Site Records

Site Name: Spadeadam


RSG site visit 17th April 2002

[Source: Nick Catford]


Spadeadam was opened in the late 1950s as a test area for the British Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM).

The research program was split between Rolls Royce and Dehavilland (later Hawker Siddley). Dehavilland were responsible for the airframe and Rolls Royce for the RZ 2 rocket engines. The first rocket firing took place in August 1959, but by this time the Fixed Site Ballistic Missile (FSBM) was being phased out. The British program was cancelled in 1958 after the deployment of American THOR missile sites in eastern England.

Blue Streak was then adapted to be used as the first stage of the ELDOs (European Launcher Development Organisation) Europa satellite launcher.

The first Blue Streak first stage launch was carried out at Spadeadam's twin site of Woomera, Australia on June 5th 1964 - 4 other first stage launches were carried out successfully, but second and third stage launches were unsuccessful. In 1967 Britain announced that in 1971 it would pull out of the Europa programme. The last Woomera launch was on 12th January 1970 and the last ELDO launch was carried out in French Guyana in 1971; by April 1973 the European project was cancelled totally.

Photo: Rocket engine test stand at Prior Lancy
Photo: Rocket engine test stand at Prior Lancy
Photo by Nick Catford

Many of the buildings were demolished in the years following the project's end but the remaining buildings, such as the rocket plinths at Greymare Hill, engine test plinths at Prior Lancy and the control bunkers at both sites have now been scheduled as historic monuments by English Heritage.

Spadeadam became a RAF Station in 1976 and the location for Western Europe's first full scale Electronic Warfare Tactics Range in January 1977. RAF Spadeadam is the only Electronic Warfare Tactics Range (EWTR) in the UK, and the only one of two such facilities in Europe. The other facility being Polygon, in Germany. &The Range provides realistic Electronic Warfare training for aircrew, primarily for the RAF, but other NATO Air Forces use the range as well. This task is achieved by fielding a variety of equipments that emit signals that appear to aircrews as threat radars. The threat systems consist of Short Range Air Defence (SHORAD) systems, Surface to Air Missile systems (SAM) and Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) radars. Additionally there is an array of visual targets including a dummy airfield, complete with aircraft, missile sites and vehicle convoys. The aircrews try to evade the threats, whilst carrying out their assigned mission. The aim is to achieve realistic Electronic Warfare training.

Although the 3240 hectare site is in regular use there is little live firing and visits to the historic areas of the site are possible although restricted as this is an active training area. Public visits are usually only permitted in the evening and on a handful of dates each year when visitors are taken round the site by coach. On this occasion we were able to arrange a daytime visit and were allowed to drive round in our own cars with a civilian guide.

Photo: Greymare control bunkerPhoto by Nick Catford
Photo: Greymare control bunker
Photo by Nick Catford

Visit report:

RAF Spadadam's main gate is situated two miles north of Gilsland Village on the Cumbria/Northumberland border, there are no signs pointing to it and although there are standard MOD signs at the start of the access road visitors do not know which base the are approaching until they reach the guardhouse. During a short briefing in the station HQ it was explained that all the 'Blue Streak' buildings (except the control bunkers) were fenced and that we wouldn't be allowed inside any buildings as they were potentially hazardous and some contained asbestos. Photography was allowed around all these buildings We then followed our guide to the Prior Lancy engine test area at NY595719. The first building we encountered is the main control bunker the four test bays. This is a large single storey concrete structure covered in earth and grassed with concrete revetments around it. On the side facing the test bays we could see the top half of three large periscopes to allow people to view the engine tests from the safety of the bunker.

While we were there two military personnel turned up on site and we were allowed inside the building although internal photography wasn't permitted. We entered through a heavy steel blast door. The bunker has been largely stripped and is now used for storage but all the original ventilation trunking is still in place and we were able to see the bottom of the periscopes which consist of three narrow windows half way up the west wall.

We then drove to the front of the four engine test stands 170m to the east. The principal structures in this area are the bases of four rocket test stands standing about 50 feet high. One of them was partially demolished many years ago but the other three remain intact and in good condition. On top of the stands the rails are still visible that were used to wheel out the engines which were then suspended over the end walls. Other features include a lagoon to collect spent fuel and water, bases for liquid oxygen tanks, conduits connecting the various structures and other features. The engine test stands are similar in design to those used by Rocketdyne in the United States and reflect the close association between Rolls Royce and that company.

At the back of the site are a number of mounded fuel tanks with a Russian Fitter K (SU-22M-4) aircraft inherited by the German airforce from the East Germans at reunification.

From Prior Lancy we drove deep into the Spadeadam Forest past several large circular concrete water tanks that are scattered around the range and are an integral part of the on site processes many of which required large quantities of drinking quality water.

Photo: Greymare East rocket test stand
Photo: Greymare East rocket test stand
Photo by Nick Catford

We eventually arrived at a large clearing on top of Greymare Hill (NY 620744) where we saw one of the most evocative relics of the cold war the two vast concrete stands designed to carry out test firings of fully assembled Blue Streak rockets. There are many ancillary buildings and structures in the area and conduits to carry data cables. Again the rails are visible on the top of the stands for wheeling out the complete rockets and to one side are the brick based of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tanks. These facilities are believed to be unique in Europe and are comparable to contemporary structures constructed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

250 yards to the south is the huge mounded control centre with two sets of three periscopes, one overlooking Greymare East and the other overlooking Greymare West.

We were able to walk round both the test stands and photograph them from all conceivable angles and wish we could get inside the complex of building on different levels around each stand. We were able to climb on top of the control bunker but alas access to the inside was forbidden as it is heavily contaminated with asbestos and permanently sealed.

One section of a Blue Streak rocket has been preserved in all its splendour close to the guardhouse. The fuel tank section of the rocket is about 50 feet long with a multitude of wires and cables still hanging out from one end.

Fuel tank Section
Fuel tank Section (click)

During a subsequent visit to RAF Spadeadam, members were able to see the operational control centre.

Those taking part in the visit were Nick Catford, Keith Ward, Robin Ware, Ward Westwater & Caroline Westwater.

My thanks to Ward and Caroline Westwater of the Civil Defence & Emergency Service Trust for arranging the visit to RAF Spadeadam.


[Source: Nick Catford]

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