For over seventy years, RAF Alconbury, like so many sites across East Anglia, played a central part in military operations across Europe.
It was an operational airbase from 1938 to 1995, during which time it came under the control of both the British and American Air Forces. The legacy of that time – hangars, control centres, bunkers and huts – reflect a complex and fascinating history, intertwined with the communities that surround the airfield.
RAF Alconbury opens as a satellite airfield to RAF Upwood. Crews sleep under canvas, and aircraft return to Upwood for repairs and maintenance.
Outbreak of World War Two. The station is put under the control of RAF Wyton.
April/May: 15 Squadron and 40 Squadron move in, flying Bristol Blenheim and Fairey Battle bombers. They are involved in a number of raids over Belgium and Holland in the early summer, including a damaging raid on the Albert Canal; only 6 of 15 Squadron’s 12 Blenheims return.
June: Work begins on improving the airfield. Its first watchtower is built, along with taxiways and hardstanding. The runway is lengthened.
September: A Luftwaffe attack on the airfield takes place, with 8 high explosives landing on the site.
November: Vickers Wellington bombers replace Alconbury’s Blenheims. They saw action over a number of German cities, including Duisburg, Hanover, Cologne, Essen and Berlin. These sorties continued throughout 1941.
March: 2nd Luftwaffe raid severs local telephone lines, 3rd drops 44 bombs. By Summer 1942 Alconbury aircraft had flown over 650 operational sorties by this point, at a cost of 59 Wellington and 8 Blenheim bombers.
During the summer, RAF Alconbury was handed over to the USAAF. The 93rd Bombardment Group move in, flying B-24 ‘Liberators’. Extensive changes to airfield with runway extension, additional hardstanding, hangars and support buildings.
January: The 93rd Bombardment Group was replaced by the 92nd.
22nd May: One of the major tragedies in Alconbury’s long history took place. A bomb detonated whilst loading a B-17 of the 95th Bomb Group, killing 18 and injuring a further 27 men. In September, Black Thursday sees the loss of 60 aircraft in the Point Blank Raids effectively writing off the 92nd.
August: 482nd Group was formed, known as ‘Pathfinder’. A bomb group using radar-led ‘blind bombing’ techniques, they used specially adapted B-17s.
Abbots Ripton Strategic Air Depot (now the USAF base) became operational.
Radar-enabled USAF bombers and reconnaissance aircraft from Alconbury continue to have a central role in events in Europe. Mosquito surveillance craft photograph the Normandy beaches prior to D-Day, while raids on Berlin are launched from Alconbury in the closing months of the war.
Victory in Europe declared on 8 May. The gradual wind-down of RAF Alconbury from a war footing begins from here. The USAF leave the site, and hand it back to RAF in October.
Until 1951, RAF Alconbury sits in a mothballed state, with the Royal Air Force using it as a site for the storage, distribution and dismantling of munitions.
Berlin Blockade: The Soviet government closes land routes into Berlin to the Allied nations, in an attempt to give the Soviet Union effective control over the city. The Berlin Airlift undermines the blockade and the episode forms the first major tension point of the Cold War.
April: North Atlantic Treaty signed, leading to the formation of NATO, and a general agreement of mutual defence between a number of nations in Europe and North America.
Invasion of South Korea by North Korea, with support from fellow Communist nations, China and the USSR. Tensions rise between western democratic nations, and the emerging Communist Bloc.
The USAF, having decided that there was now suitably pressing need to provide a military presence in Europe, are allocated RAF Alconbury for use as an airbase.
June: The USAFE (United States Airforce in Europe) officially move in to Alconbury, although the airfield is not, at this stage, ready for occupation and use.
Construction of a number of buildings on the site, including the Control Tower, which still stands, and the bomb dump. The watchtowers surrounding the area originally known as ‘The Peninsular Site’, are of a recognised American design of the early 1950s.
May: The Warsaw Pact is signed, creating a formal agreement of mutual defence between eight nations of the Communist Bloc, including the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
September: USAFE begin to fly from Alconbury. The 86th Bombardment Squadron move in, flying B-45A Tornados.
47th Bombardment Squadron began to fly B-66 ‘Destroyers’ out of Alconbury.
December: Construction of the Parachute Loft, to replace a rudimentary one of linked Nissen Huts.
RF-4C (F-4) Phantoms begin to arrive at Alconbury, flown by the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, already present at Alconbury.
Construction of the Hardened Aircraft Shelters at Alconbury, to protect the F-4 Phantom IIIs and F-5 Tiger IIs at the base.
Arrival of U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft at Alconbury with the 17th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Remodelling of the northern section of the airbase begins, providing new concrete aprons and taxiways to accommodate the new aircraft.
Construction begins on the Avionics Building, known as the ‘Magic Mountain’, built to process the photography produced by reconnaissance missions.
Construction of five ‘Ready Sheds’, undefended hangars, for maintenance and storage of U-2 aircraft. The main runway is also overhauled, leading to aircraft being temporarily seconded to RAF bases at Wyton and Sculthorpe.
Fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic end of the Cold War. Communist governments begin to fall in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, speculation grows about the future of Alconbury. The Gulf War, which begun in August following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, however, extended Alconbury's usage. U-2/TR-1s and A-10s were deployed from the base to Saudi Arabia.
It is announced that as part of the wind-down of USAFE, Alconbury will be returned to the Ministry of Defence.
September, USAFE leave the base for good, ending the airfield’s 57 years of near-continuous use.
The site was acquired by Prologis in a joint venture with BAA Lynton, with a plan to create a freight interchange. Their planning application for B8 use – the class of planning consent that permits warehousing and distribution – was called in for inquiry.
Secretary of State John Prescott, gave consent for 7 million sqft of B8.
Prologis obtained a temporary consent to use the site’s buildings for B8 and light industrial (B1/B2) uses.
Urban&Civic acquired the site in 2009.
A number of historic landmarks remain on the site and Urban&Civic has worked on their retention and conservation, integrating them into the newly created mixed-use development. With five designated heritage assets, which stretch from the remains of a 13th century manor house to the reinforced bunkers of the 1980s Cold War tensions, the past will always be present.
The Watch Office was the first permanent control tower at the airbase, acting as a central operation building for the whole airfield. Originally built in 1940-1, the Grade II listed building has been extensively restored by Urban&Civic and will be used as a community centre open to the public.
The National Heritage list for England declared the Watch Office as the best-preserved example of a standard type built for bomber satellite stations during the Second World War.
Also known as “Magic Mountain”, Alconbury Weald’s unique military bunker was designed to survive a direct nuclear attack. The Grade II* listed Cold-War-era bunker was completed in 1989, as tensions between the West and the Soviet Union thawed. It was one of the largest and most sophisticated bunkers in the UK built to process intelligence data collected by the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft.
Amongst a range of Cold War hangars, two of the unique buildings designed to accommodate the long wingspan of the TR-1 are Grade II Listed. These will form part of the future Heritage Area, alongside the Avionics Building.