NEWLY released papers reveal how important a role Portland could have played in the Cold War.

Top secret documents have just been declassified following Freedom on Information requests from Cold War researcher Mike Kenner.

They reveal that, in the event of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the west, HMS Osprey at Portland would have been one of the remote locations chosen as a hideaway for members of the British government.

The papers detail the Python programme designed to keep the government running and the head of state alive in order for the British state to continue despite a nuclear exchange, mass deaths and radioactive fallout.

Mr Kenner said: “According to a 2009 Cabinet Office statement, ‘The Python plans that were valid from 1968 bear similarities to plans that are still current.’ This explains why it has taken almost 50 years for the Cabinet Office to release any substantive information concerning the Python concept.”

Britain’s early Cold War planning was shaped by the experience of the Second World War. Evacuation still played a part as did tin hats and ladders, with the WRVS ready to dish out soup and blankets, but gradually planners had to accept that the advent of the hydrogen bomb had made such measures redundant. The 1955 Strath Report, which considered the potential effect of the new bombs on Britain, warned of 12 million deaths and war “beyond the imagination.”.

Thinking began to change. Central Government had a huge bunker in Corsham, Wiltshire, codenamed Burlington. But the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 prompted Whitehall to question its suitability. If nuclear war seemed imminent and Burlington went operational only for the crisis to defuse, its location and purpose would have been revealed. 

There were suspicions that the Soviets already knew about it – suspicions seemed to be confirmed when it was revealed a Soviet satellite flew over the site daily.

A radical new plan, Python, was formed which took the opposite approach to Burlington. Rather than gather the Government in one location, they would be dispersed around the country in organised autonomous groups where they would sit out the nuclear war in “protected accommodation” in the hope that some of them would survive and could link up afterwards, allowing the British state to continue to function.
The Python plan began operation on May 1 1968 and was classified Top Secret. 

A Memorandum of the same year noted “the details of these dispersal plans [Python] are among the most vital of Britain’s state secrets.”

Python was so sensitive that many in Whitehall who worked in Cold War planning did not know about it. They believed Burlington, by now given the new code-name Chanticleer, was still the nuclear escape plan and the Government fostered this belief by keeping Chanticleer operational, allowing it to act as a decoy. Its equipment was maintained and its ration stocks topped up but the only role this massive bunker would now play in a nuclear attack was to offer the surviving Python groups a potential meeting point after the war.

The secret Python dispersal locations were: Culdrose in Cornwall; HMS Osprey in Portland; University of Aberystwyth; Taymouth Castle in Perthshire, and either the Royal Yacht Britannia or HMS Engadine who’d embark her Python group at Loch Torridon or Oban.