German scientists, Black Knights and the birthplace of British rocketry
El Reg visits Westcott and the Isle of Wight in search of more of Britain's forgotten rocket centres
Geek's Guide to Britain 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 it would be wrong to assume that Spadeadam is the only remnant of Britain's post-war rocketry and missile projects worth visiting. Two other sites, the Rocket Propulsion Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Westcott and the Saunders-Roe missile test facility at the High Downs on the Isle of Wight, are also worth a shufti.
The Westcott test site was once RAF Westcott and is now Westcott Venture Park business estate. Between the two incarnations, technicians at Westcott had a hand in the development and testing of a plethora of British rocket programmes including Seaslug, Blowpipe, Sea Wolf, Bloodhound, Thunderbird (a deactivated example of which stands sentinel at the entrance to Westcott today), Falstaff, Blue Water, Blue Steel, Blue Streak, Black Knight, Black Arrow and Black Prince.
The tortured and convoluted relationship between the development, use and untimely cancellation of those last four is thankfully beyond the scope of this article, but their relationship is the thread that connects Spadeadam, Westcott and High Downs.
Currently, six rocket test stands at Westcott are subject to Historic England scheduling, namely stands A-B, C-D, K1, K2, E and P. But there are several other interesting structures dotted around the site, some of which are still very much in use. Indeed, the day before I visited there had been a test firing at the K2 stand, the first in many a year.
Westcott's claim to be ground zero for British rocketry is thanks to it being chosen as the home for the German rocket technicians that the British government managed to grab in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. People like Dr Johannes Schmidt and Walter Riedel, the latter an associate of both Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun, two of the key figures in the V2 project.
To further British rocket and missile development and milk the expertise of the German internees, the Guided Projectile Establishment was established at RAF Westcott in 1946 to be renamed the Rocket Propulsion Department in 1947 and finally the Rocket Propulsion Establishment in 1958.
View west across the High Downs site. The Coast Guard tower is a recent addition. Note the paved footpath leading down towards the eastern test stand
While the fame and numbers of Britain's German rocket scientists were eclipsed by those obtained by the Americans under the auspices of Operation Paperclip, they still played a significant part in early British rocket developments. It's also why the earliest test stands at Westcott – A-B and C-D – are known as the "German Emplacements".
These early test stands are rather simple single-storey concrete structures designed for the testing of what would soon come to be regarded as small and simple rocket motors. Supposedly the design of these early test stands was loosely based on those built by the Germans at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast and reflected the German preference for direct viewing. The events of 14 November 1947 changed that.
Three die after explosion
An explosion in Test Stand D, possibly caused by the piping from the petrol and hydrogen peroxide tanks splitting, blew a plate glass observation window out of its housing, decapitating German scientist Dr Johannes Schmidt. The explosion knocked two British technicians unconscious (Mr R P Rowlands and Mr J A Salmons), who then drowned thanks to a ruptured water main.
Henceforth test firings would be observed via periscopes and mirrors and the control room buildings reinforced to give greater protection to the technicians within. These lessons are obvious in the design of later monumental control rooms and observation facilities at Westcott, the High Downs and to an even greater extent, Spadeadam.
Abandoned control panels at Westcott. Note the frame for an automatic firing circuit on the right
Despite there being some 200m (656ft) between sites A-B and C-D, the four stands form a unified group. Stands A and D were built to one plan while the smaller and simpler stands B and C were built to another. The A-B site was used to test hydrogen peroxide/kerosene-fuelled rockets (as later used in the Black Knight and Arrow programmes) whereas C-D site used nitric acid as an oxidizer. It is for this reason that two seemingly identical test sites were built at more or less the same time.
Stands A and D seem to have been the first to reach operational status as there are clear indications that after the 14 November tragedy their design was modified, both being rebuilt with separated test firing and observation chambers. Stands C and B had their direct observation windows removed and periscopes installed to monitor test firings.
C Stand at Westcott. One of the so-called German Emplacements and the earliest permanent test stands at the venue
While there is no comprehensive record of exactly what went on and when at the various test stands at Westcott, the "German" stands were certainly used to evaluate a host of captured German rocket-propelled weapons including the V-2, the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-propelled interceptor, the Rheintochter-1 and Wasserfall anti-aircraft missiles, the Ruhrstahl X-4 air-to-air wire-controlled missile and the Henschel Hs 293 anti-shipping rocket.
B stand was in continuous use from the late 1940s for development testing of the Alpha, Beta and Gamma HTP rocket motors until the late 1970s when it, along with A stand, was used as part of the Chevaline programme to develop an enhanced reentry vehicle for the UK's Polaris missiles.
Still in use
The A-B and C-D sites are of interest for two further reasons. Firstly they afford a good view of the semi-underground drainage system that linked all the test stands at Westcott and which ultimately drained waste coolant water and unburnt fuel into a patchwork of reed beds.
Secondly, adjacent to the A-B stands is the site where the 1/60th scale model of the Blue Streak Silo was built and tested. This was a Perspex model mounted on a lathe bed, of which only the concrete footings remain. This research led to the abortive plans to create a full-sized silo – codenamed K-11 – at the Spadeadam facility.
D Stand, which had such an unpromising start to life, is still in use today for pressure-testing satellite components. Today it boasts an additional steel gantry added to the north side of the original concrete structure draped in chain mail to catch any shrapnel should a test go pear-shaped.
Moving clockwise from the German area, you pass the four J Stands. These are unlisted and off-limits thanks to them being very much still in use by the likes of Nammo (Westcott is where it tests its LEROS 4 rocket motors) and Airborne Engineering, two of the companies that make up the Westcott Space Cluster.
Continuing around the site, we come to the two most impressive stands at Westcott: K1 and K2. K1 is a vertical test stand for solid-propellant rocket motors that was completed in the mid-to-late 1960s. Though capable of testing even the largest rockets – up to 137cm (54 inches) in diameter – in a vertical position, the idea it was ever used to test the Polaris stage one motors or the Skybolt motor is sadly fanciful.
We do know that it was used in the development of the abortive Blue Water battlefield nuclear missile which initially used the same Cuckoo solid-fuel rocket motor that was developed for the upper stages of the Black Knight rocket. More on that below.
That it was also used to test the air-launched version of Blue Water, a planned stand-off weapon for TSR-2, is again a mixture of wishful thinking and pure speculation since the weapon never got beyond the planning stage.
Consisting of a massive reinforced concrete tower some 15m (49ft) high, K1 was active into the late 1980s. The various gantries and mechanisms for positioning and securing the rocket motors are all still in place.
This presumably is why Falcon Project Ltd is planning to redevelop the K site as well as the nearby R stands. It was presumably a Falcon rocket motor – carefully shrouded in the test bay when I poked my head in – that was fired on the K2 stand the evening before I visited Westcott.
The K2 stand – built before K1 despite the name suggesting otherwise – is essentially a horizontal counterpart to K1. Consisting of a large rectangular enclosure to house the test motor and two blast walls. The first wall stands some 12m (39ft) high and has an aperture in it opening onto a wide-open space in front of a second, lower, semi-circular blast wall.
An interesting feature is a roof made of closely spaced steel girders to vent the force of any unintended explosions without doing too much damage to the structure.
Inside the K2 stand. Note the girder roofing and the hidden rocket that was fired the evening before this picture was taken
The K2 stand is considered to have been used more often than its sister stand and is most often associated with the development of the 54,000lb (240kN) thrust Stonechat, the largest solid rocket motor ever produced in Britain and used in the Falstaff missile as part of the Chevaline development programme.
K2 also played a major part in the troubled development of the Nuthatch motor originally intended for the ALARM anti-radiation missile and the Raven motor that powered the Skylark research rocket, a missile that flew 447 times and only retired in 2005, one of the successes of Blighty's civilian rocket programme.
Both the K test stands were operated from a control building to the southwest of K2 (and northeast of K1) which was joined to the stands by a series of raised cable conduits now demolished.
Though off limits to casual visitors, this part of the Westcott park is also home to Reaction Engines, which has recently built a facility to test the core of its SABRE hypersonic precooled hybrid air-breathing rocket engine.
The P2 stand at Westcott. Note the undergrowth that covers much of the P site and the corrugated steel tower added for the Chevaline project
Continuing around the site clockwise, we come to the two liquid propellant rocket test stands: P1 and P2. Built between 1949 and 1952, the P stands built on the experience gained from the German stands.
They are larger, much more substantial and with much greater protection afforded to the onsite technicians in case of an accident, thanks to increased physical separation of the test stands and the control and observation rooms. Earth bunds separated the various parts of the site providing additional protection.
The P1 stand, which exists today in pretty much its original 1940s form, was used to develop and test the RTV (Rocket Test Vehicle) missile which was used to better understand basic missile aerodynamics. Indeed, P1 was the first stand at Westcott that could accommodate complete missiles rather than just their rocket motors.
The neighbouring P2 stand was used to test the Rolls-Royce RZ1 engine – essentially half of the RZ2 motor that was developed for Blue Streak. In the mid-1970s P2 was modified with the addition of an extra steel tower on top of the reinforced concrete superstructure and was used as a drop-test facility for the Chevaline reentry vehicle. At this time the flume channel was backfilled making it hard to get a sense of the original structural context at ground level.
Both P sites are heavily overgrown, but brave the thorns and nettles and you can squeeze past the massive armoured doors into the control rooms, where you will find rack upon rack of the original control equipment still in situ. There are even mounds of paperwork lying around (two sheets of test results I picked up were dated 1988.) This site wasn't closed down as such; work just finished one day and nobody ever came back.
Paperwork abandoned in the control room next to the vacuum test chamber at Westcott
Lying outside the P2 structure you will find numerous octagonal concrete sections. These are the remnants of the 1/6th model of the Blue Streak silo. The shape of the surviving sections clearly shows them to be parts of the launch tube, the efflux vent and the u-bend that connected the two.
Walk another 100m (328ft) around the perimeter and you come to a huge 20m (65ft) long, 4m (13ft) diameter pipe that was used to test rocket motors in a vacuum. The nearby control room is similarly packed with abandoned control equipment and discarded paperwork. This part of Westcott is not subject to a scheduling order and precise details of what it was used for – and when – are not a matter of public record.
Head toward the centre of the Westcott site and you will find the final scheduled structure, E stand. Built some time after 1956 (a photograph shows it in use in 1961), E Stand was designed to test the Bristol Siddeley Stentor (the largest high-test peroxide or HTP rocket motor ever built) engine that powered the Blue Steel stand-off missile designed for the UK's V bomber force.
E stand was also known as Ansty Test House 60 in reference to Bristol/Armstrong Siddeley Motors Limited – based in Ansty near Coventry – which designed the Stentor motor and also had a hand in the design of E Stand. This reflects the close cooperation between a private company and a government establishment that was typical of of Westcott in the post-war decades.
Later in its life, E stand was used to test a fully retractable rocket-assisted take-off pack for the Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer S.Mk.50 strike aircraft ordered by the South African government. My guide for the day had worked at Westcott since the mid-1960s and could clearly recall a mock-up of the back end of a Buccaneer sticking out of the stand while the RATO motor was tested. In the mid-1970s E stand was further modified to develop the Twin Chamber Propulsion Unit, a complex manoeuvring rocket engine, for Chevaline.
As you traverse Westcott, it's impossible to miss the parts of the site that Historic England doesn't deem worthy of legal protection. This includes the old airfield control tower and the random stacks of concrete blocks that were apparently used as impromptu test mounts for captured German weapons in the very earliest days of rocket testing at Westcott.
Westcott's position as a centre of excellence for HTP/kerosene rocketry would be the foundation upon which Armstrong Siddeley Motors developed its Gamma series of rocket motors. Gamma engines powered the Black Knight, a rocket designed to cheaply test the various designs of reentrant vehicle planned for the Blue Streak ballistic missile. This takes us to the Isle of Wight.
The Isle of Wight may not strike you as the obvious place for a missile-testing site, but for a number of reasons it made perfect sense.
Firstly, the land above Scratchell's Bay near The Needles (the chalky stacks off the western pointy bit of the Isle of Wight) was already owned by the British government. Since 1895 the site had been home to the Needles New Battery artillery emplacement. The geography kept away prying eyes and reduced the likelihood of collateral damage should an accident occur and the escarpment was ideal for building test rigs that closely mirrored those being built at the Woomera test and launch facility in Australia.
Why the Isle of Wight at all? Well, development and testing of the Black Knight was entrusted to Saunders-Roe, which was based at Cowes. Sanders-Roe had some experience of rocketry having designed Britain's only rocket-powered interceptor aircraft, the SR.53, which used a Spectre rocket engine fuelled by kerosene and high test peroxide.
The contract for the design, construction, assembly and static testing of the Black Knight missile was awarded to Saunders-Roe in 1955 and the company took over the New Battery as its rocket development site, which henceforth became known as the High Down Test Site. Work started on the facility in April 1956 and was completed in January of the following year. The first Black Knight test took place here in April 1957.
Following the cancellation of the Blue Streak project, the decision was taken to develop a satellite launcher using as much Black Knight and Blue Streak technology as possible called Black Arrow. This was entrusted to Westland Aircraft Ltd at Cowes (formerly Saunders-Roe) and so the use of the High Downs continued. Black Arrow first flew in June 1968 and in October 1971 it placed the British satellite Prospero into orbit.
Sadly some three months earlier the British government had announced the end of the Black Arrow programme and so testing at High Downs ceased. The facility was officially closed in 1974. That gave Great Britain the dubious honour of being the only nation in the world to develop the ability to put a satellite into orbit and then give it up.
The High Downs site consists of two reinforced concrete test stands 100m (124ft) apart and a central pumping station and control room all arrayed along the 113m (370ft) contour overlooking the sea. Originally both stands would have been topped by steel gantries that housed the rocket motors and later complete missiles, all of which were test fired at the High Downs before being shipped to Woomera for the actual launch. The gantries were pulled down and scrapped in the early 1970s.
The area immediately behind the test stands – known as the Preparation Area – once housed various support buildings but these have long since been removed and the area turned over to wildlife under the management of the National Trust, which also manages the nearby Old Battery artillery emplacement.
During winter months, the site is officially closed, but that just means the small visitors centre in the New Battery is shut. The test stands are accessible all year round, and off-season there is nobody to tell you not to clamber over the guard rails and go poking around. Which is exactly what I did.
The efflux channel at the High Downs western stand. A water-cooled metal bucket would be sat below the rocket during test firing
Though the firing gantries are long gone, their metal attachment plates survive in situ, as do their substantial concrete bases and efflux channels. Look down from the efflux channels and you can see traces of the earthenware pipes that took effluent from the sumps to a surviving breeze-block channel 25m (83ft) in length situated close to the clifftop. Next to each stand was a chamber that originally held tanks for High Test Peroxide but these have both been bricked up.
Hop over the guardrail above the pump and control rooms and you can follow a flight of concrete stairs down to a narrow passage that separates the landward pump room from the seaward control room. The massive armoured steel door giving access to the now-empty control room stands ajar.
According to the Historic England site report, the trapezium-shaped control room is built on a concrete "floating base". More obvious to the visitor is that it is wholly separate from the access causeway above and the pump room behind. A wooden walkway covers the gap between the control and pump room structures in the platform above. In the event of an accidental explosion, the control room was designed to withstand pressures of up to 10lb/in² (0.68 bar). In the control room's eastern and western walls are armoured observation windows with 6 inch (15cm) thick glass facing the two firing stands.
The control and observation chamber at High Downs. Note the viewing portals which are repeated on the other side
Unlike the Westcott stands, all control instrumentation has long since been stripped out of the High Downs site, though you can still see the concrete footings in the pump room for the central water pump (driven by an adjacent electric motor) and the inlet pipe through which water was pumped from the site's reservoir to the pump house. From there cooling and fire fighting water was piped to the steel efflux buckets beneath both stands.
If you want to see what the tests at the High Downs looked like, there is a Pathé News report (sadly with no sound) on YouTube.
After visiting Westcott and the High Downs, I wasn't left feeling quite so maudlin as after I visited Spadeadam. That Westcott is currently a hive of activity with new rocketry-related activity taking place across the site and that the High Downs site doesn't look like someone just abandoned the place to rot as is the case with Spadeadam were probably both factors. But despite that, I couldn't help but dwell on the "what might have been" at both sites.
Westcott Venture Park
GPS: 51.850274, -0.964797
Address: Westcott Venture Park, Westcott, Near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0PH
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.
By car: Take the A41 from either Aylesbury or Bicester to Westcott. The entrance to Westcott Venture Park is the first right off Westcott High Street. Look for the Thunderbird missile.
Public transport: The Red Rose No. 16 bus serves Westcott from Aylesbury every two hours. Strangely there seems to be no direct bus service from Bicester to Ayslbury along the A41.
High Downs, Isle of Wight
GPS: 50.661482, -1.577876
Address: New Battery & High Down Test Site, West High Down, Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, PO39 0JH
The entire area comprising the Old Battery, New Battery and the High Downs Test Facility is run by the National Trust. While the site is nominally closed in the off-season the test stands are accessible all year round.
By sea: There's a regular ferry run by Wightlink from Lymington on the mainland to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. Journey time is about 40 minutes and passage for one car plus passengers is around £50.
By car: From Yarmouth take the A3054 then the B3322 to the Needles car park. It's a 15-minute drive. Parking at the Needles is free off-season but £5 for the day between mid-March and the end of October. From the carpark, the High Downs test site is a 25-minute walk along the signposted Coastal Path.
Public transport: The No. 7 Southern Vectis bus from Newport serves Alum Bay regularly.
A Vertical Empire: A History of the British Rocketry Programme C.N. Hill (ISBN 978-1848167964)
The High Down Test Site, Isle of Wight: Rocket Test Site, by W.D. Cocroft (ISSN 1749-8775)