Cruise missiles arrive at Greenham Common, November 1983
In the Spring of 1979, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group met at a USAF base in Florida to formulate a response to the growing Soviet military might. In October 1977, Chancellor Schmidt of West Germany and British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan were asking the United States to deploy new and more modern deterrent forces to NATO countries in Western Europe. The group decided on a twin track approach to the Soviets. Known as the "Double Decision", NATO members decided to both negotiate with the Soviet Union to withdraw the SS-20 missiles, and to go ahead with the deployment of a total of 572 new missiles to NATO members from 1983. If the Soviets agreed to withdraw the SS-20s, NATO would agree not to deploy the new missiles to its Western European members.
The Soviets however were hardly in the mood to negotiate. By 1979, the country was still led by the barely living Leonid Brezhnev, while its ministries were engaged in in-fighting, chronic bureaucracy, and a sense of absolute paranoia toward the West and NATO. NATO's Double Decision meant that 464 Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM's) would be deployed to Great Britain (160 in total), Italy (112 at Comiso), West Germany (96 at Wuescheim), Belgium (48 at Florennes), and the Netherlands (48 at Woensdrecht). A further 108 Pershing II medium range ballistic missiles would be deployed to West Germany from 1983 to replace ageing 1960s Pershing 1a types deployed in West Germany by the US and West German armies. The sense of crisis increased through 1979. Although President Carter and Brezhnev agreed to limit strategic range nuclear weapons with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 2 (SALT 2) in June, the treaty did not cover any possible expansion of theatre nuclear weapons. In any case, the treaty was never ratified after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December. The invasion brought the Soviets to within just a few hundred miles of the Persian oil fields. This was a new and largely unexpected twist that suggested the Soviet Union was set on a new phase of expansionism.
On December 12th, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed to "modernize theatre forces" by sending missiles to five NATO members by 1986. two days later, the NATO Council of Ministers approved the decision. This now meant that a whole new infrastructure had to be created to support the new missiles. The new missiles themselves had to still undergo testing and find suitable launch and control vehicles.
On January 1st 1979, the 7273rd Air Base Group was formed and had a USAF Base Commander appointed. At that time, the base was still occupied by a small staff on standby status but activity on the base increased gradually. On June 17th 1980, the British Government announced that Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire would be the two cruise bases in Britain. Greenham Common would also be the very first base in Europe to receive its first flight of 16 missiles in late 1983. Molesworth had also been a USAF base during the 1950s. NATO aimed to have the first missiles operational at Greenham and Comiso in Sicily, Italy by December 1983. The decision meant at least a further 1,300 personnel would be stationed at Greenham. The government explained that the basing of these new mobile missiles meant that in times of tension, the missiles would move to remote locations up to 200 miles away kept secret in the countryside. In addition, the deployment of cruise would cause little noise as aircraft movements would be a maximum of a few a month.
The base played host to an unusual visitor in 1980 in the form of the world land speed record challenging Thrust 2 supercar. The high speed vehicle was tested on the runway at Greenham Common and was later to be taken to Nevada where it broke the land speed record in 1983 at over 630 mph driven by RAF Officer, Richard Noble.
In 1981, a vast program of works began at the base to support the deployments. Specially hardened shelters had to be constructed that could withstand the force of a direct hit by a 500lb bomb and even a 10 megaton thermonuclear airburst explosion 1,600 ft above them. A total of six shelters (A-F) were built to protect the German-made MAN GLCM transporters, and support and communications vehicles. These were built in an ultra high security compound on the north east side of the base. This was known as the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area). One of these silos was a Quick Reaction Alert shelter where 16 missiles could stay on alert, ready for almost immediate launch. This bunker can be distinguished by the fact that it has side entrance tunnels at the sides and crews had accommodation built into the shelter itself. Each shelter contained four launch vehicles and two Launch control vehicles. The shelters had three doors at both ends (which apparently took 20 minutes to close) and could withstand the explosive pressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch!
A GLCM shelter at Greenham. Courtesy of Mike Baldock
The first part of the redevelopment of Greenham Common was to cost £50 million, roughly 40% of which came from NATO infrastructure funds. The work and deployment meant that new accommodation had to be built and a new housing area was built for USAF personnel in the neighboring village of Bishops Green. Many personnel however lived in Newbury, other local villages, or as far afield as Reading or Oxfordshire.
The deployment became highly politicised and Greenham was becoming a tangible and highly visible sign of the deterioration in East-West relations and the heating of the arms race. But in actual fact, the deployments were nothing new. The RAF and USAF operated 60 Thor intermediate range missile bases from 1958-1963 across East Anglia and Lincolnshire, each with three missiles. Arms talks with the Soviet Union continued, but what became clear was the Soviet negotiating strategy and offers to freeze SS-20 deployments were a thinly veiled attempt to drive a wedge between the European members of NATO and the United States. For this reason particularly, the deployments had to go ahead; in the face of such an intransigent and dogmatic threat, the United States needed to show a clear and resolute sign of its commitment to the security of its allies and for its allies to show faith in American commitment to Western European freedom and security.
The name cruise missile is simply a generic name for a type of weapon that had been around since World War Two. It is a class of missile that flies mostly at high subsonic speeds via internal or radio guidance within low or medium altitudes (i.e.. non ballistic).Germany used the technology against Britain with its V-1 (Vengeance) weapons. The technology was later developed by the US in the 1950s to produce a small number of strategic range nuclear cruise missiles known as Snark and Mace deployed from the late 1950s. Although promising and fairly fast, their internal navigation systems were not particularly accurate in a pre-microelectronic age.
Inside a GLCM
Cruise missiles developed in the 1970s were revolutionary by comparison and were produced by Boeing, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas in three varieties: air-launched (ALCM), sea-launched (SLCM), and ground launched (GLCM). The ground launched type produced by General Dynamics were known as the BGM-109G. The missiles themselves were small at only a little over 20 feet long and so were easily transported. These nuclear versions carried a variable yield W-84 nuclear warhead of 10 to 50 kilotons. The high accuracy of the missile meant that such small, tactical yields could be used with pinpoint accuracy. Their 1,550 mile range meant that many targets across the Warsaw Pact states of eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union were within range. The small size of the mssile coupled with its subsonic speed and ground hugging flight meant that it was virtually invisible to Soviet radars. The need was urgent; by 1980, the Soviet's were deploying new SS-20s at the rate of one a week.
Such a deployment required exceptional security around the clock, 365 days a year. The British government provided 220 paratroops to protect the base and on convoys whilst on exercises. In addition to the work at Greenham Common itself, the GLCMs required special targeting computers to guide their terrain following TERCOM radars to their targets. Western Europe had two such sites and the British site was at RAF Daws Hill in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The site had been used as a Bomber Command bunker during World War Two. US forces had held the site since the 1950s and work began in 1982 to strengthen the five storey bunker and harden it against electromagnetic pulses from a nuclear blast. In 1981, the USAF's 7555th Theatre Mission Planning Squadron moved to Level 3 of the bunker. Their role would be to produce disks containing topographical information which would then be input into GLCM control vehicles deployed in their forward locations.
"POISED TO DETER, QUICK TO REACT"
Almost nobody knew the exact date the missiles would arrive except the highest in office. Deployment was announced as late 1983 and as the year drew on, expectations of the arrival grew. Greenham Common then became the official home to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing. In May 1983, C-5A Galaxy transport planes appeared to be delivering equipment to the base but given the necessary level of secrecy, little details emerged. What was certain however was that all the construction and other preparations necessary were being carried out to a very tight deadline of December 1983. The preparations were examined by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine on March 24th and was shown around the construction of the silos by base commander Colonel Robert Thomson. Meanwhile, crews were being specially trained on how to handle the MAN tractors, missiles and related equipment by the 868th Tactical Missile Training Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. A tour at Greenham Common was said to be very good for the Air Force careers of those who served there. These highly skilled and educated missile crews began to arrive from July.
In November that year, the press reported that British and US governments had agreed on a deployment date of November 1st but that it had changed as a result of the Cuban invasion of Grenada and also to allow a House of Commons debate on the deployment on October 31st. A report on the front page of The Sunday Times on November 13th announced "Greenham- Cruise lands on Tuesday". In actual fact, the first GLCMs arrived at Greenham Common in the early hours of Monday 14th of November aboard a C-141 Starlifter. Security was very high with support being given by the British MoD Police, the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment of the British Army, as well as security personnel of the USAF. The missiles were quickly unloaded and taken beyond view. Further deliveries of warheads and other equipment continued in the days following.
From the time of the delivery of the first 16 missiles in November, the 501st Tactical Missile Wing began its training immediately to meet the operational deadline. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing succeeded at meeting its Interim Operational Capability date of December 1983. At the same time, Pershing II missiles in West Germany were being successfully deployed by the US Army. The following year, Greenham could boast a total of 32 missiles on strength. The deployment represented a major blow to the Soviet Union; its efforts, both diplomatic and military had failed to divide European NATO members from the United States and its adversary was now equipped with a more modern and credible means of defence than ever before.
MAN tractor preparing for a GLCM excercise. Thanks to Brian Bowling.
Launch exercises could be held once or more a month. What became clear though was that it was hard for the convoys to go unnoticed with such large vehicles, 69 members of a flight, 22 vehicles per flight, and 44 armed guards and police. Attention was drawn to the secret locations the vehicles visited. One of the first exercises in early March 1984 saw a flight of GLCM vehicles leave Bury's Bank Road gate and head west along the M4 motorway. The vehicles finally arrived at RAF Lyneham, the RAF's C-130 base south of Swindon. On many occasions, the exercises were followed by protesters from a group called Cruisewatch. One of the most frequent locations for exercises was on Salisbury Plain in Hampshire. This was not a great distance from Greenham and is a regular training ground to the Army. Other Cruise exercise sites included Bramshott Common and Longmoor Camp in Hampshire, as well as Royal Common and Rushmoor in Surrey.
"SPETZNATZ AT GREENHAM" was the cover story. The magazine claimed that agents of the Soviet special forces or Spetznatz were active among protesters camped around the base. The article told how 3-6 Spetnatz agents had been active at the base since missiles had been deployed in Dec 1983 and agents were regularly rotated to gain field experience. The article also claimed the Spetznatz agents were controlled by the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) and that mock ups of the defenses and missiles based at Greenham Common had been copied for Spetzntaz training centres in the Ural, Volga, and Carpathian military districts. The agents at Greenham were to provide sabotage strikes on the GLCM sites as well as acting as beacons to other Spetznatz troops who would join them in the prelude to war.
The story was officially denied. Recent evidence however suggests that it may have been true. The article claimed that the information had come from Soviet defectors. A year earlier in 1985, British intelligence (SIS) scored a major blow on the Soviets by smuggling out senior KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky and brought him to Britain. He revealed the extent of the war planning and paranoia going on within the Soviet leadership. In 1992, Britain also gained the intelligence treasure from former KGB archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin. His handwritten notes taken from the KGB archives revealed that the Soviets had hidden and buried secret catches of arms and communications equipment across Western Europe. They were booby-trapped and could only be recovered by trained experts. In addition, in 1996 it was revealed that in the 1970s, the Soviet Union had produced "suitcase bombs", portable nuclear bombs of around a six kiloton yield that could be set off remotely to destroy enemy infrastructure within those countries. This would then negate the need to launch direct nuclear attacks. We now also know that the Soviet leadership was seriously considering a nuclear attack on NATO in late 1983 as it conducted the Able Archer 83 excercise and to prevent GLCMs from actually being deployed.
The Soviet political landscape was gradually changing after 1985 and events behind the Iron Curtain were to have far reaching and unimagined consequences for Greenham Common and the world as a whole. March 1985 saw Mikhail Gorbachev become leader of the Soviet Union, a man who not only hoped for change at home, but demanded it. In order to save the collapsing Soviet economy, he had to cut the huge Soviet military budget, running around 20% of GDP (in comparison to around 6% in the US). Such cuts meant diplomatic rapprochement with NATO and the United States. President Reagan and Gorbachev met in a Geneva summit in 1985 and at Iceland in 1986. They had talked about arms cuts but had not been able to come to an agreement. On December 7th 1987 in Washington DC, a breakthrough came when the Soviet Union finally agreed to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, meaning the US and Soviet Union would scrap all Intermediate range nuclear missiles. The INF Treaty (ratified by both powers in 1988) meant that the Soviets would have to destroy all their SS-4s, SS-5s, and SS-20s regardless of their location. NATO would have to destroy its GLCMs and Pershing missiles. Each had to do so within three years of treaty ratification.
President Reagan and Gorbachev sign INF in 1987
The INF Treaty left many questions over the future of Greenham Common. It meant that by May 1991, its GLCM role would be over. Although the treaty signaled a new era of relations between East and West, it did not mean the end of the Cold War. Soviet intentions overall were still not clear.
Part of the treaty stipulated that missile sites were subject to short notice INF Inspection teams from each country. Although the GLCMs at RAF Molesworth were the first to go in 1988, the Soviets were allowed baseline pre-removal inspections and made their first visit to Greenham Common in July 1988. This was an incredible reality; that we would allow Soviet officials to view our most secure weapons bases and allow them to fly in! A Soviet TV crew were also allowed to film the occasion. The 30 inspectors led by Vysacheslav Lebedev were treated to a cooperative reception which even included a traditional British pint at the Coach and Horses pub near Thatcham.
A Soviet Illyushin 62 airliner carrying Soviet INF Inspectors to Greenham Common
The Soviet teams had to give 16 hours notice of an inspection and would split in to two teams, one of which would go to RAF Molesworth. Soviet inspectors had 24 hours to inspect but were not allowed to view actual missiles or warheads. By 1988, Greenham had its full compliment of 96 missiles plus five spares. Inspection teams examined missile training canisters and were allowed to have USAF personnel take photos to their specifications. American verification reams actually had more work to do as the INF Treaty meant the Soviets had to destroy 2,000 missiles to the US 800. Satellite verification was also used to check treaty fulfillment, though no arms control verification method is ever cheat proof.
The first GLCMs were taken from Molesworth on September 8th 1988 and flown to their destruction in the US. Soviet Inspectors made further inspection in November and in the course of the coming three years. The INF Treaty actually gives the right to inspections until 2006. The Russians last made an inspection of Greenham in 1998. In late July 1989, the first shipment of four of Greenham's GLCMs were crated up and loaded into a waiting C-5 Galaxy bound for destruction at Davis Monthan. The event was celebrated as a tangible sign of rapprochement between East and West.
Despite the changes, a number of improvements to the quality of life for those at greenham were made. In February 1986, a shed building was gutted and fully refurbished to make a bowling centre. By 1989, a purpose built school known as Greenham Common High School was built at the very east end of the base. A school had operated before in a converted barracks, but this new site had fully modern facilities. Officers at Greenham Common also enjoyed one of the most unique messes available to personnel in Europe. Greenham Lodge was a Grade 2 listed building built in 1879. It was refurbished at a cost of £1.6m from 1982, and later won a USAF Design Award.
The removal of the missiles meant that the number of personnel at the base would be gradually scaled back. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Greenham was home to over 2,000 personnel plus dependents. In 1988, there was talk in NATO circles of allowing the base to become home to further squadrons of F1-11s. It was reported that up to 60 more planes might be welcomed to Britain and that Greenham might be the base. This was a sensitive issue amid previous protests and in the light of improving East West relations. In October 1989, a headline in The Times suggested that a base in Britain, possibly Greenham, might be used for F-15Es deployed with the air-to-surface SRAM-T missile.
However, events the following month in November 1989 took the world by surprise. The unbelievable occurred on November 9th when East German citizens tore down the Berlin Wall. The divisions that had stood between East and West for 45 years were being removed and the Cold War was coming to its end.
In 1990, it was announced that after the missiles had all gone in 1991, the base would revert to a NATO standby facility under the USAF, to be manned by 400 personnel. There were even calls from some locals to have the area returned to common land but this seemed unlikely. In 1990, many of the MAN vehicles were taken to RAF Kemble in Gloucestershire which was a USAF depot. The trucks and tractors were stored in the hangars awaiting their final disposal. In December 1990, a number of other vehicles were shipped out of Greenham bound for use by US forces in Saudi Arabia preparing for the liberation of Kuwait.
MAN vehicles await disposal at RAF Kemble in 1990. Brian Bowling
Finally, the very last shipment of the remaining 16 GLCMs left Greenham on March 5th 1991. The base was home to just 400 personnel. In the autumn of that year, the Department of Defense decided to close RAF Greenham Common permanently by September the following year. On at least one occasion, the best was opened to tours for local people to come and see the base "behind the fence". There was no longer anything to hide. Later that year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist: the old Cold War foe came to terms with the west and moved to democracy, albeit an unstable one.
RAF Greenham Common was closed for the final time on September 12th 1992, and was handed back to the RAF in a closing ceremony before remaining USAF personnel flew home. The Ministry of Defence finally sold the land in 1997 but the runways were broken up in the Spring of 1995. The concrete was used to build the Newbury Bypass. In September 1997 and again in 2000, much of the fencing was removed by volunteers and the area was renamed New Greenham Park. Today, the site is home to a thriving business park including a printers, a travel agent, and a huge new car storage depot and car dealership. The old barrack blocks left of the main gate were used by a paintball company for some years until they were demolished in 1998 and now cattle freely graze on the open land.