RAF Greenham Common is a former World War II and NATO Cold War airfield located on the border between Greenham and Crookham, south-east of Newbury in the English county of Berkshire and west of London. During World War II it was used by the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force, and during the Cold War by the United States Air Force for Strategic Air Command bombers and later for BGM-109G cruise missiles.
The airfield was also known for the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp held outside its gates in the 1980s.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the military use of RAF Greenham Common ended and the base was returned to civilian use in 1993.
The airfield was opened in June 1942 as a satellite for RAF Aldermaston, with operational control later being transferred to RAF Andover in late 1942. In the absence of American units during the first nine months of 1943, the airfield was made available to RAF trainer units. Airspeed Oxfords were often to be seen landing and taking off from its runways, until the airfield reverted to USAAF control in October.
The first arrival while the airfield was still under construction was the 51st Troop Carrier Wing Headquarters, arriving in September 1942. The 51st TCW was a non-flying organisation, controlling the three troop carrier groups at RAF Keevil (62nd TCG), RAF Aldermaston (60th TCG) and RAF Ramsbury (64th TCG) as part of Twelfth Air Force. The Wing Headquarters was located in requisitioned Bowdown House, a mansion on the northeast end of the airfield, and made use of the runways for its communication and courier flights.
As troop carrier groups began arriving in the UK in late 1943 and being deployed in the Greenham Area, Greenham Common was one of the airfields utilised by the Ninth Air Force for fighter groups arriving from the United States.
On 4 November the 354th Fighter Group arrived from Portland AAF, Oregon and they were informed they were to fly the North American P-51B Mustang. This was a change of equipment for the group, as they had trained with Bell P-39 Airacobras. The Mustang was a far more capable aircraft, with excellent performance that was required to escort the heavy bomb groups of the Eighth Air Force.
The 354th FG stayed at Greenham Common for only a few days, being transferred to RAF Boxted in Essex on 13 November. Headquarters of Ninth Air Force's 70th Fighter Wing of IX Tactical Air Command arrived from Paine AAF, Washington at Greenham Common on 29 November, staying just a few days before also moving on to RAF Boxted on 6 December.
The 368th was a group of Ninth Air Force's 71st Fighter Wing, IX Tactical Air Command.
On 14 March after two months at the base, 48 of the group's aircraft took off on their first combat mission, flying a fighter sweep over the coast of France. The group headquarters had previously been alerted to prepare to move to another base, as IX Troop Carrier Command finally required Greenham Common for a troop carrier group. The 368th FG moved to RAF Chilbolton the next day.
Literally as the 368th FG was moving out, the 438th Troop Carrier Group was flying into Greenham Common from RAF Langar. Flying Douglas C-47 Skytrains, they had the following Troop Carrier squadrons and fuselage codes:
The 368th was a group of Ninth Air Force's 53rd Troop Carrier Wing of IX Troop Carrier Command. The squadrons had 18 airplanes apiece, mostly C-47s but also a few C-53s. In addition to the airfield, the heathland immediately to the east, Greenham Common, was earmarked as an assembly point for WACO CG-4A Assault Gliders which were received from the US in packing crates. When assembled, the gliders were towed to the airfield runways for dispersal to other airfields.
Glider assembly averaged about 15 per day by the spring of 1944, increasing to 50 per day by September of that year. As at all troop carrier bases where the use of gliders was envisioned, some of pierced steel planking runway strips were laid at each of the main runway ends to allow the marshalling of gliders.
At Greenham Common the 438th TCG trained for and participated in airborne operations, flew resupply and reinforcement missions to combat zones, evacuated casualties, and hauled freight.
Eighty-one aircraft, divided into two serials of 36 and 45 aircraft and led by the 87th Troop Carrier Squadron (3X), took off from the main runway in 15 minutes, commencing at 23:48 hours on 5 June. Despite radio black-out, overloaded aircraft, low cloud cover and lack of marked drop zones, they carried 1,430 men of the US 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, who were dropped soon after midnight in the area northwest of Carentan. Glider-borne reinforcement missions followed, and for its determined and successful work the group received a Distinguished Unit Citation.
Losses amounted to one C-47 and a C-53, both lost to flak on 7 June.
On 20 July the air echelons of the 87th, 88th and 89th Troop Carrier Squadrons departed for Canino airbase in Italy in preparation for the August invasion of Southern France, Operation Dragoon. In the invasion, the squadrons dropped paratroops and towed gliders that carried reinforcements. The group also hauled freight in Italy.
In the absence of the 438th, the 316th Troop Carrier Group used Greenham Common as a forward base.
As part of Operation Market Garden 90 aircraft from the 438th dropped 101st Airborne paratroopers near Eindhoven without loss on 17 September. The next day, 80 aircraft towed gliders again without loss of aircraft, although two gliders aborted and 11 C-47s suffered flak damage. However, when 40 C-47s towing 40 CG-4A Horsa Gliders left Greenham Common on 19 September, things did not go so well in adverse weather. Only half of the gliders were released in the landing zone area, and one C-47 was shot down and several gliders lost.
During the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 - January 1945), the group, again headed by the 87th Troop Carier Squadron, flew air supply missions to battle areas, including the first two flights into beleaguered Bastogne. In February 1945 the groups of the 53d TCW were moved to France, the 438th going to A-79 Advanced Landing Ground at Pronses.
On the continent, the 438th TCG used the following Advanced Landing Grounds:
The airfield continued to be used by Ninth Air Force until the RAF took control in June 1945. The RAF used the Greenham Common airfield as an RAF basic training centre until being closed in June 1946, with the facility being put into care and maintenance status.
The airfield was inactive for the next five years, and would probably have remained so but for the sudden escalation in tension between the Soviet Union and its World War II Allies in what later became known as the Cold War.
The presence of American bombers in the United Kingdom lent credence to Sir Winston Churchill’s statement that their presence in the UK was the primary deterrent keeping the Soviets from overrunning Europe. However, the choice of Greenham Common was probably unwise, in view of the close proximity to Newbury and the inevitable complaints that arose about noise and disruption.
Between 1951 and 1953, major construction work was performed on the base, as post-war jet bombers required a much greater runway length for take off versus those of World War II, and the Strategic Air Command spent over £2 million building a new -long runway that extended onto Greenham Common and across the A339. To give the desired run, the A339 was diverted, and a new length of roadway was built to the south through Sandelford Common. In addition to the runway, massive new hard-standings were built, and extensive rebuilding also occurred for ramp areas and new structures.
Two overshoots were added to the runway in 1958. To the south-west of the runway, a new munitions area was built. Eight 1 million gallon underground fuel tanks were also constructed at the base.
In the post World War II years, the United States Strategic Air Command was based at three major airfields in eastern England: RAF Lakenheath, RAF Marham and RAF Sculthorpe. The increasing tension of the Cold War led to a re-evaluation of these deployments and a move further west, behind RAF fighter forces, to RAF Greenham Common, RAF Brize Norton, RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Fairford.
The airfield came under Strategic Air Command's 7th Air Division, with the 3909th Combat Support Group as its administrative unit on the base, responsible for all non-flying activities as well as maintenance and logistical support of the flying units attached to RAF Greenham Common.
The initial bomber wing deployed was the 303d Bombardment Wing with B-47 Stratojets, arriving on 17 March 1954 from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The 303d stayed just over a month, returning on 28 April 1954. This was the first of the short-term temporary duty deployments from home bases in the US that continued intermittently over the next 10 years. Other known SAC deployments were:
In April 1958 the 90-day detachments were replaced by a three-week Reflex Alert rotation, during which the bombers did not fly, reducing the noise considerably. The runways and dispersals were further strengthened for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber, but none were based at Greenham.
Note: Many SAC Squadrons had aircraft at RAF Greenham Common on a transitory basis without any recorded deployment to the base.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) departed Greenham common on June 30 1964, much to the relief of the local residents; the thundering jet bombers of SAC came no more, and for several years it was used for USAF storage and as a relief base.
The political closure of US bases in France forced the reopening of RAF Greenham Common for air transport operations (Operation FRELOC) to handle materiel/personnel overflow beginning in early January 1967. In the autumn of 1967, Greenham Common was used for NATO Reforger exercises again as a result of the withdrawal of France from the NATO integrated military alliance.
On 1 November 1968 control of RAF Greenham Common was transferred from SAC to the United States Air Forces in Europe, with the 7551st Combat Support Group having administrative control of the base. However, the base was little used, primarily being utilised as a United States Military Postal Mail sorting facility, with aircraft flying mail in from the United States, being sorted at Greenham Common, then distributed to American bases in the UK and Europe. Mail from American forces in Europe was also sent to Greenham Common and sorted there, before being flown to the United States.
The 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Upper Heyford established "Operating Location A" at Greenham Common for its F-111 fighters in 1976, using the airfield occasionally for dispersal exercises.
In 1977 the USAF announced plans to reactivate the base to house KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, due to a lack of capacity at the KC-135's main UK base, RAF Mildenhall. This led to widespread local opposition, and in 1978 the British Defence Secretary vetoed the plan.
The Soviet deployment of the SS-20 missile from 1975 caused major concern in the NATO alliance. The longer range, greater accuracy, mobility and striking power of the new missile was perceived to alter the security of Western Europe. It was feared that the Soviet Union could launch a nuclear strike against Western Europe with a reduced threat of nuclear retaliation (i.e. compared to an attack on the continental United States). After discussions, NATO agreed to a two part strategy:
The UK's share of this total was 160 missiles, 96 based at Greenham Common with four spares, and 64 at RAF Molesworth. When in June 1980 it was announced that RAF Greenham Common was to become the first site for cruise missiles, the outcry came more from Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament than the local populace.
Once more a massive new construction was undertaken as the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area) site was built in the southwest corner of the base. GAMA was a maximum security QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) area with 6 large above ground shelters in which fully operational cruise missiles were stored.
These shelters were specially designed and constructed to protect the GLCMs and crews against nuclear and conventional strikes. They were appx. 10 m high, with a reinforced 2 m thick concrete ceiling. Below was a massive titanium plate, 3 m of sand and a reinforced concrete plate. The whole thing was completely covered with tons of clay. Each shelter was equipped with three hydraulic nuclear blast proof doors at both ends to assure a quick entry or exit. They could withstand the blast of any air-bursting nuclear explosion above the base or a direct hit from a conventional bomb.
Each shelter contained 2 LCC Launch Control Centers and 4 TEL transporter erector launchers. Each unit was mobile and supposed to leave the base in convoys to their secret preset dispersal sites. This would happen within minutes after the alert and the movement was via the local roads through the surrounding villages.
A series of meetings held during August and September 1986 culminated in a summit between United States President Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of the CPSU Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík, Iceland, on 11 October 1986. To the immense surprise of both men's advisers, the two agreed in principle to removing INF systems from Europe and to equal global limits of 100 INF missile warheads.
The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which led to the removal of all nuclear missiles from the base. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991, and the 501st TMW inactivated on 4 June 1991.
The base's last operational commander, Andrew Brookes, went on to become an aviation author.
While the protesters were cutting fences at Greenham, RAF Welford (not far away) was being used to store equipment and allegedly also some of the missiles, as it had the ability to fly it in and out as well as possibly using road or rail links.
On September 11 1992, the USAF returned Greenham Common airbase to the Ministry of Defence. On February 9 1993 the Greenham Common airbase was declared surplus to requirements by the Secretary of State for Defence and the facility was closed and put up for sale.
With the departure of the cruise missiles and the subsequent closure of the base by the MOD in 1993, the peace camps remained at the site until September 2000 to ensure the base was closed and the land returned to the public. However, the protesters no longer attracted the attention of the media as they did during the 1980s when there were some 40 camps spread around the base perimeter.
On 24 March 1997 the land was purchased by the Greenham Common Trust for £7 million and returned to a variety of civilian uses. A business park, named New Greenham Park, is sited on one portion of the former airbase and as of 2002 housed over 150 businesses. Greenham Common Trust manages its investment in the business park to produce a sustainable income that is distributed to local charities, environmental and community projects, including the artist studios, gallery and performance space housed in New Greenham Arts.
Considerable efforts have been made to restore large areas of the Common to something approaching its former natural state. A major part of this has been the removal of the runway (except for one central section) and hardstandings which were used as fill for construction of the Newbury bypass.
The cruise missile storage silos have been fenced off and designated an Ancient Monument.
The Common is looked after by the style="font-style : italic;">Greenham and Crookham Conservation Volunteers These volunteers try to protect this 278.61 hectare (688.45 acre) Site of Special Scientific Interest and try to preserve the outstanding beauty of the common.
In 2008 an educational resource was launched regarding the restoration of Greenham Common and the transformation of part of the airbase to a business park. www.sustainable-greenham.org'' is aimed at children in primary and secondary education and their teachers.
Greenham Common Trust was awarded The Queen's Award for Enterprise:Sustainable Development in April 2008, the second time this was awarded to Greenham Common Trust.
Two scientists, F.H. Cripps and A. Stimson, who both worked for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, alleged in a secret 1961 report, released by the CND in 1996, that the fire detonated the high explosives in the nuclear weapon, that plutonium and uranium oxides were spread over a wide area – foliage up to 8 miles (13 km) away was contaminated with uranium-235 – and that they had discovered high concentrations of radioactive contamination around the air base.
However, a radiological survey commissioned in 1997 by Newbury District Council and Basingstoke and Deane found no evidence of a nuclear accident at Greenham Common. The 7-month long survey was carried out by the Geosciences Advisory Unit of Southampton University and combined a helicopter-mounted gamma ray detector survey with a ground-based survey. The team analysed nearly 600 samples taken from soil, lake sediment, borehole water, house dust, runway tarmac and concrete, looking for uranium and plutonium isotopes. No evidence of an accident involving nuclear weapons damage was found at the former airforce base, although the ground survey did detect some low-level uranium contamination around the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston thought to be derived from that facility, and the helicopter survey found some anomalies around Harwell Laboratory.