RAF Wethersfield

RAF Wethersfield

RAF Wethersfield is a British Ministry of Defence training facility in England. It is located north of the village of Wethersfield, Essex, about 5 miles NW of the town of Braintree.

During World War II it was used by the United States Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force from 1944 to 1946. With the onset of the Cold War, Wethersfield was reopened in 1952 and became a Front-Line North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Air Base, chiefly being the home of the USAF 20th Tactical Fighter Wing.

World War II

Wethersfield airfield was part of a grouping of wartime airfields constructed in Essex, with a planned completion date of December 1942. It was allocated by the RAF to the United States Army Air Force Ninth Air Force in August 1942.

Construction delays due to shortages of materials and labor caused delays throughout 1943, and the airfield was not opened until January 1944. Wethersfield was known as USAAF Station 170.

416th Bombardment Group (Light)

The 416th Bombardment Group (Light) arrived at Wethersfield on 1 February 1944, from Laurel AAF, Mississippi flying the twin-engine Douglas A-20G "Havoc". It's operational squadrons and fuselage codes were:

  • 668th Bombardment Squadron (5H)
  • 669th Bombardment Squadron (2A)
  • 670th Bombardment Squadron (F6)
  • 671st Bombardment Squadron (5C)

Initial missions of the 416th from Wethersfield consisted of formation flying, navigation and bombing techniques. The first operational mission was aborted on 3 March when the fighter escort did not rendezvous with the group. Targets for the first three months were airfields, NoBall V-1 launching sites, and French Marshalling Yards. These missions resulted in the award to the 416th of the Distinguished Unit Citation.

On D-Day the 416th targeted Argentan, a main crossroads used by German troops to try to reach the Normandy Beachhead with a second mission taking off at 2000 to hit a major Marshalling Yard. Both missions flown under heavy cloud banks, requiring bombing at under 2000 feet altitude. The second mission suffered heavy losses from ground fire.

Target assignments after D-Day were designed to open the paths for allied troops to advance toward Germany. Bridges, railroad junctions, fuel depots, gun emplacements, and an occasional NoBall site occupied the unit's flying time following the invasion.

On 6 August 1944, with the 416th downing of the last remaining bridge over the Seine River, trapping over 200,000 German troops and their equipment in the Falaise-Argentan Gap. The 416th received the Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission, where the group lost 4 planes and all the remaining 32 aircraft received battle damage from flak bursts.

On 21 September the 416th moved to their Advanced Landing Ground at Melun/Villaroche France (A-55). While at Wethersfield the group stationed 2,200 airmen and 62 Havoc A-20 aircraft at the airfield. 21 aircraft were lost in combat.

On the continent, the 416th BG used the following Advanced Landing Grounds:

  • A-55 Melun/Villaroche, France 21 September 1944
  • A-69 Laon/Athies, France February 1945
  • A-59 Cormeilles-en-Vexin, France May - July 1945

The group returend to the United States in July 1945 and was deactivated at Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts on 23 October 1945.

RAF Fighter Command use

Soon after the departure of the Americans for France, Wethersfield was returned to RAF control and became the home for the 196 and 299 squadrons, Royal Air Force Fighter Command, 38 Group.

These RAF squadrons were equipped with the Stirling bomber, flying special missions such as dropping mines outside German ports, and dropping spies deep behind enemy lines at night over the Continent.

Deteiroration of the runways caused both of these squadrons to move out in January 1945 while repairs were carried out.

316th Troop Carrier Group

After repairs were completed, the USAAF IX Troop Carrier Command 316th Troop Carrier Group moved in from RAF Cottesmore on 24 March 1945, during Operation Varsity (the crossing of the Rhine), 81 American C-47 aircraft took off from RAF Wethersfield with paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division, dropping east of the Rhine and establishing a bridgehead.

Postwar Use

After the operation, the 316th moved back to Cottesmore. No other operational units of either the RAF or USAAF used the airfield during the war. In April 1946 a Royal Air Force Heavy Transport Conversion Unit was based at Wethersfield and remained until July when the station was closed and placed in a care and maintenance status.

During the late 1940s the base was used as a winter camping ground for Chipperfield's Circus. Elephants were housed in the maintenance hangars and Nissen (quonset) huts, formerly used as offices, became homes for lions, tigers, snakes and monkeys.

USAF use

20th Fighter Bomber / Tactical Fighter Wing

In 1951 as a result of the Cold War threat of the Soviet Union, RAF Wethersfield was provided to the USAF by the British as part of their NATO commitment. The United States was rapidly expanded its air forces, increasing the number of combat wings from 48 in 1950 to 95 by June 1952. Upgrading of the facilities commenced in 1951, and on 31 May 1952, the 20th Fighter-Bomber Wing took up residence at RAF Wethersfield, being transferred from Langley AFB Virginia.

The 20th FBW consisted of three operational squadrons, the 55th, 77th, and 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadrons, flying the F-84G "Thunderjets". Restricted space at Wethersfield compelled the 79th Squadron to move initially to RAF Bentwaters on 6 June 1952, then to RAF Woodbridge, three miles southeast of Bentwaters, occurred on 1 October 1954.

Woodbridge was operated as a detachment of the 20th FBW until 8 July 1958, when the 20th FBW/TFW handed over control of Woodbridge to the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, although the 79th TFS remained at the base under the control of the 20th TFW until 1970.

Markings of the F-84Gs consisted in part of one-kink lightning flashes in the respective squadron colors. One such flash extended from the intake lip to the leading edge of the wing. Others adorned the outer halves of the wing tip tanks. The 55th used dark blue, the 77th red and the 79th yellow.

The 20th was transferred from Langley to address the defense problem posed by Soviet conventional superiority in Western Europe. The F-84Gs were specially equipped to carry small nuclear bombs and were designed, if necessary to deliver these weapons on Soviet forces if they invaded West Germany.

In June 1955, the 20th FBW started receiving the F-84F "Thunderstreak" in addition to its F-84Ds and F-84Gs. The F-84G was phased out by June 1955, with the aircraft being transferred to Allied nations in Europe and the Middle East.

The 20th flew the F-84F for about two years, when on 16 June 1957, the conversion to the North American F-100D and F-100F "Super Sabres" began. The F-100 remained the primary aircraft at RAF Wethersfield until 1970.

The 20th Fighter Bomber Wing established an operational detachment at Wheelus AB, Libya in February 1958. This detachment managed the USAFE Weapons Training Center for month-long squadron rotations by the Europe-based USAFE tactical fighter wings.

The 20th began realigning its units 15 March 1957, as part of an Air Force worldwide reorganization. Combat groups were inactivated, assigning the unit’s fighter mission to the wing. As part of yet another organization change, the 20th dropped the "Fighter Bomber" designation 8 July 1958, becoming the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing. The three flying units also changed designation, becoming tactical fighter squadrons.

The flying squadrons were dispersed on a monthly rotational basis to RAF Alconbury, RAF Woodbridge, and Nouasseur AB, Morocco, due to runway repairs at Wethersfield from May to August 1958.

Starting in July 1966, bases in Turkey, Spain and Italy were transferred from Tactical Air Command (TAC) to USAFE. With that transfer came the responsibility by USAFE to deploy fighter squadrons to these bases. The 20th began monthly rotations of its fighter squadrons to Cigli AB, Turkey starting in July 1966. Rotations to Aviano AB, Italy began in December 1966. Rotations to Zaragoza AB, Spain began in January 1970. Rotations to all these bases continued until June 1970.

The political closure of US bases in France forced the opening of RAF Greenham Common under 20th TFW management to handle personnel overflow beginning in January 1967. In addition, a military coup in Libya forced the closure of the range at Wheelus AB in September 1969 and the closure of the 20th TFW's detachment in Libya. The range was relocated to Torrejon AB, Spain in November 1969.

On 10 December 1969, Detachment 1, 20th Tactical Fighter Wing was established at RAF Upper Heyford as part of congressional budget cutbacks; a USAFE-wide base realignment/consolidation of units, as Wethersfield had a limited potential for development and was awkwardly close to the expanding London Stansted Airport. The relocation also served the need to reorganize the USAFE base structure after the French withdrawal from NATO and the eviction of non-French military forces from French soil.

The fighter squadrons of the 20th were in a constant rotation since the arrival of the wing at Wethersfield in 1952. As part of the budget reductions and to consolidate all of the wing's elements at a larger facility, the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing was relocated from Wethersfield to RAF Upper Heyford, replacing and absorbing the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, which had relocated from Laon AB, France to the UK on 1 June 1970.

Also, the aging 1950s-era F-100's of the 20th TFW and RF-101 "Voodoos" of the 66th TRW were retired, being replaced by the General Dynamics F-111E Fighter-Bomber at Upper Heyford.

66th Combat Support Squadron

The 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Upper Heyford was inactivated and elements were moved to Wethersfield. As a result, Wethersfield became a Dispersed Operations Base (DOB) until September 1970 when the base mission was changed to that of Standby Deployment Base, ready to support augmentation forces if directed

In October 1970, elements, primarily Civil Engineering, of the inactivated 66th TRW were moved to Wethersfield, being designated the 66th Combat Support Group. The group was again redesignated 66th Combat Support Squadron (CSS) and became the host unit at RAF Wethersfield.

The 66th CSS performed whatever duties were necessary to keep the base in a usable, operational state.

10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing

In August 1976 the 66th CSS became Detachment 1, 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW), based at RAF Alconbury. Under the 10th TRW, Wethersfield became a satellite of Alconbury, storing much of the 10th TRW's War Reserve Material (WRM) assets in its hangars.

In addition, the 10th TRW supported a number of units at Wethersfield including the 819th Civil Engineering Squadron Heavy Repair (CESHR) and Det. 1 2166th Information Systems Squadron (later redesignated Det. 1 2166th Communications Squadron).

On 1 June 1985, the 66th was reactivated as the 66th Electronic Combat Wing at Sembach AB, West Germany.

7119th Support Group

In 1978 the British and American Governments agreed to establish a Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (RED HORSE) unit in the UK. The main RED HORSE Civil Engineering unit established in December 1978 was the 819th CES.

The 7119th Air Base Flight, later designated the 7119th Support Group was established to manage the personnel and organizational issues for units at Wethersfield.

The 819th was tasked with rapid runway repair responsibilities for US Air Forces in Europe along with its traditional heavy repair role.

As the American involvement in the Vietnam War wound down, the role of RED HORSE units in peacetime came into question. The requirement for a quick-acting heavy repair force organic to the Air Force, and responsive to Air Force commanders needs remained. A variety of training programs were necessary to fulfill this requirement. The primary means of providing training was by accomplishment of civil engineering projects which developed skills similar to those which may be required during a contingency.

In 1980, members of the 819th removed and re-installed seven bells and a bell cage in an 11th century church in Finchingfield, Essex. The goodwill generated in the village, just one mile from RAF Wethersfield, resulted in untold housing and community support for AF personnel.

The 819th along with the 2166th Communications Squadron were the main tenant units at Wethersfeld until the USAF returned the base to the British in 1990 due to budget cutbacks. The 819th was inactivated in February, while the 2166th remained active until June 1992.

The base was handed back to the Royal Air Force at an official ceremony held on 3 July 1990 and, at the end of September, Wethersfield was once again placed under care and maintenance status.

The USAF, however, retained a small Military Family Housing area at Wethersfield which American personnel assigned to the Tri-Base area (RAF Molesworth, RAF Alconbury and RAF Upwood) lived. As the American presence at Alconbury diminished during the 1990s, so was the need for this facility.

Current uses

In April 1991 the Chief Constable of the Ministry of Defence Police assumed responsibility for the base and a small joint civilian/uniformed team moved in to organise the relocation of the Ministry of Defence Police Training School and Firearms Training Wing from Medmenham, Buckinghamshire and the Headquarters from Earl's Court in London.

The Operational Support Unit moved to Wethersfield from RAF Wittering and has been permanently based there since May 1992. In addition, Wethersfield was to be the home for the MOD Guard Service (MGS) Training School.

In October 1994 the joint location of MDP training and HQ, along with the MGS Training Wing, was completed, giving the Force the first combined HQ and Training Centre in its history. There is also a Volunteer Gliding School (614 VGS) at the airfield, run by staff and cadets from the Air Training Corps.

In 2000 Gardiner Associates, the UK's foremost fire investigation training provider, commenced providing residential fire investigation training courses, for police fire and forensic science practitioners, at MDP Wethersfield. Wethersfield is now known internationally as the UK centre for fire investigation training.

See also

References

  • Endicott, Judy G. (1999) Active Air Force wings as of 1 October 1995; USAF active flying, space, and missile squadrons as of 1 October 1995. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. CD-ROM.
  • Freeman, Roger A. (1994) UK Airfields of the Ninth: Then and Now 1994. After the Battle ISBN 0900913800
  • Freeman, Roger A. (1996) The Ninth Air Force in Colour: UK and the Continent-World War Two. After the Battle ISBN 1854092723
  • Maurer, Maurer (1983). Air Force Combat Units Of World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0892010924.
  • Menard, David W. (1998) Before Centuries: USAFE Fighters, 1948-1959. Howell Press Inc. ISBN 1574270796
  • Martin, Patrick (1994). Tail Code: The Complete History of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings. Schiffer Military Aviation History. ISBN 0887405134.
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0912799129.
  • USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to present

External links

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