With yesterday marking 75 years since the Battle of Britain, when our skies were under threat from Nazi invaders, reporter BEN O’CONNELL visited RAF Boulmer to find out how they protect UK airspace in 2015.
On this day in 1940, the brave souls of RAF Fighter Command were reflecting on their victory over the Luftwaffe in a large-scale aerial battle, effectively ending the Battle of Britain, which had been raging since July.
Three-quarters-of-a-century on and the RAF is still responsible for keeping us safe from above and it could not do that properly without the vital role played by the men and women at a base on a hillside in north Northumberland.
RAF Boulmer didn’t exist at the time of the Battle of Britain, but 1940 did mark its inception of sorts when land at Boulmer village was used as a decoy airfield to keep attacking Luftwaffe aircraft away from nearby RAF Acklington.
However, it was abandoned as the aerial threat to the country receded, leaving the grass runways and plywood and canvas Hurricanes behind.
In March 1943, it was reopened as a satellite airfield to house the advanced flights of 57 Operational Training Unit, a Spitfire unit based at RAF Eshott, near Morpeth, but RAF Boulmer as it is today was really born in 1953, with the onset of the Cold War.
Back in 1940, Britain’s success in the air often came down to the courage of the RAF’s pilots, but defeating the Luftwaffe – which forced Hitler to rethink Operation Sealion, his plan for a land-based invasion of the country – would have been impossible without Britain’s complex air defence network.
Writing in the RAF’s Salute magazine, Flight Lieutenant Lucy Williams, an Aerospace Battle Manager at RAF Boulmer, said: “The fundamentals of air defence laid down prior to the Battle of Britain and exercised so thoroughly in determining victory remain as relevant today as ever.
“Based on the new technology of radar, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding developed what became known as the Dowding System. Operational just in time for the outbreak of war, it was the first air-defence system capable of integrating information from radar and ground observers and using this product to command ground-based defences and fighter aircraft.
“So successful was the system that it remains the basis of how the RAF secures our skies today, although there have been many changes. Modern aircraft fly much faster, our radars see much further and Fighter Controllers have become Aerospace Battle Managers.
“But the task itself, to defend the nation, remains exactly the same and carries just as much importance.”
Essentially, the principles of UK air defence remain the same today as they were during the Battle of Britain; the total awareness of what is in our airspace, the identification of enemy aircraft and effective, timely interception – and this work is carried out by the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Force, which is headquartered at RAF Boulmer.
Or as Group Captain Mark Coleman, Station Commander at Boulmer as well as commander of the ASACS Force, said: “The role that the Air Defence organisation had during the Battle of Britain in 1940 was to detect, inform, decide what we need to do, react to that and back-report what happened.
“Today we do exactly the same. The thought process today is exactly the same as it was in 1940.”
All hours of the day and night, and every day of the year, Aerospace Battle Managers in the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) at RAF Boulmer use information from military and civilian radars, Royal Navy ships and RAF Airborne Early Warning aircraft to provide a complete picture of everything that is flying in and around UK airspace.
Identifying and tracking all aircraft, they can launch RAF Quick Reaction Alert Typhoons to intercept any aircraft that are giving cause for concern – as seen recently in a number of incidents of Russian aircraft flying through international airspace in the vicinity of the UK, Once airborne, RAF weapons controllers based in the CRC will then direct the Typhoons during their mission.
Those fond of watching black and white films about the Second World War will be pleased to know that the order to send up the Typhoons remains ‘scramble, scramble, scramble’.
The station, in its current guise, opened in June 1953 as 500 Signals Unit, under the parentage of RAF Acklington, after land was found to construct an Air Defence Control Centre, prompted by the onset of the Cold War.
Five years later, RAF Boulmer was awarded its crest, which appropriately depicts a firebrand surrounded by the motto Semper in excubitu vigilans – Always the Vigilant Sentry.
The nature of the Cold War meant that the UK’s military radar was very much focused to the east with the majority of sites on the east coast, such as the radar heads at Brizlee Wood on the moor above Alnwick.
But more recently, and particularly since 9/11, the desire and need has been for coverage across the whole of the UK and beyond, which is why the CRC receives information from civilian radars as well as early warnings from Nato allies such as Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and France.
Wing Commander Darren Phelps, officer commanding CRC and known to his friends as Phelpsy, said: “The difference from the Battle of Britain is that we are not just looking outwards, we are looking inwards as well.”
The bunker where the CRC is based also dates back to the Cold War and is entered via The Cottage, an inauspicious-looking building that leads to a corridor which, strangely, travels uphill to the underground bunker as it is situated in the hillside.
Entering the centre though, it is clear that some things have changed since the Cold War and certainly since the Battle of Britain.
Fortunately, there have been significant advances in technology since 1940 that allow the Aerospace Battle Managers to achieve their task much more quickly.
They now work with sophisticated computer systems and advanced radar and communications technology. They provide a real-time awareness of all aircraft within UK and Nato airspace 24/7, 365 days a year, ensuring a timely response to potential threats by directing and controlling intercepts using RAF aircraft such as the Typhoon.
A young Aerospace Battle Manager, surrounded by five computer screens, explained how the airspace is constantly monitored to provide a map of everything that is flying in and around the UK – this is called the Recognised Air Picture.
Every aircraft in UK airspace should be sending out a unique signal, known as a squawk, which provides details of what it’s doing and where it’s going.
Elsewhere in the room, there is a row of computers where data can be sent up the chain either to the National Air Defence Operations Command in High Wycombe or Nato HQ.
A number of the other monitors are being used to train students from the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management – a worldwide centre of excellence providing leading-edge battlespace management training and education at Boulmer since 1990, rebranded in 2009 – training with instructors to become the aerospace battle managers of the future.
At the centre of the room is the row of terminals where the Master Controller sits – in 1940, this was the man who sat above the table featuring the map of the UK watching the planes be moved around with the wooden sticks.
On the Master Controller’s desk is a red phone – disappointingly, its colour is not a strict requirement – which is where any incidents are rung in. This could be from air traffic controllers who haven’t been able to make contact with a plane or from Nato partners.
The Master Controller then takes the decision as to whether tactical action needs to be taken. The phone rings three or four times a day, with there being around one live launch for every 10 calls.
One woman, working as the Master Controller’s assistant that day, said that the first time she heard the red phone ring, her heart stopped and it still does a bit now – everyone knows the ringtone.
Training for these incidents is key and takes place continually and they will train for scenarios in which three or four major incidents are happening at once, to ensure that they are all prepared for every eventuality.
Wg Cdr Phelps explained that graduating from the School of Aerospace Battle Management is like passing a driving test; you then need to learn how to drive on a motorway, how to drive on a motorway in heavy rain, how to drive on a motorway with ice and how to drive a Land Rover so you can do something different.
In this week, when we remember and reflect upon the courage of the brave men and women who protected us from invasion 75 years ago, it is also worth remembering that RAF Boulmer, based right here in Northumberland, plays a vital part in securing our skies.