RAF Movement Order, 1941
This example of an RAF Movement Order saw F/O Claydon moved from RAF Silloth on the north coast of Cumberland to Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland. The route was set out in detail as far at Belfast, going via Carlisle, then Stranraer on the Scottish coast by rail, boat across to Larne and then train to Belfast. After that it was up to the R.T.O. at Belfast Railway Station to arrange the rest of the route.
Many thanks to Peter Claydon for sending us these pictures, which belonged to his father, C.W.J. Claydon, who spent much of the war serving as a medical officer with No.120 Squadron at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland.
Battle of Singapore
The Battle of Singapore, also known as the Fall of Singapore, was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II when the Empire of Japan captured the British stronghold of Singapore—nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East". Singapore was the major British military base in South-East Asia and was the key to British imperial interwar defence planning for South-East Asia and the South-West Pacific. The fighting in Singapore lasted from 8 to 15 February 1942. The Japanese victory was decisive, resulting in the Japanese capture of Singapore and the largest British surrender in history. 
- Straits Settlements
General Tomoyuki Yamashita had led a force of about 30,000 down the Malayan Peninsula in the two months leading up to the battle. The British had considered the jungle terrain impassable and had prepared few defences. The Japanese, however, easily navigated the dense jungles, and pushed through the peninsula quickly. The 85,000 British were led by Arthur Percival, although many units were understrength, and most units were inexperienced. Despite this, they enjoyed a significant numerical and positional advantage on the island of Singapore. In the lead up to the battle the British destroyed the causeway into the city, forcing the Japanese to embark on a naval crossing. The island was so important that Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered Percival to fight bitterly to the last man.
Despite being outnumbered three to one, superior Japanese leadership, and numerous failings on the part of the British allowed the Japanese to establish and hold a beachhead starting on 8 February. Percival had grossly misallocated troops on the island, and the Japanese attacked the weakest part of the lines. Percival also failed to reinforce the attack in a timely fashion, allowing the Japanese to establish a beachhead. Numerous communication and leadership failures beset the British, and the poor pre-battle planning left few entrenchments or reserves near the beachhead. As the week pushed on, the Japanese took more and more of the island, and the British supply became critical. By the 15th, nearly one million civilians in the city had fled into the remaining Allied held area, a mere 1% of the island. The civilian water supply had been bombed relentlessly by Japanese air attacks, and was expected to fail within days if the attack did not stop.
Unbeknownst to the British, by the 15th the Japanese were also nearly at the end of their supplies, with only hours of shells left. General Yamashita feared that Percival would discover the Japanese numerical inferiority, and engage in costly house-to-house fighting. In a desperate bluff, Yamashita demanded unconditional surrender. In the afternoon of the 15th, Percival ignored orders and capitulated. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops in Singapore became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign many would die performing forced labour. Famously, about 40,000 mostly Indian soldiers would join the Indian National Army and fight alongside the Japanese.   Churchill was shocked, and called it the "worst disaster" in British military history.  It greatly decreased confidence in the British army, and provided the Japanese with much needed resources, as well as an important strategic position. The city would stay in Japanese hands until the end of the war.
Origins of the Royal Air Force
Military aviation in the United Kingdom dates from 1878, when a series of experiments with balloons was carried out at Woolwich Arsenal in London. On April 1, 1911, an air battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed, consisting of one balloon and one airplane company. Its headquarters was at South Farnborough, Hampshire, where the balloon factory was located.
Meanwhile, in February 1911 the Admiralty had allowed four naval officers to take a course of flying instruction on airplanes at the Royal Aero Club grounds at Eastchurch, Kent, and in December of that year the first naval flying school was formed there. On May 13, 1912, a combined Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed, with naval and military wings and a Central Flying School at Upavon on Salisbury Plain. The specialized aviation requirements of the Royal Navy made it appear, however, that a separate organization was desirable, and on July 1, 1914, the naval wing of the RFC became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), with the land-based wing retaining the title Royal Flying Corps.
By this point, the balloon factory had been renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory, and it undertook the design and manufacture of airframes and engines. A series of aircraft with the general designation “BE” (Blériot Experimental) resulted and did excellent service in the earlier stages of World War I. A number of private British designers also entered the field, and most of the aircraft in use in the British and Empire Air Services in the latter half of the war were products of British factories.
RAF Greenham Common Base History 1941-1992
RAF Greenham Common was an RAF and US Air Force base south of Newbury & Thatcham in Berkshire. It was an airfield that opened in 1942 through World War Two, the Cold War (with USAF Strategic Air Command and B-47s) and later with the 501st Tactical Missile Wing with 96 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. Despite protests and controversy, the mission was achieved and the Cold War was won. Greenham Common closed in 1992 but its history lives on..
World War Two: Airfield Construction
The first possible landing of an aircraft at Greenham was around 1930 when the area was still a grassy common. Biplane bombers of the RAF landed there for a few days as an RAF exercise took place. During World War Two, the Berkshire area saw a number of airfields constructed at Aldermaston, Membury, Ramsbury, Hampstead Norreys and Welford. In September 1943, the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army crossed the Atlantic and camped in surrounding areas of Newbury and Reading.
An RAF station was to be built two miles outside Newbury in the county of Berkshire. The Air Ministry acquired the land from Newbury Town Council in May 1941.The base was originally to act as a satellite for the bomber training unit at Aldermaston a few miles east. In early 1942, hardstandings were constructed for aircraft use. Beyond the base, accommodation sites were built, some on Sydmonton Common. Barbed wired Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) sites were put up around Bowdown House and Grove Cottage in the north-east. A bomb dump site was also set up. Although built for use by the RAF, they decided that it would be better used by the forces of the US Army Air Force (USAAF). The base was near completed in the summer of 1942. Its first unit was the 51st Troop Carrier Wing who arrived from the US in September 1942 and stayed until being deployed to North Africa on Operation Torch in November. Greenham Common briefly passed back to the control of RAF groups 92 and 70 and was used for flight training on Oxfords until the end of September 1943. The base was then reassigned to the USAAF on October 1st 1943 becoming USAAF Station 486. RAF Greenham Common was finally handed to the 8th ASC USAAF on November 8th 1943.
This was a large A-shaped airfield with one runway of 4,800ft and the second of 3,300ft. Yet even these were not thought long enough and were extended in late 1942. Accommodation was built on the eastern perimeter, along with 2 T2 hangars, a technical area and a 27 pan hardstanding.
The next role for Greenham Common was to re-equip the 354th FG (Fighter Group), 9th AF who had arrived on November 4th to acquire its mount: the mighty P-51B Mustang. The aircraft stayed just a week before redeployment to Boxted. The airfield then played host to a number of units on a transient basis including the 368th FG and their P-47 Thunderbolts.
On March 16th 1944, Greenham Common's role changed to accommodate troop transport aircraft of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. The group undertook solid training at the base and became fully operational in April that year with the Douglas C-47 Dakota transport aircraft.
New infrastructure had to be developed to support these larger aircraft. Loop hardstandings were built in addition to the panhandles, then making 50 hardstandings in all. Steel track marshalling areas were constructed either end of the main runway. These allowed gliders such as the Horsa to be positioned on the runway with tugs still capable of moving alongside, allowing mass take-offs. A number of long buildings were also built for storing and examining glider cables.
By early June 1944, forces at the base were at a high state of readiness. All four squadrons of the 438th Troop Carrier Group were then fully trained on glider towing and paratroop drops both day and night. On the night of June 5th, the base was ringed with armed troops. Nearby was the wartime headquarters of General Eisenhower who was on his way to the base to inspect the troops. Eisenhower joined General Lewis Brereton at Greenham Common to watch the first troops leave by C-47s just before 23.00.
It was at Greenham on this night that General Eisenhower gave his famous "Eyes of the world are on you" speech. Another 80 C-47s then left the base at 11 second intervals bound for the shores of Normandy on Operation Overlord. Aircraft also towed CG-4A Waco gliders to the front in France and later carried the wounded back for treatment in Britain. On December 12th 1944, a tragedy occurred when one of the Horsa gliders crashed at the base. Over 30 American soldiers of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division were killed in the accident and their memory is kept every year in December by the Royal British Legion of Newbury.
By February 1945, the 438th began moving to Prosnes in France to support the front. American ground units held a presence at Greenham until the end of the European campaign. A small USAAF detachment remained a short time at the supply depot in Thatcham. The base was then handed over to RAF Transport Command to an uncertain future.
Post War Closure: 1945-1951
After reverting to RAF use by Transport Command in mid-1945, Greenham Common was used for training. Technical Training Command took control of the site in August and the runways were obstructed. No. 13 Recruit Center used the accommodation to train new entrants on eight week 'square bashing' courses. The RAF used the base for five of these courses until RAF Greenham Common was finally declared a surplus site. The base was closed on June 1st 1946 as an inactive site under Maintenance Command. The airfield was then parented by RAF Welford, a few miles north west of Newbury.
The base was then occasionally used by the British Army for training. Amid the bomb damage to the country and consequent shortage of housing, some of the Nissen huts on the airfield were divided up in to small lodgings. Some local people took them up as temporary accommodation for a short period until much of the site fell into disrepair and a good deal of it was demolished by local builders. Although the airfield remained, the unfenced site was essentially abandoned until 1951.
As the 1940s progressed, a new and more sinister threat was emerging across Eastern and Central Europe. The totalitarian force of Stalinism was expanding beyond the Soviet Union and was now threatening to subjugate all of Western Europe and beyond.
The Cold War Emerges..
"From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent" Winston Churchill, March 5th 1946, Fulton, Missouri.
The original construction of the base began in 1941 at the height of the Blitz in World War Two. Since the mid-1930s, the government had had a major program to build Royal Air Force stations around the country as the threat of war with Germany grew. After 1939, the program was accelerated and after the US joined the war in 1941, hundreds more airfields were built to accommodate American units.
In 1945, the world looked very different to 1939. For Britain and the US, the war had been a struggle for liberty over totalitarian aggression and expansionism. Britain and France had originally gone to war over German expansion into Eastern Europe.
Yet after the great power conferences at Yalta and Potsdam between Britain, the US and Soviet Union, it became increasingly evident that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would never be content with mere "influence" in Eastern Europe as was agreed. The Soviet Union had always been on a path of world domination motivated by its core doctrine of Marxist-Leninism. The Soviets believed that capitalism and communism could never exist side by side and that conflict was inevitable. The malignant forces of communism were set on a determined course of expansionism.
Shortly after World War Two, evidence and a number of key defectors revealed that the Soviet Union had established a network of spies deep within the governments of major Western powers including the US and Britain from the 1930s. These agents had compromised many valuable wartime and military secrets including details of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico to build the atomic bomb. many of the agents were active up until the 1950s until Project Venona was able to reveal (some) of them. Others were never caught.
The initial warmth between East and West as troops met at the Elbe in May 1945 was not to last. The Soviets were refusing to cooperate in the administration and redevelopment of occupied Germany with British, American, and French authorities. The difference was that Western powers wanted to rehabilitate and reconstruct Germany, whereas the Soviets wanted it permanently weakened. In June 1948, crisis and near war erupted when the Soviet Union cut off road, rail and water access and power supplies to the Western powers in Berlin. A blockade as such can be seen as an act of war. It was only through a massive effort by the RAF and USAF flying transport aircraft with goods through the air corridors to Berlin that saved the city from being swallowed up into what was becoming "The Iron Curtain". The Berlin Blockade was a tangible sign of Soviet hostility toward the West.
The states of Eastern Europe held elections after the war, but key members of those governments were communists loyal to Moscow. In 1947, Poland and Hungary came under communist domination and Czechoslovakia in 1948. Finally, the Soviets declared the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. Communist governments also took hold of Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Soviet troops occupied Austria and Northern Iran.
The expansion of communism did not stop in Europe. Stalin encouraged communist North Korea to invade its demilitarized Southern neighbour believing the Free World would not respond. Many in London and Washington feared that the attack on South Korea in 1950 was a smaller distraction as a prelude to a full scale Soviet attack on Western Europe which was left very weak by war and economic devastation. Furthermore, the Soviets had kept their forces on a high state of readiness, barely demobilising after 1945. In the immediate years after World War Two, the Soviets could easily have invaded Western Europe as far as the English Channel in mere days.
The United States abandoned its old isolationist foreign policy after 1945 and took a leading role in Europe's defence. For the first time ever, the US entered a formal alliance as a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with a number of other Western European states. The key clause was that "an attack against any member of the alliance shall be considered as an attack against all others who will provide full military and logistical support to that country." The treaty signed in April 1949 was not explicitly anti-communist, but was created in the face of Soviet hostility and the power vacuum left after 1945 in Europe. In August 1949, the Soviets also detonated their first atomic weapon having stolen the secrets from the West.
The enemy would soon be armed with the ultimate weapon.
US security policy after 1945 was guided by the President's National Security Committee or NSC. The committee held regular meetings to address emerging threats. It was becoming evident that the communist threat was far more than transient by the late 1940s, particularly after the communists seized power in China in 1949. A vital report was produced by the NSC in 1950. The report NSC 68 was vital to the Western strategy of the Containment of communism. It authorized the expansion of US defence capabilities by trebling the national defence budget. Particular emphasis was laid on construction of a ring of military bases in friendly countries around the communist bloc and development of a strategic nuclear deterrent force to counter the sheer numerical superiority the Soviet forces held over the West.
Cold War Reactivation: 1951-1964
Even after 1945, units of the newly formed US Air Force came back to Britain on occasional air exercises to bases in East Anglia like RAF Marham. Units of the USAAF had made a very significant effort in the European theatre and had been made welcome by the local British people. A pact known as the Spaatz-Tedder Agreement was concluded by the heads of both air forces in 1946 allowing conventional US bombers to use British airfields in the eventuality of a conflict. During the Berlin Blockade, President Truman had sent a total of 60 B-29 (nuclear capable) bombers on temporary deployments to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and Marham in Norfolk. The aircraft came to Britain to send Stalin a message that the West was intent on protecting the independence of West Berlin and allied sectors of Germany.
In the midst of an increasing Soviet threat and as a tangible commitment to the newly created NATO, the US asked Britain for the use of a number of Royal Air Force stations that could be developed for "Very heavy bombers." Technological developments meant that aircraft entering service after 1945 were far heavier and more maintenance intensive than bombers such as the B-17 or B-24s that flew from Britain in World War Two. The US had a good choice of airfields available from those years that could be adapted.
In April 1950, the "Ambassadors Agreement" was concluded between US Ambassador Lewis Douglas and the British Under Secretary for Air. The agreement allowed the US Air Force to redevelop four airfields: Greenham Common, Fairford, Upper Heyford and Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The move was partly as a response to two problems: intelligence found that the Soviet Union had acquired nuclear status and was designing strategic range aircraft to deliver the weapons. Although Britain was developing an independent nuclear deterrent by 1950, progress was slow. A range of modern medium range bombers, the V-Force (Victor, Valiant and Vulcan) was being developed to carry the deterrent, yet these would not enter service until after the mid 1950s and then quite gradually. As a stopgap measure, the RAF took delivery on loan from the USAF of 87 B-29 bombers known as Washingtons in RAF service.
In 1951, locals speculated that the base was about to be reactivated. This was soon confirmed by the Air Ministry, and US Air Force survey teams moved onto the site in February 1951. For a time, the base became known locally as "tent city" where the survey teams lived under canvas and what must have been basic conditions. The camp consisted of an Engineer Aviation Battalion, Maintenance and Ordnance companies, an Engineer Depot Company, and a Base Support Company. The role of these groups was to prepare the site for use by Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the USAF. In the Spring of 1951, the USAF in Britain acquired the status of the Third Air Force, and Greenham Common was formally handed over to SAC's Seventh Air Division on June 18th 1951.
Engineering teams set about a vast program of works to redevelop the site using 1,000 acres. Remnants and hardstandings from the old site were demolished. Construction of a huge 10,000 foot long east-west runway with parallel taxiways began. A new aircraft control tower was built on the north side of the base as well as new barracks on the left of the main gate. Construction work peaked in the summer of 1951 and officer accommodation was also constructed outside the gates on the north west end just off Burys Bank Road.
The reconstruction had taken over two years when building finished in September 1953. Strategic Air Command declared the base ready for what became known as Reflex operations by the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The first plane to actually use the runway though was in fact an RAF Vampire jet which was forced to land low on fuel!
Greenham Common's new, full operational use came in March 1954. A group of 2,200 personnel arrived at the base to work with a detachment of 303rd Bomb Wing B-47s which had flown from Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. The Reflex operations meant that aircraft would come to a base for a period of 90 day rotations from the US. One of the most effective ways to train military pilots is to have them familiarised with the environments in which they may have to fight.
The B-47 Stratojet was a major technological advance on its service entry in 1951. This was an aircraft so fast that it could even outpace fighters like the Soviet MiG-15 and even F-84s Thunderjets and F-86 Sabres! This 600 mph bomber had a 35 degree swept wing, giving it superb aerodynamics and agility. Its six General Electric turbofans meant that it could carry a bomb load of 28,000 pounds and three crew to 40,000 feet and to a range of 3,000 miles. It was the perfect weapon of its time to strike with a nuclear response at the heart of the Soviet sphere. Its high performance and speed allowed it to evade enemy MiGs on reconnaissance on most occasions on flights into the Soviet Union carried out from Fairford and Upper Heyford in the RB-47 variant.
B-47 Stratojets on their way to Europe (photo by Frank Hadl)
The stay of the mighty B-47s of the 303rd was to be cut short when it was found that the new runway was breaking up under the weight of these new aircraft. The 303rd was forced to move to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to complete its Reflex operations on April 28th 1954. After a program of runway reinforcement, the base played host to the KC-97Fs and Gs of the 97th Air Refueling Squadron who were there in support of B-47Es deployed to RAF Lakenheath from the end of April 1956. In the same month, RAF Greenham Common also became home to the 3909th Air Base Group.
October of 1956 saw the base welcome an interesting variety of aircraft. Sixteen of the huge B-36 Peacemaker bombers called at Greenham and RAF Burtonwood in support of the SAC alert triggered by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The base also had a visit from the American version of the Canberra, a Martin RB-57A which had flown from Sembach in West Germany. The deployment of tankers and other aircraft at Greenham caused a new problem. Flint chips were working their way onto the runway surface, damaging the KC-97 propellers. The only immediate solution to the problem was almost constant sweeping of the runways!
Greenham Common was settling into a period of more sustained use once construction problems had been fixed. US defense policy of the 1950s was that of Massive Retaliation. This meant that any hostile action against the US or its allies meant a full scale nuclear response against the Soviet Union and its allies of the Warsaw Pact and China. From 1954, the US deployed its first nuclear devices to the UK. Stored in Special Storage Areas (SSAs), the bombs could be mounted to their aircraft and held on Quick Reaction Alert with crews for several hours. If the attack warning came, bombers and crews could be airborne in mere minutes before the bases could be struck. Many of the SAC bases in Britain had SSAs and Greenham had these storage igloos on the far south west side of the base where the GAMA was later built.
On October 5th 1956 until January 1957, the base supported a detachment of 45 B-47Es from the 310th Bomb Wing, Schilling AFB along with KC-97Fs and Gs. At this time, B-47s based in Britain were undertaking training and exercises to improve bombing capabilities. B-47s would set out of bases at Greenham, Fairford, Lakenheath and Brize Norton and carry out mock bombing runs on practices targets such as Edinburgh or the Thames Estuary in London. Exercises were also carried out with the RAF to test readiness.
From the mid-1950s, Soviet nuclear capability had reached the point where it posed a very serious threat to Western Europe. With the help of ex-Nazi scientists, the Soviet Union had mastered rocketry as a weapon. From the late 1950s, the Soviet Union began deployment of Medium and Intermediate range ballistic missiles: the SS-4 and SS-5 (SS being a NATO designation for surface-to surface) bringing bases such as Greenham into striking range within as little as 15 minutes from launch. Added to this was a fleet of nuclear bombers such as the Myasichev Bison, Badger and Tupolev 95 Bear.
Dispersal of SAC bombers became vital to reduce their vulnerability from a potential enemy strike. By deploying just 15 aircraft to each base, planes could scramble on alerts much faster. From 1958, SAC bases in Britain also came under the Reflex Alerts where planes stood on high readiness. It was at this point that Greenham Common saw a terrible tragedy. On February 28th 1958, a B-47E developed trouble on take-off and was forced to drop two of its huge 1,700 gallon fuel tanks. A special area of the base was set aside for this purpose but somehow (possibly due to high winds) the pilot missed. One of the tanks fell into a hangar and exploded. The other hit a parked B-47 which burned furiously with a pilot onboard. The fire burned furiously for 16 hours and fire crews were brought in from RAF Odiham and Welford to assist. In all, two men were killed, eight injured and two B-47s destroyed. The troubled plane made a safe landing at Brize Norton a little later. A source told me that one of the hangars at the base was painted black to cover marks left by this fire.
In July 1996, a story in the British press suggested that Greenham Common had been subject to severe radioactive contamination. Apparently, this occurred from this incident as one of the aircraft destroyed was on nuclear readiness with a B28 nuclear bomb onboard which burned in the resulting fire. The story has never been substantiated with official evidence and is mostly likely untrue as only aircraft on readiness would have been uploaded which was also only done on specially designated areas of the base, away from the hangars.
The Reflex Alerts began at the base the month after, meaning that the B-47s could remain on alert on the ground. Instead of 90 day Reflex Operations, Reflex Alerts would be mounted for periods of three week rotations. Talk ran through the local area of what might visit the base next when the runways and dispersal areas were again reinforced. It emerged that the base was being prepared for use by the great B-52 Stratofortress which could use the base as a forward location in times of war or crisis. B-52s were never based at the airfield but did make a series of training visits from August of 1960.
Boeing B-52H Stratofortress at Greenham Common
The early 1960s were times of serious crisis in the Cold War. May 1960 saw Francis Gary Powers U2 shot down over Sverdlovsk, Soviet leader Khruschev was placing pressure on the West to remove the Western forces from Berlin, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, and most dangerously, the Soviets were quietly deploying ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island of Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 saw US forces across the world on a very high state of readiness. Bases such as Greenham went to secure status, closing to the outside world. Inside the heavily guarded fences, B-47s waited loaded with nuclear bombs and awaiting orders from SAC headquarters at Omaha. B-52s carried out airborne patrols, only awaiting their orders to make their way to Soviet targets.
The crisis passed and tensions subsided slightly. A period of Peaceful Co-existence between East and West developed alongside new, more advanced military capabilities on both sides. Some excitement was caused locally when the supersonic B-58 Hustler bomber made a visit to Greenham Common in October 1963. This was a particularly beautiful aircraft, and highly advanced for the time it was introduced in the late 1950s. It was the only supersonic bomber of its time.
By the early to mid-1960s, Strategic Air Command had a far larger fleet of strategic range aircraft such as the B-52 at its disposal. SAC had also developed and deployed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) such as the Atlas and Titan with some success by this time. The US Navy had also perfected Ballistic Missile Submarines such as Polaris and Poseidon which would have a greater survivability in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Some of these submarines came to the US Navy base of Holy Loch in Scotland. Soviet developments and deployments of its own medium and intercontinental range missiles meant that European bases would be quite vulnerable in the event of a Soviet first strike. In addition, although a capable weapon, the B-47 had aged in technological terms in relation to newer bombers being developed like the General Dynamics F-111.
The Reflex Operations continued with B-47s and accompanying tankers until April 1st 1964. SAC policy was changing and the Command decided to close the base. The base closure program was known as Project Clearwater and saw the very last B-47 fly out of the base in the first week of June. Greenham Common was formally handed back to the RAF on July 1st 1964 and the runway once again fell silent.
The Wilderness Years: 1964-1979
The world was changing fast by 1964. Nikita Khruschev had been removed by a communist party coup in October of that year and replaced by hard-line Leonid Brezhnev, President Johnson had taken power in the US after the assassination of Kennedy, and Britain was now governed by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. The conduct of the Cold War was also changing. The Cuban Missile Crisis had shown the real dangers of the confrontation and each side appeared to agree that tensions needed to be relaxed. The mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s became known as the period of Détente (French for relaxation of tensions) between East and West. For a period, tensions did calm between the superpowers and a number of arms control agreements were settled or started. Yet the Cold War was far from over, and its focus was shifting away from Central and Eastern Europe and toward the Third World states of the southern hemisphere. The forces of communism were spreading in areas of South East Asia and the focus of US defense policy was to be focussed intently for the next ten years on containing communist expansion from Vietnam and its neighbours.
Greenham remained practically unused as an airfield in the years that followed which also coincided with the closure or rundown of other USAF bases in Britain. SAC no longer maintained operational bases exclusively for its use as it had done since 1951. However, events in Europe meant that the rundown of USAF bases in Britain was only temporary. In 1966, aptly on All Fool's Day, French President Charles De Gaulle made an incomprehensible step of cutting French military involvement in NATO and expelling all US military bases that remained in France. De Gaulle set a deadline that all US forces must leave the country by April 1969. France played host to a number of logistics and supply bases including Chaumont, Toul Rousiéres, Chateauroux, Evreux, Dreux, and Laon. Instead, the US Department of Defense set its own deadline to remove forces from its nine bases and decided to leave by April 1967 in what was known as Operation FRELOC (for French Relocation). Some units were moved to West Germany, others were disbanded and many came to British bases including RAF Alconbury and Mildenhall.
The increased pressure and aircraft on British USAF bases meant that other bases had to be found for various uses. In January 1967, Greenham and RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk were brought back into American use. The base was used as a storage site for the Air Force, manned only by a small number of personnel far smaller than that of its 1950s and early 1960s SAC days. It then came under the charge of the 7551st Combat Support Squadron, serving as the sister site to the huge USAF ordnance storage complex at RAF Welford, near Hungerford until its control passed to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at Upper Heyford in May 1970. During this period, many of the personnel working at RAF Welford lived in the accommodation at Greenham.
During these years, the base was used as part of a number of exercises. These included the annual REFORGER (Re-enforcement of Germany) NATO exercises. These served as training for the reinforcement of West Germany by mainly US Forces on a huge scale in the event of Warsaw Pact hostilities against NATO members. Huge numbers of troops would be flown in by transport aircraft from the US and would be parachuted into areas of West Germany. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated how this might be necessary. The invasion caused a major NATO alert as it seemed the invasion my have been a prelude to an attack on Romania or West Germany. A small hospital unit was established at Greenham during this time. Mostly though, the base was maintained by a mainly British skeleton support staff.
The base was put to an unusual use in 1972. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was at the height of his purge of foreigners in the country and many fled to the United Kingdom. A number of refugees were housed in the then empty barracks on the base just left off the main gate.
From 1973, the base became the venue for many years to come for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's Royal International Air Tattoo. The first had been held at the Essex airfield of North Weald in 1971 and moved to Greenham in 1973. This charity event was established to assist those RAF personnel who were now approaching retirement age from wartime service. At first, this air show was held every two years, but became annual after 1977. At each Tattoo, air forces from many NATO members would arrive at Greenham to give flying and static displays of their planes and helicopters. The base saw many interesting visitors and aircraft we can now only dream of seeing fly, often with over 200 aircraft attending. Visitors included RAF Vulcans, F-104 Starfighters, Lockheed Constellations, Lightnings, Hunters, F-111s, F-4 Phantoms, and at the 1983 show, the mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet.
RAF Vulcan and. US Navy F-14 Tomcat At the 1976 Air Tattoo celebrating the American Bicentennial. Courtesy of Mike Carpenter.
In 1976, the runways at RAF Upper Heyford had to be resurfaced which meant that its F-111E bombers would have to find a new home during the three months the work would take. Greenham Common was not a vast distance from the Oxfordshire home of the F-111s and was chosen as the temporary base to host planes, crews, and support staff. From March until June, the runways were once again aglow to the roar of jets. The arrival of the F-111s also meant that their load of B-61 nuclear bombs also had to be sited at the base. This did not present any problems as the storage igloos from the original SAC deployments of B-47s remained on the west end of the base. Soon however, the aircraft and many of the support staff returned to Upper Heyford and for a brief period, the base returned to standby status.
Greenham Common was about to hit the headlines over plans by the Third Air Force. In April of 1977, the Third Air Force started informal discussions with the British Ministry of Defence for a plan to fully reactivate Greenham with a force of at least 20 KC-135 tankers as part of an expansion of the European Tanker Task Force. At the time, RAF Mildenhall was already pushed for space and Greenham had a good runway and better facilities and location than other possible bases. In August 1977, work began to extend and refurbish the runways and taxiways. Local people guessed that something big was about to happen at Greenham. Plans for the reactivation were officially announced in February 1978 and led to a protest from some local people. A local pressure group was formed to oppose the reactivation. Locals claimed that the KC-135 was one of the loudest aircraft in the Air Force that would cause disturbance to Thatcham which had become a large residential area since the SAC deployments of the 1950s and early 1960s. Plans were even made to send a letter to President Carter.
Eventually, British Secretary of State for Defence, Fred Mulley decided to reject the reactivation in May as it would mean tanker aircraft would have to fly very close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and concerns that some aircraft might stray over it with serious safety implications. In the event, a home for the tankers was found at the former SAC base of RAF Fairford which had been largely redundant since the RAF withdrew in 1971.
New details soon emerged though that the base might become a site for the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft formerly known as the U2. A news report in August 1978 claimed that Greenham Common was one of three bases the USAF was considering using deployment of 15 planes from the 1980s. Mildenhall saw periodic use by reconnaissance planes from 1979 where the TR1 was used for a few years. In the event however, Greenham was not chosen as the TR1 base and the aircraft were eventually deployed to RAF Alconbury.
The end of the 1970s represented turbulent times. It was becoming clear that the Soviets had actually used the relative quiet of the Détente years to rearm, greatly expand and modernize its armed forces. The Western world found itself in a period of economic stagnation following the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. Consequently, its armed forces faced either cutbacks or little in the way of modernized equipment. Unlike the Warsaw Pact states, NATO equipment was rarely interoperable or in any way standardized. The US found itself increasingly reluctant to intervene in trouble spots following the conclusion of the Vietnam war. The Soviet Union however was, in many ways at its very peak of world influence and was supporting several waves of communist activity in the third world which came to be known as "the arc of crisis" (from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan). Most alarmingly from all this was that Soviet nuclear strength had moved from rough numerical equality with the US in 1970, to an outright superiority by the mid 1970s. Among the new weapons they deployed was an intermediate range ballistic missile named SS-20 by NATO. From October 1977, the Soviet Union was deploying this 2,500 mile range mobile missile in ever greater numbers. Western European cities (and possibly North America) also lived under the shadow of the new Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire jet bomber which could carry a nuclear payload to Western targets at supersonic speeds. NATO faced a serious threat against which it found itself increasingly poorly able defend against or respond to. Western European leaders called upon the United States respond to these new military, and what were to become intense, political issues.
Cruise and the Common: 1979-1992
In the Spring of 1979, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group met at a USAF base in Florida to formulate a response to the growing Soviet military might. In October 1977, Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany and British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan were asking the United States to deploy new and more modern deterrent forces to NATO countries in Western Europe. The group decided on a twin track approach to the Soviets. Known as the "Double Decision", NATO members decided to both negotiate with the Soviet Union to withdraw the SS-20 missiles, and to go ahead with the deployment of a total of 572 new missiles to NATO members from 1983. If the Soviets agreed to withdraw the SS-20s, NATO would agree not to deploy the new missiles to its Western European members.
The Soviets however were hardly in the mood to negotiate. By 1979, the country was still led by the barely living Leonid Brezhnev, while its ministries were engaged in in-fighting, chronic bureaucracy, and a sense of absolute paranoia toward the West and NATO. NATO's Double Decision meant that 464 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM's) would be deployed to Great Britain (160 in total), Italy (112 at Comiso), West Germany (96 at Wuescheim), Belgium (48 at Florennes), and the Netherlands (48 at Woensdrecht). A further 108 Pershing II medium range ballistic missiles would be deployed to West Germany from 1983 to replace ageing 1960s Pershing 1a types deployed in West Germany by the US and West German armies. The sense of crisis increased through 1979. Although President Carter and Brezhnev agreed to limit strategic range nuclear weapons with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 2 (SALT 2) in June, the treaty did not cover any possible expansion of theatre nuclear weapons. In any case, the treaty was never ratified after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December. The invasion brought the Soviets to within just a few hundred miles of the Persian oil fields. This was a new and largely unexpected twist that suggested the Soviet Union was set on a new phase of expansionism.
On December 12th, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed to "modernize theatre forces" by sending missiles to five NATO members by 1986. two days later, the NATO Council of Ministers approved the decision. This now meant that a whole new infrastructure had to be created to support the new missiles. The new missiles themselves had to still undergo testing and find suitable launch and control vehicles.
On January 1st 1979, the 7273rd Air Base Group was formed and had a USAF Base Commander appointed. At that time, the base was still occupied by a small staff on standby status but activity on the base increased gradually. On June 17th 1980, the British Government announced that Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire would be the two cruise bases in Britain. Greenham Common would also be the very first base in Europe to receive its first flight of 16 missiles in late 1983. Molesworth had also been a USAF base during the 1950s. NATO aimed to have the first missiles operational at Greenham and Comiso in Sicily, Italy by December 1983. The decision meant at least a further 1,300 personnel would be stationed at Greenham. The government explained that the basing of these new mobile missiles meant that in times of tension, the missiles would move to remote locations up to 200 miles away kept secret in the countryside. In addition, the deployment of cruise would cause little noise as aircraft movements would be a maximum of a few a month.
The base played host to an unusual visitor in 1980 in the form of the world land speed record challenging Thrust jet car. The high speed vehicle was tested on the runway at Greenham Common and was later to be taken to Nevada where it broke the land speed record in 1983 at over 630 mph driven by Richard Noble.
In 1981, a vast program of works began at the base to support the deployments. Specially hardened shelters had to be constructed that could withstand the force of a direct hit by a 500lb bomb and even a ten megaton thermonuclear airburst explosion 1,600 ft above them. A total of six shelters (A-F) were built to protect the German-made MAN GLCM transporters, and support and communications vehicles. These were built in an ultra high security compound on the north east side of the base. This was known as the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area). One of these silos was a Quick Reaction Alert shelter where 16 missiles could stay on alert, ready for almost immediate launch. This structure can be distinguished by the fact that it has side entrance tunnels at the sides and crews had accommodation built into the shelter itself. Each shelter contained four launch vehicles and two Launch control vehicles. The shelters had three doors at both ends (which apparently took 20 minutes to close) and could withstand the explosive pressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch!
A GLCM shelter at Greenham
The first part of the redevelopment of Greenham Common was to cost £50 million, roughly 40% of which came from NATO infrastructure funds. The work and deployment meant that new accommodation had to be built and a new housing area was built for USAF personnel in the neighbouring village of Bishops Green. Many personnel however lived in Newbury, other local villages, or as far afield as Reading, Wiltshire or Oxfordshire.
The deployment became highly politicised and Greenham was becoming a tangible and highly visible sign of the deterioration in East-West relations and the heating of the arms race. But in actual fact, the deployments were nothing new. The RAF and USAF operated 60 Thor intermediate range missile bases from 1958-1963 across East Anglia and Lincolnshire, each with three missiles. Arms talks with the Soviet Union continued, but what became clear was the Soviet negotiating strategy and offers to freeze SS-20 deployments were a thinly veiled attempt to drive a wedge between the European members of NATO and the United States. For this reason particularly, the deployments had to go ahead in the face of such an intransigent and dogmatic threat, the United States needed to show a clear and resolute sign of its commitment to the security of its allies and for its allies to show faith in American commitment to Western European freedom and security.
The name cruise missile is simply a generic name for a type of weapon that had been around since World War Two. It is a class of missile that flies mostly at high subsonic speeds via internal or radio guidance within low or medium altitudes (i.e.. non ballistic).Germany used the technology against Britain with its V-1 (Vengeance) weapons. The technology was later developed by the US in the 1950s to produce a small number of strategic range nuclear cruise missiles known as Snark and Mace deployed from the late 1950s. Although promising and fairly fast, their internal navigation systems were not particularly accurate in a pre-microelectronic age.
501st TMW headquarters building
Cruise missiles developed in the 1970s were revolutionary by comparison and were produced by Boeing, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas in three varieties: air-launched (ALCM), sea-launched (SLCM), and ground launched (GLCM). The ground launched type produced by General Dynamics were known as the BGM-109G. The missiles themselves were small at only a little over 20 feet long and so were easily transported. These nuclear versions carried a variable yield W-84 nuclear warhead of 10 to 50 kilotons. The high accuracy of the missile meant that such small, tactical yields could be used with pinpoint accuracy. Their 1,550 mile range meant that many targets across the Warsaw Pact states of eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union were within range. The small size of the missile coupled with its subsonic speed and ground hugging flight meant that it was virtually invisible to Soviet radars. The need was urgent by 1980, the Soviet's were deploying new SS-20s at the rate of one a week.
Such a deployment required exceptional security around the clock, 365 days a year. The British government provided 220 paratroops to protect the base and on convoys whilst on exercises. In addition to the work at Greenham Common itself, the GLCMs required special targeting computers to guide their terrain following TERCOM radars to their targets. Western Europe had two such sites and the British site was at RAF Daws Hill in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The site had been used as a Bomber Command bunker during World War Two. US forces had held the site since the 1950s and work began in 1982 to strengthen the five storey bunker and harden it against electromagnetic pulses from a nuclear blast. In 1981, the USAF's 7555th Theatre Mission Planning Squadron moved to Level 3 of the bunker. Their role would be to produce disks containing topographical information which would then be input into GLCM control vehicles deployed in their forward locations.
"POISED TO DETER, QUICK TO REACT"
Almost nobody knew the exact date the missiles would arrive except the highest in office. Deployment was announced as late 1983 and as the year drew on, expectations of the arrival grew. Greenham Common then became the official home to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing. In May 1983, C-5A Galaxy transport planes appeared to be delivering equipment to the base but given the necessary level of secrecy, little details emerged. What was certain however was that all the construction and other preparations necessary were being carried out to a very tight deadline of December 1983. The preparations were examined by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine on March 24th and was shown around the construction of the silos by base commander Colonel Robert Thomson. Meanwhile, crews were being specially trained on how to handle the MAN tractors, missiles and related equipment by the 868th Tactical Missile Training Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. A tour at Greenham Common was said to be very good for the Air Force careers of those who served there. These highly skilled and educated missile crews began to arrive from July.
In November that year, the press reported that British and US governments had agreed on a deployment date of November 1st but that it had changed as a result of the Cuban invasion of Grenada and also to allow a House of Commons debate on the deployment on October 31st. A report on the front page of The Sunday Times on November 13th announced "Greenham- Cruise lands on Tuesday". In actual fact, the first GLCMs arrived at Greenham Common in the early hours of Monday 14th of November aboard a C-141 Starlifter. Security was very high with support being given by the British MoD Police, the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment of the British Army, as well as security personnel of the USAF. The missiles were quickly unloaded and taken beyond view. Further deliveries of warheads and other equipment continued in the days following.
From the time of the delivery of the first 16 missiles in November, the 501st Tactical Missile Wing began its training immediately to meet the operational deadline. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing succeeded at meeting its Interim Operational Capability date of December 1983. At the same time, Pershing II missiles in West Germany were being successfully deployed by the US Army. The following year, Greenham could boast a total of 32 missiles on strength. The deployment represented a major blow to the Soviet Union its efforts, both diplomatic and military had failed to divide European NATO members from the United States and its adversary was now equipped with a more modern and credible means of defence than ever before.
MAN tractor preparing for a GLCM exercise. Thanks to Brian Bowling .
Launch exercises could be held once or more a month. What became clear though was that it was hard for the convoys to go unnoticed with such large vehicles, 69 members of a flight, 22 vehicles per flight, and 44 armed guards and police. Attention was drawn to the secret locations the vehicles visited. One of the first exercises in early March 1984 saw a flight of GLCM vehicles leave Burys Bank Road gate and head west along the M4 motorway. The vehicles finally arrived at RAF Lyneham, the RAF's C-130 base south of Swindon. On many occasions, the exercises were followed by protesters from a group called Cruisewatch. One of the most frequent locations for exercises was on Salisbury Plain in Hampshire. This was not a great distance from Greenham and is a regular training ground to the Army. Other Cruise exercise sites included Bramshott Common and Longmoor Camp in Hampshire, as well as Royal Common and Rushmoor in Surrey.
In January 1986, a remarkable story broke in the military news magazine, Janes Defence Weekly.
"SPETZNATZ AT GREENHAM" was the cover story. The magazine claimed that agents of the Soviet special forces or Spetznatz were active among protesters camped around the base. The article told how 3-6 Spetznatz agents had been active at the base since missiles had been deployed in Dec 1983 and agents were regularly rotated to gain field experience. The article also claimed the Spetznatz agents were controlled by the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) and that mock ups of the defenses and missiles based at Greenham Common had been copied for Spetznatz training centres in the Ural, Volga, and Carpathian military districts. The agents at Greenham were to provide sabotage strikes on the GLCM sites as well as acting as beacons to other Spetznatz troops who would join them in the prelude to war.
The story was officially denied. Recent evidence however suggests that it may have been true. The article claimed that the information had come from Soviet defectors. A year earlier in 1985, British intelligence (SIS) scored a major blow on the Soviets by smuggling out senior KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky and brought him to Britain. He revealed the extent of the war planning and paranoia going on within the Soviet leadership. In 1992, Britain also gained the intelligence treasure from former KGB archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin. His handwritten notes taken from the KGB archives revealed that the Soviets had hidden and buried secret catches of arms and communications equipment across Western Europe. They were booby-trapped and could only be recovered by trained experts. In addition, in 1996 it was revealed that in the 1970s, the Soviet Union had produced "suitcase bombs", portable nuclear bombs of around a six kiloton yield that could be set off remotely to destroy enemy infrastructure within those countries. This would then negate the need to launch direct nuclear attacks. We now also know that the Soviet leadership was seriously considering a nuclear attack on NATO in late 1983 as it conducted the Able Archer 83 exercise and to prevent GLCMs from actually being deployed.
The Soviet political landscape was gradually changing after 1985 and events behind the Iron Curtain were to have far reaching and unimagined consequences for Greenham Common and the world as a whole. March 1985 saw Mikhail Gorbachev become leader of the Soviet Union, a man who not only hoped for change at home, but demanded it. In order to save the collapsing Soviet economy, he had to cut the huge Soviet military budget, running around 20% of GDP (in comparison to around 6% in the US). Such cuts meant diplomatic rapprochement with NATO and the United States. President Reagan and Gorbachev met in a Geneva summit in 1985 and at Iceland in 1986. They had talked about arms cuts but had not been able to come to an agreement. On December 7th 1987 in Washington DC, a breakthrough came when the Soviet Union finally agreed to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, meaning the US and Soviet Union would scrap all Intermediate range nuclear missiles. The INF Treaty (ratified by both powers in 1988) meant that the Soviets would have to destroy all their SS-4s, SS-5s, and SS-20s regardless of their location. NATO would have to destroy its GLCMs and Pershing missiles. Each had to do so within three years of treaty ratification.
The INF Treaty left many questions over the future of Greenham Common. It meant that by May 1991, its GLCM role would be over. Although the treaty signaled a new era of relations between East and West, it did not mean the end of the Cold War. Soviet intentions overall were still not clear.
Part of the treaty stipulated that missile sites were subject to short notice INF Inspection teams from each country. Although the GLCMs at RAF Molesworth were the first to go in 1988, the Soviets were allowed baseline pre-removal inspections and made their first visit to Greenham Common in July 1988. This was an incredible reality that we would allow Soviet officials to view our most secure weapons bases and allow them to fly in! A Soviet TV crew were also allowed to film the occasion. The 30 inspectors led by Vysacheslav Lebedev were treated to a cooperative reception which even included a traditional British pint at the Coach and Horses pub near Thatcham.
A Tupolev 154 airliner carrying Soviet INF Inspectors to Greenham Common
The Soviet teams had to give 16 hours notice of an inspection and would split in to two teams, one of which would go to RAF Molesworth. Soviet inspectors had 24 hours to inspect but were not allowed to view actual missiles or warheads. By 1988, Greenham had its full compliment of 96 missiles plus five spares. Inspection teams examined missile training canisters and were allowed to have USAF personnel take photos to their specifications. American verification reams actually had more work to do as the INF Treaty meant the Soviets had to destroy 2,000 missiles to the US 800. Satellite verification was also used to check treaty fulfillment, though no arms control verification method is ever cheat proof.
The first GLCMs were taken from Molesworth on September 8th 1988 and flown to their destruction in the US. Soviet Inspectors made further inspection in November and in the course of the coming three years. The INF Treaty actually gives the right to inspections until 2006. The Russians last made an inspection of Greenham in 1998. In late July 1989, the first shipment of four of Greenham's GLCMs were crated up and loaded into a waiting C-5 Galaxy bound for destruction at Davis Monthan. The event was celebrated as a tangible sign of rapprochement between East and West.
Despite the changes, a number of improvements to the quality of life for those at Greenham were made. In February 1986, a shed building was gutted and fully refurbished to make a bowling centre. By 1989, a purpose built school known as Greenham Common High School was built at the very east end of the base. A school had operated before in a converted barracks, but this new site had fully modern facilities. Officers at Greenham Common also enjoyed one of the most unique messes available to personnel in Europe. Greenham Lodge was a Grade 2 listed building built in 1879. It was refurbished at a cost of £1.6m from 1982, and later won a USAF Design Award.
The removal of the missiles meant that the number of personnel at the base would be gradually scaled back. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Greenham was home to over 2,000 personnel plus dependents. In 1988, there was talk in NATO circles of allowing the base to become home to further squadrons of F-111s. It was reported that up to 60 more planes might be welcomed to Britain and that Greenham might be the base. This was a sensitive issue amid previous protests and in the light of improving East West relations. In October 1989, a headline in The Times suggested that a base in Britain, possibly Greenham, might be used for F-15Es deployed with the air-to-surface SRAM-T missile.
However, events the following month in November 1989 took the world by surprise. The unbelievable occurred on November 9th when East German citizens tore down the Berlin Wall. The divisions that had stood between East and West for 45 years were being removed and the Cold War was coming to its end.
In 1990, it was announced that after the missiles had all gone in 1991, the base would revert to a NATO standby facility under the USAF, to be manned by 400 personnel. There were even calls from some locals to have the area returned to common land but this seemed unlikely. In 1990, many of the MAN vehicles were taken to RAF Kemble in Gloucestershire which was a USAF depot. The trucks and tractors were stored in the hangars awaiting their final disposal. In December 1990, a number of other vehicles were shipped out of Greenham bound for use by US forces in Saudi Arabia preparing for the liberation of Kuwait.
MAN vehicles await disposal at RAF Kemble in 1990. Photo by Brian Bowling
Finally, the very last shipment of the remaining 16 GLCMs left Greenham on March 5th 1991. The base was home to just 400 personnel. In the autumn of that year, the Department of Defense decided to close RAF Greenham Common permanently by September the following year. On at least one occasion, the best was opened to tours for local people to come and see the base behind the fence. There was no longer anything to hide. Later that year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist: the old Cold War foe came to terms with the west and moved to democracy, albeit an unstable one.
RAF Greenham Common was closed for the final time on September 12th 1992, and was handed back to the RAF in a closing ceremony before remaining USAF personnel flew home. The Ministry of Defence finally sold the land in 1997 but the runways were broken up in the Spring of 1995. The concrete was used to build the Newbury Bypass. In September 1997 and again in 2000, much of the fencing was removed by volunteers and the area was renamed New Greenham Park. Today, the site is home to a business park including a Jaguar-Land Rover dealer, a travel agent, and a huge new car storage depot and car dealership. The old barrack blocks left of the main gate were used by a paintball company for some years until they were demolished in 1998-99.
In the years that have passed since the closure in 1992, the base has occasionally been used as a film location. The GAMA has been an interesting location to use and was featured in an episode of the motoring show Top Gear. The highest profile filming was discovered by chance one day in the late summer of 2014 when a light aircraft from Popham airfield noticed a lot of activity inside the GAMA and what looked like a film set. The familiar shape of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon was noticed and photographed it was soon realized that the GAMA at Greenham was recast in a new (or old) war from a galaxy far, far away Star Wars The Force Awakens with location shooting with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.
I am also delighted to reveal that the control tower at Greenham has also been restored and is now open to the public as a visitors center.
Want to know more about Greenham Common and the history of the base and RAF Welford?
A book is now available. In Defense of Freedom - A History of RAF Greenham Common
Air War Over Iraq: 1941
Frank Wootton's painting "The Battle of Habbaniya, May 1941" shows Hawker Audaxes and Airspeed Oxfords bombing Iraqi artillery along a high plateau within firing range of the Royal Air Force's No. 4 Service Flying Training School.
Wealdown Limited Editions, UK
In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands—a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.
At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base’s ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm — neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.
In the spring of 1941, the RAF’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors — few of whom had combat experience — and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.
There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II — yet few have heard of it.
The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain’s oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d’tat that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece — which had just fallen to the Third Reich — to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.
Two Hawker Audax Mk.Is of No. 4 Service Flying Training School perform reconnaissance near the Euphrates River. (Imperial War Museum)
Until Rashid Ali’s coup, British forces in the region — falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies — anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel’s recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.
As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.
Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base’s civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base’s cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya’s greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.
During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base’s landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew’s initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp’s main gate and handed over a letter that read: ‘For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it.’
Such comportment of forces on a ‘training exercise’ struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: ‘Any interference with training flights will be considered an `act of war’ and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.’
Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base’s seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations — behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.
Habbaniya’s RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.
On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty’s diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw — without response.
Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office — again, civilians — authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.
Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.
Supporting those ground forces were elements of the Royal Iraqi air force, including 63 British, Italian and American-built warplanes equal to or newer than those at Habbaniya. Number 1 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at Mosul had 25 airworthy Hawker Nisrs, export variants of the Audax powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. Number 4 (Fighter) Squadron at Kirkuk possessed nine Gladiators. At Baghdad No. 5 (Fighter) Squadron had 15 Breda Ba.65 attack planes, while at Rashid No. 7 (Fighter-Bomber) Squadron could field 15 Douglas 8A-4s, as well as four Savoia S.M.79B twin-engine bombers purchased from Italy in 1937. On paper, at least, the Iraqi air force had the RAF outclassed at Habbaniya.
Smart contacted his ambassador in Baghdad to issue an ultimatum for the Iraqis to start withdrawing from Habbaniya by 8 a.m. on May 2. In that way should they refuse to heed the deadline, the whole day would be available for combat. Smart was still unsure of how far London would support him if he engaged the armed forces of a country not clearly defined as an Axis power. His maddening uncertainty was tardily banished by a May 1 telegram from Churchill: ‘If you have to strike, strike hard.’
That emboldened the harried commander to make the first move. He had learned from a radio message that 10 Vickers Wellington bombers from No. 70 Squadron had arrived at Basra. With expectations of their support, he would launch an airstrike at dawn on May 2. Although an aerial assault against well-dug-in armored forces had never succeeded before, Smart was upbeat, remarking, ‘They should be in full retreat within about three hours.’
Smart refused to withdraw the aircrewmen and least-experienced students from the trenches despite their doubtful ability, even bolstered by 400 Arab auxiliaries, to stop an armored charge. Knowing that their ground crews’ availability to service returning machines would be critical in the fight to come, Smart’s squadron commanders furtively toured the perimeter late on the night of May 1 and led the necessary personnel away from their fighting positions.
At 4:30 on the morning of May 2, 1941, the first flying machine cranked its engines on Habbaniya airfield. Thirty minutes later 35 Audaxes, Gordons and Oxfords were showering bombs on the Iraqis, joined by Wellingtons of Nos. 70 and 37 squadrons from Basra. The Iraqis were well dug-in on broken ground that provided good cover and concealment, so the British saw few potential targets at first. The Iraqis, unable to draw beads on the airplanes in the darkness, retaliated by shelling the air base, but the gun flashes gave away their positions. The Audaxes dropped explosives on the anti-aircraft gun pits while the Wellingtons’ turret gunners strafed them. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners used many tracers, again marking their positions for the British airmen to attack or avoid. After bombing from just 1,000 feet for maximum accuracy, the British carefully scanned the plateau for suitable future targets.
As soon as an aircraft landed, one of its two crewmen (they alternated) would hurry to the operations control room, report on the results of his raid and suggest targets for the next flight. Meanwhile, the other crew member would oversee ground personnel in making repairs, refueling and rearming the aircraft. The planes’ engines were generally kept running. As soon as the first crew member returned with a new assignment, the two would board their machine and return to the fray.
The Wellingtons performed well on the first day, but being big they attracted the eagle’s share of groundfire as well as half-hearted attacks from two Iraqi Gladiators and two Douglas 8As. One damaged ‘Wimpy’ was forced to land at Habbaniya and then set on fire by Iraqi artillery shells nine other damaged bombers were declared unserviceable when they returned to Basra. Groundfire brought down an Oxford flown by Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, and Pilot Officer P.R. Gillespy’s Audax failed to return.
Smart’s estimate that the Iraqis would cut and run within three hours proved seriously overoptimistic. By 12:30 p.m., after 7 1/2 hours of almost-constant aerial assault, they were still shelling the base, and at 10 a.m. their air force had joined in, destroying three aircraft on the airfield. One of the Gladiator pilots, Flying Officer R.B. Cleaver, was trying to intercept an S.M.79B when his guns failed, but Flying Officer J.M. Craigie caused a Ba.65 to break off its strafing attack.
By day’s end, the British had flown 193 recorded operational sorties — six per man. The RAF had lost 22 of its 64 aircraft, and 10 pilots were dead or critically wounded, but only a crippling injury was deemed sufficient to send a man to the infirmary.
Although the Iraqis had been sorely hurt and showed no inclination to launch a ground attack, they were still firmly ensconced atop their elevation with a variety of fieldpieces trained on the smoking flying school. Furthermore, that afternoon Iraqi troops invaded the British Embassy in Baghdad and confiscated every wireless transceiver and telephone, leaving the only two significant English outposts in the region isolated from each other.
By that evening, Dudgeon and Hawtrey were the only squadron commanders not dead or hospitalized. They decided that the next day Hawtrey would command all remaining Audaxes and Gladiators from the base’s polo field, which was visually screened from the artillery by a row of trees. Dudgeon would direct all Oxfords and Gordons from the cratered landing field.
Meanwhile, the Committee of Imperial Defense had transferred command of land forces in Iraq to Middle East Command, compelling Wavell to assemble whatever elements he could spare into a relief unit, called Habforce, to march the 535 miles from Haifa to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali’s leaders also appealed for help, but the Germans were preparing for their invasions of Crete and the Soviet Union, and the Italian response was slow. Only the Vichy French in Syria agreed to send arms and German-supplied intelligence to the Iraqis. They also promised the use of Syrian airfields to any aircraft that the Germans or Italians were willing to commit to Iraq.
German aircraft also got into the act, bombing and machine gunning aircraft and buildings—including these hangars. (Imperial War Museum)
On May 3, Smart, noting that the Iraqi artillery had not caused as much damage as he feared it would, called for the RAF to launch some preemptive strikes against the Iraqi air bases. Three Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron bombed Rashid, also claiming to have shot down a Nisr and damaged another. The Iraqi airmen struck back, but Cleaver attacked an S.M.79B, which he last saw diving away with its left engine smoking. One of the Gordon pilots, Flight Lt. David Evans, developed a novel and risky but effective method of dive-bombing. After the ground crewmen had affixed fuzes with a seven-second delay to the 250-pound bombs, he would remove the safety devices. That meant that if a bomb came loose from its fitting, it would probably explode seven seconds later. After takeoff, Evans would climb to about 3,000 feet and scan Iraqi positions. Then, diving at about 200 mph, he would yank back on the stick and drop a bomb from six to 10 feet over the target — too close to miss. Seven seconds later, just as Evans made it to a safe distance, the bomb would obliterate the target and rattle his teeth. This method so terrified the Iraqis that they took to their heels without bothering to fire at the plunging Gordon.
Although Rashid Ali’s troops kept shelling Habbaniya, they balked at storming the base. Their confidence was further undermined by the arrival of four Blenheim Mk.IVF fighters from No. 203 Squadron on May 3. Eight of No. 37 Squadron’s Wellingtons bombed buildings and strafed aircraft at Rashid on May 4 but lost a plane to a combination of 20mm groundfire and an Iraqi Gladiator of No. 4 Squadron. The Wellington crew was taken prisoner. Two Blenheim Mk.IVFs from Habbaniya also strafed Iraqi aircraft at Rashid and Baghdad airfields. At that same time, six Vickers Valentias and six Douglas DC-2s of No. 31 Squadron were flying troops into Iraq and ferrying out civilian evacuees. One of the DC-2s flew into Habbaniya with, among other supplies, ammunition for a couple of World War I–era fieldpieces that for years had stood as ornaments outside the officers’ mess. To the garrison’s surprise the old guns proved still operable, and when they opened up on the plateau, the Iraqis were convinced the British were being reinforced with artillery. The trainers only flew 53 sorties that day, but they also flew night missions to deprive their besiegers of sleep.
Still, the defenders were suffering much worse than their foes seemed to realize. After four days of combat, just four of the original 26 Oxfords were still battle-worthy. The Audax, Gladiator and Gordon contingents were similarly depleted. Pilots were also becoming even scarcer, as half-trained cadets died in action or suffered from cracked nerves.
On May 6, an Audax returned from a dawn reconnaissance mission with news that the Iraqis were withdrawing. That encouraged Colonel O.L. Roberts of the 1st King’s Own Royals, commander of ground forces at Habbaniya, to mount an assault, backed by the Audaxes, to drive the enemy from the plateau. The timing was perfect — the Iraqis, their morale broken at last, suddenly abandoned the heights in a disorderly withdrawal down the Baghdad road toward Fallujah. Meanwhile, six Wellingtons from No. 37 Squadron hit Rashid again.
That afternoon the British spotted a column of Iraqi reinforcements approaching from Fallujah, which soon ran into the forces retreating from Habbaniya. In complete disregard for military procedure, both groups stopped on the highway, and personnel jumped from their vehicles to confer, leaving all their trucks, tanks and armored cars parked in plain view. At that point, Savile hurled every remaining Audax, Gladiator, Gordon and Oxford he had — 40 aircraft — at the bunched-up mass of vehicles. The young airmen in their old planes knew they would not have a better — or another — chance like this, and they made the most of it with all the shells and bombs they could carry. The two airstrikes took two hours, with the British flying 139 separate sorties. One Audax was damaged by groundfire, but they left the Iraqi convoy in flames.
Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.
Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.
The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.
In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya’s makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.
On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, LuftwaffeColonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel’s new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, ‘The Führer desires a heroic gesture,’ Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, ‘An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British.’ The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya’s garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: ‘Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent.’
Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.
On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft — including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s — attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.
Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners’ crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage’s fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage’s death was not in vain, however — one Heinkel’s engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.
A British soldier examines an abandoned He-111H, one of a group of Luftwaffe aircraft sent to reinforce Rashid Ali's revolt. (Imperial War Museum)
On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith’s quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie’s disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.
Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart’s emotional collapse was hardly surprising — he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier — yet until Churchill’s tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D’Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya’s aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.
On May 20 Habbaniya’s Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya’s planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas — a Greek pilot-in-exile — and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.
Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. ‘Freddie’ Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.
On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF’s now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad’s airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers’ monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq’s pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.
The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.
The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain’s vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.
This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!
The British Flying Training Schools in the U.S.A. 1941-1944
In late August 1942, the writer, with many other aircrew under training, left the Air Crew Despatch Centre at Heaton Park, Manchester, for Gourock. There we embarked in an American troopship, the “Thomas H Barry”, for an Atlantic crossing. She had been designed for the Caribbean and was not the ideal length for the Atlantic seas this led to a good deal of what might euphemistically be called discomfort among the passengers. The writer volunteered to work in the galley (giving the benefit of fresh-water rather than sea-water showers) and turned out to be impervious to seasickness. On arrival in New York, we had the exciting experience of travelling by train through the ‘dim-out’ - bright to our eyes - of coastal USA and Canada to Moncton in New Brunswick. After a couple of weeks at No. 31 Personnel Depot there, another rail journey took us to our destinations, by regular express trains rather than the troop-carrying superannuated Canadian stock used for the trip to Canada.
For 50 of us, the destination was No. 6 British Flying Training School (BFTS), Ponca City in Oklahoma, where we were to stay for 6 months, becoming Course No. 10. Other than knowing that the mid-West was a centre of isolationism, portending some opposition to the Brits, we knew nothing of the place. On arrival, however, we found nothing but the kindest of welcomes from the citizens, leading to friendships that last until this day.
It is not widely known that, from early in war, well before the entry of the United States in December 1941, Air Force officers in both countries had discussed the training of RAF pilots in the open and friendly skies of the U.S.A., in parallel with similar arrangements for the Empire Air Training Scheme in Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Interestingly, similar arrangements had led to the training of RAF pilots in the U.S.A. during WWI.
Approval was finally given by President Roosevelt in May 1941 and seven British Flying Training Schools were set up in short order. Other training would take place with the USAAC in their own schools, under the Arnold Scheme, named after General Hap Arnold.
Unlike the Arnold Scheme, where the 3 levels of training took place at different USAAC (later USAAF) stations, the BFTS training all took place at the one station.
The six BFTSs were, with opening dates:
1 BFTS Terrell, Texas 9 June 1941 *
2 BFTS Lancaster, California 9 June 1941 *
3 BFTS Miami. Oklahoma 16 June 1941 *
4 BFTS Mesa, Arizona 16 June 1941 *
5 BFTS Clewiston, Florida 17 July 1941 *
6 BFTS Ponca City, Oklahoma 23 August 1941
7 BFTS Sweetwater, Texas May 1942 but closed August 1942
* All but No. 6 started their training at other bases until their permanent bases were opened in July/August 1941.
No. 6 was operated under contract to the RAF by Harold S Darr, then president of Braniff Airlines, and was known as the Darr School. Except for a nucleus of RAF staff, all the instructors, ground staff and supporting staff were American civilians. The aircraft were provided by the USAAC, later the USAAF. The RAF staff comprised the Commanding Officer, Administrative Officer and three or four other officers, and NCOs for armaments, signals and other specialist training, discipline and pay
Training was similar in all BFTSs and occupied 28 weeks. Originally, there were three parts: Primary on Stearman PT17, Basic on Vultee BT13 and Advanced on North American AT6A. From Course No. 9, Basic was deleted, cadets going from 12 weeks Primary to 16 weeks Advanced. After the initial build up, when the first Courses of 50 cadets arrived in quicker succession, new Courses arrived at 7 weeks intervals. From No. 11, Courses comprised about 80 RAF and 20 USAAF Cadets and arrived at 9 week intervals.
The first Course ran from 26 August 1941 to 23 January 1942. Because the USA did not enter the war until 7 December 1941, cadets had to wear civilian clothes off camp - suits believed to have been provided from Burtons or The Fifty Shilling Tailors.
The School closed in April 1944. In all, 17 Courses had attended No. 16 completed its training there, but No. 17 Course completed at the other BFTSs, which remained open until November 1944.
Seven RAF cadets were killed in training and are buried at the IOOF Cemetery, Ponca City. This was the lowest accident rate of all BFTSs and perhaps of all training in USA and Canada. The graves are carefully maintained and a ceremony is held each Memorial Day.
Three USAAF Aviation Cadets also were killed, and five civilian instructors including Henry Jerger, the Chief Pilot, the equivalent of an RAF Chief Flying Instructor. Very well respected, he was killed when the aircraft suffered a failure and his passenger, a mechanic, would not bail out. Mr Jerger was seen to try to get him out and finally jumped himself, but too late.
At 6 BFTS, 1113 RAF pilots and 125 USAAF pilots are believed to have undergone training in the 33 months of its existence. Records are incomplete, but the failure rate was about 30%. A ‘Nominal Roll’ has been assembled, using a variety of sources, and is held by the No. 6 BFTS (Ponca City) Association. The Association exists partly because we were together for 6 months but mainly because of our memories of the hospitality that the citizens extended to us. We were adopted by families, and the ties still exist. We would be pleased to hear from any survivors, or the families of ex-cadets, who have so far not contacted us. Contact addresses for this Association, and for those of other BFTSs, can be found on the Internet (try “6 BFTS”).
Altogether, some 18,000 RAF cadets passed through the BFTS and Arnold Schemes. Another 1,000 USAAF cadets were also trained at the BFTSs.
Most of the survivors of our Course, 33 in all, returned to England via Canada, New York and the “Queen Mary”. Two of us were delayed by sickness in Canada and returned with a later Course on the “Louis Pasteur” to Liverpool. From there, to Harrogate where our futures were disclosed to us and those of us who had been commissioned were kitted out with our Gieves uniforms. As we had all been trained on single-engines aircraft, those who were not selected as fighter pilots proceeded to twin-engine training the others continued training for combat on singles. And so our RAF flying careers began.
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RAF Issued Watch
Most pilot’s watches you’ve probably seen, have black dials. At the start of WWII however, the RAF tendered watchmakers to come up with a watch that had railroad markers, Arabic numerals, a white face for legibility (especially at night) and just 3 hands. Omega became one of the suppliers of these watches and issued their reference CK2292 watch with reliable (and still praised) 30T2 SC movement to the RAF. Pilots and navigators in (at least) bomber command, that required reliable and synchronized watches, received this Omega 30T2 SC from the RAF. It was necessary that their watches were synced before each mission (and kept time) to drop their loads at exactly the right time. This was a serious problem when performing night raids with multiple squadrons on a 7,5-hour return trip to Berlin.
Frank W. Walton’s Omega CK2292
Frank W. Walton also received this Omega reference CK2292 watch and wore it on every single one of his 71 sorties/missions. This alone was a remarkable achievement by this RAF pilot, as the average was 3 missions before a pilot was shot down, and in addition to his DFC & bar, was awarded with his oak leaves and mentioned in dispatches. Frank’s watch never let him down it always worked perfectly.
Frank on the left and his navigator Rivett on the right. Wearing the Omega CK2292 watches.
Frank W. Walton’s Squadron
Julian (Frank’s grandson who contacted me) went through some of his grandfather’s kit and memorabilia from the RAF and after WWII, with British South American Airways (BSAA), British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and lastly British Airways (BA). Julian’s father (Geoffrey) had categorized all items meticulously and I have the pleasure of showing you some of them in this article.
What about the framed copy of a map from Bomber Command’s HQ, signed by Marshall of the RAF Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ T. Harris (C-in-C Bomber Command) and Air Vice Marshall D ‘Don’ C.T. Bennett (CO Path Finder Force) which shows every mission Frank flew on, every airfield he flew from and every Aircraft he flew in always wearing his Omega CK2292 30T2 SC watch.
Frank’s helmet, goggles and Omega 2292 watch.
Another interesting photo that Julian shares is the one that shows Frank with his RAF flight training squadron. You can see that some of the squadron members have bowler hats drawn on their heads. It was a rather morbid way to deal with the losses, as the friends who never returned from a mission received a bowler hat by Frank and his main navigator “Hitch” Hitchcock. They stopped after a while as too many were being killed. They are in the second row down in the middle (obviously without bowler hats on) – Frank with the full wings (pilot) and Hitch with the half wings (navigator).
Bowler hats for those who didn’t make it.
Once operational and in the first days of bombing operations the men were often thrown together on missions (“Right lads, next plane is a Lancaster. We need a pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, engineer, front gunner, middle gunner, back gunner – crew up!”). But very quickly they stuck together as a band of brothers and it was unlucky to do otherwise. Frank’s main navigators were Hitch (on his first tour of duty) and on his second tour, it was mainly Rivett – who is seen in one of the photos with Frank both wearing their Omegas 30T2s. On the photo with the rest of the 109 Squadron, you can see Frank wearing his Omega. He is in the first row (below), in the centre with his legs straight and his hat at a jaunty angle.
Frank is in the middle first row as Pathfinders Squadron Leader (109th)
Good Luck Charm
After the war, the aforementioned Air Vice Marshall D ‘Don’ C.T. Bennett formed British South American Airways (BSAA) and gathered his talented pilots from the Pathfinder force to join him. Among them, Frank W. Walton. On the photo that his grandson sent us, you will see him flying the first commercial flight into Santiago after the war. That Lancastrian (a converted Lancaster bomber) was the first airliner to cross the Andes, so the crew and passengers had to use oxygen masks as the cabin was unpressurised.
Frank kept wearing his Omega CK2292 30T2 watch on all his flights after WWII, because he felt it was the most accurate of his timepieces, but also as a good luck charm. When he wasn’t flying, he wore a gold Omega Seamaster with black dial (pictured), but as soon as he had to leave for a flight, he would swap that dress watch for the watch he received from the RAF. He actually received this gold Seamaster from fellow pathfinder Len Gatrill, who gave it as a sign of their friendship.
Escape Money and a Blue Polka Dot Flying Scarf
Frank’s grandson Julian, (who emailed me), writes that his grandfather was a charming and charismatic man. The photos show this as well, both posing with his friends in WWII and very ‘Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever’ in the picture below during his time with BOAC (shown holding a briefcase).
Besides his grandfather’s Omega CK2292 – which still keeps perfect time and gets some wear from time to time – Julian also has his grandfather’s helmet, goggles, uniform and bomber jacket (not in the photos), silk hanky escape map, escape money (note the comment on the envelope, that it must be returned unopened to the police) in French, Belgian and Dutch currency and his blue polka dot flying scarf.
Very Rare & Authentic RAF Operations Room Fusee Elliott Type I Sector Clock c.1941
Very Rare and Authentic RAF Operations Room Type I Sector Clock with Fusee Elliott Movement c.1941.
Due to the bombing raids inflicted on London during WW1, the need arose for Britain to establish an air defence system that would enable it to track and intercept enemy aircraft.
The first early warning system was introduced in 1918 by Major General Ashmore who established the Metropolitan Observation Service (MOS), which later went on to become the Royal Observer Corps in 1941. This system was reliant upon the coordinated efforts of all the observers in the MOS, the Navy, the Police, the anti-aircraft units and the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps. This information was passed to a central operations room where it could be analysed and actioned accordingly.
During the inter-war years, Britain’s Air Defence was expanded and significantly enhanced by AM Dowding and the introduction of radar in 1936. Despite being revered for his role as Commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, Dowding’s greatest achievement was to develop an integrated air defence system. This system would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world and played a pivotal role in Britain winning the Battle of Britain.
The system involved the flow of reports from radar stations and other detection sources such as The Observer Corps, radio direction finding stations and Barrage Balloon posts into filter centres where the information was assessed and plotted on a large map-table by means of counters. These counters were coloured red, yellow and blue in order to correspond with the five-minute coloured segments displayed on the sector clock.
All incoming reports were designated a counter depending on what coloured segment the minute hand of the clock was on when the report was received. This made it possible to plot and track the path of an incoming enemy raid.
This information was then passed on to the relevant operations rooms at Sector and Group HQ’s of RAF Fighter Command.
The system proved extremely effective and enabled RAF Fighter Command to intercept enemy aircraft quickly and efficiently. This was decisive in Britain maintaining control of the skies during the Battle of Britain and beyond.
Contrary to popular belief, the large majority of mechanical RAF sector clocks such as the one for sale here were not actively used for the purpose of air defence. All the sector clocks used in Dowding’s air defence system were electric slave clocks provided under contract by the GPO.
Dowding’s air defence system was a closely guarded secret. It is now believed that mechanical clocks with similar dials were produced and issued for use throughout the RAF as a subterfuge in order to disguise the important use of sector clocks in air defence.
Genuine and original examples of these wonderful clocks are incredibly scarce and are seldom offered for sale on the open market.
Consequently, the RAF sector clock for sale represents an exceptionally rare opportunity to acquire a truly iconic piece of Britain’s wartime heritage and history.
The RAF Sector clock for sale is in fabulous original condition having been sympathetically serviced by one of our highly skilled and experienced horologists.
The silkscreen dial has aged beautifully and remains in fair condition. As expected, there is some flaking and staining to the dial in places. These dials were susceptible to rust and as such can often be found in a very poor state of repair.
The dark stained mahogany surround and outer casing of the RAF Sector clock is solid and stable. The casing has numerous scratches and marks which are commensurate with age. The reverse of the casing is dated and stamped with the makers mark of F W Elliott Ltd.
The high-quality cast brass bezel retains its original wartime black matt finish which is often stripped off when these clocks are being restored.
The movement is signed “F W Elliott” with the serial number 17608 and dated 1941.
The RAF Sector clock is sold complete with its original pendulum and a winding key (replacement) and comes with a free six-month warranty.
The Truth About the America First MovementCOMMENTARY BY
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
Only days after America’s entry into World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered his new American allies some advice. “War is a constant struggle and must be waged day to day,” Churchill counseled. “It is only with some difficulty and within limits that provisions for the future can be made.”
It was an axiom that Charles A. Lindbergh, the famed-aviator and the most recognizable spokesperson of the America First Committee would have agreed with.
Right up until the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh, the America First Committee and a cadre of noninterventionist leaders in the Congress spearheaded the political opposition to efforts to trim the official U.S. stance of neutrality in the war.
Although the term “America First” has been resurrected in the 2016 presidential campaign, its historical origins have been buried under years of American politics and sketchy history. The America First movement has been described as isolationist, anti-interventionist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and a bunch of know-nothings. That narrative fails on several levels.
Like any mass political movement, America First was an amalgamation of groups and fellow travelers who sometimes shared little more in common than an opposition to America’s entry into the war. The ranks of the antiwar movement included pacifists and communists (at least until Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941), wild-haired liberals, straight-laced conservatives and everything in between.
The antiwar movement was far from homogenous. For instance, in January 1941 Lindbergh issued a press statement distancing himself from the No Foreign Wars Committee headed by the journalist Verne Marshall and pro-Nazi businessman William Rhodes Davis. Lindbergh had helped the group get started, but then cut ties over Marshall’s volatile leadership and vitriolic attacks, including swipes at Lindbergh and other leaders in the America First Committee.
Further, while the America first crowd could be fractious, it was hardly a fringe political movement. Right up to the US entry into World War II, the majority of Americans supported the group’s basic aim. Even as war looked more likely, Lindbergh argued it was not what Americans wanted. “The pall of the war seems to hang over us today. More and more people are simply giving in to it. Many say we are as good as in already. The attitude of the country seems to waver back and forth,” he wrote in his diary on January 6, 1941. “Our greatest hope lies in the fact [that] eighty-five percent of the people in the United States (according to the latest polls) are against intervention.” Right up until the day of Pearl Harbor, many Americans sided with Lindbergh.
Most importantly, the core of the America First movement was not ideologically isolationist or antimilitary. Lindbergh, in particular, based his opposition to the war on a strategic assessment of how best to weather the great storm. In fact, he wanted a significant American military build-up. An expert in airpower, he believed that a combination of beefed-up air defense and a robust strategic bomber force could keep the enemy at bay.
There was an honest debate to be had about whether America should fight at all. Not surprising, though, it became—like many policy debates through the ages—highly partisan, bitter and personal. Lindbergh was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Meanwhile, some Congressional leaders like Sen. Gerald Nye (R-N.D.), an avid America Firster, charged “the Jews in Hollywood” with being hell-bent on dragging America into the war by making films like Sergeant York.
But the biggest problem with the anti-interventionists’ case wasn’t the vitriolic rhetoric, but that way the war evolved it undercut the strategic rationale of Lindbergh’s vision of continental defense. By 1941, Lindbergh argument was on demonstrably shaky ground. Months before Pearl Harbor, it was becoming quite apparent that, if the United States had to fight against multiple foes without any major allies, even just defending the Western hemisphere or the continental United States (options favored by anti-interventionists like Lindbergh) was increasingly impractical. Serious military planners in the services had already discounted such options.
On reflection, considering the global visions of Axis Powers, that was the right call. The Japanese high command land-disposal plan alone called for Tokyo to control East Asia, the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Western Hemisphere including lands in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is difficult to imagine how the United States could have endured as a free and independent nation surrounded by hostile powers that controlled most of the earth’s population, productive resources and major trade routes.
That said, it is worth remembering that Lindbergh’s arguments were, at their core, strategic ones—not a fixed formula for what America should always do. Lindbergh was just interested in determining a course of action that put the interests of Americans first. Arguably, he did what good strategic leaders should do—try to do the right thing for the right reasons. The opposite of Lindbergh was not President Roosevelt or Prime Minister Churchill, both of whom shared Lindbergh’s passion for determining how to guide their nations in weathering the great storm of war, but “strategists” like Obama who have a fixed course for how to deal with the world, regardless of the actions of adversaries, the input of allies or what conditions on the ground might dictate.
Lindbergh was no slave to doctrine. Days after Pearl Harbor, he wrote in his diary, “I can see nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight. If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war.” Many of the leaders of the America First Committee volunteered to serve in the armed forces. Lindbergh managed to find ways to contribute to the war effort, even flying combat missions in the South Pacific.
In some ways, Lindbergh’s anti-interventionism was of a piece with George Washington’s warning in his farewell presidential address of the need to avoid “entangling alliances.” Each man was arguing for the strategic option that he thought right for the time, not an immutable rule of foreign-policy law.
America’s next president will face daunting challenges—particularly in the three parts of the world that impact US vital interests most—Asia, Europe and the Greater Middle East. He or she will need a serious plan to reassert American influence in all three regions.
What the next president will find is that there are few axiomatic answers for any strategic problem from dealing with dictators to managing civil-military relations. America needs a president who is a principled strategist first—one who does the right things for the right reasons—and does put America first. No president can succeed by dogmatically dealing with the world as he or she envisions it might be. The Commander in Chief and the National Security Council must deal with the world as it is.