RAF Welford is a USAF base just six miles outside of Newbury, Berkshire. It has been an active RAF installation since 1943 and has served the US Army Air Force in World War Two as well as being an ammunition store in the years of the Cold War from 1954-55 to the present day. It is one of the largest ordnance depots in Western Europe.
A history of Greenham Common would not be complete without a look at the history of RAF Welford. During World War Two and during the Cold War years of operation, the two bases worked very closely together, often complimenting each others roles and offering support services. Many military personnel served at both RAF Welford and Greenham Common, or lived at Greenham while serving at Welford. Many of you have asked for some history on Welford, so here is what I have found.
RAF Welford in World War Two
The history of RAF Welford begins in October 1941 when the construction of an RAF airfield at the site was approved for use as an Operational Training Unit. The airfield was built in an A shape with three runways, a number of loops (which can still be seen), and two T2 hangars. The RAF took over the base on June 10th 1943 and passed it over to the USAAF in July. RAF Welford (also known as Welford Park) became USAAF Station 474 on September 6th 1943. The base itself was located on a hill just on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, 14 miles from Greenham. The base had also been built around an 11th century priory which later became the official residence of the Base Commander. The Priory is rumoured to be haunted.
A variety of US Troop Carrier Groups used Welford until the 435th Troop Carrier Group commanded by Lt Col. McNees moved onto the site in February 1944. The 435th performed very similarly to the other US units at RAF Membury, Ramsbury, Aldermaston and Greenham Common, preparing for the liberation of Europe using Waco CG-4A and Horsa gliders towed by Douglas C-47s and a number of C-53s. The aircraft and men of the 435th trained tirelessly on transporting of troops, aerial resupply and glider towing skills.
C-47s were the aircraft used by the Airborne Paras
The US Army's 101st Airborne Division arrived in the UK in the fall of 1943 and were camped across the Thames Valley from Reading to Marlborough, commanded by General Eisenhower from Greenham Lodge. In 1944, the 101st began a number of exercises in preparation for the liberation of Western Europe. The most conspicuous took place in the fields just east of the airfield on March 23rd 1944. Hundreds of 101st soldiers were dropped from C-47s in front of the visiting Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, and a number of other senior officers. Further 101st troops at the base demonstrated weapons and equipment to the visitors. Later that month, an accident occurred when an RAF Lancaster from 101 Squadron crashed at Welford with a tragic loss of life.
On the morning of D-Day, June 5th-6th 1944, 101st troops in gliders and C-47s left RAF Welford for drop zones in Normandy. Among them was Major General Maxwell Taylor and men of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. After the success of the D-Day landings, aircraft from Welford carried out aerial resupply with food, fuel, medical supplies and ammunition. Wounded men were also flown out of France in the C-47s with nurses on board, back to medical facilities in Newbury.
Welford based aircraft of the 435th Troop Carrier Group also went on to play a role in Operation Dragoon, the liberation of southern France in August 1944.
Like Greenham Common and other local airfields, aircraft of the 435th played a part in Operation Market Garden, an attempt to end the European war swiftly by cutting off German troops in Holland, thus enabling a swifter defeat of Germany. 101st units flew out from Welford on September 17th-20th to take the river bridges of the Netherlands on what was to become a hard battle.
Units from RAF Welford played a decisive role with US Army units at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 during the famous counter attack by German forces at the Ardennes in Belgium. Men of the 101st found themselves surrounded at Bastogne. US forces held at Bastogne thanks to aerial resupply, until Army reinforcements pushed the Germans back.
In January 1945, the 435th Troop Carrier Group left RAF Welford, leaving a number of US staff until June 1945. With the conclusion of the war in Europe, the US Units departed and Welford was returned to the RAF, becoming No.1336 Transport Supply Conversion Unit. Between 1947 and 1952, RAF Welford became the Headquarters of Southern Signals Area until it was put under care and maintenance.
RAF Welford In The Cold War
By the early 1950s, it was evident that the Soviet grip on the states of Eastern Europe was firm, yet further Soviet intentions under the volatile and aggressive leadership of Stalin and Khruschev could only be guessed at.
What was clear though was that Soviet military capabilities meant that Western Europe was at serious risk of a successful Soviet invasion unless its defences could be bolstered significantly. Through the early 1950s, US forces established a network of support facilities as well as airbases, naval bases and garrisons in NATO members states in Britain, West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Turkey. Each of these partner states formed a part of the NATO Containment policy against further Soviet expansion westward.
If the US and its allies were to hold the line in the event of a Soviet attack, it would have to hold vast supplies of ammunition to supply forces at the front, and tactical aircraft in rear defensive areas. It would be vital that a substantial stock could be held at forward locations as it would take time to resupply after an outbreak of (very intense) hostilities.
RAF Welford reopened amid this tense climate on September 1st 1955 by the 7531st Ammunition Squadron, Third Air Force, USAF. Ammunition storage buildings were then built along what had been the main runway and a series of bomb revetments were constructed. The base also developed an ammunition maintenance capability and undertook such functions as painting bombs to prevent corrosion. Many of the World War Two Nissen huts remained in full use including the officers mess. Although a number of these still remain today, they are now being dismantled and replaced.
The base was set up to receive ammunition by road and rail. Ammunition would arrive by sea from Barry docks in south Wales and then be transported by rail to the sidings at Welford. By the late 1960s, another US arms dump was established at Caerwent in south Wales. Caerwent served as an initial unloading and storage point. In November 1973, the rail link to Welford had been abandoned and ammunition came in by road vehicles.
In the event of war, ammunition would be taken to bases of the "Oxford Triangle" (Brize Norton, Greenham Common and Upper Heyford) and flown to forward locations of US Army and Air Force bases in West Germany, France and the Netherlands. Some would be transported by road to British ports and the US Army Terminal at Hythe, Southampton. Bombs would also supply British-based units of the USAF such as F-4 Phantoms at RAF Lakenheath and Bentwaters, and later, F-111s and A-10 Tankbusters. These aircraft were also dependent on Welford in peacetime for a supply of live bombs and ammunition for training on live bombing practices on the ranges of Scotland, Lincolnshire, Wales, and other NATO states.
RAF Welford was no different to many other overseas USAF bases during times of international crisis. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the base was closed off to the outside world with nobody allowed to enter, as was the case at Greenham Common.
The Priory was the base commanders quarters until 1995
RAF Welford remained open during the Cold War and was never closed unlike Greenham had been in 1964. Although some personnel were housed at RAF Welford, many personnel and their children lived at Greenham Common, particularly as Greenham was relatively quiet until 1982. In fact, when Greenham Common reopened in January 1967, it came under the command of Lt. Colonel Paul Meuser of RAF Welford. A number of families had their children at the school at Greenham and so it made sense to live there. A bus took personnel the 14 miles from Greenham to the base and back each day.
RAF Welford was a major USAF base and is the largest ammunition store in Western Europe. However, the base never had as many personnel as a major operating location with aircraft such as Upper Heyford or Greenham Common. These typically had 2,000 personnel plus dependents. During the height of Cold War operations in the 1980s, RAF Welford numbered around 400 serving personnel. When the 501st Tactical Missile Wing was established at Greenham Common in 1982, some equipment from the 501st was kept at Welford. There have been some suggestions that missiles themselves from the 501st were kept at Welford, although I have never found any evidence of this, and Welford was not inspected by the Soviet INF Teams when they began in 1988.
There were other ammunition storage sites used by US forces in the UK that supplemented the work at Welford. A site was leased by the USAF at Bicester in Oxfordshire (a short distance from Upper Heyford), Denham Studios near London in the 1950s-1960s, Bramley in Hampshire, and Burtonwood near Liverpool, storing US Army ammunition and pre-placed military vehicles in case of conflict. A storage facility was also briefly used at Cheddington, Aylesbury in the 1950s, and at Ditton Priors and Fauld in the late 1960s until 1973.
RAF Welford also saw a number of changes in command over the years. In 1955, it started under the command of the 7531st Ammunition Squadron until it was replaced in 1959 by the 3115th Ammunition Squadron. The command changed again to the 7234th Ammunition Supply Squadron (ASUPS) on November 1st 1962 until it was changed to the 7551st ASUPS in 1972. The next change came in September 1986 when 7551st ASUPS was changed to become the 850th Munitions Maintenance Sqn (Theatre) MMS(T) USAFE. In September 1987, Welford became a unit directly responsible to the USAF Third Air Force, until January 1993, when Welford became Det 1, 100th Regional Support Group under the command of the 20th TFW, RAF Upper Heyford.
In 1991, RAF Welford was to play probably the most important role in its post-war history during the Gulf War. Vast stocks of bombs and ammunition were required by US Forces in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait to beat back the Iraqi occupation. It is said that huge amounts of ammunition from Welford were dispatched to the Middle East, some of leaving from Greenham. B-52s operated from RAF Fairford during the conflict and were supported from Welford's ordnance stores.
As one Airman recalls;
"During the Gulf War, I was at RAF Welford which was a little base with no planes, just bombs. (Enough to carpet bomb Iraq everyday for a year!) Anyway, we were shipping all those bombs down to the Gulf area and we borrowed some pencil pushers from RAF Greenham Common to help us out. To mess with them we’d take a hammer and pound on the side of a Mk-84 (2,000 pound bomb) and they were like “HEY! Don’t do that!” We said “Don’t worry, if it goes off you won’t even feel it!” They go “THAT’S NOT FUNNY MAN! You Ammo guys are SICK!” Of course there was no danger as the bomb was not even armed, but the look on their faces…!"
RAF Welford After The Cold War
NATO strikes on the Serbs during the war for Kosovo in 1999 were also mounted from Fairford based B-52s and B-1s, as well as F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath. After the closure of Upper Heyford in 1994, Welford came under the command of the 720th Air Base Squadron at RAF Fairford.
When Greenham Common finally closed in September 1992, many of those who had been based there were transferred to serve at Welford. In 1995, the base began a new relationship whereby the RAF took over most of the site with a small USAF presence remaining. The RAF unit were commanded from RAF Brize Norton until handing over the site to the MoD Defence Munitions Agency in April 1999.
The base also played a significant role of support during Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. USAF bomber assets were deployed to RAF Fairford as they had been in Operation Desert Storm and the ammunition at Welford was supplied for those missions.
The USAF now remain as the sole user of the site and operates as a unit under the 420th Munitions Squadron.
My thanks to the Ridgeway Military and Aviation Research Group President, Alan Bovingdon Cox and the Friends and Veterans of Welford for providing information for this page. If you served at RAF Welford, please sign my guestbook. There are a growing number of Welford veterans now finding the site.
For more information on the Friends, Families and Veterans of RAF Welford, click here.
There is also an excellent RAF Welford Facebook group which can be found here.
Ammo Airmen in the DA at RAF Welford, 1990