WWII and Cold War RAF Thatcham base has been revived and once housed nuclear missiles

A historic former RAF base found in Berkshire is known to have housed nuclear missiles during its wartime operation.

In the civil parishes of Greenham and Thatcham, and south-east Newbury, Greenham Common has been used for multiple iterations of global conflict.

Although best known for its use during the Cold War, the site was actually first used during World War II after it opened in 1942. A turbulent half-century with fascinating stories followed before the site closed. aerodrome in 1993.

READ MORE: Locations of nuclear bunkers in Berkshire and what they are used for today

Our photo gallery which you can see below shows how the site has been transformed into a scenic educational tourist attraction.

Its origins began with the Greenham Lodge Estate, located in the middle of Greenham Common, and requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1941.

September 1942 saw their first arrival in the form of the 51st Troop Carrier Wing Headquarters which controlled the three Troop Carrier Groups at RAF Keevil, RAF Aldermaston and RAF Ramsbury as part of the Twelfth Army of the air.

An area east of Bowdown House, a mansion at the northeast end of the airfield, was later used as “bomb stores”. The 51st TCW HQ followed its groups to North Africa on Operation Torch in November 1942 and left Greenham Common in need of further use.

In late 1943 the airfield was turned over to the USAAF’s Ninth Air Force and an American advance party soon arrived to prepare the airfield for incoming units. From this time Greenham Common was known as USAAF Station AAF-486.

Troop carrier groups began arriving in the UK during this period and they were deployed to the Greenham area; Greenham Common was one of the airfields used by the Ninth Air Force for fighter groups arriving from the United States.

You can even see the famous Fire Plane, which crews used to practice
The famous Fire Plane, which the crews used to practice

On November 4, the 354th Fighter Group arrived from Portland Army Air Field, Oregon, and were advised to fly the North American P-51 Mustang with the unit transferred to RAF Lashenden in April 1944.

Next to arrive, on January 13, 1944, was the 368th Fighter Group from Farmingdale, New York, flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. This was their base for a few months before moving to RAF Chilbolton on March 15, 1944.

As the 368th FG departed, the 438th Troop Carrier Group flew to Greenham Common from RAF Langar, flying Douglas C-47 Skytrains. They were the last group to be housed at Greenham Common during this conflict as the unit moved to Prosnes in France in February 1945. However, they were soon again in need when the Cold War broke out soon after.

In the years immediately following World War II, United States Strategic Air Command was based at three major airfields in eastern England.

However, growing Cold War tensions led to these deployments being reassessed and moving further west, behind RAF fighter forces, to RAF Greenham Common, RAF Brize Norton, RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Fairford.

The airfield was under the 7th Air Division of Strategic Air Command, with the 3909th Combat Support Group as the administrative unit on the base, responsible for all non-air activities as well as maintenance and logistical support for flying units attached to RAF Greenham Common .

The base was used to store nuclear weapons
The base was used to store nuclear weapons

One of the first deployments was the 310th Bombardment Wing which arrived with its Boeing B-47E Stratojets in October 1956.

Fast forward to 1958 and the land was nearly devastated when a plane got into trouble shortly after takeoff and jettisoned its two external 1,700 gallon fuel tanks. One hit a hangar and the other landed near a refueled plane carrying a nuclear bomb. It took incredibly more than 16 hours to extinguish the fire and two men were killed in the crash.

The incident was a long-standing government secret until knowledge finally surfaced in the 1980s.

Strategic Air Command left Greenham Common in 1964 before the site was primarily used as a mail sorting and storage center under the administrative control of the 7551st Combat Support Group.

From 1973, the base became the home of the International Air Tattoo, a large-scale international military air show.

Controversies continued to surround Greenham Common in the 1980s when women’s peace camps made headlines.

Following NATO’s 1979 dual track decision, in June 1980 RAF Greenham Common was selected as one of two UK bases for the US Air Force’s ground-launched mobile cruise missiles Strength. A Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was later established to protest the deployment of these missiles in 1981.

Protesters camp outside the airbase fence
Protesters camp outside the air base fence

The protesters became known as the “Women of Greenham” or “Women of Peace”, and their 19-year protest captured media and public attention around the world, continuing even long after the closure of the basis by the Ministry of Defense in 1993.

After its closure, Greenham Common was designated as a public park in 1997 and effectively restored it to its pre-WWII status – albeit with restrictions.

Keen to embrace their history, the land remains an accessible nature reserve, with the Cold War-era control tower having recently been redeveloped.

You will enjoy a beautiful educational walk around one of Berkshire’s most fascinating historical sites. Complete with the Greenham Common Café, which overlooks abandoned airfields and retired nuclear silos, it makes for a surprisingly enjoyable day trip.

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