Site Records

Site Name: RAF Sopley ('AVO') R3 GCI ROTOR Station

OS Grid Ref: SZ162978

RSG site visit 23rd May 2000

[Source: Nick Catford]

In January 1958, with the expansion of the Air Traffic Control system in the UK, a Squadron Leader, the officer commanding the Air Traffic Control Research Unit (ATCRU) and several controllers arrived at Sopley to set up an ATCRU Area Radar Service covering the Home Counties, the Midlands, South Wales and the West Country and Southern Radar was formally established on 1 April 1959.

Photo:The Southern Radar 'ops' room was located in the former PDU room

In 1958, the School of Fighter Control moved from Hope Cove to Sopley together with a Special Tasks Cabin, to look after both the military and civil research and development requirements and also to afford control facilities for fighter interception practice for RAF Chivenor; it was collocated with the ATC unit.

No. 15 Signals Unit was formed with effect from 28th October 1959 from the Air Traffic Control radar section at RAF Sopley. The operational tasks in order of priority were as follows:

  a)Assistance to Air Traffic Control Centres in the control of emergency incidents
  b)Military aircraft crossing civilian airways
  c)Extended approach control to selected airfields
  d)Surveillance of military aircraft in transit through Flight Information Regions

15 Signals Unit comprised 1 Squadron Leader, 3 Flight Lieutenants, 3 Flying Officers/Flight Lieutenants, 1 Warrant Officer, 3 Flight Sergeants, 3 Corporal clerks, 11 Aircraftsmen clerks. The unit was parented by RAF Sopley

In July 1959, the Air Defence reporting element of the Unit moved to RAF Wartling releasing extra radar facilities for the ATCRU use and on 1 November 1959 the ATCRU took over from Air Defence the responsibility for the Special Tasks cell.

In April 1960, the School of Fighter Control was disbanded and the station was handed over to the ATC; the Unit then had a direct responsibility to HQ United Kingdom Air Traffic Control Services (UKATS) which had been previously established at Kestrel Grove adjacent to Bentley Priory. By 1 July 1960 the fighter control training facilities had been modified and the training of military Area Radar Controllers commenced and in September 1960 and the Joint Air Traffic Control Area Radar School (JATCARS) was formed.

During the early 1960's three of the Type 13 height finder radars were replaced with the AN/FPS 6, the fourth Type 13 remained in use and operational until the closure of the station. In January 1961, two radar control positions in the Operations Room were allocated to the Ministry of Aviation for the control of civilian air traffic passing through the Southern Radar area on the newly formed Upper Air Routes.

Type 264 radar - this example is at Ventnor
The unit now functioned as a joint civilian and military air traffic control radar station.

Development in radar design between 1958 and 1966 led to the installation of new height-finding equipment and the Type 264 Radar. Southern Radar was now a Military Air Traffic Operations (MATO) Unit; UKATS having been renamed. The 264 was a civil radar for use by the civil ATC part of Sopley. When Sopley closed it was relocated to Aberdeen airport where is provided many more years of service.

The civil area control course had been at the civil School of Air Traffic Control at Hurn since the 1950's. With the growth in the use of radar by ATC, two new problems arose - firstly the civil school had too few simulator positions to cope with the number of students to be trained and secondly there was a need to improve civil/military understanding. As it was so close to Hurn, it was decided to use spare capacity on the military courses at Sopley to help solve both problems.

In 1969 the civil side of the Area Radar School moved back to Hurn and JATCARS became the Military Air Traffic Control Area Radar School (MATCARS), continuing to train Military Area Radar controllers until its closure and subsequent move to RAF Shawbury, in August 1972. From 1959 to 1972 Southern Radar had provided Operational Control to Air Traffic over the whole of the South of England.

With the implementation in 1972 of the Linesman/Mediator plan for centralised Air Traffic Control Services, Southern Radar's Area of Responsibility was gradually reduced, leading to the eventual handover of Southern Radar services to London Air Traffic Control Centre at West Drayton in 1974.

The Sopley Air Traffic Control Centre was now surplus to requirements and RAF Sopley closed on 27th September 1974.

In about 1975/76 the bunker was occupied by a Royal Signals unit from Signals Research and Development Establishment at Christchurch. The bunker was reported to have been extensively rewired at the time and at some cost. The local rumour was that it was an elint (electronic intelligence) lodger unit formerly located within SRDE that wasn't going to relocate to Malvern in 1980 with the rest of the establishment. There were no additional aerials other than base-to-vehicle local VHF type aerials.

In 1977 the bunker was designated as a sub Armed Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) for Region 6 although nothing done to prepare it for this role. Warren Row was also a sub AFHQ6 and by 1980 only one of the two sites (Warren Row) was required.

The 1980 Bournemouth Borough War Plan shows Sopley as an Army Headquarters. The bunker was taken over by a unit from 2 Signals Brigade from UK Land Forces at Wilton and it underwent a major refit. A new central operations area was constructed. A new floor was inserted into the old two level operations room with supporting pillars below, this was at the same level as the upper floor of the R3; the upper space was divided into two new rooms.

Photo:The original two level ROTOR ops room now converted into an ops room for UK Land Forces. The two concrete pillars support the new ceiling that was inserted to create two new rooms above. The lower cabins with windows overlooking the ops room have been retained.
Photo by Dr. James Fox/John Harris from Sub Brit collection

The ceiling height of the lower floor of the ops room was still quite high as it incorporated the height of the 8' high cableway (includes 1' thick floors) that existed between the floors of the R3 and the true floor of the R3 which is 4' below the normal corridor and room level.

The tote was removed but its supporting framework was utilised as foundations for broad gallery extending over the operations floor. The original stairs at the left end of the gallery were retained, while a new stairway was provided at the other end parallel with the rear wall.

Layout of new operations room for UK Land Forces

The original control cabins overlooking the ops floor were also kept. The single cabin across the right end of the room was unaltered. The next cabin, the first along the room's length was also unchanged, except for an internal partition wall, with a doorway, put across the width of the room. The central open fronted projection room had a window filling the space above the counter and a new door above the existing steps. The remaining cabin had a new door inserted in the previously glazed front, leading to a new set of steps directly in front of the original entrance steps.

The floor of the ops room was fitted with a series of booths and low partitions, providing separate work areas. A lot of the structural changes were in an unfinished state, with a primer paint finish.

The PDU well was floored over and the lower part of the PDU (Kelvin Hughes room) was converted into a computer room and the rest of the lower PDU area became a COMCEN with some new air conditioning being installed.The project was eventually to provide a protected HQ for UK land forces in the event of a strike against the UK. However this was only ever envisaged as a temporary solution and was only intended to be used during the construction of a totally new facility which was being built for the army at UKLF Wilton.

Once this was completed UKLF no longer needed Sopley and it was put into the disposal process eventually being sold.

As a consequence of the promt construction of a new HQ at Wilton, the project to refurbish Sopley was not completed and some rooms were not fully decorated and finished. However the site was regularly used for training and exercises mainly involving overnight accommodation and using mobile and field communications; it was not a popular posting. The COMCEN and computer systems were all fully installed and operational and if there had been an emergency at this time the facility could have been used operationally. This use ceased at the end of the cold war.

Click here to continue the history of RAF Sopley

[Source: Nick Catford]

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