Greenham Common, Berkshire

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Hadrians wait at Greenham Common for Operation Overlord June 1944 (USAAF via D. Benfield).

Hadrians wait at Greenham Common for Operation Overlord June 1944 (USAAF via D. Benfield).

An Airspeed Horsa being towed to its destination at LZ'W' near Ste Mere Eglise. The formation of 50 gliders coded Elmira was a support mission for the 82nd Airborne (US Air Force).

An Airspeed Horsa being towed to its destination at LZ'W' near Ste Mere Eglise. The formation of 50 gliders coded Elmira was a support mission for the 82nd Airborne (US Air Force).

Dozens of B-47E bombers 'rotated' through Greenham Common during the 1950s and early '60s (Military Aircraft Photos).

Dozens of B-47E bombers 'rotated' through Greenham Common during the 1950s and early '60s (Military Aircraft Photos).

The 101st Airborne Division, US Army, crossed the Atlantic in September 1943 and camped around Newbury. For the next eight months they worked and played hard, virtually taking over the famous Berkshire town as the roar of C-47 Dakota troop carriers from Membury, Welford, Ramsbury, Aldermaston and Greenham Common filled the air day and night. Then early in June 1944 the troops suddenly deserted Newbury-it was an eerie feeling, full of expectancy.

At Greenham Common the airborne troops assigned to the 438th TCG were all inside the perimeter which was ringed with armed guards. With the decision on Overlord made, General Eisenhower drove to the airfield during the evening of June 5 to join General Lewis H. Brereton, Commander of the IXth AF, watching the first paratroopers leave aboard Birmingham Belle, airborne at 22:48 hours in the hands of Colonel J.M. Donaldson, CO of the 438th. Another 80 C-47As followed at 11-second intervals-at night! Each formation was led by a specially trained pathfinder crew in aircraft equipped with the British navigation aid Gee. From the Wing assembly area they flew to 'Flatbrush', the Command departure point for Operation Neptune. Descending, they headed out over the Channel at 500 ft (152 m) over a vessel acting as checkpoint 'Gallop', then turned for 'Hoboken', a position off the Cherbourg peninsula. From here Stirling bombers continued to fly south dropping bundles of window, while the C-47s turned east and climbed to 1,500 ft (457m) past Guernsey and Alderney from where they experienced light flak. Heavier flak greeted them as they crossed the French coast at 'Muleshoe' and aircraft were hit. Down again to 700 ft (213 m), the leaders identified the DZ by Gee, and at 00:16 hours on June 6 1944 the first paratroopers jumped into Normandy near Carentan-the invasion was on.

Lying on a ridge some 380 ft (116 m) above sea level, and two miles from Newbury on a pockmarked area of heath and scrub, Greenham Common airfield was first surveyed early in 1941 as a satellite for the proposed bomber OTU at Aldermaston. Authority to requisition was given in May 1941 and because the land was poor there was none of the usual opposition from farming interests. Development of a standard OTU pattern airfield with a 5,988 ft (1,825 m) main E/W runway went ahead steadily. Several minor roads crossing the common were closed but the main Newbury-Basingstoke road was fitted with barriers and guard huts where it bisected the technical site and crossed the approaches to several of the dispersal areas. A small instructional site was built alongside the main road south-east of the airfield and further out were the very dispersed accommodation sites, some of them on Sydmonton Common. The WAAF sites, wire-fenced, were clustered around Bowdown House and Grove Cottage to the north-east, adjacent to the bomb dump and sewage works, which smacks of discrimination-fortunately they remained unused by the ladies.

The airfield was nearing completion in the summer of 1942, by which time the priority had changed and Greenham Common became one of the many sites earmarked for USAAF occupation. Indeed, the first unit at Greenham after the opening-up party was the HQ staff of the 51st TCW who arrived from the USA in September 1942. They stayed until going to North Africa for Torch in November when responsibility for the airfield was transferred from No 92 to No 70 Group, RAF, and Greenham was opened for flying the following month by a detachment from No 15 (P) AFU newly arrived at Andover. Joined by No 1511 (BAT) Flight on April 28, 1943, the AFU flew Oxfords on pilot training until the end of September when the airfield was required by the Americans. Greenham Cornmon became USAAF Station 486 on October 1 1943 and was finally handed over to the VIIth ASC, USAAF, on November 8. Its first task was the re-equipment of the 354th FG, IXth AF which arrived on November 4 to collect brand-new P-51Bs, the first Merlin-powered Mustangs to enter service in the European theatre. They only stayed a week before moving to Boxted, the first of a string of units to use Greenham briefly while the IXth AF settled down. Others included the HQ of the 70th FW which swopped places at Boxted with the 100th Fw on December 6, the latter displaced at Greenham on January 13 1944 by the 71st Fw HQ and one of its Fighter Groups, the 368th, which used the airfield to work up on P-47 Thunderbolts.

On February 22 1944, the 53rd TCW arrived to take over most of the 50th TCW elements in a general reorgansation completed in March. The 71st FW began its operational career on March 14 with a fighter sweep by the 366th and 368th FGs along the French coast, but this was the only one they made from Greenham, for they moved to Chilbolton the next day to make room for the troop carriers of the 438th TCG which arrived on March 16. Their introduction to Britain had been a fantastic muddle, a series of orders and counter-orders sending them wandering about the country like gypsies. By the time they reached Greenham Common their morale was at rock bottom, but with a heavy and successful training programme came a steady improvement and they were declared operational in April.

To accommodate the C-47s, more of the very efficient loop hardstandings were built to supplement the original panhandles, bringing the total available to 50. Extensive steel track marshalling areas were laid at each end of the main runway, allowing gliders to be positioned on the runway with tugs still able to manoeuvre alongside for mass stream take-offs. Two 'T2' hangars remained the only covered servicing accommodation on the base but special long buildings were constructed for storing and inspecting the towing cables. By the beginning of June all four squadrons of the 438th TCG (87th, 88th, 89th and 90th TCS) were fully trained for paratroop drops and glider towing, day or night, and were given the task of leading the airborne forces to Normandy on June 5/6. They acquitted themselves so well during the first drop of the 101st Airborne Division, and subsequent Hadrian and Horsa gliders tows, that they received a Distinguished Unit Citation for their efforts. Re-supply missions followed and, when landing strips became available, they hauled freight, returning from the battlefield with casualties.

In July 1944 the 438th sent a detachment to Italy to take part in the invasion of Southern France, dropping paratroops on August 15 and then towing in Hadrians carrying reinforcements. They returned to Greenham at the end of August after freight lifts around Italy and in September the whole Group helped supply the Third Army as it pushed across France before taking part in Operation Market when 90 aircraft dropped elements of the 101st in the Eindhoven sector on Sunday, September 17. This major operation was followed by resupply sorties into the battle areas, the 439th and 442nd TCGs also flying from Greenham, and two missions to Bastogne were flown by the 438th during the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes, which started on December 16 1944 and caught the Americans off-balance.

During February 1945, the 438th started moving to Prosnes in France, the 53rd TCW HQ joining them towards the end of the month. American ground echelons retained Greenham until the end of the war in Europe when it was handed over to Transport Command, leaving a small USAAF detachment at the supply depot near Thatcham. In August the airfield was transferred to Technical Training Command and the runways obstructed while No 13 Recruit Centre used the accommodation to train entrants during an eight-week 'square bashing' course. After five such courses Greenham was declared surplus and closed down on June 1 1946, becoming an inactive site in Maintenance Command, parented first by Welford and later Andover.

Though periodically used by Army units as a training camp, the airfield buildings quickly became derelict and were gradually demolished for use as hardcore by local builders. There was a strong feeling in the locality that the Common should be restored to its original condition, but the Cold War of the 1950s put a stop to that remote possibility. American strategic bomber bases in the UK were agreed between the governments and Greenham Common was included in the second group of airfields chosen to house these detachments. American survey teams moved in during February 1951 amid increasingly wild rumours, which continued until the Air Ministry confirmed that Greenham was to become a bomber airfield. Control passed to Bomber Command, a small RAF party re-opened the station, and then things moved fast. On April 23 the 7501st Air Base Squadron was designated the administrator of Greenham Common under the overall control of the 7th AD, 3rd AF, USAFE, and the 804th Engineer Aviation Battalion immediately started to rebuild the airfield.

Greenham Common was formally handed over to the 7th AD on June 18 1951, by which time it had become known locally as Tent City because of the vast array of canvas on the site. The wartime buildings, including the two 'T2' hangars, were all demolished and the whole area regraded to allow the construction of a massive 10,000 ft (3,048 m) runway laid E/W on top of the existing one, but extended at each end. Parallel taxiways had extensive spur hardstandings, which partially used the old subsidiary runways as foundations. A large technical and domestic site was built on the south side, the A339 being diverted to lie along the edge of the ridge and through Packmoor Copse. Several buildings, including two pubs, had to be demolished and 44 families rehoused.

The peak of the construction work was during the summer of 1951 but the rebuilding was not complete until September 1953 when Greenham was declared available for Reflex operations by B-47 Stratojets. The new runway had been unofficially christened a few days earlier by a No 614 Squadron Vampire which force-landed short of fuel, but the first operational use was in March 1954 when 2,200 men moved in and a detachment of 303rd BW B-47s arrived from Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona-the first of the 90-day rotations from the States. Unfortunately the aircraft quickly proved too much for the runway which began to break up, and the Wing had to move hastily to Fairford to complete its Reflex. After the runway was reinforced Greenham became the home of the 3909th Air Base Group in April 1956 when designated for KC-97G tanker deployments. The 97th Air Refuelling Squadron arrived at the end of the month and soon revealed another problem with the Common, flint stones which continually worked their way to the surface and damaged the propellers. The only solution was almost constant sweeping of the runways and taxiways.

The first full BW deployment with 45 B-47 aircraft commenced in October 1956 when the 310th arrived from Schilling AFB, provoking an immediate outcry. Not only were the aircraft extremely noisy on take-off, but also on landing due to a technique which involved high power against the drag of a tail parachute. Coupled with almost continuous running of generators and ground testing of engines, the noise was almost unbearable in Newbury. Although PR exercises helped, local opposition steadily increased, reinforced in March 1958 by a very nasty incident on the base. A B-47 experienced engine trouble on take-off and the crew had to jettison two full 1,700-gal (7,728 1) underwing fuel tanks. They missed the designated safe area on the base, one hitting a parked B-47 and other going through a hangar roof and bursting inside. The resulting fire burned for 16 hours despite the efforts of the Base Fire Detachment and help from RAF Odiham and USAF Welford. The final toll was two dead and eight injured, two B-47s destroyed and a hangar gutted.

The next month the 90-day detachments were replaced by a three-week Reflex Alert rotation during which the bombers did not fly, thus reducing the noise and the number of tankers considerably. There was more local concern when the runways and dispersals were further strengthened for the mighty B-52 bombers, but none were ever based at Greenham. From August 1960 they made periodic training visits but more excitement was caused by the arrival of a B-58 Hustler in October 1963, for this four-jet delta bomber was an impressive sight by any standards

Reflex operations by B-47 BWs and their attendant KB-97s continued until April 1 1964 when SAC policy changed and Greenham Common was returned to RAF control on July 1. The French withdrawal from NATO resulted in what was euphemistically described as the French Relocation of Assets (Freloc), and Greenham was re-opened during January 1967 as a storage annexe for Welford. It was subsequently upgraded and became a NATO standby base operated by the 7551st Combat Support Group under the control of 3rd AF HQ, South Ruislip. Greenham was then used for several Reforger (i.e. reinforcement) exercises and in March 1976 the swingwing F-111Es of the 20th TFW moved in for three months while the runways at Upper Heyford were re-surfaced.

In March 1978 it was revealed that the British Government was considering a request for Greenham Common to be re-activated as a base for KC-135A air-refuelling tankers and work went ahead resurfacing the runway and repairing buildings, many of which had again fallen into disrepair. The predictable outcry from local residents greeted this plan, and it had an effect, for in October it was announced that there would be no aircraft permanently stationed at Greenham until the I 980s, and then they would be a quiet type. On January 1 1979, the 7273rd Air Base Group was formed, and a USAF Base Commander appointed, though in common with other American bases it remained a MoD establishment, with a RAF unit commander who also acted as liaison officer.

Following the NATO decision in December 1979 to deploy cruise missiles in Europe it was announced on June 17 1980 that Greenham Common would be one of the two British bases. Ninety-six missiles would be stored in purpose-built under- ground shelters but in the event of war would be dispersed in the surrounding countryside on trailers. Inevitably these preparations drew renewed protests from local environmental groups, soon swamped by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) who supported a Women's Peace Camp established at the main entrance to the airfield in October 1981. At the time of writing this is still in existence through experiencing increasing local Opposition because of the cost to ratepayers and poor condition of the camp.

Apart from occasional exercises by US Army helicopters using Greenham as a base, and infrequent aircraft visits in connection with the continued standby role, flying activity has centred on the series of very successful International Air Tattoos which have been held on the airfield since 1973. From 1977 they have been biennial, growing steadily to become major displays with over 200 aircraft taking part. In May 1983, C-5A Galaxies started moving in equipment for the first cruise missile squadron, the 11th TMS, which received its first weapons in November.

The only remaining evidence of the wartime station, the bomb dump and the few sites north of the Burys Bank road, are fast disappearing in the undergrowth. The rest was bulldozed during the reconstruction in 1951-53 but, like the flints, bits will probably reappear from time to time.

Greenham Common Map

Original item from 'Action Stations - 9. Military airfields of the Central South and South-East' by Chris Ashworth