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CRIGGION

Secret Cold War Radio Station to be Dismantled
by Carl Yapp, The Western Mail, Mon 3-Mar-2003
Republished with permission

It is difficult to imagine the tiny community of Criggion as home to a top-secret communications centre which could have been a prime target in a Cold War nuclear strike.

Tucked away in a picturesque valley, the site was probably chosen because it seems like the last place an enemy would look for 700ft radio masts, but just like other defunct bastions of the Cold War, such as the Berlin Wall, communism and the Soviet Union, it is to be closed and dismantled at the end of the month.

Located in the heart of rural Powys, near Welshpool, Criggion Radio Station has been shrouded in secrecy. It was opened and run by the old GPO in 1942 and and since 1984 by the privatised British Telecom (BT).

In the shadow of Admiral Rodney's Pillar, a monument erected in 1782 on the summit of the nearby Breidden Hill to commemorate the defeat of a French fleet in the West Indies by ships built of Powysland Oaks, the station was originally used to communicate with submarines during World War II. It was designed as a stand-in for its sister station in Rugby, Warwickshire, after fears that that station could be attacked from the air by German bombers. 

One former employee recalls that it played a role in the sinking of the pride of the German Navy, the Bismark, for which it received a special thanks from the Admiral of the Fleet. During the Cold War it was thought to be a "Category A" target for nuclear attack. 

OVER AND OUT

ONE group that is not disappointed to see the Criggion masts disappear is CND Cymru.

Vice-chairman Rod Stellard said he was "pleased" that the station was being closed, but feared that the communications set-up would remain elsewhere in the UK. 

He said, "The set-up will go somewhere else more secretive and become an even greater target. "Criggion is extremely significant in military terms. Without it the British Government could not keep in touch with its submarines and you'd have a series of rogue killers at sea. "It would have been a target for nuclear strike, although it was unclear whether the local population knew the significance of the site. If you want to prevent an enemy retaliating what is the most sensible thing to do? You take out his communication systems so he is unable to contact his forces. The MOD was very secretive about the site. We did hear that it was used in civil aircraft and air ambulance work. This made it very difficult to plan an objective protest as it was seen to be doing something worthy."

Its original three masts were 600ft high, but in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, three 700ft masts were added.

Despite all the speculation, the exact role of Criggion has never been revealed. It is thought to act as a contact point for nuclear submarines across the world

The 15 employees who now work on the site will either be redeployed or will leave on "voluntary terms", said a British Telecom spokesman in Cardiff.

BT will not confirm that its client at Criggion is the Ministry of Defence, something that neither it or the MOD have ever publicly admitted. The spokesman would only say, "Criggion will close at the end of next month when the contract with our client comes to an end. From the end of March transmissions from the site will cease and in the months that follow the masts will be dismantled. It will be quite a task to dismantle the masts and it is expected to take some time, although it's not a priority."

During the 1960s, 160 people were employed at Criggion. Security was tight and the site was surrounded by high fences and monitored by surveillance equipment. It became a target for anti-nuclear protesters who held sporadic demonstrations up until the late 1990s.

The impending closure has brought memories flooding back for one of the first members of the site's workforce. Stan Brown, 83, [left] who joined the radio station in September 1942, two months after it was opened.

"I first saw plans for Criggion in 1941 while I was working at Rugby," said Mr Brown, who was at that time chairman of the Post Office Engineering Union, Radio Branch. "Officials in Rugby feared that German bombers could attack and destroy one of our only means of naval communications. "In 1942 Criggion was built and we set about dealing with mainly press and naval communications. We even played our part in the sinking of the Bismark in 1943 and we received thanks from the Admiral of the Fleet for that. I think Criggion was chosen as a communications centre because of the nearby hill. It was used to anchor the masts and was used as an extra aerial.

"In 1945 we reverted to international, press and naval communications work. Until the Atlantic cable was in operation, Criggion carried all 14 communication circuits to the United States and also communications for Pakistan. In 1967, building work started on expanding the site. Three more taller masts were built and the station was made more powerful and given a bigger aerial. I can only remember one demonstration at the site in the late 1960s and one later when Britain changed from Polaris to Trident submarines."

Mr Brown added that workers took part in summer carnivals and Christmas pantomimes in the community, and during World War II people from London who worked at Criggion regularly left for the south with suitcases and sometimes lorries full of butter and other foodstuffs. "Montgomeryshire was a land of milk and honey during the war," said Mr Brown. "Food was tight in the cities so any bit of extra food people could get their hands on was taken back with them.I'm quite sad to hear that the old site is closing. These sort of establishments played a significant role in British history. We've had radio for 100 years, but in a few years pieces of its early incarnations will be forgotten about. We seem to save steam engines and things like that, but very little of the history of radio is saved."

The Western Mail

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