East Yorkshire had nuclear missiles powerful enough to destroy a city

RAF Catfoss is long forgotten. Today, the runway is home to an industrial estate and the old station houses make up a quiet hamlet.

But half a century ago, this peaceful corner of Holderness was on the frontline of the Cold War.

In the late 1950s, Catfoss was one of five bases in East Yorkshire chosen as launch sites for Britain’s first nuclear missiles.

American Thor IRBMs, which carried warheads big enough to destroy an entire city, were installed here in 1958.

Bases in Driffield, Carnaby, Full Sutton and Breighton, also received the ballistic missiles, as part of a programme codenamed Project Emily.

Four years later, as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Thor missiles were placed on full standby and could have been launched within 15 minutes.

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Had Prime Minister Harold Macmillan given the order, the missiles would have risen from their bases in East Yorkshire and other eastern counties, on their way to targets in Russia.

Fortunately, US president John F Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, recognised the danger and brokered a secret deal to avoid Armageddon.

But even though the Cold War did not turn hot, a story later emerged of a near-catastrophic accident, apparently involving a Thor missile, which could have devastated the Humber region.

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The few short years when Thor missiles were based in Britain was an extraordinary time in the history of the West.

By 1958, Nato was suffering a crisis of confidence, brought on by the Russian lead in the space race – the Soviets had just launched the first satellite, Sputnik – and, in the wake of this technological triumph, fears of a “missile gap” that could leave the Western powers open to a massive first strike.

It would be another year before America’s first operational  intercontinental ballistic missile, Atlas, was pressed into service, while Britain was reliant on its V Force of jet bombers to carry its own freefall nuclear bombs to the enemy.

In these circumstances, Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower agreed to deploy intermediate-range Thor missiles to Britain, where they would be within striking distance of Moscow. Each Thor had a 1.44-megaton warhead and would be operated jointly by the RAF and the USAAF under a dual-key arrangement.

A Thor missile arriving in the UK. (Picture: USAAF)
A Thor missile arriving in the UK. (Picture: USAAF)

In September 1958, installation began at 20 launch sites in eastern England, including bases in Lincolnshire, East Anglia and the Leicestershire area.

In East Yorkshire, a command and control hub was set up at RAF Driffield, which became home to No. 98 Squadron RAF, with three Thor missiles, in August 1959. Members of the squadron, which was given the designation SM – strategic missile – had been the first British airmen to fire a Thor, when given training at Vandenberg Air Force base, in California. Four other bases were upgraded to act as satellites, each with three missiles, at Breighton (240 squadron), Full Sutton (102 Squadron), Carnaby (150 squadron) and Catfoss (226 squadron).

A still from a USAAF film showing a Thor base in Britain, with launch pad, hangar and blast walls.
A still from a USAAF film showing a Thor base in Britain, with launch pad, hangar and blast walls.

Holme-on-Spalding Moor, Pocklington, Leconfield and Elvington had also been considered. Chillingly, it was ensured that the bases were well-spread to avoid a single nuclear explosion taking out too many.

Construction of the bases entailed building new concrete launch pads, missile hangers, fuel tanks, security fences and quarters for the crew. Triangulation stations (trig points) were installed at high points such as Goole water tower, to ensure accurate surveying. Local roads were also surveyed to ensure they were suitable for transporting the missiles.

It would not have taken long for villagers to realise they were likely to be the first to be hit in a nuclear war

According to information from the Air Ministry, published in 1960, the Driffield group would have had about 1,000 personnel, commanded by a group captain. Despite the secretive work, life on the bases could be rather humdrum. At Catfoss, the squadron kept its own pigs, geese and chickens in the old control tower, while Full Sutton had a flock of geese.

The 65ft-high missiles were installed with great secrecy, but as Robert Jackson points out in his book Strike Force – The USAAF in Britain Since 1948, it would not have taken long for the people of these sleepy locations to realise they were now on the front line of the Cold War and, therefore, likely to be the first to be hit in a nuclear war.

When installed upright on their launch pads (usually they were kept in hangars under high security) the missiles looked like miniature moon rockets. When fired, they would climb at supersonic speed to an altitude of 280 miles, on the way to hitting a target up to 1,500 miles away.

The warhead was powerful enough to devastate a city the size of Hull, killing everyone and causing widespread destruction with a five-mile radius of the city centre and smashing windows 13 miles away.

A close-run thing

Ironically, Project Emily may well have prompted leaders in the Soviet Union to deploy their own intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Cuba, so leading the world to the brink of Armageddon.

The Cuban Missile Crisis reached its peak on ‘Black Saturday’, October 27, 1962, when the Nato alert level was raised to Defcon 2, one notch below a full-blown war.

The Thors were brought to “T-15 readiness” (15 minutes to launch) while, south of the river in Lincolnshire, Vulcan bombers were readied for takeoff and pilots were fully kitted out in their flying gear.

Not everybody believed the end was nigh. According to author John Boyes, an open day at Full Sutton for 100 guests went ahead as planned but a practice countdown to launch was cancelled due to the situation. Still, the visitors were given tea before they left.

A surviving RAF Thor missile at the Cosford museum (picture: Peter Evans). Right, the remains of an old Thor missile site in Cambridgeshire  (picture: Crown Copyright)
A surviving RAF Thor missile at the Cosford museum (picture: Peter Evans). Right, the remains of an old Thor missile site in Cambridgeshire (picture: Crown Copyright)

Macmillan advised Kennedy to use the Thors as a bargaining chip – decommissioning them in return for a Russian withdrawal from Cuba. In the end, the American president made a similar, secret deal involving Jupiter IRBMs in Turkey.

The crisis passed and the Thors, already effectively obsolete, were withdrawn the following year amid the rising cost of maintaining them and staunch opposition from the Labour Party towards a “first strike” weapon. The missiles were returned to the United States where they were used for controversial nuclear “space shot” tests.

Thirty years later, evidence emerged of a near-catastrophic accident involving a Thor missile which could have devastated Lincolnshire and the Humber region.

It happened when a missile was been refuelled at RAF Ludford Magna, a Thor base in the Lincolnshire Wolds, about 20 miles south of the Humber Estuary.

During the process, a mistake meant about 7,000 gallons of liquid oxygen spilled on to the launch pad. Firefighters described how the missile launch pad was enveloped in a cloud of evaporating fuel, which could have caused an explosion.

According to the former base commander, who revealed details of the accident to the BBC in 1999, it could have led to a “terrible disaster”.

The layout of Thor missile launch pads can clearly be seen at the former RAF Caistor in Lincolnshire. (Picture: Google Maps)
The layout of Thor missile launch pads can clearly be seen at the former RAF Caistor in Lincolnshire.
(Picture: Google Maps)

Fortunately, at the time, the missile was without its nuclear warhead, but the two other Thors on site had warheads fitted, according to Boyes, author of Project Emily: Thor IRBM and the RAF.

American air force personnel were said to be “aghast” at the accident. If the worst had happened, it could have contaminated between 100 and 300 square miles of countryside with radiation.

Even without the dangers of a Cold War, it seems these missiles were too hot to handle.

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