The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
20 August 2015
Ten miles north of Oxford, amidst the green fields and sporadic woodlands of the English countryside, there lies an abandoned military base… an encampment of concrete buildings, bunkers and barbed wire spread out around a central runway that bisects the site from east to west.
Once, RAF Upper Heyford was a thriving, active air base. During the Cold War period the United States Air Force set up camp right here in Oxfordshire, moving their nuclear-ready aircraft ever closer to their enemies in Moscow. By 1971, it was the largest fighter base anywhere in Europe.
All of that was set to change, however.
With the arrival of the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed in upon itself and the Cold War fizzled out like a wet firework. The Americans went home, taking their guns and bombs with them – while the sprawling military installation at Upper Heyford was largely left to fall into decay.
As chance would have it, I had an invitation to explore the Upper Heyford base not long ago. My guide for the day, KingRat, was a photographer and Cold War buff whose involvement with conservation projects at the base earned him certain access privileges – a useful thing to have, as many of the interesting facilities at Upper Heyford are still under round-the-clock security.
Waiting for my ride at the train station, it occurred to me that this would be the first time I’d visited a Cold War site on this side of the Iron Curtain. Having spent the majority of the last five years researching military history in Eastern Europe, the idea of touring a USAF base in England felt positively alien to me. But then my guide appeared, and all such thoughts gave way to excitement as we began to make our way to Upper Heyford.
World War Z
When the United States Air Force arrived at Upper Heyford, they brought with them a fully functional town. Around the perimeter fence of this high security airbase they built houses, apartments, a school and a cinema; bars, baseball courts and a hospital, supermarkets and a petrol – or rather, gas – station.
They had a running track, those US airmen and their families; a recreation centre, a bowling alley and a police station. In 1993 however, it all came to an end. The Cold War thawed and the settlement disbanded.
After that, Upper Heyford reverted to the property of the British MOD. Some of the buildings have been leased out since, a patchy industrial estate growing amongst the boarded-up barracks; but many of these facilities have just been left, either awaiting buyers, or a final verdict on their fate.
The former settlement around the base at Upper Heyford had blossomed, at least in part, due to uniquely relaxed regulations on-site. This was the only military base in the UK which had remained fully accessible to military and non-military alike; only the flight-line area required military authorisation to access. Driving into Upper Heyford ourselves, we were deep into the blocks of utilitarian, military housing long before we’d seen our first checkpoint.
At first glance, the place looked rather like a ghost town – gardens overgrown, some windows boarded up – but soon, we started passing signs of life amidst the ruin. Nestled here and there were private houses, curtains drawn and lawns neatly mown. We passed pedestrians, the occasional joggers and dog walkers; regular civilians, making a home for themselves amongst the Cold War debris.
As my guide told me, the MOD have encouraged young families to move back into these former RAF houses at Upper Heyford. As many as 300 have been sold into private hands so far, although an MOD plan to build a further 10,000 homes was blocked by the local council.
Filmmakers, too, have been drawn to the empty streets and houses at Upper Heyford. While much of the base’s residential area is lying in various states of dereliction – the hospital building for example, while awaiting a new buyer, has fallen prey to vandals and graffiti – a few structures have been immortalised. We drove past the Base Exchange forecourt that I immediately recognised from the zombie movie World War Z. Bubble letters above the boarded-up entrance spelled out, “Welcome to your store!”
That wasn’t the first time Upper Heyford has featured on the silver screen, either. It starred as a USAFE base in West Germany, for the 1982 Bond film Octopussy; it had its name changed to ‘Lower Heyford’ for a feature in the drama series 24, while in The Fourth Protocol it stood in for the fictional ‘RAF Baywaters.’
We stopped in a shop – this time a real one, not the backdrop to some post-apocalyptic zombie movie. The place struck me as a mix between a regular village shop, and the kind of clean and purpose-built facilities I’d encountered at active military bases during my time with the cadets; penny-sweets and broadsheet papers, arranged on scrubbed metal shelves. There was a smell in the air of bleach and rubber. On the counter, a collection pot for the UK military charity Help for Heroes.
Fully stocked on drinks and snacks, we headed back to the car. It was time to cross the main security fence: past the barbed wire and checkpoints, past the colourful array of warning signs, to take a closer look at the inner workings of a nuclear-ready Cold War air force base.
RAF Upper Heyford
The military base at Upper Heyford led a relatively quiet early life. The Royal Flying Corps moved onsite in 1916, with the first RAF flights coming out of Upper Heyford two years later. For the most part though, it served through both World Wars and the period between as a training facility.
Following WWII, the RAF moved out of Upper Heyford and leased the site to the US Air Force. In response to what was perceived as a growing threat in the Soviet Union, the site at Upper Heyford was just one of four UK airbases which would provide the US with a tactical foothold in Europe. The others – RAF Brize Norton, RAF Fairford and RAF Greenham Common – would be similarly developed over the coming years to provide a home for the strategic bombers of the USAF.
The first American personnel arrived in July 1950: the 7509th Air Base Squadron, consisting of one officer and 26 airmen. Following an official handover to the USAF Third Air Force in May the following year however, the base would begin a radical redevelopment program.
Over the course of its role as a US Air Force base in Europe, Upper Heyford saw a long list of tactical wings and flight squadrons come and go. In those first years after the handover, rotational temporary duty units stationed here included the 93rd Bomb Wing, 97th Air Refuelling Squadron, 509th Air Refuelling Squadron, 301st Bomb Wing, 8th Air Sea Rescue Squadron, 2nd Bomb Wing, 5th Bomb Wing Detachment, and the 22nd Bomb Wing.
Some relative stability would come in 1952, when the Third Air Force transferred control of the base to the USAF Strategic Air Command.
The SAC brought with them the Boeing B-52 craft of the 328th Bombardment Squadron and over the following years, as the base was expanded and reinforced for these larger, heavier aircraft, a full compliment of 45 B-52 bombers would be deployed under the 2nd Bombardment Wing.
In the second half of the 1950s, the base was visited by the RB-36 ‘Peacemakers’ of the 5th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing; and by 1962, the year of Soviet nuclear tests and the missile crisis in Cuba, Upper Heyford played host to the top-secret Lockheed U-2 spy planes. These would fly at high altitudes above nuclear test sites behind the Iron Curtain, collecting air samples in order to analyse and determine the nature of the latest Soviet weaponry.
In 1965, the base was transferred from the Strategic Air Command to the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) and their 7514th Combat Support Group.
In 1966, when France backed out of NATO’s integrated military structure, a further compliment of craft arrived at Upper Heyford looking for a new home: the supersonic McDonnell F-101 Voodoo fighter jets of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. Next came the Phantoms – a pair of RF-4Cs assigned to the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron.
This era would come to an end with the inactivated of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in 1970. Their Phantoms flew out to Germany, the Voodoos to South Carolina; and RAF Upper Heyford came under the jurisdiction of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing.
The Avionics Lab
Our first stop inside the base was the Avionics building: a semi-sunken titan, rising up out of a mound of turf and concrete.
As we approached the building my guide, KingRat, explained the background story of the facility.
When the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing arrived in June 1970, they brought with them a squadron of General Dynamics F-111Es – or as they were unofficially known, ‘Aardvarks.’ This Aardvark was a complicated beast. They were equipped with terrain-tracking radar and electronic surveillance systems, allowing them to fly at full capability around the clock and in any weather conditions. Typically they’d be equipped with intermediate-range nuclear weapons, which made navigation, control and security of the craft a matter of crucial importance.
In 1983 the activation of the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron at Upper Heyford brought even further technical developments, and ushered in the arrival of the base’s first Grumman EF-111A ‘Ravens.’
The complex specifications of these new-generation aircraft called for some seriously advanced engineering; and so the Avionics building at Upper Heyford housed what would effectively become a tech support department for the Aardvark and Raven squadrons. It featured electronics workshops where flight circuitry could be maintained and repaired, and computer labs where reconnaissance data from the aircraft was downloaded and processed. There were photographic darkrooms, life support systems, ordnance rooms and a laboratory for high-tech analysis of spy-plane photography.
All of this was reached through a series of plant rooms and decontamination chambers – in which I found myself now, as KingRat opened up the heavy airlock door and I stepped through into the musty space beyond. The air felt as though it hadn’t been changed in years, and my boots splashed through invisible puddles as I walked into the void. Flicking on my torch, I was greeted by an array of dials and pressurised air machines; filtration and ventilation equipment that looked well preserved, and practically ready for use.
Wandering from one bank of machinery to the next, I almost tripped across a heavy electrical cable that snaked its way through pools of water. Good thing there’s no power, I thought to myself.
“Got it,” my guide suddenly called, from somewhere in the shadows; and with a heavy clunk the lights inside the chamber flicked on one after another. I took a quickstep back from the power cable, retreating to drier ground.
We found the rest of the building similarly waterlogged; one corridor was altogether impassable. The large rooms of the Avionics building had been – for the most part – stripped entirely bare. Oily stains on the polished floors and graffiti on the walls were the only clues of what had once been housed here. One room was decorated with the hand drawn symbol of the USAFE. In an empty rear workshop, a cartoon raven clutched a battery of lightning rods; branded on its chest guard, an EF-111A inside the atom symbol.
In one hall nearby, a wall hatch fed through into a small chamber still decked out with machinery and electronics: a telephone, spotlights and switch boxes, two circuitry cabinets and a stray ganglion of coloured cables.
Leaving the semi-sunken, semi-flooded Avionics lab behind us, KingRat drove us to a nearby testing area. Two buildings stood side-by-side on the tarmac; one of them a skeleton, the other locked shut with a heavy padlock. After a few moments of fiddling with the lock on the latter, it eventually sprung open.
The jet testing hall was a scene of perfect industrial decline; a grim chamber of blue steel and dark, red rust, festooned in dust and spider webs. There were rings set into the hardened concrete floor, for fastening jet engines in place. At the end of the hall, a metal cylinder stood waiting to catch the heat and flames emitted by the test subject; it was lined with a complicated lattice of metal tubes, through which cold water would be pumped to dampen the explosive output of these state-of-the-art afterburning turbofan engines.
Just looking at the size of the hall, the scale of the facilities used to test and maintain the aircraft based out of RAF Upper Heyford, it was immediately apparent just how crucial a role this place must have played in the US’s Cold War efforts. Nevertheless, a more poignant illustration would be found on the next stop on the tour, as we made our way toward the quietly dubious ‘Quick Reaction Alert Facility.’
The so-called ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ squad did exactly what the name suggests. Aircraft sat in standby on the runway, preloaded with a bombs and ready for immediate departure. Pilots worked in four-hour shifts – just staring at the controls, and waiting for that dreaded call to come. When it finally didn’t, they’d switch with the next pilot and retire to the QRA’s on-site headquarters.
That’s where we were headed next: to a yellow-grey brute of a building, a concrete molehill rising out of the tarmac within a high security fence. Behind it, past the guard towers and security huts fitted with through-the-wall machinegun mounts, nine hardened aircraft shelters filled the chain-link compound. A maximum of nine bombers, each of them ready to unleash hell at a moment’s notice.
KingRat led me round the back, where he opened up a heavy blast door set into a recess of the HQ block. Inside, the complex had that old wet paper smell mingled with something greasy.
This building had originally featured a briefing room and offices, a canteen and a recreation area. During deployment, airmen at the QRA would have spent their service time locked inside these thick concrete walls. Bombproof, airtight and windowless, the interior of the barracks may as well have been a mile underground. A mile beneath the United States, that is: furnished as they were with flags, emblems and insignia, so many Star-Spangled Banners that you’d never have guessed you were actually somewhere in rural England.
My guide had found a mural; where the dry wallpaper rolled itself back, peeling crustily from the flaking walls, he had discovered beneath the faded outline of a cartoon aircraft and the name ‘Gentle Annie.’
While he admired the art as if he’d stumbled across an original Van Gogh in his attic, I explored around the barracks. The building featured mess halls and plant rooms, a series of identical chambers leading off a long central corridor. For the most part though, this building had been stripped completely bare.
I caught up with the others in the diner.
The space was tiled in shades of caramel brown and plain magnolia. It had a serving counter, and a backlit menu board above that advertised American fast food; hamburgers. Chilli dogs. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for $0.30. I felt as though I’d be transported back in time, and across continents.
“Check this out,” my guide was calling from the stripped-down kitchen area beyond the bar. He was round the back of some huge, industrial contraption, inspecting plug sockets, and he showed me how the milkshake machine had run on a higher voltage than pretty much any other appliance in the building. “They must have been stirring up some seriously thick shakes,” he said.
Not far away from the HQ building, we took a look inside one of the hangars. These reinforced concrete structures were built by the US Air Force after 1980; nine of them inside the secure perimeter of the QRA Facility, but across the base a grand total of 56 hardened aircraft shelters. The organisation of the hangars appears somewhat chaotic, scattered here and there amidst the yellowing grass as if at random; there was a strategy to the arrangement however, the shelters positioned in such a way that no enemy bomber would be able to target more than two in a single run.
Inside the hangar, yellow lines marked out parking bays and pedestrian routes. A telephone gathered dust in one corner, long since disconnected. Above, a corrugated roof, dotted with rusty spotlights, rolled over the aircraft shelter to form a space of almost church-like proportions.
The shelters at Upper Heyford were built to a standard NATO design: they had initially housed two F-111s apiece, though later regulations reduced them to a single occupancy. Other hangars around the base had sheltered B-52 bombers, U-2 spy-planes and Phantoms – a rotating cast of state-of-the-art war machines.
In recent years, there has been talk of preserving the shelters at Upper Heyford and in 2010, a handful of structures were added to the English Heritage list of scheduled monuments. As of yet however, nothing has come of it; and a 2011 bid for recognition as a World Heritage Site failed to make the UK shortlist. Instead, these hangars are growing ever more tired. Their concrete endures, but many of the interior fixtures have already suffered significant decay.
Before we left, I tried to picture the QRA Facility as it had once been: the hardened HQ building full of military personnel, American jet pilots high on a cocktail of testosterone and cabin fever, playing pool and drinking milkshakes. Out on the runway meanwhile, a single airman sat in the cockpit of a nuclear-armed F-111 Aardvark, the engines rumbling in stand-by as he waited for the order to retaliate to – or perhaps even, initiate – the onset of WWIII.
55th and 77th Squadron HQs
When the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing came to Upper Heyford they were accompanied by their associated units: the 55th, 77th and 79th Tactical Fighter Squadrons. Each of these squadrons had their own headquarters building at the base, and it was to these facilities that we were driving now.
We visited both the 55th and 77th Squadron HQs, first one building and then the other. Built to a similar floor plan however, and each languishing now in a comparable stage of dereliction, my memory of the two blurs into one; and so that’s how I’ll describe them here.
Compared to the heavily fortified QRA block, these squadron buildings were like houses made from straw. Prefabricated wall panels, UPVC windows, and standard security locked doors. Largely, these single-floor buildings would have served an administrative purpose: featuring a briefing hall and offices in addition to canteens and recreation areas.
At one end, however, they each culminated in a hardened ‘blockhouse’ – the literal nerve centre of the squadron, a structure capable of withstanding aerial bombardment. Entering the building from this side offered a choice between a clean or dirty route; direct access to the base, or a slow detour through a series of decontamination chambers.
We took the dirty route.
Shower nozzles glinted dully overhead, sparkling in torchlight as I walked through the dust encrusted decontamination chambers. Stepping over wooden decking raised up above drainage vents; past hatches where new arrivals would deposit their contaminated uniforms. A plastic panel instructed airmen on which items of clothing to remove in case of contact with dangerous chemicals. There were finger marks on one of the walls, a handprint dragged through dust now reduced to a faint outline, obscured beneath layers of new sediment.
It occurred to me then, that this facility existed almost as the antithesis of its original reason for being. That is to say, this abandonment, the slow decay, was a fitting illustration of what the place might have looked like if we’d lost. If we’d all lost, that is; humanity as a whole. Mutually assured destruction, and all that.
Our decontamination complete, we came into a reception lobby of the hardened HQ facility. Passages led off into a laundry area, and a plant room stocked with a surprisingly intact bank of dials, gauges and pressurised air canisters. There were briefing rooms too, two halls divided by a sliding panel door. In a control room, I played about with the microphone of a loudspeaker system… only to find it in perfect working order. I almost jumped with surprise when my own voice came crackling back at me, bouncing along the empty corridors of the squadron HQ building.
Through a dogleg and a blast door, the rest of the base: pre-fab foam-tiled corridors that could have been any low-rent trading estate.
Stalking through the abandonment, along corridors littered with fallen ceiling tiles and old notices peeling off the message boards to scatter like leaves on the carpet, KingRat told me how Thames Valley Police used the building in their training exercises. Perhaps they did, but I saw no sign of it; not until I turned a final corner, that is, and entered a spacious briefing room now decorated to look like some kind of dingy drug den.
There were stained sofas, armchairs, soft toys and newspaper scattered across the floor. Along the food preparation counter at the back were beer bottles, empty gin bottles, an overflowing ash tray and what looked like a makeshift plastic bong. Propped up in the corner meanwhile, tucked behind the door, I spotted a shield: a transparent rectangular thing, made of tough, shatter-proof plastic and branded across the middle with the letters ‘POLICE.’
Apparently, the police had been practising their drug raid technique in this space… either that, or they’d simply stopped here for a cheeky session after work. It was impossible to say.
The Northern Bomb Store
There had been two main bomb storage areas at Upper Heyford. One in the south, I was told, where the conventional weapons had been stored. The northern area meanwhile was designated ‘other weapons.’
“Make of that what you will,” said my guide, now that we were back in the car and headed towards our next stop on the tour.
We visited the Northern Bomb Store – and even before we’d gotten inside, it was clear just how large the area was. Several layers of chain-link fence overlooked by guard towers; octagonal blocks that rose up on stilts above the barbed wire. Beyond the barriers, in comparison, was a somewhat innocuous-looking plot of green grass. A few brick and concrete buildings were dotted here and there, but it hardly looked imposing.
At the main entrance to the bomb store the gates had been left open, and so we drove right on through – past the checkpoint where visitors would have had to clear security under the watch of armed sentries on the towers.
We had a quick poke around inside the guardhouse by the gate, though there wasn’t a lot to see in there. Bulletproof windows faced the entry road, above a metal slot where ID could be passed through for inspection. The place was thick with rust and spiders, but climbing a ladder took me out onto the top of the building for a panoramic view of the surroundings; the barrier fence folding away around the grassy bomb store area and beyond that, outside the perimeter, hardened aircraft shelters bursting sporadically out of the grass as far as they eye could see.
Across the road stood a building labelled with bold white letters spelling ‘AMMO.’ The door was unlocked, and so I took a look inside – one room and then another of offices and stores. A cardboard box of papers had given way to the damp air, tearing apart to spew old documents across the floorboards. I emerged at the far end of the building, then ducked into another; a boiler house this time, its machinery still intact and a log book lain open on top of a long-disused bank of controls.
Back outside, KingRat pointed my attention towards a plain-looking building sat along the main thoroughfare.
“What do you notice about it?” he asked, and I looked closer.
The building was a nondescript block, a door at the front with windows on the first and second floor… windows that were filled in perfectly with bricks.
“The windows are bricked in?” I said.
“No,” he replied. “Look closer.”
That’s when I noticed the windows weren’t filled with bricks, but rather they had never been there at all. Beyond the frames was nothing but a smooth surface of unbroken concrete. Realisation dawned on me. This structure wasn’t so much a building, as a single, solid block of concrete dressed up to look like a regular storehouse.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s take a look inside.”
Past the security door set into the front wall of the building, a whitewashed corridor led straight into the heart of the block. There were shiny black marks on the wall, information or warning signs that had long since been redacted. In the centre of the structure, defended on every side and above by a concrete wall perhaps as much as 15 feet deep, was a single vault.
A final blast door protected the vault inside: a heavy, metal thing mounted with a series of complex-looking dials and locks and levers. The space beyond was empty – naturally – stripped entirely bare but for the same black marks on the walls that hinted at safety notices deleted when the USAF moved out of Upper Heyford.
It was clear that this structure had stored something of the utmost importance; not only was it hardened against any conceivable aerial assault, but it was disguised as well to look like an ordinary, insignificant structure. My guide informed me that this building had absolutely not, under any circumstances, been used to store the fission elements – trigger mechanisms – for US atomic weapons… or at least, that was the official line put out by the US Air Force, he told me.
I was still looking at those black paint marks, wondering what words might once have lain beneath; when KingRat suddenly interrupted my thoughts.
“Want to see where they kept the bombs?”
Walking around the corner, the earth opened up before us to reveal a sunken tarmac strip cutting down between twin barrows of grass-mounded concrete. The magazines were built in parallel rows, half in the ground and half out, which had been buried in soil and turf; the only way in, a series of secure bulkhead doors facing inwards to the road that passed through the centre.
These days the place is used for storing fireworks. There was a van unloading stock at a magazine nearby, men in work clothes shifting heavy crates about. They didn’t look up as we approached – it may as well have been public space, some after-hours industrial estate on the edge of any big town.
These magazines, their common nickname was ‘igloos.’ The first few we passed were sealed up tight, but soon enough we found one open to visitors. Stepping through the blast-proof sliding door, I found myself inside a bare, white brick chamber. An empty box, 80 feet by 22, the igloo gave no indication whatsoever about its former wares. Supposedly though, these 30-or-so reinforced storage spaces had been built specifically to house the largest weapon in the arsenal of the USAF Strategic Air Command: the Mark-17 hydrogen bomb. Measuring more than 24 feet in length, this weapon had a blast in the region of 10-15 megatons – around a thousand times the yield of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.
The official story was that the US Air Force never stored nuclear weapons at Upper Heyford; but even back in the 1980s, local residents didn’t buy it.
“We were the ground zero target,” said one Oxford resident, quoted in a BBC article about the air base. “The American bunkers in England would be the first to be targeted in a nuclear war.”
At the height of the Cold War, the Oxford University CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) Group voiced its protest in the form of Campaign ATOM… that is, the Campaign Against the Oxfordshire Missiles. In 1980, more than 1000 people marched on RAF Upper Heyford. At RAF Greenham Common, they held a 75-hour vigil outside the base’s entrance. Later, another march in 1983 would become entrenched at Upper Heyford; protestors established a camp of tents and caravans, food was supplied by campaign supporters and by June that year – amidst talks of expanding the base – as many as 4,000 protestors gathered outside the perimeter fences. The demonstration lasted four days, during which time 752 people were arrested.
Before we left the bomb store behind, we would make one final stop beside the far perimeter fence; where a single octagonal guard tower rose up at a corner of the compound, looking out over fields of poppies that waved like ribbons in the wind.
My guide told me a story – “pure urban myth,” he assured me – about a guard who had taken his own life in that watchtower. According to the story, the place had been haunted ever since. Naturally, I absolutely had to climb up inside to take a look.
I got a leg-up, high enough that I could reach the lower rungs of the ladder attached to the side of the watchtower. Pulling myself up, I got onto the outer platform – the door at the front was locked, but scouting around the back I found an open window. It wouldn’t open all the way, the rusted hinges protesting at the interference, but it was enough to squeeze through, headfirst, falling onto my hands to roll across gritty floorboards inside the structure.
There wasn’t exactly much to see in there. Floorboards caked in dust, a wooden box marked with a faded red cross. A single chair lay inside, tipped ominously over on to its side. If I was looking for USAF ghosts, however, then I’d be far more likely to find them at our next – and final – port of call: the command centre of USAF operations at Upper Heyford.
Upper Heyford Battle HQ
The runway that splits the Upper Heyford base in two was redeveloped considerably when the USAF moved in. As well as reinforcing it to handle their heavy-duty F-111 bombers, it was also extended to stretch for a total distance of 8,300 feet. Driving towards the mission control building, we put it to the test – speeding down the open tarmac at 100 miles-per-hour.
Birds of prey hovered high above, as we flew past aircraft shelters and bomb stores, chain link fences and security signs that threatened everything from live explosives to court-martialling.
At the far end we came to a rest at the very heart of Upper Heyford, beneath the shadow of the runway flight tower. The red brick building rose up several floors, to erupt in a purple-tinted glass-walled observation deck. I wanted to take a look inside, but my guide advised against it. Collapsing floors, asbestos – “and besides,” he said, “it’s nowhere near as interesting as where we’re going next.”
The hardened ‘Battle Headquarters’ block at Upper Heyford faces out onto a small courtyard. An adjacent building – the former BT telephone exchange that once handled calls in and out of the base – is still in use today, I learnt, as a basic switching frame for nearby residents. Across the tarmac from that, we took a quick look into an old generator room.
The dated machinery, the broken dials and gauges, long predated the Cold War-era expansion at Upper Heyford. More likely, these rusted generators had served to power the training operations of the Royal Flying Corps during the interwar period. We wouldn’t spend long in there though; all of us hungry for the main attraction.
Entering the concrete blockhouse of the command centre, through another of the heavy, blast-proof doors that had become a regular sight by now, we emerged into a decontamination suite. Like the Squadron HQ buildings, this complex had also featured clean and dirty routes into the building. Past the showers and laundry chutes, we came into a windowless lobby – antique posters on the walls and barred doors leading deeper inside the building.
Following the spine corridor that ran the length of the complex, we passed by plant rooms and telephone exchanges. The first phone room appeared to be in immaculate order – microphones and desks, offices chairs and wall charts. If it weren’t for the dated décor and retro-tech fittings, one might have guessed the staff were simply out for lunch.
As we progressed further into the command centre, KingRat pointed out hatches built into the walls between the different security levels. These were for passing notes back and forth, he explained – for sharing a quick message between the telephone exchanges and other areas, without all the hassle of clearing security barriers in person.
Through another security door, we came upon the American Autovon telephone exchange. This one had been partially stripped, with just the switching frames and a basic scattering of technology left behind.
At last we reached the operations area: through a metal barred gate, we came into the very brain of RAF Upper Heyford, where air campaigns had been directed by staff sat at long communications desks arranged in a central well. The control room was largely intact. Sliding boards on the end wall contained tables upon tables of information, specifications for the various aircraft stationed at the base along with data such as flight speeds, weapon capacities and current whereabouts.
Telephones, consoles, display screens, and other communications equipment filled all the available space; while in an adjacent room, a full wall-size map had been stripped, destroyed, scrap by torn-off scrap, as part of the process of redaction when the US Air Force departed from Upper Heyford.
Stood on the raised deck that circled the operations well, I looked out over the command centre.
From this very room, the 20th TFW had coordinated their craft in a long list of NATO and US operations; the Upper Heyford F-111s had participated in over two decades of combat, including Operations Shabaz, Display Determination, Cold Fire, Ocean Safari, Datex, Priory, Reforger, Dawn Patrol, Highwood, and Operation Hammer.
In 1986, five EF-111A Ravens and twenty F-111E Aardvarks had flown out of Upper Heyford to join Operation El Dorado Canyon: the notorious US bombing of Libya. It was conducted in response to a terrorist attack in a West Berlin nightclub, that was believed to have been carried out by Libyan agents. The Berlin bomber killed two US servicemen. In response, Operation El Dorado Canyon claimed an estimated 60 Libyan casualties, in addition to a further two US airmen whose craft was shot down.
Later, the fighter wing at Upper Heyford participated in Operation Desert Storm. Commencing in January 1991, the F-111Es of the 20th TFW joined the conflict in Iraq. They launched combat missions from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, evading Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery to target power plants, electronics sites, oil refineries and nuclear-biological-chemical processing facilities.
By the end of Desert Storm the wing had flown 1,798 sorties without a loss, dropping more than 4,700 tons of ordnance on its targets. It was all to come to an end though; and after a tenancy lasting for more than two decades, the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing was finally called back home.
RAF Upper Heyford had played a significant strategic role as an American forward command position throughout the Cold War; but following the fall of the Soviet Union, its usefulness was suddenly diminished. The USAF presence at the base was phased out step by step.
The F-111 Aardvarks of the 20th TFW flew their last campaigns in 1993 – the Gulf War, and operations in Bosnia – before turning tail and leaving Upper Heyford altogether. The last four craft departed from the base toward the end of that year.
Aircraft 67-120 of the 55th Fighter Squadron, veteran of 19 Desert Storm missions, was flown to its current resting place at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford.
Aircraft 68-061 – ‘The Last Roll of Me Dice’ – was flown to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center in Tucson, Arizona, while number 68-020 – ‘The Chief’ – flew to Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
The final departure was the flagship of the 55th Fighter Squadron, ‘Heartbreaker,’ which flew out of Upper Heyford for Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, on 7th December 1993.
One week later, the flight line at Upper Heyford was closed for good. By 1st January 1994 the 20th Fighter Wing had packed up and left, returning to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. The base at Upper Heyford was placed under the temporary management of the 620th Air Base Wing as it was stripped and redacted, before eventually being returned to the Ministry of Defence in September that year. Since that point, the place has rather slumped into a process of slow deterioration.
The hospital was boarded up in 2001. Small businesses come and go: fireworks manufacturers stashing their wares inside the old bomb stores; brand new, unsold vehicles parked in a makeshift compound at one end of the runway. There are narrowboat builders working on the premises, and from 2012-13 some areas were leased out for airsoft matches.
As for preservation of the site, talks are still ongoing. English Heritage have expressed an interest to take the air base on – there are suggestions even of converting the command centre into a museum. It hasn’t happened yet, though. Proposals have been put forward, but each time this base has come in runner-up – losing out to other sites deemed more urgently in need of preservation.
For the time being at least, RAF Upper Heyford is caught in that difficult middle age – too old to be useful, too young to be considered truly historic.
Meanwhile, nature is creeping back into the base – which now provides a nesting ground for skylarks, peregrine falcons and other rare bird species. The residential suburbs, too, are slowly being repopulated… new building plans might have been rejected, but nevertheless a community seems to be growing back around this mismatched township of old red brick homes and modern, pre-fab supermarkets. Some parts of the base have been demolished. One officer’s mess has been converted into a school.
How the air base will look 20 years from now, is anybody’s guess. From my day-long tour of the site though – after wading through the rust and rot of a military machine put out to pasture – one thing at least seemed clear:
Upper Heyford’s fighting days are well and truly past.
A Final Note on Corrections
Usually on this site, I write about places that most of my readers haven’t been to. In this case though, I’m aware that the article is quite likely to be found and read by people who had a direct connection to RAF Upper Heyford.
I spent a long, long time researching the history of the base in order to write this. If you spotted a mistake though, do please let me know. My intention with this report is to offer something educational for those who don’t know the place… and to perhaps provide an update on the status of the base for those who knew it in the past.
So if you’ve got anything to share about Upper Heyford, feel free to have your say below – I’d love to hear from you.