Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, Portland

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The entrance of the establishment, as seen in 2014.

The Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, (AUWE), was an admiralty research establishment on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. It was built across Barrow Hill in Portland's southern-most village Southwell, in 1949-52, working alongside the HMS Osprey establishment at East Weares, and remains infamous for espionage infiltration. The establishment closed in 1995, along with Portland's naval base, and then became the Southwell Business Park.


Opening of the Admiralty Gunnery Establishment (1949-52)[edit]

The establishment as it remains today, now the Southwell Business Park.

Portland Harbour has been an important site for research into underwater defence equipment since Robert Whitehead established his Torpedo factory at Ferrybridge in 1891.[1] During World War I, the Admiralty established a chain of Royal Naval Air Service seaplane bases around the coast of Britain, for anti-submarine research. The harbour at Portland was an obvious choice, and Portland's first shore establishment HMS Serepta became established in 1917. The ASDIC (submarine detection system) research unit became known as HMS Osprey in 1927 to 1998. A shore establishment located at East Weares was constructed, close to the harbour.[2] Having moved to Scotland during the Second World War, HMS Osprey and their Underwater Detection Unit were re-established in 1946, now known as HM Underwater Detection Establishment.

During the war Barrow Hill at Southwell had been used as a camp, and the admiralty decided that the cliff-top location would make an ideal base for a new establishment to work alongside the naval base and HMS Osprey. The Admiralty Gunnery Establishment, as it was initially known, was built between 1949 and 1952, and was Portland's biggest building project since the construction of the Victorian Verne Citadel.[3] Working with the East Weares establishment, the two Portland establishments were designed to be a single centre, under the command of a Captain Superintendent, responsible for the design, development and testing of underwater weapon and detection systems.

During the excavations for the foundations of the establishment, evidence was found of pre-Roman and Roman occupation. To celebrate its opening a mural was painted above the main entrance doors and this still exists as an encapsulation of mid-1950s technology associated with gunnery and anti-aircraft missiles.[4] By the mid 20th century, the Admiralty was now the area's largest single employer. In 1959 the development of underwater systems was amalgamated when the various establishments working on torpedoes, underwater launching systems and underwater countermeasures were formed into the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment (AUWE). This meant that all the research into underwater weapons was moved to Portland, including work with the highest security classification at the height of the Cold War.[5]

Portland Spy Ring case (1961) and Falklands War (1982)[edit]

Another section of the establishment today.

In 1961 international attention focused on both the Southwell and East Weare establishments following the discovery of espionage infiltration. This became known as the Portland Spy Ring, a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s till 1961 when the core of the network was arrested by the British security services. It is one of the most famous examples of the use of illegal residents — spies who operate in a foreign country but without the cover of their embassy. Harry Houghton of Wyke Regis and Portland's own Ethel Gee of Hambro Road were the first links in the network. Gee worked with drawing office records at the Southwell establishment, while Houghton was a clerk at Castletown. Both had access to classified material, which they passed to the professional Russian agent Gordon Lonsdale. He then sent it to the USSR via a high powered transmitter hidden in the Ruislip home of Peter and Helen Kroger.[6]

The case shook the NATO alliance greatly, and this led to a strict tightening of counter espionage security. On Portland these changes were largely obvious, and locals were no longer permitted to wander reasonably freely through the naval base. During an eight day trial at the Old Bailey, Gee had insisted she was not a traitor but infatuated with her love for Houghton. Lord Chief Justice Parker ended up passing sentences of 20–25 years on the ringleaders, and 15 years each on the local pair, also remarking that the entire ordeal "had all the charactistics of a thriller." In Berlin during April 1964, Lonsdale would be exchanged for British spy Greville Wynne, who had been held in Russia, while the two local lovers married soon after their release in 1970.[6]

In the 1970s another wing was added to the establishment,[5] and this was for carrying out research on torpedoes. In 1982, the navy was put to its biggest test since the Second World War with the outbreak of the Falklands War, to which every part of the Portland naval base and the AUWE worked tirelessly to prepare both ships and equipment for the war.[7] In 1984 the AUWE became part of the Admiralty Research Agency (ARE) when all naval research came under the same direction and this in turn became part of the joint service Defence Research Agency (DRA) in 1991.[1]

Closure of the establishment (1995)[edit]

The establishment can be clearly seen on the skyline from various parts of Portland, particularly from the South West Coast Path which runs around the edge of the establishment.

In 1984, work began on the construction of accommodation buildings and a sports centre at Castletown. There was assurance that the Portland naval base was to continue functioning into the future, however only ten years later an announcement was made that both the navy base and the research establishments were to close – a direct consequence of the ending of the Cold War. In 1995 the Royal Navy closed their Portland base, and the most obvious evidence of their departure was the absence of warships. However what was less obvious, but just as devastating to Portland, was the huge range of buildings of the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, which had employed over 2000 people (at its peak 3000 scientists and administrators worked on the site). The buildings were left empty, with an uncertain future.[5] In 2004, the HMS Osprey shore establishment buildings at East Weares were all demolished. The research carried out at Portland, now under the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) since 1995, was relocated to the Atomic Energy Agency's business park at Winfrith, leaving Bincleaves as the sole establishment in the Portland Harbour area.[1]

Transformation into Southwell Business Park (1998-)[edit]

After the Admiralty left, the buildings stood empty for three years, and did not receive a single bid during that time. Due to this lack of interest the Ministry of Defence made plans to demolish the buildings, and then seek permission for either building or mineral extraction. However Roy Haywood and Ray Bulpit, whose business was the acquisition and development of former military sites, then purchased the site. The forty acres and 350,000 square feet of buildings included two miles of corridors, and various challenges in transforming the site were such things as walls built to withstand explosions from inside, huge compression tanks with rails running through them for test-firing torpedoes, and underwater acoustic tanks. Even the building nearest the sea still had evidence of a huge door, from which the largest naval guns could test-fire their shells across Lyme Bay.[5]

Haywood and Bulpit took the decision early on to adapt the buildings as necessary but to keep new build to a minimum, and in 1996 they started to look for tenants. The former office complex, some of it rooms of only 150 square feet, had a natural appeal to small businesses, and the Southwell Business Park soon became well-established. A wide array of businesses remain at the park to date, providing employment for almost 500 people and being home to over 100 businesses, ranging from professional services, research and development, design and publishing.[8] This includes a host of manufacturing and light engineering businesses, based in what were the laboratories and workshops of AUWE, where systems were actually built and tested. By 2005, when all the most adaptable space had been let, there was still a large area standing empty, namely the 1970s wing, and so the Portland Spa was constructed. Around 2008 work also began on constructing The Venue Hotel. Since 2013 this premier hotel, along with the Portland Spa, merged to become the Ocean Spa and Hotel.[9] The hotel includes a premier luxury day spa, health club, and restaurant. In 2010, the park itself became under new ownership, where Compass Point Estates bought the park from KPMG after going into administrative receivership.[10]

Scheduled for September 2015, part of the site will be home to the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy's £14 million campus, after an appeal overturned the decision of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council's planning committee to refuse permission for the build at Maritime House.[11]


  1. ^ a b c "The Jurassic Coast - Underwater Research". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  2. ^ "The Jurassic Coast - HMS Osprey". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  3. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  4. ^ "Southwell Business Park". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  5. ^ a b c d "A Portland Success Story | Dorset Life - The Dorset Magazine". Dorset Life. Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  6. ^ a b Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  7. ^ Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  8. ^ "Southwell Business Park". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  9. ^ Davis, Joanna (2013-02-12). "Portland spa takes over hotel (From Dorset Echo)". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  10. ^ McDonald, Ian (2010-03-31). "Fresh start for new team at Southwell Business Park (From Dorset Echo)". Retrieved 2014-07-17. 
  11. ^ "UPDATED: IPACA wins appeal for new £14m campus at Southwell Business Park (From Dorset Echo)". 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-07-17. 

Coordinates: 50°32′37″N 2°27′14″W / 50.54356°N 2.45381°W / 50.54356; -2.45381