How the nuclear evacuation plan was scuppered in Crawley
A secret plan to move almost 10 million people from cities at the first sign of nuclear attack was ruined by a single Left-wing council in Sussex.
The socialist leaders of Crawley urban district council refused to take part in the national civil defence plan known as the dispersal scheme, under which communities were divided into three classes: dispersal, neutral or reception.
The obduracy of Bob May, Alf Pegler and their fellow Labour councillors, which lasted four years, delayed the implementation of the scheme, which finally had to be withdrawn and rethought.
The events have come to light with the release in recent days of Ministry of Housing and Local Government papers dating back more than 40 years.
Under the dispersal scheme, drawn up after a 1960 report into likely targets of a Soviet nuclear attack, urban areas with 9.5 million people would be evacuated as soon as the Government decided that war was imminent.
According to papers at the National Archives in Kew, the evacuees would be moved to outlying “reception” areas, including the far south-east of England, leaving a buffer zone of “neutral” areas which would not be evacuated, but would not receive refugees either.
Crawley, a new town of about 27,000 next to the infant Gatwick airport, was just on the “reception” side of the border with “neutral” Surrey towns such as Horley and Dorking. The town, which was populated by skilled and highly-unionised engineering workers who had moved out of the bomb-damaged ruins of south London, was due to receive 21,000 Londoners, mostly women, children under 18 and the elderly.
But on Oct 30, 1962, two days after the end of the Cuban missile crisis, Reg Tridgell, the clerk to the council, wrote to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government: “The council have directed me to make the strongest possible representations to the ministry urging that the Crawley urban district should not be designated as a reception area.”
Mr May and Mr Pegler had instructed him to cite as reasons that they held the scheme “to be impracticable and of no real purpose in the event of a nuclear war”.
The councillors said they were only 30 miles from London and so vulnerable to blast damage from the 100-megaton bombs that Nikita Khruschev was said to have pointed at the capital and they argued that Gatwick would be a target too.
In reality, the Labour-dominated council was fervently anti-nuclear, a local activist at the time said yesterday. Ben Clay, a close ally of the Labour leadership in 1962 and a friend of Mr Pegler who himself became a Crawley councillor six years later, said: “We might have dressed it up in various practical reasons but the real reason we didn’t want it was that we were against nuclear weapons.
“We were very idealistic and many of us went on the Aldermaston march [one of the first anti-nuclear protests in 1958] so we were just trying to say that we didn’t want our country to have nuclear weapons or nuclear evacuation plans.”
Ken Newell, who was Mr Tridgell’s deputy in 1962, and later clerk to the council himself, said: “They were a very radical Left-wing lot and poor old Reg Tridgell did not know quite what to say in his letters, I think. He had to be diplomatic.” Crawley’s stance took the mandarins of Whitehall by surprise and shook them to the core.
One worried assistant under-secretary wrote to his principal: “If we were forced to accept that Crawley was too near London to be used for reception we would have to apply the same reasoning throughout the country and this would considerably reduce the capacity of the reception areas, and add to the length and time of journeys. Indeed if we had to apply very much more stringent tests to the selection of reception areas, it might well lead to the abandoning of the whole scheme as impracticable.”
Although Crawley was the only council to have refused to take part in the dispersal scheme – most of the reception areas were in leafy, rural, Tory communities – others had pointedly not answered letters from the ministry asking for progress reports on their plans. The mandarins feared a growing mutiny and sought advice from the top as the delaying tactics of the Crawley rebels went on.
So protest came to the attention of the formidable figure of Dame Evelyn Sharp, the redoubtable permanent secretary of the department who, in 1955, had become the first woman to climb all the way to the top of the Whitehall ladder.
Dame Evelyn, whose later turbulent working relationship with Dick Crossman was the model for Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, decided on instant action while pandering to the impertinent Lefties from Sussex.
In a February 1964 memo to Frederick Corfield, the Tory junior minister, advising him to summon Crawley councillors to Whitehall, she explained: “Crawley UDC (which I believe includes some Communist element) refuse to take any part in planning for the reception of people from London as part of civil defence preparations.
“It is suggested that we should now warn the UDC of these dire consequences of continued refusal to co-operate. But I think we ought to see them first and try to persuade them. They may not understand that we know very well how rough and ready and full of snags our scheme is. We know that things may never turn out like this – or, if they do, that it may still be totally disastrous.”
The admission by a senior mandarin that the dispersal scheme was almost certainly useless in the face of nuclear holocaust is itself unusual, but more strange still was the outwitting of Dame Evelyn.
The Crawley councillors deliberately misunderstood the invitation to talks by saying they would be delighted to meet Mr Corfield whenever he could make it to Sussex.
The minister harrumphed for several months before a meeting was finally arranged, in London, for July 1964, at which he tried to explain to Mr May and Mr Pegler, accompanied by the reluctant Mr Tridgell, the difference between a 100-megaton bomb and the far more likely five-megaton bomb which might ruin London, but barely singe Sussex.
Mr Corfield was further hamstrung by the fact that the Home Office had warned Dame Evelyn of the likelihood of Communism being rife in Crawley and so forbade the housing minister to discuss the details of Britain’s nuclear evacuation plans with them.
John Pegler, the son of Alf Pegler, said yesterday: “My father was an out-and-out socialist but he was also a patriotic man who was in Bomber Command and would never have betrayed his country. He was no Communist. They were quite wrong about that.”
Mr Clay, now 76, said of his old friends: “We hated the Communists in Crawley and we stopped them getting any power in the council. We were trade unionists and we were activists, but we were not Communists.”
Despite the meeting, nothing happened and the Crawley councillors managed to delay any further discussion until the October 1964 general election returned Labour to power under Harold Wilson.
Eventually, late in 1966, a review of civil defence was announced and the scheme that Crawley had been fighting since the Cuban missile crisis disappeared.
Mr Newell, now 80, who became clerk in 1968, said: “They never did implement that scheme, so I suppose you could say that Crawley won.”