What Manchester expected to happen in a Soviet nuclear attack revealed by 40-year-old warning

It was the doomsday scenario that thankfully never came to pass. Almost 40 years ago the utter devastation a nuclear attack on Greater Manchester would bring was laid out in graphic and horrifying detail.

“If a one megaton bomb exploded in the air about 8,000 feet above the center of Manchester it would completely destroy the city center and would do severe blast damage as far away as Stockport, Ashton, Worsley and Hale,” the authors of Emergency Planning and Nuclear War in Greater Manchester wrote.

“At least 300,000 people (about 11% of Greater Manchester’s population) would be instantly killed by blast effects, and perhaps twice that number would be seriously injured. The risk of injury from flying glass and other debris would extend for about 12 miles (eg to Wilmslow, Marple Bridge, Stalybridge, Rochdale, Bolton, Tyldesley and Lymm.)”

Readmore: The Soviet plan to send tanks down the Mancunian Way: Russia’s blueprint for invading Greater Manchester

Anyone caught out in the open when the blast occurred, which could perhaps be up to 200,000 people, would receive third degree burns – ‘even as far as Swinton, Stretford, Withington, Audenshaw, Failsworth and Prestwich’. Thousands more would be blinded.

And that was the best case scenario. More likely Manchester would be hit several nukes at once. In 1982 the organization Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, looked at the effects of seven one-megaton bombs dropped on the airport, Burtonwood airbase, Beswick, Old Trafford and Bolton.

If that happened about 1.4 million people would be killed or seriously injured, and about 1 million would be affected by radiation, most of whom would die within two months. “In total 2.6 million of Greater Manchester’s 2.8 million people would die within two months of such an attack,” SANA claimed.

Front cover of the 1983 booklet Emergency Planning and Nuclear War in Greater Manchester, produced by Greater Manchester Council

But this wasn’t scaremongering for scaremongering’s sake. The pamphlet’s apocalyptic tone was entirely deliberate.

Three years earlier, on November 5, 1980 Manchester became the world’s nuclear free city – placing itself at the forefront of the campaign to ban atomic weapons. The city council called upon the government to ‘refrain from the manufacture or position of any nuclear weapons of any kind within the boundaries of our city’ – and urged local authorities throughout Great Britain to do the same.

Around the same time the Conservative government produced its infamous 1980 booklet Protect and Survive, advising the public on how to prepare for a nuclear attack. The source of a many a childhood nightmare, among other measures it gave guidance on how to construct a fallout shelter under the stairs or kitchen table using sandbags and bits of furniture and urged people to whitewash their windows to reflect the heat flash.

Manchester Nuclear free city street sign

But the Labour-controlled Labor Greater Manchester Council believed that it was pointless, and could in fact encourage the idea that nuclear war ‘might not be so bad’. Talk of ‘civil defence’ was a ‘cruel confidence trick’, the GMC believed, so published their own booklet, which set out the opposing school of thought. “The Government clearly want us to believe that planning can help us survive and recover from a nuclear war,” reads one passage of Emergency Planning and Nuclear War in Greater Manchester under the heading ‘Would the plans work?”.

“It cannot. As long as Britain remains a major nuclear target, talking of meaningful ‘civil defence’ in a nuclear war is a cruel confidence trick. Planning for such a situation is not only unrealistic: it is also dangerous because it can lead people into thinking that nuclear war might not be so bad after all.”

Greater Manchester Council leader Bernard Clarke (left) pictured with PM Harold Wilson

In 1980 Blackley and Broughton MP Graham Stringer was a councilor in Charlestown and one of the original proponents of the nuclear-free city idea. “In a lot of ways society in the 80s was as split as it is now following Brexit,” he told the Manchester Evening News in 2018.

“There was the miners’ strike, the Moss Side riots, protests against cruise missiles. We were a very divided country. Margaret Thatcher was loved and hated in equal measure. The nuclear free city movement was a part of all that.

Image from the 1980 booklet Protect and Survive, advising the public on how to prepare for a nuclear attack

“It was a symbolic act of resistance against the Government allowing American cruise missiles to be sited in the UK and against what we saw at the utter irrelevance of the Protect and Survive booklet, which talked about whitewashing your windows and things like that. It was an irrelevance, it was viewed as a joke.”

Declaring Manchester a ‘nuclear-free zone’ was a world first, but by the end of 1982 150 local authorities had joined Manchester in opposing the arms race. And it had an impact.

That year, the government wanted to stage a National Civil Defense exercise to show its stomach for nuclear war. But the Nuclear Free local governments refused to take part, and to date no such rehearsal exercise has ever taken place.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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