The Second World War had ended barely 10 years earlier, but by the mid-1950s Britain was bracing itself for what might have been another bitter confrontation.
This time it was the threat of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that was looming large on the horizon.
This country was still recovering from the six-year battle with Germany that had taken a terrible toll. But a decade later, with the advent of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The British Government knew it had to see off the latest threat, or face the bleak prospect being overrun by the Soviets.
It was all very well having bombs to hold back the opposition, but a means of delivery had to be found – and without delay. So came the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile, code-named Blue Streak.
A significant part of the project was the design, structure and launch of a smaller rocket that used the complex liquid propellants, but employed hardware and techniques that were immediately available. This rocket was code-named Black Knight, and in 1955 the long-established Island company Saunders Roe, based in Cowes, was commissioned to develop the missile.
Ray Wheeler, now 83 and living in East Cowes, played a major role in the development and testing of Black Knight rockets. The design was carried out at the old stables of Osborne House; they were assembled at Saunders Roe’s factory opposite Barton Manor and transported to Highdown.
Then they were towed down the newly built road along the cliff top above Scratchell’s Bay to one of the two 60 foot high test gantries adjacent to The Needles. The rockets were erected inside steel and aluminium towers by men dressed in protective suits with glass-fronted helmets operating one-and-a-half ton mobile cranes.
The Needles Headland, which had been used extensively in both the First and Second World Wars offered a secure test site, so Highdown was leased from the Ministry of War. Ray recalls: “The Island was scrutinized to find the perfect spot, and it was located at Highdown.
“The infrastructure was already there, and in quite good condition. There were underground stores, which we used for the recording apparatus. The site was also perfectly shaped for the testing because it meant that any noise – and it was going to be very noisy – would go out to sea.”
Ray, who claims he was conceived on the Island, and eventually came to live here permanently when just eight years old, worked for what was Saunders Roe, before its name change, for 46 years.
He was educated at East Cowes primary school in School Hill, which is no longer there, and then attended Parkhurst Primary School, now Hunnyhill, before winning a scholarship to Newport County Secondary Grammar School.
He said: “I wanted to fly airplanes, because in those days you saw them buzzing around in the sky all day. There was a cadetship which allowed you to attend university to learn to fly planes. I was set to go, but my father became ill, so I joined Saunders-Roe as an apprentice for the princely sum of 21 shillings and sixpence a week (now £1, seven-and-a-half pence).
“I went part-time to Southampton University to get a degree, but wanted the cadetship. But I was told I was in a reserved occupation and could not be removed, so I never had the opportunity to learn to fly.” Instead he came out with a degree in aeronautical engineering, and later spent nearly four years as a post graduate at Imperial College, attaining his Masters degree.
He recalls: “At the time when it all began on Black Knight I was senior stressman, responsible for the strength and integrity of everything that was made within the company. There was an office of about 24 in the department, and all the aircraft companies were on what was called Cost Plus – in effect a branch of the Air Ministry.
“We were a secret establishment really, and the Princess Flying Boat was part of the Cost Plus. I came back from college to the Island in 1953, and we were involved because we had been working on an aircraft called the SR53. It had a rocket engine and a gas turbine engine, so we were into the business of rockets.
“The rocket had to have a very high rate of climb to be able to intercept any Russian supersonic bomber. We were working very closely with the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough who wanted to discover the problems a rocket warhead would experience re-entering the atmosphere.
“So the whole project was to fire a test rocket vertically and then let it come down to see what happened when it re-entered the atmosphere. I was given the job of having a brief look at the structure to determine the weight, because when you launch the rocket it has to perform, so the weight is an important part of the structure. In fact, Black Knight was not so much a weapon as a research vehicle.
“It proved quite feasible so the project went ahead. It was a rocket in its own right, but used to protect the head of Blue Streak. The rocket head gets very hot and has to protect the weapon inside, so basically we were testing the nose cone. We tested all sorts of shapes and different materials. Metal and shape were keys to the head, with a variety of each tested before we thought we had got it right.
“We assume we got it right, but we never really knew because one was never fired in anger,” smiled Ray. “Basically Black Knight was built as part of the stand-off defence. I suppose we were telling the Russians ‘You send weapons at us, and we will send them back – we are ready for you’. It was a very important part of our defensive system, becaue if we hadn’t had it available then they could have perhaps invaded us. So we ran the test facility, basically doing everything. We lit the engines up and fired them and then carried out typical manoeuvres of the whole system.”
Testing was carried out by assembling the rocket vertically in a tower and fired with the exhaust going out off Highdown and into the sea. On ignition, the four jet rocket motors fired into steel ‘exhaust buckets’, cooled by a torrent of water from a specially built 60,000 gallon reservoir, at a rate of 3,000 gallons per minute. The exhaust emerged at right angles from the cliff as a fountain of steam.
“A lot of people thought that all the ‘smoke’ that came out was from the rocket, but it wasn’t, in fact it was water being poured on to the vehicle to keep it cool,” explained Ray. “The rocket was tied down, so as it was tested it never left the ground.”
He recalls that one of the things he did worry about was that in the centre of the engine bay was a ball and claw, to hold the rocket rigidly in place, and if that ever structurally failed then Bournemouth or Southampton would have had a huge rocket heading their way!
During a test firing all activities followed a strict time sequence, with the operation of the rocket controlled automatically by a sequencer unit. At any point the process could be aborted by the press of a button from several monitoring positions, most of which were underground. In addition to manual observations taken from the secure Blockhouse, an array of camera, tape recorders and specialised devices automatically logged data from several hundred instrumentation sensors placed within the engine and other rocket systems.
In the early stages serious consideration was given to accommodating Blue Streak at the Highdown site as well. But that would have meant digging silos deep into the hillside – impractical but not impossible. As it was, development of the Blue Streak rocket took place at its own purpose-built facility at Spadeadam, near Carlisle.
The first Black Knight firing on the Island took place in September 1958 and continued until November 1965. In all 25 rockets were built and 22 were fired. Although the Island was the only place in this country where the rockets were tested, they were later transported to Australia for further launches. As Ray points out: “You needed to be in a pretty remote area when you fired these things, just in case something went wrong!”
In 1965 Ray, the Chief Designer, and the remainder of the Highdown team started work on Black Arrow, an 18-ton, 13-metre, three-stage rocket designed to put a 300 kilogram satellite into a circular near-Earth orbit.
Five Black Arrows were built and four launched into space, the first in 1968. The project reached its zenith in October 1971 with the launch of the first, and only, all-British satellite put into space by a British rocket. The experimental satellite, designated Prospero in space, achieved a near perfect orbit and carried out short term data collection on micrometeorites and space erosion.
Having achieved its peak, the British programme suddenly ended in a lack of political will and scientific consensus on how to use the rocket. Although briefly put up for tender to potential buyers the Highdown rocket test site was closed in July 1972 and the buildings and infrastructure quickly dismantled.
“I think we realised the importance of the work we were doing, but I don’t think we looked on it as a nervy time. We were engineers doing our jobs,” Ray reflects. He later became Chief Designer and Technical Director of the British Hovercraft Corporation and Business Director of Westland Aerospace. The first name change came in 1959, when it was bought by Westland and became known as the Saunders Roe division of Westland Aircraft Ltd.
After Ray retired in 1991 the company became GKN Aerospace. This sprightly man, who has written an autobiography on his amazing career, played hockey until he was 74. He has also become an artist, and has held many positions over the years within Island organisations and businesses.
As for the Highdown rocket site, huge concrete blocks are about the only reminders of the successful, if short-lived, British space programme. The last Black Arrow has taken its place at the British National Science Museum, and another reminder is Prospero, which will continue to orbit the Earth until at least the year 2200.
*Additional information: GKN Aerospace Services.