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RAF Greenham Common
USAAF Station AAF-486

Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg
Patch9thusaaf.pngShield Strategic Air Command.pngUnited States Air Forces in Europe.png
RAF Greenham Common welcome wall in 1990
IATA: none – ICAO: none
Airport type Military
Owner Ministry of Defence
Operator Royal Air Force
United States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force
Location Greenham, Berkshire
Built 1941
In use 1940–1991
Elevation AMSL 381 ft / 116 m
Coordinates 51°22′43″N 001°16′56″W / 51.37861°N 1.28222°W / 51.37861; -1.28222Coordinates: 51°22′43″N 001°16′56″W / 51.37861°N 1.28222°W / 51.37861; -1.28222

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Greenham Common in 2005. The hangars can be seen in the distance.

The disused Control Tower building.

Royal Air Force Station Greenham Common or RAF Greenham Common is a former Royal Air Force station in Berkshire, England. The airfield is located to the south-east of Newbury, Berkshire, about 50 miles (80 km) west of London.

Opened in 1942, it was used by both the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Forces during the Second World War and the United States Air Force during the Cold War. After the Cold War ended, it was closed in 1993.

The airfield was also known for the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp held outside its gates in the 1980s.

In 1997 Greenham Common was designated as public parkland.

Pre-military history

Greenham Common was a piece of common land. It was used for troop movements during the English Civil War and in the nineteenth century.

Second World War


In late 1943, Greenham Common airfield was turned over to the USAAF Ninth Air Force. An American advance party soon arrived to ready the airfield for the incoming units. Greenham Common was known as USAAF Station AAF-486 for security reasons by the USAAF during the war, and it was referred to by this name instead of by location. Its USAAF Station Code was "GC".

The first arrival 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.

The 51st TCW HQ followed its groups to North Africa as part of Operation Torch in November 1942.

354th Fighter group

North American P-51B-1-NA Mustang, serial 43-12408 of the 355th Fighter Squadron

Republic P-47D of the 397th Fighter Squadron

As troop carrier groups began arriving in the UK in late 1943 and deployed in the Greenham Area, Greenham Common was one of the airfields used 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 354th FG stayed at Greenham Common for only a few days, being transferred to RAF Boxted in Essex on 13 November.

368th Fighter group

A few weeks later on 13 January 1944, the 368th Fighter Group arrived from Farmingdale, New York, flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. They had the following fighter squadrons and fuselage codes:

  • 395th Fighter Squadron (A7)
  • 396th Fighter Squadron (C2)
  • 397th Fighter Squadron (D3)

The 368th was a group of Ninth Air Force's 71st Fighter Wing, IX Tactical Air Command. The 368th FG moved to RAF Chilbolton the next day.

438th Troop Carrier group

General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day. Eisenhower is meeting with US Co. E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (Strike), photo taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 pm on 5 June 1944.

C-47 of the 89th Troop Carrier Squadron

C-47 of the 88th Troop Carrier Squadron

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:

  • 87th Troop Carrier Squadron (3X)
  • 88th Troop Carrier Squadron (M2)
  • 89th Troop Carrier Squadron (4U)
  • 90th Troop Carrier Squadron (Q7)

The 368th was a group of Ninth Air Force's 53rd Troop Carrier Wing of IX Troop Carrier Command. The 90th TCS stayed in the UK and operated from RAF Welford until the rest of the groups aircraft returned from Italy on 24 August. In the absence of the 438th, the 316th Troop Carrier Group used Greenham Common as a forward base.

Post-war RAF use

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 Second World War Allies in what later became known as the Cold War.

Cold War

In response to the perceived threat by the Soviet Union, especially after the 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1950 invasion of South Korea by the Korean People's Army, on 23 April 1951, RAF Greenham Common was made available to the United States Air Force by the British Ministry of Defence as a Strategic Air Command base, with joint operations with the Royal Air Force units.

Strategic Air Command

Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker, 1951

USAF Boeing B-47E-50-LM Stratojet (serial number: 52-3363) in flight.

B-58 Hustler in flight

In the post-Second World War 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:

  • Greenham Common Task Force (Provisional) (1 November 1955 – UNK) (ERB-29Aa and RB-50G/Es) (Electronic Reconnaissance and Countermeasures) (TDY From 97th Bombardment Wing, Schilling AFB, Kansas)
  • 97th Air Refueling Squadron (5 May 1956 – 13 July 1956)(KC-97)
    (TDY From 97th Bombardment Wing, Schilling AFB, Kansas)
  • 310th Bombardment Wing (3 October 1956 – 9 January 1957) (B-47, KC-97)
    (TDY Smokey Hill AFB, later renamed Schilling AFB, Kansas)
  • 40th Bombardment Wing (1 July 1957 – 1 October 1957) (B-47, KC-97)
    (TDY Schilling AFB, Kansas)

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.

From August 1960 the B-52 made periodic training visits, and a Convair B-58 Hustler arrived briefly in October 1963. Reflex operations by B-47 and KC-97s continued until1 April 1964.

Many SAC Squadrons had aircraft at RAF Greenham Common on a transitory basis without any recorded deployment to the base.[citation needed]

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) departed Greenham Common on 30 June 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.

United States Air Forces in Europe

Gate to RAF Greenham Common, 1961.

The closure of US bases in France forced the reopening of RAF Greenham Common for air transport operations (Operation FRELOC) to handle materiel and personnel overflow beginning in early January 1967. In late 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.

Beginning in 1973 the base became the home of the International Air Tattoo, a large scale international military airshow, since relocated to RAF Fairford, approximately 40 miles (64 km) away.

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 tanker aircraft, 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.

501st Tactical Missile Wing

Greenham Common in the late 80s

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:

  • To pursue arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union to reduce their and the American INF arsenals.
  • To deploy in Europe from 1983 up to 464 USAF Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise Missile or GLCMs (based on the US Navy BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile), as well as 108 US Army Pershing II ballistic missiles. (See also SLCM and ALCM).

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, there was an outcry from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

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.

The GAMA site

These shelters were specially designed and constructed to protect the GLCMs and crews against nuclear and conventional strikes. They were about 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 shelters were 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 were designed to withstand the blast of an air-bursting nuclear explosion above the base or a direct hit from a 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) 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.

The first squadron of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing received its weapons in November 1983; they were flown onto the base by C-5As.

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 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, Group Captain Andrew Brookes, RAF went on to become an aviation author.

Greenham Common Peace Camp

On 12 December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles (9.7 km) perimeter of the base, in protest against the decision to site American cruise missiles there

From 1981 "women's peace camps" were established in protest at the deployment of the cruise missiles. They came to be known as "The Greenham Women" or "peace women", and their 19-year protest drew worldwide media and public attention, often by cutting through the fences.

USAF departure and closure

Entrance to the New Greenham Park

On 11 September 1992, the USAF returned Greenham Common airbase to the Ministry of Defence. On 9 February 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.

Alleged nuclear accident

On 28 February 1958 a B-47E of the 310th Bomb Wing developed problems shortly after takeoff and jettisoned its two 1,700 gallon external fuel tanks. They missed their designated safe impact area and one hit a hangar whilst the other struck the ground 65 feet (20 m) behind a parked B-47E. The parked B-47E, which was fuelled, had a pilot on board, and was carrying a 1.1 megaton (4.6 PJ) B28 nuclear bomb, was engulfed by flames. The conflagration took sixteen hours and over a million gallons of water to extinguish, partly because of the magnesium alloys used in the aircraft. Although two men were killed and eight injured, the US and UK governments kept the accident secret – as late as 1985, the British Government claimed that a taxiing aircraft had struck a parked one and that no fire was involved.

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.[1]

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, suggesting that Cripps and Stimson's claims were false. 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 air force 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.[2]

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website


  1. The Distribution of Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239 around the United States Airforce base at Greenham Common, July 1961 by F H Cripps & A Stimson, AWRE,Aldermaston
  2. Greenham Common given 'all-clear'-leaving childhood leukaemia clusters a mystery, Southampton University in-house newsletter New Reporter Vol 14, No 12, 10 March 1997


In Popular Culture

An episode of BBC's Top Gear was filmed at the abandoned airbase, with Jeremy Clarkson and James May racing around the derelict bunkers.

External links

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