A chance descent into a 1950’s Cold War Bunker on the North Sea Coast, one of few remaining intact in the UK, led to a two-year project that involved me frequently going underground to interview and photograph civilians, volunteers and servicewomen who had served their country in a climate of fear, propaganda and a looming Russia.
From 1949 to 1991 Britain lived in the shadow of the Cold War. The world watched nervously as Soviet and American superpowers stockpiled nuclear weapons and beat their chests across the great expanse of Europe. Against a background of political propaganda and espionage, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, thousands of women served underground on Britain’s frontline of defence. Their roles and responsibilities in these windowless worlds remained secret and hidden.
I didn’t know this. I wasn’t aware even, that 50ft underground in the sleepy village of Holmpton on the blustery East Riding of Yorkshire coastline, such a Cold War bunker existed.
I was born in this county in 1966, a month after Communist China detonated its third nuclear device of the Cold War. A teenager of the 1980s, I watched news footage of women at Greenham Common protesting against the siting of US Cruise missiles on British soil, linking hands around a perimeter fence. I listened to Kate Bush singing about an unborn child breathing radiation fallout through its mother’s womb. As a family we holidayed in our caravan on the same coastline and built sandcastles on the beach, unaware that four miles up the coast women and men were watching the skies for us. Well, that was the point: it was supposed to be secret.
In 2017 I was invited to the Cold War bunker at Holmpton, now a visitor attraction, to see their newly-created underground art gallery, the first of its kind. I work as an independent documentary photographer and field researcher documenting the personal narratives of women survivors of war, conflict and genocide, and women campaigners for peace. Would I like to help launch the gallery with an exhibit of my work?
I had to use a sat nav to locate a simple brick bungalow in a wildflower meadow ringed by a wire perimeter fence, camouflage for a vast concrete underground of recreated rooms, corridors, metal stairways, telex machines, buttons and bleeps. Here is a Cold War time-warp enthusiastically created and maintained by owners John and Sylvia Swift. Only by venturing down the ‘hole’ (the familiar name for the bunker) and along an eerily green-lit corridor did I learn what was going on here as we children played on the beach. I asked John “did any women work down here … by any chance?’’. His answer “Yes, and a couple still live in the village, do you want to meet them?” opened the blast doors for me like I never imagined.
During the Cold War thousands of women served underground in bunkers, or as Royal Observer Corps (ROC) monitoring posts and emergency planning centres. Senior Aircraftwomen of the Royal Air Force (SACW) became radar plotters recording incoming enemy aircraft, or operated underground switchboards fielding calls from on high. Volunteers of the ROC were tasked with recording the direction of a nuclear bomb and its radiation fallout. ROCs included young mothers who, in the event of a nuclear strike, would be expected to leave their loved ones and go underground to serve the nation.
Many underwent training and signed the Official Secrets Act before passing through blast-proof doors and descending underground to sprawling bunkers or climbing down ladders into holes in the earth. Women worked alongside men doing the same job, for less pay. Some joined as teenagers. Some wished to serve their country. Some joined because the money was good. Some joined because it was different, an adventure.
I felt compelled to document and raise awareness of this untold chapter in our local, national and international history before these women, their stories, memories and anecdotes are lost to us forever.
First I took tea in the bunker’s former canteen and listened to Pat Leckonby, Christine ‘Rosemary’ Wright and Trish Alcroft who served as RAF Senior Aircraftwomen on the PBX telephone exchange from the 1960s. Their black and white photographs show them as 17 to 20-year-olds, smart in RAF blue uniforms and caps. They put me in touch with Corporal Janet Huitt, Sylvia Peacock, and couples like Kath and Rod Shimwell who met underground and later married. Word got around, more women came forward. I asked the women if they would return to the bunker and relevant local Cold War sites to be interviewed and photographed. Sixty years on women returned underground to demonstrate the plotting table, how they climbed escape ladders in skirts in drills, or waded through weeds to a former ROC monitoring post.
Our collection is hours of oral recordings, personal and contemporary photographs, letters, posters, award certificates and even a signed Official Secrets Act. More photographs emerged of the women as new recruits, on training days, at RAF sports days and socials where they danced to Dusty Springfield and The Hollies and drank Cherry B’s. The hardest part was photographing the women underground, with no natural light, which is what I rely on rather than studio lamps and bulbs. Only when I admitted defeat and allowed the weird green and red, or brooding atmosphere of the bunker to permeate the images, did they express the mystery, intrigue and significance I wanted to convey.
Sixty years on
Together as a team, and with the technical and woodworking skills of Sylvia and John, we created Hidden: Cold War Women - an exhibition of images, voices, sounds, archive documents and memorabilia. We opened for International Women’s Day 2019 to a crowd of Cold War veterans, many of whom had never returned until now, including one ex-servicewoman from Canada. The women who had remained silent for decades, either out of duty and, as they told me “well, we didn’t really do anything and who would be interested?”, could not stop talking.
Lives changed underground during the Cold War. Romances blossomed, marriages were made and friendships were forged. The work these women did, the roles they played, the memories they took with them were never shared, not even with their families, until now.
‘Hidden: Cold War Women’, funded by Arts Council England, remains on show at Visit the Bunker, Holmpton http://www.visitthebunker.com/ (temporarily closed due to Covid-19 restrictions). A smaller version of the exhibition opens in Autumn 2021 at The Treasure House, Beverley.