Cloaked in secrecy, RAF Fylingdales has stood sentry over the North York Moors for half a century.
It was built during the Cold War, a time when tensions were high between the world’s great superpowers, and the threat of nuclear war was very real.
Next month the base celebrates its anniversary, 50 years after Air Marshal Sir Douglas Morris commissioned the base, saying: “This is not the first time that a station of this kind has been established here on the Yorkshire moors - about 1,000 years ago a warning post was set up near Whitby, some ten miles from here, to provide warning of attack by sea invaders from Scandinavia on their approach to these shores. The threat and equipment has changed in the intervening years, but the purpose remains the same.”
This historic outpost inspired the station’s crest, showing the White Rose of Yorkshire surmounted by a Viking Fire Warning Basket.
Appropriately, the Fylingdales motto, ‘Vigilamus’, means ‘We are watching’.
First using the ‘golf balls’, then later the ‘pyramid’, a team of British and American personnel have indeed watched, originally able to spot missile launches 2,000 miles away.
In 1960, soon after the base was announced, Pentagon sources were quoted as saying the base would give the USA up to 15 minutes extra warning, should an attack be launched, but the UK would be unlikely to benefit. “Russians would use intermediate range missiles from East Germany to knock you out, and you would get no warning worth mentioning,” was the brutally honest reply.
The £43m project announced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was the first in which the UK had made a contribution, and at a meeting of Whitby Luncheon Club at Botham’s Cafe in 1961, a representative explained how its proximity to the coast and lack of population in the vicinity made the moor the only candidate. He also pledged that when the station was no longer required, the moor would be restored to its original condition.
Work began on the first of the three 140ft golf balls in 1962 and at the station’s opening in September of the following year, both the American Stars and Stripes and the British Union Flag flew side by side in a statement of defiance against Soviet aggression.
1965 saw the first Royal visit to the base, with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, enjoying a tour of the Early Warning Station.
In 1973 it was claimed by Conservative MP Geoffrey Stewart-Smith that the Russians had used spy-ships disguised as trawlers to ‘bug’ the station. It was even claimed the Soviets had already cracked the West’s nuclear attack shield, of which Fylingdales was the third and most southerly link.
The first female officer was posted to RAF Fylingdales in 1977, Flight Lieutenant Marcia Sergeant, of Thirsk.
An international nuclear alert later that decade ended when RAF Fylingdales told the Western world it was not under attack. As interceptor fighters were scrambled in the US and Canada, the normal duty team on the long range radar scanners at Fylingdales calmly diagnosed the alert as a false alarm.
The three original domes were dismantled between 1982-84 and replaced. However, the new golf balls were to be operational for less than a decade, before being replaced by the pyramid which stands today.
Since 1963, the radomes had tracked 2,000 satellites each week and had only ever been out of operation for 14 hours.
The replacement system was set to be a massive upgrade, and was able to track a football-sized object at 3,000 miles.
It could also scan in 360 degrees, it was not restricted to just the north and east like the old system.
Announced in the late-80s, the new 170ft pyramid became operational in autumn 1992.
In the early years of its life the new system had attracted a large amount of controversy.
Peace protesters feared the new £160m radar system could be used to fire weapons from space as part of America’s “Star Wars” project.
A 1987 protest at the proposed upgrade saw 14 people arrested, and many others have also been taken into custody over the years following demonstrations close to the base.
Concerns over Fylingdales’ inclusion in the “Star Wars” project continued for over a decade, as the new millennium saw a visit to the base by Lt Gen Ronald Kadish, director at the Missile Defence Agency in Washington DC.
A year later, in 2003, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon angered locals by announcing America would be allowed to use Fylingdales in the defence programme, despite large-scale protests. Campaigners feared the base could become a target for terrorist attacks.
Now, the base continues its fourfold mission relating to missile defence and satellite tracking. However, despite many long-standing concerns, Fylingdales has become an accepted part of the community.
It remains a large-scale employer, maintains 3,000 acres of moorland, and the rumours of radiation deathrays that accompanied the base’s lunch in 1963 have, thankfully, proved untrue.