Thales Air Defence at Castlereagh (formerly Shorts' Precision Engineering Department), is celebrating 50 years of guided weapons design and manufacture in Belfast, 1952-2002.
Thales Air Defence at Castlereagh (formerly Shorts' Precision Engineering Department), is celebrating 50 years of guided weapons design and manufacture in Belfast, 1952-2002. Eric Waugh, who has written the history of the plant, outlines a tale which includes Soviet espionage, the urgent need to jam the guidance systems of the Belfast-built missiles used by the Argentinians during the Falklands War and the series of assaults on the missile plant by loyalist and republican terrrorists</</i>
When the surrendered warships of the German grand fleet were scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow after the end of the First World War, almost every vessel salvaged was found to have been fitted between decks with the great ventilating fans made by Davidson's, the renowned Sirocco company in Belfast.Long before that, the Falls Foundry manufactured shells for the Royal Artillery in the Crimea and sharpened the swords of the Inniskilling Dragoons who fought at Balaclava in 1854. Yet there was no obvious reason why engineering should have taken root in Ulster: there was no tradition, no appreciable ore; above all, no serious coal.
The vital element was native skill. When entrepreneurs arrived, often - like James Mackie - from Scotland, the people proved that they could do it.
The story of Shorts' - now Thales - missiles is another instalment in the tale of how something was built from nothing and how another home-grown industry became a world-beater.
Confirmation of this exalted claim, in the case of Shorts, was to come in very offbeat ways. One was the arrival of a Soviet secret agent in Belfast during the height of the Cold War, anxious to get his hands on the blueprints of the weapons being designed at the Castlereagh plant so that he could pass them to Moscow. Another was the unique nature of the anxiety of both sides in the Falklands War of 1982. Each knew the other had the same close-range missiles. They happened to be those made in Belfast.
Shorts had come to Northern Ireland in 1937 in the belated and hurried build-up to rearm before the Second World War. But when it ended in 1945, armaments plants were run down and it was clear Shorts would have difficulty surviving by building aircraft alone. The opening of the Precision Engineering Division in 1952 was an attempt to find alternative products.
Two years later a dynamic Canadian-born, British-educated engineer, Hugh Conway, was brought to Belfast to spearhead the search. The Castlereagh engineers were already doing experimental missile work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Conway, at 40, was a striking personality and he got on well with the Northern Ireland-born head of guided weapons at Farnborough, W. H. Stevens. He cultivated the relationship to the point where he soon knew all about the discussions going on between the boffins there and the British armed services.
Most important, he learned that the Army and the Navy were unhappy about their close-range anti-aircraft defence, knew they needed to upgrade it, but were uncertain how to do it. Conway appreciated at once that the future would lie with guided weapons. That being so, he was determined Shorts would not be left out.
But it was a tough assignment. His design team were not missile engineers, but ex-aircraft people from the Queen's Island.
Among British aircraft makers, they were among the last to become involved in guided weapons. Amazingly, only five years after Conway arrived in Belfast, Shorts had its first production missile, the Seacat, on display at the big Farnborough air show.
Three years later, in 1962, it entered service with the Navy and was on course to becoming the most widely used ship to air missile worldwide.
No wonder: the Cold War was still at its bitterest. Kruschev ruled in Moscow. Le Carre was putting the final touches to his espionage classic, The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Kim Philby was about to defect. The Berlin Wall was only months old. In such an international climate potential enemies as well as allies were going to be interested in what the Castlereagh team was doing.
Frank Clifton Bossard is remembered by some of the retired engineers who were on the missile side in the Belfast plant in those distant days.
They describe him as a well-built, dour individual of about 50, grey-haired and balding, who used to chair meetings on the development of Seacat at the Aviation Ministry in London and visited the Belfast plant to inspect production.
IN FACT Bossard was a Yorkshireman. He had had a fascination for the Nazis in the 1930s and actually joined Mosley's British Union of Fascists, then the resort of many well-heeled English socialites. But, with his shopworker's wages as his only income, he was soon financially out of his depth. Bouncing cheques got him six months in gaol.
But he had always been deeply interested in wireless. When war broke out, he joined the RAF and won a commission with the help of an invented CV, ending up in the radar branch. Demobbed as a flight lieutenant, he got a job as a signals officer at the Aviation Ministry. In 1956 he was transferred to Intelligence and sent, in the guise of an attache, to the British Embassy in Bonn to screen scientists escaping from East Germany.
Aided by an ample entertainment allowance, he grew knowledgeable about guided weapons development behind the Iron Curtain. But he also tended to drink too much, which would have been noted by the Soviet agents planted among the genuine refugees.
Back in England in 1958 as head of Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence, he was approached one lunchtime in a London pub by a man who said his name was Gordon and clearly knew the nature of Bossard's employment. After several similar encounters, "Gordon" disclosed he was on the staff of the Russian Embassy and would pay well for the right information.
Bossard was missing the tax-free allowances he had had in Germany. His salary had been virtually halved by the home posting.
He had a large mortgage on his Surrey house and school fees for his son and was heavily in debt. During an exchange in the George Hotel in Holland Park in the West End, Gordon offered Bossard £200 in £5 notes, the equivalent to the Ministry man of more than a month's salary before tax.
He was in no position to refuse, accepted the money and thereby agreed to work for the Russians. At the beginning of 1960, when Seacat was being lined up for its first production contract, Bossard was moved from Defence to Aviation and attached to the naval guided weapons branch.
In his new post he was one of a select few officials cleared to visit the top secret firing range at Aberporth on Cardigan Bay where Seacat had its test firings. He could not have been much closer to the Navy's unique new missile.
THE usual working method of Frank Bossard, the man from the Ministry who in reality was a Soviet agent pursuing the secrets of Shorts' new Seacat missile, was straight out of spy fiction.
On a Friday he would go to the old Ivanhoe Hotel in the London West End, round the corner from the Ministry of Aviation offices in New Oxford Street. A modest and staid hostelry, I sometimes used it myself in 1960s Bloomsbury.
There he would book a room for the following Monday in the name of J. Hathaway.
At lunchtime on that day he would leave the office with the classified missile documents in his brief case and take a taxi to Waterloo. At the left-luggage depository he would collect the suitcase in which he kept camera, films and a folding music stand. It was but a short taxi ride to the hotel.
His photography in the bedroom was straightforward. In a short time he had the documents back in his office, having replaced the suitcase at the station.
The 35mm films he delivered through a series of nine dead-letter boxes in quiet residential districts in London and Surrey: at Blackheath, a broken drainpipe on an estate in Weybridge; a birch tree by a path in Woking; a beech tree earmarked at Leatherhead. He was paid in banknotes through the same drops, with accompanying microscopic instructions printed on 35mm film.
In the kitchen of his home near Cobham he kept a radio communications receiver and headphones which, he explained to his wife, was necessary for his work for British Intelligence. He was under orders to listen to Radio Moscow at fixed times, early morning and mid-evening, when one of five well-known Russian tunes would be played. Each represented a coded message.
What was carefully suppressed at his trial (and did not emerge for many years) was how he was caught. In fact he was the first spy to be caught by the electronic bleeper. Several of these new miniature transmitters were fitted to the metal clips securing classified files it was felt would attract Bossard's interest. They were then routed to his desk.
When, on March 15, 1964, he took the bait and left the Ministry at lunchtime, the bleepers transmitted their signals and he was followed to the hotel by the special branch. When he emerged from his second-floor room, the detectives were waiting and he was arrested.
With him he had four rolls of exposed film, camera and apparatus, as well as records of the pieces of Russian music and a list of the dead-letter boxes.
The Russians never copied Seacat, or its later ground-to-air spin-off, Tigercat. But Bossard without doubt furnished them with every detail of the unique design. The ingenious propulsion and guidance systems could have been applied elsewhere in the massive Soviet armoury; not to mention the fact that they were now equipped with the full data required to devise counter- measures.
The Soviets would have put a high price on this inside knowledge of the enemy weaponry they might face should the Cold War threaten once again to become hot. As for Bossard, he pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on May 10, 1965. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, sent him down for 21 years, observing that the sentence would have been even longer had not the prisoner made a full confession.
He had told the police: "I selected files on guided weapons."
Menacing though it could be, the Cold War was predictable. You knew your enemy. The Falklands War of 1982 was something else.
Overnight Argentina was transmuted from its traditional status as a leading Shorts' customer (for both aircraft and missiles) into an aggressor nation.
The Argentinians had Shorts' Seacat, Tigercat and Blowpipe missiles. The British would be deploying Seacat and Blowpipe.
As the Castlereagh engineers watched on the television news the Argentinians unloading Tigercat on to the harbour at Port Stanley, they confessed to some embarrassment. But they had more urgent worries.
An emergency message came through from Whitehall for Shorts to assemble its top weapons technicians at Castlereagh. The priority demand was for a jamming programme to jam the guidance systems of the Shorts' missiles with which the Argentinians were equipped.
These could operate on many different wavelengths. (The precise number is classified.) The jamming programme had to be capable of incapacitating each of them.
The technicians worked round the clock; but because they knew what wavelengths the Argentinians were using, they were able to design a matchbox-sized unit containing a transmitter whose frequency would upset the guidance system of the shoulder-launched Blowpipe.
It also had an IFF setting (Identification-Friend or Foe) which gave the missile launcher instant feedback from an approaching aircraft. The wavelengths of the Seacats on the naval ships in the Task Force were also changed to prevent jamming by the Argentinians.
THERE were also would-be aggressors nearer home. The Castlereagh plant was an IRA target on several occasions. In 1989 terrorists breached the perimeter fence. In 1990 two explosive devices went off inside it but caused only minor damage.
Two years earlier, loyalist terrorists got into the plant by mingling with workers returning from a lunch break. They escaped with what they thought was an aiming unit for the Javelin missile but in reality was only a training mock-up. No one ever claimed the exploit, but detectives suspected UDA or UVF involvement.
In 1984 Territorial Army men from 102 Air Defence Regiment at Newtownards were persuaded to travel to a rendezvous in Paris with South African agents who had long wished to circumvent the British embargo on Shorts' missile sales to the Botha regime.
But the Territorials were being watched by British Intelligence, who secretly photographed them with the South Africans. The men from the Ards ack-ack were later arrested in possession of working drawings and parts of a Blowpipe.
The South African embargo was lifted during the 1990s and in 2003 has become the first export customer for Thales' latest electronic marvel, the Starstreak. It is a guided weapon of impressive specification.
Thales has high hopes of selling it to the United States. The company has already had $$50m of US Army funding, expenditure approved by Congress, to complete the first two phases of the long and rigorous process of evaluation. The tests have been 100% successful. Looming ahead are competitive firing trials in the desert which may well decide the issue. Performing against it will be the Americans' own Stinger.
-With Wings as Eagles by Eric Waugh (Corporate Document Services, £20)