Back to HDRS.. RSGs were underground
bunkers located all over the UK designed to accommodate a mixture
of military personnel, politicians and local authority people.
I first came across one of these bunkers whilst on holiday in
North Wales. The owner of our rented cottage told us his job
was to travel around North Wales replenishing provisions in secret
bunkers. This was a vitally important job because, as everyone
knows, there's nothing worse than munching a stale digestive
biscuit with one's cup of tea, especially when the corpses of
50 million people are lying around above you. No doubt there
exists a foolscap document somewhere in the Document Registry
of an MoD site describing the acceptable age of a digestive biscuit,
and the steps that must be taken to replace said biscuits at
regular intervals. I say this because questioning of our host
in 1962 revealed that his day job was to replace stocks of biscuits.
RSG stood for "Regional Seat of Government", not "Radio
Society of Great". I believe the RSG was later called something
different; maybe the largest was RGHQ for "Regional Government
HQ" and other bunkers included names such as AFHQ or "Armed
Forces HQ" and hundreds of others, many quite bijou....
There was an RSG some quarter
of a mile from our holiday cottage in Llanbedr. It wasn't particularly
well hidden because there was a line of poles carrying overhead
wires to it. I bet the biscuits there were really crisp.
The CND movement was responsible
for finding lots of these sites and gathering outside them waving
banners etc. so they were no longer secret. Our nextdoor neighbour
had a really important job in the local council. He was Binman
Supremo for West Hampshire and he told me he had a reserved place
in our local RSG in the event of a nuclear war. Presumably, the
powers that be must have envisaged at least one or two surviving
binmen that needed managing? I don't think his family had reserved
places, but I bet really important people took their families
with them. Something akin to MPs employing their family members
for vital tasks such as making their tea.
How did we get to talk about
this? One day I happened to park an HDRS cabin outside his house
when I stopped for a break. I think he must have recognised it
as something he'd been briefed on? Maybe he thought the end was
nigh and I'd been sent to pick him up?
Anyway, I'd heard of RSGs on
and off during my time with Plessey in support of the Defence
of our Realm (that was the magic phrase used to get off jury
duty). There were lots of obscure contracts being won and lost
amongst the UK defence contractors. I saw a list once and there
were literally hundreds of them.
Anyway, I digress again; back
to HDRS. One day on our local radio station I was listening to
the lunchtime news and heard a snippet about a new radio system
connected with a nuclear war. The next day I was told to visit
Plessey Southleigh to meet a particular chap and report back.
I was quite surprised to find it was about the very same radio
system that had been on the news and I was being asked to help
out with the project. This was back in the 1980s and it seems
the Plessey site at Southleigh had messed up an early venture
into its development. Such was the secrecy of the project that
the boffins either couldn't, or hadn't, involved the assistance
of engineers with knowledge of manufacturing. The project had
just ground to a halt and MoD had cancelled it and demanded a
re-bid. Southleigh had lots of clever chaps designing radios.
I remember seeing lots of fancy digital receivers in their lab
when these were pretty scarce and extremely expensive. Some of
the ideas they came up with were difficult to put into production
or just years too early. Anyway.. the rebid had been made and
the project was back in business with the same people and the
same hardware. Thinking about this fact some 30 years later it
seems a bit odd.
First, an idea of what HDRS
was all about. After a nuclear war, Britain would be in what
was known as a "post-holocaust" phase. Large areas
of the UK would be in ruins, radiation levels would be dangerously
high, and the ionosphere would be seriously upset. Good heavens,
you might say.. what on earth can one do? Well, given a job to
decide what to do, any large government organisation, will just
produce loads of documents. In fact the more documents envisaged,
the more people needed to produce them and, most importantly,
the more managers required to control the overall situation.
You can probably imagine the scene and picture the empire that
was to be created. The part of this particular empire that we
liaised with was headed up by a brigadier general in London.
Of course, he reported to someone higher in the tree and he to
someone else and so on. I quote below two similar fragments from
Hansard, via Google, of an HDRS topic... both dated 27th April
1990. Close to the very top of the tree was ex-Eton schoolboy,
Conservative, Archie Hamilton. At least he was perched there
on 27th April 1990. He was a mere junior minister at the MoD
between 1986 and 1993, so would be aware of the trials and tribulations
Who was right at the top? Well,
during the life of HDRS the top job was the Secretary of State
for Defence: all Conservatives, Michael Heseltine, 1983-1986,
George Younger 1986-1989, Tom King 1989-1992, Malcolm Rifkind
1992-1995 and sad-man-on-a-train Michael choo choo Portillo 1995-1997.
As an aside...I seem to recall George Younger visiting Plessey
Christchurch in the late 80s.. maybe to discuss HDRS or just
probably so he could claim to his cabinet colleagues he'd actually
touched a piece of Ptarmigan?
or "Bright Fire" (no-one really knew which) was the
first time the HDRS system had been tried out. Not completely
tried out of course as the nuclear holocaust bit was missed out.
I can clearly remember dozens and dozens of Land Rovers with
their trailers, and low loaders, leaving Southleigh in September
1989 to spread over the whole of the UK from the South Coast
to the North of Scotland. Lots departed from PLessey Ilford as
Exercise Bright Fire
HC Deb 27 April 1990 vol
171 c349W 349W
§Mr. Redmond To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if
he will indicate the date, purpose and scope of Exercise Bright
§Mr. Archie Hamilton Exercise Bright Fire was a two-phase
exercise held in September and October of last year and was designed
to test home defence communications across the United Kingdom.
Exercise Bright Fire
Mr. Redmond : To ask the
Secretary of State for Defence if he will indicate the date,
purpose and scope of Exercise Bright Fire 1989.
Mr. Archie Hamilton : Exercise
Bright Fire was a two-phase exercise held in September and October
of last year and was designed to test home defence communications
across the United Kingdom.
Here's a link to a user's
Now some brief technical details.
The ionosphere is the medium by which long distance communication
is achieved. Short-wave signals bounce off the ionosphere and
land at varying distances from a transmitting aerial. VHF was
not an option; this method of communication is primarily line-of-sight
and typically good, at nominal power levels, for only tens of
miles, hence the choice of short-waves which can cover the whole
of the UK, given an appropriate frequency and power level. HDRS
was designed to automatically work out the best frequency with
which to communicate with a specific member of the group and
to monitor and make changes to maintain contact. It's special
and unique feature is that it was also designed to cope with
ionospheric disturbances caused by nuclear detonations. The system
was designed to use code rather than speech, however it was quite
flexible and I was able to have several QSOs on 80 metre SSB
from a trailer at Plessey Christchurch during a lunch break in
Relying, for the moment on my
memory.. Each container was based on 4 wheel close-coupled chassis.
It had a rear door and on the wall opposite on a shelf were two
VDUs and keyboards and underneath there was a small computer
frame using 21 printed circuit boards carrying 8086 hardware
with the program held in EPROMs; the type with a U-V erasing
feature. Whenever a new program was received from the software
sub-contractor it took a day or two to reprogram the EPROMs.
It took ages because of the large number of radio stations and
each station I think had something like 32 EPROMs. Most stations
were in mobile containers, but some were to be used at fixed
sites. Input-output was by teleprinter located on stands behind
the two operators seats and adjacent to each was a Danish HF
radio transceiver. Perched above the VDUs on a bracket was an
Plessey manufactured a total
of 104 stations of which 89 were installed in cabins. The development
work, initially at Plessey Southleigh was completed at Christchurch
and cabins fitted out at the Plessey factory at Ilford, since
demolished (that's the factory not Ilford itself). It wasn't
too easy a job because all the basic hardware had already been
specified and purchased and the software sub-contract well under
way up at Liverpool. The Liverpool site was well versed in computer
design, software production and digital signalling having been
in that business for around 30 years.