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The National Cold War Exhibition - Nuclear War. 02/06/2009


Silent Power : The National Cold War Exhibition .

Part one : fears of a nuclear war.


When I was a child I lived in a world separated in two parts. I was told by adults in my family serving the Air Force that a third world war was a daily possibility . I'll keep forever in my souvenirs these military guys being ready for the real thing to happen anytime. Life looked comfortable for me though I always had the feeling that tensions between the two parts of Europe built a narrow margin between life and death. Looking back I find it strange. Until I was twenty, I fully grew up in a world divided into those two sides having opposing ideologies. We knew nearly nothing of the way of life behind the Iron Curtain, and being keen on airplanes, we had no colour pictures of the Warsaw Pact aircraft and helicopters to see, but only blurred black and white shapes with wings on bad quality photos...
In 1989, as soon as the Berlin Wall collapsed, I rapidly met people and military guys from the ' other side of the world '. I discovered they had their own style of life, different daily concerns than ours, and they did not know much more about us than we, westerners really knew about them. We imagined each other's world through our official and cinema propagandas : this is well shown throughout the Exhibition. Having always been enthusiasted by the US aviation in my childhood - as I am still now - , I then realised that the Soviet Union was equally impressive as far as air & space matters were considered, if not even more than NATO on some specific points. I could suddenly see russian aviation ' in colour ' and lively, being displayed to the Paris Air Show in 1989 for the first time. Soon I became fascinated by their superb hardware and air displays in military events everywhere they came in to fly from 1991onwards, and these new chaps stopped to be minded by me like martians. It is not a mystery that Science Fiction ' war of worlds ' style films have disappeared with the end of that ' cold war ', as we had no more ' martians ' to fear in the west.... Looking back to the Cold War times, I think how strange all this was for fourty years on for european populations, when I think about all links I can share with chaps in central Europe and in russian aviation and aerospace world, nearly as much as I do in North America...


It is not a mystery that Sci. Fiction ' war of worlds ' style films have disappeared with the end of that ' cold war ', as ' in the west ' we had no more ' martians ' to fear ....


So it was without any doubt I had to pay visit to the RAF Cosford National Cold War Exhibition to understand things better. It was my childhood. I was not disappointed as not only I could discovered a surperb architecture hall design symbolizing the world divided into two parts , but the indoors building structure  is nothing else than a clever job of design symbolising post-WWII reconstruction. Of course the RAF equipements are under the spotlights as the Museum is UK-based. It is the only place in the wold to see all three RAF V Bombers displayed in the same hall. During the Cold War four of these bombers kept a daily Quick Reaction Alert capability on the tarmac threshold of each Bomber Command airfield. the aircrew were living in caravans next to the airplanes, wearing flying suits, and always ready to jump.... They had 15 minutes to be airborne if the alert was rung. A 11 minutes QRA was the best time ever recorded by the RAF aircrews between the alert signal launch, and the moment they lifted their undercarriage to take off and head on to their target with nukes in the bombers belly.
A lively show set how things clashed during the Cuban crisis. Next to this hot spot the F-111F , a hungarian MiG-21PF, and a polish MiG-15bis (Lim-2) are parked in the same area. Sign of new area... The exhibited Valiant BK.1 V-Bomber is the first one to have dropped the first british A Bomb. These nukes are displayed under its wings. Next to it an Avro Vulcan B.2 V-Bomber has been restored as if it's been fresh out from factory. Blue Steel missiles showed inderneath are impressive. The third V-Bomber is of course an ex-Marham Air Base Victor K.2. Suspended under roof are Canadair Sabre F.4,  Canberra PR.9,  Hunter T.7A and a superb Lightning F.1 nearly piercing the roof top as a rocket. Further away a Gloster Javelin FAW.1 is suspended above airlift carriers. This jet night fighter is probably one of the most representative NATO type of the Cold War area of all. It is fascinating to see the Avro York C.1 that still contained coal dust under its floor before it was refurbished. It airlifted coal daily to Berlin during the famous 1948-1949 airlift that saved populations from starvation during the blockade. An Handley Page Hastings T.5 is also representative of this blockade supplyings. One Hastings made the final sortie of the whole airlift on 6 October 1949. There is still room in the hall for a huge - 48 m wingspan and 41 m long - Short Belfast C.1, the largest transport aicraft ever built for the RAF. Only 10 of them were supplied. A newly-delivered Sikorsky MH-53 M Pave Low IV will soon join the collection to represent the special operations role. Everything is perfectly arranged in the Museum, with a touch of bunker walls and 1970s style steel tubes acting as the main design.
Being an airshow reporter I remind what real US and UK military airshows were born within the Cold War times. The tasks of these so-called ' opened doors ' were to display the forces equipements to citizens so they could trust their forces to defend their homeland, with huge taxes they spent to produce so many bombers ! Capabilities were shown as much as possible. During the 1960 Farnborough airshow such a QRA style scramble of four V-Bombers was demonstrated daily. On the Sunday display Valiants of 148 Sqn were airborne in 1 mn 37sec only ! Interesting it was for soviet onlookers as well. After all, wasn't the Cold War the best aviation tournament of all times ?

11 minutes was the best QRA ever recorded by the RAF .

I am aware how close we have been from near destruction of Europe. But according to historical sources neither Soviet Leader Nikita Kruchtchev nor President J.F. Kennedy were ready to launch a full scale nuclear war during the Cuban crisis. And never again after the Cuban missile crisis have we come so close to total destruction of most big cities in the northern hemisphere. Neither in the USA nor in USSR were leaders crazy enough to launch a war against each other without graduation. I do not think that classic Cold War times movie Stanley Kubrick 's ' Dr. Strangelove ' contains anything realistic at all... To me it only reflects populations current fears during that era that leaders could have lost the power to prevent the worse to happen, and as such, cinema is an excellent product reflecting culture, psychology, and ideologies of its times.
I rather think that a third World War would have been a large tactical nuclear war in Europe rather that a full scale global destruction world war. As experienced with the Berlin concerns, rich european territory was the main point of conflict between the USSR and the USA, as most forces had been gathered on the old continent. Whoever would have attacked first, both sides may have used the same strategy.., and what follows only reflects the way I guess things could have happened, having seen the exhibition.

This reflects people current fears during that era that leaders could have lost the power to stop the worse to happen .



First stage of a conflict would have been sabotages and strikes on strategic and command installations, to kill the adversary's decision capabilities. These first actions would have taken no more than a few hours or days...
The next step would have been a full scale tanks invasion, and airborne massive operations all covered by air dominance operations. But top politicical leaders of both camps would have kept contacts to negociate an end of hostilities before the last point of no return would have come. As negociations would have been on, first air strikes by tactical bombers using short scale nuclear bombs would have already started. Most military installations and many cities close to the bombed sites would have seen total nuclear destruction, leaving hundreds of thousands - if not one or two millions - of dead military and also innocent civilian people behind, in both eastern and western Europe. Whatever their nationalities in the East or in the West camp, it would have been equally atrocious.
But within a few hours this ' first scale ' nuclear war may have saved most huge cities, as East and West leaders would have been wise to find an ' agreement ' to end things as they were now. So strategic missiles may not have been used and the war would have lasted no more than two or three days, but most European territory would have seen near total devastation or long term
radioactive pollution.

Most European territory would have seen near total devastation or long term radioactive pollution.



Interestingly the Exhibition shows how both camps were preparing their citizens to protect themselves from heat, blast, and nuclear fall outs. Instructions were given on displayed booklets and TV programs, but it is hard to imagine how people could have survived in such an envirronment. One example of these crazy times was the time you could protect yourself to survive. 4 minutes : this was the gap of time you could react between a ' warning ' of missiles about to strike the UK by the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at RAF Fylingdales (MoD), and the moment they would effectively hit the ground. The timing was so short that populations could only guess they would not survive anyway. Other aspects of these fourty years of way of life are recorded throughout the museum : . But nothing epitomized more or divided world then the Berlin Wall ; so read that next part : Icons of the era .

4 minutes was the gap of time you could react and protect yourself to survive, between a ' warning ' of missiles about to strike the ground, and the moment they would hit it.



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