Third Airforce South Ruislip Secrets
Third Air Force (South Ruislip)
Below is a personal account by a person who was stationed on the base in the 1950's.
It is not possible to check for factual accuracy but it does make very interesting reading nevertheless....
Headquarters 3rd Air Force in South Ruislip Air Base
I was stationed at Headquarters 3rd Air Force in South Ruislip Air Base from February 1955 to July 1956. My position was in the Directorate of Intelligence 3rd Air Force.
I guess enough time has passed that I can tell “really” what happened at South Ruislip. From a casual onlooker it appeared this was just another Air Force Headquarters – this is far from the truth. Just a few buildings and support facilities for the Generals and Colonels doing their jobs as leaders of the 3rd Air Force. Every few days the Air Force Band would parade up and down the main street of the base and a lot of us would have to join in the parade.
My work area was the first office building on the left as you entered the base. This was where the Director of Intelligence 3rd Air Force, Colonel Farrell, had his office and staff. It looked like about 20 to 30 people worked in this building but in fact we had about 250-300 people working in this building. There was a huge underground bunker with two levels to accommodate the extra folks. They would enter the main door and go through numerous security checkpoints and take dedicated elevators to their appropriate work level.
In addition to the normal functions of a headquarters operation this facility had two very secret operations that were run by the newly formed National Security Agency.
Nerve Centre for U-2 Flights
Over Russia and East Europe
The first operation was the TOP SECRET U-2 RECONNAISSANCE PROJECT. Every day these U-2 high flying reconnaissance aircraft would take off from bases in Turkey and crisscross Russia and the Eastern Bloc Countries and land in northern Norway. They would refuel in Norway and fly to either Lakenheath Air Base north of London or Northolt Air Base located a couple of miles from South Ruislip. They would unload the camera film and bring it to our facility at South Ruislip and it would be developed in the building where I worked. They would then refuel and fly back to Turkey for the next day’s mission. The U-2’s were piloted by CIA pilots, not Air Force pilots.
These aircraft had been flying over Russia for many years and the Russians were aware of them but could do nothing because they were flying much higher than the Russian aircraft could fly and even higher than their rockets could go. They were flying at 70,000 to 120,000 feet. The Russian Air Force would send up MIG Fighter Jets and try to shoot them down but the missiles could not reach the U-2s.
Then in 1960 they developed new missiles and shot down Francis Gary Power’s U-2 by launching a missile from a MIG fighter. He was held in prison for a couple of years and was exchanged for Russian spy, KGB Colonel Vilyan Fisher, that had been captured a few years earlier. We continued these flights for a few years with higher altitude aircraft, but they were eliminated when satellites started doing the same activity.
Francis Gary Power retired from the CIA and took a job flying “Traffic Helicopters” in Los Angeles, California and died while flying his traffic helicopter one morning. What an irony to live through all those U-2 flights and then die flying a “traffic helicopter”.
After the film was developed “every frame” was examined by about 150 photo analysis who were working in the underground bunker of our building in South Ruislip. The building looked just like any other headquarters office building to the general public but it was a “huge NSA spy agency” building. Every person who worked in this building had a special NSA Security Clearance which was higher than a Top Secret Clearance.
These pictures would track EVERY aircraft, rocket launcher, missile launcher, tank and truck by identifying their serial number on the side and top of each vehicle. These numbers, about the size of a license plate, could be read from 20 miles in height.
After analyzing each movement we would plot their new position on a 20 by 80 foot wall mounted map of Europe in our briefing room. So, we knew where all the planes, missile launchers, tanks, and trucks were located at all times.
Vice President Richard Nixon, would come visit our building regularly and we would give him a personal briefing on the new positions of all of the above planes, etc. General Curtis LeMay, SAC Commander, also came for periodic briefings. I participated in these briefings.
Electronic Listening Posts for Russia and East Europe
The second operation was for people who did nothing but listen to every communication they could intercept in Russia and the Soviet Bloc. This included all air traffic, ground traffic and any special electronic transmissions from our spies. These transmissions were forwarded to South Ruislip from hundreds of U.S. listening posts along the Russian and Soviet Bloc border. One of these listening post was built on a farm in Denmark owned by my wife’s family. This data was recorded and analyzed in real time by about 150 linguists working in the underground bunker. Each analysis was fluent in whatever language they were intercepting: Russian, German, Yugoslavia, etc.
This operation also included sending U.S. fighter and bomber aircraft towards, and sometimes, within the Russian and Eastern Bloc borders. The listening posts would record who detected them first and how long it took to scramble aircraft to intercept our planes. This was an ongoing operation to decide how to attack the Russians if necessary.
Every morning myself and an Air Force WAF named Red, were responsible for writing a large summary document of about 100 pages of all the spying activity and reports for the previous 24 hours from our spies in Russia and the entire Eastern Bloc Countries plus the information collected with the U-2 flights. We sent this report directly to the Vice President of the U.S., Richard Nixon, in Washington DC every day. It was flown directly to Washington by a special Air Force plane every day.
The Russians are very smart people and they knew what we were doing at South Ruislip and wanted to know how effective we were at collecting all this information. We identified a few Russian spies who moved close to South Ruislip and they had a list of all knowledgeable personnel involved in these projects and had us on a “high priority list” of people they were trying to kidnap. Then they could interrogate us and find out how much information we were getting with these U-2 flights and all the electronic spying activities. My name was on that list. Everybody on this list was prohibited travelling within 50 miles of the Russian or Eastern Bloc countries for fear of being kidnapped. We thought it was a little silly but the next story shows it was serious.
I met a Danish girl and wanted to get married in her home town of Nexo on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, it was only 35 miles from the Polish coast and I had to go through a lot of “red tape” to get this 50 mile restriction reduced to 35 miles.
During our wedding ceremony a flight of U.S. Air Force F-86 jets strafed the town at a very low altitude and flew directly over the church. The ceremony was recorded and you can hear the F-86s strafing the town in the middle of the ceremony. We did not know it at the time but 3 Russians spies had been launched in a rubber raft from a submarine just off the coast of the island. They tried to sneak onto Bornholm but our intelligence agency discovered this activity. They landed about 4 miles north of Nexø and were immediately captured by the Danish Home Guard and U.S. operatives. Their mission was to capture me and take me to Russia for interrogation. That could have had very bad consequences for us if they had not been captured. I was not aware of this activity until I got back to South Ruislip. It took a few months before I was informed of the complete activity. Luckily they didn’t spoil our wedding. We just thought the Air Force was saying “Congratulations” by strafing the town with a flight of F-86s, but it was a lot worse. They were telling the Russian’s they knew about the landing and not to try it again and get that submarine out of Danish waters. I don’t know what happened to the 3 Russian spies the Danes captured. I guess the 50 mile restriction was not so “silly” after all.
A second interesting thing happened after I was reassigned from South Ruislip to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. My wife and I were involved in an off duty social club for American service people in Kaiserslautern, Germany. We met every Sunday and became friends with a couple who only seemed to show up every couple of months. I started talking to the husband and noticed that every time he came back after a couple of months absence his hands were pretty bruised. After a few months of “being very coy” with each other we discovered he was an American spy and that I had reported on his activities while in South Ruislip. He would cross the border and work in coal mines and other factory facilities for a few of weeks and collect information we desired. His wife worked at one of the remote U.S. electronic listening posts in Germany. What a small world.
We had a little Morris Minor 600, which was built for the U.S. market with left hand drive. When we were assigned to Germany we planned on selling it and getting a larger car to accommodate our increasing family. We bought a Ford Consul. One of the top officers at the base heard about us selling the Morris Minor and he bought it and had it shipped back to his home in the U.S. He returned it in the bomb bay of a B-29. Nice to be a high ranking officer.
As part of our regular duties at 3rd Air Force, we would participate in air defence exercises every few months. Many underground facilities were constructed around London for use during the war but my favourite was Bushy Park. We used this facility for our exercises. Bushy Park is where Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower would go to observe the air situation during the Battle of Britain. After the war they left everything in place and closed up these facilities.
Bushy Park had a very large map of eastern Britain and Europe on the floor and dozens of RAF personnel would position model airplanes to indicate their present position. A large observation area was built over the edge of this map and Churchill, Eisenhower and other high ranging RAF officials would control the Battle of Britain from these locations.
Churchill stayed there many nights and had a small sleeping room with a single bed, chair, lamp and table for his favourite cognac and Cuban cigars. Everything was as he left it at the end of the war. His secretary had an adjacent room with here typewriter and phones. A very small bathroom was between the rooms. Churchill would sleep in his full uniform or naked, I guess depending on how much cognac he had before going to sleep. He was the kind of person who awoke instantly and jumped out of bed standing straight up. This must have been a shock for his secretary, at least the first few times.
In 1970 we moved our family to Maidstone, Kent because I took a job running the U.K. division of an American company. The house we purchased was built in 1935 and had a large bomb shelter in the back yard. This house was directly under the Battle of Britain so it was certainly necessary. After the war the owner left the bomb shelter get overgrown and locked the doors. When we bought the house we did not know about the bomb shelter because it was so overgrown for the last 25 years. Of course, our children had a ball digging out the doors and exploring the shelter. It was quite large and had beds, food, candles, cooking oil, etc. What a great playhouse for the children.
Comments by a visitor to the web site
I read with interest the article on USAF'S Ruislip's involvement with the U2 and the NSA but feel it should be taken with a pinch of salt!
The U2 came into operational service in late June/early July 1956, just as your correspondent was ending his tour of ops, flying at that time from Germany. As for it landing at RAF Northolt, unlikely I think. Surely we would have heard about a top secret aircraft landing at a base in a built up area which shares its operations with civilian flights?
As someone that went to school under the flight path to Northolt the only US aircraft I can recall were US Navy transport planes.
A search on internet shows that the main base for the U2 was Mildenhall (although others were used occasionally)
The US bases at Bushy Park and Bushy Hall had nothing to do with the Battle of Britain! US forces arrived in 1942, BoB was controlled from RAF Bentley Priory and Uxbridge.
As for an intelligence component being based at Ruislip this is possible but NSA? Wiki shows that several USAF intelligence units had small sections based there, the parent units operating aircraft other than the U2 from bases in East Anglia.
A bunker sounds plausible, possibly an air raid / fall out shelter? Another post on your site states that the complex was originally built as warehousing so it would be interesting to learn, if it existed, when it was constructed.