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 B29 (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 the UK 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-25s that flew from Britain in the war. The US had a good choice of airfields available from WW2 that could be adapted.
In April 1950, the "Ambassadors Agreement" was concluded between US Ambassador Lewis Douglas and the UK 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 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 10,000ft long east-west runway with parallel taxiways began. A new air traffic 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 accommodation was also constructed outside the gates on the north west end. (Below)
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 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 F84s and F86s! 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 bombload of 28,000 pounds and 3 crew to 40,000ft 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 flights into the Soviet Union carried out from Fairford and Upper Heyford in the RB-47 variant.
B-47 comes in to land
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 wre 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-97s propellers. The only immediate solution to the problem was almost constant sweeping of the runways!
The base 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 west side of the base.
KC-97 Tanker A KC-97 refuels B-47
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. 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 B47-E developed trouble on takeoff 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 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 recently 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.
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-52 Stratofortress
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.