The base was originally opened during the first World War and after the 2nd war, when it was no longer required it was leased to the United States Airforce remaining operational until the end of 1993 when it was handed back to the RAF.
It remained in care and maintenance for several years and although still owned by the MOD, the airfield side has been converted into a large industrial estate, Heyford Park, while much of the domestic side is in mothballs awaiting future development. 300 houses on this side have however been sold and this part of the base is open and easily accessible.
RAF Upper Heyford is a mixture of buildings, some dating from the 1930’s but the most prominent feature are the 56 hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) scattered all over the base. These were built in 1980 as part of NATO’s policy of hardening essential bases. They are largely located on the opposite side of the airfield to the domestic and technical accommodation and are arranged in squadron groups.
All HAS’s built in the UK whether on USAF or RAF bases are of standard NATO designs of which there are three types. These originally housed two F-111’s each but for safety reasons this was later reduced to one.
With so many buildings on the site, there has, as yet, been little or no demolition we were only able to see in detail a small selection of the buildings although much is visible by driving round the perimeter road. Within the base compound there is an inner compound where thousands of new cars are stored on the main runway and wherever there is room for them. The vast quantity of unsold cars has become an embarrassment and we were unable to enter this area which contains the control tower. Most of the interesting buildings however were located in the outer compound and we were able to visit a number of these.
The first building on our tour was the hardened command centre or ‘battle headquarters’ which is in surprisingly good condition, with much of its equipment remaining. This is a rectangular windowless concrete blockhouse. Outside the entrance there is a shower for initial decontamination before entering the bunker. Once inside the door there is a small lobby area and then a substantial blast door leading into the bunker proper. From here there is a clean route into the bunker or a dirty route which goes through a suite of decontamination rooms containing showers and disposal chutes for clothes.
A spine corridor runs through the length of the building, much of the left hand side is taken up with the ventilation and filtration plant which is all in good order while on the right hand side are two telephone exchanges. The first is the BT exchange which still contains most of its equipment including several large floor standing cabinets. Beyond this is the American Autovon exchange which has been partially stripped although some cabinets and switching frames are still in place.
Beyond the telephone exchanges is a metal barred gate giving access to the operations area. This consists of a sunken well with a higher level overlooking it. The air campaign could be directed from here. On either side of the main corridor there are two further ‘control’ rooms with windows overlooking the main operations room. One room was given over to the command of the local RAF Rapier Missile units. All these rooms still contain much of their equipment, telephones, consoles, display screens etc.
Because of its complete state English Heritage have scheduled this building and it is possible that it will eventually be opened as a museum.
Close to the command centre is the hardened BT telephone exchange which handled all the telephone traffic into and out of the base. This is another windowless rectangular blockhouse with a blast protected entrance. As this building is still used by BT we were unable to get access but our guide told us it only contains a small switching frame.
Our next port of call was perhaps the most impressive building on the base, the massive Avionics building designed to maintain the complex electronics of the F-111’s and to download and process reconnaissance data. The building housed life support systems, decontamination rooms, electronics workshops, photographic darkrooms and had equipment storage and handling areas. An extension was later added for processing and analyzing photographic reconnaissance data. The building is semi sunken and partially mounded over with soil and grass covered. We entered through a very heavy blast door in a blast protected sunken open walkway. There are two such blast doors, one gives access directly to the main spine corridor but this is now wet so we used the other door which goes through the plant room. Again all the filtration and ventilation plant is intact and in good order.
The bunker houses a number of vast rooms mostly rectangular but one ‘L’ shaped. All these rooms have been completely stripped apart from one small room which contains several electrical cabinets and what are presumably the control consoles for the bunker. Some of the walls have typical USAF wall art including an impressive painting of a raven.
We drove on to look at one of the two bomb stores which had housed nuclear weapons. These were located in secure compounds overlooked by octagonal guard towers. We were unable to gain access as they are both used as fireworks stores, but we were able to see the layout through the fence. They consist of several parallel rows of large earth/grass mounded magazines. The magazines, commonly known as ‘igloos’, comprised a rectangular reinforced concrete box, 80’ X 22’, covered in earth. Entry was through a pair of sliding, blast-proof, steel doors, often shielded by a detached concrete and earthy revetment on the opposite side of the access road. Internally the igloos were featureless except for a large lifting hook set in the ceiling, safety lighting and heating. They offered flexible storage space and could easily accommodate the USAF Strategic Air Command’s largest weapon, the Mark 17 hydrogen bomb which was 7.6 metres in length. There were initially 27 igloos but more were added later.
Within each group, one igloo contained an internal reinforced concrete vault with a safe-like door. The vault may have been intended to house separate capsules that contained the fission elements of many 1950’s US atomic weapons, which were inserted in to the weapon only during times of war. The capsule store at Heyford was unique being a double storey concrete structure with blind metal framed windows designed to give the impression of an insignificant structure.
Each of the Squadrons within the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing had its own headquarters building, spread around the base these each consists of prefabricated unhardened building containing offices, canteen, recreation area, briefing room etc leading into a hardened blockhouse at one end. We visited the 55th and 77th Squadron HQ but only went inside the 77th as they are both identical. The building is currently derelict and in a poor state of repair with ceiling tiles littering the floor. The building has been totally stripped. At one end the main corridor leads into the hardened area through a dog leg and a blast door. Again there are two routes into the bunker, one clean and one dirty where the decontamination is similar to the command centre. This gives access to a main reception area where there is a large counter. All the rooms in the bunker are empty apart from the plant room which is intact and in good order.
Alongside the 55th Squadron HQ is a gate into the inner compound with a heavily defended guardroom with a pillbox on the top. There are also a number of WW2 hangers that are now used by Thames Valley Police for training.
Having spent three hours at the base this was now the end of our tour, although we did take a look at the domestic site. The multi-million pound hospital lies empty and disused despite repeated efforts to find a buyer; it seems likely that this will now be demolished along with the supermarket alongside. A smaller supermarket (shopette) has been renovated and reopened for the local community. The petrol station is currently derelict but this may be reopened as the ‘new town’ develops. It is a vast site and the development plan includes the demolition of a large number of the buildings including most of the hardened aircraft hangers. There are plans to build 1000+ houses on the site so it will indeed become a town.
Brief history of the Tactical Fighter Wing
The base was originally opened during World War I, but not transferred to USAF control until the early 1950s. It was initially an SAC base housing rotational stateside-based B-47 aircraft, commencing with the 22nd Bombardment Wing from March Airforce Base in December 1953. Other units rotated to Upper Heyford until 1958 when the Reflex Action system was introduced, with wings deploying small quantities of aircraft for three-week periods instead of whole wings for months at a time.
The 20th Tactical Fighter Wing relocated from RAF Wethersfield to RAF Upper Heyford on 1 June 1970. For the first time since it left Virginia in 1952, all three of its flying squadrons were united on one base.
Less than three months later, the wing began converting to a new aircraft - the General Dynamics F-111E Aardvark.
These aircraft had terrain-following radar and electronic surveillance systems with a 24 hour all weather flying capability. Their primary role was to carry NATO’s intermediate-range nuclear weapons and throughout the 1970’s they represented one of the key assets of the NATO alliance.
On 12 September 1970, the first two F-111Es arrived at RAF Upper Heyford. The 20th Tactical Fighter Wing participated in F-111 NATO and US unilateral operations Shabaz, Display Determination, Cold Fire, Ocean Safari, Datex, Priory, Reforger, Dawn Patrol, Highwood, Hammer, and others from January 1972 to October 1993. The wing gained a fourth flying squadron on 1 July 1983, with the activation of the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron.
On February 1984, the first Grumman (General Dynamics) EF-111A Ravens of that squadron arrived at Upper Heyford. Following the end of the cold war, the base was quickly wound down with the last of the fighter squadrons, the 55th, inactivated on 15 October 1993 and the last of the wing’s three aircraft departed from Upper Heyford on 7 December 1993.
Those taking part in the visit were Nick Catford, Dan McKenzie and Tony Page.
- RAF Upper Heyford Memorial Web Site
- Cold War - Building for nuclear confrontation 1946 -1989. Published by English Heritage ISBN 1 873592 69 8