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The Distance Project 16

Getting a Rocket

Thunderbird missile

The Monday Photo

This is a twenty feet long guided missile, but what is it doing in a business park at Westcott?

This business park used to be the Rocket Propulsion Establishment. As a boy I could sometimes hear rocket motors being trialed at night, miles across the fields in Winslow.

Everything that happened there, apart from the very obvious noise of testing, was extremely hush-hush.

The English Electric Thunderbird guided missile, and this is one of them, was in service with the British army from 1959 to 1977. It could shoot down aircraft up to 30 miles away and get to the target at Mach 2.7, and at least some of its development was done at Westcott.

I can’t say for sure how much, because people still aren’t talking.

The Rocket Propulsion Establishment was set up in April 1946, and ran until the mid 1990s. Before that is had been RAF Westcott.

Like every other RAF airfield in North Bucks, it had been an Operational Training Unit. Here, Wellington bomber crews were trained in navigation and leaflet dropping (often over enemy territory) and in night bombing.

In the last few days of the war in Europe and just after, RAF Westcott was part of Operation Exodus, where former Allied prisoners of war were brought home from prison camps in Europe.

RAF Westcott received 50,000 ex POWs, part of a total of over 354,000 men returned by plane, some after four or five years of captivity and isolation from their loved ones. Some men wept when they got back to England.

I think this is the first version of the missile. An improved missile, introduced in 1966, was known as Thunderbird 2. But I always thought that was a big green aircraft flown by International Rescue…

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