Westco - Blog Comms Lessons From the UK’s Biggest Evacuation Since World War II




Last month saw the biggest peacetime evacuation the UK has seen since World War II when a live WW2 bomb was found in Plymouth. While all councils regularly test civil protection plans, few have to put plans into practice on such a large scale, so we want to share our communications experience. 


Following the activation of the Council’s emergency response arrangements – involving over 30 organisations in a multi-agency Strategic Coordinating Group (SCG) and Tactical Coordinating Group (TCG) – we set up the Warning and Informing cell. This involved communication representatives from organisations across the region – from the Police to the Fire Service, the Army, the Navy, the NHS, hospitals, the voluntary sector, and neighbouring councils. 


Over the first few hours, the operation grew in scale, with an initial 200-metre cordon being extended to over 300 metres, resulting in the evacuation of over 3,250 residents. From a communications perspective, our role was clear: we needed to communicate what was happening, why it was happening, what people needed to do, and importantly, where people could go if they needed support. 


Complex disposal operation and major evacuation


As part of the operation, we needed to use our resources wisely, making sure there was a talking head to represent the Council. We also needed to consider comms resources for the rest centres, in the office taking media enquiries, fielding enquiries out, updating the web pages, responding to enquiries on social media, and attending many hours of meetings. 


We immediately set up an online hub for information: the official place for residents (and staff) to get ‘the truth’. In the first few hours, the rumour mill online was in overdrive. We regularly provided updates, addressed myths, and ensured we were always looking ahead.


Within the first two days, whilst the bomb experts were still trying to determine how best to dispose of the device, we committed to putting out updates hourly. This included getting updates from rest centres with images, understanding the top themes coming into the emergency helpline, and overseeing dozens of media interview requests as well as media enquiries. Keeping that machine alive was quite difficult – particularly as people wanted to know ‘what happens next’?


Keeping the public informed and safe


The next day brought worrying news. The bomb disposal experts informed us they did not think that they could safely detonate the device without catastrophic damage to at least four houses, along with serious damage to many more homes. It wasn’t looking good. From a communications perspective, we started thinking ahead, considering messaging/strategy, and most importantly, resources for the team. 


At 11pm on Thursday, the experts proposed another option. They could move the bomb, but they would need an extended cordon surrounding the route. Overnight, council officers with key agencies worked solidly on an action plan to evacuate an additional 7,070 people from 2pm to 5pm the next day.


We put together a communications strategy to support the evacuation. This included the media announcement, web copy, social media, e-newsletter update, on the ground fact sheet for volunteers to hand out, updates for those at the rest centre, partner communications, staff updates, member updates, and of course, using the Government’s Emergency Alert system – the first time it was used since the original test-run last year. 


Working around the clock 


The plan was finished by 6am and approved by 11am. We had three hours to clear Keyham. At 4.30pm, following detailed conversations with the legal team, permission had been granted to proceed with the removal of the bomb. The city held its breath while the 45-minute operation took place…


The roads were empty and silent as the bomb was carefully moved from its resting place, travelled through the streets, passing the naval base on its way to the water's edge and then out to sea for disposal. When the all-clear was given, communications once again went out – the cordon lifted and roads reopened, enabling people to return home.


So, what communications advice would we give others? Well, we were lucky. The bomb didn’t go off, no one was hurt, and all properties were left standing. But I do have some takeaways for others faced with a similar dilemma…


Key takeaways 


  1. Don’t forget that you have civil contingency plans for communications. That should be your starting point. Always refer to your plan to understand the wider organisational response and your role within it. 
  2. Make sure you know who the lead is for the Communications (Warning and Informing) cell and engage with them early on.
  3. Really think about where you place your staff (you can’t all be working from home) and agree on how will you work. We found that sharing updates via WhatsApp was more effective than email, particularly for those on the ground. We also had a shared ‘issues’ log – a growing FAQ list that we could add to and use in future comms. 
  4. Make sure you have a regular drumbeat for updating elected members. We set up a lead member WhatsApp group and met with them four times a day.
  5. Identify your talking head/s as soon as possible and make sure they are supported.
  6. Ensure communications get issued early on and regularly – say something even if there isn’t much to say. 
  7. Communicate with your own organisation's staff, not just externally to residents.
  8. Remember team equipment – make sure whoever goes out and about takes a microphone for interviews (and remember to take a charger for your phone). 
  9. Get in touch with the media proactively each morning to understand what their plans are for the day.



Elinor Firth is a Westco Account Director and the Communications Strategic Lead for Plymouth City Council.


Ellie Firth




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