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…

A Quick Photo

Photo recon Spitfire

The Monday Photo

There are 58 airworthy Spitfires left in the World, and this is one of them. Built in 1944 without guns, it’s a Mark XI, made for the dangerous art of photo reconnaissance.

It served in Europe in the last months of the war against Germany, and it’s more than just a Spitfire with cameras instead of guns.

Speed was its only defence, so it had a more powerful engine. Armour and armament were left out to save weight.

The three piece flat sided armoured glass front screen was replaced by a single aerodynamically shaped perspex one. The tail wheel was retractable, not fixed; this alone added 5 mph to the top speed. 

For long range operations the Mark XI had greater fuel capacity, and if needed a drop tank could fitted underneath. The engine oil tank was also more than doubled to 14.5 gallons, and this is why the ‘chin’ of the aircraft is more pronounced. 

Without the drop tank, this aircraft, PL983, had a range of 1,360 miles. It could cruise at 395 mph, with a top speed of 417 mph. The all over blue paint job is for high altitude camouflage; the Mark XI could fly at 40,000 feet.

I pictured this Spitfire when it overflew Milton Keynes hospital recently. I happened to find out about the flight just six minutes before it was due at Milton Keynes, so I rushed out into my front garden with a long lens; I live about a mile from the hospital.

I was in luck; a couple of minutes later I heard the Merlin engine, and looked up to see the plane approaching from the South.

I had two chances to get my shot. The Spitfire flew over the hospital twice, and banked around for the second run where I could see it, so I got quite a few good photos. But I like this one best, with the plane standing on its wing tip.

John Romain is the pilot and owner. Here's a YouTube video of him flying PL983 at Old Warden Aerodrome on the same day as I saw it.

The Cold War Post on Your Doorstep

Whitchurch ROC postCold War concrete.

Overlooked by houses and just next to a bus stop in Whitchurch is this strange piece of concrete. It’s a remnant of the Cold War.

Built in 1957, it’s the entrance to an underground observation post, to be used if we ever came under atomic attack. Under the locked hatch is a shaft and a fixed ladder that leads down to the three man post.

Over 1,500 posts were built across the UK, all spaced around eight miles apart. Some still remain. In the event of the Soviet Union attacking, volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps would man each post and report the direction and intensity of atomic blasts.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 there was no more need for these posts, and they were all closed.

What’s There Now?

Continue reading "The Cold War Post on Your Doorstep" »

Underground in the Cold War

ROC post Bucks entrance shaftThe entrance shaft. The top of the shaft is about three feet above ground level, so the post is about 17 feet below the ground (I estimate)

In the mid 1950s, the threat of atomic attack by the Soviet Union was taken very seriously by the British government. The Royal Observers Corps were given the job, if an attack took place, of reporting nuclear bomb explosions and of monitoring radioactive fallout. Three men at a time crewed the post.

1,563 underground posts were built all over the UK for the ROC, and many still exist. This one is somewhere between Winslow and Aylesbury. I’ll not be more precise, as these posts tend to get vandalised or the contents are stolen. This post closed in 1991.

There are a few restored posts. Here is one, with a cutaway diagram of the post.

The posts were built to a standard design, although the hatch at the top of the shaft isn't always hinged on the same side, and some were built 'handed'. That is, to a mirror image plan. I have no idea why; can anybody enlighten me?

If you want to know more, there are at least two books on the subject. They are Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers by Nick McCamley, and Cold War - Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989 by Wayne D. Cocroft and Roger J. C. Thomas.

Anyway, here’s some photos I took last year.

ROC post Bucks bottom of shaftThe bottom of the access shaft. The device on the right is a hand pump for emptying the sump, where any water that got in would collect.

ROC post Bucks main roomThis is the main and only room. The entrance shaft is at the far left, and off the  shaft but not visible in this photo, was the chemical toilet.

ROC post BucksThe view from the door.

Continue reading "Underground in the Cold War" »