RAF Portland

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RAF Portland
Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg
Portland, Dorset
View towards the nuclear bunker - geograph.org.uk - 1030068.jpg
The Verne area with the Portland Rotor Radar Station seen in the distance
RAF Portland is located in Dorset
RAF Portland
RAF Portland
Type Royal Air Force station
Site information
Owner Ministry of Defence
Controlled by  Royal Air Force
Site history
Built 1950 (1950)
In use 1951-2001 (2001)
Battles/wars Cold War

RAF Portland is a former Royal Air Force radar station on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The station is situated in the Verne area, close to the Verne Citadel (HM Prison The Verne), the Verne High Angle Battery and Nicodemus Knob. The station, which sits near the cliff edge overlooking East Weares, is now the site of the community farm and tourist attraction Fancy's Family Farm. The buildings stand above a vast underground tunnel system including large rooms cut out of the limestone, whilst the track passing by the station revels in the name Glacis.[1]

The station, enclosed in security fencing, remained the subject of many false local rumours over the decades concerning the true nature of the buildings. Some rumours had stated that the site was where local authority and military staff would have retreated to survive a nuclear attack on Britain,[1] with some rumours additionally suggesting the bunker was big enough for 5,000 people and the Queen herself would inhabit it if nuclear war ever broke out.[citation needed] Other stories tell of vast radar installations set up in the early 1950s as part of Britain's Cold War defences.[1]

In November 2004, the site became scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 because it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.[2]

Along the eastern side of the site, on public land, are the remains of three out of four WW2 Second World War Position Finding Posts, also known as Cells. Essentially lookout posts, these were roughly aligned North-South over a distance of circa 60m. Today only three remain intact, and these have lost their roofs, and other parts of the overall structure. The posts overlook Portland Harbour, and part of the East Weare Battery, DISTEX Site and East Weare Camp (detention barracks) below.[3]

Design[edit]

The site comprises an irregular enclosure surrounded by fencing with an entrance and guardhouse on the west side. The main guardroom is a single storey, stone-built structure which provided access to the underground bunker. The bunker contained the control centre for the Rotor site, situated on the northern side of the complex, within the outer ditch of the adjacent Verne Citadel. The interior of the bunker was divided into a number of working areas including workshop, radar office, intercept recorder and tracking room. A large reservoir, located in the south eastern area of the compound, provided the original water supply for the control centre. The site also contained seven radar towers, now dismantled. The two main constructions at Rotor stations were the operations block and guardhouse. The operations blocks were the largest structures built at Rotor stations and were constructed of reinforced concrete - designed to withstand 2,000 lb bombs. The outer walls and roof of the Rotor operations blocks were 3 metres thick, whilst the exterior was coated with an asphalt damp course and surrounded by a 0.15 metre brick wall. The roof was usually flush with the ground surface and up to 4.34 metres of earth was mounded on top. The operations blocks, identified by a 'R' prefix, contained technical equipment, domestic facilities, workshops and a plant for air conditioning and gas filtration, all within a single complex. The guardhouses were designed to resemble bungalows. They were single-storey buildings capped with a flat, concrete roof, above which a pitched roof contained water tanks. They were generally constructed of brick, but were built to blend in with the local architectural style. The guard rooms also contained an armoury, store, rest room and lavatories. Those associated with underground operations blocks featured a projecting rear annex that housed a stairwell leading down to an access tunnel.[4]

The bunker still contains much its original air conditioning plant, fans, mains transformer, blast doors, electrical switchgear and rotary converters. There is more equipment than in any other surviving R1 or R2 ROTOR bunker. It is the only rotor bunker to retain its original 'Phase 1' layout with an upper floor gallery overlooking the CFP floor, below which is the unused Kevin Hughes pit. The intended Type 80 radar was never installed at Portland. The bunker is dry throughout.[5] Inside the site's small bungalow/guardhouse, at the end of the corridor is a large, thick metal blast door. A few steps inside and an seventy foot shaft leads straight down. The end of the tunnel leads into the main operations corridor through thick, steel blast doors. Several rooms branch off each side of the passage, some more obvious than others to what they were once used for. A kitchen, toilets, sinks – all covered in a layer of soot from the fire in the 1960s. The main operations and mapping room, the largest of all the rooms in the bunker, is the most damaged with no flooring remains and a lot of water. Moving on from the operations room there is a space set aside for all the air-conditioning and water needs for the bunker. After a few nondescript rooms, the end of the bunker is reached and an emergency exit shaft (long since back-filled with rubble and concrete capped at the surface) consists of two sets of stairs with a short corridor in-between, which lies beyond another set of large blast doors.[6]

History[edit]

The site was originally a Chain Home Extra Low (CHEL) radar station, built by the Royal Air Force to provide low-coverage radar during the Second World War. CHEL sites comprised a Nissen hut with an aerial gantry straddling the roof and a separate standby set house for the reserve power.[7] It would be replaced by the Portland Centimetric Early Warning (CEW) Radar Station, which was constructed in 1950-51 by contractor Robert McAlpine. On 1 December 1951, GPO installations began ('I' day) with Operational availability ('O' Day) achieved by 20 February 1953, the R1 being transferred to the RAF under the command of Squadron Leader Noyes. The Portland site was of the Centimetric Early Warning (CEW) type and was one of eight examples built across the country. The Rotor programme was developed to advance the wartime radar technology in detecting and locating fast-flying jets. It was approved by the Air Council in June 1950. The first phase of the programme, Rotor 1, was to technically restore existing Chain Home, centrimetric early warning, Chain Home Extra Low and Ground Controlled Interception stations and put them under the control of RAF Fighter Command.[4] It consisted of a single storey R1 operation Block accessed from a nonstandard design guardhouse/bungalow built of local Portland stone. The station was equipped with various 'Stage One' radar systems including T14 Mk 9 250 prf 'G' IFF Low Angle, T14 Mk 8 500 prf 'G' IFF High Angle, Video Marker Units etc. In addition to the ‘stage one’ radar's and associated equipment detailed above the station was equipped with a 'stop gap' American AN/FPS Type 3 radar (and its associated TPS/10) - which was installed in 1953 and declared fully operational in November of that year. Type 10 IFF replaced Type III IFF in May-Aug 1954 and entered full fighter interceptor trials in September of that year. Originally Type 14 mobile radars were brought in to replace the old Second World War Type 54 at the Verne.[8]

After the creation of 'Stage Two' Type 80 Mk1 radar systems, many UK stations were refitted however three sites, Cold Hesledon, Inverbervie and Portland were not remodeled and the three stations were reduced to CHEL feeders by the deletion of a number of Plan Position Indicator consoles, for which sub-plinths and cabling was to remain. The reduction of these stations to CHEL was only slowly adopted and was to be overtaken by the development of T80 Mk3. In the early 1950s the three CEW stations thus became the only remaining CEW sites still retaining their original 'Phase 1' console and partition wall layouts in the UK. As of October 2001, Portland's station remained the only one to retain the now unique features, and although Inverbervie has an original R1 AC Plant Room, Portland is the last remaining example of its type.

In April 1956 the AN/FPS Type 3 was removed and as a result the station's importance was diminished. By June of the same year, the T14 and 3 T13's radar's were dismantled, and on 17 June 1956 the station was declared 'non-operational'. By September the station had been 'run down' and at CHEL 'readiness' only. In 1958 the station was placed under C&M within the control of 11 Group, finally becoming 'non-operational' in 1958. Like many other Rotor stations it had a very short operational life. After closure, the site was taken over by the US Air Force who had a microwave relay station built within the fenced enclosure, which formed part of the Troposcatter cross-channel relay link at the old Ringstead CH site. However, the underground bunker was not used by the new owners, which would be damaged by fire in 1969 while the United States Air Force (USAF) were still present on the site. At 70 feet below ground level the bunker was the deepest Rotor underground facility. Instead of featuring usual steps at the rear of the guardhouse and a long sloping tunnel into the bunker, Portland's bunker was equipped with a lift and an iron staircase winding round it. The emergency exit consisted of a standard emergency stairway in two sections joined by a length of solid floor.

In October 2001 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) listed the site for sale via auction and shortly before two public open days, the site underwent some work to make the bunker safe. The lift and surrounding stairs were stripped, (despite being safe), as well as the emergency stairs (which were not safe) and all wooden flooring. Additionally the MoD filled in any open cableways in the main corridor and installed a 70' caged vertical ladder for access. According to Dan McKenzie most of the work was totally unnecessary and cost a total of £30,000.[9] However, six radar plinths remain intact on the surface together with the emergency exit blockhouse (now sealed), a communications mast and building, gatehouse, kennels, the old USAF compound and a reservoir built in the 1980s to serve the dockyard. Throughout the 1990s the site has been used by the MoD as a dog training centre.[8][10]

Current use[edit]

For some years after the Ministry of Defence left Portland, the site was used as horse stables.[6] In June 2011, Fancy's Family Farm owners Su and Jon Illsley moved the farm from the village of Southwell to the site of the station. The derelict but natural limestone grassland site was tidied up and made ready for visitors. The former USAF building began refurbishment in late 2011 to early 2012 and became the farm's main centre of operations, providing classrooms, a kitchen, IT suite, workshop, office, function room and coffee shop. By March 2012, the entire site was completed and ready to open on 1 April, after a new barn was built. As the station is on SSSI land, the area features many rare and endangered plants and animals.[11]

In recent years the site has been listed on English Heritage's Risk Register, with the condition being described as having "extensive significant problems". The overall condition has been noted as declining.[12] On 25 May 2013, an event was set up to allow Sub Brit members to enter the underground bunker of the radar station, with all proceeds going to the farm.[13] The bunker was sealed and alarmed due to copper thefts over previous years. The farm's owners are in process of preserving what is left on the bunker and are working with English Heritage in order to make the site open to the public in the future. However at present there is not enough oxygen in the bunker and therefore remains dangerous to access, so air movement would be needed to make it safe.[6]

See also[edit]

References[edit]