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The British Government and the American Polaris Base in the Clyde

ISSN: 1469-1957
Journal Issue: September 2001
National Maritime Museum
Canopus in the Holy Loch
The US Depot Ship Canopus in the Holy Loch with submarines, 1972


Forty years ago, on 3 March 1961, the American depot ship Proteus arrived in the Holy Loch on the Clyde, to meet one of the most active and sustained campaigns of protest in modern British history. The Conservative government of the day presented a united front in favour of the base, and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, showed his famous 'unflappability' in the face of demonstrations. But, as documents in the Public Record Office show, the government was far less confident and united than it appeared. For a time, the issue of the Clyde base threatened to create divisions within the British defence establishment, and to drive a wedge between the British and their American allies.

The years from 1958 to 1963 were a time of extraordinary international tension, as the world became aware of the vastly increased threat from the combination of hydrogen bomb and ballistic missile, and tension between east and west seemed to rise and fall with the seasons. Almost every year there was a major international crisis which seemed to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. In May 1960 the Soviets shot down an American spy plane and stormed out of a summit meeting in Paris, in August 1961 they built the Berlin Wall and in October 1962 the world came closer than ever to nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Against this, protests against nuclear weapons were organized in many countries, and the movement was particularly strong in Britain.

The Need for a Scottish Base

The missile-carrying nuclear submarine, known as the SSBN in the jargon of the United States Navy and later the Royal Navy, is still perhaps the most devastating weapons system yet devised by man. It can hide underwater for months at time and can launch several missiles (usually 16) which are almost unstoppable and each of which contains more destructive power than all the bombs dropped in the Second World War. The American Polaris missile made its first flight tests in 1958.

Though the range of the submarines is practically unlimited, crews need to come ashore some time. On completing a 60-day patrol within range of Soviet territory, the crew of a submarine could be sent home immediately and another crew could take over, getting maximum use from the expensive submarines and at the same time giving the seamen the largest amount of leave and home comforts. Highly-skilled missile technicians were offered up to five time as much money in industry and would leave the navy if they could not spend time with their families. The range of the Polaris missile itself was only 1500 miles in its early version. If the submarines had to return to the United States after each patrol in the operational area, then 10-14 days would be lost from each operational cycle, which would be taken out of the men's time at home. To get the best use from missiles targeted on the Soviet Union, the Americans needed a base in European waters.

During talks at Camp David in March 1959, President Eisenhower suggested to the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, that a site in Scottish waters would be needed. Macmillan was cautious and noted in his diary, 'A picture could well be drawn of some frightful accident which might devastate the whole of Scotland.'1 A site on the Clyde was mentioned casually, and Macmillan did not dissent at the time. In return, the British would be allowed to buy the American Skybolt air-launched missile to extend the life of the RAF's V-bomber force, which had lost much of its credibility as a deterrent in the face of Soviet missile defences.

In November the Chief of Naval Operations of the US Navy, Admiral Arleigh Burke, wrote to the British naval representative in Washington. 'It looks to us here as if basing a tender in the Gare Loch and the Clyde would be a most satisfactory way to the British and us, since it is a rather remote area and yet still fairly close to Prestwick. The tender would probably arrive about a year from now.'2 Prestwick Airport was important to the Americans because it was the only transatlantic airport in Scotland. Some of it was leased to the US Air Force as part of the lines of communication with Germany. In the days before automatic landing systems, its reputation for a fog-free environment made it particularly desirable.

British Naval Reaction

The First Sea Lord and professional head of the navy was Sir Charles Lambe. He was anxious to maintain good relations with the Americans and regarded it as 'of prime importance from the point of view of both our political and Service relations with the U.S. that we should not fail to meet their request for a base in U. K. waters.'3

Lord Mountbatten (then the Chief of Defence Staff) had a rather complex attitude to nuclear missiles. As early as February 1959, when the first Polaris submarine was four months away from its launch, he was contacted by Arleigh Burke who wrote, 'The US Navy would strongly support the precept that we supply you with Polaris missiles (less warheads) at production cost. I am sure you understand, however, that such a decision can not be made by our Navy alone.'4 Mountbatten believed that an independent British force was 'neither credible as a deterrent, nor necessary as part of the Western deterrent.' But already he was campaigning behind the scenes for the Royal Navy to acquire Polaris as part of an integrated western deterrent force.5

By March the following year Lambe was also in discussion with Burke about the possibility of getting Polaris around 1970, to replace the V-bombers. Lambe considered starting training Royal Navy personnel in Polaris by the summer of that year, and setting up a special body to develop the project.6 However in June the Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Lang, was rebuked by Playfair, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, when he took the idea too far. 'It is nonsense to suggest sending crews for training before we have decided whether or not we go in for Polaris.'7 By this time the Macmillan Government had staked a good deal of its political credibility on Skybolt. Polaris had many advantages, but it would involve starting from scratch with new submarines and a new base, whereas Skybolt only involved the purchase of the missiles. In 1960 the British Cabinet was told 'There is little prospect on financial grounds of our being able to include the purchase of Polaris submarines in the defence budget for a number of years.'8

The Search for a Site

Meanwhile the concept of the Scottish Polaris base was being developed, under the code name of Lamachus. It would be centred on a depot ship, and shore facilities would be kept to an absolute minimum. Initially it would serve the first two Polaris submarines, the George Washington and Patrick Henry, but eventually the USN would have a force of 41 and ten of these would operate from Scotland.

The British government looked for a site which was acceptable to both sides. Though Eisenhower had specified a Scottish base, the Welsh port of Milford Haven and the English one of Falmouth were considered, but rejected. Invergordon in the north-east of Scotland was also turned down. Loch Ewe in the north-west was regarded as far too remote from any form of transport, and would involve a 'tortuous and difficult round journey'. If the American sailors were to be taken to the Clyde by sea, that would add two days to the turnaround. Perhaps if the helicopter had been a little more developed than it was in 1960, the option would have seemed more desirable. In any case, Loch Ewe could easily be blockaded by Soviet submarines operating in the international waters of the Minches and it was not secure from surprise submarine attack.9 Harold Macmillan favoured a base at in Loch Linnhe and tried to persuade Eisenhower. 'From a security point of view, a robust population of three or four thousand Highlanders at Fort William is much more to my taste than the rather mixed population in the cosmopolitan city of Glasgow.'10 Eisenhower rejected this on the grounds that there was 'need for greater shore facilities for logistical support, more immediate access to open seas and international waters, and the need for comparative ease and safety of navigation.'11

Meanwhile a report was commissioned on four sites in the Firth of Clyde, largely from the point of view of nuclear safety. Of the individual sites, the channel between Largs and Cumbrae had 'the advantage of being closest to the open spaces in the lower reaches of the Clyde.' Though the report did not consider this at the time, it had the great advantage, to the Americans, of being only 30 miles by road from Prestwick Airport. But it was within half a mile of a town with a population of 7800, according to the 1951 census. Another site slightly further away from Largs did offer some advantages, but the whole area had fatal snags which were not considered by the report. As the crow flies it is slightly closer to Glasgow than either Rothesay or the Holy Loch, and this would have been considered important in the event of either an accident or a nuclear attack. Of more immediate relevance, it was the only site on the east bank of the Firth, and therefore easily accessible by road and rail. In view of the threat of mass civil disobedience, it was not considered any further.

Rothesay Bay, recently vacated by the British Third Submarine Flotilla which had moved to Faslane on the Gareloch, was even worse from the safety point of view. The mooring buoys for a depot ship still existed, only 600 yards from the shore where 7200 people lived. It might be possible to move the buoys further out, but only at the risk of losing the shelter offered by Rothesay Bay.

The Holy Loch was

sheltered except from occasional north-west gales once or twice per year, and offers no navigational difficulties. The loch is fairly open to the south but the steep hills rise up directly from the north shore. The topography does not appear to favour undue concentrations at Dunoon of activities released to air in the loch, although in periods of calm such concentrations may persist immediately around the loch.12

Rosneath, in the Gareloch, was already familiar to Eisenhower and Mountbatten, for they had once disputed its possession. It had been set up in 1940 as a base for American destroyers should the United States enter the Second World War. As it turned out most of the American ships were needed in the Pacific, so the base was used by the British for training in amphibious operations under the command of Mountbatten. When the Americans wanted it back in July 1942, during preparations for the invasion of North Africa, Mountbatten wrote to Eisenhower, then the allied commander-in-chief, that 'it was not unlike telling a ship's captain that his bridge and engine room were being requisitioned, but he was to get on with the job all the same.' A compromise was reached which allowed some British use of the base.13 In 1959 it was reported,

The site is well sheltered and there is no navigational difficulty south of Rhu Point. There is no regular traffic into the Gareloch but the narrow entrance to the Gareloch at Rhu Point, requiring large ships to make a sweeping approach, would make it difficult to locate buoys elsewhere in Rosneath Bay to increase margins of safety. 14

It was concluded that Rothesay was the least suitable site, followed by a site close to the town of Largs. Rosneath was unsuitable, mainly because it was nearest to a major centre of population at Greenock. The Holy Loch had the disadvantage of being close to a thin line of population round the edges of the Loch, but if these could be evacuated in the event of an emergency, then the problem would be solved. The report offered qualified support to the Holy Loch as a site for a base.

The other possible site, Faslane in the Gareloch, was not specifically mentioned, though the report commented vis a vis Rosneath, 'Safety could be increased by moving up Gareloch, but this would lead to an increase in existing domestic problems, and is not considered further here.'15 Perhaps this was because it was already in use as the main British submarine base on the Clyde, though as yet it had no nuclear capabilities; perhaps, like Largs, it was too easy for demonstrators to get to, without any need for ferries.

Macmillan's Reaction

There are signs that Harold Macmillan, despite his public reputation for 'unflappability', was becoming increasingly concerned about public opinion in general, and the Clyde base in particular. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had been founded in 1958 to campaign peacefully against nuclear weapons and had spectacular success in its early stages. In April 1958, 25% of people told opinion pollsters that they would approve 'if Britain gave up her H-bombs even if other countries did not do so.' Two years later, 33% thought Britain should give up nuclear weapons entirely.16 Meanwhile more militant wings, led by the Direct Action Campaign and the Committee of 100, organized civil disobedience. Mountbatten and Macmillan could see much to fear from this. The former had been Viceroy of India when Mahatma Ghandi's famous campaign led to independence. Macmillan had just completed a tour of Africa which had alerted him to the possibilities of a similar campaign in Britain's remaining colonies there. At this stage there was no real answer, either political or legal, to such campaigns. Too much leniency would allow the country to be disrupted, too much repression would play into the activists' hands.

The first crisis came in the middle of June 1960, with a flurry of meetings and telephone calls between government departments. In the morning of the 14th Harold Watkinson, Minister of Defence, briefed the First Lord and First Sea Lord on his recent visit to the US. Both he and the Prime Minister, it seemed, had been convinced about the value of Polaris and several options were talked about. But Macmillan, it was reported, was 'Not happy to sanction Holy Loch as a base.'17 Lambe did not accept this, and at 9.30 next morning he wrote to Playfair to try to influence Watkinson in favour of the Holy Loch. But at 10.00 the Prime Minister was still adamant. In the afternoon the First Sea Lord was told 'The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will not wear at any cost the proposal of a Polaris base in the Clyde, so close to Glasgow and therefore the Gareloch and Holy Loch are OUT.'18 The disadvantages of Loch Ewe were considered to be 'very great' but Loch Linnhe was still recommended. At 3.15 in the afternoon Lambe appeared to accept this, and telephoned the American naval attaché, giving him permission to tell Burke in Washington. But later in the afternoon Playfair had a meeting with the Prime Minister, who was apparently getting cold feet about a blank refusal to the Americans. Nothing was to be said until next week, after alternative bases had been considered. The naval attaché was contacted. He had already spoken to Burke, but the latter was now asked to keep the matter confidential and not tell Eisenhower. The Holy Loch base was already causing confusion at the heart of the British government and the western alliance.

By the 16th, the Minster of Defence was still unclear about what to do.

We have not yet settled where the base should be. There are several places in Scotland which meet the principal requirements of the Americans (of which the principal one is an inlet with smooth and deep water) but they also want to be within easy reach of an airport, preferably Prestwick. They only places they have considered so far are the Gare Loch and the Holy Loch, which meet these requirements exactly. But they are both in a much visited part of the world, near Glasgow, and the political disadvantages of placing them there are obvious. I do not think that we can agree to them...19

Admiral Sir Caspar John, First Sea Lord since the early retirement of Charles Lambe in May, told one of his subordinates, 'We are up against a last minute political objection to the Holy Loch site which centres on potential anti H-bomb demonstrations which would be likely to take place from a community such as Glasgow.' He wrote to Playfair,

My own view is that if we now deny the United States Navy the use of the Holy Loch there will be an almighty row, not only between the two navies but also, I should have thought, between the two governments. Personally I think it most probable that the Americans would decide not to base their submarines in this country at all, since the alternatives to the Holy Loch fall so far short of their requirements. This would wreck any prospect we may have of a joint Polaris venture.20

Certainly there were suggestions that the base might go to Bremen instead, because the Americans wanted to show that they would not abandon mainland Europe in the event of a war, and because they found the Germans easier to work with. But civil service opinion in Britain dismissed this as bluff.
In Washington, Arleigh Burke was at a loss. None of the alternatives were suitable, for he needed an area with good family accommodation. Eisenhower attempted to console the British and wrote to Macmillan. 'Please be assured there was no misunderstanding at Camp David on the question of location. I mentioned only Scottish ports; all of our technical problems concerning specific locations have been handled on other intergovernmental levels.'21 Loch Linnhe, however, would not do and he still wanted the Gareloch.

Macmillan wrote back,

It would surely be a mistake to put down what will become a major nuclear target so near to the third largest and most overcrowded city in this country. As soon as the announcement was made, Malinovsky [the Soviet defence minister] would threaten to aim his rockets at Glasgow and there would not only be the usual agitation of the defeatists and the pacifists but also genuine apprehension among ordinary folk.22

Macmillan's Retreat

But Macmillan was beginning to retreat. He had to admit that he had actually agreed to the Clyde at Camp David, and indeed Eisenhower had suggested the Gareloch, though the written record only mentioned a Scottish Base. At a meeting between the British Minister of Defence and his American counterpart on 6 July it was minuted that the Loch Linnhe proposal 'might have been misconstrued as an attempt to withdraw from the Camp David agreement ... The PM had now said that he was quite ready to reconsider the American's original proposal for a base at Gareloch, if they so wished.' By the 12th, the Holy Loch proposal was being taken seriously by both sides.23 By the 20th, it was considered acceptable and plans were made to make it 'saleable' to the Americans.24 From Washington the British mission reported on 27 July,

Many here think the Holy Loch has great disadvantages in the matter of shore accommodation and transport thereto... The US Navy is disturbed at the problem of transporting men from the Holy Loch to the shore for their accommodation and shore leave, particularly in winter, and the effect this may have on efficiency and morale. The Gareloch with its proximity to Helensborough [sic] and railroad and short sea passage ashore seems to them to have great advantages.25

An element of British control over the firing of missiles would have made the base more palatable to public opinion but the Royal Navy, always jealous of the control of its own weapons, did not back the government in this. When it was suggested to Admiral Lambe he wrote 'Monstrous!' in the margin of the report. Macmillan persevered but the most Eisenhower would concede was that missiles would not be launched from within British territorial waters (ie the three-mile limit) without consent; but that meant that they could still be launched in much of the Firth of Clyde.26

By 4 August there were signs of an agreement on the Holy Loch and Eisenhower congratulated Macmillan on his 'helpful message' of 30 July. 'I am delighted that you have been able to reconsider the matter of facilities in Scottish waters and your people feel that they can work out some suitable position in the Clyde area.'27

Political Reaction

The British Cabinet was informed of the latest situation in time for a meeting on 15 September. The Holy Loch had been accepted by the Americans after a 'discreet reconnaissance by a team of United States naval officers who expressed themselves as well satisfied with the site.'28 The base would have a full strength of nine submarines, with a maximum of three in port at once. There would be an element of UK control over operations, but not very much; besides the agreement about territorial waters, the US Government would take 'every possible step' to consult the British before firing missiles. The Americans offered little return for the base. 'The US authorities have not been prepared to offer us a simple option to buy Polaris submarines as a quid pro quo for facilities we were providing in the Holy Loch.'29 This was to be linked to a general NATO agreement about joint deterrent forces, which was unacceptable to the British.

Despite the unsatisfactory terms, the Cabinet agreed. Macmillan announced it formally on 1 November after the re-opening of Parliament, amid 'violent objections from certain members of the community.' His memoirs suggest that by now he had regained his composure.

I, at least, knew enough about these mysteries to realise that an atomic bomb is an uncommonly difficult thing to set off, since it needs a powerful explosion to detonate it. Moreover the safety devices built into the bomb are extremely sophisticated and effective. But many of the inhabitants of Glasgow and the West Coast of Scotland were led to believe that these horrible and destructive engines might explode with the ease of a Mills bomb or a fifth of November firework.30

On 8 November Macmillan tried to talk up the agreement with the Americans and told Parliament, 'I am perfectly satisfied that no decision to use these missiles will ever be taken without the fullest possible previous consultation.'31 Even this vague statement was too much for the Americans, who protested, and Macmillan was humiliated in the press.

Public support for unilateral disarmament was now down to 20% and the CND tide was ebbing. Macmillan's political position was vastly improved in the following month when the Labour opposition put down a motion criticising the government's defence policy and immediately split between disarmers and others. As Macmillan wrote, 'From all this confusion there followed at least one advantage - the decision to allow the American Polaris base in Scotland was now generally accepted' - among the political classes at Westminster, at least.32

Commander N F Whitestone, also of the Daily Telegraph, saw advantages in the fact that the Clyde was then a busy waterway.

Some critics have complained that the choice of such a busy focal area for shipping carries grave security risks, in that departures for patrol can be observed and individual submarines tracked. The reverse is true. A submarine can leave undetected at night, while the busy area is a help rather than a hindrance. What little noise the submarine may make in those conditions is soon merged with the incessant underwater pulsation and chatter of coastal shipping. There is no better 'get-away' than to get lost in the crowd. 33

To be successful, the submarines had to be able to evade Soviet shadows in peacetime, and the topography of the Clyde was helpful here. There were many different exits, along the north or south of Ireland, through the Minches or the Kyles of Lochalsh, for example. Each of these involved passing through territorial waters, from which an unfriendly vessel could be excluded in peacetime.

The Arrival of the Depot Ship

The depot ship USS Proteus had been built in California in 1941 and saw service in the closing stages of the Pacific War. During 1959-61 she was converted to be the first Polaris submarine tender, by cutting her apart and inserting a 44-ft section amidships, which included the area where the missiles would be serviced. The Proteus had a crew of 980 officers and men and a maximum of 500 families were expected to come with them. Unlike the crews of the submarines, they would be based permanently in Scotland.

The original plan was for the tender to arrive on 1 December 1960. Harold Macmillan wanted to 'play things reasonably long' and was not at all disappointed when it was delayed by a strike affecting the manufacture of spare missiles. This seemed likely to put it off until mid-December, so the Americans preferred to wait until after Christmas.34

At the end of 1960 there was conflict within the British government about how to handle her arrival. The Scottish Office wanted it to be done as quietly as possible, the Admiralty wanted a 'fanfare' to 'scoop the headlines.'35 The Admiralty view prevailed and the Royal Navy made plans to produce favourable publicity. The admiral at Rosyth wrote, 'Lamachus is a very big issue in Scotland, particularly in the Glasgow area, and we badly need some good counter-blast to the Unilateralists and Anti-Polaris elements, whose publicity at present is virtually unchallenged.'36 Though support for the CND position was definitely waning in the opinion polls, direct action campaigns were more effective than ever. The Royal Navy made very detailed plans for the arrival of the Proteus, the press coverage, and the control of the demonstrations both by land and sea. At the end of January the Americans proposed it should happen on Saturday 4 March, though the protesters believed it would be 18 February. The British authorities pointed out that a Saturday would allow the maximum numbers of demonstrators to gather, and persuaded the US Navy to advance it to Friday the 3rd.

Tension began to build up in the Holy Loch area in the days before the Proteus's arrival. The London Evening News of 2 March featured a local taxi driver looking over the loch and quoted him as saying 'I don't know whether to get rid of my taxi and buy an American car.' The local girls, it was said, waited in anticipation, the boys with apprehension. A lady who worked on Dunoon Pier spoke for many when she said 'I shall feel unsafe from the moment that ship comes into the loch.'37 There were fears that the boat-building industry at Sandbank on the loch would be driven out of business. There was a certain irony in the fact that it had produced the Sceptre, the unsuccessful challenger for the Americas Cup in 1958.

The Captain in Charge, Clyde (Capic) made very detailed plans for the arrival on the 3rd. At 7.10 in the morning, two naval Motor Fishing Vessels would leave Largs Pier carrying up to 100 press representatives carrying security passes. The Proteus would be off Cumbrae by 8 and the MFVs would make passes on her for the benefit of the photographers. At 9.20 the depot ship would be off Hunter's Quay at the entrance to the Loch and would pass ropes to naval tugs. At 10 she would begin to secure to A1 Buoy off Kilmun. Meanwhile dignitaries would gather, often collected by naval boats from around the Clyde. Naval officers would be in full uniform, with swords and medals. Provosts of many towns would be collected. The US Consul General and representatives from the Scottish Home Department would board the Proteus at 10.40 and a press conference would begin five minutes later, though it would be 11 o'clock before full telecommunication links were set up with the ship. The press would leave at 11.15 and Customs Officers would come on board at 2 in the afternoon. The social programme would begin in the evening, with a reception in Queen's Hall, Dunoon, for 150 officers and enlisted men of the Proteus. The following evening there would be a public dance in Queen's Hall, and 300 enlisted men were invited by the Town Council.38

The Navy's greatest concern demonstrations by canoeists, for there were many places round the Loch where small boats could be launched. The great leisure explosion was under way, and the development of plywood and fibreglass meant that many people could afford to buy or build canoes and sailing dinghies, but the demonstrators had not nearly enough to form a barrier across the Loch as they had planned. Only three canoes and one dinghy appeared. The dinghy capsized and its crew was rescued and arrested. One of the canoes became waterlogged and the occupant was taken ashore. Three people in the two other canoes maintained complete passive resistance and were brought ashore on stretchers. The passage of the ship was not impeded.

Later Demonstrations

Five days later the first Polaris submarine, USS Patrick Henry, arrived in the Loch. One canoeist attempted to interfere with the berthing and was arrested. Another stayed well clear displaying anti-nuclear slogans, but was not apprehended.39

On 16 April, Proteus sailed to the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland for training. On the way out one canoeist succeeded on hanging on to her bows but had to let go when she reached four knots. On her return the following day, two demonstrators climbed up her side and one managed to stay in position for three hours, while a woman sat on one of the buoys but caused no hindrance. On 22 April the supply ship Betelgeuse arrived.

At Whitsun, 21 May 1961, the biggest demonstration of all was expected. The Direct Action Committee planned what it called a 'sea action'. For the navy the term carried overtones of a great battle, and they preferred to call it 'action by sea-borne demonstrators.'40 According to the campaigners' plans, which fell into the hands of the authorities, 'demonstrators will leave from both sides of the Loch in a flotilla of small boats and attempt to board the Polaris vessels. If they succeed, they will attempt non-violently to obstruct the working of the ships. They will remain in occupation as long as possible.'41 All volunteers for the sea action had to be able to swim. The organizers would provide life-jackets, but 'would be most grateful if participants could either provide their own or purchase one from us. The cost price of the life-jackets is 39/- [£1.95p] with a maximum buoyancy of 12 stone and 41/6 [£2.7½p] with a maximum buoyancy of 16 stone.'42 The action would begin at 3.30 in the afternoon of the 21st, but other attempts would be made throughout the weekend and over a longer period if necessary.

In September the Committee of 100, which had taken over the leadership of the national campaign of civil disobedience, planned its greatest protest yet, with simultaneous demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and on the Holy Loch. The Minister of Defence was now in favour of a much tougher line.

Nothing can do more harm to the relationships between the Americans and ourselves, for they just do not understand this sort of action, which no doubt will be widely publicised in the American press. ... The Committee of 100 has, I think, lost a great deal of public sympathy. We could now get away with more restrictive measures, both in Scotland and elsewhere.43

The government reacted by arresting more than a third of the committee's members and banning the Trafalgar Square demonstration. The organizers decided to defy the government's authority.

During the Holy Loch demonstrations of the weekend of 16-17 September, both sides were hit by bad weather. A force 8 gale blew up during Saturday and 400 demonstrators were stranded on a ferry which was unable to land at Dunoon; all services were cancelled during Saturday evening. Some of the demonstrators contented themselves by marching to the navy buildings at Greenock, where the US Navy stored some equipment, but the police were ready and headed them off. Meanwhile, a party of policemen were transferring from a tug to a fishing boat in the middle of the loch when they noticed that two of their number were missing. It transpired that they had been violently seasick in the toilets of the tug and had been accidentally locked in. They eventually arrived at the loch 'very much worse the wear than the others.' [sic]44

The first demonstrations took place on Saturday afternoon, when parties attempted to block the entrance to the US Navy's pier at Ardnadam on the south bank of the Loch. The superior communication facilities offered by both the US and the Royal Navy were a great help to the police, who were not so familiar with radio as they later became. There was concern about demonstrators trying to reach the ship and at 4.20 a swimmer was taken out of the water. He turned out to be an American sailor who had missed the boat and decided to swim to the ship. When Americans turned up at the gate there were cries of 'Ban the bomb', 'Go home Yanks', 'Yankee filth' and 'Who dropped the first bomb?' The police cleared all demonstrators by 8.25 in the evening and arrested 289 people, most of whom were fined £10 with the option of 60 days imprisonment.

The police reports, compiled by Sergeant McColville of the Admiralty Constabulary at Rosyth, show signs of disorientation in the changing social climate of the 1960s. 'Young people and females' tended to be treated more lightly by the courts, but,

there was some difficulty in ascertaining the sex of some of the demonstrators. The female element sported masculine clothes and hair cuts whereas a large number of the apparent male side had coiffures with tight seated trousers. Since all had been shouting their voices had husky tones. No doubt the civil police sexed them by names.45

The class system of the age was being challenged, and police were disconcerted to arrest people of 'good' education and accent. When an elderly lady with a black eye was spotted among the demonstrators, McColville commented that it had obviously been sustained some time before. 'She was a very well spoken lady and it can only be assumed that the shiner was accidentally obtained.'46 Though most of the leaders of the demonstration seem to have come up from London, it was noted that the most insulting jeering was produced by men with Glasgow accents.

Though the Holy Loch demonstration was a disappointment to its organizers in terms of numbers, 12,000 people attended the illegal demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It was the high-water mark of the anti-nuclear movement in the sixties. Moderates began to take fear about unconstitutional action, and some of the heat was taken out of the issue by the first Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

The Long-term Effects

The base had a profound effect on the local economy, making Dunoon the town with the highest proportion of taxi drivers in Europe. It closed in 1992, after the end of the Cold War created a 'peace dividend' which allowed the closure of many military bases throughout the world. Moreover the new Trident missiles had a range of over 4000 miles, which made an eastern Atlantic base much less necessary.

Its effect on British and Scottish politics was more complex. It was a point in the British government's favour in 1962 when the Skybolt missile was cancelled and the British were allowed to buy Polaris for themselves and set up their own base a few miles away at Faslane. The nuclear debate continued in various forms, but in general it split the Labour Party and united the Conservatives. The Labour Government of 1964-70 maintained the status quo, and in the elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992 the party campaigned against nuclear bases, and lost. The New Labour government of 1997 abandoned any attempt at nuclear disarmament.

In Scotland, the nuclear bases created the impression that the London government did not care about Scottish opinion. The Conservative vote in Scotland has declined continually since then, while the rise of Scottish nationalism in the 1960s was undoubtedly assisted by the Holy Loch affair. Macmillan won the short-term battle against the disarmers, but perhaps he was right in his fears about Scottish opinion.

Forty years on, the issue repeats itself in a different form. Can a British government say no to a potentially divisive and unpopular American base, this time at Fylingdales in Yorkshire? At the time of writing it seems that it cannot.

Text © Brian Lavery, 2001


  1. Alistair Horne, Macmillan, Volume II, 1958-1986, London, 1989, p 276

    [back to reference 1 in text]
  2. Public Record Office (PRO) ADM 205/222

    [back to reference 2 in text]
  3. Ibid

    [back to reference 3 in text]
  4. PRO ADM 205/163 [back to reference 4 in text]
  5. Phillip Zeigler, Mountbatten, London, 1985, pp 560-1 [back to reference 5 in text]
  6. PRO ADM 205/163 [back to reference 6 in text]
  7. PRO ADM 205/222

    [back to reference 7 in text]
  8. PRO CAB 129/102 [back to reference 8 in text]
  9. PRO ADM 1/27203 [back to reference 9 in text]
  10. PRO ADM 205/222

    [back to reference 10 in text]
  11. Ibid [back to reference 11 in text]
  12. Ibid [back to reference 12 in text]
  13. Amphibious Warfare Headquarters, History of Combined Operations, 1940-45, London, 1956, p 96

    [back to reference 13 in text]
  14. PRO ADM 205/222 [back to reference 14 in text]
  15. Ibid [back to reference 15 in text]
  16. Christopher Driver, The Disarmers, London, 1964 [back to reference 16 in text]
  17. PRO ADM 205/222 [back to reference 17 in text]
  18. Ibid [back to reference 18 in text]
  19. PRO ADM 1/27203 [back to reference 19 in text]
  20. PRO ADM 205/222 [back to reference 20 in text]
  21. Ibid [back to reference 21 in text]
  22. Ibid [back to reference 22 in text]
  23. PRO PREM 11/2941

    [back to reference 23 in text]
  24. PRO ADM 1/27203

    [back to reference 24 in text]
  25. PRO ADM 205/222 [back to reference 25 in text]
  26. Ibid [back to reference 26 in text]
  27. PRO PREM 11/2941 [back to reference 27 in text]
  28. PRO CAB 129/102 [back to reference 28 in text]
  29. Ibid

    [back to reference 29 in text]
  30. Harold Macmillan, Pointing the Way, London, 1972, p 256 [back to reference 30 in text]
  31. Richard Lamb, The Macmillan Years: The Emerging Truth, London, 1995, p 295 [back to reference 31 in text]
  32. Ibid [back to reference 32 in text]
  33. Brasseys Annual, the Armed Forces Yearbook, London, 1966, p 131 [back to reference 33 in text]
  34. PRO ADM 205/222 [back to reference 34 in text]
  35. PRO DEFE 7/2176

    [back to reference 35 in text]
  36. PRO ADM 1/27201

    [back to reference 36 in text]
  37. London Evening News, 2 March 1961 [back to reference 37 in text]
  38. PRO ADM 1/27201 [back to reference 38 in text]
  39. PRO ADM 1/27201 [back to reference 39 in text]
  40. Ibid [back to reference 40 in text]
  41. Ibid [back to reference 41 in text]
  42. Ibid [back to reference 42 in text]
  43. PRO PREM 11/3969 [back to reference 43 in text]
  44. Ibid [back to reference 44 in text]
  45. PRO ADM 1/27202 [back to reference 45 in text]
  46. Ibid [back to reference 46 in text]
ISSN: 1469-1957

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