In the long-winter that froze the early months of 1963-one of the coldest of the 20th century -- a few people were fanning flames of rebellion. They were peace activists -- and anarchists and socialists -- who wanted to challenge the power of the military state but to go beyond yet another mass march or yet another sit-down. They had heard through various contacts about a secret government bunker that was supposed to lie somewhere off the A4 near Reading. They set off in search of it in February 1963.
They drove for hours over ice-covered roads, and tramped over snow-covered fields. At the east end of a village called Warren Row, they found a fenced-off hill with a padlocked wooden gate, and an unmarked hut. They climbed over the gate to find a brick boiler house and a wide concrete ramp leading into the hillside. Radio aerials stood a little way off, their cables leading into the hill. One of the explorers tried the doors of the boiler house and found them unlocked. The four of them went in.
Inside, they tried another door on what looked like a cupboard. This was also unlocked, and swung open to reveal a steep staircase leading into an underground office complex. They ran down the stairs, their feet clattering in the silence, and snatched what papers they could from the desks. Then they rushed out and drove away, hardly able to believe their luck.
They had walked straight into a secret government headquarters, called the Regional Seat of Government No 6. It was to be one of the biggest stories of the Sixties and, along with the Profumo affair and other events, would change people's perceptions of how their rulers might behave and how far they could be trusted. At the time, the British public, incredible as it now seems, was being told that a nuclear war; though it meant heavy casualties, would not necessarily be catastrophic. People were kept entirely in the dark about their own government's faith in the possibility of surviving such a war, and about its plans for the wellbeing not of the ordinary people but of a political elite.
The trespassers called themselves the Spies for Peace -- a sort of joke, one of them said later, after such groups as Doctors for Peace and Musicians for Peace. They were young, and they knew they risked long prison sentences. Even 40 years after the event, fearing that they could still be open to prosecution for criminal conspiracy, they wish to remain anonymous. But I believe that, in a new age of protest, we can still learn from them. I have spoken to some of them; one was my late father, Nicolas Walter.
On a second visit, in the small hours of a cold Sunday morning, four Spies for Peace (not exactly the same group) found the boiler house door locked and picked it. This time, they spent several hours there. One took photographs. One copied documents. One traced maps. One went through every drawer and every cabinet. Then they left with a suitcase full of copied papers and a camera full of photographs.
The group typed and duplicated 3,000 leaflets explaining what they had found. Secrecy was paramount. "I was terribly panicky," one ex-spy told me. He paused. "But that was also because I was smoking so much cannabis."
They stuffed envelopes in the night, posted them from all over London, burnt all their own documents, posted the original photographs anonymously to sympathisers, and threw the typewriter they had used into a river. "We wore gloves the whole time," another ex-spy said. "Luckily, it was still so cold, no one wondered about me going into the post office and picking up all these stamps, wearing my gloves."
The effect was explosive. The leaflets were posted to newspapers and to the houses of celebrities, MPs and protesters. Although the government had slapped a D-notice (an advance censorship warning) on any disclosure of the Regional Seats of Government …