16 October 2012

Cold War Heritage Protected on 50th Anniversary of Cuban Missile Crisis

Two nuclear missile sites placed on alert during Cuban Crisis listed.

RAF North Luffenham

RAF North Luffenham, Rutland, has been listed at Grade II*
© English Heritage

The remains of two Cold War nuclear missile sites have been given listed status in recognition of their national architectural and historic significance by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), acting on the advice of English Heritage. The announcement comes on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October, 1962), the closest the world came to nuclear confrontation. During the Cuban crisis, the now listed missile sites in Rutland and Northamptonshire were put on alert and their Thor nuclear missiles prepared for a possible launch on the Soviet Union.

The Thor missile site at the former RAF North Luffenham (today, St George’s Barracks) in Rutland is listed at Grade II* while the Thor missile site at the former RAF Harrington (today, mainly farmland) in Northamptonshire is listed at Grade II.  Today, many of England’s buildings and structures associated with the Cold War period have been demolished, abandoned or neglected. The listing of the Rutland and Northamptonshire missile sites provides them with an additional layer of protection and is part of an on-going English Heritage project to ensure that the best Cold War architecture is safe-guarded.

RAF Harrington

RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, listed at Grade II
© English Heritage

The Castles and Forts of the Mid 20th Century

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “The remains of the Cold War are fading from view faster than those of the World Wars. Our Cold War heritage is a complicated and not always easily loved collection of concrete bunkers and silos. But they are the castles and forts of the second half of the 20th century and we want to ensure that the best examples survive. These two missile sites are among the few physical reminders in this country of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a moment when the entire world held its breath. They deserve to be protected to remind present and future generations of this knife-edge moment in history.”

Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey said: “Our Cold War heritage is often overlooked, but it is an important reminder of a point in history and is worthy of protection. Listing these two missile sites is particularly poignant on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and serves as a very physical reminder of an uncertain and tense period where the world feared a nuclear war.”

Project Emily

Thor missiles were the first operational intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) used by the West during the Cold War. Developed by the United States government, a total of 60 missiles were deployed at 20 sites in the East of England from 1958 under the codename “Project Emily”. Final agreement to locate Thor in Britain was reached between the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the US President Eisenhower.

The missiles were British property, manned by the RAF, but their 1.44 megaton nuclear warheads remained under US control. The decision to use Thor against the Communist east would be made jointly by the two countries. This agreement was ensured by a dual key system involving British and US officers sitting together with different launch keys. The missiles could be brought to operational readiness in 15 minutes after receiving an authorised and authenticated order to launch.

RAF North Luffenham was one of the four main Thor missile bases while RAF Harrington was a satellite base under its control. They are the most intact examples of Thor missile sites in England. At North Luffenham the three launch emplacements remain complete with concrete launch pads and blast walls, mounting bolts for the platforms which would raise the missiles into a vertical firing position, and the missiles’ fuel pits. Although RAF Harrington was closed in 1963, the overall plan of the station may be traced as the blast walls, the mounting bolts, concrete launch pads and other original features remain.  

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, English Heritage is holding a special programme of events at the two Cold War properties in the National Heritage Collection of historic sites and monuments. Starting on 16 October, there will be a series of films, tours, talks and a special photographic exhibition at the York Cold War Bunker – a semi-subterranean bunker which would have monitored nuclear explosions and fallout in the Yorkshire region. Meanwhile deep beneath Dover Castle, English Heritage is offering special tours of the secret tunnels codenamed “Dumpy” which, in the event of a nuclear attack, would have housed government and military officials as one of the country’s 12 designated Regional Seats of Government. 

National Heritage List for England