The History of RAF Greenham Common
RAF Greenham Common was an RAF and US Air Force base south of Newbury & Thatcham in Berkshire. It was an airfield that opened in 1942 through World War Two, the Cold War (with USAF Strategic Air Command and B-47s) and later with the 501st Tactical Missile Wing with 96 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. Despite protests and controversy, the mission was achieved and the Cold War was won. Greenham Common closed in 1992 but its history lives on..
World War Two: Airfield Construction
The first possible landing of an aircraft at Greenham was around 1930 when the area was still a grassy common. Biplane bombers of the RAF landed there for a few days as an RAF exercise took place. During World War Two, the Berkshire area saw a number of airfields constructed at Aldermaston, Membury, Ramsbury, Hampstead Norreys and Welford. In September 1943, the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army crossed the Atlantic and camped in surrounding areas of Newbury and Reading.
An RAF station was to be built two miles outside Newbury in the county of Berkshire. The Air Ministry acquired the land from Newbury Town Council in May 1941.The base was originally to act as a satellite for the bomber training unit at Aldermaston a few miles east. In early 1942, hardstandings were constructed for aircraft use. Beyond the base, accommodation sites were built, some on Sydmonton Common. Barbed wired Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) sites were put up around Bowdown House and Grove Cottage in the north-east. A bomb dump site was also set up. Although built for use by the RAF, they decided that it would be better used by the forces of the US Army Air Force (USAAF). The base was near completed in the summer of 1942. Its first unit was the 51st Troop Carrier Wing who arrived from the US in September 1942 and stayed until being deployed to North Africa on Operation Torch in November. Greenham Common briefly passed back to the control of RAF groups 92 and 70 and was used for flight training on Oxfords until the end of September 1943. The base was then reassigned to the USAAF on October 1st 1943 becoming USAAF Station 486. RAF Greenham Common was finally handed to the 8th ASC USAAF on November 8th 1943.
This was a large A-shaped airfield with one runway of 4,800ft and the second of 3,300ft. Yet even these were not thought long enough and were extended in late 1942. Accommodation was built on the eastern perimeter, along with 2 T2 hangars, a technical area and a 27 pan hardstanding.
The next role for Greenham Common was to re-equip the 354th FG (Fighter Group), 9th AF who had arrived on November 4th to acquire its mount: the mighty P-51B Mustang. The aircraft stayed just a week before redeployment to Boxted. The airfield then played host to a number of units on a transient basis including the 368th FG and their P-47 Thunderbolts.
On March 16th 1944, Greenham Common's role changed to accommodate troop transport aircraft of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. The group undertook solid training at the base and became fully operational in April that year with the Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft.
New infrastructure had to be developed to support these larger aircraft. Loop hardstandings were built in addition to the panhandles, then making 50 hardstandings in all. Steel track marshalling areas were constructed either end of the main runway. These allowed gliders such as the Horsa to be positioned on the runway with tugs still capable of moving alongside, allowing mass take-offs. A number of long buildings were also built for storing and examining glider cables.
By early June 1944, forces at the base were at a high state of readiness. All four squadrons of the 438th Troop Carrier Group were then fully trained on glider towing and paratroop drops both day and night. On the night of June 5th, the base was ringed with armed troops. Nearby was the wartime headquarters of General Eisenhower who was on his way to the base to inspect the troops. Eisenhower joined General Lewis Brereton at Greenham Common to watch the first troops leave by C-47s just before 23.00.
It was at Greenham on this night that General Eisenhower gave his famous "Eyes of the world are on you" speech. Another 80 C-47s then left the base at 11 second intervals bound for the shores of Normandy on Operation Overlord. Aircraft also towed CG-4A Waco gliders to the front in France and later carried the wounded back for treatment in Britain. On December 12th 1944, a tragedy occurred when one of the Horsa gliders crashed at the base. Over 30 American soldiers of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division were killed in the accident and their memory is kept every year in December by the Royal British Legion of Newbury.
By February 1945, the 438th began moving to Prosnes in France to support the front. American ground units held a presence at Greenham until the end of the European campaign. A small USAAF detachment remained a short time at the supply depot in Thatcham. The base was then handed over to RAF Transport Command to an uncertain future.
Post War Closure: 1945-1951
After reverting to RAF use by Transport Command in mid-1945, Greenham Common was used for training. Technical Training Command took control of the site in August and the runways were obstructed. No. 13 Recruit Center used the accommodation to train new entrants on eight week 'square bashing' courses. The RAF used the base for five of these courses until RAF Greenham Common was finally declared a surplus site. The base was closed on June 1st 1946 as an inactive site under Maintenance Command. The airfield was then parented by RAF Welford, a few miles north west of Newbury.
The base was then occasionally used by the British Army for training. Amid the bomb damage to the country and consequent shortage of housing, some of the Nissen huts on the airfield were divided up in to small lodgings. Some local people took them up as temporary accommodation for a short period until much of the site fell into disrepair and a good deal of it was demolished by local builders. Although the airfield remained, the unfenced site was essentially abandoned until 1951.
As the 1940s progressed, a new and more sinister threat was emerging across Eastern and Central Europe. The totalitarian force of Stalinism was expanding beyond the Soviet Union and was now threatening to subjugate all of Western Europe and beyond...
The Cold War Emerges..
"From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent" Winston Churchill, March 5th 1946, Fulton, Missouri.
The original construction of the base began in 1941 at the height of the Blitz in World War Two. Since the mid-1930s, the government had had a major program to build Royal Air Force stations around the country as the threat of war with Germany grew. After 1939, the program was accelerated and after the US joined the war in 1941, hundreds more airfields were built to accommodate American units.
In 1945, the world looked very different to 1939. For Britain and the US, the war had been a struggle for liberty over totalitarian aggression and expansionism. Britain and France had originally gone to war over German expansion into Eastern Europe.
Yet after the great power conferences at Yalta and Potsdam between Britain, the US and Soviet Union, it became increasingly evident that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would never be content with mere "influence" in Eastern Europe as was agreed. The Soviet Union had always been on a path of world domination motivated by its core doctrine of Marxist-Leninism. The Soviets believed that capitalism and communism could never exist side by side and that conflict was inevitable. The malignant forces of communism were set on a determined course of expansionism.
Shortly after World War Two, evidence and a number of key defectors revealed that the Soviet Union had established a network of spies deep within the governments of major Western powers including the US and Britain from the 1930s. These agents had compromised many valuable wartime and military secrets including details of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico to build the atomic bomb. many of the agents were active up until the 1950s until Project Venona was able to reveal (some) of them. Others were never caught.
The initial warmth between East and West as troops met at the Elbe in May 1945 was not to last. The Soviets were refusing to cooperate in the administration and redevelopment of occupied Germany with British, American, and French authorities. The difference was that Western powers wanted to rehabilitate and reconstruct Germany, whereas the Soviets wanted it permanently weakened. In June 1948, crisis and near war erupted when the Soviet Union cut off road, rail and water access and power supplies to the Western powers in Berlin. A blockade as such can be seen as an act of war. It was only through a massive effort by the RAF and USAF flying transport aircraft with goods through the air corridors to Berlin that saved the city from being swallowed up into what was becoming "The Iron Curtain". The Berlin Blockade was a tangible sign of Soviet hostility toward the West.
The states of Eastern Europe held elections after the war, but key members of those governments were communists loyal to Moscow. In 1947, Poland and Hungary came under communist domination and Czechoslovakia in 1948. Finally, the Soviets declared the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. Communist governments also took hold of Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Soviet troops occupied Austria and Northern Iran.
The expansion of communism did not stop in Europe. Stalin encouraged communist North Korea to invade its demilitarized Southern neighbour believing the Free World would not respond. Many in London and Washington feared that the attack on South Korea in 1950 was a smaller distraction as a prelude to a full scale Soviet attack on Western Europe which was left very weak by war and economic devastation. Furthermore, the Soviets had kept their forces on a high state of readiness, barely demobilising after 1945. In the immediate years after World War Two, the Soviets could easily have invaded Western Europe as far as the English Channel in mere days.
The United States abandoned its old isolationist foreign policy after 1945 and took a leading role in Europe's defence. For the first time ever, the US entered a formal alliance as a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with a number of other Western European states. The key clause was that "an attack against any member of the alliance shall be considered as an attack against all others who will provide full military and logistical support to that country." The treaty signed in April 1949 was not explicitly anti-communist, but was created in the face of Soviet hostility and the power vacuum left after 1945 in Europe. In August 1949, the Soviets also detonated their first atomic weapon having stolen the secrets from the West.
The enemy would soon be armed with the ultimate weapon.
US security policy after 1945 was guided by the President's National Security Committee or NSC. The committee held regular meetings to address emerging threats. It was becoming evident that the communist threat was far more than transient by the late 1940s, particularly after the communists seized power in China in 1949. A vital report was produced by the NSC in 1950. The report NSC 68 was vital to the Western strategy of the Containment of communism. It authorized the expansion of US defence capabilities by trebling the national defence budget. Particular emphasis was laid on construction of a ring of military bases in friendly countries around the communist bloc and development of a strategic nuclear deterrent force to counter the sheer numerical superiority the Soviet forces held over the West.
Cold War Reactivation: 1951-1964
Even after 1945, units of the newly formed US Air Force came back to Britain on occasional air exercises to bases in East Anglia like RAF Marham. Units of the USAAF had made a very significant effort in the European theatre and had been made welcome by the local British people. A pact known as the Spaatz-Tedder Agreement was concluded by the heads of both air forces in 1946 allowing conventional US bombers to use British airfields in the eventuality of a conflict. During the Berlin Blockade, President Truman had sent a total of 60 B-29 (nuclear capable) bombers on temporary deployments to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and Marham in Norfolk. The aircraft came to Britain to send Stalin a message that the West was intent on protecting the independence of West Berlin and allied sectors of Germany.
In the midst of an increasing Soviet threat and as a tangible commitment to the newly created NATO, the US asked Britain for the use of a number of Royal Air Force stations that could be developed for "Very heavy bombers." Technological developments meant that aircraft entering service after 1945 were far heavier and more maintenance intensive than bombers such as the B-17 or B-24s that flew from Britain in World War Two. The US had a good choice of airfields available from those years that could be adapted.
In April 1950, the "Ambassadors Agreement" was concluded between US Ambassador Lewis Douglas and the British Under Secretary for Air. The agreement allowed the US Air Force to redevelop four airfields: Greenham Common, Fairford, Upper Heyford and Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The move was partly as a response to two problems: intelligence found that the Soviet Union had acquired nuclear status and was designing strategic range aircraft to deliver the weapons. Although Britain was developing an independent nuclear deterrent by 1950, progress was slow. A range of modern medium range bombers, the V-Force (Victor, Valiant and Vulcan) was being developed to carry the deterrent, yet these would not enter service until after the mid 1950s and then quite gradually. As a stopgap measure, the RAF took delivery on loan from the USAF of 87 B-29 bombers known as Washingtons in RAF service.
In 1951, locals speculated that the base was about to be reactivated. This was soon confirmed by the Air Ministry, and US Air Force survey teams moved onto the site in February 1951. For a time, the base became known locally as "tent city" where the survey teams lived under canvas and what must have been basic conditions. The camp consisted of an Engineer Aviation Battalion, Maintenance and Ordnance companies, an Engineer Depot Company, and a Base Support Company. The role of these groups was to prepare the site for use by Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the USAF. In the Spring of 1951, the USAF in Britain acquired the status of the Third Air Force, and Greenham Common was formally handed over to SAC's Seventh Air Division on June 18th 1951.
Engineering teams set about a vast program of works to redevelop the site using 1,000 acres. Remnants and hardstandings from the old site were demolished. Construction of a huge 10,000 foot long east-west runway with parallel taxiways began. A new aircraft control tower was built on the north side of the base as well as new barracks on the left of the main gate. Construction work peaked in the summer of 1951 and officer accommodation was also constructed outside the gates on the north west end just off Burys Bank Road.
The reconstruction had taken over two years when building finished in September 1953. Strategic Air Command declared the base ready for what became known as Reflex operations by the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The first plane to actually use the runway though was in fact an RAF Vampire jet which was forced to land low on fuel!
Greenham Common's new, full operational use came in March 1954. A group of 2,200 personnel arrived at the base to work with a detachment of 303rd Bomb Wing B-47s which had flown from Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. The Reflex operations meant that aircraft would come to a base for a period of 90 day rotations from the US. One of the most effective ways to train military pilots is to have them familiarised with the environments in which they may have to fight.
The B-47 Stratojet was a major technological advance on its service entry in 1951. This was an aircraft so fast that it could even outpace fighters like the Soviet MiG-15 and even F-84s Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres! This 600 mph bomber had a 35 degree swept wing, giving it superb aerodynamics and agility. Its six General Electric turbofans meant that it could carry a bomb load of 28,000 pounds and three crew to 40,000 feet and to a range of 3,000 miles. It was the perfect weapon of its time to strike with a nuclear response at the heart of the Soviet sphere. Its high performance and speed allowed it to evade enemy MiGs on reconnaissance on most occasions on flights into the Soviet Union carried out from Fairford and Upper Heyford in the RB-47 variant.
B-47 Stratojets on their way to Europe (photo by Frank Hadl)
The stay of the mighty B-47s of the 303rd was to be cut short when it was found that the new runway was breaking up under the weight of these new aircraft. The 303rd was forced to move to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to complete its Reflex operations on April 28th 1954. After a program of runway reinforcement, the base played host to the KC-97Fs and Gs of the 97th Air Refueling Squadron who were there in support of B-47Es deployed to RAF Lakenheath from the end of April 1956. In the same month, RAF Greenham Common also became home to the 3909th Air Base Group.
October of 1956 saw the base welcome an interesting variety of aircraft. Sixteen of the huge B-36 Peacemaker bombers called at Greenham and RAF Burtonwood in support of the SAC alert triggered by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The base also had a visit from the American version of the Canberra, a Martin RB-57A which had flown from Sembach in West Germany. The deployment of tankers and other aircraft at Greenham caused a new problem. Flint chips were working their way onto the runway surface, damaging the KC-97 propellers. The only immediate solution to the problem was almost constant sweeping of the runways!
Greenham Common was settling into a period of more sustained use once construction problems had been fixed. US defense policy of the 1950s was that of Massive Retaliation. This meant that any hostile action against the US or its allies meant a full scale nuclear response against the Soviet Union and its allies of the Warsaw Pact and China. From 1954, the US deployed its first nuclear devices to the UK. Stored in Special Storage Areas (SSAs), the bombs could be mounted to their aircraft and held on Quick Reaction Alert with crews for several hours. If the attack warning came, bombers and crews could be airborne in mere minutes before the bases could be struck. Many of the SAC bases in Britain had SSAs and Greenham had these storage igloos on the far south west side of the base where the GAMA was later built.
On October 5th 1956 until January 1957, the base supported a detachment of 45 B-47Es from the 310th Bomb Wing, Schilling AFB along with KC-97Fs and Gs. At this time, B-47s based in Britain were undertaking training and exercises to improve bombing capabilities. B-47s would set out of bases at Greenham, Fairford, Lakenheath and Brize Norton and carry out mock bombing runs on practices targets such as Edinburgh or the Thames Estuary in London. Exercises were also carried out with the RAF to test readiness.
From the mid-1950s, Soviet nuclear capability had reached the point where it posed a very serious threat to Western Europe. With the help of ex-Nazi scientists, the Soviet Union had mastered rocketry as a weapon. From the late 1950s, the Soviet Union began deployment of Medium and Intermediate range ballistic missiles: the SS-4 and SS-5 (SS being a NATO designation for surface-to surface) bringing bases such as Greenham into striking range within as little as 15 minutes from launch. Added to this was a fleet of nuclear bombers such as the Myasichev Bison, Badger and Tupolev 95 Bear.
Dispersal of SAC bombers became vital to reduce their vulnerability from a potential enemy strike. By deploying just 15 aircraft to each base, planes could scramble on alerts much faster. From 1958, SAC bases in Britain also came under the Reflex Alerts where planes stood on high readiness. It was at this point that Greenham Common saw a terrible tragedy. On February 28th 1958, a B-47E developed trouble on take-off and was forced to drop two of its huge 1,700 gallon fuel tanks. A special area of the base was set aside for this purpose but somehow (possibly due to high winds) the pilot missed. One of the tanks fell into a hangar and exploded. The other hit a parked B-47 which burned furiously with a pilot onboard. The fire burned furiously for 16 hours and fire crews were brought in from RAF Odiham and Welford to assist. In all, two men were killed, eight injured and two B-47s destroyed. The troubled plane made a safe landing at Brize Norton a little later. A source told me that one of the hangars at the base was painted black to cover marks left by this fire.
In July 1996, a story in the British press suggested that Greenham Common had been subject to severe radioactive contamination. Apparently, this occurred from this incident as one of the aircraft destroyed was on nuclear readiness with a B28 nuclear bomb onboard which burned in the resulting fire. The story has never been substantiated with official evidence and is mostly likely untrue as only aircraft on readiness would have been uploaded which was also only done on specially designated areas of the base, away from the hangars.
The Reflex Alerts began at the base the month after, meaning that the B-47s could remain on alert on the ground. Instead of 90 day Reflex Operations, Reflex Alerts would be mounted for periods of three week rotations. Talk ran through the local area of what might visit the base next when the runways and dispersal areas were again reinforced. It emerged that the base was being prepared for use by the great B-52 Stratofortress which could use the base as a forward location in times of war or crisis. B-52s were never based at the airfield but did make a series of training visits from August of 1960.
Boeing B-52H Stratofortress at Greenham Common
The early 1960s were times of serious crisis in the Cold War. May 1960 saw Francis Gary Powers U2 shot down over Sverdlovsk, Soviet leader Khruschev was placing pressure on the West to remove the Western forces from Berlin, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, and most dangerously, the Soviets were quietly deploying ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island of Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 saw US forces across the world on a very high state of readiness. Bases such as Greenham went to secure status, closing to the outside world. Inside the heavily guarded fences, B-47s waited loaded with nuclear bombs and awaiting orders from SAC headquarters at Omaha. B-52s carried out airborne patrols, only awaiting their orders to make their way to Soviet targets.
The crisis passed and tensions subsided slightly. A period of Peaceful Co-existence between East and West developed alongside new, more advanced military capabilities on both sides. Some excitement was caused locally when the supersonic B-58 Hustler bomber made a visit to Greenham Common in October 1963. This was a particularly beautiful aircraft, and highly advanced for the time it was introduced in the late 1950s. It was the only supersonic bomber of its time.
By the early to mid-1960s, Strategic Air Command had a far larger fleet of strategic range aircraft such as the B-52 at its disposal. SAC had also developed and deployed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) such as the Atlas and Titan with some success by this time. The US Navy had also perfected Ballistic Missile Submarines such as Polaris and Poseidon which would have a greater survivability in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Some of these submarines came to the US Navy base of Holy Loch in Scotland. Soviet developments and deployments of its own medium and intercontinental range missiles meant that European bases would be quite vulnerable in the event of a Soviet first strike. In addition, although a capable weapon, the B-47 had aged in technological terms in relation to newer bombers being developed like the General Dynamics F-111.
The Reflex Operations continued with B-47s and accompanying tankers until April 1st 1964. SAC policy was changing and the Command decided to close the base. The base closure program was known as Project Clearwater and saw the very last B-47 fly out of the base in the first week of June. Greenham Common was formally handed back to the RAF on July 1st 1964 and the runway once again fell silent.
The Wilderness Years: 1964-1979
The world was changing fast by 1964. Nikita Khruschev had been removed by a communist party coup in October of that year and replaced by hard-line Leonid Brezhnev, President Johnson had taken power in the US after the assassination of Kennedy, and Britain was now governed by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. The conduct of the Cold War was also changing. The Cuban Missile Crisis had shown the real dangers of the confrontation and each side appeared to agree that tensions needed to be relaxed. The mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s became known as the period of Détente; (French for relaxation of tensions) between East and West. For a period, tensions did calm between the superpowers and a number of arms control agreements were settled or started. Yet the Cold War was far from over, and its focus was shifting away from Central and Eastern Europe and toward the Third World states of the southern hemisphere. The forces of communism were spreading in areas of South East Asia and the focus of US defense policy was to be focussed intently for the next ten years on containing communist expansion from Vietnam and its neighbours.
Greenham remained practically unused as an airfield in the years that followed which also coincided with the closure or rundown of other USAF bases in Britain. SAC no longer maintained operational bases exclusively for its use as it had done since 1951. However, events in Europe meant that the rundown of USAF bases in Britain was only temporary. In 1966, aptly on All Fool's Day, French President Charles De Gaulle made an incomprehensible step of cutting French military involvement in NATO and expelling all US military bases that remained in France. De Gaulle set a deadline that all US forces must leave the country by April 1969. France played host to a number of logistics and supply bases including Chaumont, Toul Rousiéres, Chateauroux, Evreux, Dreux, and Laon. Instead, the US Department of Defense set its own deadline to remove forces from its nine bases and decided to leave by April 1967 in what was known as Operation FRELOC (for French Relocation). Some units were moved to West Germany, others were disbanded and many came to British bases including RAF Alconbury and Mildenhall.
The increased pressure and aircraft on British USAF bases meant that other bases had to be found for various uses. In January 1967, Greenham and RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk were brought back into American use. The base was used as a storage site for the Air Force, manned only by a small number of personnel far smaller than that of its 1950s and early 1960s SAC days. It then came under the charge of the 7551st Combat Support Squadron, serving as the sister site to the huge USAF ordnance storage complex at RAF Welford, near Hungerford until its control passed to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at Upper Heyford in May 1970. During this period, many of the personnel working at RAF Welford lived in the accommodation at Greenham.
During these years, the base was used as part of a number of exercises. These included the annual REFORGER (Re-enforcement of Germany) NATO exercises. These served as training for the reinforcement of West Germany by mainly US Forces on a huge scale in the event of Warsaw Pact hostilities against NATO members. Huge numbers of troops would be flown in by transport aircraft from the US and would be parachuted into areas of West Germany. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated how this might be necessary. The invasion caused a major NATO alert as it seemed the invasion my have been a prelude to an attack on Romania or West Germany. A small hospital unit was established at Greenham during this time. Mostly though, the base was maintained by a mainly British skeleton support staff.
The base was put to an unusual use in 1972. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was at the height of his purge of foreigners in the country and many fled to the United Kingdom. A number of refugees were housed in the then empty barracks on the base just left off the main gate.
From 1973, the base became the venue for many years to come for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's Royal International Air Tattoo. The first had been held at the Essex airfield of North Weald in 1971 and moved to Greenham in 1973. This charity event was established to assist those RAF personnel who were now approaching retirement age from wartime service. At first, this air show was held every two years, but became annual after 1977. At each Tattoo, air forces from many NATO members would arrive at Greenham to give flying and static displays of their planes and helicopters. The base saw many interesting visitors and aircraft we can now only dream of seeing fly, often with over 200 aircraft attending. Visitors included RAF Vulcans, F-104 Starfighters, Lockheed Constellations, Lightnings, Hunters, F-111s, F-4 Phantoms, and at the 1983 show, the mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet.
RAF Vulcan and... US Navy F-14 Tomcat At the 1976 Air Tattoo celebrating the American Bicentennial. Courtesy of Mike Carpenter.
In 1976, the runways at RAF Upper Heyford had to be resurfaced which meant that its F-111E bombers would have to find a new home during the three months the work would take. Greenham Common was not a vast distance from the Oxfordshire home of the F-111s and was chosen as the temporary base to host planes, crews, and support staff. From March until June, the runways were once again aglow to the roar of jets. The arrival of the F-111s also meant that their load of B-61 nuclear bombs also had to be sited at the base. This did not present any problems as the storage igloos from the original SAC deployments of B-47s remained on the west end of the base. Soon however, the aircraft and many of the support staff returned to Upper Heyford and for a brief period, the base returned to standby status.
Greenham Common was about to hit the headlines over plans by the Third Air Force. In April of 1977, the Third Air Force started informal discussions with the British Ministry of Defence for a plan to fully reactivate Greenham with a force of at least 20 KC-135 tankers as part of an expansion of the European Tanker Task Force. At the time, RAF Mildenhall was already pushed for space and Greenham had a good runway and better facilities and location than other possible bases. In August 1977, work began to extend and refurbish the runways and taxiways. Local people guessed that something big was about to happen at Greenham. Plans for the reactivation were officially announced in February 1978 and led to a protest from some local people. A local pressure group was formed to oppose the reactivation. Locals claimed that the KC-135 was one of the loudest aircraft in the Air Force that would cause disturbance to Thatcham which had become a large residential area since the SAC deployments of the 1950s and early 1960s. Plans were even made to send a letter to President Carter.
Eventually, British Secretary of State for Defence, Fred Mulley decided to reject the reactivation in May as it would mean tanker aircraft would have to fly very close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and concerns that some aircraft might stray over it with serious safety implications. In the event, a home for the tankers was found at the former SAC base of RAF Fairford which had been largely redundant since the RAF withdrew in 1971.
New details soon emerged though that the base might become a site for the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft formerly known as the U2. A news report in August 1978 claimed that Greenham Common was one of three bases the USAF was considering using deployment of 15 planes from the 1980s. Mildenhall saw periodic use by reconnaissance planes from 1979 where the TR1 was used for a few years. In the event however, Greenham was not chosen as the TR1 base and the aircraft were eventually deployed to RAF Alconbury.
The end of the 1970s represented turbulent times. It was becoming clear that the Soviets had actually used the relative quiet of the Détente years to rearm, greatly expand and modernize its armed forces. The Western world found itself in a period of economic stagnation following the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. Consequently, its armed forces faced either cutbacks or little in the way of modernized equipment. Unlike the Warsaw Pact states, NATO equipment was rarely interoperable or in any way standardized. The US found itself increasingly reluctant to intervene in trouble spots following the conclusion of the Vietnam war. The Soviet Union however was, in many ways at its very peak of world influence and was supporting several waves of communist activity in the third world which came to be known as "the arc of crisis" (from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan). Most alarmingly from all this was that Soviet nuclear strength had moved from rough numerical equality with the US in 1970, to an outright superiority by the mid 1970s. Among the new weapons they deployed was an intermediate range ballistic missile named SS-20 by NATO. From October 1977, the Soviet Union was deploying this 2,500 mile range mobile missile in ever greater numbers. Western European cities (and possibly North America) also lived under the shadow of the new Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire jet bomber which could carry a nuclear payload to Western targets at supersonic speeds. NATO faced a serious threat against which it found itself increasingly poorly able defend against or respond to. Western European leaders called upon the United States respond to these new military, and what were to become intense, political issues.
Cruise and the Common: 1979-1992
In the Spring of 1979, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group met at a USAF base in Florida to formulate a response to the growing Soviet military might. In October 1977, Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany and British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan were asking the United States to deploy new and more modern deterrent forces to NATO countries in Western Europe. The group decided on a twin track approach to the Soviets. Known as the "Double Decision", NATO members decided to both negotiate with the Soviet Union to withdraw the SS-20 missiles, and to go ahead with the deployment of a total of 572 new missiles to NATO members from 1983. If the Soviets agreed to withdraw the SS-20s, NATO would agree not to deploy the new missiles to its Western European members.
The Soviets however were hardly in the mood to negotiate. By 1979, the country was still led by the barely living Leonid Brezhnev, while its ministries were engaged in in-fighting, chronic bureaucracy, and a sense of absolute paranoia toward the West and NATO. NATO's Double Decision meant that 464 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM's) would be deployed to Great Britain (160 in total), Italy (112 at Comiso), West Germany (96 at Wuescheim), Belgium (48 at Florennes), and the Netherlands (48 at Woensdrecht). A further 108 Pershing II medium range ballistic missiles would be deployed to West Germany from 1983 to replace ageing 1960s Pershing 1a types deployed in West Germany by the US and West German armies. The sense of crisis increased through 1979. Although President Carter and Brezhnev agreed to limit strategic range nuclear weapons with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 2 (SALT 2) in June, the treaty did not cover any possible expansion of theatre nuclear weapons. In any case, the treaty was never ratified after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December. The invasion brought the Soviets to within just a few hundred miles of the Persian oil fields. This was a new and largely unexpected twist that suggested the Soviet Union was set on a new phase of expansionism.
On December 12th, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed to "modernize theatre forces" by sending missiles to five NATO members by 1986. two days later, the NATO Council of Ministers approved the decision. This now meant that a whole new infrastructure had to be created to support the new missiles. The new missiles themselves had to still undergo testing and find suitable launch and control vehicles.
On January 1st 1979, the 7273rd Air Base Group was formed and had a USAF Base Commander appointed. At that time, the base was still occupied by a small staff on standby status but activity on the base increased gradually. On June 17th 1980, the British Government announced that Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire would be the two cruise bases in Britain. Greenham Common would also be the very first base in Europe to receive its first flight of 16 missiles in late 1983. Molesworth had also been a USAF base during the 1950s. NATO aimed to have the first missiles operational at Greenham and Comiso in Sicily, Italy by December 1983. The decision meant at least a further 1,300 personnel would be stationed at Greenham. The government explained that the basing of these new mobile missiles meant that in times of tension, the missiles would move to remote locations up to 200 miles away kept secret in the countryside. In addition, the deployment of cruise would cause little noise as aircraft movements would be a maximum of a few a month.
The base played host to an unusual visitor in 1980 in the form of the world land speed record challenging Thrust jet car. The high speed vehicle was tested on the runway at Greenham Common and was later to be taken to Nevada where it broke the land speed record in 1983 at over 630 mph driven by Richard Noble.
In 1981, a vast program of works began at the base to support the deployments. Specially hardened shelters had to be constructed that could withstand the force of a direct hit by a 500lb bomb and even a ten megaton thermonuclear airburst explosion 1,600 ft above them. A total of six shelters (A-F) were built to protect the German-made MAN GLCM transporters, and support and communications vehicles. These were built in an ultra high security compound on the north east side of the base. This was known as the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area). One of these silos was a Quick Reaction Alert shelter where 16 missiles could stay on alert, ready for almost immediate launch. This structure can be distinguished by the fact that it has side entrance tunnels at the sides and crews had accommodation built into the shelter itself. Each shelter contained four launch vehicles and two Launch control vehicles. The shelters had three doors at both ends (which apparently took 20 minutes to close) and could withstand the explosive pressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch!
A GLCM shelter at Greenham
The first part of the redevelopment of Greenham Common was to cost £50 million, roughly 40% of which came from NATO infrastructure funds. The work and deployment meant that new accommodation had to be built and a new housing area was built for USAF personnel in the neighbouring village of Bishops Green. Many personnel however lived in Newbury, other local villages, or as far afield as Reading, Wiltshire or Oxfordshire.
The deployment became highly politicised and Greenham was becoming a tangible and highly visible sign of the deterioration in East-West relations and the heating of the arms race. But in actual fact, the deployments were nothing new. The RAF and USAF operated 60 Thor intermediate range missile bases from 1958-1963 across East Anglia and Lincolnshire, each with three missiles. Arms talks with the Soviet Union continued, but what became clear was the Soviet negotiating strategy and offers to freeze SS-20 deployments were a thinly veiled attempt to drive a wedge between the European members of NATO and the United States. For this reason particularly, the deployments had to go ahead; in the face of such an intransigent and dogmatic threat, the United States needed to show a clear and resolute sign of its commitment to the security of its allies and for its allies to show faith in American commitment to Western European freedom and security.
The name cruise missile is simply a generic name for a type of weapon that had been around since World War Two. It is a class of missile that flies mostly at high subsonic speeds via internal or radio guidance within low or medium altitudes (i.e.. non ballistic).Germany used the technology against Britain with its V-1 (Vengeance) weapons. The technology was later developed by the US in the 1950s to produce a small number of strategic range nuclear cruise missiles known as Snark and Mace deployed from the late 1950s. Although promising and fairly fast, their internal navigation systems were not particularly accurate in a pre-microelectronic age.
501st TMW headquarters building
Cruise missiles developed in the 1970s were revolutionary by comparison and were produced by Boeing, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas in three varieties: air-launched (ALCM), sea-launched (SLCM), and ground launched (GLCM). The ground launched type produced by General Dynamics were known as the BGM-109G. The missiles themselves were small at only a little over 20 feet long and so were easily transported. These nuclear versions carried a variable yield W-84 nuclear warhead of 10 to 50 kilotons. The high accuracy of the missile meant that such small, tactical yields could be used with pinpoint accuracy. Their 1,550 mile range meant that many targets across the Warsaw Pact states of eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union were within range. The small size of the missile coupled with its subsonic speed and ground hugging flight meant that it was virtually invisible to Soviet radars. The need was urgent; by 1980, the Soviet's were deploying new SS-20s at the rate of one a week.
Such a deployment required exceptional security around the clock, 365 days a year. The British government provided 220 paratroops to protect the base and on convoys whilst on exercises. In addition to the work at Greenham Common itself, the GLCMs required special targeting computers to guide their terrain following TERCOM radars to their targets. Western Europe had two such sites and the British site was at RAF Daws Hill in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The site had been used as a Bomber Command bunker during World War Two. US forces had held the site since the 1950s and work began in 1982 to strengthen the five storey bunker and harden it against electromagnetic pulses from a nuclear blast. In 1981, the USAF's 7555th Theatre Mission Planning Squadron moved to Level 3 of the bunker. Their role would be to produce disks containing topographical information which would then be input into GLCM control vehicles deployed in their forward locations.
"POISED TO DETER, QUICK TO REACT"
Almost nobody knew the exact date the missiles would arrive except the highest in office. Deployment was announced as late 1983 and as the year drew on, expectations of the arrival grew. Greenham Common then became the official home to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing. In May 1983, C-5A Galaxy transport planes appeared to be delivering equipment to the base but given the necessary level of secrecy, little details emerged. What was certain however was that all the construction and other preparations necessary were being carried out to a very tight deadline of December 1983. The preparations were examined by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine on March 24th and was shown around the construction of the silos by base commander Colonel Robert Thomson. Meanwhile, crews were being specially trained on how to handle the MAN tractors, missiles and related equipment by the 868th Tactical Missile Training Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. A tour at Greenham Common was said to be very good for the Air Force careers of those who served there. These highly skilled and educated missile crews began to arrive from July.
In November that year, the press reported that British and US governments had agreed on a deployment date of November 1st but that it had changed as a result of the Cuban invasion of Grenada and also to allow a House of Commons debate on the deployment on October 31st. A report on the front page of The Sunday Times on November 13th announced "Greenham- Cruise lands on Tuesday". In actual fact, the first GLCMs arrived at Greenham Common in the early hours of Monday 14th of November aboard a C-141 Starlifter. Security was very high with support being given by the British MoD Police, the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment of the British Army, as well as security personnel of the USAF. The missiles were quickly unloaded and taken beyond view. Further deliveries of warheads and other equipment continued in the days following.
From the time of the delivery of the first 16 missiles in November, the 501st Tactical Missile Wing began its training immediately to meet the operational deadline. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing succeeded at meeting its Interim Operational Capability date of December 1983. At the same time, Pershing II missiles in West Germany were being successfully deployed by the US Army. The following year, Greenham could boast a total of 32 missiles on strength. The deployment represented a major blow to the Soviet Union; its efforts, both diplomatic and military had failed to divide European NATO members from the United States and its adversary was now equipped with a more modern and credible means of defence than ever before.
MAN tractor preparing for a GLCM exercise. Thanks to Brian Bowling.
Launch exercises could be held once or more a month. What became clear though was that it was hard for the convoys to go unnoticed with such large vehicles, 69 members of a flight, 22 vehicles per flight, and 44 armed guards and police. Attention was drawn to the secret locations the vehicles visited. One of the first exercises in early March 1984 saw a flight of GLCM vehicles leave Burys Bank Road gate and head west along the M4 motorway. The vehicles finally arrived at RAF Lyneham, the RAF's C-130 base south of Swindon. On many occasions, the exercises were followed by protesters from a group called Cruisewatch. One of the most frequent locations for exercises was on Salisbury Plain in Hampshire. This was not a great distance from Greenham and is a regular training ground to the Army. Other Cruise exercise sites included Bramshott Common and Longmoor Camp in Hampshire, as well as Royal Common and Rushmoor in Surrey.
In January 1986, a remarkable story broke in the military news magazine, Janes Defence Weekly.
"SPETZNATZ AT GREENHAM" was the cover story. The magazine claimed that agents of the Soviet special forces or Spetznatz were active among protesters camped around the base. The article told how 3-6 Spetznatz agents had been active at the base since missiles had been deployed in Dec 1983 and agents were regularly rotated to gain field experience. The article also claimed the Spetznatz agents were controlled by the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) and that mock ups of the defenses and missiles based at Greenham Common had been copied for Spetznatz training centres in the Ural, Volga, and Carpathian military districts. The agents at Greenham were to provide sabotage strikes on the GLCM sites as well as acting as beacons to other Spetznatz troops who would join them in the prelude to war.
The story was officially denied. Recent evidence however suggests that it may have been true. The article claimed that the information had come from Soviet defectors. A year earlier in 1985, British intelligence (SIS) scored a major blow on the Soviets by smuggling out senior KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky and brought him to Britain. He revealed the extent of the war planning and paranoia going on within the Soviet leadership. In 1992, Britain also gained the intelligence treasure from former KGB archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin. His handwritten notes taken from the KGB archives revealed that the Soviets had hidden and buried secret catches of arms and communications equipment across Western Europe. They were booby-trapped and could only be recovered by trained experts. In addition, in 1996 it was revealed that in the 1970s, the Soviet Union had produced "suitcase bombs", portable nuclear bombs of around a six kiloton yield that could be set off remotely to destroy enemy infrastructure within those countries. This would then negate the need to launch direct nuclear attacks. We now also know that the Soviet leadership was seriously considering a nuclear attack on NATO in late 1983 as it conducted the Able Archer 83 exercise and to prevent GLCMs from actually being deployed.
The Soviet political landscape was gradually changing after 1985 and events behind the Iron Curtain were to have far reaching and unimagined consequences for Greenham Common and the world as a whole. March 1985 saw Mikhail Gorbachev become leader of the Soviet Union, a man who not only hoped for change at home, but demanded it. In order to save the collapsing Soviet economy, he had to cut the huge Soviet military budget, running around 20% of GDP (in comparison to around 6% in the US). Such cuts meant diplomatic rapprochement with NATO and the United States. President Reagan and Gorbachev met in a Geneva summit in 1985 and at Iceland in 1986. They had talked about arms cuts but had not been able to come to an agreement. On December 7th 1987 in Washington DC, a breakthrough came when the Soviet Union finally agreed to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, meaning the US and Soviet Union would scrap all Intermediate range nuclear missiles. The INF Treaty (ratified by both powers in 1988) meant that the Soviets would have to destroy all their SS-4s, SS-5s, and SS-20s regardless of their location. NATO would have to destroy its GLCMs and Pershing missiles. Each had to do so within three years of treaty ratification.
The INF Treaty left many questions over the future of Greenham Common. It meant that by May 1991, its GLCM role would be over. Although the treaty signaled a new era of relations between East and West, it did not mean the end of the Cold War. Soviet intentions overall were still not clear.
Part of the treaty stipulated that missile sites were subject to short notice INF Inspection teams from each country. Although the GLCMs at RAF Molesworth were the first to go in 1988, the Soviets were allowed baseline pre-removal inspections and made their first visit to Greenham Common in July 1988. This was an incredible reality; that we would allow Soviet officials to view our most secure weapons bases and allow them to fly in! A Soviet TV crew were also allowed to film the occasion. The 30 inspectors led by Vysacheslav Lebedev were treated to a cooperative reception which even included a traditional British pint at the Coach and Horses pub near Thatcham.
A Tupolev 154 airliner carrying Soviet INF Inspectors to Greenham Common
The Soviet teams had to give 16 hours notice of an inspection and would split in to two teams, one of which would go to RAF Molesworth. Soviet inspectors had 24 hours to inspect but were not allowed to view actual missiles or warheads. By 1988, Greenham had its full compliment of 96 missiles plus five spares. Inspection teams examined missile training canisters and were allowed to have USAF personnel take photos to their specifications. American verification reams actually had more work to do as the INF Treaty meant the Soviets had to destroy 2,000 missiles to the US 800. Satellite verification was also used to check treaty fulfillment, though no arms control verification method is ever cheat proof.
The first GLCMs were taken from Molesworth on September 8th 1988 and flown to their destruction in the US. Soviet Inspectors made further inspection in November and in the course of the coming three years. The INF Treaty actually gives the right to inspections until 2006. The Russians last made an inspection of Greenham in 1998. In late July 1989, the first shipment of four of Greenham's GLCMs were crated up and loaded into a waiting C-5 Galaxy bound for destruction at Davis Monthan. The event was celebrated as a tangible sign of rapprochement between East and West.
Despite the changes, a number of improvements to the quality of life for those at Greenham were made. In February 1986, a shed building was gutted and fully refurbished to make a bowling centre. By 1989, a purpose built school known as Greenham Common High School was built at the very east end of the base. A school had operated before in a converted barracks, but this new site had fully modern facilities. Officers at Greenham Common also enjoyed one of the most unique messes available to personnel in Europe. Greenham Lodge was a Grade 2 listed building built in 1879. It was refurbished at a cost of £1.6m from 1982, and later won a USAF Design Award.
The removal of the missiles meant that the number of personnel at the base would be gradually scaled back. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Greenham was home to over 2,000 personnel plus dependents. In 1988, there was talk in NATO circles of allowing the base to become home to further squadrons of F-111s. It was reported that up to 60 more planes might be welcomed to Britain and that Greenham might be the base. This was a sensitive issue amid previous protests and in the light of improving East West relations. In October 1989, a headline in The Times suggested that a base in Britain, possibly Greenham, might be used for F-15Es deployed with the air-to-surface SRAM-T missile.
However, events the following month in November 1989 took the world by surprise. The unbelievable occurred on November 9th when East German citizens tore down the Berlin Wall. The divisions that had stood between East and West for 45 years were being removed and the Cold War was coming to its end.
In 1990, it was announced that after the missiles had all gone in 1991, the base would revert to a NATO standby facility under the USAF, to be manned by 400 personnel. There were even calls from some locals to have the area returned to common land but this seemed unlikely. In 1990, many of the MAN vehicles were taken to RAF Kemble in Gloucestershire which was a USAF depot. The trucks and tractors were stored in the hangars awaiting their final disposal. In December 1990, a number of other vehicles were shipped out of Greenham bound for use by US forces in Saudi Arabia preparing for the liberation of Kuwait.
MAN vehicles await disposal at RAF Kemble in 1990. Photo by Brian Bowling
Finally, the very last shipment of the remaining 16 GLCMs left Greenham on March 5th 1991. The base was home to just 400 personnel. In the autumn of that year, the Department of Defense decided to close RAF Greenham Common permanently by September the following year. On at least one occasion, the best was opened to tours for local people to come and see the base behind the fence. There was no longer anything to hide. Later that year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist: the old Cold War foe came to terms with the west and moved to democracy, albeit an unstable one.
RAF Greenham Common was closed for the final time on September 12th 1992, and was handed back to the RAF in a closing ceremony before remaining USAF personnel flew home. The Ministry of Defence finally sold the land in 1997 but the runways were broken up in the Spring of 1995. The concrete was used to build the Newbury Bypass. In September 1997 and again in 2000, much of the fencing was removed by volunteers and the area was renamed New Greenham Park. Today, the site is home to a business park including a Jaguar-Land Rover dealer, a travel agent, and a huge new car storage depot and car dealership. The old barrack blocks left of the main gate were used by a paintball company for some years until they were demolished in 1998-99.
In the years that have passed since the closure in 1992, the base has occasionally been used as a film location. The GAMA has been an interesting location to use and was featured in an episode of the motoring show Top Gear. The highest profile filming was discovered by chance one day in the late summer of 2014 when a light aircraft from Popham airfield noticed a lot of activity inside the GAMA and what looked like a film set. The familiar shape of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon was noticed and photographed; it was soon realized that the GAMA at Greenham was recast in a new (or old) war from a galaxy far, far away; Star Wars The Force Awakens with location shooting with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.
I am also delighted to reveal that the control tower at Greenham has also been restored and is now open to the public as a visitors center.
Want to know more about Greenham Common and the history of the base and RAF Welford?
A book is now available...In Defense of Freedom - A History of RAF Greenham Common