Protect and Survive: preserving Cold War heritage

In October 1962 the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

On the 14th October, United States spy planes flying over Cuba spotted sites being prepared for Soviet nuclear-armed missiles which could threaten large areas of the USA.

To prevent further Soviet reinforcements, the president, John F Kennedy, ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba. How would the Soviets react? Would the United States attack Cuba? 

Later, as newspapers reported the developing crisis, people on both sides of the Atlantic feared it might mean war.

Thor Missile Site, RAF North Luffenham, Rutland © DP180629

Far from Cuba, down remote country lanes in eastern England, Britain’s nuclear forces were quietly being prepared for action.

Nuclear armed V-bombers were made ready and by Saturday 27th October crews were in their cockpits at 15 minutes notice to take-off. Fifty-nine of the 60 Thor nuclear tipped missiles were readied for launch: the first strategic ballistic missiles placed in the West.

In 2012 DCMS listed two Thor nuclear missile sites – one in Harrington, Northamptonshire and another in North Luffenham, Rutland.

RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, site of alter 1950s Thor intermediate range ballistic missile sit © Historic England 21741/23

Technologically, the Thors represented the next generation of missiles beyond the wartime German V2s and the first strategic ballistic missiles to be placed, ready for use, in the West.

Symbolically, the sites reflect the special nuclear relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States which endures to this day. The missiles were supplied by the United States, but manned by RAF crews. The launch procedure was based on a dual key system, one held by a British officer and the other by an American.

Sites associated with warfare, from Roman forts and medieval castles to Victorian coastal fortifications, are some of our most prominent historic monuments.

Detail of cross shaped launch pad for Thor missile at RAF North Luffenham, Rutland © DP167660

The missile sites and nuclear citadels of the Cold War may represent the final chapter in the national story of fortified structures. Whether they are or not, these modern ruins offer an interesting place to ponder a turning point in history.

Wayne Cocroft – Senior Investigator and Cold War expert

Further Reading


11 responses to Protect and Survive: preserving Cold War heritage

  1. Andy says:

    I requested a few years ago that the Transmitter building at the RGHQ at Kingstandings Ashdown Forest that housed the Political Warfare executive and then the Diplomatic Wireless service for WW2 and Cold War be added to the buildings at risk as it in a seriousley derelict state and a very important building. Is this building now on the list?

  2. Fantastic to see this 20th century built heritage receiving more of the attention it deserves. Well done! The buildings have great stories to tell, I hope EH can bring them more fully into the publics attention, and appreciation.

  3. Makrk Dalton says:

    Excellent news regards the Thor sites – I visited Harrington a few years ago and was fascinated by the concrete blast walls and what they represented

  4. Dr Mike Osborne says:

    In 100 years time THOR will be respectable history; if there’s nothing left, who will ever know?

    • Stephen Cooke says:

      Thor is respectable history now! But I agree with the sentiments. There are lot of nay-sayers on a number of sites carrying this story which is massively blinkered. I for one am supremely happy about this.

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