Never in human history have we seen the sheer power and destructive might that nuclear weapons have showcased in the 20th century. When we figured out how to split the atom, we started a chain of events that has led to the global situation today where the push of a button could end the world.
Ever since the U.S. first used atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, governments around the world have sought to get their hands on some in order to secure a seat at the big kid’s table, geopolitically speaking. Nuclear weapons have become almost an obsession. It seems that we can’t watch or read the news without hearing about X country’s nuclear program advancing or Y country’s attempt to stop them.
This obsession has led governments to toy with different and sometimes weird ways of delivering this mass destruction: planes, submarines, silos, ICBMs, and even a Jeep-mounted rifle. But don’t blink yet, it’s about to get weirder. Enter: chickens.
Intrigued? Then stick around because today we are taking a look at The Blue Peacock, the chicken-heated nuclear landmine.
First, let’s set the stage. It was the 1950s. World War II had just ended. The Nazis were vanquished, and the world had seen the might of the nuclear bomb. The West was now fearing on the “Red Menace.” Out with the old foes, in with the new.
Once a former ally, the Soviet Union was now the U.S., U.K.’s, and the other allied countries chief adversary. When World War II ended, Europe was divided between the West and East. As Churchill famously said, “… an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The Western liberal democracies and the communist bloc were separated, as divided as their ideologies.
The Soviet Union had grown to be a formidable nation, sustaining a fantastic proportion of the millions of casualties resulting from WWII, and still coming out the other side vastly outnumbering the Allies. It was this that made leaders of the West nervous. They had seen how the Soviets had rolled across Germany and into Berlin before them and had nightmares of them continuing across the rest of Europe.
Whether credible or not, these fears were enough for politicians, intelligence officials, and strategists in the West to plan against it. Most notably was Churchill’s “Operation Unthinkable.” Always the one for a dramatic flair, Churchill had his top military staff draw up a surprise attack plan against the Soviet forces. The drama comes in when we consider the time. It wasn’t during the so-called height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, but so soon after VE day that VJ day was not yet a thing. That’s right, Churchill wanted to launch an offensive against the Soviets before Japan had been defeated.
Thankfully, such a plan was never enacted and World War III was not started. But the fear of a Soviet invasion of Europe still lurked prominently in the West’s collective mind. And nuclear weapons were a major theme. Schoolchildren practiced nuclear drills, governments spent millions developing more advanced weapons, and chickens remained unaware of their role in this arms race.
Project Blue Peacock
It was in this setting that scientists began work on nuclearizing, well, everything. The thinking was similar to the reasoning Truman used when he dropped nuclear bombs on Japan: they could use the destructive force of the bomb to wipe out significantly more enemy infrastructure and troops while sustaining almost no casualties themselves.
British strategists, still fearing that ever-present Soviet invasion, started contemplating the efficacy of nuclear landmines. They figured, since Soviet forces so outnumbered them, an invasion would start with a significant Soviet push and Allied retreat. They had the case study of the Korean War: millions of Chinese troops pushing American forces back past Seoul before they were stopped. So, if they had to give up ground, why not leave behind a nuclear surprise?
In 1954, nuclear physicists began work on Project Brown Bunny, then Blue Bunny, then Blue Peacock: designing a tactical nuclear landmine. The plan was to bury these innocent-looking barrels in the North German Plain in the event of an invasion from the East. Upon detonation, these mines would leave a crater roughly 375 feet, or 114 meters wide, and render the blast site and surrounding areas uninhabitable to enemy troops courtesy of nuclear radiation.
Of course, such destruction would be detrimental to the Soviet forces. But, remember, they are being buried in German soil. Can’t imagine the Germans would be too happy. That’s probably why the British kept these plans a secret. After the British Army ordered ten units in 1957, they planned to ship them to the front, with the convenient cover that they were atomic power units for troops in the field.
But there were still some minor hiccups in the mine’s design. Since they would be planted underground and left unattended for some time before the Soviets advanced over them and possibly discovered them, the mines would have to be tamper resistant. The minds behind the mines did just that, building in fail safes in the case of pressure changes in the barrel, tampering with wires, tilting of the device, or flooding with water. Basically, any tampering with the mine would trigger an explosion.
Such technology was delicate back in the 1950s, since it had to be sensitive to different stimuli. This posed a problem. The area of Europe troops would plant these mines in experiences cold winters – cold enough to damage the wiring and sensors, rendering the mines useless. These intelligent minds now faced the question of how to keep the mines warm until detonation.
That’s right, these nuclear physicists wracked their brains and ran complex calculations (that’s what nuclear physicists do, right?) and decided that poultry was no paltry idea. They justified their decision by saying that the body heat of chickens would be sufficient to ensure a workable temperature for the sensitive electronics. According to nuclear physicists, chickens were a decisive part of the operability of a nuclear landmine. That gives a whole new meaning to chickening out.
According to the British plan, the chickens would be provided a coop and enough food and water to survive for around a week. In theory, this plan could have worked. The coop and food would (maybe) keep the chickens from pecking at the wires and leave plenty of time for the retreating Allied forces to clear the area and the advancing Soviet forces to set up supply routes and command posts unwittingly over an imminent nuclear blast. When the time came, the mine would then have been set off by either a pre-set timer lasting eight days, with a wired remote with a maximum operable distance of three miles, or from tampering.
Although it may seem like they were pecking at straws with this idea, to be fair to Britain’s top minds, they floated other ideas: wrapping the devices in blankets or fiberglass pillows. But neither of these methods seemed to hold a feather to the chicken option.
In 1958, the British scientists and Army’s high-flying plans were dashed when the government abandoned Project Blue Peacock. A couple reasons played into this policy change.
The project would cause an untold number of headaches. First, from the nuclear fallout that could drift God knows where onto ally and civilian populations. Second, from the diplomatic fallout that would ensue after West Germany learned their ally was responsible for the nuclear mines in their land.
A possible third reason could be because no British leader could carry out a plan this ridiculous in good faith. Whatever the reason may be, it’s safe to say Project Blue Peacock laid an egg.
The public lived their clueless lives for nearly fifty years, not knowing the role chickens almost played in national security, until the National Archives declassified the relevant documents on April 1, 2004. The revelation was so outlandish that many people assumed it was an April Fool’s joke. The National Archive’s Head of Interpretation and Learning responded to these rumors in a typical British way: “The Civil Service does not do jokes.”