The Cold War comes to East Yorkshire


When I was in my teens, one of my friends insisted that the Russians were aiming their missiles at Driffield because the old hangars were now ‘the biggest grain store in Europe.’

Whether or not this was true, it came as a surprise to me to find out that in the 1950s, the Soviets definitely would have had my little market town marked with a big red cross on their targeting maps, as RAF Driffield played host to a small deployment of American nuclear missiles. Scary stuff.

The missiles in question were American-built PGM-17 Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which arrived at Driffield on 1 August 1959 as part of Operation Emily, with a total of 60 missiles dispersed across 20 RAF sites around the UK.

While at RAF Driffield, the missiles came under the care of No.98 Squadron, a former Bomber Command unit originally converted to fighters in 1955 – flying some of the earliest RAF jets including the de Havilland Vampire and Venom, and latterly the Hawker Hunter.

After training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, No.98 became No.98 (SM) – Strategic Missile, and looked after three Thor missiles at Driffield.

As part of Operation Emily, USAAF personnel were also attached to the missile bases in the UK, with Driffield becoming nicknamed ‘Santa Monica on the Wolds’ and as ever, the American contingent brought many home luxuries with them, installing an on-site cinema which was as popular with the locals as the overseas visitors.

Among the British aircrew attending the Thors was Harry Lomas, a former Bomber Command navigator flying from RAF Lissett, who now had the grand title of Launch Control Console Operator, and was tasked among other things with checking the target co-ordinates of the missile system. In other words, making sure the Thors dropped on their chosen targets in the Soviet Union. Harry – whose family still live in Driffield – wrote about his wartime and Cold War experiences in his book One Wing High, which I can highly recommend.

With tensions heightened in October 1962 thanks to the Cuban Missile Crisis, No.98 (SM) was on full alert, and just two decades after being at the heart of the Battle of Britain and air war against Germany, Driffield was again potentially in the eye of the storm, albeit with an even more ominous outcome in the offing.

Thankfully the crisis passed, and though the Cold War rumbled on well into the 1980s, No.98 (SM) was disbanded in April 1963 when the Thor programme ended in the UK and the missiles were shipped back home to the States. Read the Yorkshire Post article here.