The British countryside is littered with the crumbling military relics of World War Two. From the air, the ghostly outlines of expansive wartime airfields can be seen in large numbers extending from north to south throughout, mainly, the eastern counties of Britain. But alongside the austere bases of Fighter and Bomber Command, built to accommodate vast numbers of allied aircraft from 1939 to 1945, are dozens of more recent abandonments in the form of disused runways, hangars, missile silos and other infrastructure heavily upgraded during the Cold War and in some cases active into the first decade of the 21st century. Here are five abandoned military airfields that were retained into the Jet Age, ultimately closing when their ageing aircraft were withdrawn from service or due to the ongoing reduction of Britain’s armed forces.
RAF Greenham Common
Situated 50 miles west of London, RAF Greenham Common was one of hundreds of wartime airfields built to accommodate the vast number of aircraft employed in the fight against Nazi Germany. From its opening in 1942, the expansive facility housed RAF and United States Army Air Forces units before transferring to the USAF during the Cold War.
During the 1980s, RAF Greenham Common gained intense media attention when it was disclosed that the base was to house around 100 cruise missiles in response to NATO’s concerns over the security of Western Europe due to the Soviet Union’s deployment of its SS-20 ballistic missile. Despite an outcry from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a massive construction effort got underway to build six maximum security, fully operational Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) cruise missile silos in the southwest corner of the airfield.
From 1981 the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp sprang up to protest the missile deployment, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty between America and the Soviet Union took effect and the weapons were steadily removed. The last nuclear missile left in March 1991 and the base was deactivated three months later.
Some 50 years after the base opened, peace had finally retured to Greenham Common. Today, this quiet corner of rural Berkshire houses the Greenham Business Park and the Greenham Common Community Trust. Many military buildings survive. The sinister nuclear silos still lurk to the southwest while the ghostly outline of the abandoned runway haunts the common land once used by farmers and cottagers. But Greenham Common once again belongs to the community, its top secret infrastructure wide open for military enthusiasts and walkers to visit at their leisure. Well, usually anyway. It’s currently a filming location for the much anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII – read more here.
RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire
1988 was a sad year for British plane spotters (this author included) due to the closure of RAF Binbrook. Known latterly as the home of the Lightning, a Cold War interceptor of such blistering performance and all-British engineering that it captured the imaginations of generations of enthusiasts and fighter pilots, the storied base on the Lincolnshire Wolds has slowly reverted to farmland. Like numerous airfields built during World War Two, the technical site and hangars have survived as an industrial estate, though vandalism and neglect have taken hold and many former military buildings lie abandoned.
At the southern end of the now-demolished main runway stands the former Quick Reaction Alert shed, which even until the base’s last day of operations contained two fully armed Lightning F.6 fighters, their crews poised to scramble at five minutes readiness 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to intercept Russian bombers violating UK airspace. Today they are used for the most prosaic purpose of storing farm machinery, unlike their RAF Wattisham counterparts which have been restored and once again contain Lightnings!
(Image: Tim Marshall, reproduced with permission)
Though the airfield and its dispersal pans have slowly disappeared over the past 25 years, Binbrook retains a strong connection with the English Electric Lightning through the Lightning Association, which keeps their preserved airframe XR724 at its traditional home. Despite the challenges of maintaining a serviceable aircraft within an ever decreasing space, the future is looking bright for XR724 thanks to the hard work of those who volunteer their time to keep the aircraft alive.
Despite its close links with the Lightning, RAF Binbrook is best known in popular culture for its role in the filming of Hollywood’s 1990 war film Memphis Belle, where its drab wartime buildings, recently vacated at that time, made for the perfect backdrop. Since then, the former married quarters have been repurposed as a new village called Brookenby, while the officers’ mess (above) has, unfortunately, been allowed to fall into complete dereliction.
RAF Wroughton, Wiltshire
(Image: Google Earth)
Closed as a military airfield in 1978, RAF Wroughton near Swindon remains virtually intact more than 35 years later. The former base’s large number of hangars – around 16 dispersed across the 545-acre site – reflect its use as a central maintenance facility, where over 7,000 aircraft underwent servicing and repair during World War Two.
From 1941 Wroughton’s No. 76 MU handled the crating of military planes for shipment overseas, and when Britain’s large air force was scaled back at the end of the war, hundreds of decommissioned Lancaster bombers made their final flights to the airfield for scrapping. One notable exception, Lancaster PA474, escaped intact and continues to serve with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
RAF Wroughton continued as a maintenance facility throughout the Cold War, servicing early jets including the Gloster Meteor and English Electric Canberra. The Royal Navy took over in 1972, servicing military helicopters until the airfield closed in 1978. A continued air force presence, meanwhile, was maintained at the site’s RAF Princess Alexandra Hospital providing care to armed forces personnel and the local community.
British hostages John McCarthy, Terry Waite and Jackie Mann received counselling at the hospital in 1991 following their release from captivity in Beirut. But the military’s tenure finally came to an end in 1996, when Princess Alexandra Hospital was closed and demolished.
But unlike many former World War Two airfields abandoned throughout the British countryside, RAF Wroughton’s post-military afterlife has seen several of its hangars maintained in good condition as storage facilities for around 20,000 objects belonging to the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI). Among the artifacts stored there are the first hovercraft, early MRI scanners and computers designed to de-activate nuclear missiles.
RAF Coltishall, Norfolk
RAF Coltishall was originally known as Scottow Aerodrome when it opened in 1940. Designed as a bomber base, the airfield operated Hawker Hurricanes of RAF Fighter Command and was also used by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The station became a night fighter base during the later stages of World War Two and notable pilots based there during the conflict included Battle of Britain fighter aces Douglas Bader and Robert ‘Bob’ Stanford Tuck.
(Image: Google Earth)
The Norfolk airfield took its name from the nearby village of Coltishall, since the closest railway station (from which, according to tradition, airfields usually took their names) would have made it RAF Buxton, leading to possible confusion with the town of Buxton in Derbyshire.
From the 1950s RAF Coltishall became a ‘V-Bomber’ dispersal base, where the Avro Vulcans, Handley Page Victors and Vickers Valiant bombers comprising Britain’s nuclear deterrent could operate from should their home bases come under Soviet attack. Throughout the 1960s and early ’70s the airfield was home to Britain’s iconic English Electric Lightning interceptor. But it wasn’t until 1974 that the aircraft for which Coltishall is best known, the Sepecat Jaguar, arrived at the base.
In 1991, Coltishall’s Jaguar ground attack force played a crucial role in Operation Granby during the Gulf War without a single loss of life or jet. But the entry into service of the Eurofighter Typhoon brought the Jaguar’s career to an end. On April 3, 2006 Jim Luke piloted aircraft XZ112 on RAF Coltishall’s last front line sortie, after which the abandoned airfield was sold to Norfolk County Council for £4 million.
Until it closed, Coltishall (along with Northolt) had been one of the last two operational RAF bases to have participated in the Battle of Britain. The wartime aircraft revetments that line the north-west taxiway are reminders of the base’s Fighter Command heritage, while the Cold War-era blast walls are now a scheduled monument. The airfield’s old Jaguar gate guardian also survived intact. Known as the Spirit of Coltishall, the aircraft is now displayed on a plinth in the grounds of Norfolk County Council in Norwich.
RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire
Opened in 1940, RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire was one of the UK’s last expansion era airfields initiated during the 1930s, which differentiated it from the hundreds of hastily constructed ‘austerity airfields‘ whose poignant remnants abound across rural Britain. On the charge of No. 1 Group Bomber Command, the airfield operated Fairey Battles, Vickers Wellingtons and Handley Page Hampdens during World War Two before transitioning to a new role as a training base for de Havilland Vampire pilots during the 1950s Jet Age.
(Image: Google Earth)
From 1964 Swinderby’s role changed again to that of recruit training, tasked with bringing all male enlisted personnel up to speed and female personnel also from 1976 onward. But when No. 7 School of Recruit Training moved to RAF Halton in 1993, Swinderby was deemed surplus to requirements and consequently closed.
Despite its lengthy period of aerial dormancy, the abandoned airfield at Swinderby is remarkably intact. Its three wartime runways are well preserved and more than a dozen hard standings extend into woodland on the southern side of the former base. But as of 2014, the control tower and two of the four original hangars have been demolished. Much of the technical site has also been cleared and the married quarters repurposed as the village of Witham St Hughs. Time will tell what becomes of Swinderby’s disused runways and other infrastructure.
(Image: The Aviation Photo Company, reproduced with permission)
In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this story from the 1970s, when Swinderby’s fire dump had been occupied by Lightning XM170, which only flew for 14 minutes and was grounded permanently due to mercury contamination – read more.