From Ynyslas to the Stars...

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A special contribution to the war effort

A special contribution to the war effort made by a community on the Dyfi Estuary.

Few visitors to the Ynyslas National Nature Reserve are aware that they have entered one of World War II’s most secret research facilities – a weapons-testing range that once played a vital role in the development of rocketry, space travel, and all the associated inventions (from home insulation to heart-pacemakers) which have radically changed the world we live in today.

It was towards the end of the war that the quiet, isolated sand dunes of Ynyslas were added to the military firing ranges of Cardigan Bay.  As the threat of invasion had long passed, the pillboxes and barbed wire entanglements installed in 1941 were pressed into service as perimeter defences, keeping the public and prying eyes away.  HMS CAMROUX III, a small coaster which had been specially converted with rocket launch ramps, was anchored at Aberdyfi to provide billets for some 30 army officers during the construction phase. 

Military interest in the rockets

Military interest in the rockets had centred on three distinct combat roles;

1. Barrage rockets fired rapidly and in quantity to saturate a large area of the battlefield;

2. Direct fire rockets aimed singly or in small numbers at specific targets;

3. Rocket propulsion systems for aircraft (e.g. a rocket that might help boost the launch of an aircraft from aircraft carrier deck) and guided missiles.

It is known that the Ynyslas range was used for the testing unrotated rocket projectiles. Both the 2in diameter projectile filled with plastic explosives and a 3in solid armour- piercing rocket were designed at the behest of Winston Churchill by military scientists lead by Sir Alwyn Crow CBE, Director and Controller of Projectile Development, at Fort Halstead. They were unguided and targeting was a matter of judgment and experience by the pilot or gunner.  

Combating the German flying bomb terror

Meanwhile, the German army and Luftwaffe were developing long-range rockets with guidance systems – the V1 and the V2. British Intelligence had first indentified a rocket at the Peenemunde secret weapon site in June 1943. These flying bombs brought devastation to London between June 1944 – March 1945 and provided the impetus for a new Guided Projectile Project to be headed up by Sir Alwyn. The Ynyslas Range was nominated to provide special test facilities for the testing of rockets propelled by liquid fuels (such as liquid oxygen and petrol).

Sir Alwyn reported to a top level committee (the Guided Projectile Progressing Committee) comprising representatives from the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry as well as a US Naval attaché and representatives from the Canadian Military. He was responsible for overseeing technical groups working in 3 areas of research - stabilisation and control; aerodynamics and propulsive ducts; and the development of liquid fuels. The Project was tasked with the delivery of various forms of anti-aircraft, ship-to-ship and artillery weapons, with August 1947 being given as the first deadline for delivery of prototype missiles for naval use.

The guided projectiles research programme brought together some 40 civilian and service personnel from the Radar Research Defence Establishment (RRDE), Signals Research and Development Establishment (SRDE), Sir Frank Whittle’s Power Jets (Research and Development) Ltd and private companies such Asiatic Petroleum Company (formed by Shell and Royal Dutch Oil Companies) and Laporte Chemicals Ltd (for the production of hydrogen peroxide).  

The Ynyslas Experimental Range takes shape

According the project outline prepared by Sir Alwyn in November 1945, the range was to be called Ministry of Supply Experimental Establishment Anti-Aircraft (MOS EE AA) Ynyslas and was to be manned by 9 officers and 202 ordinary ratings (excluding cooks and ratings) under a Superintendant of Experiments (S of X).  An upgrading of facilities may have been begun as early as February 1945 when correspondence from the Walton-on-the-Naze research establishment suggests new observational positions were being contemplated for Ynyslas.

Within the camp’s footprint, it is known that the farmhouse, Moel Ynys, was requisitioned as sergeants’ accommodation. The gatehouse to the camp was situated near to The Bungalow, to the south of Moel Ynys. A part of Brynellen, a bungalow formerly located on the golf course fairway, was kitted out as the Radio Room.

A farm track near the Leri Bridge was upgraded and concreted over, and served as one of the access roads to the core of the military camp. This road ran to laboratories for the RRDE to work on receivers, for the SRDE for telemetry; and for the AGE for servo work.  There was also a large hut one large main plotting and computing room with three smaller rooms for individual analysis of photographic, radar tracking and telemetry. The formal layout of the 12 huts to the south of the access road suggests accommodation for personnel, but these may have been used for the storage of propellants.  Two of the camp buildings for this core of the camp survive - a laboratory building and a standard BCF hut. 

Historic aerial photographs show two other ‘large’ buildings near the crossroads of the access track and the main road, one with vehicles outside. This is believed to be the garage for vehicles transporting stores and for the special vehicles used for transporting liquid fuels.  There is another complexes of three huts which possibly served as a dust-free, temperature controlled store for electrical components or as a general store for components such as dummy projectiles, boost cones, fins, etc. There is another long thin rectangular building with a square camouflaged hut just to its rear possibly served as the main administrative building.

There is a complex of 5 huts to the north of Moel Ynys and at the northern edge of the ribbon developments which may have served as stores but are more likely to have been accommodation. Local residents suggest that the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute providing a retail and leisure outlet) was in the vicinity of this more northerly block of huts.

On the main road to the south, an area of glasshouse was converted into a large hangar which probably included a machine shop, electrical shop, blacksmith and welding shop, stores, office, and assembly shop.  The workshop was equipped with a 15ton Ransome crane. Within this compound, there is also a vehicle inspection ramp for the maintenance of the vehicles. 

For emergency fire fighting, three water towers were installed near Brynellen, the hangar/assembly shed, and in the back garden of one of the private houses overlooking the compound of 12 huts.

Installing the rocket test tracks at Ynyslas

Two large rocket test-beds were laid some distance away from the main camp, with their associated support structures, plus observation posts and camera buildings.

The main firing ramp was used for firing rocket motors upstream of the Dyfi estuary, the test rigs would crash into the muddy tidal river banks, then salvaged and returned to the workshops by recovery teams. The ramp comprised a large blast wall at the firing end (which is now completely covered by the encroaching sand dunes), with concrete supporting plinths for the overhead steel gantry that held the firing guide track. The accelerating projectile would trigger two high-speed cameras, located at dedicated a brick-built camera observation posts.

A secondary test bed ran from within the site of what is now a caravan park to a target backstop, or stop-butt, set into a sand dune. This dune is not as would appear. From the apex it is clear that the eastern face has been excavated and formed into an ‘amphitheatre’, to absorb the shock waves of the impact of the projectiles. At its eastern end, an open work tower with associated BCF hut and other buildings possibly provided a radio/radar base station. 

Historic meeting 1946

Only one document appears to have survived detailing the nature of the trials undertaken – this being the minutes of a visit by the chairman of the Guided Projectile Working Committee, Major L W Jubb, on 2 January 1946. A tour of the existing facilities was undertaken with the Superintendent of Experiments, Lt Col T L G Tod, Royal Artillery. Discussions centred on how photographic observations might be improved with Akeley and Ascania cameras. Attending the discussions were the four Assistant Superintendents of Experiments, Major Till, Captain Pubach, Captain Lodge, and a female officer, Junior Commander Biddle. She was responsible for overseeing staff operating the Ascania cameras.  The minutes refer to a proposed propulsive duct or liquid-fuel propelled rocket trial for 11 January 1946 and a test of the Ascania cameras to precede this trial using Admonitor rockets from Aberporth. A letter from the Major Jubb (dated 11 June 1946) suggests that the observers/recorders were from the Auxiliary Territorial Services (Women’s ATS) and that their commander, Lt Col Tod, lamented the loss of their skills when they were replaced by  Royal Artillery surveyors after demobilisation (AVIA 48/16, National Archives, Kew).

Two of the surviving observation posts are associated with concrete pads which may have provided the bases for Kine Theodolites, or for the simple radio beam-guidance systems. The range of observational methods to be facilitated at Aberporth, when the Ynyslas establishment transferred there in May 1946, included ‘times by stop-watch and P.E. timer, launching velocities, position observations by window, mirrors, directors, etc; photography, including kine-theodolities; radar tracking including the Doppler method under development by RRDE’. It is logical to assume many of these methods were also employed at Ynyslas.  

Reaching for the Stars

Despite the additional facilities installed at the Ynyslas, the minutes of the Guided Projectile Processing Committee dated 7 March 1946 note the continuing problems in gaining adequate observational data and that lack of adequate static testing facilities.  With theoretical consideration being given to a weapon that could carry a 7000lb warhead some 2000 miles, the Committee was attracted by the range possibilities in Canada and Australia. For example, a range of up to 1200 miles was available in Australia - over 40 times the distance available at Ynyslas out over Cardigan Bay - with more favourable weather conditions than anywhere else within British Dominions.

By this time, the Allies had managed to persuade many of the German rocket scientists to continue their work in Britain and the US. The first seven scientists, headed by Werner von Braun, spent two weeks in Britain being questioned by Sir Alwyn and other Ministry of Supply officials before arriving in Boston, USA, on 29 September 1945.  In October 1945, German personnel fired four V2 rockets from a launch pad near Cuxhaven in order to demonstrate the weapon to the allies – a test which Sir Alwyn attended. Some 400 railway cars and 70 Lancaster flights were needed to bring 250,000 parts and 60 specialised vehicles to Cuxhaven to enable 8 V2 rockets to be built. Tail parts were supplied by the US from technology captured from the underground Mittelwerk factory at the Mittlebau-Dora concentration camp. Many of the rockets and the hydrogen peroxide fuel was provided by T-Force, a secretive British Army unit that searched for German military technology as part of Operation Backfire. The most elusive part being batteries for the guidance gyros.

It is interesting to note in these minutes the close collaboration between the US and British scientists. In the US, the main body of German scientists began to arrive at Fort Bliss, Texas, in December 1945. The US had built a test plant largely to British design and two British scientists were already in the US assisting Section T, Office of Scientific Research and Development, with their experiments.  The first static firing test of a V-2 power plant took place on 14 March 1946. The first American-adapted V-2 was flown from the White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, on 16 April 1946. To maintain liaison with our American cousins, Sir Alwyn was appointed to lead the Scientific and Technical Services, British Supply Office, Washington, in November 1946. 

RAF Westcott was chosen as the peacetime home of the Guided Projectile Project with an outstation at Aberporth. The German scientists persuaded to stay in Britain were housed there and continued to work on rocket motors until the BLUE STREAK missile project was cancelled in 1962.  The rocket they designed was used as the first-stage of the European satellite launcher Europa in 1964.

The moment in the spotlight of history making for MOS EE AA Ynyslas may have passed quickly, but legacy remains in amongst the sand dunes and in the wartime memories of local residents.

Further Reading:

Gatland, Kenneth W,1954,  Development of the Guided Missile, pub. Iliffe & Sons, London.

Gatland, Kenneth W, 1975, Missiles and Rockets, pub. Blandford Press.

Kerr, D.B., 1990, The Girls Behind the Guns – with the ATS in World War II, pub. Robert Hale.

Parry, M, 2012, Rockets on the Beach, RCAHMW Collections

Twigge, Stephen R., 1993, The Early Development of Guided Weapons in the United Kingdom, 1940-1960, pub. Harwood Academic.

The War Office, 1938, Directions for the use of Anti-Aircraft Artillery Instruments, Pamphlet No. 5, The Kine Theodolite