, 1994, Scotland's Secret Bunker was opened to the public.

Location

It is unfortunate that those locations which are good to hide from a nuclear war are not generally centrally located or well-served with transport links. Scotland's Secret Bunker lies at Troywood in the East Nuik, the far extremity of Fife jutting out into the North Sea between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay. This places it far from Scotland's major centres of population. The bunker is 50 miles by road from Edinburgh; it lies 8 miles south-east of St. Andrews and 4 miles north of the fishing village of Anstruther, on the B940 heading towards Crail.

The best way to get there is by car; public transport is very poor since there's really nothing else in the area. From the Forth Road Bridge follow the A92 to Kirkcaldy, then the A915 towards St. Andrews; turn right onto the B940 a mile after Largoward. Alternatively if you're coming from the north, go to St. Andrews, then take the B9131 south towards Anstruther but after about 6 miles turn left onto the B940. Unlike in the Cold War era, Scotland's Secret Bunker is signposted from the B940.

Attractions

The bunker at Troywood is situated a little off the main road underneath what appears to be a farmhouse. Only the presence of a few large aerials and radar dishes would have indicated there was anything out of the ordinary while the base was operational, although the site is now signposted and there are a few artillery pieces and other military hardware outside to look at. When you enter the farmhouse, you find yourself in a gift shop where you can buy a small selection of souvenirs (nothing too tacky, alas, although you can get "Protect and Survive" videos telling you what to do in the event of a nuclear attack).

From there you descend underground. A few steps take you into the 150 metre (490 ft) entrance tunnel, which slopes downwards into the Scottish rock. At the end of the tunnel is the three-ton metal blast door, and beyond you enter the bunker proper, which was built in a 40 metre (130 ft) deep pit. This is encased in 3 metres (13 ft) of concrete reinforced with 2.5 cm (1 inch) tungsten bars, and the whole thing is surrounded by bricks and netting, and buried under earth and concrete "burster caps" to absorb impacts. Inside, a few rooms are still sealed off for reasons of national security or to give the staff somewhere to eat their sandwiches, but the bulk of the space is open to view.

The bunker served a variety of purposes over its history. Initially it was just a radar station, one of a network built around the coast of Britain each with a 75 km (45 mile) range to watch for the Russians coming. Because of its important situation guarding the approaches to Rosyth naval base and the RAF base at Leuchars, the bulk of the station was hidden underground. However, as radar became more powerful, fewer stations were required and Troywood was mothballed in the late 1950s.

In 1958 it became a Regional Seat of Government, with a staff from the Civil Defence Corps, and 10 years later when the Corps was disbanded it was renovated and extended to become Regional Government Headquarters. At this point it could accommodate 300 people, including government ministers who had their own separate living suites (some of which are curiously still sealed off). In event of nuclear war, the government of Britain would be split into semi-autonomous regions, and leaders in bunkers such as this would coordinate the relief effort above until it was safe for them to emerge into daylight.

The many rooms, which lie over 2 levels, are decked out to mark the site's different periods: from the 1950s radar station and base of the Royal Observer Corps who would watch and measure atomic blasts, to its later role as a government headquarters. Some rooms hold impressive charts and maps, dividing up administrative responsibility for Britain. There is also a dormitory, where inhabitants would have had to sleep in shifts, a chapel, and a number of rooms full of the communications hardware which would have allowed it to coordinate activities in the event of war. There is even a BBC radio broadcast station to let them to speak to the people. Many of the technological items on display would be fascinating for geeks, although the majority of them are not labeled.

Numerous signs, posters and displays offer a history of the bunker and its historical background. There is also a large amount of film and video material to view, with two cinemas showing historic films and other televisions showing interesting clips. Most exciting to see are the classic British "Protect and Survive" civil defence videos produced to be broadcast in case of nuclear war. These tell you how best to convert your house into a fallout shelter (select a ground-floor room away from all external walls, fill with provisions, and within it construct a smaller hideaway out of tables and doors, covering everything in old clothes and books), as well as offering advice on what to do with corpses and cautioning you to not try and run away.

There is also a cafe, which was closed when we visited.

Review

Not surprisingly, Scotland's Secret Bunker is a strange tourist attraction. I attended the site in late October, along with my girlfriend and her friend, who were planning to scope out the site for potential use in the event of a zombie invasion. (The long entrance corridor and steel door seemed ideal for this purpose, although we would have to pay attention to the lessons of Day of the Dead, and think seriously before imprisoning any zombies in the facility.) There weren't many visitors, and our mood became quiet and sombre, yet very curious, with a lot to explore and a myriad of labels to read (also some dressing up in uniforms).

We all had some knowledge and interest in recent history and politics, and I for one had lain awake as a boy in the 1980s worrying about the chances of the bomb dropping before morning. However, the exhibits do a good job of describing the wider background so that even someone with little knowledge could learn the history of the nuclear age; it is popular with local schools whose pupils may not have been born when the Berlin Wall came down. And no matter what your interests, the fact of being shut in so far below ground is bound to impress.

The museum is at once morbid and darkly comical, a tribute to people's limitless ability to devise new ways to kill each other. The displays of life within the bunker are of limited interest (and it lacks the Harrods merchandise found in the famous bunker in nuclear paranoia thriller Edge of Darkness), but what makes the museum so fascinating is the information it offers about our government's plans in the event of a nuclear apocalyse.

It seems ridiculous that the government was instructing people how to use bags of old clothes, books, and doors taken off their hinges to protect them against a nuclear bomb; yet the amount of planning which went into making the best of an impossible situation is a sort of tribute to human ingenuity. As well, there are small exhibits on other events in the Cold War and on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the peace movement. Overall, it offers an excellent account not just of the facts of the Cold War and Civil Defence planning, but also of the mindset of a nation contemplating nuclear annihilation.

Today we have other fears than nuclear war; issues such as bioterrorism, global warming, gigantic asteroids smashing into the Earth, and possibly zombies, keep us awake at night. It is interesting and instructive to remember how quickly such fears can come and go. Perhaps seeing these curiously dated relics of another time is even a little comforting.

Visiting

The bunker is open in the summer tourist season, from March to October. Since it is almost all underground, it is ideally suited to damp Scottish weather. The bunker is also available for private functions in days and evenings all year round. If you make a group booking you can request to experience a simulation of a nuclear attack on the bunker, but this isn't available to ordinary visitors. Although it is out of the way and thus hard to fit into a whistle-stop tour of Scotland, it is a fascinating and thought-provoking destination, whether you have a particular interest in the subject or you're just looking for somewhere a little bit different to take your (older) kids.

You can find more information (including directions and opening times) at their website: http://www.secretbunker.co.uk/


Most information for this write-up came from Scotland's Secret Bunker website, guide book, and materials on display in the museum.

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