Memories of RAF Harrington 1959 to 1963

By Squadron Leader Colin J. Burch

RAF Harrington
Sqn Ldr Colin Burch, Officer Commanding 218 (SM) Squadron RAF Harrington 1959 - 1963

My RAF career started in April 1941, and subsequently I flew in Bomber Command, 1943 to 1944 on operations over Germany and France. On completion of my operational tour, I was posted to RAF Desborough as an instructor where I remained until the end of the War in Europe.

In July 1959 whilst holding a Staff Appointment as “Cadet I” at No 64 Group Headquarters, RAF Rufforth, York, I was appointed to command a Ballistic Missile Site with its base at RAF North Luffenham, a Bomber Command establishment in Rutland. This was then known as No 144 Squadron which had five satellite IRBM sites under construction at Polebrook near Peterborough, Folkingham, near Bourne in Lincolnshire, Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, Harrington and the 5th on the main base at North Luffenham. Later, Bomber Command in their wisdom decided to designate all the Thor Missile sites as individual squadrons each with their own distinctive number and motto. In order to become familiar with ballistic missiles, and to some extent nuclear weapons, I attended the Empire Air Armaments College at RAF Manby near Louth in Lincolnshire and upon graduating was informed that I was to command No 218(M) Squadron at RAF Harrington.

I moved with my wife and two daughters into married quarters at North Luffenham where I was to rejoin them on my return from the USA following training, first at Davis Monthan, USAF Base near Tucson, Arizona, and then at USAF Base Vandenberg in California where I launched my first Thor IRBM.


Sqn Ldr J.C. Burch’s 1st detachment to USA during 1959, taken at Davis Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona

Back row L-R

Mr Pete Pederson (Douglas A/C Co), Capt Bill Ott (USAF), Flt Lt David Scott (LCO), Sqn Ldr Colin Burch (Sqn Commander / Detachment Commander)’ Flt Lt Gwyn Parry (LCO), Mr Bill Taylor (Douglas A/C Co)

Front row L-R

Flt Lt Toby Meyers (LCO), Capt Frank Harvan (USAF Authentication Officer), Flt Lt Peter Adams (LCO)

Thor Missile
Thor missile No. 47 being launched at Vandenberg AFB 13th December.1960

I commuted daily between North Luffenham and Harrington in a small bus in which I carried about 15 or so service personnel, a distance of around 30 miles. During the early days we would stop en-route in either Desborough or Rothwell and purchase food for a mid-day meal as the catering arrangements had not been properly established, although married personnel were expected to make their own arrangements for feeding. However, we were soon provided with a fully equipped kitchen and a cook so we managed quite well. A number of the married officers and airmen soon found themselves private accommodation in the Kettering area and thus made their own way to and from the site. At this time the site was left in charge of the RAF Police and dog handlers who were transported daily from and back to North Luffenham.

One of my first administrative tasks was to find a suitable plot of land which the Air Ministry could purchase and on which they could build a house for the Squadron Commander, it being belatedly believed that he should be within easy reach of the Squadron at all times. This became a time consuming exercise that was eventually left to Air Ministry Public Buildings and Works Department to pursue and subsequently build a house in Harrington village. By the time it was built however, my ‘tour’ as OC No 218 Squadron was completed and I was appointed Training Officer for the whole North Luffenham Complex, and therefore never occupied this Officer’s Married Quarters. My successor, Squadron Leader Slaughter, was an “unaccompanied” officer and did not occupy the OMQ either so it was assigned to one of my launch control officers.

Rapport was soon established with the local farmers and some local inhabitants, including a retired Civil Service engineer who had supervised the construction of the original airfield and who was now landlord of the public house in Harrington. A farmer with whom I had regular contact was the original owner of the airfield land before the Government compulsorily purchased it. I cannot recall his name (Mr Woods) but he was by birth a New Zealander, and he lived in Draughton. He was somewhat upset when he was unable to repurchase the land that he originally farmed and which was now declared surplus to Air Ministry requirements. lt was sold to someone else allegedly in controversial circumstances.

Another of my many administrative duties was to establish the badge and motto of No 218 Squadron as the one assigned appeared to be inconsistent with its history. On visiting the Air Ministry Archives Dept. in London I discovered that the badge was an egg – timer with the motto,” In Time”, quite appropriate with it being first formed just prior to the end of World War I.

218 Squadron RAF

Being somewhat remote from the parent station I was faced with a several problems not normally associated with RAF squadron administration. I had to make arrangements to pay all non-commissioned personnel, which meant me, in the company of an armed escort, drawing money from the bank in Rothwell. I also needed to set up a pseudo NAFFI on the site where airmen could purchase confectionery and tobacco etc. Disposal of Mess swill had to be dealt with, but fortunately I found a local pig farmer who was willing to collect it. The surrounding grassed areas had to be frequently mown so contracts for this had to be let. I had to employ a civilian ‘cleaner’ and make available separate cooking and eating facilities for him. There were no leisure facilities provided and so I was quite grateful to the USAF when they donated a wooden hut used by them during the construction of the Squadron and which with a great deal of self help and the efforts of my wife and others who made some curtains, it was soon converted into a very desirable rest room, the envy of other Thor squadrons. We also managed to ‘rescue’ a discarded flag pole from the Administrative site of the old USAAF Base which after de-rusting, a little painting, and the construction of a suitable base, it became the Squadron flag pole proudly flying the RAF Ensign and the Squadron Leader’s pennant.

The flagpole on the administration site before its "rescue" by Sqn Ldr Burch
The flagpole on the administration site before its "rescue" by Sqn Ldr Burch

Towards the end of 1959 and whilst the site was still under construction, I was alerted to a pending mass demonstration at Harrington by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The chairperson for this organisation, Miss Pat Arrowsmith and some of her associates were incarcerated before the event for failing to give an undertaking to “keep the peace”, but this did not deter many hundreds of followers from staging the protest. By this time we had organised a considerable force to protect the site and its personnel from any attempted assault; this force comprising police from the Northamptonshire Constabulary, the Air Ministry Constabulary, and RAF Police and dog handlers. The surrounding fence was quickly completed and barbed wire erected at strategic points; and as one newspaper reporter wrote, “Even a mouse would find it difficult to get into the site”. I, personally received abusive letters, but at no time did I feel concerned for my personal safety or for that of my staff.. The demonstration lasted only 48 hours and a few of the demonstrators were arrested for obstructing the highway, which amounted only to erecting tents etc on the grass verges. There was no violence, and a first class relationship developed between us inside the compound and the police; and to some extent with the CND themselves, who finally admitted. that the whole episode had been handled with great diplomacy and left earlier than expected promising not to return to Harrington. This did not however, prevent the National Front from staging a demonstration only 48 hours after the CND had left, but they quickly dispersed without incident.

Several days later a youth aged about 14 yrs was detained by the Squadron MPs when found setting up a one-man demonstration near the site entrance. He had hoped to join the CND but was unaware that they had left prematurely. He was brought onto the site to protect him from the adverse weather conditions whilst the Northamptonshire Police were being informed. It was subsequently established that the youth had travelled from London alone without his parent’s knowledge, and he was quickly returned home.

Construction work was completed early in 1960 and vast amounts of missile equipment started to arrive from the USA via North Luffenham from where it was transported by road. The number and size of the crates in which the equipment arrived created a problem of disposal and much of it had to be burnt, this in itself creating a bit of a hazard.

Thor missile Number 51 on its launching trailer in Harrington Road at Rothwell
Thor missile Number 51 on its launching trailer in Harrington Road at Rothwell

The Thor missiles, attached to their launch vehicles and with additional rear steering, had to negotiate many narrow roads and steep bends on their way to Harrington and were escorted by both military and civilian police. It all arrived without incident and was quickly installed. Then followed an intense period of training and acceptance trials and the missiles were soon declared operational. A total of five crews gave continuous cover, 24 hours a day and every day. Delivery of warheads was conducted under extreme security with a large escort that could hardly conceal the fact that something important was afoot. The movement of warheads demanded special nuclear disaster procedures which were regularly put into practice along the delivery routes causing the occasional disruption to the local population going about their business, but it was reassuring to all.

A Chief Technician in the Electronics Control Trailer
A Chief Technician in the Electronics Control Trailer

The warheads were under the complete control of the USAF at all times but whether or not the warheads mounted on the missiles were dummies or the real thing was known only to the hierarchy, but we believed that once fitted we were ‘in business’. There was from this time onward a USAF officer on duty at all time with the RAF Squadron crews, ostensibly to prevent any unilateral launch of a missile. The Americans became a little concern when one of my launch crews demonstrated how it was possible to launch the missile without their participation. Technical experts from Vandenberg were quickly brought over to modify the countdown circuitry to prevent such a possibility. The missile systems were regularly exercised with shelters being withdrawn and the missiles erected i.e. to the end of phase 2, but special procedures and preparation were required to go beyond this phase when propellants would normally be loaded. For instant the RP1 fuel line into the missile was disconnected and the fuel flowed into a catch tank. Liquid oxygen, however, was flowed into the missile but this did not create any “political” or technical headaches. Because of the potential hazards associated with the fuels it was essential that a close liaison be established with the Northamptonshire Fire Authority, who regularly participated in emergency exercises alongside the RAF crews. Such exercises involved not only the participation of full-time firemen but also the retained firemen from Rothwell as well as Kettering and other stations.

Thor Missile
Thor missile being elevated into launch position following retraction of the shelter

Annually, in May, the Squadron, along with all the other Thor and Bomber Command aircraft squadrons, would participate in a full scale training operation whereby missile crews would be doubled and brought to a high state of alert. This meant that I, along with all the duty crews, had to remain on site until the exercise was complete, which lasted about a week. Whilst not affecting other operational requirements this did create additional administrative problems such as feeding and accommodation for those on stand-by duties

Thor missile being raised to launch position
Thor missile being raised to launch position

During the preparation for one wet’ normal training countdown, RP1 fuel was accidentally flowed into a missile whilst it was still in the horizontal configuration, a somewhat heinous offence in a political sense, although it created no physical hazard. It did become the subject of an official enquiry and a SNCO was disciplined, as on no account should RP1 be put into a missile unless it was to be launched. The incident did however, have its plus side as it revealed one or two slight design faults which were duly rectified. This missile was duly returned to the USAF Base at Vandenberg and I shortly follow it with a Detachment of several launch crews to give them continuation training and subsequently launch it successfully into the Pacific Ocean range.

Harrington Museum

Detachment commanded by Sqn Ldr J.C. Burch on WELCOME 6 continuation training at Strategic Air Command’s Vandenberg AFB, California, USA from 1st Nov – 22nd Dec 1960. The Thor missile No. 47 was taken from Harrington and launched from Pad #8 on 13th Dec 1960. This photo was taken on Pad #8 the following day

Front Row: L-R Cp/T Stewart, F/Sgt Reding, F/Sgt Copley, M.S. McLeod, Flt Lt Shaw, Flt Lt Couts, Flt Lt Parry, Sqn Ldr Burch, Sqn Ldr Chappell, Flt Lt Groves, Flt Lt Cumpsty, Fl Off Hughes, M Sgt Archer, M. Pl Turtle, F Sgt Batchelor

Whilst at Harrington I was once confronted by a very irate local farmer who accused me of poisoning his ducks by allowing contaminated water to get into a stream from which his animals drank. I was completely unaware that the water used in cleansing the launch pads led via our drains into the local watercourses. This headache was not so easily resolved as it was essential that the missile launch pads be kept absolutely free from any contamination, any substance coming into contact with a mixture of RP1 and liquid oxygen (LOX) created an explosive hazard. It must be said however, that spillage of fuel rarely occurred.

I also recall another occasion whereby a light aircraft landed on the old 180* runway which at the time was still uncovered. The pilot obviously failed to see that this runway was blocked but nevertheless managed to stop before hitting the site boundary fence. The aircraft then needed to be dismantled and taken away on trucks as there was insufficient runway available for a safe take-off. The pilot had mistakenly and surprisingly identified Harrington for an airfield nearer to Northampton.

Harrington airfield during WW2
Harrington airfield during WW2

Security at the missile site had to be maintained at a high level at all times and trained ‘saboteurs’ from the RAF Police HQ who used many and various guises to gain entry regularly tested it. They never managed to breach the security, and on one occasion complained that the Squadron personnel were ‘not playing the game’ when picked up by my patrols on the highway whilst still approaching the site. They were dressed in civilian clothes and claimed to be bona fide civilians, but it so happened that one of them was recognised by my Sergeant MP. Another attempted break-in was foiled when two separate ‘saboteur’ teams each being unaware of the presence of the other, were flushed out when one of their RAF vehicles was found secreted in one of the old wartime buildings during one of my routine inspections of the site surrounds. On finding the driver we were able to locate the remainder who became too curious to know why one of their driver was openly driving their vehicle around the area of their operations. We apprehended about 15 of them whilst they were still contemplating why their strategy had gone wrong. Another attempted break was uncovered when a visitor purporting to be an official from a Government environmental department, having given advance notice, appeared at the guardroom with all the accredited documentation and requested admission to the site to inspect drains etc. The phone number he gave for his department did not tally with what we thought it should be, and so we were alerted to the possibility that he was not bona fide. A slight error on his identity card completed the ‘ give away’ and he was detained.

An ex USAF airman dressed in civilian clothes was also detained whilst photographing the site from the B576 road. He was released, after the police verified his identity and discovered that he had served with the USAAF at Harrington during the war and was on holiday in the UK. He was puzzled by the changes at Harrington and completely unaware of the site’ s current role. He fully appreciated our position and left with no recriminations. Even a local huntsman seemed unaware that he was breaching security when he parked his car and trailer at the site entrance, and was a little bemused when told to leave the area claiming that he had always parked his vehicles there when he went riding. Fortunately, there was no mistaking him for an intruder and he left bearing no grudges.

During the winter of 1961-1962 when there was an extremely heavy snowfall I had to literally break in when the site was cut off and the crews could not be relieved. Although there was plenty of food and cooking facilities on the site for the Squadron personnel who could have existed quite adequately for some time, there was no proper facility for the guard dogs that needed to be returned to North Luffenham. Even I had to abandon my four-wheel-drive Jeep a quarter of a mile from the entrance and trudge through rather deep snow to get to the site and bring the dogs out. These animals were very well trained and although sitting alongside they caused me no concern.

There were lots of times when the launch crews were not engaged in either training or servicing duties and I became a little concerned as to their continuing morale, as did my superiors. There was never any cause for concern and morale did appear to be very highs even though we were all literally confined behind a chain-link fence. The main worry was what we should do following any launch of missiles in anger. There would inevitably be retaliatory action so no place could be considered safe. The only logical course would be for married personnel to return home to their families but fortunately the situation never arose. The provision of a soccer ball and erection of some football posts did provide a suitable diversion although we were never in a position to invite visitors to participate in any competitive games. In any event there was insufficient space for as full-size soccer pitch being a relatively small unit. There did exist a very close relationship between all ranks thus enabling me to keep my finger on the pulse at all times.

My two and half year tour at RAF Harrington was a very happy experience and I was very sorry when I had to hand it over to Squadron Leader Slaughter. It was only a short time later that the Cuban crisis arose in 1963 and as I was then the Training Officer for all five of the North Luffenham Squadrons I was very much involved in this operation. Crews were brought to a higher state of alert which again meant them staying on the site along with their relief crews, and I became an Operations Officer at the Main Base The Cuban crisis is currently being researched by many academics following the release of the previously secret documents held under the 30 years law.

Aerial photo of Thor launch pads 1998
Aerial photo of Thor launch pads 1998

When, in 1963 the Thor project was abandoned and the equipment was to be returned to the USA there was an amusing incident at RAF North Luffenham when the Customs and Excise Officers questioned the USAF aircrews. They thought that they had been cleared to leave the UK having been checked at Mildenhall and did not realise that they must be cleared at their last point of departure. The Customs Officers jokingly reminded the USAF crews that there had been a ‘great train robbery’ and that they were looking for the missing loot.