September 21, 2013

The United States Air Force Security Service and RAF Kirknewton


By Frederick H. Crawford, SSgt, USAFSS, 1962 - 1966


Before I begin to outline our involvement at RAF Kirknewton, I think it important that we recount the forces that led us to be assigned to this facility.

The United States Air Force Security Service (often abbreviated USAFSS) was essentially the United States Air Force's intelligence branch; its motto was Freedom through Vigilance. It was created in October 1948 and operated until 1979, when the branch was re-designated the Electronic Security Command. It was later re-designated Air Force Intelligence Command, then it became Air Intelligence Agency, and is currently called the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency.


Composed primarily of airmen culled from the cream of the Air Force's enlisted recruits, (the top one-half of one percent), the USAFSS was a secretive and tight-knit branch of Air Force cold warriors tasked with monitoring, collecting and interpreting military voice and electronic signals of countries of interest (which often were Soviet and their satellite Eastern bloc countries). USAFSS intelligence was often analyzed in the field, and the results transmitted to the National Security Agency for further analysis and distribution to other intelligence recipients.

Individual airmen — stationed at locations scattered across the globe, ranging from Alaska to the Pacific Islands to The Far East to Mediterranean Countries to The Middle East to Western Europe and to North Africa — did a variety of jobs, almost all of them related to listening to and interpreting Eastern Bloc, Communist Chinese, and North Vietnamese military communications. All of these activities, plus most ancillary missions, were conducted by the 201 (Cryptanalyst), 202 (Radio Traffic Analyst), 203 (Language Specialist) and 29X (Morse Intercept and Printer Ops) who were, to a man, enlisted personnel.  USAFSS personnel with top secret code word clearance knew the call signs for every Soviet airplane, the numbers on the side of each plane, the name of the pilot in command; the whereabouts of nearly every Soviet Air Force VIP;  the location of every Soviet missile base; -- its weaponry, commander and deployment. Analysts would scan the reams of intercept copy looking for “key words” that would require instant analysis and reporting directly to NSA and possibly the President of the United States in a “Critic” report format.

However, the job of collecting signal intelligence required many elements to be successful in meeting its mission.  The most important element was the antenna array covering 35 acres of ground and was composed of A, B and C band elements that covered the range of frequencies that the enemy transmitted on. Some were assigned to clandestine missions to monitor telephone exchanges at principal air bases in the European Theater of Operations. The antenna field at RAF Kirknewton completely covered the airfield just outside these doors.


The information collected in the field was usually sent via encrypted land-line and radio systems to a co-located group of  USAFSS analysts who would interpret the data, format reports and send them on to the National Security Agency or other recipients.


This land, this RAF Kirknewton became one of those spots in the US Air Force Intelligence gathering network that we had the honor of serving.


The history of RAF Kirknewton spans the years 1940 to the present day.  Beginning as a grass airfield in late 1940, the base was first home to the 289th Squadron, an anti-aircraft co-operation unit formed on November 20, 1941, which later moved to Turnhouse in May 1942.  During WWII, the base was used as a temporary POW Camp (Camp 123) for German officers while they were awaiting transfer to the USA.  After the 289th moved, the airfield became the Refresher Flying Training School, which prepared inactive pilots for posting to Operational Training Units.  However the school was disbanded by October.  For a short time the base went under a care and maintenance period, before becoming a satellite for RAF Findo Gask (Flying Training) in March 1943.  But because of the Air Ministry Airfields Boards decision in August 1943, to not allow necessary runway extensions the base was taken over by the 44th Group Maintenance Unit Command, in February 1944, and the 243rd Maintenance Unit used the airfield for the storage of bombs until being disbanded in January 1956.  Later accounts of hazardous crosswinds from the nearby quarry may explain why the based was closed to air traffic. From the early 1950’s onward, the airfield was no longer used for aviation, being used by the USAF for storage, and security programs until it was handed back to the British in 1967.


Having ceased to be an active airfield (but still under USAF control), Kirknewton became one of the earliest Cold War projects when the CIA and USAF established a ground station here in May, 1952.  The beginning of the USAFSS airmen who were going to be assigned to RAF Kirknewton began with 15 airmen at the 8th Radio Squadron at Brooks AFB.  In February 1952 they went to the 41st RSM (Radio Squadron Mobile) in Bremerhaven, Germany.  When their background investigations were completed and they received their security clearances, in May 1952 they left for Kirknewton.


The unit at Kirknewton started out as Detachment 102 of the 10th RSM and later became the 37th RSM with 6 officers and 39 airmen.


During its first year of operation, the base was used to evaluate a number of antenna configurations, with the aim of determining the most effective configuration for intercepting Soviet communication and radar signals.  By August 1952, the 37th RSM began operations as a functioning unit and by September had 17 officers and 155 airmen.


At the end of June 1953, five antennae had been dismantled and replaced by an array of eleven Rhombic antennae, and by the end of 1953, USAF Security Service 37th Radio Squadron Mobile employed 17 officers and 463 airmen, tasked with the interception of voice and morse signals, including military and commercial naval traffic, with priority being given to signals involving Soviet radar and air operations.  Over the following years, the project grew to include messages being transmitted by developing mediums as technology advanced, including fax, picture and other information being sent through the Soviet news channels.  Similar progress was also being made in the upgraded capabilities of the radar signals being intercepted.


On May 8, 1955 the 37th RSM was re-designated the 6952nd RSM.


On July 1, 1963 the 6952nd RSM became the 6952nd Security Group until inactive in July 1966.


In 1965, while intercept operators at the NSA’s Chicksands station in England focused on the radio messages of Warsaw Pact air forces, the operators at RAF Kirknewton were covering “ILC” International Leased Carrier” traffic, including commercially run radio links between major European cities.  These networks could carry anything from birthday telegrams to detailed economic or commercial information exchanged between companies, to encrypted diplomatic messages.


Kirknewton’s position also meant it was responsible for maintaining security over part of the Hot-Line connecting Washington to Moscow, as the cable route passed though the area. 


By the mid 1960’s, many similar bases featured gigantic antenna systems that could monitor every HF (High Frequency) radio message, from all angles, while simultaneously obtaining bearings that could enable the position of a transmitter to be located. In addition to RAF Kirknewton, other similar bases were established in Chicksands, England, San Vito in Italy, Karamursel in Turkey, the Philippines and Misawa, Japan.  Quickly, other similar bases were established around the world, some in exciting places and others in isolated, lonely outposts, but all dedicated to their mission.


Manning levels fell to 300 over its fourteen years of operation, with the base finally closing in August, 1966.  The former communications listening post had been manned by radio operators, linguists and analysts, all who had Top Secret Codeword and above, security clearances, with the base also classified, Top Secret Codeword.


The Lord Provost of Edinburgh marked the closure of the base at a formal ceremony, held that year, in the Lord Provost’s chambers.


The Edinburgh press also noted the base closing.  In an article from the Scottish Daily Mail, one paragraph covered the explanation for the presence of all the antennas.  Briefly here is what was printed:


The Americans have made their mark on the area ever since they took over the former R.A.F. station in 1952.  Huge aerial masts soon dotted the skyline, in order, according to the brief official explanation, to monitor United States Air Force radios in planes in many parts of  the world.


At this point, I must note some historical milestones.  You’ve heard of the British Invasion, the Beatles coming to America.  Scotland has seen two American invasions.  The first in WWII and the second arriving between the years 1952-1966.  I say this to high light another paragraph in that same newspaper article.  I would like to read it to you now:


 The marriage rate at Kirknewton was ranked as one of  the highest among United States Air Force bases in any part of the world.  It was quite fantastic.” Colonel Young said..  “We estimated that 80 per cent. of the eligible single men who came to us from the States married local girls.  “Most of them took their wives back home after their tour of duty ended.  But some have come back for good with their families and have settled down as civilians in the Edinburgh area.”


Because of that second invasion, a much used saying originating during WWII was resurrected.  That saying goes like this:


Those Yanks!

They’re just over paid!

Over sexed!

And over here!


Further to our mission and probably not known to many, just a short distance to the north of here, about 7 km west of St. Andrews, at Cupar, Scotland, another intercept station was operated by the British Post Office, and masqueraded as a long distance radio station.  In fact, it was just another Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) interception site, which collected European countries’ communications, instead of sending them.


During the Second World War as well as in the cold war and since, British and US intelligence agencies monitored the signals and broke the codes of allies and friends, as well as civilian and commercial communications around the world.  The diplomatic communications of every country were and are attacked.


Security Service was definitely an elite organization-without the individual elitists.  The intelligence specialists came from all walks-of-life, representing all ethnic groups and every socio-economic strata of our Country.  They were in the top one-half percent of all enlistees in the Air Force.  They were involved, intelligence-wise, in every international situation that was a threat, or had a potential treat, to our Nation.


Those who served at Kirknewton earned the right to be referred to as Silent Warriors.  When I was going through orientation before my classified analyst tech school, I was told that I was going to learn things that I would not be able to put to use in the outside world.  That for years I would not be able to talk about what I learned, heard or seen.  Today, out in this audience are many stories that could make for some tremendous reading and someday all of those stories will be told.  Because, nobody… can keep a secret forever.


Country music icon Johnny Cash was a USAFSS member and morse code intercept operator (29X) stationed in Germany in the early 1950s.




European Parliament’s 1999 “Interception Capabilities 2000”, Duncan Campbell (Review)

Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary”, Aleksandr Fursenko & Timothy Naftali,  W.W. Norton Company, New York & London 2006.

National Security Agency, “60 Years of Defending Our Nation”. 2012

“Fourteen Years”, Don Franklin, USAFSS, RAF Kirknewton

USAFSS and the Young Airmen”, Don Lehmann


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