RAF Sculthorpe is a helicopter training facility for the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force, situated about 3 miles west of Fakenham in Norfolk, England. Over the years has been home to many visiting airmen and support crews of the RAF and United States Air Force. The airstrip is said to be one of the longest heated airstrips in the world. To a certain extent the base was quite secret, its position on top of a hill meaning that very little can be seen from outside.
It is also commonly thought to be one of only a few airbases in Europe (if not the only one) to allow the shuttle to land in an emergency due to its length.
RAF Sculthorpe was built as the second satellite airfield of RAF West Raynham a few miles to the south, the first being RAF Great Massingham. Work was begun in the Spring of 1942 and the airfield was laid out as a standard RAF Heavy Bomber airfield with concrete runways, dispersals site, mess facilities and accommodation. Much of the construction work was completed by Irish labour working for the construction company Bovis.
As work was drawing to a close in May 1943 the first squadrons started to arrive, the first being RAF 342 Lorraine Squadron (Free French Air Force) within 2 Group from RAF West Raynham. This squadron operated two flights of the Douglas Boston aircraft along with some Douglas Havoc aircraft for training, 342 Squadron stayed until 19 July 1943 when they moved to RAF Great Massingham.
On 20 July 1943 the Royal New Zealand Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force moved in with No. 487 Sqadron RNZAF and No. 464 Squadron RAAF taking up residence with their Lockheed Ventura aircraft having moved from RAF Methwold before converting at Sculthorpe onto the De Havilland Mosquito. On 20 September 1943 21 Squadron moved in from RAF Oulton, also with Mosquitos to form the Sculthorpe Wing (140 Wing). The Wing stayed at Sculthorpe completing more than 100 missions before departing for RAF Hunsdon on 31 December 1943.
In January 1944 100 Group Royal Air Force No. 214 Squadron RAF moved in with Boeing B-17 aircraft for use in the Electronic Warfare role, to be joined by crews from the USAAF 96th Bomb Group from RAF Snetterton, known at Sculthorpe and thereafter as the 803rd Bomb Squadron of the USAAF. In April 1944 the 803rd and 214 Squadron departed for RAF Oulton leaving Sculthorpe empty for its redevelopment as a Very Heavy Bomber Base with the work not being completed until the spring of 1946.
Sculthorpe was refurbished for USAF use during the Berlin Crisis in 1949 and then later, in 1952, it became home for the 49TH AIR DIVISION [OPERATIONAL] and the 47th Bombardment Wing, who were to stay for a decade. The 49 th Air Division maintained operational control of the 47th Bomb WG and the 20th Fighter Bomb Wing which provided tactical nuclear weapons support to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe [SACEUR]. Later the 81st Fighter Wing was provided a nuclear capability and assigned to the operational control of the 49th Air Division.
The Soviet Union's enormous conventional force in Eastern Europe posed a major problem for NATO due to the Soviets maintaining high personnel levels after World War II ended, most of the American and British forces had demobilized. The Soviets used the excuse that they were still technically at war with Germany as the reason for maintaining the Red Army at war strength.
To counter this Soviet threat to Western Europe, NATO decided to expand their tactical nuclear force by introducing the North American B-45 Tornado to the UK. The US Tactical Air Command had about 100 of these four-engined jet bombers, each capable of dropping five tactical nuclear bombs. In the summer of 1952, the Pentagon decided to deploy the 47th Bomb Wing to Sculthorpe from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The movement of the 49th AD, 47 Bomb Wg and the 20 th FB WG was the first unit deployment since WW II.
The squadrons of the 47th Bomb WG were:
Due to a shortage of space at Sculthorpe, the 86th BS operated from RAF Alconbury as a detachment of the 47th. In addition to the B-47 squadrons at Sculthorpe, the 47th's sister wing, the 20th Fighter-Bomber Wing with the nuclear capable North American F-84G "Thunderjet" were transferred to RAF Wethersfield in Essex.
From 1954 to 1958, the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron also flew the reconnaissance version of the B-45 known as the RB-45. The 19th TRS was assigned to the 47th Bomb Wing from May 1954 to December 1958. When the 19th began to re-equip with RB-66’s during 1957, its RB-45’s were transferred to other squadrons of the 47th Bomb Wing. The RB-45s carried the same markings as the B-45, except for an added marking on the wingtip fuel tanks. This marking consisted of two stripes coming back off the top and bottom of the circular Squadron Badge in the appropriate Squadron color near the outside front center of the tank.
By 1957, carrying 10,000 personnel it was the biggest USAFE base in Europe. In May 1958, the re-equipment of the 47th Bombardment Wing began and Douglas B-66 Destroyers began to replace the B-45s. With this equipment change, the 47th's squadrons was redesignated Bombardment Squadron (Tactical).
During 1960–1962 the 47th also performed air refueling missions assigning KB-50 tankers to the 420th Air Refueling Squadron from 15 March 1960 to 22 June 1962. The KB-50s were specially equipped with two General Electric J47 turbojet engines that enabled the tankers to match the speed of the faster jet fighters during refueling; however most of the KB-50s were more than fifteen years old and were too slow to refuel the faster tactical jets of USAFE. The 420th ARS was deactivated on 25 March 1964.
In 1962 Project Clearwater halted large scale rotational bomber deployments to Britain with Sculthorpe, along with RAF Fairford, RAF Chelveston, and RAF Greenham Common, being turned over to USAFE for tactical air use. As a result, the 47th Bomb Wing was deactivated on 22 June 1962. A number of the aircraft were reassigned to the 42nd TRS, 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at RAF Chelveston and modified with the Electronic Counter-Measures tail system. With the deactivation of the 47th, Sculthorpe was put under the command of the 7375th Combat Support Group.
The base became inactive at the end of the Cold War. Much of the associated housing and most other buildings have now been sold off by the military. The US quarters have been extensively refurbished and now form a new village called Wicken Green. There is also a fledgling industrial park.
The airstrip area remains in military hands, officially as an army helicopter training area, and there are exercises about twice a year.