USAAF Station 102
|Front Entrance at RAF Alconbury|
|IATA: none – ICAO: none|
|Owner||Ministry of Defence|
|Operator||Royal Air Force (1939–1942)|
United States Army Air Forces (1942–1945)
United States Air Force (1951–present)
|Location||Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, England|
|In use||1939–1945, 1951–present|
|Occupants||501st Combat Support Wing|
423rd Air Base Group
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Royal Air Force Station Alconbury or RAF Alconbury is an active Royal Air Force station in the United Kingdom, located in the district of Huntingdonshire, in the County of Cambridgeshire, England. The airfield is adjacent to the villages of Great Stukeleys and Alconbury Weston.
Opened in 1938, it is currently a non-flying facility under the control of the United States Air Force. It is one of three RAF stations in Cambridgeshire currently used by the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). Alconbury, along with RAF Molesworth and RAF Upwood are considered the "Tri-Base Area" due to their close geographic proximity, and interdependency. Except for a period of inactivity between 1945 and 1951, the station has been continuously in use.
RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth are the last Second World War-era Eighth Air Force bases in Britain that are still actively in use and controlled by the United States Air Force.
The host unit at RAF Alconbury is the 423rd Air Base Group (423 ABG) which supplies host unit services for Alconbury as well as RAF Molesworth and RAF Upwood. The 423 ABG also provides services to the 426th Air Base Squadron at Sola Air Station, Stavanger, Norway.
The group comprises six squadrons—security forces and civil engineer, air base, medical and services—and supports tenant units. It manages the daily activities in the community and maintains all facilities, services, and housing. Its primary mission is support for the U.S. European Command Joint Analysis Center, Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO) and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) at RAF Molesworth. The group also supports the USAF Clinic at RAF Upwood, which serves the immediate medical needs of active duty personnel, their families and retired military that live in the area.
The 423 ABG command section and orderly room are located at Alconbury as are many of the support units and recreational facilities for the Tri-Base Area.
RAF Alconbury is also the home of the 501st Combat Support Wing (501 CSW). The 501 CSW is the command and control authority over geographically separated USAFE units in the United Kingdom.
The 501 CSW ensures United Kingdom-based air base groups are resourced, sustained, trained and equipped to exacting command standards in order to provide mission support that enables United States and NATO war fighters to conduct full spectrum flying operations during expeditionary deployments, theatre munitions movements, global command and control communications to forward deployed locations, support for theatre intelligence operations and joint/combined training.
RAF Alconbury is about 0.308 sq mi (0.798 km2) in area. A replica F-5E aircraft is on display outside the front gate. An A-10 aircraft is on display near the base parade field. The original Second World War era control tower is still standing in the old airfield section. A Second World War era building in the farm field just east of the current base perimeter, along with several wartime buildings on the old technical site (Site #5) on the west side of the former airfield. Several Second World War T-2 hangars are still in use on the airfield section. Several Second World War bomber hardstands (both frying pan and loop type) remain on the airfield section.
- It was previously named 'RAF Abbots Ripton' from 1938 to 9 September 1942 while under RAF Bomber Command control.
- The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) called the facility Alconbury Airdrome, USAAF Station No. 102 from 9 September 1942 – July 1945, then simply USAAF Station No. 102, until 26 November 1945.
- USAAF Station No. 547 Abbots Ripton, home of 2nd Strategic Air Depot is now the current-day active portion of RAF Alconbury, the former airfield part of Alconbury being the Second World War Alconbury Airdrome.
- The United States Air Force initially called the facility Alconbury RAF Station, 24 August 1951 – 18 December 1955.
During the Second World War, it was controlled by the USAAF Eighth Air Force, from 23 February 1944 to 7 August 1945 the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSAFE), thereafter the United States Air Forces in Europe,
In 1937, Royal Air Force Bomber Command was drawing up plans for dispersal of their aircraft in the event of air raids on its stations. Despite efforts to keep new airfield sites and measures to camouflage them secret, there was little doubt that the potential enemy knew exactly where they were and would have little difficulty in finding them from the air.
Satellite bases were considered one answer to this threat – a landing ground within reasonable road travel distance of the parent airfield to which aircraft could be diverted if the home station was bombed or likely to be attacked. These satellite bases would be equipped with a level of support that would allow operations to take place if the main airbase were taken out of action.
In the spring of 1938, the Air Ministry acquired about 150 acres (0.6 km2) of open meadowland at Alconbury Hill, Huntingdonshire, expressly for use as a satellite airfield. The exact location was adjacent to the ancient Roman road Ermine Street, north-west of Little Stukeley village, near to the junction where Ermine Street became the A1 instead of the A14.
After a minimal amount of construction, RAF Alconbury was tested in May 1938 when No. 63 Squadron, the first to be equipped with the Fairey Battle light bomber, flew in from its home station of RAF Upwood five miles (8 km) away. This was a two-day training exercise and other squadrons were to follow over the next 15 months.
During this period, RAF Alconbury consisted of a few wooden huts but plans were made to provide both refuelling and rearmament facilities.
RAF Bomber Command use: 1939–1941
In September 1939, RAF Upwood squadrons were given operational training roles and Alconbury became RAF Wyton's satellite under No. 2 Group, Squadron Nos. 12, 40 and 139. These squadrons were frequently deployed to Alconbury, No. 139 being the first to be actually stationed there, if only for nine days.
No. 15 Squadron took up residence on 14 April 1940, when additional requisitioned accommodation was available. It flew its first raid of the war on 10 May against a German occupied airfield near Rotterdam. All eight aircraft returned, some with flak damage. A following operation, an attempt to break the Albert Canal at Maastricht, was disastrous as half the 12-plane force dispatched failed to return.
The remnants of No. 15 then moved back to RAF Wyton and Alconbury reverted to satellite use by both Wyton squadrons. In the autumn of 1940 these decimated units were scheduled to be converted to Vickers Wellington bombers and on 1 November 1940, RAF Wyton and Alconbury came under the control of No. 3 Group.
In late 1940/41, an expansion of RAF Alconbury commenced to upgrade its facilities from a satellite airfield to a fully operational one. A main concrete runway bearing 00–18 was built 1,375 yards (1,257 m) long, the ancillaries 06-24 being 1,240 yards (1,130 m) and 12–30 at 1,110 yards (1,010 m), all 50 yards (46 m) wide. The encircling perimeter track served 30 pan type hardstandings, most leading off of five long access tracks on the northern side of the airfield. Construction was of 12-inch (300 mm) concrete with an asphalt covering.
The technical site on the north-west side was expanded where a single T2 hangar was also erected. A second T2 was sited adjacent to the hardstanding complex east of the threshold of runway 18. Personnel accommodation was provided to the south-west side of the A14, around Alconbury House which had been requisitioned earlier. This upgrade of RAF Alconbury was performed by W & C French Ltd.
The construction attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe as the flying field of RAF Alconbury was attacked by German bombers on 16 September 1940, although no serious damage was done.
While this work was in progress, No. 40 Squadron brought its Wellingtons to Alconbury in February 1941 and operated on night raids until the autumn. Targets attacked were industrial targets in Germany but also on the German Navy in the ports on the Atlantic coast of France. One notable operation in which they took part was the large raid flown on 24 July against Brest, where some of the principal German battleships were undergoing repairs in preparation for a new campaign against British shipping.
This was the time of the Blitz, when many parts of Britain were being subjected to an almost nightly series of heavy air raids. On two nights, 8 March and 11 June, RAF Alconbury was again bombed and on both of these occasions one Wellington was damaged on the ground.
In October 1941 two of its flights with 16 Wellingtons were dispatched to operate from Malta, supposedly on an emergency detachment. The remainder of No. 40 soldiered on but never had more than eight aircraft on strength. By February 1942 it was evident that the major section of No. 40 would not be returning from the Mediterranean area and on 14 February 1942 the remaining aircraft at RAF Alconbury formed into No. 156 Squadron RAF.
Operations from Alconbury with No. 3 Group continued until August 1942 when No. 156 was chosen to become one of the special Pathfinder Force units, moving to RAF Warboys early that month. This was the end of RAF Bomber Command's association with Alconbury.
A total of 67 bombers had been lost in RAF Bomber Command operations flown from Alconbury, eight were Blenheims and 59 Wellingtons.
USAAF use: 1942–1945
In May 1942, RAF Alconbury was allocated to the United States Eighth Air Force when a number of stations in East Anglia were turned over to the Americans after their entry into the war. It was designated by the USAAF as Station 102 (AL). The first USAAF unit to be activated at Alconbury was the 357th Air Services Squadron on 18 August 1942. The first base commander was Col. Edward J. Timberlake, taking command on 6 December.
Also in 1942, to bring the station up to Class A airfield standards, the runways were extended to 2,000 yards (Main), and 1,400 yards (Secondary), with 26 additional hardstands along with the taxiways altered. Two T-2 type hangars, located on the west side and one on the north of the main airfield, were provided for major maintenance work. One hangar was close to the technical site, a collection of prefabricated buildings for specialist purposes.
The commercial buildings and barracks were dispersed in nearby farmland to the south east of the airfield on the other side of the A14 highway. The bomb and ammunition stores were sited on the opposite side of the airfield to the personnel living quarters. This was the usual arrangement for safety reasons.
In addition, two underground gasoline storage facilities, with a total capacity of 216,000 gallons were situated at points adjacent to the perimeter track, but at some distance from the explosive storage area.
At one frying-pan-shaped hardstand on the north side of the airfield, an earth shooting-in butt was constructed. This was about 25 feet (7.6 m) high.
The total area of land occupied by RAF Alconbury in 1942 was about 500 acres (2 km2) with 100 acres (0.4 km2) taken up by concrete and buildings.
93d Bombardment Group (Heavy)
The first American Eighth Air Force unit to take residence at RAF Alconbury was the 93d Bombardment Group, known as the "Travelling Circus" from Fort Myers AAF (Page Field), Florida on 7 September 1942. It was assigned to the 20th Combat Bombardment Wing at RAF Horsham St Faith near Norwich. The group flew B-24 Liberator aircraft with a tail code of "Circle B". Its operational squadrons were:
- 328th Bombardment Squadron (GO)
- 329th Bombardment Squadron (RE)
- 330th Bombardment Squadron (AG)
- 409th Bombardment Squadron (YM)
The 93d was the first Liberator-equipped bomber group to reach the Eighth Air Force. The group became operational with the B-24 on 9 October 1942 by attacking steel and engineering works at Lille France. Until December, the group operated primarily against submarine pens along the French coast along the Bay of Biscay.
While the 93d was at RAF Alconbury, His Majesty, King George VI paid his first visit to an Eighth Air Force base on 13 November 1942. During the visit, he was shown the B-24 "Teggie Ann", then considered to be the 93d's leading aircraft.
On 6 December 1942, most of the group was transferred to Twelfth Air Force in North Africa to support the Operation Torch landings. The balance of the 93d BG was moved to RAF Hardwick (Station 104), near Bungay, Suffolk where B-24 groups were being concentrated.
92d Bombardment Group (Heavy)
The 92d Bomb Group was known as "Fame's Favorite Few", and it was assigned to the 4th Combat Wing, at RAF Thurleigh. The group tail code was a "Triangle B". Its operational squadrons were:
- 325th Bombardment Squadron (NV)
- 326th Bombardment Squadron (JW)
- 327th Bombardment Squadron (UX)
- 407th Bombardment Squadron (PY)
Initially, after two combat missions in September 1942, the 92d was withdrawn from combat and its B-17F bombers exchanged for the older B-17E bombers being flown by the 97th Bomb Group. It then acted as an operational training unit supplying combat crews to combat groups in the UK. However, in early 1943, the diversion to Operation Torch of heavy bomber groups originally planned for the Eighth Air Force led to a decision to return the 92nd to combat operations. The 92d Bomb Group resumed flying missions on 1 May 1943, although its 326th Bomb Squadron was left at Bovingdon to continue the OTU mission, its 325th squadron was used to provide a cadre for H2S radar training, and its 327th squadron acquired a special mission.
From Alconbury, the 92d engaged in bombing strategic targets, including shipyards at Kiel, ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, submarine installations at Wilhelmshaven, a tire plant at Hanover, airfields near Paris, an aircraft factory at Nantes, and a magnesium mine and reducing plant in Norway.
On 15 September 1943, the 92d BG was moved to RAF Podington (Station 109), near Wellingborough in Bedfordshire when the decision was made to take Alconbury off operational bombing missions and change the airfield's mission to pathfinder and radar-guided bombing with the 482d and 801st Bomb Groups.
Its 327th Bombardment Squadron became the only to be equipped with the experimental Boeing YB-40 Fortress gunship from May through August 1943. The YB-40 was the bomber escort variant of the Flying Fortress, where the Y stood for "service test". It was developed to test the escort bomber concept for B-17 daylight bomber forces which were suffering appalling losses in their raids against German targets on the European continent.
Because there were no fighters capable of escorting bomber formations on deep strike missions early in the Second World War, the USAAF tested heavily armed bombers to act as escorts and protect the bomb-carrying aircraft from enemy fighters. Twelve of the 22 B-17F bombers modified to the YB-40 configuration were dispatched to Alconbury for testing and evaluation.
The first operational YB-40 sortie took place on 29 May 1943 against U-boat Sub pens at Saint-Nazaire, France.
Very early on, it was found that the net effect of the additional drag of the turrets and the extra weight of the guns, armour, and additional ammunition was to reduce the speed of the YB-40 to a point where it could not maintain formation with the standard B-17s on the way home from the target once they had released their bombs. The YB-40 could protect itself fairly well, but not the bombers it was supposed to defend. Consequently, it was recognised that the YB-40 project was an operational failure, and the surviving YB-40s were converted back to standard B-17F configuration or used as gunnery trainers back in the States.
However, the YB-40 was to have one lasting impact—the chin turret originally introduced on the YB-40 was later adopted as standard for the B-17G series.
95th Bombardment Group (Heavy)
From 15 April to the first week of June 1943, the 95th Bombardment Group was stationed at RAF Alconbury, being transferred Rapid City AAF, South Dakota. This was during a time of massive construction of airfields in East Anglia, and the 95th's assigned station, RAF Horham (Station 119) was not yet ready to receive the group. The 95th was assigned to the 13th Combat Bombardment Wing at RAF Horsham St Faith. The group flew B-17 Flying Fortresses with a tail code of "Square B". Its operational squadrons were:
- 334th Bombardment Squadron (BG)
- 335th Bombardment Squadron (OE)
- 336th Bombardment Squadron (ET)
- 412th Bombardment Squadron (QW)
While at Alconbury, the group's aircraft were being ferried in from the States and the ground echelon was arriving by transport ship in the UK. Practice and familiar flying was performed, and on 13 May the first operational mission was flown by attacking an airfield at St. Omer. During the next month the group made repeated attacks against V-weapon sites and airfields in France. On 27 May, at approximately 20:30, ground personnel were arming B-17F 42–29685 in the dispersal area when, inexplicably, a 500-pound bomb detonated. The explosion, in turn, set off several other bombs. In an instant, 18 men were killed, 21 injured, and four B-17s completely destroyed on the ground. Eleven other B-17s were damaged.
In early June 1943 the 95th BG began moving to RAF Horham, with the last aircraft departing Alconbury on 15 June.
482d Bombardment Group (Pathfinder)
In the summer of 1943, experiments with radar for high-altitude bombing through clouds were conducted. A special organisation, the 482d Bombardment Group, was formed to use this technology and be devoted to pathfinder techniques using the H2S, H2X and APS-15A RADAR that was developed.
The 482d Bomb Group was formed at Alconbury on 20 August 1943, under the command of Lt Col Baskin R. Lawrence, who had been training its 92d BG cadre since 1 May. Its operational squadrons were:
The 812th Bomb Squadron arrived from the United States in September with 12 new B-17 aircraft equipped with U.S. manufactured H2S radar. The 813th was a re-designation of the 325th Bomb Squadron, 92d Bomb Group, which had been training in British-manufactured H2S and Oboe B-17s since May. The 814th flew B-24 Liberator aircraft acquired from a disbanded anti-submarine warfare group. The 482d Group was unique among Eighth Air Force units in that it was the only one to be officially activated in the UK from scratch.
The 482d BG provided pathfinder (PFF) lead aircraft for other bomb groups throughout the winter of 1943/44. As lead aircraft, 482 BG B-17s and B-24s usually flew missions from stations of other groups with some key personnel of the host group flying in the pathfinder aircraft.
In March 1944, the 482d BG was taken off combat operations and became a training and development unit for various radar devices, but continued to undertake special operations, notably D-Day when 18 crews were provided to lead bomb groups.
The 482d BG was transferred to Composite Command in February 1944 when emphasis shifted to training radar operators. The 482d began an H2X training school on 21 February 1944, graduating a class of 36 radar navigators each month, as the PFF force was decentralised first to the air divisions and eventually to all the combat groups, with training initially conducted by RAF instructors. Training and experimentation remained its chief role for the remainder of war.
From August 1944 to April 1945 the 482d BG conducted 202 radar scope and 'pickling' sorties over hostile territory without loss, dropping 45 tons of bombs in Nazi controlled territory. In November 1944, the group was re-designated as the 482d Bomb Group, Heavy.
801st Bombardment Group (Provisional)
In November 1943, a unit was formed to clandestinely deliver agents and supplies into Nazi-occupied Europe for the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.). To address this mission, the 36th and 406th Bomb Squadrons with specially modified B-24 Liberators were formed and activated at Alconbury. They were attached to the 482d Bombardment Group. This was the beginning of Operation Carpetbagger.
The purpose of the Carpetbagger project was to fly Special Operations missions which entailed delivering supplies to resistance groups in enemy occupied countries. The squadrons flew agents and supplies into southern France with B-24 Liberators that had all armament removed except in the top and tail turrets. In addition, the standard bomb shackles were removed from the bomb bay and British shackles were installed to accommodate special supply canisters. All unneeded radio gear was removed, as were the oxygen bottles. Flash suppressors were installed on the guns, flame dampeners were installed on the turbo-superchargers, and blackout curtains were installed over the waist gun windows. Light bulbs were painted red to spare night vision and special radio gear was added to assist in navigation and homing in on drop zones. The undersides of the aircraft were painted black to avoid detection by enemy searchlights. Combat with the enemy was avoided as it only endangered the success of the mission. Drops were also made using radio-navigation equipment. Supplies were also released in containers designed to be dropped from the existing equipment in the bomb bay. Pilots often flew several miles farther into enemy territory after completing the drop to disguise the actual drop zone in case enemy observers were tracking the plane's movement.
These squadrons were formed from the personnel and equipment of the recently disbanded 4th and 22d Antisubmarine Squadrons at RAF Podington. However, owing to lack of sufficient facilities at Alconbury, in mid-December the two squadrons were reassigned to the Eighth Air Force Composite Command (Special Operations Group), (remaining attached to the 482d Bomb Group) and moved to RAF Watton (Station 376), near Thetford in Norfolk.
The move to RAF Watton did not prove to be fortuitous. The heavy B-24s were incompatible with the grass runways and muddy hard standings there and were forced to move back to Alconbury in January 1944.
On 4 January 1944, planes from the Carpetbagger squadrons made its first drop of arms and supplies to French, Belgian and Italian partisans. Often operating in weather considered impossible for flying, the squadrons flew most of their missions to supply French partisan groups north of the Loire River in support of the upcoming D-Day invasion. Due to the clandestine nature of their mission, Alconbury's relative openness proved unsuitable . However, a new airfield under construction in the depths of rural Northamptonshire, RAF Harrington (Station 179) proved ideal for Carpetbagger operations. The advanced echelon of the squadrons moved into Harrington on 25 March 1944.
On 1 April the 36th and 406th Bomb Squadrons were attached to the 801st Bombardment Group (Provisional) and on 1 May the Carpetbaggers officially departed Alconbury. The 801st (Provisional) eventually acquired the designation of the 492d Bombardment Group, a 2d Division unit stood down on 11 August 1944, because of heavy losses and the two squadrons were redesignated the 856th (formerly 36th) and 858th (formerly 406th) Bombardment Squadrons.
36th Bomb Squadron
The redesignation of the Carpetbagger squadrons made the designation of "36th Bombardment Squadron" available again and it was assigned to the 803d Bomb Squadron, a provisional squadron then located at RAF Cheddington and known as the Radar Countermeasure (RCM) Unit. This third incarnation of the 36th BS (the first had been an Eleventh Air Force unit) went back to Alconbury in February 1945, and was administratively assigned to the 482d Bombardment Group. However operational control for the 36th's special missions and training were exercised by Eighth Air Force Headquarters.
The 36th Bomb Squadron was the Eighth Air Force's only electronic warfare squadron using specially equipped B-24s to jam Nazi VHF communications during large Eighth Air Force daylight raids. In addition, the 36th BS flew night missions with the Royal Air Force Bomber Command 100 Group at RAF Sculthorpe.
The 36th BS's missions involved trickery, ingenious deception, spoofs, and tank communications jamming. This squadron flew on bad weather days during the Battle of the Bulge as well, when the rest of the Eighth Air Force stood down.
Along with these electronic warfare missions, the 36th BS also flew regular sorties which set out to discover the frequencies being used by the Nazis for their radio and radar devices. For this they operated a number of P-38 Lightning twin boomed fighters from Alconbury as well as their B-24s.
Station 547 – Abbots Ripton, 2d Strategic Air Depot
In addition to being an operational bomber base, RAF Alconbury served as the flying field for the 2d Strategic Air Depot at RAF Abbots Ripton (station 547), which served the B-17 groups of the 1st Air Division as a major maintenance base. Although physically attached, the depot was considered a separate entity and was a separate operating unit from RAF Alconbury.
The Air Depot was constructed in 1943 on the eastern site of the airfield, mainly in the village of Little Stukeley, approximately where the modern-day RAF Alconbury facilities are presently located. It composed of a looped taxiway off the perimeter track with 24 additional hardstands. A technical complex of engineering shops was adjacent to the site and beyond along the south east side of the A14. Also there were several barracks and communal sites.
Abbots Ripton performed heavy maintenance, repair and modification of B-17s from the fourteen Groups which formed the 1st Bombardment Wing, later renamed the 1st Bombardment Division on 13 September 1943, to end confusion of the term "wing" with the operational combat wings (in January 1945, it was renamed again, becoming the 1st Air Division). It was a common sight to see many B-17's from many groups of the Eighth Air Force undergoing repair for battle damage repairs from bases such as Molesworth, Chelveston, Kimbolton, Bassingbourn, Grafton Underwood, Polebrook, Glatton, Deenethorpe, Nuthampstead, Podington, Bovington, Watton, Harrington, Thurleigh and Ridgwell.
Its unit designation was the 5th and 35th Air Depot Groups and as a large and important unit, with over 3000 personnel assigned.
Station 103 – Brampton, 1st Air Division
Brampton, about 3 miles (5 km) to the south west of Alconbury, was the headquarters of the 8th Air Force 1st Bombardment Wing, later renamed the 1st Bombardment Division on 13 September 1943, to end confusion of the term "wing" with the operational combat wings (in January 1945, it was renamed again, becoming the 1st Air Division). From RAF Brampton Grange, as it was termed in official records, the 1st BW/BD/AD directed combat operations of B-17 bomber and fighter groups under its command from 19 August 1942, to the end of the war. It was an administrative headquarters which relied on Alconbury for logistical support and its flying requirements.
Postwar USAAF use
Operational bomber missions ceased at RAF Alconbury at the end of April 1945. The 482nd Bomb Group departed Alconbury between 27 and 30 May 1945, however, the 36th Bomb Squadron stayed at the base until the fall, not inactivating until 15 October.
Day-to-day command of Alconbury was assumed by the 435th Air Services Group on 15 April. The final USAAF base commander was Col. Robert F. Hambaugh.
The 857th Bomb Squadron from the 492d Bomb Group was transferred to Alconbury on 11 June from RAF Harrington near Kettering after the closure of that airfield. The 857th used its B-24s for various cargo ferrying operations to and from the continent until 6 August until being inactivated.
The 652d Bomb Squadron was transferred from RAF Watton on 11 June. This squadron flew specially-equipped B-17s on weather reconnaissance missions until 25 October.
Hq., 1st Air Division was transferred to Alconbury on 20 September upon the closure of Brampton Grange. Both the 1st AD and the 435th ASG were inactivated on 31 October and the facility turned over to Hq. Eighth Air Force. Alconbury airfield was handed back to the RAF on 26 November 1945.
RAF Alconbury was subsequently placed in caretaker status by RAF Maintenance Command and remained so for almost a decade. Until 1951, the RAF used the airfield as a bomb storage and disposal site.
USAF use: 1953–Current
In response to the threat by the Soviet Union, especially after the 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1950 invasion of South Korea by Communist forces, it was decided in 1951 to re-establish a strong American force in Europe. On 24 August 1951, RAF Alconbury was once more allocated for American use – now by the independent United States Air Force.
Alconbury was far from adequate in its Second World War configuration, both in its flying facilities and in its accommodation, so plans were designed for a major expansion to accommodate the new jet aircraft and other operational facilities. Alconbury required upgrading with strengthening and extension of runway 12–30 to 3,000 yards (2,700 m) by 67 yards (61 m). In addition, new aircraft standings, access tracks together with an on-going construction of service and domestic buildings continued for some years.
7560th Air Base Group
The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) officially took control of RAF Alconbury for a second time on 1 June 1953. The first base commander was Lt. Col. Winfield H. Brown. The first United States Air Force unit to be assigned was the 1st Motor Transport Maintenance Squadron, being activated on the station 1 September 1953.
On 1 January 1954 the 7523d Support Squadron was activated. This was later redesignated as the 7560th Air Base Squadron on 7 November 1954 and the 7560th Air Base Group on 21 March 1955.
86th Bombardment Squadron
Although construction had been ongoing at Alconbury since 1951, it was not until September 1955 that it was ready to house flying units again with the arrival of the 86th Bombardment Squadron (Light), flying the B-45A Tornado.
The 86th BS operated from Alconbury as a detachment of the Tactical Air Command's 47th Bombardment Wing stationed at RAF Sculthorpe, Norfolk. The 47th BS operated three jet bomber squadrons (19th, 84th, and 85th) from Sculthorpe and the addition of the 86th BS necessitated the use of Alconbury to accommodate the additional aircraft.
In May 1958, the re-equipment of the 47th Bombardment Wing began and B-66 Destroyers began flying into Alconbury to replace the B-45s. With this equipment change, the 86th was redesignated 86th Bombardment Squadron (Tactical). The 47th Bomb Wing and the 86th Bomb Squadron were part of the Tactical Air Command (TAC).
42d Troop Carrier Squadron
In May 1957 the 42d Troop Carrier Squadron arrived at Alconbury with a mixed fleet of C-119 Flying Boxcar, Grumman SA-16A Amphibians, C-54s and C-47 Dakotas. The 42d TCS was formed at nearby RAF Molesworth in October 1956 where it had previously operated as the MATS 582d Air Resupply and Communications Group performing special operations missions for HQ USAFE.
The 42d TCS had a short life at Alconbury and was inactivated on 8 December 1957. The C-54's and C-47's were sent to Rhein-Main Air Base West Germany, and the C-119s were sent to the 322d Air Division at Évreux-Fauville Air Base France.
53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron
On 26 April 1959 Alconbury saw the arrival of the 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron from RAF Burtonwood. The 53d WRS flew the WB-50D Superfortress and was assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). Its mission was collecting weather data that was transmitted to weather stations for use in preparing forecasts required for the Air Force Military Air Transport Service (MATS) and the U.S. Weather Bureau. The squadron was reassigned to RAF Mildenhall on 10 August 1959 in conjunction with the arrival of the 10th TRW.
10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
On 25 August 1959, the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing arrived from Spangdahlem Air Base, West Germany, replacing the 7560th Air Base Group as the host unit at Alconbury. The 7560th was discontinued. The 10th TRW had been activated at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, West Germany in April 1947, then assigned to Toul-Rosieres Air Base, France in 1952 then to Spangdahlem in 1953 as part of various USAFE reorganisations.
In Germany, the 10th TRW operated RF-80A Shooting Stars and RB-26C Invader reconnaissance aircraft. In October 1954, the wing received RB-57 Canberras and then acquired RF-84 Thunderjets in July 1955. In November 1956 the 10th received Douglas RB-66 and WB-66 Destroyer aircraft in 1957.
USAFE organizational changes in 1959 moved the 10th TRW out of the Eifel and to Alconbury, where the wing would reside for the next 34 years. To accommodate the 10th TRW, the 86th Bomb Squadron was returned to its host unit at RAF Sculthorpe and the 53rd Weather Squadron was transferred to RAF Mildenhall. These redeployments were completed by August 1959.
Although the 10th TRW wing headquarters was located at RAF Alconbury, two of its component squadrons were not. The 1st and 30th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons were based at Alconbury, however to accommodate the increased number of aircraft of the 10th, two other airfields, RAF Bruntingthorpe and RAF Chelveston, were placed under Alconbury's control. The 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was stationed at Bruntingthorpe while the 42nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was at Chelveston flying RB-66C and WB-66s for electronic and weather reconnaissance. When the WB-66D weather reconnaissance aircraft were retired in 1959, 13 B-66B "Brown Cradle" offensive jamming aircraft were reassigned from RAF Sculthorpe.
Following the closure of Bruntingthorpe in 1962 and the active runway at Chelveston in 1963, the 19th and 42nd TRSs were transferred to Toul-Rosieres AB, where they operated for a few years as Det No. 1, 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Eventually the 10 TRW would rotate aircraft to Toul AB from 4 different squadrons, the 1st, 19th, 30th and 42d.
On 10 March 1964, a 19th TRS RB-66B from Toul was shot down over East Germany after it crossed over the border due to an instrument malfunction. The crew ejected and were taken prisoner briefly before being released.
These rotational deployments to France continued until October 1965 with the activation of the 25th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Chambley-Bussieres Air Base and the 19th and 42nd TRSquadrons being permanently assigned to the 25th TRW.
With France's withdrawal from NATO's integrated military organisation in 1966, Chambley AB was closed and the 25th TRW was inactivated. The RB-66s of the 19th TRS were returned to CONUS, being assigned to the 363rd TRW, Shaw AFB, South Carolina. The specially-equipped B-66's of the 42nd ECS and their aircrews were sent directly to Southeast Asia, being assigned to the 41st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (TEWS), Takhli Royal Thai AFB (RTAFB) Thailand.
Bruntingthorpe was eventually returned to the RAF. RAF Chelveston is still nominally under American control, however only a small USAF housing area exists there today.
At Alconbury the 10th TRW retained the 1st and 30th TRS's with their RB-66s until May 1965 when it began conversion to the RF-4C Phantom. The 10th TRW expanded on 15 August 1966 by the addition of the 32d TRS. This squadron had formerly flown RF-101 Voodoos with the 66th TRW at Laon-Couvron Air Base, France but was now equipped with RF-4Cs, becoming the third tactical reconnaissance squadron at RAF Alconbury.
In the mid-1960s the Tail Code concept was adopted by the Air Force to identify its aircraft although never painted on planes until after 1970. At Alconbury, the codes "AR", "AS" and "AT" were established for the 1st, 30th and 32d TRS's initially. However this was abandoned in 1971. After that, all Alconbury assigned aircraft carried "AR" on their tails. 10th TRW squadrons were distinguished by a small coloured stripe on the tip of the tail – 1 TRS (blue), 30 TRS (red) and the 32 TRS (yellow). In 1972, due to heavy usage of runway by these Phantoms, the runway was overhauled, during which time, the aircraft and airmen went to RAF Wethersfield to fly out their sorties. Missions from this base were highly successful, due to the diligence and hard work of all temporarily assigned personnel. This TDY assignment was to a previously closed flightline.
The advent of reconnaissance satellites made the need for tactical reconnaissance less necessary by the mid 1970s. This, along with the need for budget reductions caused the reduction in the numbers of front line tactical reconnaissance aircraft. In 1976, two of the 10th TRW's squadrons (32d TRS on 1 January; 30th TRS on 1 April) were inactivated. The 1st TRS remained the only squadron providing battlefield tactical reconnaissance.
In August 1976, the 10th TRW became the parent organisation for the 66th Combat Support Squadron (CSS); 819th Civil Engineering Squadron Heavy Repair (CESHR), and the 2166th Communications Squadron stationed at RAF Wethersfield. This field served as a dispersal site during war games, in particular Able Archer 83. In addition, large amounts of War Reserve Material (WRM) designated for RAF Alconbury was stored there. RAF Wethersfield remained a satellite base for RAF Alconbury until 3 July 1990 when it was closed and handed back to the Royal Air Force.
527th Aggressor Squadron
In April 1976, the 10th TRW was chosen as the parent of the USAF in Europe's aggressor unit. This formed as the 527th Tactical Fighter Training and Aggressor Squadron in April 1976 and was equipped with the F-5E in May. The aircraft were originally part of an order for South Vietnam. The 527th began providing aggressor support to European-based combat units in September. It was subsequently renamed as the 527th Aggressor Squadron in 1983.
The aggressor F-5Es were painted in a variety of colourful camouflage schemes designed to mimic those in use by Warsaw Pact aircraft. Two-digit Soviet-style nose codes were applied to most aggressor aircraft. These coincided with the last two digits of the serial number. When there was duplication, three digits were used.
International conventions made it necessary for military aircraft to carry their national insignia, but the star-and-bar national insignia was reduced in size and relocated to a less-conspicuous position on the rear fuselage. The 527th's Aggressor aircraft were among the first to apply the star and bar in toned-down or stencil form, now standard on USAF aircraft.
After 12 years of intense flying, in 1988 the fleet of aggressor F-5Es of the 527th Aggressor Squadron was getting rather worn out as a result of sustained exposure to the rigours of air combat manoeuvring. There were restrictions placed on operations in which pilots were warned not to exceed a certain G-load. Some repair kits had to be devised to overcome these problems, and the estimated cost of repair of the entire fleet was beginning to exceed a billion dollars. In addition, with the appearance of a new generation of Soviet fighters, it became apparent that F-5Es could no longer adequately mimic Warsaw Pact threats.
It was decided to re-equip the squadron with F-16C Fighting Falcons and reassign the squadron to RAF Bentwaters. In return, the A-10's at Bentwaters would be reassigned to Alconbury and give the 10th a new Close Air Support (CAS) mission.
The 527th AS flew its last F-5E sortie from Alconbury on 22 June 1988. On 14 July 1988 the squadron was transferred, transitioning to F-16Cs by mid-January 1989 at Bentwaters. However, in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the decision was made to terminate the entire USAF aggressor program. The 527th AS was inactivated in late autumn of 1990.
After the 527th was reassigned, eight of the lowest-hour F-5E's were transferred to the U.S. Navy for TOPGUN/Aggressor training at NAS Miramar, California in July 1988. The remainder were sent to storage at RAF Kemble for refurbishing. From there they were sold under the foreign military assistance program to Morocco and Tunisia in October 1989. One F-5E was thought to be retained at Alconbury for static display as a gate guard. In reality this is a plastic/fiberglass model with an authentic windscreen and canopy.
17th Reconnaissance Wing
The Strategic Air Command arrived at Alconbury on 1 October 1982 when the 17th Reconnaissance Wing (17th RW) was activated. The 17th RW was assigned to SAC's Eighth Air Force, 7th Air Division. The operational squadron of the 17th RW was the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, flying the TR-1A, a tactical reconnaissance version of the Lockheed U-2. In 1992 all TR-1s were designated U-2Rs.
The arrival of the U-2 led to a large remodelling of the northern section of the airfield to accommodate these aircraft and their specialised mission. Work included the construction of five prefabricated ‘Ready Sheds’, thirteen extra-wide hardened aircraft shelters, a squadron headquarters, a massive Avionics and Photography Interpretation Centre, and new concrete aprons and taxiways. In addition, in order to ensure that the 17th Reconnaissance Wing would always have a command post for its TR-1A aircraft, a nuclear-hardened command post facility was constructed with its own power plant, communications facilities, air supply, and decontamination facility to help facilitate the needs of the wing and its TR-1A aircraft in case a World War III scenario ever occurred. During its operation, it was officially known as Building 210, but was better known by its nickname, Magic Mountain.
As the TR-1A steadily became the principal means for battlefield and tactical reconnaissance, so the demands on the RF-4C Phantoms decreased. The 1960s Phantoms were also becoming much more expensive to maintain. On 1 July 1987 the RF-4Cs of the 1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew their last mission, and the squadron was inactivated on 15 January 1988. Some of its aircraft were sent to the 26th TRW at Zweibrücken AB, West Germany, while the rest went to Air National Guard units as replacement aircraft or to AMARC for storage.
10th Tactical Fighter Wing
With the withdrawal of the RF-4C's and F-5E's, the 10th TRW became the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing on 20 August 1987. Two squadrons of A-10A aircraft. The 509th and 511th TFsquadrons, were assigned to the 10th TFW, on 1 June and 1 September 1988, respectively, relocating from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters.
The A-10 had arrived in Europe in January 1979, and four squadrons were assigned to Bentwaters. It was decided that with the deactivation of the RF-4C's at Alconbury that two of the squadrons could be relocated there in a dispersal move, with the other two remaining at Bentwaters.
The constant pressure on Alconbury's main runway after nearly 35 years inevitably made it necessary for major repair work to be undertaken. Between April and November 1989 the main runway was closed and overhauled. During this period the A-10s were deployed to nearby RAF Wyton while the TR-1As were deployed to RAF Sculthorpe.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, plans were made for significant cuts in NATO forces in Europe and very soon the first rumours began to circulate about the possible closure of RAF Alconbury. Just as the cutting back process was beginning, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and the Gulf War began.
Some of the first aircraft to be sent to the Gulf area were three TR-1A's from Alconbury, deploying to Taif Air Base in Saudi Arabia. 23 A-10A's of the 511 TFS deployed to Damman/King Fahd International Airport Saudi Arabia, as part of the 354th TFW from Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, South Carolina.
The 511th TFS A-10s flew no fewer than 1700 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm and played an important part in wreaking havoc on Iraqi tank forces, Scud missiles and other ground positions.
Post Cold-War Phasedown
With the end of the Cold War, the USAF presence at RAF Alconbury was gradually phased down.
On 30 June 1991, following closely on the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the thawing of east–west relations, the 17th Reconnaissance Wing inactivated but its subordinate unit, the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, remained at Alconbury. It subsequently inactivated at Alconbury on 15 September 1993, then reactivated on 1 July 1994 as the 95th RS at RAF Mildenhall, assigned to the 55th Operations Group. The squadron provides intelligence support to produce politically sensitive real-time intelligence data vital to national foreign policy.
Magic Mountain was closed during this time as the Soviet threat had ceased to exist.
The U-2Rs were consolidated at Beale AFB California in the 9th Wing, which used to deploy routinely on a temporary duty basis to RAF Mildenhall, which also used to hold a pair of SR-71 aircraft on permanent detachment. Since approx 2007, RAF Mildenhall has been designated a U-2 diversion airfield. U-2 aircraft now frequently stage through RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire as they transit to / from Forward Deployed Locations in the Middle East. RAF Fairford is not an operational airfield; it is maintained on a 'Care & Maintenance' basis but it is fully serviceable and is activated on an as required basis.
On 16 December 1991 the 509th TFS flew its last operational mission. The 511th TFS's last mission was on 27 March 1992. Throughout 1992, the 10th TFWs A-10 aircraft were transferred back to the United States. The 509th TFS's aircraft were sent directly to AMARC for long-term flyable storage. Some of the 511th TFS's aircraft were sent to Air National Guard units, the remainder to AMARC storage. The last aircraft departed the Alconbury runway on 18 December. Both fighter squadrons were inactivated on that date.
10th Air Base Wing
On 31 March 1993, the 10th TFW was redesignated the 10th Air Base Wing, acting as the host unit for the special operations organisations.
On 1 December 1992, the 39th Special Operations Wing arrived at Alconbury, consolidating its units from RAF Woodbridge and Rhein Main Air Base, Germany. After consolidating its aircraft and people at the base, the 39th SOW inactivated, and the 352d Special Operations Group activated, linking the unit's heritage with a historic Second World War commando unit. The 352d SOG consisted of the following squadrons:
- 7th Special Operations Squadron (MC-130H)
- 21st Special Operations Squadron (MH-53J)
- 67th Special Operations Squadron (MC-130N/P)
- 321st Special Tactics Squadron
- 352d Special Operations Maintenance Squadron
The 352d conducted both fixed and rotary-wing operations, as well as search and rescue missions in the European and Southwest Asian Theaters.
In May 1993, as part of the drawdown of American forces in Europe, it was announced that activities at Alconbury would be reduced. The 10th Air Base Wing was inactivated 1 October 1994. To maintain the unit's heritage, the Air Force moved the 10th Air Base Wing flag to the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, on 1 November 1994 where it exists today. In its place, the 710th Air Base Wing (ABW) was activated as the host unit on RAF Alconbury.
The 352d Special Operations Group and its associated aircraft, the MC-130H, MC-130P and MH-53J Pave Low, transferred to RAF Mildenhall on 17 February 1995. This ended active USAF flying operations at RAF Alconbury.
The airfield area and associated infrastructure were returned to the British Ministry of Defence by the USAF on 30 September 1995. The main base support areas (the portion of the base containing activities such as housing, base exchange, commissary, financial institutions, administrative and support offices) were retained under USAF control. The former airfield site of RAF Alconbury is now administered by Urban & Civic Limited and will be developed as an Enterprise Zone for business and about 8,000 houses. It will also include a Heritage Centre to commemorate the history of the base. For further information see www.alconbury.co.uk
423d Air Base Group
On 12 July 1995, the 710th ABW was inactivated and the 423d Air Base Squadron at RAF Molesworth assumed the host unit role at Alconbury as well as RAF Upwood. In July 2005, the squadron was redesignated as the 423d Air Base Group and its headquarters and mission was moved to RAF Alconbury.
The 501st Combat Support Wing (501 CSW) was reactivated on 22 March 2005 at RAF Mildenhall. Its mission was administering the various geographically separated units in the UK. On 1 May 2007, the wing moved to RAF Alconbury.
An enlisted club existed at Alconbury Airfield during the Second World War, where young Americans who were sent to England for service with Eighth Air Force were able to relax during their off-duty time. Also they were able to meet English girls from the area who would mix with the "Yanks". More than a few developed relationships and after the war went with their spouses to the United States as "War Brides".
When the Americans returned to Alconbury in the 1950s, social clubs for the officers, non-commissioned officers and airmen were established, and the tradition for cultural exchanges began anew. Dances, band concerts in a nightclub-type atmosphere, along with fine food were the norm. Beginning in the 1960s, the Airman's Club at RAF Alconbury was said to be one of the best nightclubs in the United Kingdom. It became known as the "Aquarius Club". In the mid-1960s mainstream entertainers often performed there. By the mid-1970s, the "AQ Club", as it was also known, was considered to be one of the finest disco dance clubs.
Each Friday and Saturday night two or three bus loads of women, primarily from the Huntingdon area, but also from the Northamptonshire towns of Kettering and Corby (the "Corby Commandos") and Leicester or ("Leicester Molesters") would be allowed on the base to go to the club and socialise with the young American Airmen. The round-trip bus fare was only 50 pence, and quite a few ladies were regular visitors.
The origin term "Commandos" is uncertain. The legend goes that woman's entrance fee was usually paid for by the man who signed to escort her. But before signing in was required, the first 50 women were allowed in free of charge. This created a rush to be one of the first into the club. It is alleged that one evening, an airman saw the bus arrive and seeing the women fighting to get into the club, said to his buddy "Look at them, they look like a bunch of commandos."
Normally the club would be standing-room-only with men and women in their twenties enjoying the disco music, pizza, slot machines, beer, cocktails, and members of the opposite sex in an environment that matched the best clubs in London at the time. There was a yearly membership charge to Airmen but there was no cover charge to enter the club and the prices of food and drink were much less than in London.
Many single men and women met their future spouses at the Aquarius club. Although the Alconbury NCO Club also had music and dancing, the environment at the Aquarius Club was more geared towards the single Airmen and was much more fast-paced. The ratio of women to men was often two-to-one at weekends.
With the departure of large numbers of personnel after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the clubs on Alconbury began to close and consolidate. About 1994, the Aquarius Club was closed and consolidated with the NCO Club. Later, the Officer's Club became an "All Ranks" club when the NCO Club closed a few years later.
Today, a social center for all assigned personnel operates out of the former Officer's Club. The former NCO club had been redefined into other uses. The Airman's "Aquarius Club" was torn down. Today, it is a grassy patch, although the outlines of the club are still visible at its former location.
Major units assigned
United States Air Force
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website http://www.afhra.af.mil/.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "501st Combat Support Wing".
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to RAF Alconbury.|
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- Alconbury Developments Limited
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