Site Records

Site Name: RAF Portreath - Reporting Post within the UK Surveillance and Control System (UK ASACS)

Tolticken Hill
OS Grid Ref: SW673455

Sub Brit site visit 2nd March 2007

[Source: Nick Catford]

The United Kingdom's investigations into the military possibilities of organophosphorous compounds received an enormous post-war impetus from the stockpile of captured German nerve agent and research documents concerning Tabun and Sarin. Sarin was quickly identified as the most suitable agent for the UK services and by 1950 development was sufficiently advanced for limited production to begin. It was clear that the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down was unsuitable for this work due to its proximity to large centres of population and industry. A new, remote location was therefore sought and the abandoned coastal airfield at Portreath in the sparsely populated area of the Cornish peninsula was considered ideal.

The site was taken over by the Ministry of Supply and renamed CDE Nancekuke. Added security was introduced with a new 9’ high wire mesh perimeter fence and the closing of all approach roads. At that time there was virtually no public knowledge of the work and the non-scientific workers employed to build the plant were not told of its intended use. It was intended that the huge site, extending to several hundred acres, should initially be home to a
small scale Sarin production plant under-taking process research work, but plans were already being prepared to build a vast, fully automated Sarin production and weapon-filling plant there.

Photo:CDE Nancekuke
CDE Nancekuke began operating as a small-scale chemical agent production and research facility in 1951. CDE Nancekuke operated 3 sites: North Site, Central Site and South Site. A pilot production facility was built on North Site to support the research, development and production of a nerve agent known as Sarin (GB) and Nancekuke became the prime centre in the UK for production and storage. Production at this plant commenced in 1954 and continued until 1956. During this period it

Central site
produced sufficient Sarin (GB) to prove the process and to meet the requirements for assessment trials and the testing of defensive equipment under development at Porton Down. Subsequently, international tension relaxed to the point where it was not judged necessary to proceed with a production plant and production ceased in 1956 by which time a stockpile of some 20 tons had been accumulated.


Central site

From then on, work at Nancekuke concentrated on the small-scale production of chemicals and agents to support the UK’s defensive research programme which was being directed from Porton Down. Between 1956 and the late 1970s, CDE Nancekuke was used for the production of riot control agents such as CS gas which was manufactured on an industrial scale from about 1960. The CS plant produced the agent on a batch process at the rate of 30 kg per day with some 33-

35 tons being manufactured in total. Nancekuke was increasingly involved with the development of medical countermeasures, training aids, and the development of charcoal cloth for use in protective Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits used by the British Forces.

In 1976, a defence review recommended the transfer of remaining work to CDE Porton Down, and the decision to begin decommissioning CDE Nancekuke was taken. A team of international inspectors oversaw the decommissioning process and the site is still open to inspection by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

All remaining stocks of chemical agents were destroyed or transferred to Porton Down between 1976 and 1978. Some chemicals were either neutralized on site or returned to the commercial chemical industry, but a considerable volume was buried on site along with debris from dismantled plant and buildings. At the time, this was considered to be an environmentally acceptable procedure. Material was dumped in five clearly defined and widely separated locations within the boundary of the Nancekuke site. One site was an old quarry some 40 or 50 feet in depth,

this was filled with rubble and steelwork from the demolished factory along with similar material from surviving Second World War airfield buildings that had been reused for chemical purposes. Close to the cliff edge four specially excavated pits each 2 metres in depth were excavated and filled with waste chemicals from the factory. Nearby, the ground level of a shallow valley leading to the cliff edge was raised by about 20 feet by the deposition of building rubble, waste chemicals and quantities of asbestos from demolished buildings. More worryingly, two deep, long-abandoned tin mine shafts within the factory perimeter were used to dump surplus equipment from the Sutton Oak research establishment at the time that its function was transferred to Nancekuke. The problem with landfill is that what goes under the ground inevitably comes out in the water. Currently, in the United Kingdom, the problems of serious ground and water contamination from buried military waste are having to be addressed. The only safe solution is to recover these contaminants and treat them by chemical or physical means to ensure that their future environmental impact will be neutral. To comply with current legislation the site is now being cleaned up under the Nancekuke Remediation Project  This process has just begun at the time of writing and is expected to be completed by the end of the decade. The CDE moved out in 1978 and the station reverted to the Ministry of Defence as a radar station.

The Linesman radar system had become fully operational in 1974. In 1971 it was proposed that command of the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE) was maintained centrally at two sites, West Drayton and Strike Command (HQ) at High Wycombe with control allocated to four control and reporting centres (CRC) at Buchan, Bishopscourt, Boulmer and Neatishead. The sites were able to exchange data by digital links with any of the sites able to take over from one of the others in an emergency. This new network was planned to give full coverage of the approaches to the UK and was fully integrated into the wider NATO air defence system.

Photo:Control and reporting post at RAF Portreath
Photo by Nick Catford

Once implemented the system was somewhat different incorporating three elements; fixed Sector Operations Centres, Control and Reporting Centres, and mobile radars. The UK air defence region was divided between North and South controlled from SOC’s at Buchan (north of Aberdeen) and Neatishead (Norfolk) with Ash acting as a training unit and capable of taking over from either one of the SOC’s in the event of an emergency. Below the SOC’s in the hierarchy of control were the Control and Reporting Centres or Posts

The control room at CRP Benbecula (this was identical to the control room at Portreath) click to enlarge

(CRC’s were underground and CRP’s were on the surface) with display consoles identical to those at the SOC’s. Their task was to create a local air picture of flying activity which was then relayed to the SOC’s. After fighter interceptors had been scrambled, control and reporting centres might assume the tactical control of the fighters. A CRC was established at Boulmer with CRP’s at Portreath, Faeroe Islands, Saxa Vord (Shetlands), Benbecula (Hebrides), Bishopscourt (Northern Ireland), Staxton Wold (Yorkshire) and Ty Croes (North Wales).

Photo:Type 101 radar beneath the Kevlar dome at RAF Portreath
Photo by Nick Catford

The first plans for a CRP in the West Country covering the East Atlantic approaches were drawn up in 1974. The proposed site was at Burrington adjoining the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) radar site. Burrington was quickly dropped due to perceived problems with interference and coverage in favour of a joint RAF/CAA site on the disused Winkleigh airfield in Devon. Here a Type 84 radar was proposed for the RAF and an SCR264 radar for the CAA.  Before work on the site could be started the Type 84 was deleted from the national plan and the CAA station was never built.

With the closure of CDE Nancekuke in 1978 the old airfield at Portreath was selected as the best site with staff accommodated at RAF St. Mawgan. Because of the delays in selecting a suitable site it was vital that the new radar station was quickly established. No. 1 Air Control Centre arrived from Wattisham in July 1979 with the new station coming on line early in 1980 with a Type 93 mobile radar and refurbished WW2 buildings and portacabins. The station was formerly reopened as RAF Portreath   on 1st October 1980. A new

Type 93 radar

semi-sunken CRP bunker was finally built c.1988 and extended in c.1992.

Click here to continue the history of RAF Portreath

[Source: Nick Catford]

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