(First published, slightly longer, in the Journal of the Royal Artillery, Autumn 2002.)
After publishing ‘Visit to Orkney’ last week, I’ve decided to describe a couple more of my island adventures before going on to the next major topic. This one may seem hard to believe, but it’s all true: this is how the British Army came to launch a tactical missile just for me to watch, at age 13 ¾, and built a grandstand specially for me to see it from.
Work began on the Royal Artillery Guided Weapons Range, on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, in August 1958.1 At first the creation of the Range was opposed locally, partly on moral and environmental grounds, but another complaint was that not enough compensation had been paid for land taken over by the War Office.2 The subject was treated humorously by Sir Compton McKenzie in Rockets Galore, but to me, as a space-daft schoolboy, it seemed unimportant. I knew that the installation was a weapons range, but most space activity was conducted by the US and Soviet military. And the first missile to be launched was one I really wanted to see: the Firestone Corporal, five tons in mass and 46 feet long – as long as the German V2, though thinner – and liquid fuelled, like a real space launcher. It was portrayed that way in the film of Around the World in Eighty Days, beginning with the launch of a Corporal from White Sands in New Mexico, followed by film of the Earth from 100 miles up. The Corporal’s peak altitude in flight was actually just 24 miles3 and the pictures were shot from a V2, adapted as an upper atmosphere research vehicle. The Corporal’s design load was more deadly: a nuclear warhead, equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT, over ranges of 50-150 miles, according to contradictory information in newspapers and books of the day.4 The first of those bought by Britain had been delivered in 1956,1 and in 1959 the missile was already deployed with US forces in Europe. A Belgian book of that year states, “It is not unusual to meet military vehicles transporting Corporal missiles on our roads.”5 A contemporary German joke put it more bluntly: “What is the difference between a tactical nuclear weapon and a strategic nuclear weapon? A tactical nuclear weapon goes off in West Germany.” In the James Bond novel Goldfinger, the villain planned to break open Fort Knox and contaminate the US gold reserves with a Corporal warhead stolen in Germany.
The first launch from South Uist was scheduled for June 13th, the Queen’s official birthday,2 but took place successfully on June 23rd . A crofter three-quarters of a mile from the launch pad said it “went straight into the sky with a blaze of light behind it. It was a most beautiful thing to watch”. The Glasgow Herald stated that “The noise the Corporal made as it was launched was said to have been so loud that it was heard all over the island. Yet no one appeared to be perturbed by it”.1 The first use of the pad raised a great cloud of dust ; one Daily Mail photograph was stopped down so much against the brightness of the flame that it looked as if the launch had been at night . There was a night launch in June 1960, to hide it from Soviet spy trawlers,6 but in 1959 all launches were in daylight – including one on July 11th, in front of the Secretary of State for War, Christopher Soames. It was postponed “for technical reasons” and when fired the rocket failed to develop full power.7 Because it hadn’t reached the inclined part of its trajectory, the controllers had difficulty getting it out over the sea, where power was cut and it fell offshore. The incident was commemorated in a Gaelic poem by Sorley Maclean.
However, press coverage of the failure opened a door for me. That summer was the first time I had any real money of my own to spend. I was brought up in Troon, in the days when families still came ‘doon the watter’ – not just at Glasgow Fair, though then the beach was busiest, but throughout the summer. There was a local tradition of kids collecting lemonade bottles from the shore, but I organised a bunch of my friends and we were collecting bottles systematically, cleaning them, sorting them out, and getting the manufacturers’ delivery lorries to pick them up in crates which they supplied. This ‘nice little earner’ got me to South Uist and afterwards on to a tour of Jodrell Bank, which wasn’t open to the public in those days.
I had written to the Rocket Range commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel E.G. Cooper, R.A., stressing my parents’ wartime careers and asking when I could come to see a launch. Col. Cooper had replied that he “would like to invite you to see a launching. However, security regulations prevent me from giving you dates or from allowing you to be within a prescribed distance at the time of launching… Of course, if you are a member of the Combined Cadet Force, it might then be possible for you to get clearance for a conducted visit of the Range.”8 In fact I was planning to join the Air Training Corps (and later did, for a year, but had to drop it because it conflicted too much with school work), but at 13 ¾ I was still too young.
Writing later to my parents, Col. Cooper revealed that he had tried to arrange a trip for me under the auspices of a newspaper, since the Army and the Scottish Office were keen to get favourable publicity for the Range, “but he managed to beat me to it”.9 The Glasgow Herald announced that the second regiment to train at South Uist, 27 Guided Weapons Regiment (Field) from Crookham in Hampshire, would be leaving in three weeks and still had three more Corporals to fire. I said to my parents, “If I go now, I’ll see at least one,” and that was decided upon. Once I was really going, my savings were boosted by several relatives and friends; my late aunt Myrtle gave me a whole seven shillings, boosting my funds for the trip to almost ten pounds.
As my first trip away from home alone, it was all carefully arranged. I took a Dodds coach from Troon to Oban, where a business colleague of my father’s, Mr. Potts, looked after me for the day and put me on the Claymore, which sailed next morning at 6 a.m.. At Barra I was joined by a school friend and his family, and at Lochboisdale they put me on the bus to the Carnan Inn at Eochar where I would be staying. I even met the landlady Mrs. Macleod on the bus, though that wasn’t prearranged. I was only just in time: two rockets had already been launched and the last was to go in the morning. The guesthouse was about five miles from the Range, but my luck was holding: the local doctor called by, and he gave me a lift to the Range gate. I asked the guard, “Any chance of getting in?”, and he replied, “’fraid not, sonny.”
That was expected, but I thought that if Col. Cooper knew I had come all that way, there might be some concession – perhaps I could get as far as the Rangehead, a thousand yards from the pad. I handed his letter to the sentry, saying, “I don’t know if this will make any difference…” but instead of reading it, he replied, “I think it very well might. Go up to the Rangehead and ask for RSM…” Unfortunately I can’t give his name because I no longer have the diary in which I was making notes (see below). I now had about a mile to walk (and a beautiful day for it), but when I had gone about a hundred yards, I heard a vehicle behind me. An RAF jeep had pulled up at the gate and the sentry was pointing at me; sure enough, the driver caught up with me and offered me a lift. So I arrived at the Rangehead in an official vehicle.
What I didn’t know was that because this was the last missile to be fired by the regiment, the heads of all the armed services of NATO had been invited to see it. A grandstand had been erected up by the firing control room, 400 yards from the pad, and preliminaries to the countdown were coming over the speakers at the Rangehead. I did exactly what I was told, finding the Regimental Sergeant Major at once – a very impressive figure with a fair handlebar moustache, and obviously in best uniform, though I still didn’t know why. He did read the letter, and he couldn’t understand how I’d got in. He asked if I had joined the cadet corps, and I replied that I intended to join the ATC; since he’d seen me get out of an RAF vehicle, he must have been wondering whose son I was. But he knew what to do about it: “RSM Jennings is the man to deal with this.” He called over a private who was digging a ditch, probably on fatigues, and said to him, “Take this little boy – ” and I said “big boy”, but I had enough sense to say it quietly, “ – and find RSM Jennings.” With that he put his swagger cane under his arm, and marched off in the sunlight. I can see him yet.
The soldier was left scratching his head, but eventually he made up his mind what to do. “I think RSM Jennings will be oop by t’ rocket,” he declared, and led me over to a huge transporter several times the size of a furniture van. We had to climb wooden steps to get in it, pulling them up after us. The keys were in the ignition, so he started it up, drove through at least one security cordon (Fig. 4) and up to the base of the missile, while I hung out of the window open-mouthed. Fortunately for all concerned, my borrowed camera jammed at this point, so there was no evidence later that I got so close.
The scene that followed was pure farce. The ground crew were fuelling the missile with aniline and red fuming nitric acid, so they were in full protective suits and they couldn’t hear what the soldier was saying, nor he them, but they were very keen indeed for him to get the transporter and me out of the danger area. At last he got the message that RSM Jennings wasn’t there, so we drove back to the Rangehead.
RSM Jennings realised at once that I shouldn’t be there, let alone have been where I had been. “By rights I should throw you straight out of here,” he said, “but now you’ve seen just about all there is to see, you might as well see the launch. Just wait here with me, and after the missile goes, we’ll find Colonel Cooper and sort this out.” Some kind of security check was made immediately, however, because soon afterwards an officer authorised us to go up to the grandstand, and then another authorised us to go to the edge of firing area and take photos.
The launch had been scheduled for 12.30 but the countdown didn’t begin till 12.45. It began by naming the missile, ‘Uniform Kilo One-five’, and then “The time is now X minus three zero minutes”. As we stood by the grandstand, the countdown was amazingly fast – I realised that all the stories I’d read about the slow, dragging minutes of a countdown were wrong. Meantime, a series of talks had been laid on to keep the high-ranking officers entertained. As the last minutes passed, Col. Cooper was telling them, “You may have heard that there have been technical difficulties with the Corporal missile. Well, gentlemen, I am here to tell you on behalf of the British Army that having the Corporal in service, and complaining about technical problems, is like being married to Brigitte Bardot and complaining about the shape of the bedpost.” It was tempting providence, and sure enough, the laughter had barely died down when the speakers announced, “Holding at X minus two minutes for radar.”
Having been developed in the dryness of the New Mexico desert, the Corporal didn’t like sea-level conditions in the Hebrides. Though it was such a beautiful day, the missile’s transponder was obstinately refusing to return telemetry to the control room, where it should have been returning 15 pulses per minute; this recurring problem with the missile was not to be solved until over a year later.3 As time went on, one by one the guests started to leave; the decision was taken to depressurise the fuel tanks, with a loud hissing sound, and the crew began serious work on the nose section of the missile, using a cherry-picker lift to avoid having to lower the rocket from its vertical position.
Meanwhile I had met Col. Cooper , who was very friendly and arranged for me to get some food and drink. As the day continued and his guests left, I was left to explore at will, asking questions, taking notes… I think the reason I was told so much was that people didn’t think I would take it in or understand it, but I did, and I wrote it all down. I was allowed to look through one of the optical trackers, which brought the missile almost as close as I had already been to it for real. I visited a mobile radar tracker, whose operator powered it up for me. Immediately he picked up an echo which he couldn’t explain, and we went up to the roof of the vehicle to look through a telescope aligned with the antenna. It turned out to be a golden eagle, out over the sea, flying from one island to the next, and evidently it was very rare to pick up birds in that way.
Meanwhile the sky had clouded over. The radar operator tried to change the film in the camera for me, discovered it had been wound the wrong way, and rushed it over to the photo lab who managed to save it. Of course, we didn’t know at the time whether they’d succeeded, so he borrowed another camera for me, and I was allowed to go back up to the fence, three to four hundred yards from the grandstand, in case my earlier pictures didn’t come out. After 6 p.m. Col. Cooper showed me the firing control room, and the operators ran through a simulation of what would be happening when the missile was launched. At 8.30 p.m. the engineers succeeded in getting a weak signal returned from the rocket, and by then the light was starting to fail, due to the clouds. It was judged safer to launch than to remove the fuel in the dark (full preflight preparations took three hours3), so the countdown was resumed. It was followed from the grandstand by Col. Cooper, his second-in-command (who took the photograph for me), his driver, and me – and since the three of them had to be there, though not necessarily on the stand, you could say that the launch and even the stand were just for my benefit.
The countdown went to ten-second intervals, then one-second (starting at fifteen) down to the command “Fire”, then counting up in the phonetic alphabet, “Able, Baker, Charlie…” At “Charlie” the first red flash of the ignition occurred under the rocket, and I never got to hear “Delta”. Having seen all three, I am here to tell you that a Firestone Corporal at 400 yards is much more overwhelming than a Saturn One at 3½ miles or a Space Shuttle at five. The sound was much too loud to hear, just a dry rattle in the eardrums – an effect I didn’t hear again until I went to my first disco twelve years later. The rocket was surrounded by smoke, deep red by the diffused light from the rocket flame, but which turned black as it pulled away. The flame was so dazzling that the missile was through its four-second hover and climbing before my eyes adjusted enough to see it again. The Glasgow Herald later published a dramatic picture of a Corporal with the same colour scheme in flight, but at first all I could see was the black nose-cone and fins, with the incandescent red flame below about three times as long as the rocket itself, and a thin, straight trail of smoke. When I could see the rocket body the lower part was reflecting a dull red and the upper part looked black by comparison, indistinguishable from the nose-cone.
The missile climbed vertically for a hundred feet before it began to tilt, the angle increasing as it gained speed. Watching it climb at that steep angle made the whole sky suddenly three-dimensional. The normal minimum cloud height for launches was 5000 feet,7 and the rocket must have taken about half-a-minute to reach it. The sound had dropped to hearable intensity and was now like a low-flying jet aircraft, as various witnesses had said.1
As the Corporal entered the cloud the flame illuminated a big circle around it in pink, amazingly beautiful. There was a last glimpse of just the tail-fins with the fuzzy flame projecting down through the cloud and out into clear sky below; then it followed the rocket up into the cloud and disappeared. The sound was instantly muted and stopped not long after (normal burn time was just under a minute).3 When I saw the Space Shuttle launched into cloud in 1984 I was ready for the illuminating effect and managed to catch it on film.
Colonel Cooper had his driver take me back to the guest house, came over the following day to give me the Daily Mail photos, and arranged for me to travel back to Glasgow with a party of soldiers going on leave. All the time I was picking up more information about the Rocket Range, the Corporal, future missile plans, and it was all going down in the diary. Meanwhile the Scottish Office had contacted my parents, who had taken their own steps to keep the situation under control. I was met in Glasgow by our next-door neighbour in Troon, the late ‘Monty’ Young, who was a senior executive with Post Office Telephones, and knew Col. Cooper. He then took me to a meeting with a Scottish Office representative. I was still doing just what I was told and not making any wrong moves – which stood me in good stead, as one of the investigators confided to my parents. If I’d brought about what had happened to me by deception or disobedience I’d have been in a lot more trouble. I meekly handed over my diary and photographs, and I did get the photos back, but I never saw the diary again.
The first priority was to turn the incident to favourable publicity. The Scottish Office had arranged for me to be interviewed by Duncan McNicol of the Glasgow Evening Citizen. But it was not to be the story I’ve told here: officially, as soon as I reached the Rangehead the Army had realised there had been a mistake, but out of kindness they’d let me stay there for the launch. We went over it several times to make sure the details were accurate, though untrue. The story appeared on the front page of the Evening Citizen on July 26th, describing me as ‘the boy with the name that fits’ . There was no more publicity, but instead a strange procession of visitors appeared at the house in Troon: Scottish Office, C.I.D., Army Intelligence, M.I.5., and one American gentleman in the most dazzling white raincoat I’ve ever seen, who was introduced as being F.B.I., as I recall – though they’d have nothing to do with a case like this, with no criminal dimension, and were no longer responsible for security in Europe. I suppose he would be C.I.A. or U.S. military intelligence. Eventually he confided to my parents that all the technical information had long since been published in the USA and would doubtless be well known to the Soviets: it was only the British public (who were paying for it) from whom it had to be kept secret, just to prove that we could.
So it all blew over, and I kept it a secret until 1987 when I was guest of honour at a science fiction convention. I was able to use the adventure to get myself a special visit to Jodrell Bank, as I mentioned above – but that is another story.
1. (Anon), ‘Missile-Firing Starts in Hebrides’, The Glasgow Herald, Wednesday, June 24th, 1959.
2. (Anon) “‘IOU’ Corporal!”, Sunday Graphic, April 25 1959.
3. David Kemp, ‘Friendship Galore on South Uist’; (anon), ‘South Uist Range’s Advantages: Other Overseas Troops May Follow Americans’; photo feature, ‘Rocket Training in the Outer Isles’, Glasgow Herald, June 3rd, 1961.
4. Maurice Allward, John W.R. Taylor, “abc: Rockets and Missiles”, Ian Allan Ltd., 1958.
5. Wim Dannau, “Les Fusées”, Marabout-Flash, 1959.
6. ‘Express Staff Reporter’, ‘St. Kilda Spy Shock: Radar Trackers Pose as Fishers’, Scottish Daily Express, Monday, May 30th, 1960; John Magin, ‘Rocket Flashes on Spy Scare Island’, Scottish Daily Express, Friday, June 3rd,1960.
7. ‘A Staff Reporter’, ‘Uist Missile Misbehaves: Failure in Flight as Minister Watches’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday, July 11th, 1959.
8. Lt. Col. E.G. Cooper, personal communication, 22nd June,1959.
9. Lt. Col. E.G. Cooper, personal communication, 22nd July,1959.
10. Duncan McNicol, ‘Visitor at Uist – and the Name’s Lunan; Rocket boy’s 250-mile trek’, Evening Citizen, 26th July 1959.
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