RAF Drone Hill
The Royal Air Force in Coldingham
It was the outbreak of World War Two that first brought RAF to Coldingham, to Drone Hill to be precise.
Drone Hill was the first Chain Home Radar station in Scotland.
Construction began in September 1938 and the station was brought into 24-hour use on Good Friday 1939. For security reasons the term radar was not used and instead it was called an Air Ministry Experimental Station. It consisted of four 106 metre steel towers supporting the transmitting aerials and four 7 metre wooden towers carrying the receiving aerials.
Today only the remains of the receiver building are left on the site.
The end of the Second World War brought an uneasy peace and the start of the Cold War. The fear was of an initial invasion by Russian bombers carrying nuclear bombs and the start of World War Three. The RAF came to Coldingham again this time as RAF Crosslaw.
In 1952 the RAF built a large underground complex up in the hills above Coldingham near Lumsdaine. This was to serve not only as the communication centre for the radar station, but also as an emergency home for government should an attack take place.
By now the radar technology had changed. Instead of very large and obvious towers, the radar scanner looked like and iron bedstead quietly rotating just 3 metres above ground. The only other thing to be seen above ground was the guardhouse, built to look like a crofters cottage.
Today, the crofter’s cottage has been expanded considerably and turned into a private home.
The stairway leading down to the sloping tunnel to the nuclear bunker has been sealed off. The rotating radar aerial has been removed and the site used for a Civil Aviation navigation site.
In the underground nuclear bunker the information from the radar scanner above was fed into screens show the area covered by the station. It scanned from Newcastle to Aberdeen showing all aircraft activity up to fifteen thousand feet. If a potential intruder was found the fighter directors would call and scramble Lightning fighters from RAF Leuchars, near St Andrews in Fifeshire.
Using the information displayed in the bunker the fighters could be directed to incept the enemy.
The Airmen - a personal viewpoint
Most of us who came to run the radar station were in our early twenties, and most from south of the border. We’d been trained at RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire before making the long steam train journey north. We asked the guard to tell us when we got to Burnmouth. From memory it was about 6 o’clock next morning that we got off the train at Burnmouth a little whistle stop and shed in the middle of nowhere. The RAF has forgotten go tell us how to get from Burnmouth to Coldingham so we hitch-hiked.
Coldingham was a tiny village a hundred of so people with two pubs a fish and chip shop and an ancient Priory. Would you believe that the first of the two pictures below was taken 50 years before we arrived the second 50 years after we left. In a 100 year the only difference was they’d added street lights and yellow lines.
Our camp, RAF Crosslaw up the hill leading out of the village to Co’path was disguised as a holiday camp with little chalets.
Our radar station was high up in the remote moors and buried deep underground to protect it from atomic attack. The entrance to the site was through what appeared to be a crofter’s cottage.
It certainly looked the part from the outside, but if you got through the front door you would find a burly RAF Policeman and his Alsatian dog. You went past the guard down the stairs and then a long walk down a long corridor, through nuclear bombproof doors and into the station itself.
The underground station was designed to house the crew for at least a month totally cut off from the world should there be an atomic attack. It was a complete underground village with generators a recirculation air system with CO2 scrubbers to keep the air fit to breath, kitchen, bedrooms etc and of course the bank of PPI tubes and plotting maps that we used to observe and record aircraft movements.
As well as being the front line of Britain’s defence radar, the station was also one of the network of homes for government should we come under nuclear attack. Once you’d passed down the corridor, those atom bomb proof doors could be closed, and buried deep in the cliff you’d be safe.
Because of the nature of the station it was all secret. The local villagers thought we were a death ray and we didn’t disabuse them of that thought. In fact we used to take delight in keeping our secret. Our radar “looked” from 1500 feet down to sea level so we could see the fishing boats and watch them when in bad weather they would fish illegally inshore. Next night in the pub we would disconcert them by telling them where they’d been fishing.
The station ran two watches that worked alternate days. For some reason we worked only daytime hours unless there was an exercise in place. I think those in charge of the defence of the Realm assumed that the Russians would stick to office hours too for their attack. At night two or us would be on guard duty with our trusty Lee Enfield 303 rifle and 10 rounds of ammunition. The government was obviously expecting a very small invasion force.
While on duty we would scan the skies with our radar and then record the plot of the position of all aircraft in our area, which ranged from Aberdeen down to Newcastle on Tyne. We would also do exercises with fighters based a Leuchars - sending them off on varying courses and then bringing them back together for radar directed intercepts.
Working on the PPI tubes was the best job, but you had to be really alert. The scanner turned at four revs per minute which meant that every 15 seconds you had to report the identity of each aircraft, its position direction and strength.
It you had more than a two or three aircraft on screen you were talking flat out, and non-stop. The worst job was recorder where you had to write down all this information. The easiest job was plotter where you moved markers showing the position of each aircraft on the huge table with a map of the area.
One evening when we were watching the Queen’s flight into Aberdeen we had what we assume was a UFO on the screens. It was flying across Scotland at 1500 mph. We scrambled fighter planes out of RAF Leuchars but it was far to fast for them, and before long had disappeared off our radar screens.
Our technology was such that we could clear all nonessential traffic off the screen, which we needed to do when intercepting our fighters with any enemy planes. So we were certain something was there. If it wasn’t a UFO, the only other possibility was one of the American experimental X planes.
The weather in Scotland had its extremes. Summer was usually almost hot and would bring all the pretty girls up from Newcastle for their summer holidays.
Winter would bring freezing temperatures and snow drifts that would block the road up to the radar site. Even the big RAF 3 ton trucks couldn’t get through the snow drifts. Then we’d have to haul supplies up to the site by sledge.
As well as protecting the realm from invading Russian bombers, we also got involved in the local community.
During our stay there Coldingham Priory, which dates back to the 7th century, was undergoing some renovation and a couple of us helped remove the old Priory wooden floor. Underneath we found various bones and skulls. With the Minister’s permission I sent these to Edinburgh University for dating. They came back as being from the 12th century and that one may must have been a giant for his day as his thigh bone would have made him around 6 foot six.
I’d often noted the little faces of St Ebba on some structures around Coldingham and St Abbs had the nose knocked off. I assumed it was local vandals, but my work on the Priory floor had raised my interest in local history. I researched the stories around Aebba.
One story told of the young woman who around the year 610 was being forced to marry a man. In desperation she and her friends set sail from Northumbria. During a terrible storm they were washed ashore near St Abbs head, and in gratitude to God she set up a nunnery. This seems to tie in other historical stories from the time. I discovered some remains of the nunnery walking over the headland. Judging by a look at Google earth today it seems that someone has been unearthing more of the site.
And the broken noses? Well not vandals but a gruesome decision by the nuns to protect themselves when the Danes began invading the area. To make themselves unattractive to men they slice off the fleshy part of their noses.
In September 1955, our two years with the RAF Crosslaw came to an end with our demob. We still have fond memories of the New Inn, the Haven, George’s Chip Shop and the little old ladies who would say “Ah, laddie come awah in and gee us yer crack”. In return for conversation there be a cup or tea and a homemade scone.
At demob our group went our separate ways but the friendship remained strong. We would get together each year in the Coldingham and remember those days. There were 22 of us now we’re down to five but only four of us make it because it’s too expensive to get to the reunions as I’m now living in New Zealand.
Royal Air Force