A Re­turn to the Cold War… on the Isle of Wight

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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.

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