back to article German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

It is difficult to trump the long-defunct Blue Streak missile development and test facility at RAF Spadeadam for a sense of historical ennui and lost opportunity. The sheer number and scale of the remains, their dilapidated nature and isolated location make it a place unique, depressing and awe-inspiring in equal measure. But …

  1. hittitezombie

    Fascinating - Westcott is not that far away, could we wander in and start going around w/o calling ahead?

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      According to the info right at the end of the article, no, you cannot just wonder in:

      "Getting there

      Westcott Venture Park is a secure business park, so even though most of the test stands are easily accessible so you will need to contact the site office to arrange admission."

  2. imanidiot Silver badge

    Another interesting article

    Keep 'em coming! As a non-Brit, I never realised just how extensive the British rocketry programs were. Thanks for the insights.

    1. Lazlo Woodbine

      Re: Another interesting article

      To be fair, most of us Brits don't have a clue about this stuff either...

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Another interesting article

      There was a lot of general rocket research going on. The problem with developing our own nuclear missile was felt to be that Britain was too small for many missiles to survive a first strike. At which point having an independent balistic missile to throw at the Soviets within the first few minutes of them attacking was no cheaper than using the V Bomber force we'd already got - just with exending their range by giving them an air-launched cruise missile.

      Particularly as the US were developing Skybolt. Until Kennedy (or was it Eisenhower?) cancelled it. At which point we were quite pissed off because the US had promised it as an option when we cancelled Blue Streak. There was some thought that this was deliberate, because the US wanted to maintain a monopoly on strategic nuclear strike within NATO - and I'm not sure that opinion from within Whitehall is completely unfair either. This is covered in part by Peter Hennessey's brilliant book (all his stuff is great actually) 'The Silent Deep'. Which also covers Chevaline - mentioned in this article. Incidentally Chevaline (a "cheap" alternative to a full MIRV) cost £5 billion to develop, over the 70s - that's in 1970s money. Maybe the equivalent of £20bn today?

      Incidentally Kennedy offered to hand over the Skybolt stuff for the UK to continue developing it, but as MacMillan said, it's pretty hard to sell the public on spending loads of money on a system the US has rejected as a failure. Hence the Americans were talked into sharing Polaris, in return for a nice base for their subs in Scotland - and a promise that the British nuclear deterrent could be put under joint NATO command with the UK having the final say on firing it - something that never happened. In the end I think NATO had some "dual-key" systems, like the B60 gravity bombs, where say the German and US governments would have to jointly agree to use them - but other than the US, UK and France kept control of their own stuff.

      Anyway the reason I think that the UK abandoned the rockets is that they gave very few options - because you only had a few minutes from detecting an incoming attack before being forced to take the decision to retaliate. Whereas the submarine based nuclear deterrent is safe and much harder to knock out with a first strike.

      Obviously Britain maintained a missile industry, hence the mention of things like Seaslug and Alarm in the article - but nothing bigger.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Another interesting article

        The USA has a track record of pointing at their allies high tech achievements which compete with their own and telling them they could save a fortune by cancelling the project because the US promises a "great deal" by selling them "better" US stuff. Then not quite coming through on the deal. There was a mach 3 Canadian fighter jet too.

        1. GrumpyKiwi

          Re: Another interesting article

          The Canadian fighter was the Avro (Canada) Arrow. Which was a potentially very good interceptor for shooting down Russian bombers that had the misfortune to enter testing at the moment that the USSR demonstrated Sputnik - showing that bombers were no longer the primary threat to be concerned with.

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

            Re: Another interesting article


            Which is also why fighter planes have been getting generally slower since the 60s. I don't think there's many frontline aircraft left that can do Mach 2 - which used to be reasonably common.

            Presumably for all sorts of boring reasons. Though having fewer types and therefore not having the luxury of stupidly fast interceptors with incredibly short ranges and horrible maintenance requirements has got to be one of them.

            1. imanidiot Silver badge

              Re: Another interesting article

              Slower over the average of the entire flight yes, but aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 can maintain Mach 1+ for extended periods of time (super-cruise). The earlier jets like the Century series could only manage short bursts of Mach 2 and a bit before their engine blew, they ran out of fuel or the airframe overheated (or all three) and flew subsonic most of the mission.

      2. John Jennings
        Thumb Up

        Re: Another interesting article

        And another interesting post. Keep them up :)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great article

    Thank you Alun.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great article.

    I walked up to the High Downs site on a visit to the Isle of Wight a few years ago. It's quite impressive but I came away feeling very angry that so much potential was scrapped on an apparent government whim.

    Next time I'll make sure to go off-season and do a bit of exploring.

    1. Craig 2

      Regularly run/walk/ride up the downs around the Needles Battery and there are loads of interesting structures. Of course most of them just look like lumps of concrete or fixings poking out of the earth so some historical context from the article is great. There's also tunnels etc. in the cliff facing Alum Bay which are worth an explore if you're adventurous :)

    2. CliveS

      Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

      "so much potential was scrapped on an apparent government whim"

      In the 60s and 70s the UK was a bit of an economic basket case. The Pound had been devalued in 1967, and successive Conservative and Labour governments had failed to halt the decline. At the same time that Black Arrow was being cancelled, Rolls Royce was being bailed out by the government due to the number of defence-related commitments RR had. So money was tight and many projects had to be axed. It didn't help the British space programme that prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British satellite payloads for free, an offer that was revoked once the cancellation was announced.

      Been to High Downs a few times, and I share your sense of anger and frustration. That Britain is the only nation to have developed a satellite launch capability and then walked away is an ignominious record...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

        And of course, we scrapped it about a decade before people started giving serious thoughts to the commercial prospects of spaceflight - something ESA and the Ariane series were all too quick to adopt. At the time, space was just seen as a cost rather than an economic driver.

        Black Arrow was almost the smallest rocket to carry a useful payload to orbit, so I wonder what a follow-on to Black Arrow would have looked like and whether the UK would have carried on with HTP - which although terrifying stuff, is much less horrifying than dealing with hypergolic fuels or the technical nightmares of cryogenic rocketry.

        1. CliveS

          Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

          "I wonder what a follow-on to Black Arrow would have looked like"

          You might want to check out Black Prince. It would have had a first stage based on Blue Streak (LOx/Kerosene), Black Arrow (HTP/Kerosene) as second stage, and a third stage based on a solid fuel rocket. When the project was cancelled, the Blue Streak first stage was re-purposed for the first stage of the Europa launch system from EDOL (predecessor to ESA).

        2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

          Mike Richards,

          You describe HTP as horrifying, and I've got to agree. The Navy built two test submarines in the 50s to use it - as a possible alternative to nuclear propulsion. HMS Explorer (nicknamed Exploder) and Excalibur.

          Apparently Explorer's first captain never even got her to sea, due to all the problems. And the thing gave off so much smoke when you first started the engines (a tricky and dangerous process) that they once didn't notice that they were on fire - until the chief engineer walked into the control room and noticed people being overcome by fumes.

          1. phuzz Silver badge

            Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

            HTP might not be the sort of thing you'd want in a submarine, but in comparison to other substances used to fuel rockets, it's a peach. You can have an open container of HTP on a workbench an nobody will die (probably).

            Compare that to something like Red Fuming Nitric Acid, (which is inhibited by adding HF!), or hydrazine (if you can smell it, then you're over the exposure limit, sorry).

            1. imanidiot Silver badge

              Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

              Obligatory link when discussing rocket fuels: Ignition; An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. By John D. Clark

              Very interesting read and a good eye opener on why there are so many superfund sites in the US. (I mean, silly little ideas like adding pure elemental mercury to rocket fuel because nobody wanted to make a hundred pounds of dimethyl mercury for them for some odd reason...)

          2. Citizen99

            Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

            I seem to remember reading that the Russians went operational with HTP in submarines, and suffered at least one explosion catastrophe.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry


              Leaking HTP tank in a large exercise torpedo without a warhead, started decomposing inside a closed torpedo tube, blew open the inner door and then after a few minutes of heating everything in the torpedo room to a couple of thousand degrees C with the torpedo fuel there was a multiple armed torpedo warhead detonation that blew a hole in the hull and sank the sub.

              Not recommended at all.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

        "The Pound had been devalued in 1967"

        But it wasn't worth less. Harold Wilson said so and he was PM so it must be right. PMs are always right.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Have you ever managed to get into the SaRo site near the Folly on the Medina where they did the rocket assembly? It's all condemned but apparently somewhat intact still. Perhaps not for much longer though.

  5. DaemonProcess

    It is worth going into the control room in summer, when I went there a few years ago they had a model of Prospero and some control units.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      You got there first, the article says that there are no control panels left at High Down, but they are inside the building that is closed in the off season.

    2. Colin Wilson 2

      The cool thing about Prospero was that it looked like it was specifically designed to inject Princess Leia with some sort of truth serum...

  6. TVU Silver badge

    German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

    @Alun Taylor, thank you so much for your very interesting and informative tour of the remnants of the British rocketry programme. I now wish that it could be turned into a really interesting documentary, e.g. on BBC Four.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry

      Seconded. It's been a long time since Channel 4 made their 'Britain's Cold War Super Weapons' series and I don't think it is (legally) available.

      BTW. If you haven't read it; 'Vertical Empire' by C.N. Hill is a good look at the Blue Streak, Black Knight, Black Arrow and ELDO programmes.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What Ails you?

    Aylesbury not Ailsbury

    I know it is Monday but... Has the spellchecker gone on strike?

    Or was it downed by a rogue 'Blue Streak'?

    I'm old enough to remember the anti-aircraft missile battery that was near RAF Wyton when the Bombers were operational there. You could see them from the A141. This is probably circa 1960-64. Going towards Warboys from Huntingdon you passed Wyton (on your right) and they were a little farther along on your left (or was it right because they diverted the road about then).

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: What Ails you?

      There's also an instance of Saunders-Roe almost immediately followed by an instance of Sanders-Row. But the Tips and Corrections doesn't work on this laptop. I don't have an email client on it.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Science Museum exhibit from a few years back

    They had a Bloodhound missile helpfully labelled with its performance of going from zero to supersonic in its own bodylength. Not sure what sort of G forces it would have been pulling, but it must have been impressively loud.

    1. CliveS

      Re: Science Museum exhibit from a few years back

      Bloodhound Mk2 could go from Mach 1 to Mach 2.5 is about 4 seconds, and hit Mach 1 in its own length, so let's assume acceleration is constant from launch to Mach 2.5.

      Mach 1 is 340m/s at sea level, and Mach 2.5 is 850m/s. Bloodhound could achieve that in 4s which would give rate of acceleration of 127.5m/s/s or approximately 13G. Which is pretty much equivalent to typical launch escape systems for manned rockets.

    2. ClockworkOwl

      Re: Science Museum exhibit from a few years back

      I can confirm that it must have been quite loud,

      A three foot model rocket went supersonic off the pad at one of the HPR meets I went to a few years ago...

      It wasn't just the attention of the RSOs that was grabbed!

      The shock was shared variously that day, as several flyers discovered the power of Cessaroni VMAX reloads, some with ERUD :@)

  9. adam 40 Silver badge


    "all control instrumentation has long since been stripped out of the High Downs site"

    Glad to have helped with that! As a boy in the '70's, interested in electronics, there were some nice pickings to be had on my summer holiday, as they hadn't completely stripped it all out when I visited.....

  10. Red Ted

    Nammo - purveyors of rockets to Land Speed Record cars

    Nammo are supplying the rocket to go in the next version of the Bloodhound LSR

    Also it's called "Bloodhound" as Ron Ayers worked on the missile design too.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    UK Secret Bases

    This and many more examples - including Bloodhound and Thor sites - are described on Alan Turnbull's Secret Bases site, often featured on The Register.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Useful to down Amazon drones?

  13. werdsmith Silver badge

    I also went over the barrier and explored the concrete emplacement close up. Would not have liked to have been there in the 60s without ear defenders.

    There is also an earlier gun emplacement for defending the shipping channel approaching Pompey which is why it is called Needles Battery. And Tennyson down is also very nice, the view across Alum Bay and across to Bournemouth and the south coast is also glorious. Many reason to go that way rather than the sweet factory and glass blowing.

  14. Mike 16

    German Scientists

    There's an I.T. Angle as well.

    Years ago I attended a talk on Konrad Zuse. IIRC, it was given by his son. Anyway, as Berlin was crumbling, Zuse managed to find transport for his computer (Z3 maybe?) by reverting to its original 'V" prefix. They left Berlin traveling in company with Von Braun, but decided to part company as the territory they were traversing was mostly patrolled by British troops, who Zuse thought might not be too welcoming to Von Braun for some reason. So he split off before the true nature of Allied attitudes toward German scientists was revealed. He ended up in Switzerland and a bit later offered the computer to the Allies, who declined because the guy they asked to evaluate it said there was nothing of interest. Apparently Flaoting point with hidden-bit mantissa,or a programming notation to ease development of algorithms were of no interest.

    I believe that machine ended up at ETH where it was used for several years.

  15. Tim99 Silver badge

    Westcott's sister site, The Royal Gunpowder Mills:-

    Could be a good day out for those who are interested in this sort of thing, particularly if you have children/grandchildren: Site link.

    Making gunpowder on the site goes back to the C17th; which was purchased by the Crown in the C18th. By WW1 it was an import centre for manufacturing Cordite. At the start of WW2 it was the only UK manufacturer of the "modern" explosive RDX, and significant research was carried out on the explosives used in Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb, Tallboy, and Grand Slam weapons.

    After WW2. the site became the Explosives Research and Development Establishment (ERDE) and in 1977 it was merged with the Rocket Propulsion Establishment Westcott (RPE - Parent Article) to form two Propellants Explosives and Rocket Motor Establishments, PERME Waltham Abbey, and PERME Westcott.

  16. Roj Blake Silver badge

    Blue Steel

    It's great to see Blue Steel being mentioned in the article. I've often thought that if the boffins had managed to successfully develop its replacement (codenamed Magnum), things might have turned out very differently

  17. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse

    Taking on board the Governments current approach to our scientific and historical culture; I fully expect that quite soon all of these named sites will be preserved for future posterity under the protective embrace of new housing estates. That, or they will be pay-walled by the asshats at "National trust".

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