The Military at Chicksands Priory
On the 15th of April 1936 the crown commissioners purchased the Chicksands Estate the site of Chicksands Priory from the Osborn family. Following the sale, some of the fittings were dispersed. This included a single manual pipe organ from the Chapel, which was bought by the Bunyan Meeting, Kempston, and was still in use there in 1981 [CRT130CHI4].
Plans of Chicksands Priory from the late 1930s [Z839/8] to see a larger version please click on the appropriate image
Originally, the property was rented to a private tenant, and between 1936 and 1938, the Priory underwent a series of alterations undertaken by building firm Francis Newton Limited of Hitchin. In this company's archives are detailed specifications of works including alterations, improvements, repairs and painting which were performed on the Priory itself, as well as the Lodges and detached buildings. The file, available for consultation in our search room, also includes plans showing the internal layout of the Priory [Z839/8]
The land was then requisitioned by the Royal Navy, however after only nine months the Royal Air Force took over operations, establishing a signals intelligence unit known as a Y Station. The site continued to operate for this purpose throughout World War II, and gathered information intercepted from Germany which was then passed to the famous codebreakers at Bletchley Park [Buckinghamshire].
The priory was used as the mission operations centre for the RAF forces stationed at Chicksands during World War Two. During the war the base was bombed twice. First, on the 19th September 1940, when four high explosives and an incendiary bomb dropped at Chicksands Farm. No casualties were reported. Then, on the 5th November the same year more high explosive bombs were dropped 100 yards south of the Priory, causing damage to the building. Fortunately, there were still no casualties. The damage done to the building however was still visible in 1987. Princess Grace, Duchess of Gloucester visited the base in 1943, and there were also rumours that Glen Miller may have given a concert to the forces stationed there on the lawn outside the Priory [X758/12/26].
After the war the Priory building became the officer's mess [CRT130CHI5]. This remained until 1950, when the site was leased to the United States Air Force for use as the base of the 6940th Radio Squadron. The building became Airmen's Quarters, and later, Bachelor's Office Quarters, until in 1971 the upper floors were vacated, apparently as a result of the historic design being incompatible with modern fire safety regulations [CRT130CHI5]. The base itself continued to provide communications and signal intelligence information throughout the Cold War. Various United States Air Force units made use of the base during this time, including the 6950th Electronic Security Group and the 7274th Air Base Group. In 1962, American forces constructed a vast antenna array an FLR-9 Wullenweber. This was one of only nine such antennas worldwide which formed part of the Iron Horse high frequency direction finding network, whose goal was to locate high priority targets during the Cold War. Known as 'the elephant cage', the FLR-9 spread across a space over 400 meters in diameter. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as "a 20th-century super-Stonehenge or… the elegant steel skeleton for the biggest bull-fighting arena ever". The antenna at Chicksands was dismantled in 1996, when the United States Air Force returned the base at Chicksands to the British military, and an entry for it exists in the Heritage Environment Record [HER 15644].
In 1987 Chicksands was the only Royal Air Force Station leased to the United States Air Force - all other bases in the UK being leased directly by the Ministry of Defence. As a result, it was technically named 'Royal Airforce Station, Chicksands' and still required a resident RAF Office (Squadron Leader) as a liaison officer and representative of the landlord. According to David Garner, at this time the USAF took responsibility for protecting the range of duck species which lived on the river (Muscovys, mallards, Aylesburys and Canadians). Should an American driver accidently injure one of the base's fowl, they faced heavy fines [X758/12/26].
In 1993 the Defence Works Service (DWS) undertook an alternative use survey on the RAF Chicksands. The study aimed to identify 'operationally acceptable and cost effective options for potential defence usage of the buildings, in a manner that would be consistent with their historic and architectural importance'. The resulting four volume report is available for consultation in our search room. Key findings included that priority should be given to re-use of the buildings, and that the suggestion of converting the property into a Country House did 'not appear practical at present', with the 'Training and Conference Centre scheme' being given priority [Z854/1].
The American forces departed Chicksands in 1996 and control was passed to the British Intelligence Corps, whose headquarters remain on the site at the time of writing. This unit is known as the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre (DISC). DISC continues to conduct signals intelligence work, as well as providing training to army personal. Chicksands Priory still stands on the site, and can be visited two days in each month.
A number of resources are available which provide further information about the priory. These include further pages on this website, pamphlets published by The Friends of Chicksands Priory [pamphlet 130CHI]. Detailed notes concerning the building itself, created by Dr Andor Gomme [CRT130CHI6], and a description in O'Brien and Pevsner's The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (2014). All of these resources are available in our public search room.
Checkpoint at RAF Chicksands in 1972 [Z50/28/5] the sign read "CAUTION you are entering the most dangerous area on earth a public highway FASTEN SAFETY BELTS"