The 650 acre site, which has been operating since before I was even born, nestles in open countryside on the outskirts of Harrogate and can hardly be more obvious with its wire fencing, its keep out signs and its 37 golf balls which actually aren’t listening devices, as many once believed, but are there merely to protect the radar equipment.
And thank heavens they are there, even if we don’t know exactly what they actually do 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. The whole operation and those who work there, are protected under the Official Secrets Act for good reason. They are secret.
But this week, hidden among the headlines we were given a strong hint as to what really happens at Menwith Hill and how sophisticated the operations which go on there really are. Not only that, but a hint as to how important it is for international security and why, despite all the campaigns over the years to have it closed, it must stay.
At 6.18 on Sunday morning the Supreme Leader of Al Qaeda appeared on the balcony of his safe house in the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. Ayman al-Zawahiri was believed to be the last member of a group of eight who had masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York which killed almost 3,000 people.
He had, the reports tell us, been monitored for months not just by the US but by British intelligence experts. And they were watching that morning as the drone strike which killed him was launched. What’s more they were watching from Harrogate and Menwith Hill, which tells me all I need to know about why it is there. It makes the world a safer place.
Over the last 20 years Menwith Hill has been the subject of numerous demonstrations most of them by CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Women set up camp in the 90s made up not just of those who had already made their presence felt at Greenham Common, but local women too, demanding the base be closed and nuclear weapons abandoned.
Although I couldn’t say so at the time on the grounds of impartiality as I covered their presence and some of the arrests that subsequently happened, I can now say in this column that the demonstrators were wrong on both counts. Menwith, and the monitoring station known as Fylingdales on the North Yorkshire Moors are part of what keeps us safe. And we don’t know the half of it. But I suggest we don’t need to know either.
What we should know is that in this country the terrorist attack level remains substantial, which according to the Ministry of Defence means it is ‘likely’.
Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the New York terror attacks, the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, revealed that there had been 31 late stage terrorist plots thwarted in this country since 2017. MI5 was working as hard as it could to stop them but that wouldn’t be possible on every occasion, he said.
He added that while MI5 had saved thousands of lives it “cannot always succeed”. It is reasonable to suppose that some of those planned attacks were thwarted because of the highly trained men and women at Menwith Hill. That I believe is what they do.
So if any of them are reading this column, thank you, as one who covered the death and destruction on the London Underground caused by homegrown bombers from Yorkshire. I want you there now and forever. And to those who still suggest its very presence amongst the rolling hills makes us a target, so does every military base, of which there are many in this county. But at least having them there makes Britain less of a target.
What are we really so frightened of when it comes to sophisticated surveillance? Why do we need to know that which doesn’t affect us unless we have or are planning to commit a crime? In London there has been outrage that Mayor Sadiq Khan plans to allow police access to vehicle registration cameras which capture car number plates as they drive through the capital.
It is precisely that system which tracked the killers of PC Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford in 2005 and led to their arrest. Indeed it was Bradford which pioneered the scheme which has now got the liberal do-gooders of London up in arms. But then as my police officer father would say, if you are doing nothing wrong what are you worried about?
If I cast my mind back to the days of the women’s camp at Menwith Hill, the major part of their campaign was and remains a call for nuclear disarmament. Wouldn’t we all like that to be a reality? In truth we need it, as much as we need Menwith Hill.
So to those at Menwith Hill, in Harrogate, and those Fylingdales, on the North York Moors, keep doing what you do, monitoring, listening and now we know, watching those who would do us harm. You deserve our support not our condemnation as to why you are here. And you always have.