Day the nuclear missiles arrived

As arguments rage over the replacement of Britain's nuclear deterrent, a national exhibition on the Cold War shows how Yorkshire was in the front line. RAF Fylingdales remains crucial to the West's defence, but at former missile sites in the East Riding only memories are left.John Woodcock reports

This month, 48 years ago, the first nuclear missiles arrived at Driffield.

Or, as a sign at the town's RAF station renamed it, "Santa Monica on the Wolds". The Californian beach resort was the headquarters of the Douglas Aircraft Company, manufacturer of the Thor ballistic missile. For four years, at the height of the Cold War, 15 of them were deployed in East Yorkshire, designed to inflict retaliatory mass-destruction on the Soviet Union.

Long after being made redundant by more advanced weaponry, the Thor remains an awesome sight. By its sheer physical scale, one dominates the recently opened National Cold War Exhibition at the Royal Air Force Museum at Cosford in Shropshire.

At 65ft it reaches almost to the ceiling of the new exhibition hall. Despite RAF insignia it looks more like a majestic explorer of space than the terrifying deliverer of a warhead to a target more than 1,700 miles from its launch site. It stretches the imagination now to think that from 1959-63 the pressing of a button would have despatched this and 59 similar missiles from the East Riding, Lincolnshire, and East Anglia on missions that would annihilate much of humanity as the Superpowers resorted to Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD.

As part of the so-called Project Emily, three Thors were installed at each of the former Second World War airfields at Driffield, Catfoss near Hornsea, Carnaby on the outskirts of Bridlington, Full Sutton, a few miles from York, and Breighton near Howden.

Where the sites have since become industrial estates, there are odd contrasts between the past and present. At Full Sutton, once a potential scene of Armageddon, there's a warning that trespassers who stray onto a flying club's runway will be prosecuted "for endangering life".

At Carnaby, where 16 Bloodhound air-defence missiles used to protect its Thors, you'll now find a rock-maker instead of rockets, and the Global Cake Co among the employers.

Meanwhile, at Catfoss the remnants of the Thor launch pads are in the midst of a turkey farm. There are five metal plates, parts of a trackway used by the missile's moveable hangar, and a couple of 12ft high concrete blast walls – now sprouting elderberry bushes – which military personnel would have sheltered behind in the event of ignition. But there's no plaque or acknowledgement of any kind that nuclear war could have been unleashed from here.

There are, however, the memories of Rodney Robinson, who describes himself as an aviation nut. He grew up next to the airfield when it was a wartime training base for bomber crews and Spitfire pilots, and was working on the family farm when – as he describes it in his written research – "the nuclear age arrived at Catfoss".

"It was strange time," recalled Robinson, now 68. "We weren't that aware of the dangers, and initial consternation about the missiles coming here was soon replaced by the benefits, because establishing the site provided a lot of work.

"When they began arriving, a lady in the village secretly photographed one from behind her hedge, and risked getting into serious trouble. Most folk weren't that curious. Among my generation there was still a sense that having won the war, we remained king of the world. We hadn't a clue about something called the Cold War.

"Now and again protesters from CND turned up but we thought they were nutcases. On reflection they had more between their ears than we knew. They were worried, but round here no-one was unduly bothered despite all the talk about a four-minute warning before we were blown to smithereens. We were blas."

Robinson's attitude changed dramatically the day he saw a Thor in the take-off position, and vapour billowing from its base. He didn't realise it was a simulated "wet launch" to test the missile's fuel system.

"I was working in the turnip field when all of sudden the klaxons went off. I looked up and the Thor looked like it was all set to go. My first thought was 'I'd better get home'. Then I realised there'd be no point. By the time I got on my bike and out of the field the balloon would have gone up for all of us. Nothing happened of course but it was a shock, and a realisation of how scary the times could be."

None were more frightening than at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis between October 27 and November 4, 1962. The Cold War Exhibition recalls it to chilling effect, with film and interviews from the time, and recreates the tension until the Americans and Russians struck a deal and pulled back from the brink. As the commentary puts it: "Sanity prevailed. The whole world breathed again".

During the crisis the Thor bases were placed on high alert. The perimeter at Catfoss was always illuminated – "lit up like Hull Fair" – but security intensified during those nerve-racking hours. Decontamination chambers were refurbished and all personnel were confined to camp.

Robinson says it's hard for later generations to appreciate what happened where the old airbase now accommodates his builders' merchants, and several other businesses. There can be scepticism and worse in response to tales of the Cold War front-line. He offers this anecdote. "Stories about the Thors have been handed down to the local kids, and a few years ago one of them was describing the missiles to a young teacher who'd come to our school from outside the area. She didn't believe the child's account, and was convinced it was made up. A fairy story. It didn't say much for the teacher's knowledge of recent history."

It wasn't make-believe to the Russians. Down the coast at RAF Holmpton, near Withernsea, the former top-secret underground radar station which is now open to the public, a former Soviet military map is on a bunker wall. It shows Holmpton marked with a target ring, and similar rings around all the Thor bases.

Also of specific interest to Moscow was the British Aerospace plant at Brough, near Hull, previously the Blackburn aircraft factory and then Hawker Siddeley, and where Geoff Simmons worked for 43 years, latterly on missile systems.

He's co-author of Strong Foundations, a history of Driffield's airfield whose title comes from the motto on the RAF station's crest. In a chapter on the Thor era he describes how the first ones arrived at Driffield, the regional headquarters of Project Emily, on April 3, 1959. They were brought in Globemasters of the US Air Force and then taken by road to emplacements around the county. At each site were trailers which served as control centres, linked to the launch pads by cables. Manpower reflected the delicate command structure between the British and Americans – allies yet separate, and a relationship as complex as that between the two in current conflicts. The Thor squadrons operated under a dual key system: RAF officers had command of of the missiles, but their American counterparts controlled the warheads. It was Washington which would take the ultimate decision.

Harry Lomas was a Launch Control Console Operator at Driffield, one of the 14 Brits employed at a missile site on a typical shift. In an interview for Simmons's book, he said: "My first job was to check the target coordinates of the guidance system of my particular missile. These were quite meaningless figures to us – we merely knew they represented targets somewhere in eastern Europe.

"Thereafter, there wasn't much to do other than monitor our consoles and ensure the open line to Bomber Command HQ was maintained. We usually spent the night reading or playing chess. Sometimes I sat outside the trailer in the fresh air and gazed around the brightly-lit scene. Nothing moved except an occasional dog patrol, or maybe Percy our civilian cook out collecting mushrooms for our breakfast.

"During the war I had done a tour of ops whilst stationed at nearby Lissett and had seen first-hand the devastation of Germany. It was awesome to think that the weapons around me held the destructive potential of all the wartime bombing".

By 1963 the strategists had become convinced that surface-based missiles were too vulnerable to a sudden attack. Britain's independent nuclear deterrent was transferred to V-bombers and then Polaris.

Now the politicians are divided over the replacement of the submarines' Trident at a cost of 20bn. There is also speculation that in years to come Yorkshire could again host American missiles: its Son of Star Wars defence system.

Whatever is decided, Rodney Robinson thinks it unlikely the public will know the full story. "At Catfoss, the authorities used to tell people that nuclear warheads were fitted only at times of international tension, but some of us heard different. We were told there were no dummies, that it was the real thing, all the time, until the day we saw the missiles leave."

Chilling history

of the Cold War goes on display

The 12.3m National Cold War Museum is the first of its kind in the world. It owes its title to a phrase credited to Bernard Baruch, a US financier and political adviser, who during a debate in 1947 said: "Let us not be deceived: today we are in the midst of a cold war." It became shorthand for the ideological conflict that began with the division of Europe after the Second World War and continued until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it communist rule, in 1989.

The exhibition examines the military consequences, and the impact on politics, economies, lifestyle, culture, sport, civil defence, and espionage, and how it spawned real wars and protest movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Greenham Common women. The hardware displayed includes missiles, MiGs, and the RAF's delta-wing Vulcan which carried a Yellow Sun Mk 2 thermo nuclear hydrogen bomb.

There is a section entitled "4 Minutes", a reference to the role of RAF Fylingdales, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station built on the North York Moors in 1962. Its three radomes, better known as golf balls, became a symbol of the Cold War and have since been replaced by the pyramid-like Solid State Phased Array Radar. A further upgrade, as part of the US's missile defence programme, is nearing completion. A panel about Fylingdales says: "The image of a nuclear mushroom and the fear of a 4-minute warning were engrained in the minds of all those who lived through the Cold War in the United Kingdom". It makes clear that once Soviet missiles were detected by Fylingdales, there would have been time only for RAF V-bombers to retaliate. In terms of protecting the general public, the four-minute warning was meaningless. Millions would have perished as parts of the earth became "as hot as the sun".

The permanent National Cold War Exhibition is at the Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford, Shropshire. It's close to the M54, and trains from Birmingham stop there. Open daily 10am-6pm (last entry 4pm). Admission and parking is free. Information: 01902 376200 www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org.uk;

www.rafmuseum.org