World War II
The RAF era
With the outbreak of the Second World War the site, now known as RAF Abbots Ripton, was put under the control of the airfield at Wyton, as RAF Upwood had at this point been given a training role.
Wyton hosted two Squadrons (the 114 and 139) of Bristol Blenheim light bombers, and these two units took it in turns to base some of their aircraft at Alconbury: at this stage, the bombing up and maintenance of the aircraft still took place elsewhere. This brought with it a raft of inefficiencies, and there was a gradual realisation that the effectiveness of satellite stations in Britain could be enhanced by providing them with more permanent facilities. With this in mind, three more permanent, concrete runways were constructed by Wimpey between June and October 1940. Flying from Alconbury ceased during this period, to allow construction work to take place. Fairly basic accommodation was largely focused around huts, as evidence by the remaining listed Watch Tower which at this point lacked its first storey lookout, or the Nissen Hut briefing room on its southern side. Between May and October of that year, survivors from Dunkirk were billeted with the families still living on the site, particularly around Top Lodge Farm.
In October 1940, having survived an attack by the Luftwaffe on 16 September, the airfield was opened to aircraft and within a month, Vickers Welllingtons of 40 Squadron were introduced: the whole of 40 Squadron moved, making RAF Alconbury its permanent home from February 1941.
Indeed, the RAF’s investment in Alconbury continued, and more works took place to the runways in 1941 to 1942, including the lengthening of one runway to the north-east to meet the standards required for operating heavy bombers. In line with this expansion, Short Stirlings - much larger bombers - were introduced in 1941.
The Americans arrive
Following The Arcadia Conference of 23 December 1941 to 14 January 1942, at which the American involvement in the war was decided, the main Allied effort was directed towards Germany whilst also containing the Japanese in the Pacific. The Eighth Air Force was activated on 28th January 1942 at Savannah, Georgia in order to contain the Japanese. On 8 April, it was decided to divert it to the United Kingdom.
Following this decision, in August 1942 RAF Alconbury was passed into the hands of the USAF, under whose almost uninterrupted operation it would remain until 1995. At this point the airfield was still extremely limited in its structures, comprising of hutted accommodation and a single, half-built T2 hangar. This still stands, north of the runway, in its original location. The 93rd Bombardment Group moved in, flying B-24 ‘Liberators’ (a type of heavy bomber): they were replaced in January 1943 by B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 92nd and 95th Bombardment Groups. The most notable event of this period came on 22nd May 1943 as a bomb being loaded onto a B-17 of the 95th detonated accidentally, killing 18 and injuring a further 27 men.
The south-eastern corner of the site was developed from 1942 onwards: four T2 hangars were built between this point and 1945, and a series of new dispersal pads and huts were built, along with a new Watch Office for ‘All Squadrons’.
For the rest of the war, the USAF retained Alconbury as a bomber station, and a number of different units served there including the 482nd Bomb group who operated as a ‘Pathfinder’ force, using radar to undertake ‘blind bombing’ which allowed attacks to be undertaken without clear skies or direct target visibility. The two connected T2 hangars in the south east corner of the site have been noted by former personnel to have been ‘top secret’ around this time, and were probably used to maintain and operate the radar necessary for this purpose.
Meanwhile in 1944 the Abotts Ripton Strategic Air Depot became operational: the site remains a USAF base today. Alconbury itself continued to play a central role in the events in Europe through the activities of radar enabled USAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Missions included the photography of the Normandy beaches by Mosquito surveillance craft prior to D-day and raids on Berlin were launched from Alconbury during the closing months of the war. Victory in Europe saw the winding down of activities at the base, and USAF departed late in 194 and returned the base to the RAF.