Ipswich Autovon Exchange

The Autovon Exchange at Ipswich was one of the first places I visited when I started this hobby. Annoyingly I was thwarted and couldn’t get in. Visit two and three were the same. But with the help of Abo, today we finally got in.

Put simply, Autovon was an (initially American) telephone system for it’s defence. It allowed priority calling etc. I can’t even begin to describe what the place was used for, but SubBrit has a pretty damn good piece.

The exchange at Ipswich closed in the 1990s and has suffered at the hands of vandals ever since. In the last year or so, Suffolk Aviation Heritage Museum have been working on site to restore it – judging by what we saw today, they have quite a job ahead of them.

Tropospheric forward scatter radio systems (the masts)

The three masts on site can be seen from miles around. They’re rather impressive, but unclimbable – the ladders have been cut off. There used to be five apparently.

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Main Operations Building

This is where loads of things happened. It was totally smashed up inside though.

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We have no idea how, but when we were leaving we noticed that one of the buildings was three storeys high. We didn’t see *any* stairs inside which could’ve led up to it. Odd.

Some electronic equipment

Pigeons seem to be living in this stuff. Much to our annoyance. Photographing a switch – bam, pigeon in face. Damn things.

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The radioactive room

We found a lovely blue corridor. It had a few little rooms.

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This rather innocent looking door was totally sealed up. Fortunately someone had kicked(/pneumatic drilled?) through the wall. Inside on the back of the (double) door was a huge sign – “CAUTION RADIATION AREA”. Woah. Inside the room though was nothing but an air conditioning system..

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ETA Radio System Building

This was sealed up pretty tight. BunkerTours explains what this was used for too.

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41 Responses to Ipswich Autovon Exchange

  1. Dr.Destruction says:

    Great pics of the Autovon site. I was in the USAF and was stationed at one of the sites in Germany. There were probably about 10 or so all over the world. Too bad they took all of the equipment out of the switch!!! Let me know if you need any help identifying anything.

  2. gg says:

    This was RAF Martlesham Heath. I was there from 86-88. It was an AUTOVON telephone switching site. Nothing too mysterious. I have many fond memories of my time there. Sad to see it in such a run-down state now. I can add information if you request it. Cheers.

  3. CJ Spencer says:

    I too, was assigned there! My term was from 85 – 88. No pellet holes in the walls!!

  4. AC says:

    I lived a few hundred yards from this site. Only today a local historian told me that he believed that there was several floors underground – Is this true?

  5. DAB @ derelicte says:

    AC – I don’t think it’s true. We didn’t find anything, although we didn’t get into one building that was locked up…

  6. DukeDouglas says:

    I was stationed there from 1976 till 1981.
    I have very fond memories of my time in the UK.
    There was no underground or upstairs at the site.
    It just looked like it.I remember going to many football games at Portman Road and even made some road games.
    I had some very good english friends that I have lost contact with.
    That just happens in the military.

  7. steve main says:

    I was also stationed at the rock from 1976 till 1982.
    I also had some great memoried there..
    I have been back to visit a couple times in the last 10 years,sad to see the site in such a mess now….

  8. Marc Tarplee says:

    I was stationed at Martlesham Heath from 1972 to 1976. There were definitely no second story or below-ground floors.

    The room marked radiation hazard had high power microwave transmitting equipment inside, not radioactive materials. The air conditioning system was there to cool the equipment.

    The local historian who thought there were several underground floors was perpetuating an “urban myth” that began shortly before my arrival. Some members of the local press were allowed to visit the facility and were given a quick tour. One of the reporters asked about the hatches in the floor. These hatches actually provided access to cable troughs that carried four-wire circuits from the patch bays in technical control to the input of the Marconi multiplexer. The site executive officer decided that the truth was too mundane, so instead he told the reporters that our site was in fact a site that serviced nuclear submarines and that we were connected to the North Sea via a tunnel. Thus began the rumors of an underground facility below RAF Martlesham Heath.

  9. Andy Taylor says:

    I am a member of Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group, who have a licence on part of the site and exclusive access to the remainder. I think it would be responsible and worth mentioning that the site is strictly off limits to unauthorised visitors, and has been since 1994.

  10. Paul Gregory says:

    Station at the site from 1974-1977 as a Radio Technician, even held my marrige reception on the site; great memories and friends.

    While stationed at RAF Alconbury and attending Chemical/Biolgical Warfare training I reconcongnized one of the main power panel/door off of one of the 10,000 watt tropo scatter power amps; being used as a simulation prop. It was serail number “1”; spent a lot of hours inside those cabinets! “Cleaning or trouble shooting”

  11. Misael Silva (Mitch) says:

    Station at the site from 1980 – 1982 What a trip down memory lane. Most people belived this was some kind of super secret underground facility servicing Subs. The truth, there never was no underground facilities just the comm site and yes some of the stuff was secret but no Subs. Just Air Force maintaning The Autovon 490L Switch and having some great parties at the ROC the site lounge. I was sadden to see the Site in such bad condition none the less I have many great memories and made many friends there.

  12. Enrico says:

    I used to live nearby in Kesgrave. From the big round dishes that used to be fixed to the towers, you could see that a beam of microwaves may have been going over or through our house. Both my mum and the young next door neighbour died of cancer. I hope it was just coincidence.

    The thing I remember was that they used to keep repainting the towers different colours – red and white, then grey, then green, then red and whaite again – cannot rember exact order.

    I grew up in the Cold War with military jets flying loudly overhead several times a day and lots of Americans. Now they have mostly gone and the sky is quiet – I really miss them, as the roar of jets was part of the landscape I was brought up in, as were the Americans. We had lots of contact with them, including marriages.

    I often went past it when it was functioning, and had a great wish to look around this mysterious secret and to me scary intimidating place from close up. When I did have a look at it once a few years ago, it was easy to get into the site through gaps in the chain link fencing. Most of the buildings were wide open.

  13. Larry Wildman says:

    I was assigned to the 2164 Communications Squadron Martlesham Heath Comm site from 1964 to 1966. Our Comm gear was Marconi Microwave caravans, Seimens Halske Tropo, and TRC-24 UHF comm links to Woodbridge and Bentwaters. The building I remember must have been torn down and replaced after I left, because it resembled one of the aircraft plotters rooms you would see in the Movie “Battle of Britain.” Very high ceiling and a small room that was enclosed in glass and setting higher than the main room from which (possibly) Air Staff could view plotter maps and progress of attacks during the Battle. There was a blast wall that stood outside about 4 foot or so from each side of the building, and gigantic steel doors could be swung close. It was all brick and must have been used by RAF Fighter Command Controllers during the early part of the War. Does anyone have any comment regarding the older building?

  14. Robert Davis says:

    I was stationed at the ROC from ’81 to ’83 as an Autovon troop. Lots of happy memories of the place and many friends, including Steve Main and Mitch Silva, who’ve posted here as well. Little did i think, 30 years later, after traveling round this little world, I’d remain in Ipswich! Thanks for the memories…

    • English Dave says:

      As a civilian I have some of the best memories of the site/rock. Do you remember me?. If you are the Bob Davis I knew, you called me crazy Dave. I also knew Steve Mane,and many more.

    • Bob Santmyer says:

      Wow! What a walk down memory lane. I was there from 1981-1983 too. I remember Mitch Silva, Steve Main, and many others. I was a Tech Controller working along side the AUTOVON techs. It’s a real shame to see the site like this. I have some great memories from there.

  15. The Movement says:

    I spent 20 years of my life living round the corner from this site, and seeing it almost on a daily basis. I was born in 87, and vague vague memories of the towers holding the large dishes, and the place looking in a much better state in the early 90’s. Although I cannot remember any activity, back then it looked very much alive, until the units on the towers were removed.

    The place has been a great mystery to me up until now, before i’d go passed it and looked at it, and it all seemed normal. Never thought about what it could be, who worked there or how important it was!

    I’d like a look around, could anyone suggest the best way of arranging this? Also I think a few photo’s from the old days, when it was operational or how I remember it would be fantastic.

  16. Al Furtado says:

    Here is hopping that you get this.
    I was at Hillingdon England the summer of ’69 installing one of the 490L Automatic Electric Autovon
    switches. Do you have any photos of that location or any of the other 4 that were in Europe?
    Al Furtado

  17. gg says:

    An excellent book about the U.S. military presence in the U.K. is “The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier: American Military Power in Britain” (1984) by Duncan Campbell. It is available on Half.com. It is one of the best I’ve seen which discusses the AUTOVON related sites. Includes maps. I still have a copy of the book which I purchased at the RAF Bentwaters site back in 1987.

  18. Andy Null says:

    I was a wideband technician at RAF Martlesham Heath from 1986-1990. Loved my tour there! The Autovon switching equipment was deactivated (moved) in my later years there and we were reclassified from a Detachment to an Operating Location. The new Digital European Backbone (DEB) was started and new towers and buildings were erected. Before they finished the project was scrapped.

  19. Mr Waverly says:

    Visited here a few weeks back, and spent a very pleasant hour or so in the new museum area, talking to one of the gentlemen who have worked so damn hard to clear the site up after many years of neglect. My brother and I heard [for the first time] the ‘Submarine’ rumour – very funny that people were taken in by it! The museum is quite small at present, but already has some fascinating displays, especially the ones showing how difficult a job removing the huge generators to open up a display area was. The museum is open at weekends and bank holidays. Visit it – it is worth seeing. The staff will tell you everything you need to know about the AUTOVON site, and it’s always fun to walk about in a once Top-Secret area. We shall be visiting there again for definite!

  20. David R. Johnson says:

    I was a “Water Walker” at the home of the Heathens from 1988-1992. I arrived as the switch was being shut down and the OSI was investingating the after-hours parties at the site. I lived in the Spread Eagle Bungalow on Monument Farm Lane with Brian Geske (TCF) and Jeff Cook (WB) for just over 3 years. The parties at the bungalow were some of the best times of my early AF days. davefit@yahoo.com

  21. Bill Shearer says:

    I was a radio relay repairman 1971 – 1974. Aside from the autovon, there was some serious radio and mutiplexing gear as well as a crypto vault.

  22. Mark H. Mayo says:

    Was with the 2164 Comm group and stationed at the site from 1969 to 1974 (Tech controller). Very sad to see the current condition of the site.
    There was a seven room barracks on the site at one time. Also had a chow hall, recreation room (billiards, darts, air hocky table). I remember that there was a WWII bomb shelter/bunker on the site just outside the fence.
    I also remember the ‘legend’ of submarine access, but it was absolutely not true. Only microwave, tropo scatter, HF and landlines. One of the buildings contained the large emergency generators and civilian generator maintenance personnel.
    I hope the site is not forgotten.

  23. Karen Dahl says:

    I was with the 2164 Comm Group from Dec. 1983 to Dec. 1986. Initially I took a lot of taxi’s into Ipswich to go shopping and most of the taxi drivers would ask about the ‘submarine myth’. One told me there had to be underground levels because there were too many cas in the parking lot and the buildings were not big enough to hold all those people. I never could cnvince him there really was no submarine levels. There also was a 2 room dorm for women. I was told I was the first woman to live there. I was also the first woman assigned to Wideband. Lots of memories there. Met some great people!

    • John "JT" Thomas says:

      I was stationed at the ROCK 81-84 then did Bentwaters 84-88. Spread Eagle bungalow parties were legendary. I was Wideband and remember working mid shifts with Karen Dahl. I also worked bartender in the lounge, sometimes hard to tell if i was working a swing shift or bar tending.

      • Bob Santmyer says:

        JT,

        Spread Eagle Bungalow, where I was one of the residents for a while. What wild times back then!

  24. CJ Spencer says:

    Glad to see there are people with fond memories of the Heath. I worked in the orderly room from 85 – 88!
    What an adventure! cj spencer

  25. Vincent D Blake says:

    To all those who are responsible for the multiple pics and information concerning 2130th Comm. Gp at Martlesham Heath, a warm thank you is so appropriate. I was stationed there from 1975-1978. Yes, it was an AUTOVON site and yes there was crypto gear there and generators to support the towers. There was also Pop Warner football and a few guys that could really hold their liquor stationed there. (Specifically one TSgt Massey). But their was more to the place than met the eye. Officers and high ranking enlisted men were assigned there on record but were never seen again until they were ready to transfer either to other sites i.e. OL-A , OL-B, other USAFE sites or conus. It “absolutely” was not just an AUTOVON communications site. There is a basis for the rumors. I should know… I wasn’t technical support. The rumors were exagerrated, but the premise was correct. Additionally, the underground cable chase might be a good place to start. LOL P.S. If anyone knows the whereabouts of then TSgt Massey or Airman Gilliland, please email me with their contact info.

  26. SSgt Duncan says:

    Stationed at 2164 Det3 from 1970 to 1972. I was in Tech Control, where all the patch boards were loacted – with Sgt Evans fro SC, guy from Pittsburgh Chuck (Cezh name), guy from Finley OH, and our resident hippie Dennis also from Pittsburgh. This was an AutoVon / AutoDin site (Miltary version of telephone switch center and data switching center – used Western Electric Equipment) Had tropo scatter to HookVan Holand, MicroWave links to Croyton (major communication center in UK).
    Absolutely no underground rooms. Had guard duty walking the fence. USAF fitness program caused us to make a track on the field outside the fence. Remember double deck pincale all night games. There were about 60 USAF people stationed there with highest ramking being SMSgt Thompson – this I think lasted until right before I left (May 1972). Remember patching the Ali Frazer fight into ArmedForcesRadio, it was “blacked out to us”; but since we were a communication site, the guys in Canada patched it over to us, and we put it on the air. Nice place to be during the war :)-

  27. Ron Cote says:

    I was one of the first AUTOVON technicians stationed at Martlesham Heath on Foxhall Road between Jan 70 – Mar 73. The site was always commanded by an Air Force Captain. Local rumors at the time was that the site was used to service submarines from Felixstowe. What a laugh! The site was nothing more than what was advertised, a telephone communication site. Ironically, I actually commanded a similar site in Germany in 84 – 86,

  28. Bill Hamilton says:

    Stationed at det3 1965-67 in radio relay maintenance. After a tour in the State, we moved back to the UK. We have lived here in Suffolk for many years but never seemed to find the time to stop by and see the site. So we are hoping to visit the Rock tomorrow.

    I remember Larry Wildman but don’t see any other names on this site that I recognize.
    Sadly I have to say that Joel Becton died in December 2010 at his home in N Carolina. He worked at MAM in 64-65 and then at Bentwaters Comm Center until 66.

    • Larry Wildman says:

      Bill: I had an e-mail several years ago from Joel Becton and he confirmed that he was the guy that tried to make a Triump Spitfire fly in Feixstowe. I am sorry to hear of his passing. I am trying to remember you. I had 6 bypasses last year and am doing ok except for siatica which is inhibiting my long distance walking. Still married to an Ipswich girl after 45 yrs. Drop me an e-mail if you can. Would love to hear from you. Larry

      • Bill Hamilton says:

        Larry, I was the passenger in the flying Spitfire. Joel was showing me around the area as I had only recently arrived and I guess got a little carried away with his new car. You and I worked shift together for a short while before you rotated. It wasn’t that long afterwards that we got your letter reporting Don Coulter’s death while at Keesler.
        I did visit the Rock as hoped. the other day. There is a small museum in the power production diesel shed now, but the rest of the area is fenced off. Once they knew my history, however, they kindly let us look around. The place is a mess but still recognizable. So much vandalism. They (the Suffolk Aviation Heritage Group) are hoping to continue to restore what they can but there’s a lot to do.
        Six bypasses is a lot, hope you are okay for it. I know about sciatica and walking, it’s no fun.
        PS Still married to a Woodbridge girl after 45 years … snap!
        Cheers, Bill

  29. Larry Wildman says:

    I am retired from Defense Contract Management Agency of the Dept of Defense, but I did have a tour of duty at our Northern Europe Office near High Wycombe from Sept 97 to July 2000. I lived on a US Navy Base at RAF Daws Hill which was known to you and me as “High Wycombe Air Station” and a Radio Relay site during our days.

    I felt a little sad when I last saw M/H from the road in the late nineties, and even worse when I went to the Control Tower and Radio Relay hut at Woodbridge. Both are also legacies of WWII as well. I am heartened however, that some in England are trying to preserve what they can because of the history of such places. There were some mornings that I would go outside at Martlesham as the sun was coming up and could sense some of its past. I have read a couple of books by Gordon Kinsey and found that it was an aircraft research and development centre before World War II. The development version of the Spitfire was tested there.

    I have found little information on the building which housed our TRC-27 and Tropo gear. I remember the patch and switch panel being located in a rather large room and that a glassed in portion was inside it as well. I remember the blast wall that surrounded the building separated by just a few feet. I have a photo of myself with my MG at one of those large steel doors and perpendicular to the blast wall, because I drove it into the room to install the safety belts in order to get it registered on base.

    This room, and the entire older part of the building I felt, could have been some type of control centre during the War. Both British and later American flying units were based at Martlesham during the War.

    I got in contact with Richard Flagg who has photographed several older bases in Great Britain and viewed his website on Woodbridge. He clued me onto a site that had photos of Woodbridge and the testing of trenches of flame on both sides of it’s runway in an experiment to disperse fog during WWII.

    Best regards, Larry Wildman

  30. Philip Anderson says:

    I was stationed at Raf martlesham Heath from May 1985 until May 1988. I met a lot of good people there. Some of the people I was stationed with were Chuck Girton, Chris Murphy, David Texierra,Randy Hackett, Gary Bee and Wito Mercado. It really makes you feel old to see the site in such bad condition. I have alot of fond memories of the place and people.

    • Gerry Gratton says:

      Hey Philip! Now that is a list of names I remember! Would you believe I still have some of my Autovon tech school notes?

  31. Luther Thompson says:

    I was stationed at Martlesham from Sep. 83-85 and this brings back old memories. I. Was in Telecom switch maintenance. I remember Doug Slaton Alan Thomas Bobbie Spigigner and others. THANKS EVERYONE. LUTHER

  32. Steve Main says:

    I was stationed at the Martlesham from 76-82..Had a lot of fond memories there..I also attended a few parties at the Spread Eagle Bungalow,good times…Have seen the rock a few times since then ,sad to see it in its present condition..Haven’t seen the museum yet though.Hope to see it on my next trip..

  33. Chuck Charlton says:

    I was stationed there from 87-90. I believe the radiation room was the vault where all of the ammunition and radiation detection devices were stored.

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