This month, touring military archaeologist Keith Robinson visits the new Cold War museum at RAF Cosford.
Taking Junction 3 from the M54 to Telford, I followed the well-signposted route to RAF Cosford, near Shifnal. Windingpast the outskirts of the still working RAF station – mostly training facilities – I parked outside the new Visitor Centre, ready to visit the equally new Exhibition Hall, purpose-built to house the National Cold War Exhibition.
It is worth going just for the building, 8,000m2 of modern architecture at its best. The main entrance is modestly placed at the base of a tower, from which springs a blank facade to the right, and a roof which ripples away in a graceful curve to reveal a large glassed area to the left, a utilitarian facade opposite a free-flowing, imaginative form. The design is based on two adjoining triangles, symbolising the opposing ideologies of the Cold War’s two sides, a kind of ‘Beat the Reds with the NATO Wedge’.
Inside, the space is huge and organised around a split level, creating two main display areas. Looking down on the exhibits in the lower space, and walking around and beneath those in the upper space, you get a real feel for the sheer scale of the planes, missiles, and other equipment on display.
MAD versus CND
But the first thing you see when you enter is a ‘kiosk’ adorned with photos and texts and showing contemporary film. The theme is MAD – mutually assured destruction – which is an appropriate description of the period. The entrance to the cinema is framed by a large red H, for hydrogen, enclosing the CND symbol – a clash of ideologies at home too!
The exhibition sets out to inform and educate as well as to display objects. There are several of these drum cinemas, along with information panels, small displays such as one on the Berlin Airlift, and numerous computer screens where visitors can access information on the Cold War, ranging from biographies to the kind of warships in service around the globe. This could get a bit fragmented, but it is kept together by uniform design, with reds tastefully merging into blacks.
As always, though, it is the aircraft that draw the eye, especially here, where they dominate the Exhibition Hall space. The scale of the building also allows for some inventive display, with several of the aircraft suspended from the roof as though flying. Standing beneath an English Electric Lighting hung from its nose gives a true sense of Per Ardua Ad Astra – ‘through struggle to the stars’.
V-bombers and MiGs
Dominating the Upper Hall are the three V-bombers, the Valiant, the Victor, and the Vulcan. These were the planes of the 1950’s and 1960’s that comprised Bomber Command Main Force, the RAF’s strategic nuclear strike force. The Vickers Valiant came into service in 1955, the Handley Page Victor in 1958, and, most iconic of them all, the Avro Vulcan in 1956. In the early years of the Cold War, the RAF estimated that its V Force could kill 8 million and injure a further 8 million Soviet citizens before the Americans could reach their targets – MAD indeed!
One of the classic American aeroplanes of the period is the General Dynamics F-111, a two-seater fighter-bomber, which became the first variable sweep-winged aircraft to enter service. It is represented here by an F-111F-CF, which saw action in the First Gulf War, specialising in laser-guided bomb attacks, and had flown over 5,000 hours by the time it was retired.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, MiG is the name that comes to mind. Cosford has two representatives of this famous marque. The first is the early MiG 15-bis which entered service in 1948, and whose engine was based on a Rolls-Royce Nene, gifted to the Soviets by the British Government. This example was flown by the Polish Air Force. The second is the later, more sophisticated MiG-21, the Cosford example being a MiG-21PF which entered service with the Hungarian Air Force.
Not only front-line planes are represented, but such workhorses as the Avro York and the Douglas Dakota. There are also examples of various missiles, including Blue Streak and Sidewinder, and vehicles of the RAF Regiment, such as a Saladin armoured car.
The Cold War was the period when the helicopter came into its own, and it is good to see a USAF Sikorsky MH-53M Pave-Low IV chopper. This was originally a medium-lift combat search-and-rescue helicopter. Our example saw service in South East Asia, but has been modified several times since, enabling it to take part in special ops, and was only retired in 2008. A great collection well-exhibited. If I have a quibble, it is that it would have been good to have seen more hardware from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Keith Robinson, Military archaeologist