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The Russians are coming? Get the trawlers

The Russians are coming? Get the trawlers

The Russians are coming? No problem: just round up some fishing trawlers, give them some minesweeping gear, and get cracking.
That was part of Britain's 1978 plan to repel a possible Soviet invasion, according to newly declassified documents released Tuesday by the National Archives.
"Heaven help us if there is a war," was Prime Minister James Callaghan's response when briefed on the decay of Britain's once formidable defenses.
It was a time of growing Soviet belligerence, bolstered by an expanding military budget and an impressive array of new weaponry. At the same time, Britain's defense program was stagnating in part because of a prolonged recession that checked defense expenditures.
The newly released documents show that Callaghan became worried after reading a secret Joint Intelligence Committee report detailing the superiority of Soviet arms at the height of the Cold War. The consensus was gloomy: Britain could not effectively fight back alone against a Soviet attack, whether it was nuclear, conventional, or a feared combination of the two.
It was a humiliating situation for a once mighty military power whose empire had stretched around the world: Britain's security was almost totally dependent on NATO allies, principally the United States.
The British lacked fighter planes to combat Soviet bombers, missiles to strike down incoming nuclear warheads, even mine-clearing ships needed to keep waterways open _ hence the plan to press trawlers into service.
Cabinet Secretary John Hunt admitted that Britain's defenses "are already less than they should desirably be" and that Soviet strength was expanding.
"The problem is made worse by the rate at which the offensive capability which the Russians might use against the United Kingdom is growing," he wrote in an Aug. 1, 1978 memo to the prime minister. "We shall have to run hard to stand still."
He goes on the describe much of the nation's defense equipment as outmoded, rusting and obsolete.
It is clear Callaghan was exasperated: "I take it someone has worked out whether we can defend ourselves," he wrote drily on the margins of a briefing paper.
Mark Dunton, a contemporary history specialist at the National Archives, said the main worry was the lack of air cover and sufficient missile stocks to deter a Soviet attack.
"It shows we were operating at the bare minimum, with only enough missiles for two or three days," he said. "Had this file been known about at the time, it would have alarmed a lot of people."
He said the lack of stout defenses led to an uncomfortable verbal showdown between Callaghan and Defense Secretary Fred Mulley, who admitted Britain's protection was "uncomfortably thin."
The alarming words by Britain's military chiefs carried echoes of Winston Churchill's eloquent _ and largely ignored _ warnings about the Nazi military buildup during the 1930s.
The big difference was the reassuring presence of the NATO alliance.
NATO defense strategy was built on the explicit agreement that an attack on one member must be treated as an attack on all members. That means a Soviet strike on Britain would have provoked a massive retaliation by NATO forces.
It was this strategy, spelled out in the NATO treaty, that gave Britain its real protection during that dangerous era, said Charles Heyman, an Army officer at the time who now edits the Armed Forces of the UK review.
"There was almost certainly no need for sophisticated air defense for the UK alone," he said. "Everything depended on retaliation. You never expected large numbers of Soviet aircraft to get over to the UK and bomb the UK."
The NATO strategy worked well, he said.
"The proof of the pudding is that there was no war," Heyman said. "Both sides were so well armed they were terrified of each other."
After receiving the intelligence report late in 1977, Callaghan ordered an urgent review of military preparedness and demanded options for upgrading Britain's defenses.
He was ultimately convinced, however, that it would be disruptive to shift Britain's planes and other military assets from NATO patrols so they could be used to protect the United Kingdom. He decided instead to stick with NATO's collective approach to keeping the Soviets out of Europe.
The prime minister seems swayed by his Cabinet's consensus, expressed by Hunt on Aug. 1, 1978, that it would be counterproductive to focus on protecting Britain at the expense of NATO's central front.
To do so would "weaken the political and military cohesion of the Alliance and thus its collective ability to deter the Soviet Union," Hunt wrote. "If that happened, we should lose more than we should gain."
Britain's military was modernized during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's tenure, but never tried to directly match Soviet air and sea power, instead relying on NATO strength to keep Britain secure.


Updated : 2021-03-03 03:29 GMT+08:00