28th March 1988. Underground at Corsham.
First there was Jeep manufacture, then nuclear bunker and Strategic Steam Reserve (SSR).
Today in 1988 saw the retirement of charge-hand Bob Watson who was at Rudloe,Wiltshire, from 1943 and later to reveal all in a newspaper interview in 1992 almost ten years after the Steam Reserve storage facility was closed.
‘When we stopped production at the end of the war there were half a dozen Jeeps which had failed Quality Control and left at the plant, until it was re-opened in the mid 1950s.’
‘It was decided they were better than bikes for getting about the enormous underground site of dozens of acres at several levels.’ On retirement he jumped in one and went home.
Bob was employed at the vast underground complex at Rudloe Manor, Corsham, near Box and Bath in Wiltshire, which was the wartime home to a joint War-Office and American Government plant for the Jeep light reconnaissance truck where 15,000 was made between 1942-45.
It made sense to assemble them here rather than suffer the dangerous, Atlantic convoy transportation.
After the war, the mothballed Jeep facility was to provide the expertise and tooling and local pool of fitters, metalworkers, and machinists necessary for keeping stock of of over hundred locos in working order and as late as 1982 a small staff were carrying out care and maintenance of the slumbering giants.
Bob Watson transferred to tending locomotives of the Strategic Steam Reserve (SSR) throughout its existence. He kept the boilers filled with de-oxygenated water, boilers which had not been inspected by any outside inspectors, but only by a retained man on the staff.
The engines were regularly greased and at random were fired up every few months. All numbers had been removed. In the event of emergency there was ‘Attack Warning Red’.
The main part of the SSR was held underground at Corsham quarry, though there were subsidiary depots holding up to a dozen engines each.
The SSR had two diesels for shunting duties, ex-LMS, 70XX Class diesel shunters of the 1930s made by Hawthorne Leslie.
Steam was preferred to diesel and electric as being unaffected by electro-magnetic pulses from nuclear explosion. Also they were not dependent on outside sources of oil and electricity.
The Reserve comprised freight mixed traffic ex GWR, BR Standard Classes, with a few Riddles Austerity design. One example was GWR Hall Class 4-6-0, nameplate and number removed.
Locos required for the Reserve, were taken by Royal Engineers, trained to drive the engine Classes at Longmoor Military Railway. At the start of the engine shift ‘squaddies’ accompanied by a British Railway Inspector, were ‘booking on’ and the regular crew given the day off.
A spare engine replaced the original and the commandeered engine was towed by diesel to SSR, prepared for storage and removed from British Railways records and listed as scrapped.
The locos were eventually scrapped in a Ministry of Defence (MOD) bid to save money with the notion that Preserved Lines could act as a reserve if needed without any cost to the Exchequer.
We now come to Corsham as the Emergency Government War HQ, Burlington, which was built in the late 1950s to act a relocation in case of nuclear war and capable of accommodating 4,000 personnel civil servants government, Cabinet and senior military, even those allocated desks didn’t know of its existence.(1)
The Corsham quarries and underground workings, which had supplied Bath-stone for centuries, workings of 35 acres, were now home to 60 miles of roads, an underground reservoir, switch board, hospital: an underground city, 100 feet under RAF Corsham.(2)
However even at the height of the Cuban missile danger in October 1962 Operation Turnstile was not put into effect as prime Minister Macmillan preferred to stop in Admiralty House rather than go underground.
The facility was abandoned in the 1980s and declassified in 2004, leaving all the infrastructure intact, so now presenting the look of a ghost town.
Watson’s last years were employed in cutting up the engines, metal of which was taken to British Steel at Llanwern, Wales.
All the people would have been sworn to secrecy under the Official Secrets Act, so there is still caginess by officials and workers regarding Corsham. In fact many regard the Steam Reserve as an urban myth.(3)
The Corsham store is now used as a Data-Control Centre, Ark Continuity’s SQ 17 Server Farm, as the combination of location and design means it uses a third less energy and CO2 emissions, compared with other data centres.
(1) Burlington had many code-words: Hawthorn Central Government War HQ, Stockwell, Subterfuge, Turnstile and Site3.
(2) A bunker was built under Eton College in 1959 for Provost and fellows at a time when The Royal Observer Corps were responsible for manning all the emergency underground bunkers in the country.
(3) An American unit working near the secret SSR east of the Box Hill portal in August 1948 was photographed though censored by having an engine blacked-out.
NB: LMS was the London Scottish Railway. GWR was the Great Western Railway.
Ref: Steve Boggan Guardian Wed Feb 7th 2007.
Ref: bbc.co.uk/wilts/burlington-nuclear-feature. Pic Ref.
Ref: burlingtonbunker.co.uk/corsham wilts.
Ref: willys-mb.co.uk/strategic reserve. Pic of Box Tunnel.