Portillo's Hidden History of Britain

Countdown to WW3

Series 2 - Episode 3 Countdown to WW3



Michael Portillo tiptoes into Most Haunted territory as he explores a Cold War bunker in Cambridge in the pitch dark aided only by a tiny torch. But he’s not looking for ghosts; the only spectre here is the real fear of nuclear annihilation that hovered over Britain during the Cold War.

It’s a fascinating slice of recent history, packed with testimony from proud military men, including two Soviet submarine commanders, who were ready to launch nuclear missiles at a moment’s notice.

One old gentleman is reduced to tears when he recalls telling his wife, after he received his orders, to pack the kids into the car and head for Skye, because he knew the end could be approaching fast.

Portillo, a former defence secretary, is appalled at Britain’s lack of readiness for nuclear attack and the haphazard plans for what happened after, which included civil servants handing out biscuits.


Michael Portillo visits a top-secret Cold War stronghold, just a mile from the Cambridge campus where he spent his university years. The bunker, formerly known as RSG-4, was built in 1953 to house 300 local government officials from Cambridgeshire in the event of a nuclear attack. The former politician is also given access to the decommissioned Soviet nuclear submarine U-475 Black Widow - currently moored at Strood on the River Medway - revealing how close the world came to a full-scale nuclear war.

Cast & Crew

Presenter Michael Portillo
Executive Producer Jazz Gowans
Series Director Ruairi Fallon
Series Producer Ruairi Fallon
Documentary History