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Royal Naval Radar Station

To visit Gwespyr is to be afforded with the most wonderful views over the Dee Estuary and Irish Sea. And these magnificent views were the likely reason for the Saxon origin of the village, probably sometime in the early 8th century. Gwespyr renders back to ‘West Fort’ in Old English, and is thought to have the site of a Saxon watchtower, built to warn of Norse incursions into the Dee. Vikings out of Dublin and the Isle of Man made merry with the north Wales coast, and there is plentiful evidence of their influence at Maen Achwyfan, Dyserth and Ffynnongroyw. No remains of a watchtower remain, since it would have likely as not been built of wood and long since disappeared.

 

But, it’s hard to argue with the logic of a watchtower at Gwespyr, especially since over a thousand years after the Saxon build, it was considered to be the perfect spot for a World War 2 radar station, raised to monitor shipping in the Irish Sea approaches to the Dee Estuary, to ensure friends remained in mine swept sea lanes and foes, notably German U-boats, were spotted in good time - thus allowing the radar station at Prestatyn (Gwaenysgor) to concentrate on spotting aircraft. Gwespyr’s strengths as a radar station would seem to have been its height (at just under 100m above sea level), its view over the Irish Sea and the relatively smooth fall from its position to the coast at Talacre, allowing for accurate height and direction finding.

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Viewing the site from the east, the radar installation, with its distinctive circular brickwork built for the rotating radar is on the right, with the receiving station to its left. The accommodation block can be seen in the background on the far left.

The site was said to have been prepared by Italian prisoners of war (possibly held at Pool Park in Efenechtyd or Pabo Hall in Llandudno Junction) and became operational on 31st December 1942. It was one of only five radar stations of its type in the United Kingdom, the other four sited in northern Scotland. A Type 273 CD/CHL (Coastal Defence/Chain Home Low-Flying) centimetric radar (relating to electro-magnetic waves less than one meter in length), with a 4ft 6’ parabolic dish aerial within a perspex covered ‘lighthouse’, it was one of the most advanced systems available to British forces, capable of spotting low flying aircraft, even though at Gwespyr this was not its primary function.

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A view out to sea from the roof of the radar installation.

Gwespyr was under the control of No.8 Radio Maintenance Unit (RMU), based in Liverpool (originally at RAF Speke - now John Lennon Airport), which was responsible for the building and running of all CH and CHL radar stations in the north west of England, the Isle of Man, Ulster and north Wales. Personnel from No.77 (Signals) Wing of the RAF were stationed at the site. The demand for qualified radar technicians far outstripped the supply, since the training to be able to operate the systems could take months. It’s worth remembering that modern radar was still a recent development, having first been demonstrated in front of Hugh Dowding, then in charge of Supply and Research, in 1935. By 1941, several schools around Britain had been founded to train technicians in all aspects of radar use. The lack of qualified male military personnel led to the training and assigning of WRNS ratings to radar stations, including at Gwespyr, where by 1944 all staff were female other than one male radio mechanic, who was due to be replaced by a WRNS rating. This was considered by the military to be something of an experiment, and was predictably considered to be a success.

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The accommodation block - note the view towards the Irish Sea.

The radar station at Gwespyr had a short lifespan, however, and as the Allies began to push back against the high tide of German success, the need for such stations lessened considerably. Gwespyr received orders to close down operations in October 1944, some three months after the successful D-Day landings in June of that year. However, it was swiftly brought back into service in the early 1950s as part of the Rotor Radar System designed during the early stages of the Cold War as Russia successfully developed atomic weapons. Curiously, it seems the site at Gwespyr had to be cleared of squatters before being reopened. Operations were soon transferred to nearby Gwaenysgor (Prestatyn), however.

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A surprising amount of the site remains, though of course in ruin. It’s possible to gain a clear understanding of the layout and function of the various buildings of the station, and the views admirably demonstrate the perfect position of the site overlooking the Dee Estuary and the sea lanes into the Irish Sea. The building housing the radar plinth is still visible, with its distinctive circular brickwork on the roof where the rotating radar antenna would have sat, housed within a perspex dome. The transmitter and receiving room (now largely used by sheltering cattle) is directly south of the radar. The ruins of the accommodation block are to the near south west. The rather forlorn remains of the standby generator are also in situ, though the sentry box to its north has fallen to its base. The Bofor’s anti-aircraft battery which was sited to the north of the installation (almost on top of the stile leading into the field) has long since disappeared. It is worth noting that despite the considerable amount remaining, the site is quickly becoming more ruinous - like a lot  of the infrastructure of World War 2, it is unscheduled and thus at the mercy of the merciless.