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Four minutes to climb the church tower and sound the alarm

by
08 April 2022

A vicarage child in the 1960s, Mark Roberts recalls his father’s part in Britain’s nuclear-warning system

Roberts Family

The Revd J. Aelwyn Roberts in the 1960s

The Revd J. Aelwyn Roberts in the 1960s

IT IS perhaps little known that vicars’ children, like their parents, are expected to obey the strict rules of confidentiality, and keep secret anything overheard between their clergy-parents and parishioners.

As a 12-year-old son of a vicar in the early 1960s, I was no different, although I had little interest in vicarage or parish gossip, until the bombshell dropped — almost literally.

It was 1962, when the entire world was at the brink of total global nuclear war and DEFCON II — one terrifying level down from the launch of intercontinental nuclear missiles being exchanged between Russia and the United States — was declared.

It was the Cuban Crisis — or Bay of Pigs — stand-off between the US President, John F. Kennedy, and the leader of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev; the 13-day period when the world was as close as it could get to total obliteration.

Britain, as a post-war nuclear power, was in the direct firing line. They were frightening days.


IT IS only now, 60 years later — as Russia again threatens the West with nuclear weapons — that the story of how selected parish priests were deployed by the Government in the secret war is emerging. My dad, the Revd Joe Aelwyn Roberts, then Vicar of Llandegai, in the diocese of Bangor, was one of them.

I returned from school one day to find a very strange assortment of glum men in our otherwise happy vicarage. The local police inspector, a man in a suit, telephone engineers from the old GPO, men offloading a huge wooden crate into hall, and dad looking unnaturally pensive in his study as engineers tinkered with his phone.

Then, when the tinkering was over, the engineers tested the new apparatus they’d installed. “Beep . . . beep . . . beep” and a voice broke in: “Exercise. Exercise. Testing, testing . . .”

This was one secret my dad couldn’t keep from me. Llandegai vicarage had just become linked into the ultra-secret HANDEL: the code name for the nuclear-attack warning wire-broadcast system which linked directly through the UK’s early-warning Ministry of Defence base at RAF Fylingdale, Yorkshire, and then to the American USAF early-warning centre, buried deep in the mountains of Colorado.

Simultaneously, in selected dioceses throughout Britain, other teams of telephone engineers, Special Branch officers, and workmen were delivering wooden crates carrying air-raid sirens.

Poor dad. How could he ensure that his inquisitive, talkative, 12-year-old son wouldn’t go blabbing to his schoolmates the next morning? It wasn’t just a local parish secret; it was a national secret.

Of course, I was aware of how precarious the whole world was, there was no getting away from it. For weeks, mum had been creating a shelter for her, me, and my three younger siblings under the stairs. BBC Radio broadcasts and Richard Dimbleby’s voice were sombre indeed. But to be linked into the ultra-secret HANDEL nuclear-war system was too exciting to keep quiet about.


DAD’s way of ensuring my silence was to explain that he had just been instructed by the police to sign the Official Secrets Act, and the penalties of that were dire. He let me believe that it covered me as well. It didn’t, of course, but I was gullible.

And with that, dad was able to “deputise” me to act accordingly if the bleeping ever stopped and a voice message came through for real. I remember there were three of them which would be broadcast in ascending preamble order of critical state: Grey, Black, and Red.

Red was when dad would have to kiss bye-bye to mum and his kids and climb up on to St Tegai’s parish church to hand-wind the nuclear-attack warning siren and set off a maroon flare — and then, presumably, pray.

The apparatus installed was the WD-400, directly linked via telephone to police headquarters and on to the Ministry of Defence.

Early-warning siren control box

WB-400 units were originally intended to be installed only in police stations or “regional seats of government”, such as county halls. But where there were no police stations, then the next most trusted “confidants” would be priests. There would be other trusted professions, of course, but in the 1960s not everyone had a dedicated telephone line.

The WD-400 provided one-way voice traffic. You couldn’t call back and ask for a message to be repeated.

Each week, dad was expected to sit by what he called “the contraption” and note down the test code words of the week and post them back to “Police HQ”.

I remember one was simply “Free Orange Rhubarb”. Dad and I had an argument about whether the man had said “Free” or “Three”. We settled for “Three Free Orange Rhubarbs”, and it seemed to satisfy.

But dad often forgot to be by the phone on certain Tuesdays, or there would be funerals to attend. Thus, more excitement entered vicarage life: Police HQ decided to send its own sergeant to the vicarage each week to ensure that the message came over loud and clear.


THEY really were dangerous days during the Cuban Crisis in 1962. The crisis began when the USSR began covertly to install nuclear missiles capable of hitting sites in the US on Cuban soil, with the full consent of Fidel Castro.

When the US learned of this, and after frantic negotiations and failed embargoes proved futile against the Kremlin, President Kennedy upped the stakes by threatening Khrushchev with immediate intercontinental ballistic (nuclear) retaliation.

The US Navy blockaded Cuba, and USAF nuclear bombers skirted the USSR on a 24-hour basis. Britain’s nuclear deterrent was drawn into the chess game.

AlamyInside the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System Station at RAF Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, in the early 1960s

Even after both parties agreed to stand down, war was still seconds away when the captain of a Russian submarine off Cuba failed to hear his radio orders from Moscow to “stand down”. He was only stopped from pressing the nuclear button by a subordinate officer.

I’m not too sure how carefully the civil defence or police of the day selected their vicars. The wooden crate containing the nuclear-attack siren took two telephone engineers to lift out of the lorry. Dad was expected to hoist this on his back up through the church belfry, up the vertical tower ladder, and install it all on his own — in four minutes!

No one stopped to ask him how he was with heights. The truth is, he hated them. He felt queasy even standing on a chair to change a light bulb.

And poor mum, too. There was not much thought for the vicar’s wife left sheltering her children while her husband the vicar was cranking up the four-minute bomb warning on the church tower. In actual fact, it transpired it wasn’t a four-minute warning — it was three.

The WB-400 warning system stayed in the vicarage until the collapse of the USSR, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and the “all clear” in 1991. It would periodically be tested, and the “bleep, bleep, bleep was a regular reminder of how close we got.


THE secrecy aspect of this — right through to 1991 — still amazes me. I remember a particular Archdeacon of Bangor calling round to chat with dad and continually rubbing his ear as if he suffered tinnitus. He eventually asked dad what the funny beeping noise in the background was. “Ah,” dad said, “blessed problem I’ve got with this new fax machine I’ve just bought. Damned contraption!” No mention of nuclear early-warning systems or Khrushchev.

Many in the Church in Wales will remember dad well. He died in 2019, aged 99, but for decades before that he was well known for his regular newspaper columns, his television and radio broadcasts, and his book-writing, including Holy Ghostbuster.

Not a single mention of autumn 1962 and the nuclear-bomb threat, though. And not a squeak either from the other scores of vicars around Britain and their “Free Orange Rhubarb” recollections.

I managed to keep the secret, too, until a regional newspaper mentioned the unique and secretive part that clergymen played in that coldest of wars. The closest the present Government gets to acknowledging matters is through this statement from the Ministry of Defence via the Cabinet Office: “We never comment on matters of security.”

From my previous career in crisis management in high-risk areas around the world, I know this actually means: “Yeah, it’s true.”

Worrying though reports are that President Putin has his finger hovering over the nuclear “button”, I don’t think that anyone of my age or older will ever forget the very serious threat of global annihilation during the Cuban Crisis.

Mark Roberts is a Guildsman of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and author of the book Filofax, examining the abduction and murder of the German businessman Thomas Niedermayer by the IRA in Belfast, in 1973.

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