Secret base has watched space for 50 years

RAF Fylingdales team photo''w133614a
RAF Fylingdales team photo''w133614a

Cloaked in secrecy, RAF Fylingdales has stood sentry over the North York Moors for half a century.

It was built during the Cold War, a time when tensions were high between the world’s great superpowers, and the threat of nuclear war was very real.

In September 2013 the base celebrated its anniversary, 50 years after Air Marshal Sir Douglas Morris commissioned the base, saying: “This is not the first time that a station of this kind has been established here on the Yorkshire moors – about 1,000 years ago a warning post was set up near Whitby, some 10 miles from here, to provide warning of attack by sea invaders from Scandinavia on their approach to these shores. The threat and equipment has changed in the intervening years, but the purpose remains the same.”

This historic outpost inspired the station’s crest, showing the White Rose of Yorkshire surmounted by a Viking Fire Warning Basket.

Appropriately, the Fylingdales motto, Vigilamus, means ‘We are watching’.

First using the famous “golf balls”, then later the “pyramid”, a team of British and American personnel have indeed watched, originally able to spot missile launches 2,000 miles away.

In 1960, soon after the base was announced, Pentagon sources were quoted as saying the base would give the USA up to 15 minutes extra warning, should an attack be launched, but the UK would be unlikely to benefit. “Russians would use intermediate range missiles from East Germany to knock you out, and you would get no warning worth mentioning” was the brutally honest reply.

The £43m project announced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was the first in which the UK had made a contribution, and at a meeting of Whitby Luncheon Club at Botham’s Cafe in 1961, a representative explained how its proximity to the coast and lack of population in the vicinity made the moor the only candidate. He also pledged that when the station was no longer required, the moor would be restored to its original condition.

Work began on the first of the three 140ft golf balls in 1962 and at the station’s opening in September of the following year, both the American Stars and Stripes and the British Union Flag flew side by side in a statement of defiance against Soviet aggression.

In 1973 it was claimed by Conservative MP Geoffrey Stewart-Smith that the Russians had used spy-ships disguised as trawlers to bug the station.

The three original domes were dismantled between 1982-84 and replaced. However, the new golf balls were to be operational for less than a decade, before being replaced by the pyramid which became operational in 1992 and still stands today.

The replacement system was set to be a massive upgrade, and was able to track a football-sized object at 3,000 miles.

It could also scan in 360 degrees, it was not restricted to just the north and east like the old system.

Eighty RAF personnel join around 300 other contractors, military police and various other staff in calling the base home.

In 50 years, there have only been 14 hours where the radar has not been operational.

Around 12 times a year the unmistakable alarm sounds which signifies a missile launch somewhere in the world. The five-man shift then have just 60 seconds to discover if the alert is genuine. Crew commander Jim Garlick said: “It can be horribly unpleasant but at the same time it’s what we are here to do and so it’s exciting.

“We have a minute to make a decision as to whether the radar is working properly or if World War Three has started.”

If a threat was confirmed the crew would call an American Air Force base in Colorado to inform them an attack was imminent. The line must be tested daily.

But these events are rare and for the remaining 99 per cent of the year, the crew spend the majority of their 12-hour shift working through a list of targets, sent through from the United States, that they must track in space.

In the early years of its life the new system had attracted a large amount of controversy.

Peace protesters feared the new £160m radar system could be used to fire weapons from space as part of America’s “Star Wars” project.

Several people have also been taken into custody over the years following demonstrations close to the base.

Concerns over Fylingdales’ inclusion in the “Star Wars” project continued for over a decade.

In 2003, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon angered locals by announcing America would be allowed to use Fylingdales in the defence programme, despite large-scale protests. Campaigners feared the base could become a target for terrorist attacks.

Now, the base continues its fourfold mission relating to missile defence and satellite tracking. And Fylingdales has become an accepted part of the community.

It remains a large-scale employer, maintains 3,000 acres of moorland, and the rumours of radiation deathrays that accompanied the base’s launch in 1963 have, thankfully, proved untrue.