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Cold War period Royal Observer Corps Group Headquarters, Howe Hill

A Scheduled Monument in Holgate, York

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Latitude: 53.9568 / 53°57'24"N

Longitude: -1.1167 / 1°7'0"W

OS Eastings: 458058.649483

OS Northings: 451548.367698

OS Grid: SE580515

Mapcode National: GBR NQNP.1C

Mapcode Global: WHD9Y.TTF1

Entry Name: Cold War period Royal Observer Corps Group Headquarters, Howe Hill

Scheduled Date: 21 June 2000

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1019439

English Heritage Legacy ID: 32702

County: York

Electoral Ward/Division: Holgate

Built-Up Area: York

Traditional County: Yorkshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): North Yorkshire

Church of England Parish: York St Paul

Church of England Diocese: York


The monument includes a semi-sunken earth covered headquarters building,
together with its internal and external fixtures and fittings. It lies to the
rear of Shelley House on Acomb Road and formed the headquarters of No.20
Group, Royal Observation Corps from 1961 to 1991.
The Royal Observer Corps was a uniformed civilian organisation which had a
mainly volunteer force, originally for spotting and tracking enemy aircraft
over Britain. In 1955, the Corps was given the task of reporting the locations
of nuclear explosions and the tracking of subsequent plumes of radioactive
fallout in the event of nuclear war. Between 1957 and 1965 an extensive
network of 1561 underground monitoring posts were constructed (985 in England)
organised into regional groups, each reporting to a group headquarters which
analysed and passed on data to civilian and military authorities. Most of
Yorkshire formed No.20 Group with its headquarters at York. The semi-sunken
headquarters building which forms the monument was opened on 16th December
1961, replacing a World War II surface building near to York racecourse. It
was one of 25 purpose built structures constructed in 1960 to 1965, with 19
being in England. Half of these were surface built and half semi-sunken
following a standard 1958 Air Ministry specification which was designed to
provide protection for a staff of around 60 men and women from the radiation
and blast effects of contemporary nuclear weapons. The headquarters is known
to have been on alert in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and its
alert status subsequently varied according to the international situation at
the time. In the budgetary cuts of 1968, a large number of monitoring posts
nationally were decommissioned, although the York Group Headquarters gained
responsibility for most of the posts in No.18 Group following the closure of
the headquarters at Leeds. The headquarters were modified in the late 1970s to
early 1980s with the removal of part of the earth banking for the addition of
a telescopic radio mast adjacent to the main entrance and the replacement of
the emergency exit ladder shaft at the south western end of the building with
a flight of stairs. The Royal Observer Corps was stood down on 30th September
1991 following the end of the Cold War in 1990 with the signing of a
non-aggression agreement between Warsaw Pact and NATO countries. The
headquarters building was finally abandoned, with nearly all of its equipment
still in place, on 31st March 1992.
The headquarters building is on three levels built into rising ground, facing
south west, of reinforced concrete with internal dividing walls in concrete
block work. Most of its structure is protected with an outer brick shell and
three layers of asphalt with a minimum 0.9m thick earth covering. The entrance
block, approached by an external flight of stairs, stands clear of this earth
covering at the north western end of the building. It has extra thick
reinforced concrete walls and was originally painted white to reduce heat
absorption, but was painted green in the 1980s. This entrance block measures
nearly 13m by 7m and contains an airlock and a decontamination room designed
to prevent radioactive fallout from being brought into the rest of the
building by people entering after a nuclear strike. It also contains a
radiator room for the emergency electricity generators sited on the floor
below and a filter chamber to remove radioactive particles from air drawn in
by the air conditioning system. All these rooms retain original equipment,
including signage, which is also included in the monument. To the rear there
is an internal staircase which descends to the main floor below. This measures
just over 13m by 26m orientated north west to south east with its floor level
around 2m below the original ground surface, about 4m below the surface of the
earth covering. The main floor is based on an axial corridor. On the north
east side there are toilets and showers with the chamber for the sewerage
ejector pit to the rear, all retaining the original equipment, fixtures and
fittings. Next is the eight bunk bedded male dormitory, the twelve bunk bedded
female dormitory, and lastly a small room for officers. The rest of the rooms,
including the lower floor, all lie on the south western side of the corridor.
At the north western end there is the plant room with the generator room to
the rear. In the event of a nuclear attack the building would have been
sealed, recirculating the air for as long as possible before taking a `gulp'
of air from outside through the filters housed on the upper floor. The plant
room still retains the duplicated air conditioning units used for this system.
The headquarters was connected to the national grid but had its own stand-by
diesel powered electricity generator which is still installed in the generator
room and is thus also included in the monument. Next along the corridor is a
small fully equipped kitchen with a canteen to the rear which doubled as the
off-duty recreation room. Next to this is a room which housed the
headquarters' telephone exchange equipment that, as it remained the property
of British Telecom in 1991, has been removed. Adjacent to this room was a
small store and the stairs down to the lowest level, the floor of which was
around 5.5m below the original ground surface. This bottom level measures just
over 14m by 8m. At the bottom of the stairs to the right, directly below the
telephone exchange room is the wireless room which originally contained VHF
radio equipment and still retains some switch gear. This room is shielded
against electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), the damaging high voltage surge that is
induced in electrical equipment by nuclear explosions, by copper earthing
straps around the walls that form a Faraday Cage. The heart of the
headquarters occupies the south western part of the lower level with a balcony
around three sides on the middle level above, assessable from the main
corridor. This is the operations room where post plotters, communication staff
who were seated on one side of the balcony, took reports from the group's
network of up to 35 monitoring posts. By using data from two or more posts the
locations and power of nuclear detonations would be calculated by
triangulation using a pair of map boards which are sited in an alcove next to
the balcony. This was supplemented by the headquarters' own recording
equipment, which in addition to that used by the monitoring posts, included an
Atomic Weapon Detection Recognition and Estimation of Yields unit (AWDREY)
which automatically broadcast an alarm signal when it detected a nuclear
explosion up to 150 miles away. York's AWDREY unit still exists and is
included in the monument. This data was then passed via staff known as tellers
to the plotters on the floor of the operations room below, supplemented by
information supplied from neighbouring group headquarters and other sources
via an adjacent soundproofed room. This room originally contained teleprinters
but was later updated with faster and quieter messaging equipment. The lower
part of the operations room retains its full set of situation boards. These
included two illuminated maps of northern England etched onto glass and two
wider situation maps showing the United Kingdom and Europe respectively. These
were used by the plotters to mark the locations of explosions and to track the
plumes of radioactive fallout. The operation room also retains the boards used
to keep track of the estimated number of casualties, any losses of
communication links and the radiation levels recorded by the group's
monitoring posts.
The protected Group Headquarters building was only staffed when the Royal
Observer Corps was on alert. For most of the time an adjacent single storey
brick building to the north west was used by the core full time staff of three
to organise day to day administration, maintenance of the group's posts and
training for the mainly volunteer staff. Next to this office building is a
small store for radioactive isotopes and the footings for a timber hut which
was used as a cinema for staff training purposes. Although these structures
are not included within the area of the monument, they should be regarded as
contributors to its setting.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The Cold War, which developed between the Soviet Union and the western allies
after World War II, had a major effect on both Britain's defence policy and
the wider society in general in the second half of the 20th century. When
Russia first detonated a nuclear bomb in August 1949, the threat posed by
nuclear weapons was taken very seriously. In 1954 it was shown that any debris
thrown up by a nuclear explosion would be carried by the wind to settle back
to earth as an extended plume of radioactive fallout and that large numbers of
lives could be saved if people were warned to take cover until radiation
levels had dropped by a sufficient amount. When the Royal Observer Corps' task
of fallout monitoring was first conceived, only a small number of relatively
low powered nuclear devices were expected to be dropped on Britain in any
attack, such as that threatened by the Soviet Union during the 1956 Suez
Crisis. Following the arms race through the late 1950s and 1960s, with the
development of more powerful weapons with multiple warheads, it is now
uncertain how useful the Royal Observer Corps would really have been in the
face of a full scale nuclear attack. However perhaps more important was the
Royal Observer Corps's role in the propaganda war against the Soviet Union,
giving out the message that organisationally Britain would survive a first
nuclear strike, thus giving more weight to Britain's own nuclear deterrent. On
the Home Front, the Royal Observer Corps, a civilian organisation whose mainly
volunteer force numbered around 17,000 in the mid-1960s, helped to maintain
public morale in the depths of the Cold War. Royal Observer Corps Group
headquarters were thus a key component of Britain's response to the Cold War.
They are a very good example of the design principles behind 1950s-1960s
protected installations and an important monument of Britain's post World War
II history.
Of the ten semi-sunken and nine surface built group headquarters originally
built in England, the example at York is the only one known to retain nearly
all of the equipment which was in use when it was stood down in 1991, most of
which had been installed since the 1960s. The surface built examples at
Winchester and Colchester retain some internal fittings, one other semi-sunken
headquarters, at Yeovil, may also include internal equipment. It is not known
if the Group Headquarters at Leeds, which was closed in 1968, has been
cleared. The rest of the group headquarters have either been demolished or
cleared and adapted for reuse. The example in York is thus considered to be
one of the best surviving examples of either surface built or semi-sunken
Royal Observer Corps group headquarters in the country.

Source: Historic England


Original design plans, Air Ministry Directorate of General Works, ROC Group headquarters semi-sunk type general plans & sections, (1958)
Original site design plan, Air Ministry Works Department, ROC Group headquarters proposed borrow area for spoil, (1961)
Roger Thomas, English Heritage Military Recording Officer, (2000)

Source: Historic England

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