Cold War came to our doorstep as American missiles faced eastward

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Fifty years ago, in late October 1962, the United States raised its military alert level to DEFCON 2.

It meant a nervous world, waiting to see how the Cuban missile crisis would be resolved, was as close to nuclear war as it had ever been — and a tiny Northamptonshire village was on the front line of any showdown between west and east.

A rocket missile protest at Harrington air base

A rocket missile protest at Harrington air base

It was not the first time the air base at Harrington, a few miles west of Kettering, had played a key role in allied military operations.

During the Second World War, it was the home of US Army Air Force personnel, who delivered agents and supplies, including weapons and ammunition, to resistance groups in occupied Europe.

Known as the Carpetbaggers, the Americans flew hundreds of clandestine missions from Harrington under the cover of darkness.

Hundreds of Americans were deployed at Harrington, but despite the secretive nature of the missions, locals knew they were stationed there — Americans would frequent local pubs including the Tollemache Arms in Harrington.

But Roy Tebbutt, joint founder of the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, said the true nature of the base was kept secret.

“The local population was unaware of the uniqueness of the missions being carried out by the black painted planes that were flying from the Harrington airbase,” he said.

American personnel lived well at Harrington, according to Paul Arnett, a historian at the Arnett Institute who has studied US bases in Britain during the war and who runs the Scanning WWII website.

“In comparison to the other theatres our guys lived like kings,” he said.

Mr Arnett, whose father was based in England during the Second World War, said the infrastructure at British bases was also superior to others elsewhere in Europe.

He said: “Unlike the runways in the UK, which were paved solid, European runways were either plain grassy fields or were constructed with special interlocking metal strips manufactured in the US.”

By contrast, 1.75 million bricks and 180 acres of concrete had been used to build Harrington’s airfield.

Yet by 1959, the base was no longer used for aircraft but for altogether more powerful pieces of machinery.

Three intermediate range ballistic missiles, which went by the name of Thor and which could be fitted with a nuclear warhead, pointed towards the Soviet Union from their Northamptonshire home. Harrington was one of 20 such bases across the East Midlands. RAF Polebrook, near Oundle, was the other Thor base in the county.

The weapons had a range of 1,500 nautical miles, a top speed of more than 10,000 mph and were 65 feet tall.

With the co-operation of British and American forces, they could be deployed at just 15 minutes’ notice: the USAF had responsibility for arming the warhead, while the RAF was in charge of launching the missile.

Unsuprisingly, American rockets stationed in the heart of the British countryside provoked anger. In January 1960, the Evening Telegraph reported that 82 anti-nuclear protestors from around the country had been arrested for trespassing on Air Ministry property at Harrington.

Most of those arrested, the Telegraph reported, refused bail as a matter of principle.

Magistrate Alderman JTH Pettit told the accused: “If you go to jail you’ll be fed. But it won’t be comfortable. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

One defendant retorted: “We’ll suffer far worse hardship if the H-bomb goes off.”

But Roy Tebbutt says most did not agree with the protests.

He said: “The local population saw it as being for the greater good of the country and for the maintenance of peace.”

Fortunately, no Thors were ever used to fire atomic weapons, and were later used to send satellites into space.

The Thor operation was discontinued in 1963, and two years later the runways began to be dug up.

It means that, today, with just a few relics left standing, it is hard to comprehend the global significance of a few fields just off the A14 in rural Northamptonshire.