ON THE EDGE OF ARMAGEDDON
Richard Anderton looks at the time when a quiet corner of Cumberland was on the front line of the Cold War…
In 1949, just four years after the American had dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. Once the Communist East had caught up with the Capitalist West, the idea soon developed that ‘peace’ between the two could only be preserved if both sides had enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the other. This terrifying policy, which became known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), was supposed to make all wars unwinnable, and therefore unthinkable, but this strategy had a fundamental flaw.
In the early 1950s, the only way that NATO or the Soviet Bloc, could deliver a nuclear weapon to its target was by aeroplane but large, lumbering bombers were highly vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. For MAD to work, the Cold Warriors in the Pentagon and the Kremlin needed a more certain way to destroy the planet and they found their answer in the ‘doodlebugs’ which had terrorised London during the last days of the Second World War.
At the end of WWII, both the Soviets and Americans had captured a number of German scientists who’d developed Hitler’s V1 and V2 rocket-powered, flying-bombs. Now, these ex-Nazis were put to work developing longer range missiles… but what has all this got to do with Spadeadam?
Though post-war Britain could never be described as a superpower, we did have our own nuclear arsenal and these bombs, code-named Blue Danube, were also designed to be dropped by aircraft. Unfortunately, the RAF’s ‘V Bombers’ were just as vulnerable as their American and Soviet counterparts so the War Office decided to develop its own rocket system.
The new British missile was christened Blue Streak but there was no significance in this codename. All British military research in the 50s was coded with a colour and a word chosen at random so, for example, there was the Blue Bunny 10 Kiloton nuclear mine, the Green Cheese nuclear anti-ship missile and even an early warning radar system called Orange Poodle! But let’s return to Blue Streak.
In 1954 the Americans proposed a merger of the British and US missile programmes in which they’d develop long range, inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)capable of carrying a nuclear warhead all the way to Moscow whilst the British would develop medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs)that could hit Communist Eastern Europe. British company De Havilland won the contract to build the MRBM’s body whilst Rolls Royce was chosen to develop the engines. All that was needed was a large area of empty real estate in which to test the prototypes.
In 1955 the War Office acquired 36 square miles of desolate moorland known, appropriately, as the Spadeadam Wastes and promptly began transforming this unpopulated patch of peat bog and pine forest into Britain’s top secret rocket base. Six enormous static firing stands were built in total: four at Prior Lancy Rigg to test Blue Streak’s RZ2 engines and two at Greymare Hills which could accommodate a full size missile. However, the most secret part of Spadeadam was below ground.
Though initial tests went well, the rocket’s overall design had a serious failing that reduced Blue Streak’s military value. The missiles could not be left standing fully fuelled, ready for immediate launch, because the super-cooled liquid oxygen that powered the rockets would transform the engines into blocks of ice. This made the entire system highly vulnerable to a so-called ‘first strike’.
The RAF’s boffins had calculated that Soviet missiles dropping from the stratosphere would hit targets in the UK within 120 seconds of being detected by British radar (the infamous 2 minute warning) but it took 4.5 minutes to load the liquid oxygen and launch Blue Streak. In other words, our nuclear missiles would be destroyed before they’d left their launch pads and if we couldn’t retaliate the whole ‘MAD’ strategy would become useless.
To solve this problem, it was decided to make our missiles immune to a first strike by hiding them in underground shelters that could withstand a nuclear blast. The plan was to cover the whole UK with 60 such structures but only one was ever built - at Spadeadam. Though the boggy ground wasn’t at all suitable, the world’s first subterranean missile silo was successfully completed, yet the enormous cost of its construction meant Blue Streak was doomed.
When work started, the entire project’s budget was £50 million. This had risen to £300 million by 1959 and was projected to exceed £1.3 billion before the system could be made operational. The government began to balk at this enormous expense and Blue Streak also faced opposition from within the military. The missile’s chief opponent was Admiral-of-the-Fleet Lord Mountbatten who wanted his Royal Navy to operate Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and, in the end, he won. Blue Streak was cancelled in 1960, and the American Polaris submarine missile system ordered instead, but the legacy of Britain’s rocket programme can still be seen at Spadeadam and Carlisle.
The futuristic testing facilities remain, silhouetted against the sky like the abandoned set of a sci-fi movie, and they can be visited by prior arrangement with the RAF base that still occupies the site. You can also see fascinating artefacts and photographs from the project at the excellent Solway Air Museum based at Carlisle Airport.
Blue Streak may now belong in a museum but that’s not the end of the story. Much of the groundbreaking technology developed Spadeadam was later used in the American and European civilian space programmes, and I’ll be telling that story in the final part of this article.