Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group

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The 'Roc'

Unlocking the Real Secrets


The Suffolk Aviation Heritage Museum occupies part of a former United States Air Force installation on the eastern fringes of Ipswich. The station was known as RAF Martlesham Heath while operational, taking its name from the famous former RAF airfield situated nearby.


Perhaps one of the most intriguing military sites in the region, the high security nature of its role has spawned a number of strange tales and myths, ranging from the existence of an underground hospital to - most bizarrely of all - a top secret submarine base with an underground waterway leading to the coast. Though, in truth, no underground facility exists within the site.


Colloquially known as the 'Roc' by servicemen and public alike, the site was, in reality, a US Defense Communications Station, with responsibility for providing communications for the effective global command and control of US and NATO forces in Europe and South East Asia.


In addition to an array of ultra-high frequency and super-high frequency (microwave) radio communications systems deployed at the station, in 1969 an Automatic Voice Network (AUTOVON) switching system, employing 550 telephone land-lines, was activated at the site. One of twelve such systems worldwide, its purpose was to link the communications traffic between the various paths. AUTOVON remained a vitally important element to US military global communications throughout most of the Cold War, until superseded by the upgraded Digital European Backbone (DEB) system in the late 1980s.


During the 1970s and 80s, the station was virtually self-sufficient and incorporated living quarters, dining facilities, a grocery store, a petrol station and a military social club. At its height, about 110 personnel worked at the station in various technical and support roles.


The upgraded DEB system was partially established at the station, as the last in a line of similar installations built across Europe. However, the ending of the Cold War and subsequent closure of the site meant that the new system was never brought on line at RAF Martlesham Heath. The DEB building itself, situated on the opposite end of the site to the Museum, was designed to be unmanned and built to withstand a nuclear blast, with 3ft thick walls and automatic flash shutters to protect the sophisticated internal equipment.


Deactivated in 1988, the station finally closed in 1992 after 39 years of US operations.

 

The Roc Research Project


Although American use of the site began in 1953 - when a US Air Force Radio Relay Location was established - and continued uninterrupted until 1992, the military history of the site goes back to the Second World War and beyond.


The first use of the site is believed to have been as the location for one of three timing huts situated along the southern boundary of Martlesham Heath Airfield, and along which aircraft speed test trials were conducted between the two world wars.


Although there is some evidence of radio communications deployment at the site during the mid- 1930s, until recently, the role played by the site during the Second World War had been almost universally forgotten. It is now believed that this was due to the site being continually operational, and therefore largely off-limits to the British public, until the early 1990s; by which time various building developments within the site had masked its early history.


The hidden history of the 'Roc' was recognised in 2009 when Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group received a Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photograph dating from August 1940. The photograph clearly showed a lone building on the site, surrounded by bomb craters, after being attacked by German aircraft two weeks earlier. It was soon realised that the building still existed within the site, standing unrecognised amongst the vast array of buildings that had sprung up from it and around it during the intervening seventy years.


The large flat-roofed, T-shaped building, originally surrounded by a 3ft thick concrete blast wall, is now the subject of a major ongoing research project by Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group. To date, original archive sources - although extremely rare in this case - appear to support a current theory within the Group that the building was a Bomber Command Wireless Telegraphy Station; although its precise role within the complex array of wartime Bomber Command systems remains the subject of continued research.


The Roc Research Project, which is expected to form the basis of a booklet on the subject, also includes:-




Selected updates on the Roc Research Project will be posted on this website from time to time.


Acknowledgements and Copyright


© Marc Trebacz

© Tom Brannick

© Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group