Lessons of Aberfan – The Story Behind the Civil Defence Report

(National Archives BD11/3808)

 

On 24 May 1967, Lieutenant General Sir Richard Neville Anderson KCB CBE DSO of the Welsh Civil Defence Headquarters wrote to Goronwy Daniel, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Welsh Office. Anderson had been asked to compile a report on the lessons learned following the Aberfan disaster, but he was told to ‘hold his horses’ on publication until after the Aberfan Disaster Tribunal. The purpose of Anderson’s letter was to ask Daniel whether he could now proceed.

The following day, J W M Siberry, Welsh Secretary of the Welsh Office, forwarded a note to Daniel suggesting that the report should go ahead. Daniel notes on the same letter, four days later:

I agree. It will be a very useful exercise.

General Anderson was sent a note from the Welsh Office:

Our reply is ‘Go Ahead’.

On 26 May 1967, Anderson finalised his draft report and showed it to the Welsh Office, the Chief Constable, and the Civil Defence Officer of Merthyr Tydfil.

The report underwent some redrafting with the Welsh Office under Siberry’s guidance and was ready to be shown to the Home Office on 24 July 1967. The report made many practical suggestions, which included pass permits to deter sightseers and well-meaning volunteers, the use of broadcasts to update the public, and the assignment of three main headquarters in each area.

The Welsh Office then received advice from the Home Office that the report might be amended again to take into account an emergencies review that the Home Office themselves were undertaking. Siberry advised Daniel that this was unlikely to be of concern, as the Home Office report would be more relevant to strikes than catastrophes.

Daniel wrote to Siberry on 20 July 1967:

Mr Siberry – I shall be ready to discuss on Monday. It is a good report and we have to consider its circulation and the possibilities of discussing it inter-departmentally and with the Clerks of the Counties.

The following year, on 6 May 1968, Siberry sent Daniel a handwritten, confidential letter with the heading ‘Lessons of Aberfan’:

This is off the record. In your minutes of 29th April in the attached folder, you suggested that we should discuss so as we have not had the opportunity yet, I thought I had better write. But I should say things I do not want to put on the official record.

The last move by the Home Office was a letter from Waddell to Anderson on 14th November copy on file. You will see that they:

1) Still hold the possibility of something emerging from HO documentation.

“2) [Are] Pushing the Anderson ball into our court.

Siberry suggested that they start to back away from using the report, and he proposed the following excuse could be employed:

“[General Anderson] left behind him when he retired a paper on the lessons of the disaster and that, since his post has now lapsed and the Civil Defence Organisation is being run down, they can have a look at it in confidence ensuring that they have it if it is useful without the unpleasantness of a real critical post-mortem and without any publicity.

And:

… the honour would be discharged, and, for whatever value they might see in it. The Clerks would have possession of Anderson’s paper in a way avoiding publicity about it.

At first, Siberry’s U-turn on the report and his comments about publicity appear only marginally connected, but given the Welsh Office’s publicity concerns, as covered in the sections of this website entitled ‘Welsh Office, the Press and the First Anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster), it is possible that their worries are what led to Siberry’s volte-face on what Daniel had earlier described as a good report.

In any event, the Home Office replied stating they didn’t like the report either.

Nevertheless, on 22 August 1968, General Anderson’s report was sent out in confidence to the Clerks of Carmarthen, Newport, and Cardiff. Monmouthshire County Council responded that the general principles in the report were in accord with the practices they already maintained for the purpose of dealing with major incidents.

Another U-turn would occur on 18 October 1968. Following a meeting with the Town Clerks, Siberry wrote to the Home Office. He informed them that the Clerks had agreed the report on the ‘Lessons of Aberfan’ was useless:

The character and requirement of civil catastrophes vary so much in detail that there is no supplementary advice based on the rather special circumstances of Aberfan which central government could usefully issue to local authorities.”

On 28 October 1968, Daniel received a final update on the matter from Siberry. It was concluded that the Aberfan disaster could not really provide any lessons as there had been no time to warn anyone and no real chance of rescue.

In summary, it appears there were no lessons to be learned following the Aberfan disaster.

In the unusual correspondence, which goes from complementing General Anderson and his report to discrediting it, and possibly even delaying the report a few months until he retired, the telling phrase is the need to avoid ‘the unpleasantness of a real critical post-mortem’.

It seems that the biggest lesson the Welsh Office learned was that they had little control over the way information is used by national newspapers. It was a lesson learned just in time to hold back a report which could have potentially seen the Welsh rescue services also coming under the microscope of the Press.