UK, 7 August 2006: The Ordnance Survey has finally stopped falsifying Britain’s maps, almost 80 years after the government first ordered cartographers to delete sensitive sites in the hope of thwarting German bombers. The popular Landranger series will now show the nuclear warhead plant at Burghfield, near Reading, hitherto shown as a mysteriously empty field although well known to anti-nuclear demonstrators.
Other previously hidden installations include the signal interception aerials at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire and the vast underground munitions dump at Glen Douglas in Scotland. The access road appears for the so-called Corsham Computer Centre in Wiltshire, thought by conspiracy buffs to be Tony Blair’s nuclear shelter.
The Internet and high-resolution satellite photography have made attempts at hiding sensitive information obsolete and the Cabinet Office security policy division in Whitehall finally agreed this March to scrap the censorship. The maps are being revised in a rolling programme.
Censorship started in 1927 with well-founded fears of a wartime aerial blitz, around the time that prime minister Stanley Baldwin warned: “The bomber will always get through.” He secretly instructed: “No work of defence shall appear upon any map on sale to the general public … No blank space shall appear, but the natural physical features of the country shall continue to appear.”
During the cold war, the Ministry of Defence listed 4,800 “key points” to be deleted. Martin Furnival-Jones, who became head of MI5, worried about saboteurs: he wanted oil refineries, gasworks and railway bridges removed, even insisting all factories should have their role concealed because it would be “useful to any agent”. This is the origin of the uninformative word “works” appearing on maps to this day.
Map-makers eventually protested there was no point in deleting, for example, power stations because powerlines converged on a mysteriously blank spot. In the 1950s, newspapers protested that the bans were illogical after they were secretly ordered by the then-powerful D-Notice committee not to publish aerial photographs. As one official noted, it would be “difficult to convince the public that detailed information on targets was of great import to any enemy using megaton weapons”.
Censorship was slashed to a more manageable “S list” of super-secret targets, such as the Windscale nuclear plant, and GCHQ, the radio espionage agency. But even as late as 1995, John Major’s Conservative government set up a fresh “Sensitive Sites Register”.
But technology was moving too fast. Firms such as GetMapping and Multimap systematically made aerial surveys available from 1999, and now satellite pictures are available on the web and via software like Google Earth. Amateur enthusiasts, meanwhile, set up websites pointing out the glaring omissions from official maps.