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Thor Missile Site at Former RAF North Luffenham, Edith Weston

Description: Thor Missile Site at Former RAF North Luffenham

Grade: II*
Date Listed: 17 June 2011
English Heritage Building ID: 1400806

OS Grid Reference: SK9504404596
OS Grid Coordinates: 495088, 304575
Latitude/Longitude: 52.6306, -0.5965

Locality: Edith Weston
County: Rutland
Country: England
Postcode: PE9 3RY

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Listing Text


A Thor missile main base established at the former World War II airfield of RAF North Luffenham, constructed in 1959 and operational until 1963.

Reason for Listing

The Thor missile site at former RAF North Luffenham, Rutland, is designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Architecture: The Thor structures at North Luffenham fluently express the functionality and distinctive arrangement of a Thor missile main base.
* Intactness: The components and infrastructure of the Thor base survive remarkably intact and include a Surveillance and Inspection Building uniquely in this country. At no other British site does the missile base remain within its contemporary military context.
* Historic Interest: The Thor missile site has international historic significance because of its association with world events of the Cold War period. Its outstanding level of survival provides a vivid reminder of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
* Rarity: Only 20 such sites were established in England of which this example is the most complete.
* Context: The functional and tactical association with the World War II airfield, contemporary Bloodhound Mark 1 Tactical Control Centre and satellite Thor missile station at Harrington adds significantly to the more than special interest of the North Luffenham site.


RAF North Luffenham is a late Expansion Period airbase, opened in December 1940, when it accommodated the No. 17 Elementary Flying Training School. By the summer of 1941, Nos.61 and 144 Squadrons were brought to Luffenham from Hemswell, but from 1943 work commenced to lay hard surfaced runways and hardstandings for heavy bombers. The airbase re-opened in March 1944 and was used initially by the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit, but returned to bomber crew training from September of that year until October 1945. New hardstandings were constructed in 1950 for training Transport Command, but from 1951 fighter squadrons were established at North Luffenham under a NATO directive. The airbase was selected as a main Thor missile site in June 1958, taking receipt of the missiles at the end of 1959. Four satellite stations were under its command: RAF Harrington; RAF Polebrook; RAF Melton Mowbray and RAF Folkingham.

Thor missiles were the first operational Intermediate-range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) system deployed by the West during the Cold War. With a range of 1,500 nautical miles, Thor missiles were approximately 20m (65ft) long and 2.5m (8ft) in diameter powered by propellant rocket fuel controlled by two motors. Developed by the United States (US) Government between 1955 -1959, the proposal to deploy Thor in Britain as well as the US was put before the British Government in 1957. At the time Britain was developing its own IRBM, Blue Streak, which would not be operational for some time. Final agreement to locate Thor in Britain was reached between the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and President Eisenhower at the Bermuda Conference in 1957. The rockets were to be British property, manned by the RAF who would be trained for the task by the USAF, but the nuclear warheads would remain under US control. Macmillan reported to Parliament that the decision to use Thor against the Communist east would be made jointly by the two countries.

A total of 60 missiles were deployed at 20 sites in the East of England from 1958 under the codename 'Project Emily'. There were four main bases located on pre-war permanent airfields; RAF Feltwell, RAF North Luffenham, RAF Hemswell and RAF Driffield. At each base an adapted hangar was used to receive the missiles, store the servicing equipment and conduct inspection and maintenance. At RAF North Luffenham, a 'C' type hangar was adapted for this purpose. Usually located on the opposite side of the airfield, the Thor compounds at the main bases had a Surveillance and Inspection Building and a Classified Storage Building, partly surrounded by earthwork banks, where the warheads were inspected and stored. Every main base had four satellite stations, each with their own Squadron. The launch areas at the main and satellite stations were almost identical, although at the latter a smaller Classified Storage Building and Pyrotechnic Store was placed c 200m away from the nearest emplacement, protected by earthwork banks. The buildings and emplacements lay in an irregularly shaped compound surrounded by a pair of fences. Inside were crew huts, a squadron office and telephone exchange. Close to the main gate was the launch control area, an area of concrete on which the control trailer, generators and an oil tank were placed.

Exact siting of the missiles was essential to ensure the targets were reached. In addition to the precise, fixed location of the launch components each emplacement had a theodolite shed and a separate long-range theodolite, set on a concrete pillar surrounded by brass survey points. At the opposite end of the emplacement two short-range theodolites were mounted on a metal platform near to the launcher erector which lay at the centre of each emplacement and was secured to a metal cage set in concrete. Here the missiles, which were stored horizontally on a trailer, were raised to a vertical position. The two fuels which powered the rocket, kerosene and liquid oxygen, were stored in fuel pits on either side of the erector and pumped separately through pipes suspended in concrete conduits. A separate liquid oxygen dump tank was located to the rear of the blast walls in case the fuel needed to be rapidly discharged from the missile. At the far end of each emplacement were two 'L' shaped blast walls.

Thor missiles could be brought to operational readiness in 15 minutes after receiving the authorised and authenticated order to launch. Strict understandings about the operational control of the missile included an agreed British and US launch through a dual key system and a veto for each Government. Although Thor deployment in Britain was an interim measure, their presence played an important part in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the most tense period of the Cold War, when fifty nine of the sixty missiles were made ready. Thor was phased out in England between April and August 1963, just short of their anticipated 4 year life-span, North Luffenham being the last site to close.

Contemporary with the Thor missile facility at RAF North Luffenham was the Bloodhound Mark 1 Tactical Control Centre controlling the missile sites at Woolfox Lodge and Warboys. These, too, were stood down in 1963. Thereafter, North Luffenham became the home of Support Command until 1997 when the airbase was closed. It was reopened as St George's Barracks by the Royal Anglican Regiment in 1998. Research and fieldwork on the Thor missile sites was conducted as part of the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) in 1998 and the RCHM (E) surveyed the site in the same year.


Reinforced concrete bases, structures and infrastructure.

The Thor missile site lies in an isolated position at the far eastern point of the airfield accessed from the airfield perimeter track. The three launch emplacements are arranged in the typical, broadly triangular configuration within a compound, the inner fence-line of which partially remains to the east, south and south-west of the emplacements.

All three emplacements retain their blast walls, launcher erector mountings, fuel dump pit footings on either side of the erector and most of the rails to the causeway and the end of the shelter. The fuel pipe conduits from the pits to the launcher remain and the steel fuel pipes surrounding the launcher mounting are apparent as are the platforms for the short-range theodolites.

All emplacements retain their theodolite shed platforms, but only the central and eastern emplacements retain partially standing theodolite sheds and the lower portion of the concrete long-range theodolite pillars.

The Surveillance and Inspection Building:
This single-storey, flat-roofed building constructed from pre-fabricated concrete slabs has been extended along its length to the north by a taller structure covered in corrugated metal. The interior was not inspected.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.