BY and large there was a peaceful coexistence between the people of Scotland and the economic benefits that accrued from the Cold War. The main exception was the presence of the nuclear weapons at the submarine bases on the Clyde, which were the focus of frequent protests.

Another significant concern came from within the fishing industry – once a staple of the country’s domestic economy but in recession by the 1970s as it struggled with the need for modernisation.

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After the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the Common Fisheries Policy opened up EEC waters for common use by all member states and brought fresh challenges. During the latter stages of the Cold War, the Scottish fishing industry shifted towards inshore fishing, prompting clashes with other sea users.

The most controversial impact came from submarines, notably in the Irish Sea (which gained the nickname “submarine highway”), off the west coast of Scotland and in the Firth of Clyde. Soviet and American submarines were also involved in incidents with British (mainly Scottish) and Irish fishing boats.

All too often, the rival submarines were involved in their own cat-and-mouse war games and although these resulted in damage to fishing gear there were also too many unexplained incidents, such as the sinking of the Kirkcudbright scallop trawler Mhairi L in February 1985 in calm weather with the loss of all five crew, whose bodies were never recovered.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were numerous reports of fishing boats “catching” submarines in their nets. In one incident in 1982, the crew of the Irish boat Sheralga escaped injury when the vessel capsized and sank off the coast of Dublin after the Royal Navy diesel-electric submarine HMS Porpoise became entangled in its nets.

Initially the Admiralty denied that any submarine had been in the area and it took two weeks for them to acknowledge responsibility, perhaps because the submarine involved was designed for silent running and was therefore used for clandestine operations. Five years later another Irish trawler, the Summer Morn, was dragged backwards by an unknown American nuclear submarine for up to 20 miles. Only later did the US Navy admit that the boat was “one of ours”.

The deep coastal waters provided an ideal environment for training officers seeking promotion to command submarines, and this led to one of the most high-profile incidents involving a fishing boat and a submarine with an officer under instruction.

The course was known as the “perisher” due to its demanding nature and low success rate in waters being used by fishing boats.

On a November night in 1990, while operating in deep water known as the Arran Trench near Bute, the newly commissioned hunter-killer submarine HMS Trenchant was simulating laying mines while being attacked on the surface by a Leander-class frigate, HMS Charybdis.

During the exercise, Trenchant snagged the nets of the Carradale-based trawler Antares. It capsized and sank with the loss of all four hands. Although the submarine surfaced and a trawl net was found on the hull, the crew could see nothing amiss. Two other boats, Heroine and Hercules III, were fishing nearby and it was assumed that the gear belonged to one of them. Since everything seemed to be normal, Trenchant continued with the exercise and it was the following day that Antares was reported missing and the wreck found. An official report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch blamed faulty operational procedures.

Understandably, there was much speculation that the perisher candidates on Trenchant were being pushed to their limits and that this was a factor in the incident, but the main problem seems to have been the secrecy surrounding the perisher courses. When the report’s findings became public, the Clyde Submarine Base agreed to provide fuller information to local fishermen when exercises were taking place. Previously, at the height of the Cold War, information of that kind had been kept secret for reasons of national security.

Scotland was a vital cog in the homeland defence of the UK and beyond that of the Nato alliance during the Cold War. There were 10,000 naval personnel based in Scotland in 1992, together with 52 warships.

Faslane, the Clyde submarine base, designated a military port (together with Cairnryan near Stranraer) since 1939, became the base of the Royal Navy’s Third Submarine Squadron as part of the Polaris project in the 1950s and 60s at a total cost of £370 million.

Unlike other submarine bases such as the American facility at nearby Holy Loch, there was no need for a depot ship at Faslane and the base was built to be largely self-contained, with its own purpose-built “Polaris School”, which opened in 1966.

At the same time, work commenced on building the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport, which consists of 16 reinforced concrete bunkers on the hillside above Loch Long for storing missiles and their nuclear warheads. It opened for business in June 1968 when the first Polaris-equipped boat, HMS Resolution, went on patrol. By then the submarine had been commissioned into service and had already visited Cape Canaveral in the USA, where both Port and Starboard crews had successfully fired a Polaris A-3 missile into the downrange area off the Florida coast. In common with the American squadron at Holy Loch, each submarine had two crews, Port and Starboard, in each case with 13 officers and 131 ratings. At any one time at least one of the boats would be on operational patrol.

The presence of Polaris in Scotland was not universally welcomed and in time it spawned a large and influential protest movement.

For submariners the introduction of the nuclear submarines changed everything. For all that modern diesel-electric boats such as the Porpoise and Oberon class were admired in their day, they possessed operational limitations and the crews’ quarters were cramped and uncomfortable. On long-range missions fresh water could become scarce and food could run out. In comparison, the new nuclear-powered boats had hot showers and nutritious food. Compared to the old diesel-electric boats, the Resolution-class SSBNs and their attack, or hunter-killer, stable-mates (SSN) of the Valiant, Churchill, Swiftsure and Trafalgar classes seemed to provide sheer luxury.

There were operational differences too. Whereas the main duty of the SSNs was to seek out potential enemies in the shape of surface ships and rival submarines, the duty of the SSBNs was the exact opposite. As one SSBN commander, Captain Mike Hawke, explained in a television interview in 1983: his job was to keep his submarine (HMS Repulse) undetected, “to go into the oceans of the world and disappear, totally disappear”. Secrecy was paramount – if a Polaris boat was detected by the Soviets, the ramifications would have been “shattering”.

Before each patrol, Captain Hawke’s orders arrived in a sealed envelope carried in a battered briefcase “for his eyes only”, and throughout the patrol only he and a handful of senior officers knew exactly where the submarine was located. With no means of communicating with naval headquarters, one of the last tests to discover if the UK had suffered a catastrophic nuclear attack was the absence over several days of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. This was the metaphoric “finger on the button”.

In the event of a nuclear war the orders could have represented a decision from the grave. In other words, once on patrol, Polaris boats were on their own and nothing could divert the mission – neither a crew member’s serious illness nor an accident beneath the waves.

Radio silence had to be absolute. Crews understood that nothing was allowed to compromise the boat’s security for the eight long weeks of an SSBN patrol: “Year after year they took their vessels out on deployment, disappearing beneath the surface of the sea for weeks, if not months, at a time.

“Between the last time they saw their homeland and the next, babies were born and loved ones died. Wars might be fought or peace and goodwill reign. Deep in the oceans, throughout every personal tragedy and triumph, each world-shaping event, they hovered, unseen and ignored by the majority of Mankind, on the edge of the abyss.”

Such an eventuality visited the Polaris-equipped HMS Revenge in July 1978 when she was on an operational patrol whose whereabouts still cannot be revealed, even though the senior engineering officer, Eric Thompson, wrote a comprehensive account of what happened. A sudden steam leak threatened disaster: the reactor would have to be shut down, leaving Revenge without a power source and therefore effectively “dead”.

Faced by that outcome, which would require the boat to surface and await rescue, Thompson also realised that the result would be “national humiliation” at a time when the Labour government was “riven by anti-nuclear sentiment ... if the deterrent appeared to fail, Britain’s nuclear strategy would be holed below the waterline”.

A solution of sorts was cobbled together, the submarine did not require assistance and was able to continue a further eight weeks on patrol.

Later in his career, Thompson, who had been brought up in Coatbridge, became Commodore of the Faslane base and his account of the accident on board HMS Revenge is one of the most candid and thought-provoking descriptions of life on the front line during the Cold War.

The National: A protester is seen holding a sign that reads 'I want a world free of NUCLEAR WEAPONS for my grandchildren'A protester is seen holding a sign that reads 'I want a world free of NUCLEAR WEAPONS for my grandchildren'

The working day was divided into three watches – eight hours on duty, eight hours’ rest and sleep and eight hours’ recreation. One submariner recalled that there was a sophisticated Scalextric model racing car set up on board HMS Revenge.

The arrival of the US Navy at Holy Loch and the consolidation of Faslane marked the end of the first phase of the UK’s acceptance of the nuclear deterrent and the beginning of a period characterised as “economic decline and defence retrenchment”.

Between 1964 and 1969, prime minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government resisted persistent demands from the US for military aid in Vietnam – famously the request made privately in the rose garden of the White House for the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) on the grounds that “even a few pipers would be better than nothing”.

But Scotland was America’s most important forward operating base in Europe, housing electronic spying, surveillance and code-breaking activities which were a vital adjunct of the nuclear partnership which included American Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I), the Pentagon’s designation for the network without which no war could be fought.

This became increasingly important in the late 1960s, when the Nato strategy of waging any future nuclear war was moving away from the concept of mutually assured destruction to the more likely outcome of flexible response where second-strike capability was all-important.

In that scenario Scotland became a crucial site for US facilities and RAF Edzell in Angus was “probably the base in Scotland which the US would least wish to lose”.

The use of RAF in the base name was pure camouflage. Although it was a former RAF airfield which had seen service in both world wars and had been used as a motor-racing circuit in the 1950s – the future world champion driver Jim Clark had competed there – the US Navy moved in to re-establish it in 1960 as the US Naval Security Group Oceanographic Monitoring Station, monitoring the North Sea and the European continent for radio transmissions from the Soviet Union and its allies.

RAF Edzell was part of a network of 16 high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF) facilities located around the world.

In 1966, a petty officer academy was established at Edzell to enhance cryptologic training and to provide a professional career structure for this increasingly vital aspect of US intelligence gathering.

In the 1970s, Edzell’s importance was increased by the introduction of satellite technology known as “White Cloud”, which allowed ground operatives to detect Soviet ships by their heat signatures. Connected to Edzell were microwave relay facilities at nearby Inverbervie (with an associated bunker), Kinnaber and Clochandighter near Portlethen in Aberdeenshire.

Other US surveillance and communications included the vital US Navy communication facilities at Forss and West Murkle in Caithness, which were constructed between 1963 and 1965 to provide secure low-frequency command and control communication with Polaris submarines operating in the North Atlantic, a duty that was shared with a similar facility at Londonderry in Northern Ireland, at least until 1974, when the entire operation was switched to Thurso.

Both Caithness stations relied heavily on satellite communications as part of the US Worldwide Military Command and Control System, and at the height of their operations employed 152 personnel. These “listening posts” were recognisable by their masts, aerials or “golf ball”-style radomes, but perhaps the most obvious installation of this type was the US Air Force’s North Atlantic Relay System on Mormond Hill south of Fraserburgh, which operated as Station 44 in the US North Atlantic Radio System, an early warning facility which ran from Iceland to Fylingdales in Yorkshire.

In this guise, it shared the space with the US Navy’s microwave dishes and Nato’s saucer-shaped dishes, which provided secure communications across Western Europe. This was the sophisticated ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS) which, together with the US Air Force bases at Thule in Greenland and Clear in Alaska, provided the USA and UK with round-the-clock warning of an impending Soviet attack. It was better known as the “four-minute warning”, a central motif of the Cold War years and much parodied in popular culture.

In addition to these manned sites there was also a US presence in unmanned though highly visible early-warning facilities at Latheron (Caithness), Craigowl Hill (Angus), East Lomond (Fife), Kirk o’ Shotts (North Lanarkshire), Browncarrick Hill (South Ayrshire) and Sergeant Law (Renfrewshire).

It was not just the US presence that made itself felt across Scotland during the Cold War. The UK’s armed forces also recognised the importance of the country’s topography and strategic position for training purposes and for siting bases. There was the secretive defence munitions centre in Glen Douglas on Loch Long, a Nato facility for storing conventional weapons in 56 underground chambers built into 650 acres of hillside. There were two other munitions centres in Scotland which catered mainly for the Royal Navy, situated at Beith in North Ayrshire and Crombie in Fife.

Throughout the Cold War the main RAF bases in Scotland were at Kinloss, Leuchars and Lossiemouth, where a total of 10,000 personnel were based. Of the three bases, Leuchars had the highest public profile because it was the UK’s most northerly fighter airfield and was home to the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) flight comprising two interceptor aircraft on call, pilots kitted up, 24 hours a day.

QRA became a symbol of the RAF’s preparedness to defend the country from attack by Soviet bombers.

The army in Scotland was equally well entrenched within the fabric of Scottish society. There were 92 separate military locations with 2500 regular service men and women plus 8800 members of the Territorial Army, representing 14% of the UK total.

PUTTING Scotland on the frontline was not just a case of maintaining military and naval bases for offensive and defensive purposes. During a period when all-out nuclear war threatened mass civilian casualties and colossal disruption, thought was also given to the provision of shelters for government officials.

Although it was never admitted at the time, no one thought that there would be large numbers of survivors from a nuclear attack on the densely populated UK and there was no attempt to replicate the supply of domestic and public air-raid shelters of the Second World War. In 1980, a Home Office working party reported that it would cost £70 billion to provide shelter spaces for the whole population.

In 1965, the BBC refused to screen The War Game, a realistic docudrama which depicted the horrifying effects of a nuclear strike on a defenceless population. The corporation eventually relented and broadcast it in 1985 in the week preceding the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

During this period there was, in theory, a workable civil defence structure and a plan, codenamed “Turnstile”, to ensure the governance of the country in the event of nuclear annihilation.

Regional commissioners and up to 300 “essential” staff were to be housed in fortified bunkers at Barnton quarry in Edinburgh, Anstruther, Kirknewton, and East Kilbride. Although supposedly top secret, the bunker network was an open secret before being made obsolete by the end of the Cold War and sold off.

In 1968, the civil defence message changed to one that regarded nuclear war survivable, a point made in a series of public information pamphlets under the hopeful title “Protect and Survive”, with advice on what to do in the event of nuclear attack.

The threat was certainly real enough. As early as 1953 the government produced a secret report estimating the damage which would be produced by 132 atomic bombs “of the Nagasaki type”. These would leave 1,378,000 dead and 785,000 seriously injured, while for Scotland the comparable figures would be 177,000 and 103,000, with the main casualties being suffered in five conurbations: lClydeside: 98,000 killed, 57,000 seriously injured lEdinburgh: 52,000 killed, 30,000 seriously injured lAberdeen: 9000 killed, 5000 seriously injured lDundee: 17,000 killed, 10,000 seriously injured lGrangemouth: 1000 killed, 1000 seriously injured What this would have meant for the local populations can be gauged by one of the few contemporary physical descriptions, written in 1948, describing the effect of a plutonium bomb exploding above London at a height of between 500 feet and 1000 feet and creating a crater 450 yards in diameter: “Total collapse of all buildings up to a distance of about 600 yards from ground-zero...

“and heavy internal damage, probably resulting in fires up to at least 1500 yards...

“Houses would be destroyed or would require demolition to a distance of about 1400 yards from ground-zero...

“Severe flash burns will occur on the unprotected parts of the bodies of people...

“Gamma radiation from an airburst will cause death to people caught in the open.”

It is not too difficult to transpose those findings and apply them to Edinburgh or Glasgow as part of the terror of the new nuclear age.

The development of thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s increased destructive power and made it 1000 times greater than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fortunately, thermonuclear devices have never been used in anger, and hopefully never will be.

This is an extract from Facing The Bear: Scotland And The Cold War by Trevor Royle, published by Birlinn, £25