Europe in the 1950s was a tense place. It had endured six years of warfare during World War II, only to find itself embroiled in the potentially disastrous Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. The threat of a Soviet invasion was a very real one; at any moment, Soviet tanks and troops could come pouring over the border into West Europe.
Great Britain remembered the horrors of World War II, when she stood alone against the Nazi onslaught. Only the Nazis did not have the advanced rocketry or bombers possessed by the Soviets in the 1950s. Critically, the Nazis also lacked nuclear weapons. If the Soviets advanced, Britain would find itself in an even worse position than during World War II.
This was not an acceptable scenario. In order to counter the Soviet threat, or possibly even stop an invasion in its tracks, the British would have to get creative. What they came up with was dubbed Project Blue Peacock, the plan to build nuclear landmines.
Area denial at its finest
The concept of a nuclear land mine was developed early in the British nuclear program. the concept was simple–deny the Soviets the use of land and buildings by blowing them to smithereens with nuclear bombs. the inevitable result of a nuclear blast–radiation–would further render the land unusable to Soviet aggressors. It was basically a scorched earth policy with a nuclear twist. Potential targets for nuclear mining would be hydroelectric dams, oil refineries, industrial complexes, railway junctions, or canals. Basically, anything an occupier could use against their enemies.
The hypothetical mines would be developed from nuclear weapons currently available at the time. Britain conducted its first nuclear test in 1952. Dubbed Operation Hurricane, the device was a plutonium powered implosion bomb, similar to the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. This system was used to build the Blue Danube, a free-fall bomb being used by the RAF at the time. A slightly modified version of the system was to be used in Blue Peacock.
Blue Peacock would have looked more like a large boiler or propane tank than a devastating explosive device. The entire contraptions would have weighed in at 16,000lbs. It would have consisted of the warhead itself, two firing units, and the casing. the weapon could be detonated in one of three ways: by wire from a command post up to 3 miles away, by an eight day clockwork timer, or by an array of anti-tampering devices. These included a pressurized hull and a tilt switch. If the casting lost pressure or filled with water, the weapon would detonate in 10 seconds. each weapon was designed to have a 10 kiloton yield, about half that of the Fat Man. If detonated on the surface, the bomb would have left a 375 foot diameter crater. detonated 35 feet underground, it would have produced a 640 foot crater.
In July 1957, the Army Council decided to have 10 Blue Peacock mines built and moved to positions with the British Army and moved into positions with the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. If an invasion seemed imminent, the nuclear mines would be deployed on the surface, submerged in a river, or buried under ground in key areas where the Soviets were accepted to pass through.
Criticism and the end of Blue Peacock
Criticisms of the bombs mounted. Blue Peacock was a cumbersome weapon to deploy. It was also potentially unstable. Why use a mine when a similar weapon could easily be dropped from a plane?
There was also potential political fall out of positioning a nuclear device on allied territory. The West Germans would not have been pleased if, on top of everything else, their allies nuked key parts of their infrastructure during an invasion. Radiation doesn’t take sides, and fallout doesn’t respect national borders. It would certainly deny the land to the Soviets, but it would also deny the land to everyone else.
Technical flaws also plagued the Blue Peacock as well. The bomb was very temperature sensitive. The components needed to be kept warm to operate properly. There was not guarantee that the weapon could survive a mid-European winter. One solution to this problem involved swathing the inside of the device with fiberglass pillows. A more unusual option involved converting the interior of the weapon into a chicken coop. the birds’ body heat would be enough to keep the components warm. They’d be provided with enough seed to keep them happy and healthy. More importantly, keeping them content would keep them from pecking at the electrical components.
In February 1958, the MoD Weapons Policy Committee decided to pull the plug on Blue Peacock. Two of the prototypes, sans nuclear fuel, were retained. One was probably destroyed during further testing. The other is currently on display at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Historical Collection among other artifacts of the British Nuclear Program.
“Cold War Bomb Warmed by Chickens.” BBC.co.uk. April 1, 2004. BBC News. May 16, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3588465.stm
Edwards, Rob. “British Army Planned Nuclear Landmines.” Newscientist.com. July 16, 2003. New Scientist. May 16, 2014. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3943-british-army-planned-nuclear-landmines.html#.VCrJNhY0_4U
Hawking, David. “Blue Peacock: The British Army’s Forgotten Weapon.” Discovery: The science and Technology Journal of AWE. The Atomic Weapon’s Establishment. Accessed May 16, 2014.
Wilson, Jamie. “Nuclear mines ‘to stop Soviets.'” TheGuardian.com. July 16, 2003. The Guardian. May 16, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/jul/17/world.jamiewilson