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In from the Cold

Roger Cook, Pynelea Photo Bureau, reports on Royal Air Force Museum Cosford's new International Cold War Exhibition. Pictures by the author unless stated otherwise

I grew up during the Cold War and experienced the constant threat of a global nuclear war. I saw the numerous Nuclear Disarmament marches at the United States Embassy and at other military bases, which, at times, grew very violent with clashes with the Police. There were Government information broadcasts on television as to how we might build a nuclear shelter out of two doors and a mattress in our kitchen, or how a family of four might survive nuclear fallout by living in the understairs cupboard for 28 days.

Cold War relics

I was arrested for photographing nuclear bomb-carrying Boeing B-47s of Strategic Air Command at Upper Heyford, and can recall the demonstrations at airshows of how our V-bomber force could be airborne within three minutes of a warning of a nuclear attack from the USSR. I lived in a street next to where Helen and Peter Kroger were arrested for spying for the Soviet Union; I read the newspapers in disbelief at the secret radio equipment hidden in their very innocent-looking bungalow and how microdots were made there to send copies of secret documents to the USSR. The sense that a nuclear war was possible pervaded everyone's life at this time, like a black cloud looming on the horizon - this sense became very real at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in the Autumn of 1962. In my mind, I had no doubt that Kennedy would be prepared to press the nuclear button. The Space Race heightened tensions throughout the 1960s, and military muscles were continually flexed on both sides. If the USSR could put a Sputnik in space it could put a nuclear bomb anywhere in the world, and while I marvelled at the scientific achievement, the threat seemed very real.

It was against this background memory that I looked forward with interest and anticipation to the new National Cold War Exhibition. This exhibition, the first of its kind in the world, traces the history of the Cold War from the Berlin blockade to the fall of the Berlin Wall, covering a period of almost fifty years.

The exhibition project, which has cost a total of £12.4m to put together, is contained in a building that itself symbolises the tensions that existed between the western democracies and the communist countries behind the 'Iron Curtain'. The building, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects, covers 8,000 square metres and cost £9.45m. Its design represents two shards of glass separated by an 'Iron Curtain', with windows in one half to show the light side while the other half has no windows to represent the dark side of the world of the Communist bloc countries.

Make no mistake - this is not an aviation museum. It is a Cold War Exhibition that has seventeen aircraft representative of this period. This is the first time that all three of Britain's V-Bombers have been displayed together under one roof, but other aircraft such as the Hunter, Sabre, Lightning and Canberra show the aircraft types that we relied upon for our defence against a possible nuclear strike. A Dakota, Hastings and York represent the aircraft that supplied tons of supplies to the beleaguered city of Berlin following the blockade by the USSR in 1948. A F-111F shows a more recent nuclear delivery vehicle. Apart from the aircraft there are displays of nuclear weapons from Polaris and Thor through to the WE177, as well as a collection of anti-aircraft weapons, both ground and air-launched. The Soviet side is represented by Mig-15 and Mig-21 aircraft, together with a display of radar reflecting models that were used to evaluate the radar signature of possible Soviet aircraft headed towards the West.

This is a superb exhibition, dealing with not only the military history of the period but the social aspects of living on either side of the 'Iron Curtain'. The building contains four so-called 'Hot Spots' that are, in effect, small cinemas dedicated to the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Airlift and 'Mutually Assured Destruction'. This exhibition is, in my book, a 'must see', but the aviation photographers will find it challenging to obtain clear photos of any of the aircraft, especially as some are suspended from the roof in flying attitude. No doubt that there will be a few moans on that score, but this exhibition is designed to inform and educate present and future generations about this important period in modern history and to give a reflection of what life was really like.

The National Cold War Exhibition represents the biggest single expansion to the RAF Museum since 1972. It will be opened shortly by HRH The Princess Royal and it opens to the public on Thursday 8 February 2007. Admission is free!


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