More than meteorological pressures. Cold war maps and civil defence experiences

Having last posted a blog about the value of digital mapping to my interpretations of the physical and psychic layers of people’s lives in the past, I became map-mad again last week at a Cold War Geographies symposium. In conjunction with Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line, the current exhibition at the British Library, the conference considered ways in which the humanities use tangible and intangible maps as means by which to understand how people located themselves in the cold war world. I left thinking about how we recalibrate ourselves in any geopolitical space and time, through visualised ‘workings-out’ of our local, regional and global places in the physical world.

The exhibition was an excellent reminder that maps are not simply uniform, paper diagrams; looking at one map of your local area will not give you the same information, experience, or knowledge of that place as another map of exactly the same terrain.  And with this in mind, I’d like to turn to an anachronistic group: the Civil Defence Corps, bound for cold war obsolescence, and determined to defend against thermonuclear war using redundant Second World War equipment and training.


A square from an ordnance survey grid map, 1940s-1960s – National Library of Scotland

My interview participants from this group fondly remembered civil defence training – a heady mix of learning to tie knots, remembering formulas for fallout half-life and practicing exercises on location with dress, equipment, vehicles and pre-scripted ‘missions’. Many interview participants remembered map reading, some of them liken it to ordnance survey tests, some chuckled at getting lost in the countryside, some recognised that map-reading was an essential emergency skill in the spontaneous and precise movements of mass evacuation. One wrong turning and escape could turn to a head-on collision with radioactive winds.

At face value, these experiences of maps in green belt villages, local transport depots, walking holiday locations, and on well-known municipal roads, are evidence of enjoyment, pleasure and a degree of comfort. As Matthew Grant has shown, traditional civil defence cultures of camaraderie and community spirit, combined with emerging postwar individualism and the growth of leisure and spare-time hobbies to create a social atmosphere in Corps training. In that context, maps were classic tools to plan war, affiliate with the state, and participate in military culture in a self-composed and relaxing environment. However, the nuclear markings, fallout graffiti if you like, drawn and printed on those maps, reminded everyone that there was more at stake in these excursions than navigating the next roundabout.

In order to impart a sense of realism on training exercises, organisers devised complex and infinite attack hypotheses. In those scenarios, the blasts might be different strengths, in different locations, during the night or in the daytime, after rain or under snow – any of these conditions would affect the impact, drift, deadliness of nuclear contamination. These nuclear nightmares – an emerging postwar phenomenon that initiated a new era of warfare – were depicted through newly designed map keys and hand-drawn notes. So despite appearances, and suggested experiences, those training maps were being reconstructed and written over with new nuclear knowledge and expectations. My participants, though they may have enjoyed such an experience, were not simply replicating the map-reading exercises of their Home Guard, Scouts, or hiking days.


Present day depictions of nuclear blast and radiation by Alex Wellerstein, historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

In his keynote speech, Klaus Dodds suggested that current geographers and historians of the cold war view the conflict as a series of pressure points acting on personal, local, national and geopolitical experiences. These tiny indications of a nuclear clouds and winds on traditional maps signified more than meteorological pressures on individual life. Map-interpretation, as the exhibition shows, is under constant pressure. In an era in which broad and quotidian cultures clashed with official nuclear narratives, as Jonathan Hogg argues, it is hard to underestimate the extent to which civilians engaged with their nuclear selves via small pressures like these. Whether hand-drawn or complete with new cartographical symbols these civil defence maps, and memories of them, signal a re-positioning of self in the nuclear age.


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