Greenham Common has a rich history stretching back over centuries
Before the building of an airfield, Greenham Common was a piece of common land. It was used for troop movements during the English Civil War and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For some of that time it also had a firing range at its Western end.
Greenham Control Tower was built between 1951 and 1953 to replace the original WW2 tower that was located on the opposite side of what was then a military airfield.
The building lay empty for many years after RAF Greenham Common closed in September 1992, but was bought by Greenham Parish Council in 2014. Work then began with the support of funding from a number of national and local funders to transform the building into a heritage visitor destination, a Café for users of the common and a community space. The doors were opened to the public in September 2018.
The presence of the RAF/ USAAF at the Common
World War Two
With the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, the British Army planned to take over several acres of the site for training but the site was soon handed over to the Air Ministry when Bomber Command planned to develop an airfield for flight training from 1941. An airfield with three runways was completed by 1942, by which time, the US was now sending its first units to the UK after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
Turned over to the USAAF
In late 1943, Greenham Common airfield was formally turned over to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Ninth Air Force. An American advance party soon arrived to ready the airfield for the incoming units. Greenham Common was known as USAAF Station 486 for security reasons by the USAAF during the war, and it was referred to by this name instead of by location. Its USAAF station code was GC. The airfield was briefly handed back to the RAF in 1943 to train Bomber Command crews in the essential skill of night landing as many crews were being lost on retuning from missions. The airfield then played host to the RAF’s Airspeed Oxford training aircraft before the base was returned to American use by brief stays by units operating the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolts into early 1944.
In preperation for D Day
In 1944, the USAAF 438th Troop Carrier Group flew into Greenham Common from RAF Langar. With four Squadrons of Douglas C-47 Skytrains that would be critical in transporting men of the US Army 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions that were camped all across the South and South West of England in the build up to D Day in June 1944 and Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in late 1944. A second base was also effectively located at Greenham Common known as USAAF Station 429. Run by a unit known as the 26th Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron (Heavy), the men of the unit ran an outdoor factory in shifts to produce over 400 of the CG-4A Waco gliders that were to be towed to the fronts in Europe with Airborne troops and equipment aboard. Most conspicuously, General Eisenhower himself paid an important visit to Greenham Common on the eve of D Day on June 5th 1944 and saw the first of the Airborne troops take off for France.
The end of World War Two
When World War Two ended in Europe in May 1945, American units stayed on for a short time and shared the airfield with the RAF who soon took over the entire site and used it for six entrant training courses into 1946 when the site was formally closed. With a national housing shortage in the years that followed, some of the Nissen huts were taken over for a short time by local people. Otherwise, the airfield was quiet.
Soviet Union Threat
After the 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1950 invasion of South Korea by the Communist Korean People’s Army, the perceived threat from the Soviet Union dramatically increased. It was feared that the Ware in Korea was more of a distraction and prelude to a full scale Soviet attack on Western Europe. In April 1951, RAF Greenham Common was made available to the United States Air Force by the British Ministry of Defence as a Strategic Air Command base, with joint operations with the Royal Air Force units. Formal handover to the 7th Air Division was in June 18 and massive reconstruction work began. The entire wartime airfield with three runways was demolished and replaced with a new single 10,000 foot east/west runway with parallel taxiways north and south of it leading to extensive hardstandings. A new technical and domestic site was built to the south of the runway, involving diversion of the A339 road and demolition of a few homes and The Volunteer pub and a cafe. Construction work was finally completed and the base declared operational in Sept 1953.
Strategic Air Command’s 7th Air Division
The airfield came under Strategic Air Command’s 7th Air Division, with the 3909th Combat Support Group as its administrative unit on the base, responsible for all non-flying activities as well as maintenance and logistical support of the flying units attached to RAF Greenham Common. The initial bomber wing deployed was the 303d Bombardment Wing with B-47 Stratojets, arriving on 17 March 1954 from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The 303rd stayed just over a month, returning on 28 April 1954. This was the first of the short-term temporary duty deployments from home bases in the US that continued over the next ten years.
In April 1958 the 90-day detachments were replaced by a three-week Reflex Alert rotation, during which the bombers did not fly, reducing the noise considerably. The runways and dispersals were further strengthened for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber, but none were permanently based at Greenham Common. From August 1960, B-52s made periodic training visits, and a Convair B-58 Hustler arrived briefly in October 1963. Reflex operations by B-47 and KC-97s continued until 1 April 1964. Many USAF SAC Squadrons had aircraft at Greenham Common on a transitory basis without any recorded deployment to the base. The US Air Force departed Greenham Common on 30 June 1964 when the base was returned to British administration.
In 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle demanded the closure of US bases in France. This prompted the US Department of Defense to ask permission to reopen Greenham Common for air transport operations (Operation FRELOC) to handle materiel and personnel overflow beginning in early January 1967.
Military Mail Sorting Site
On 1 November 1968 control of the base was transferred to the United States Air Force 7551st Combat Support Group having administrative control of the base. However, the base was little used, primarily being used as a military mail sorting site, with aircraft flying mail in from the United States, being sorted at Greenham Common, then distributed to American bases in Britain and Europe. Mail from American forces in Europe was also sent to Greenham and sorted there, before being flown to the US. Beginning in 1973 the base became the home of the International Air Tattoo, the large international air show, since relocated to RAF Fairford.
Operating Location A
The 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Upper Heyford established “Operating Location A” at Greenham Common for its F-111E bombers in 1976, using the airfield occasionally for dispersal exercises. In 1977 the USAF announced plans to reactivate Greenham Common to accommodate the KC-135 tanker aircraft, due to a lack of capacity at the KC-135’s main base in Britain, RAF Mildenhall. This led to widespread local opposition, and in 1978 the British Defence Secretary vetoed the plan.
The Soviet deployment of the SS-20 missile from 1975 caused major concern in the NATO alliance. The longer range, greater accuracy, mobility and striking power of the new missile was perceived to alter the security of Western Europe. It was feared that the Soviet Union could launch a nuclear strike against Western Europe with a reduced threat of nuclear retaliation. After discussions, NATO agreed to a two part strategy: to pursue arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union to reduce the Soviet and American INF arsenals. At the same time, NATO would deploy to Western Europe from 1983 up to 464 USAF BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (or GLCMs). Britain’s share of this total was 160 missiles, 96 based at Greenham Common and 64 at RAF Molesworth. A massive new construction was undertaken as the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) site was built in the south-west corner of the base. GAMA was a fortified Quick Reaction Alert area with six large above ground shelters in which fully operational cruise missiles were stored. Of the six shelters, one was specially designed to be on permanent alert with living quarters.
Missile Development Continues
Each shelter held two Launch Control Centers and four transporter erector launchers. Units were mobile and, once deployed, would travel from the base in convoys to secret pre-surveyed dispersal sites. This would happen within minutes of the alert being given; movement was via local roads through the surrounding villages. The unit responsible for Greenham Common’s missiles was the USAF 501st Tactical Missile Wing was activated in the summer of 1982. The first squadron of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing received its missiles in November 1983; they were flown onto the base by the huge C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft. The base also had other upgrades through the 1980s to support the 501st including a new headquarters building which still stands, a new base exchange for shopping as well as an all-new high school for dependents.
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, which led to the removal of all missiles from the base. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991, and the 501st TMW inactivated on 4 June 1991.
The Greenham Common Trust
On 11 September 1992, USAF returned RAF Greenham Common to the Ministry of Defence. In February 1993, the Greenham Common air base was declared surplus to requirements by the Secretary of State for Defence and the airfield was put up for sale. The Greenham Common Trust was formed in 1997 to run the technical side of the base which became a business park. The airfield side was opened to the public in 2000.
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Uncover the rich history first-hand
Come and Visit Greenham Control Tower to discover more about the history of the common and the stories of the people who have lived there.