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 yesterday by the National Archives.
“Heaven help us if there is a war,” was then British 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 a rising 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.
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.
Then 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.
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 UK. He decided instead to stick with NATO’s collective approach to keeping the Soviets out of Europe.
Callaghan 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.”