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The Cold War: How Kent prepared for a nuclear explosion including bunkers in Maidstone, Gravesend and Hoo


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Bombs falling, houses destroyed, train lines blown up, lives lost.

These were the fears and realities of life in Kent during the Second World War, and around the county you can still see bomb craters, civilian names on war memorials and town designs impacted by the conflict.

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki sparked a decades-long arms race. Picture: Wikimedia
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki sparked a decades-long arms race. Picture: Wikimedia

However the carnage of history's bloodiest conflict was replaced by a fear that gripped the globe - The Cold War.

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were the results of a secret arms race which was thrown explosively into the public eye, one that would only continue escalating for the next four and a half decades.

Mainly considered to be fought between the Soviet Union and America, both their allies and the world at large worried that 'mutually assured destruction' and a nuclear winter would come any day at the press of a single button.

A nuclear bunker was even constructed under the canteen at the Kent County Council headquarters in Maidstone, pictured here in 1984
A nuclear bunker was even constructed under the canteen at the Kent County Council headquarters in Maidstone, pictured here in 1984

The imminent threat of human extinction prompted drills to be carried out in schools, workplaces and homes.

Schoolchildren were taught to hide underneath their desks in the event of a nuclear alert - a largely ineffectual exercise considering the radiation emitted by an atomic bomb explosion.

An information series called 'Protect and Survive' was rolled out in the 1970s and 1980s, which taught the public everything from the best methods of survival to how to properly dispose of the dead.

Originally it was only going to be implemented in an emergency, but public interest was so high that they authorised its general release.

Radiation was only one concern, as people were warned about windows exploding into rooms. Archive picture: Matthew Reading
Radiation was only one concern, as people were warned about windows exploding into rooms. Archive picture: Matthew Reading

Its primary instructional pamphlet was followed by a television series of the same name, which featured episodes like 'What to put in your fall-out room' and 'The importance of your radio'.

However the campaign was widely ridiculed for instructions such as putting tape on windows and painting them white to reflect the intense light of a nuclear explosion, and its lasting cultural legacy is largely as a subject for lampooning.

However the general dread early in the Cold War led to many nuclear fallout bunkers being built, including a number around Kent.

One of the 25 built around the country is situated on London Road, Maidstone and is tucked behind the Brachers solicitors.

This nuclear bunker situated in London Road, Maidstone, was kept a secret until the 1990s. Picture: Matthew Walker
This nuclear bunker situated in London Road, Maidstone, was kept a secret until the 1990s. Picture: Matthew Walker

Decommissioned in 1991 as hostilities between the East and Western Blocs subsided, the unassuming building was manned full-time by the Royal Observer Corps.

Inside thick walls and down three flights of steps, 70 people worked in secret and would phone local police stations - a call which would come through on a special red phone and would spark Second World War-style air raid sirens.

The bunker now sits as a time capsule with all the original fittings remaining, even including a 1991/2 wall planner.

The Maidstone site had enough water supply for a week, but thought was also put into preserving the county's water supply in the event of a nuclear explosion.

The Royal Observer Corps at work in the nuclear bunker behind Brachers
The Royal Observer Corps at work in the nuclear bunker behind Brachers

Southern Water constructed an underground bunker in Medway in order to maintain operations in the event of a nuclear blast.

Built just south of the M2 near Bredhurst sometime between the 1970s and 1980s, it was one of three which the company constructed as control centres for reinstating supplies post-blast.

Sited in a disused reservoir, the bunker - complete with thick concrete walls and an above-ground observation post - was never actually fitted out except with essential items and equipment.

Life in the bunkers was often cramped and air had to come through a ventilation system
Life in the bunkers was often cramped and air had to come through a ventilation system

Bizarrely, access to the bunker has been largely unrestricted since its abandonment, and it has proved to be a haven for urban explorers.

One even noted that the power was on when they visited in 2012, however more recent visitors say the bunker is pitch-black.

The interior walls are now lined with graffiti and becoming increasingly water-damaged - the main control room is reportedly flooded with a couple of inches of water.

Another interesting quirk of the bunker is a manhole cover behind the mound, which conceals a secret emergency exit.

A nuclear bunker near Hoo was auctioned in 2015. Picture: Clive Emson/Deep South Media
A nuclear bunker near Hoo was auctioned in 2015. Picture: Clive Emson/Deep South Media

If you're interested in the period, you can even visit a fully refurbished bunker which houses a Cold War museum.

The Civil Defence Control Centre in Gravesend was built in 1954 on the site of a Second World War air raid shelter, and would act as a hub for local rescue and emergency services in the event of a nuclear blast.

The recreation of the signals room..Gravesend's Cold War Bunker reopens after being restored following flooding, at Wrotham Road, Gravesend. .Picture: Andy Payton. (41858708)
The recreation of the signals room..Gravesend's Cold War Bunker reopens after being restored following flooding, at Wrotham Road, Gravesend. .Picture: Andy Payton. (41858708)

The 14-room bunker would have been manned by 35 staff in a crisis, communicating to the outside world through a radio mast disguised as a lamppost.

Operational until 1968, it was restored in the 1990s and now acts as a museum.

The bunker had to close between 2015 and 2018 due to a flooding issue, but is now back up and running - at least when there isn't a lockdown.

Possibly the pride of the museum's collection is a WE177 air-dropped nuclear bomb, one of the UK's stockpile of weapons that were never used.

The museum offers educational tours and even features a picnic site for visitors.

To read more of our in-depth features click here.

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