A Return to the Cold War… on the Isle of Wight
We tend to think of the Cold War as a series of shadowboxing skirmishes between the great powers in faraway places: pressure points such as Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Although there was always the background fear of escalation to nuclear war, it often didn’t feel like something that affected the citizens of the United Kingdom’s towns and villages on a day-today basis. At least, that was how I viewed it until I visited the fascinating site of Highdown, high up above the Needles at the south-western extremity of the Isle of Wight.
At one time Highdown would have been a top-secret establishment, where its goings-on were known only to the privileged few. The vast majority of the populations of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight would have had little idea of what went on there. Today, however, the site is owned by the National Trust and it is therefore possible to visit it freely and to learn something of the fascinating events that went on there: this country’s own contribution to the Cold War.
Highdown is part of the Needles Batteries complex that sits overlooking that most iconic of Isle of Wight landmarks, the Needles and the Needles Lighthouse. My wife and I were fortunate on the day that we visited that it was a sunny, still day; sometimes the winds are so fierce on this promontory that the whole site has to be closed to visitors.
You can drive as far as the car park overlooking the Alum Bay amusement park, then can either walk the rest of the way to the Old Battery (energetic), or alternatively wait for the twice-hourly open-top bus service up to the top (less energetic). We opted for the bus. There is a stop part way up, from where you can walk down to the Old Battery, or a stop at the top, which deposits you at the New Battery. A display on the history of Highdown has been moved here and is a good place to start any exploration of the site.
As Highdown itself is now an integral part of the Batteries site, it would be remiss of me not to say something about these earlier military installations before moving on to tell the fascinating story of Highdown itself.
The Needles Batteries were constructed between 1861 and 1895 for coastal defence against a threat of invasion by France, but were later to play an important role in the defence of southern Britain during both world wars.
Spectacular views of the Solent, Dorset and Hampshire are visible from the ramparts, and the old searchlight emplacement, at the end of a 60-yard tunnel, provides the closest view of the Needles obtainable from land.
The Needles Battery, later referred to as the Old Battery to distinguish it from the New Battery built nearby, was completed in June 1863 at a cost of £7,656. Two of the 9” guns from 1893 are still in place at the Battery on replica gun carriages. In 1885 the tunnel was dug from the parade ground towards the Needles.
The New Battery was completed in 1895 at a cost of £9,821, after problems with subsidence and concerns that larger guns would cause the cliffs to collapse at the Old Battery. The New Battery has a commanding position overlooking the Old Battery and is almost 400 feet above sea level.
Both forts were manned during the First World War, then placed in care and maintenance until reactivation at the commencement of the Second World War.
After hostilities ceased in 1945 and the troops left, both Batteries were
deactivated and the downs were taken over by marauding rabbits once more. The Batteries were mothballed and put up for disposal in 1952 and the guns scrapped in 1954. Any thoughts that war had finally finished with this otherwise beautiful stretch of coastline, however, were to be very short-lived.
By the early 1950s the British Government had successfully exploded both atomic and hydrogen bombs, and now set out to develop a means of delivery: the intercontinental ballistic missile (or ICBM) codenamed Blue Streak.
A significant part of this activity was the building and launching of a smaller rocket that used the same complex liquid propellants but employed hardware and techniques that were immediately and readily available. This rocket was code named Black Knight. In 1955 Saunders Roe Limited, the British aero and marine-engineering company based at Columbine Works, East Cowes, was commissioned to develop the missile.
To assemble and test each rocket before shipment to the Australian launch site at Woomera, Saunders Roe required a local test site. The Needles headland offered a potentially secure site with existing suitable underground accommodation. In 1955 the Highdown site was leased from the Ministry of War. Between 1956 and 1971 the New Battery was to be used by Saunders Roe for testing the Black Knight and later the Black Arrow spacerocket engines.
Under the instruction of John A. Strubbe, the Marconi House architect, construction began in April 1956. The Needles headland was transformed into something resembling a James Bond film set as a complex of specialised buildings was constructed over the New Battery and underground control and instrumentation rooms were converted from the old magazines. In all there was enough space for 240 people, a number reached in the early 1960s.
In the early stages serious consideration was given to accommodating the full-size Blue Streak at the site. This would have meant digging silos deep into the hillside. Ultimately, however, development of the Blue Streak rocket took place at its own purpose-built facility in Cumberland.
The 30-foot long Black Knight rockets were assembled in the workshops, then towed down the newly built road along the cliff top above Scratchell’s Bay to one of the two 60-foot high test gantries. The rockets were erected inside the steel and aluminium towers by men dressed in protective clothing operating 1½-ton mobile cranes.
During a test firing all activities followed a strict time sequence, with the operation of the rocket controlled automatically. At any point the process could be aborted by the press of a button from several monitoring positions, most of which were underground. In addition to manual observations taken from the secure blockhouse, an array of cameras, tape recorders and specialised devices automatically logged data from several hundred instrumentation sensors placed within the engine and other rocket systems.
On ignition, the four jet rocket motors fired into steel “exhaust buckets”, cooled by a torrent of water from a specially built reservoir, at a rate of 3,000 gallons per minute. The exhaust emerged at right angles from the cliff as a fierce blast of steam.
With the missile successfully tested, a team of engineers then accompanied it to the launch site in Australia. In all, 23 Black Knight rockets were launched between September 1958 and November 1965.
The success of Black Knight suggested that Britain had the capability to launch
satellites and in 1965 the Highdown team started work on Black Arrow, an 18-ton, 40-foot three-stage rocket designed to put a satellite into a circular near-earth orbit.
Five Black Arrows were built and four launched into space, the first in 1968. The project reached its halcyon moment on 28th October 1971 with the launch of the only all-british satellite put into space by a British rocket. The experimental Prospero satellite achieved a near-perfect orbit and carried out short-term data collection on micrometeorites and space erosion.
Having achieved its peak, the British programme suddenly ended with a lack of political and scientific agreement on how to use the rocket. Although briefly put up for tender to potential buyers the Highdown rocket test site was closed in July 1972 and the buildings and infrastructure quickly dismantled.
The concrete skeletons of the Highdown rocket site are today one of the few reminders of the successful, if short-lived, British space programme of the latter half of the 20th century. The last Black Arrow now resides at the Science Museum in London. Another “living” reminder is Prospero, which will continue to orbit the Earth until at least 2200.
The National Trust acquired the Batteries and the surrounding downland in 1975 and after extensive restoration work the Old Battery was opened to the public in 1982. The Trust and its team of volunteer helpers today maintain the surviving buildings to a high standard. In 2004 the first stage of opening the underground rooms to visitors took place.
For those who are hungry or thirsty after clambering all over Highdown and the Batteries, there are refreshments available at the Old Battery, although the café is quite small. There are also toilets in the parade ground and no visit to the Old Battery would be complete without heading down the spiral staircase to the tunnel that leads from the Parade Ground to the searchlight position that overlooks the Needles.
The National Trust has now completed the first stage of its initiative to provide an information centre, which is now open in a room at the New Battery. Models of the Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets and of Prospero, the satellite successfully launched from Woomera in 1971, can be seen there.
On certain days you can find out from the actual people who worked here about the part they played in “Britain’s Race for Space”. Former “rocket men” are on hand to answer questions about the rockets that were tested at the site.
Standing on the rocket site on a perfect spring morning, I felt a certain uneasiness at where all of this may have led, yet also a great pride in British inventiveness. For anyone interested in modern history, the Space Race, the Cold War, or who just wants to see the best views of the Needles, a visit is an absolute must.