(Image: Taras Young)
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, it brought to a sudden close a long and oppressive era. Almost overnight the Soviet threat vanished, as democracy took hold in the former Eastern Bloc. Fast forward to today, and the idea of Russian troops marching through the streets of London seems absurd. Yet the relics of that time remain, including former US Air Force bases operating out of Britain, prepared to engage their enemy in a fight to the death. Here are five remnants of that strange time.
RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire
(Images: Matt Hancock; Google Earth)
Originally built for the Royal Flying Corps in the dark days of World War One, RAF Upper Heyford remained in British hands until 1950, when the US Air Force finally took over.
The base was rumoured to house nuclear weapons throughout the height of the tensions with the USSR. Secret U2 reconnaissance aircraft would take off and quietly pass through the skies over Russia, snapping grainy photos of military installations and troop deployments. Massive B-52 bombers flew from the base, ready to turn Moscow into an inferno if the early-warning sirens were ever deployed, and from the 1970s Upper Heyford housed F-111 bombers, which took part in the March 1986 raid on Libya code-name Operation El Dorado Canyon.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US had less reason to maintain its presence at Upper Heyford. The base was handed back to the Ministry of Defence in December 1993, which promptly let it go to ruin. Twenty years later, much of it now stands empty, a deserted collection of buildings overgrown with vegetation. Parts of the site have been repurposed, while the abandoned lookout towers stand waiting for a war which will never come.
RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk
Located on the very edge of Suffolk, looking out towards the distant continent, RAF Bentwaters has two very distinct histories: one as a US Air Force base, and the other as centre of UFO activity.
It’s the latter of these that has ensured Bentwaters’ fame over the years. On a late December night in 1980, a number of USAF personnel reported seeing a strange light moving through the skies above them. At 3:00am, a burning ball fell into the nearby Rendlesham Forest. When a small group went to investigate, they found a strange, glowing object drifting through the trees that sent nearby animals into frenzy. The incident was later dubbed ‘Britain’s Roswell’, although the MOD considered the matter unworthy of investigation.
Less-spookily, parts of the former base have since been transformed into the Bentwaters Cold War Museum after a period of emptiness. It’s now totally possible to explore where the 81st Fighter Wing once trained; including the ‘war operations room,’ where officers would have gathered to watch Europe burn in the event of a nuclear strike.
RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk
The nearby ‘twin’ base of Bentwaters, RAF Woodbridge began operating in the final years of World War Two, ushering damaged aircraft onto land as they escaped the ravages of Germany’s guns and fighters. For that purpose, the now-abandoned air base featured one of three massive emergency runways built at strategic locations in eastern England.
Perhaps the highlight of its time under the RAF was in summer 1944, when a German plane accidentally landed there instead of on the continent. Early the following decade, as the Cold War grew warmer, Woodbridge was transferred to the US Air Force. In late 1952, the 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadron moved in, and proceeded to set up camp. Their time there would last until the end of the Cold War. As a result, many rumours began to swirl that the US government was hording nuclear weapons at Woodbridge, leading many locals to wonder what the effect of a pre-emptive strike on the area would be.
Fortunately the Cold War never got hot enough for us to find out. RAF Woodbridge, which latterly operated the fearsome A-10A Thunderbolt II (pictured), was deactivated in 1993, before eventually being reopened by the Ministry of Defence. Despite its continued use, parts of the former US Air Force base, including the outer portions of the huge wartime landing strip, are weed-strewn.
RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire
(Images: Matt Jarvis via YouTube – see below)
Unlike most on this list, RAF Alconbury was never abandoned by its American occupants. After the Cold War wound down and squadrons began redeploying to the States, it maintained a small US Air Force presence that remains there to this day. But in January 2015 it was announced that the USAF would be pulling out in the coming years, leaving the base soon empty.
Although developers have already drawn up plans to build over much of the airfield, large tracts of Alconbury currently stand forlorn and empty, desperately in need of some TLC. Hardened aircraft shelters once used by U2 and TR-1 spy planes stand beside broken watch towers with their windows smashed, waiting for the wrecking ball. Many of the old crew rooms are now in an advanced state of decay, with peeling paint and flakes of rust coming away in chunks. A giant mural of an aircraft now looks over an empty landing strip, waiting for a crew that will never come.
However, all is not lost. Construction of a new ‘Enterprise Zone’ on the remains of RAF Alconbury is slated to provide thousands of jobs over the coming years, and transform this semi-wasteland into a prosperous new place. Whether it can deliver on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the abandoned Cold War air traffic control tower was demolished last month.
RAF Wethersfield, Essex
Now known as MDPGA Wethersfield, this abandoned US Air Force base was originally meant to have a much shorter life than it eventually did. Opened in 1944 to help with the war effort, it was closed down in 1946, only to be repurposed in the early 1950s to combat the perceived Soviet threat.
Part of that meant stationing the 20th Fighter-Bomber Wing there. Consisting of three squadrons of F-84G Thunderjets, the 20th FBW served as a major deterrent against the westward Soviet expansion. Each jet was capable of delivering a small nuclear payload. Were the Soviets to ever attempt an invasion of West Germany, all would immediately scramble to bomb the advancing troops, turning the German border into a radioactive wasteland.
Nearly twenty years after the base first reopened, when it became clear nuclear conflict was looking increasingly unlikely, the USAF finally moved out. Kept as a reserve airfield until 1993, Wethersfield was slowly wound down. Today, it’s little more than a few strips of tarmac and a collection of mainly-empty buildings, a strange remnant of a strange time. Flying lives on at MDPGA Wethersfield, though, in the form of No. 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron. The MOD Police also use the well-preserved site for training purposes.