God save the queen—from nuclear war? That’s right. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of annihilation, officials in the United Kingdom came up with a plan to save Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack. Codenamed Operation Candid, the plan involved sneaking the couple onto the royal yacht Britannia, which would hide in lochs off the coast of Scotland.
“She was going to lurk in the sea lochs of the North West coast of Scotland, moving at night from one to the other, because the mountains would stop the [Soviet] radar getting to her,” explained Peter Hennessy, author of The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage, in a 2010 interview with BBC Radio Four.
Originally, the plan called for other senior U.K. ministers to evacuate to a bunker with the codename “Turnstile” near the city of Bath. “The Queen had to be kept separate because only The Queen can appoint a Prime Minister,” Hennessy said.
“She could not be with the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet because they would get wiped out the moment they operated from this bunker. The signals traffic would give the [Soviets] a very good idea of what was happening.”
For practical reasons, the plan called for the Home Secretary to be on the same boat as the queen. “The Home Secretary was with her so they could have a Privy Council with the Queen's Private Secretary, the Duke of Edinburgh and The Queen to appoint the new Government out of the ruins,” Hennessy said.
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In the late 1960s, the U.K. had to abandon Turnstile as the secret meeting place because it feared the Soviets had discovered its location. Under the new plan, senior ministers were split up between several secret locations.
Officials updated the plan again in 1997 by changing the queen’s designated escape ship from the Britannia to the Hebridean Princess. In early 2019, fears that a no-deal Brexit would spark riots and unrest motivated officials to update the plan in case the queen and other royals needed to escape a post-Brexit London. The Brexit evacuation plan has a new name—Operation Yellowhammer.
It’s not clear what kind of public response would trigger Operation Yellowhammer into action, or if the queen would even agree to leave London. But the looming possibility that the U.K. will leave the E.U. with no plan, and the fear of what that will do to the country and its economy, has put a lot of people on edge. The Guardian reported that people in the U.K. have stockpiled medication out of fear they won’t be able to buy it after Brexit.
“It would be irresponsible if we didn’t consider every eventuality in the event of a no-deal Brexit—no matter how unlikely—and of course, that would include the security of the royal family,” a senior government source told The Sunday Times.