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American intellingence work in Angus

Americans In Angus

Throughout the years of the Cold War, a secret spy base in the quiet
village of Edzell brought Americans and Scots together.

BY T. R. GORDON

An article in The Scotsman newspaper of August 10, 2018 ran the headline, "Remembering The Lost Cold War 'Spy Base' Of RAF Edzell." Indeed, for nearly 40 years, the former World War II Royal Air Force military installation served the U.S. Navy as a vital intelligence-gathering post in the North Atlantic.

I would logically surmise that Scottish Life readers have some level of affinity for Scotland and some catalyst that drives it. For some, it might be a family ancestry that has them feeling a pulse of tartan-colored blood flowing through their veins. For others, perhaps a vacation that sparked an unforeseen attraction to this beautiful country. Maybe the sound of bagpipes just stirs something in their souls. For several thousand U.S. military personnel, myself included, it became a lifelong love affair after the good fortune of being posted to one of the most sought-after duty stations on the planet. Anyone in the signals intelligence community was the envy of their fellow sailors, airmen, soldiers, or Marines upon announcing, "I got orders to Edzell!"

Long before the U.S. Navy arrived to set up shop, RAF Edzell was an active military base. The British government had purchased the land in 1913. In 1938, with World War II looming on the horizon, the airfield was established as a maintenance facility for the Royal Air Force. The early mission was to make newly built aircraft combat-ready, fitting them with weaponry and getting their machine guns properly synchronized with the plane’s propellers. As the war progressed, it also took on the role of repairing damaged planes. The base was still used into the early 1950s by the RAF, primarily to scrap airplanes.

The disused World War II airfield took on a new life in 1960 when the U.S. Navy established a communications facility in the midst of the bucolic Angus countryside of northeast Scotland. The gentle farmland dotted with sheep and cattle, with the foothills of the Grampian Mountains on the horizon, was sharply contrasted by the operations center with its massive, almost ominous, Circularly Disposed Antenna Array (CDAA), also called a Wullenweber...and more affectionately known as the "elephant cage."

Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Edzell was the home to upwards of 1,000 active duty personnel, primarily Navy, with a small company of around 80 Marines and a handful of Army, Air Force and a few Royal Navy personnel. The high perimeter fence topped with barbed wire left the locals wondering with curious conjecture for almost four decades as to what went on inside. Even though the base employed scores of Scottish civilians, they did not work in any of the areas where top-secret security clearances were required, and thus the enigma of the base's function remained largely a mystery among the locals.

The thing that immediately struck me about RAF Edzell was the tremendous camaraderie between the American military personnel and the local community. We were always welcomed by the Scots outside the confines of the base, made to feel right at home and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them and establishing relationships. I have friends from those years that I still remain in contact with and visit them now on every return trip to Scotland.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © T.R. Gordon