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Spending a Penny...

Old 8th Oct 2019, 09:41
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Spending a Penny...

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/b...-box-zdwm69zmk

Britain’s nuclear response depended on Macmillan’s driver finding a phone box

Britain’s nuclear retaliation in the 1960s was dependent upon the ability of the prime minister’s driver to find four pennies for a phone call or else reverse the charges, it has been revealed.

National Archive documents show that just before the Cuban missile crisis and amid evidence that the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles could reach Britain in four minutes Whitehall was anxious about its ability to respond. It introduced a system it thought would ensure that Harold Macmillan could sanction a retaliatory nuclear strike by the country’s V bombers if he was travelling outside London in his Rolls-Royce and RAF bases, as well as Whitehall, were targeted by the Soviet Union from East Germany.

The documents were discovered by the historian Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, who writes as Peter Hennessy in research for his new book, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties. They outline how Macmillan’s cars were equipped with a phone tapped into the Automobile Association’s nationwide network so that he could be reached anywhere at any time. His driver would then have to find a public phone box so that Macmillan could contact the Whitehall operations centre to sanction a retaliatory strike. However, an exchange of letters between civil servants highlights fears that the driver might not have had the change necessary to make the call. Macmillan’s private secretary provided reassurance. Even if by “some misfortune or miscalculation [the pennies] have been expended and one is penniless”, Tim Bligh wrote, there would always be the option of “dialling 100 and requesting reversal of the charge”.

Hennessy said that the system, in place until 1970, was “so English and so bizarre that had it appeared in an Ealing comedy it would not have been believed” and it was hard not to think of them as a spoof.

The emergency plans arose in the early 1960s, Hennessy said, when the joint intelligence committee discovered that nuclear missiles fired from East Germany could reach Britain in four minutes. “The real worry in the face of this increased Soviet menace was that the prime minister might be out of [London] in his Rolls-Royce,” he told The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. “He would have to authorise the retaliation [within four minutes] but the Treasury didn’t want to spend any money, Macmillan didn’t want to have any fuss.”

The solution, he said, was to use the AA’s radio system, which would be linked up with the prime minister’s car, and the driver would then be told to find a phone box so that Macmillan could contact Whitehall and unleash the RAF’s V bombers. Bryan Saunders, the private secretary to the minister of works, wrote to a Downing Street colleague suggesting that the drivers could be “provided with four pennies [the sum needed in a GPO phone box before you could press button A and get through]. I should hate to think of you trying to get change for a sixpence from a bus conductor while those four minutes were ticking by.”

In his book Hennessy writes: “Where US presidents and Soviet general secretaries (and, later, French presidents) had (and have) serving officers with them at all times carrying the nuclear retaliation codes and the equipment to transmit them, British prime ministers in the Sixties had the AA and small change.”

In a recorded interview shown at the literature festival Hennessy said that no other nuclear power had such penny-pinching last lines of defence; a system that was in place from 1962 until 1970. “Just think of the cost of being a nuclear power,” he said. “Just one H bomb would cost £1.5 million, a fortune in those days. And to save money they would put Macmillan into a phone box and reverse charges. If it [the plan] had been relayed to the KGB chief he would have regarded it as a complete plant and a spoof.”

His book also outlines what he describes as a “dash of private comédie noire into the whole grim business” of planning for a nuclear war.

In the event of a “bolt from the blue nuclear attack” from the Soviet Union that “wiped out” Macmillan, a senior minister needed to be available to authorise the RAF’s V bombers. Macmillan “with a macabre Shakespearean flourish” wrote to the Cabinet Office of the succession plans: “First Gravedigger Mr [Rab] Butler, Second Gravedigger Mr [Selwyn] Lloyd.”

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Old 8th Oct 2019, 10:06
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I read this somewhere a few weeks ago. Does anyone actually believe it?
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 10:18
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You think it is phone E?
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 11:49
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This was mentioned on QI some time ago (Stephen Fry was still presenter at the time) so hardly "news".
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 12:01
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Hennessy discussed this in 'The Secret State' previously. Along with the 'Gravedigger' anecdote.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 12:26
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If the AA system could be used to talk to his driver, why couldn't the PM also use it to talk to Whitehall?
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 12:38
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Originally Posted by hoodie View Post
If the AA system could be used to talk to his driver, why couldn't the PM also use it to talk to Whitehall?
Because using the unsecured, unencrypted and unauthenticated AA system to contact the PM and ask him to call Whitehall is one thing - using it to authorise and authenticate the request for a Strategic Nuclear Strike is a very different thing entirely !
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 15:08
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I would imagine the AA system only connected to the AA dispatch room, and didn't have the facility to call out.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 16:13
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Originally Posted by NutLoose View Post
I would imagine the AA system only connected to the AA dispatch room, and didn't have the facility to call out.
Nutloosei never used one but I think you are wrong. If it only connect to the control room you would not need 4d.

I think the purpose of the boxes was to provide a facility where the GPO did not put its phone boxes. The latter were sited where there were people whereas the AA/RAC were for motorists out in the countryside.

The next improvement was a radio telephone from the AA. This was hard wired to the car and marketed for women who might need reassurance when driving alone. It only communicated with the control room. I think this was late 60s.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 16:25
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The AA and RAC phone boxes had a normal pay phone in them, initially the button A and B type and later the grey STD type.

The AA and RAC phone box keys fitted each others boxes.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 16:35
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Surely the first clue Macmillan would have had would be when an AA patrol failed to salute him?

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Old 8th Oct 2019, 17:22
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My dad was an AA superintendent and one of his jobs consisted of keeping an eye on the AA boxes in his area, making sure they were fully equipped and in good condition. They most certainly had a normal GPO phone at that period, the "button A/ button B type as already mentioned by k3k3k. Prior to around 1960, members had a "freephone facility" with an honesty box where they were requested to leave the cost of the calls. This was obviously a loss maker, and the service was finally withdrawn when it was discovered that a member had been using a box to make lengthy calls to a relative in Canada.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 19:35
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I don't doubt what Peter Hennessey found in the Archives but I wonder if it was founded on ignorance and secrecy. On the Ops Desk at Waddington was a black telephone. It had no dial, and as far as we knew, no purpose. It never rang; we never used it. The number was Lincoln Sub Trunk 2.

We decided to try it.

One day I rang the operator, asked for the number, moments later it was picked up on the Ops Desk. It was obviously a super efficient network but one of which we mere cannon fodder were ignorant.

Maybe that was what i t was intended for.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 20:41
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Originally Posted by BEagle View Post
Surely the first clue Macmillan would have had would be when an AA patrol failed to salute him?

Nice one. There are not many of us old enough to understand that joke.

I have witnessed many a non-salute sitting beside my father.
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Old 8th Oct 2019, 23:19
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I remember the salutes but they were dying out in the post war years - in the very early days if an AA patrol failed to salute you it was a warning that there was a police speed trap ahead. At the time the speed limit was 20 mph and the AA campaigned for this to be raised.

My dad had been a sergeant in the Scots Guards pre war and in WW2 he was an officer on the Military Police, and in his khaki uniform and peaked cap, in his mind he had never really left the military. On meeting his patrols at prearranged points on his rounds, he expected a salute, which he returned, and on one occasion I witnessed him giving one hapless patrol a huge bollocking because his uniform was scruffy and his motorbike and sidecar hadn't been washed. Can't imagine an AA patrol standing for that these days, when the AA is just a branch of an insurance company,
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Old 9th Oct 2019, 06:46
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Originally Posted by Treble one View Post
Hennessy discussed this in 'The Secret State' previously. Along with the 'Gravedigger' anecdote.
And if both 'Gravediggers' were 'unavailable', then the C-inC Bomber Command could lauch a strike on his own authority, having failed to make contact with all three.
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Old 9th Oct 2019, 11:22
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That is a very interesting point. I also always assumed that our crews had far more autonomy than their US counterparts - no complicated "Dr Strangelove" type authorisation, etc. Perhaps P-N could confirm?
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Old 9th Oct 2019, 11:28
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TT,

Our authorisation came from the Bomber Controller over the Tannoy or Telescrambe. Where he got his from I know not.

ACW
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Old 9th Oct 2019, 12:44
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Originally Posted by Pontius Navigator View Post
I don't doubt what Peter Hennessey found in the Archives but I wonder if it was founded on ignorance and secrecy. On the Ops Desk at Waddington was a black telephone. It had no dial, and as far as we knew, no purpose. It never rang; we never used it. The number was Lincoln Sub Trunk 2.

We decided to try it.

One day I rang the operator, asked for the number, moments later it was picked up on the Ops Desk. It was obviously a super efficient network but one of which we mere cannon fodder were ignorant.

Maybe that was what i t was intended for.

I wonder if that was one of the old DSSS phones which made everyone sound like Donald Duck

may have looked like this (only black)

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Old 9th Oct 2019, 15:55
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Nothing to do with this thread but ....
My Grandfather as an AA Patrol Scout with his AA Bicycle and tool bags taken about 1918. He claimed to be the first AA Patrolman in Wales.


Oops!!! How did it get that big????
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