The History of Greenham Common by Jonathan Sayers

The History of Greenham Common by Jonathan Sayers

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.

This edition covers the first in a three part history of the airfield.

World War Two: An airfield springs up in Newbury

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 built at Aldermaston, Membury, Hampstead Norreys and Welford. In September 1943, the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army crossed the Atlantic and camped in areas across the south and south west of England. This included surrounding areas of Newbury and Reading.

An RAF station was to be built two miles outside Newbury and Thatcham. The Air Ministry got the land from Newbury Town Council in May 1941.The airfield was originally to act as a satellite for the bomber training unit at RAF 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 Airspeed Oxford planes 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 Air Service Command USAAF on November 8th 1943.

This was a large A-shaped three runway 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. The longest runway ran east to west at over 6,000 feet. Accommodation was built on the eastern perimeter, along with two T2 hangars, a technical area and 27 pan aircraft hardstandings.

The next role for Greenham Common was to re-equip the 354th Fighter Group of the US 9th Air Force 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 in Hampshire. The airfield then played host to a number of units on a transient basis including the 368th Fighter Group and their P-47 Thunderbolt fighters.

On March 16th 1944, Greenham Common’s role changed to host troop transport aircraft of the USAAF 438th Troop Carrier Group. The unit undertook extensive training at the base and became fully operational in April that year with the Douglas C-47 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.

Between 1943 and 1944, another base was set up almost within the area of Greenham Common itself. Known as Station 429, Crookham Common was established as an outdoor glider factory. Men of the US Army moved in to produce the CG-4A Waco glider in seven assembly areas. These would be built at the site from pre-made parts shipped in crates and then air-towed to USAAF airfields across the south of England for both D-Day and Operation Market Garden in 1944. Over 4,000 (of just over a total of 14,000) Wacos were produced at the site.

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.

Returned to the RAF 1945-1946

After reverting to RAF use by Transport Command in mid-1945, Greenham Common was used for training. Technical Training Command took control of the airfield in August and the runways were obstructed. No. 13 Recruit Centre used the accommodation to train new entrants on eight week ‘square bashing’ courses but there were no longer any aircraft or flights at the airfield. 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.

Jonathan Sayers

Follow Greenham Common on Twitter: @Greenham_Common

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