1945-1960: From Hostility to Hostility
From the end of the war until 1951, RAF Alconbury was mothballed and was used by the Royal Air Force as a site for the storage, distribution and the dismantling of munitions. It is interesting to note that extra hangars, including the T2 unit within the south-western corner, were constructed during this period: the RAF clearly considered the provision of extra hangar space to be central to Alconbury’s decommissioned role.
International events and continuing political issues, however, were to conspire to cause the rehabilitation of the site in 1951. In 1948, the Soviet blockade of Berlin was countered by an Allied effort to retain the city’s independence by providing supplies by air through the Berlin Airlift. Within two years, North Korea invaded South Korea, precipitating the Korean War. In 1949 and 1955 respectively, the North Atlantic Treaty and the Warsaw Pact were signed, setting up two ideological and political blocks. The stage for the Cold War was set.
From 1948 onwards, the United States Chiefs of Staff, driven by the knowledge that Russia and its European satellites posed a direct threat, considered moving airborne forces to Europe. Some USAF forces moved to Britain in that year, apparently as a ‘show of strength’, but over the coming years further plans developed, with Alconbury considered from an early stage. A year later plans were submitted, alongside correspondence between the Under Secretary of State and the Commanding General of the American forces, which detailed initial ideas for the construction of a 9000ft runway - large enough for substantial aircraft, B-66 and B-45 jets. Ultimately, a 6000ft runway was considered adequate, but clearly serious consideration was being given to the base’s role in the Cold War: 75 new hardstandings and a new control tower were discussed during the course of 1952. Discussions also began as to the rehabilitation of various buildings for the use of servicemen to provide a service club and snack bar, toilets, theatre, gym, post exchange and commissary. These were considered to permit ‘minimum standards of living’.
Ultimately, at the end of 1952, it was agreed that 7553rd Specialised Depot Squadron and the 9th Aviation Field Depot Squadron were to be stationed in Alconbury for the support of the 49th Air Division Units and to provide maintenance support for other special weapons activities in the United Kingdom. This semi-permanent force became fully permanent in June 1953, when USAFE (the United States Air Force in Europe) officially took residence at the base.
The period from 1952 to 1957 was one of intense activity on the site, and aerial photographs reveal building sites, tractor marks, new concrete and tarmac, and the gradual emergence of new structures. The most dramatic and visible of these developments came between 1953 and 1955, with the construction of a new bomb dump to replace the small existing site on the airbase’s northern edge. By August 1954 a large area known as ‘the Peninsular site’ had been laid out, with a series of roads and defensive rings of wiring erected. An aerial photograph of May 1957 then shows the site completed, with fifteen ‘igloos’ of hardened concrete and earth and a series of hexagonal watch towers, of a standardised design, constructed: the igloos were designed to hold both conventional and nuclear weaponry. Alconbury was probably always intended to provide backup capability when it came to nuclear armament but nonetheless the Bomb Dump, which still stands today, was a dramatic and clearly very costly installation. At around this time a number of other structures were built, including a new boiler house for the technical area, a new US Navy-style hangar and the new control tower, completed in 1954.
The new building work allowed for the introduction, in 1955, of the first USAFE flying units to Alconbury, returning the base to active aviation use after ten years of inaction: in September the 86th Bombardment Squadron moved in, flying B-45A Tornados. In 1958 they were joined by the 47th Bombardment Squadron, who began to fly B-66 ‘Destroyers’ out of Alconbury. To serve Alconbury’s growing airborne forces building work continued with a new parachute shop and loft, for example, opening in December 1959, and replacing a rather ramshackle structure, developed from a Nissen hut.
A number of other buildings were also built around this time, including a pair of ‘Nose Docking Sheds’, built initially for the B-66 aircraft on the site and designed to ensure that the most delicate equipment - including the cockpit, engines and radar - could be protected from the damp British climate.
What is rather startling is that Alconbury’s service history and architectural development, suggestive as it is of a winding up of operations, is countered strongly by correspondence that suggests that the base’s future was constantly under re-evaluation. In September 1956 and March 1959, the idea of decommissioning RAF Alconbury and returning it to agricultural use was discussed, and in 1961, as USAFE pulled out of France, it was announced that RAF Alconbury, along with a number of other bases, was to be closed permanently. Nothing came of this announcement, however. From 1960 onwards, the base took on a very specific character focusing on surveillance and reconnaissance: this seems to have provided Alconbury with its raison d'être down to the mid 1990s.
1960-1977: A spy base is born
From 1960 Alconbury began to operate primarily as a surveillance base, rather than as a focus for standard fighter and bomber aircraft. In that year, the 1st and 30th squadrons of 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing arrived from Spangdahlem, Germany with B66-B and RB66-B planes. The mid 1960s saw the escalation of international interest in the tensions that were developing between American and Russian political leaders with the unsuccessful Invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the confrontation of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 - a period which is widely considered to have brought the world closer to nuclear war than any event previously or since. The involvement, albeit at a distance, of the Eastern Bloc countries in such events, was surely instrumental in the continuation of USAFE surveillance activities at Alconbury throughout the 1960s. The American Air Forces suffered their own losses in the pursuit of covert operations as in 1964 an Alconbury RB-66 was shot down over East Germany whilst undertaking surveillance as the American plane was acting in a deliberate violation of East German Airspace.
USAFE activities continued, and even intensified, at Alconbury and on 12 May 1965, two RF-4C (F-4) ‘Phantoms’, of the already resident 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, became a permanent fixture at the base, with a further stream of F-4s arriving over the following six years. The RF-4C was an adapted form of the Phantom, specifically designed for surveillance and reconnaissance. Their equipment was, however, extremely demanding and any film they had managed to take during a mission had to be processed within thirty minutes of the plane landing. As a result of this, and the base’s general movement towards surveillance and reconnaissance operations, the Technical Site began to change, if not visibly, then in terms of its operations. Various buildings were, it would seem, altered to become photographic laboratories and avionics workshops, and new structures, including the extensions to Building 25 and Building 52 were constructed.
The 1970s also saw the arrival of a new function to Alconbury when the Tactical Fighter Training/Aggressor Squadron began to operate out of the base. This squadron flew F-5 ‘Tiger II’ aircraft, which were painted to imitate Soviet aircraft (figure 25): the F-5 had been specifically chosen for its similarity, in operation and appearance, to some MiG fighters. Imitating Soviet aircraft, the Aggressor Squadron would provide suitably realistic imitation battle situations in order to prepare USAF and RAF units for combat.
1977-1990: Shaping Alconbury
The current appearance of the airfield at RAF Alconbury was really defined during the period between 1977 and 1990 as a series of substantial building programmes took place. From the mid-1970s, tensions had begun to rise to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the period between 1979 and 1985 is often referred to as ‘The Second Cold War’.
Nowhere was the impact of this rising tension felt more keenly than at Alconbury. Between 1977 and 1980, Alconbury was provided with a dramatic new set of bomb proof, hardened concrete structures, providing the site with the evocative, recognisably ‘Cold War’ appearance it has today. A 1977 pre-development plan of the site, produced by USAF, shows the site’s form before its hardening: when compared to modern plans and aerial views, it is clear that RAF Alconbury changed beyond all recognition in this period. Most notable among these are the 26 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HASs) or ‘Tab Vees’, designed to a standard NATO design and intended to hold, initially, the reconnaissance Phantoms present on the site. In addition, a series of Squadron Operations and Command Centres were built, including Building 102.
It is striking that many of these structures, particularly the Command Centres and HASs, are entirely standardised structures: over 300 identical examples of the latter were built across Europe, and of the former, a number of bases, including RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Bentwaters, have identical examples. These structures were designed with sophisticated fire protection equipment, as well as a ventilation system that would allow them to remain operational even if the surrounding environment was heavily contaminated following a nuclear or biological attack: they had the ability to produce an environment with a higher air pressure than the outside world, thus preventing the influx of any contaminated atmosphere.
Around this time, Alconbury saw the arrival of its most famous residents - a group of TR-1 ‘Dragonlady’ spy planes. Along with the SR-71 Blackbird, the TR-1, and its externally identical predecessor the U2, provided advanced, high altitude reconnaissance and the ability to assess facilities and military preparations deep into enemy territory. With a 103 foot wingspan and a 70,000 foot operational ceiling, TR-1s were, in a single mission, capable of providing reconnaissance footage over a corridor 100 miles wide and 3,000 miles long.
Their arrival at Alconbury was, initially, a matter of great secrecy as the role of the United Kingdom in providing a base for USAF operations was a politically contentious subject. While U2s had been present in Britain since 1969, USAFE surveillance activity increased between 1975 and 1981 with SR-71 and U2 surveillance aircraft visiting Mildenhall alone on 39 occasions. From 1980 onwards, a more permanent architectural presence was provided for these somewhat covert operations and following the construction of two specialist hangars for SR-71 Blackbirds at Mildenhall between 1979 and 1983, it was finally agreed that Alconbury should be provided with 13 special Hardened Aircraft Shelters to host a permanent squadron of TR-1s.
By 1984, between 8 and 20 TR-1s were based at Alconbury at any one time, and their new hardened concrete hangars were constructed between 1987 and 1989. These hangars, designed to incorporate the enormous wingspan of the Dragonlady aircraft, are unique to Alconbury and two examples are listed at Grade II* for their rarity value and heritage significance. Associated with the construction of these buildings came a second stage of hardening that saw the construction of a number of new Command Centres and Squadron Operations buildings, along with the Building 210 and the Grade II* listed Avionics Building. Again, this large hardened structure, with an enormous concrete and clinker buster cap, is listed at Grade II* and contains well preserved decontamination facilities and photo processing and footage assessment rooms. The Avionics Building served a series of surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities under one roof, protected from attack by biological, conventional or nuclear weaponry. This structure, and the associated TR-1 Hangars and hardened Command Centres, speak of the level of suspicion and concern which still permeated the United States military, even at this late stage in the Cold War, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1987, Alconbury saw the withdrawal of the F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger II aircraft that had used the base since the 1960s and 1970s, to be replaced with two squadrons of A-10 Warthog aircraft. Designed with ‘tank-busting’ in mind, these ferocious-looking planes were flown by the newly formed 10th Tactical Fighter wing, and are memorialised in some wall art within Building 25 as well as in a mural of a Warthog within a mess building.
1990-1996: USAF wind-down and departure
The end of the Cold War saw the beginning of the end for Alconbury as a major USAFE airbase. Although it remained under occupation until 1995, in reality, the lack of a major threat in the East meant that a long-term American presence in the United Kingdom was not financially viable. A major stay of execution for the base was offered, however, by the advent of the Gulf War. Throughout 1990 and 1991 it became a staging post for forces heading to the USAF base at the King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. The base’s remaining TR-1s and A-10 Warthogs were posted to the Gulf and while they returned in 1991, the majority were withdrawn thereafter.
By October 1991, only 4 TR-1s remained at Alconbury, and by September of the following year, the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron’s presence was fully deactivated. From there the base limped on, occupied by 17 MC-130E aircraft. Developed from the C-130 Hercules, this aircraft is memorialised at Alconbury by a large mural painted onto the side of Building 48.
Following the withdrawal of USAFE in 1995, the site passed back into the ownership and management of the MoD, who looked over the following years to dispose of it: 58 years of military usage had come to an end. The Royal Commission for the Historic Monuments of England surveyed the site in 1996 and recorded a site still groomed from USAFE usage, with its buildings remaining in use and in good condition. Since that point, the site has been through the ownership of Prologis, who acquired consent for the development of the site as a road and rail freight terminal, before, in 2009, it passed into the ownership of Urban & Civic, who are presenting the current applications.