RAF Upper Heyford: Chasing Cold War Ghosts in Rural Oxfordshire

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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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 10 Mission Control 5With 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 a supermarket 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.’

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Recognise this passageway? Try imagining it with Brad Pitt, a bicycle and zombies.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Electrical Combat Squadron at Upper Heyford brought even further technical developments, and ushered in the arrival of the base’s first Grumman EF-111A ‘Ravens.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

 

QRA 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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 3 Barracks 7That’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.

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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.

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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.

USAF Upper Heyford Hangar

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.

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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.

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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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 5 Decon A 3Compared 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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 5 Decon A 4Our 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.’

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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.

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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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 7 Bomb Store 7We 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.

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“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.”

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USAF Upper Heyford - 7 Bomb Store 9Past 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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 7 Bomb Store 18These 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 6 Decon B 7Entering 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.

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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.

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USAF Upper Heyford - 10 Mission Control 6Telephones, 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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 10 Mission Control 4

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.

 

Post-War Trauma

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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 3 Barracks 6

USAF Upper Heyford - 6 Decon B 5The 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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 11 Generator Room 2The 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.

USAF Upper Heyford - 6 Decon B 9

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Post a comment

  1. Wow. I stumbled across this at work, and have really enjoyed the memories. My dad was stationed at Upper Heyford 1970 -1975. While we lived in off-base housing Bicester, my brother and I spent quite a bit of time on-base playing sports and attending school. etc. My mother’s family is from East Anglia, so having the chance to live in the UK was a great experience. Thanks again.

  2. To this day, I’ve spent the most years of my life at Upper Heyford. I grew up there from ’76-’85. This was a fantastic flashback – although my memories are rooted more within the school, housing areas, canteen, playgrounds and in the little village down the hill towards the canals. All recollections of Upper Heyford are fond and I appreciate the time spent on this article.

  3. I spent two years here, love the story. The place has a lot of ghosts.

  4. I was there from Oct ’92 until early Sep ’94. As a heavy equipment operator, I didn’t get to see “behind the curtain ” often, if ever. Your article was insightful to me, as well as a little sad. I saw it bursting with energy when I first got there and witnessed the rapid decline just some months later. Thanks again for the description and pics. RAF Upper Heyford will ALWAYS have a special place in my heart.

  5. Upper Heyford was my heart and soul… my father was stationed there in 71 and returned in 1979 as the DO. After a year at Ramstein AFB, we returned where he became the Wing Commander. I graduated from there and got married there, right after Eldorado Canyon (My then husband was a WSO in the 55th). I remember it all; the CND’ers in 1980, Octopussy in 82, the canals, the pubs and the locals from Upper and Lower Heyford who were always so nice. I’ve been back once in 1998 when we were stationed at RAF Lakenheath. Someone recently sent me a picture of our home on Soden Road and it still looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing this… I’ll make sure my Dad, Gen. Dale Thompson, sees this!

  6. Only the 5 EF-111’s that flew in Eldorado Canyon in 1986 were from Heyford. The other F111’s were F models from Lakenheath. I was there to watch them take off in 1986.

    • Hello Bill, I was working in the bombproof telephone exchange at Upper Heyford on April 15th,1986, we British engineers did the installation work. It didn’t take long to realise that this wasn’t a drill! We were told “don’t know whats up but watch the news on the telly tonight.” A bit part in history m8.

  7. One minor correction. The 42nd Electrical Combat Squadron should read “42nd Electronic Combat Squadron.”

  8. Thank you brought back memories I was a dependent. 1970 to 1974

  9. I was there with the 66th as NCOIC of Admin for the command post and EAO that shared that room off the command post with intelligence and of course me. We still had the black brit phones when I was there and that part in the front row with the empty space was mine, the empty space held my crypto books and I’d also run the morning briefings from there. When the 66th left, they asked me to stay on to help the transition to the 20th, but did so from Wing Admin office a chief clerk, Interesting times to say the least.

  10. I was stationed at Upper Heyford 1951-1954, 3918th MVS. We were moved out to the deserted army hospital at Middleton Stoney when the “Reflex” B-47s came in. I remember that there was 3 groups that came in whils i was there..

    • Hello John Hocker. I was at UH from Oct 52 to Oct 55. Worked in Finance. Had a good friend , Rodger Ecola in 3918 MVS. He worked in your squadron Orderly Room. Do you remember him? Rodger and I met while pulling KP on the ship from NYC to Southampton. We visited a few pubs in Oxford and London. Best tour during my 28 years in the AF

  11. I was the last airman to leave…Sep 30, 1994.

  12. Nice review. I lived on Upper Heyford with my family as a dependent from September 1960 through June of 1964. I remember nay of the places you visited on your tour, although I am more familiar with the housing and commercial side of the base. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Stationed there from September 12 , 1977 to 7 September 1979.Assigned to AGE Branch, 20th GSM. Worked in the Servicing Section. I loved my two years there, so many memories. I retired in the UK in 2000 after serving a total of 10 years at Lakenheath and 31/2 years at Alconbury.

  14. I was at the “Stack” 1981-1984. Second best assignment in my USAF career. Crew chief

  15. I was stationed here from ’77-’81 with the 20th Field Maintenance Squadron, in the Sheet Metal shop. Both of my children were born at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Many great memories, but so very sad to see such a place go down in decay, Great story by-the-way!! I’ll share this with some friends with whom were stationed there with me.

  16. Brings back a lot of memories, I spent about 11 years there, three different tours, my family and me lived in base housing, hate to see it go down.

  17. I have no association at all with Upper Heyford although I knew of it from my Airforce days in the RAF. I love seeing these pictures of times gone by. I do get angry when these bases close and are sold off for industry and housing. Bases like these should be preserved and opened up so that future generations can experience what life may have been like during the cold war on one of these bases. I may be romanticizing, I always love the opening scene of 12 o clock high when Dean Jagger arrives on his bike at his old deserted airbase, the old deserted buildings, the runway, remembering the sounds of aircraft engines starting up. reliving the old memories. Memories are important as without them future generations will not know about them.

  18. Darmon would be welcome to our Open Day, to come and learn more about what we are doing with Greenham Control Tower https://www.facebook.com/GreenhamControlTower/

  19. I was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford from 1989 to 1991. I was surgeon at the now deteriorating hospital. In the beginning of your article you showed a picture of a building you called the supermarket. This was or BX or Base Exchange. The market was on the other side of the base. I was fortunate to have been TDY during Operation Desert Shield, which was the start up of Operation Desert Storm. I remember waiting for a pilot friend of my from UH to arrive at Incirlick AB and he was late. I asked him why the delay. He told me the French would not allow our planes to fly over their country and the had to vector around. So much for freeing them after the Normandy Landing. I miss my time off at the Officers Club called Jandy’s Lounge. It was a cool place with old English furnishings. I was fortunate to have a t-shirt given to me by the manger with the picture of lizard on a bar stool. The shirt was titled Jandy’s Lounge Lizards. One of my proudest moments. I had a great time there and loved it. I lived in Kings Sutton only ten miles away. Have been back two times to see the base and it is a shame the way it looks. I have the good memories of serving with the greatest people in the world.

  20. This is a very poignant piece, and you have an artist’s eye. Just as background, I was born in the hospital on base in 1953. My father was stationed there at the time. He was a nuclear weapons technician. Thanks for a great article with haunting images!

  21. I have read your article with interest ,my connection with USAF Upper Heyford was a tragic one,my brother Flt Lft David Longden AFC who was stationed at RAF Little Rissington was on a training sortie with 3 other folland gnats on Monday 13 December 1971 ,as he came across the airfield at around 600 ft he did two displays rolls when the tailfin departed and the gnat crashed on the side of the runway killing him and his co-pilot. After the funeral and a number of weeks later my family were invited to Upper Heyford to be shown the crash site and a tour around the base,my father and I were allowed to sit in the cockpit of a F 111 tactical fighter aircraft. It is sad to see the state of the airbase as it is now so the idea of turning it into a museum would be a positive move which would serve as amemory to everyone who served and died there
    best wishes Richard

    • Thank you for sharing this Richard, and I’m sorry to hear the sad connection you have to the place. I agree with you though – so many lives have been through here, that I think it’s only appropriate to somehow commemorate the place. Even without any personal connection, I felt a real sadness at seeing the state it has fallen into having been so important for so many years. Let’s hope they manage to preserve at least some of it, in memory of those who served.

  22. I was stationed at RAF Croughton from 82-84 and traveled to “Heyford” often on the blue USAF bus. For me the picture of the BX got me the most.. I can still see where the sweet older man (I was only 18 at the time) sold sheepskin stuffed animals and sheepskin rugs. During my 2 years, I bought every single sheepskin stuffed animal he had. We became friends and he even made a special koala bear for me. I have those animals to this day though they are in a bin in the basement, safe and sound.. My trips to Heyford were for the BX, sometimes the club, but mostly for MWR to call home.. Thank you so much for taking me down memory lane…

    • I remember the bombers in the air 24/7 in the late sixty’s i live locally near Silverstone, i now return to Heyford as a delivery truck driver, new housing is being built across the road from the main gate, i used to go to the air shows too, it’s changing so much on a daily basis! but every time i go back so do the memories !

    • You’re very welcome Michelle. While there’s tons of information about the place online, it’s mostly technical stuff – dates, vehicle specs, etc. I find it really fascinating to hear about the day-to-day details, all the little stories from people who spent time here. It really brings the place to life, so thank you for that!

  23. What a great article! As a dependant I did not experience RAF Heyford the same way as active duty, but I have such fond memories of my time there, 77-80. We lived in Westbury for part of the tour and then on base, on Lower Carlswell Circle, I think it was. I remember early on going to the Canteen and ordering 2 eggs, beans on toast and getting two separate breakfasts! I learned pretty quickly though. No one mentioned the alerts, which sometimes seemed to come one right after the other. I remember being outside when one alert sounded and within nano-seconds an RAF jet blasted past me, so low I could count the rivets in the wings! The row-house we lived in had been built by the RAF in something like 1925 and even by the standards of that time it was pretty small. I remember that we either couldn’t, or it was difficult, to adjust the heating and I just about died at how hot the house got. Some people coming in from Nellis AFB, in Las Vegas, obviously got a bit chilled in GB . . . We were active members of the Oxford Mountaineering Club (city, not University) and didn’t spend as much time socializing on base as others. I do remember quite distinctly that club members would always scramble to ride with us on climbing trips to Wales and beyond, as it was half as expensive to fill our VW van with fuel than off base. Warwick Castle banquets, Finmere market, Rousham House, Blenheim Palace, the Ashmolean Museum, The Opium Den (best Chinese food ever), celebrating May Day on Magdalen Bridge, punting on the Cherwell, driving to Buckingham on the ‘wrong side of the road’ and not understanding what the ‘Adverse Camber’ sign meant, seeing all the dead fowl and rabbits hanging at the butcher in the covered market in Oxford, Blackwell’s, seeing Star Wars in Oxford and wondering where the popcorn was, Woburn Abbey, antique stores everywhere, great fish and chips, missing my turn in a village and just thinking I’d go around the block to get back on route (I cannot stop laughing at how it took me about 2 miles to find a place to turn around) . . . I could go on and on about all the special places and times I remember. For my last year, I worked at the Royal Worcester/Spode store in the parking lot of the BX. I really enjoyed that and had a great deal of fun with my boss, a woman named Tonya who was 6’2″ in bare feet and always wore heels. Sitting behind the little desk, she loved to slowly stand up while talking to a customer, watching their eyes slowly keep rising until their head was bent back. Talk about British humor! I have some of you SPs to thank for my occasional lapse of memory as to if I’d lock the door to the store and asked for someone to check for me. Thank you for your patience.

    I narrowboated on the Oxford Canal in 2000 and moored for one night at Upper Heyford. We walked up to the base and I was so surprised to see thousands of cars parked on the side of the runway! The base was such a secured area when I lived there that the very thought of some ‘civilian’ whipping cars around on the runway gave me great pause for thought. That runway was kind of a sacred area, as it were. It was the ‘road’ for the base’s purpose. I recognized all of the buildings, although I did not get to visit my old house as a TV show was being filmed and the road was closed off.

    One thing I’d especially like to mention was the understood sense of mission and community on the base, at least from the dependant standpoint. We were an American military ‘town’ transplanted to GB as Darmon described, which doesn’t mean everyone knew everyone else. However, it does mean that we all knew what we were there for. I remember going to the base theater to see the movie, Meatballs. Behind us sat a large group of men, some in their flight suits. I was told it was the Alert Team – 10 aviators and all their guards. I don’t know if was accurate, but I was told that each of the 10 officers had a guard on them at all times. It was sobering to know that those 10 men could be in the air in minutes, flying a magnificent killing machine, with weapons we don’t even want to contemplate. It was why we were all in GB, to be ready. My first October, Heyford lost an F-111 on a training in Wales. I was new to the base and I was amazed at the sense of loss for everyone, whatever their job and whether they’d known the crew, or not. It was a real sense of community loss.

    In any case, our collective experiences at Heyford seem to be fond memories for many of us. I have narrowboated on the canals several times and GB is a different country than the one I lived in. I feel privileged to have experienced it before such globalization and everyone wearing the same jeans and shoes!

    • I forgot, was it The Fox and Hound off-base that had all the foreign money under glass and hanging behind the bar? I remember looking at the Iranian money with the pic of the Shah on it and thinking how cool the owner had that, since the Shah was newly ousted. Is it true that the different foreign bills were donated by US personnel from the base?

      • Thank you, Pat – what an amazing account of your time here. I grew up near Oxford myself, so a lot of the places you mention are very familiar for me. Pub lunches at the Fox and Hounds, the Ashmolean, Blackwells…

        But it’s interesting the way you put it, that this was a ‘American town transplanted into GB.’ I’m not sure if I find the idea disorientating, or actually quite comforting in a home-from-home kind of way. But the way a lot of people speak about this place, it sounds like you had a real community there. Not, as you say, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else… but not exactly how people (outsiders, like me!) might picture a military base, either. I get the impression that the place was more than the sum of its parts.

        Anyway, thanks for sharing all this – I’ve really enjoyed reading it.

  24. This was an interesting, though foreign read for me. Absolutely nothing seemed even remotely familiar. During my 2 1/2 years at Upper Heyford from July 1953-November 1955, I was kept busy with my duty station at the Dental Clinic positioned as a part of the 3918th USAF Infirmary. When not working, I would venture out into the world afforded us by the military: The cinema in Oxford, the bicycle rides to local historical sites like Blenheim Palace and of course, Upper Heyford, Lower Heyford, Middle Aston, etc. Occasional visits to London and cities a short train ride away.
    All in all, my time at Upper Heyford had no fear of raids either coming or going. We felt secure and unthreatened by our presence. The on-base movie theatre was a common gathering place, but it lacked the ambiance of the in-town cinema; queing up with a newspaper cone of fish & chips, the 4 and 2 shilling seats with a cloud of cigarette smoke made the movie experience ‘different’.

    I have many fond memories of that brief time in my otherwise mundane life. I returned home in late 1955, to change my life forever: becoming active in Christian theology, marrying, going off to school at the University of Washington, becoming a physical therapist and father of 6 children then a life-long resident of a small city in Central Washington-Wenatchee.

    So, this walk-through of RAF Upper Heyford, Oxon, England held memories-many memories-but none representing the fear of the Cold War. Sincerely, D. Wayne Lewis (Former S/Sgt USAF 3918th USAF Infirmary).

    • I was at UH from October 1952 to October 1955. I worked in Finance, that little white building at the entrance to the base. UH was my first overseas assignment and was a very special place for me. Our paths may have crossed during our stay at UH. Take care

  25. Thanks for the memories. I was stationed here between 1983 and 1986. The shop I worked in was the avionics shop you showed with the Raven on the door. I believe I have a photo of that door from 1985.

  26. as a member of the 29th security police Sq from 1978 till 1980′ I spent a lot of time in that guard tower. almost shot the farmer. called the big tower to inform them some one was walking along the perimeter, they said don’t shot its just the farmer. a lot of lonely nights out there. I loved that base. one day I hope to go back.

    • I feel sorry for the farmer! If you’re planning to head back though, you should probably do it soon – unfortunately it sounds like the base is being dismantled fast.

  27. Tour of duty: 1978-1980 FMS Great article, it brought back a lot of good memories.

  28. Stationed there, 1979-1983. There is one of your pictures that absolutely brought my four years back to life, the guard tower in the old weapons storage area. I loved being in England, my wife and I lived in a little place called Finstock. I wasn’t the typical yank, in fact I worked with RAF guys most of my last years there, good men, I miss them greatly. Thanks for posting this, thanks so very much!

  29. Hi,
    My 3 children now attend school in the old officers mess in upper heyford, part of their history homework is why did no one like to stand guard? And why did they serve hot dogs on the mess? Anyone know? My son didn’t take enough notes! Thanks

  30. My husband was a young Captain when we were stationed there. We were only suppose to de stationed there for 3 years but he fought for an extra year. England has a lasting impact on our lives and our 3 sons. We lived the people, food, pantomimes, Scouting (we have 2 Eagle Scouts), tea and biscuits and British comedy (it took us a while to get the humor lol). My husband is a retired Colonel now working for Lickheed Martin on the F-35. Of all the places that we have lived – our hearts were left in England.

  31. I was stationed TDY at RAF UH in the very early 1980’s: I was a ground electronics technician / helped to install the security system in the QRA / Quick Reaction Area. Later, I came back as a maintenance technician for ground radio systems and electronic security – communication systems across the base: 1989 – 1993. Last month (June 2016), drove by the old base, and saw that housing developments were obliterating everything just about, south of the flight line / didn’t recognize much except for the flight line which seemed pretty much left alone. I hope the flight line does get recognized as an historic site: would be suiting. Besides, removing the concrete of all the hardened aircraft shelters might be a bit too much work just to demolish a building, much less tearing down a piece of history. I really hope RAF UH stays intact as a point of history, because it was. Many thanks for your pictures / thanks for the memories.

    • Good to hear from you, Robert. Judging by the number of deeply personal comments and recollections on just this post alone, I think it’s clear what an important place this was for so many people. I truly hope that they manage to preserve at least some of the base as a cultural monument. Well looked after, it would make such a fantastic museum.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  32. I was stationed at RAF Upper Heyford for 12 years in total starting in January 1980. Thank you for your story that brings back many memories. I was once in the 77th, so I could easily relate to that part of your story. I also went to the avionics building many times and was assigned to what you call the QRA. We called it something else. In fact I spent a lot of time there as it was the best place to eat. When assigned there, we watched movies for hours. My crew once watched every James Bond movie to that point in a week. It must seem strange to visit the place and imagine all sorts of things that happened. It really wasn’t like that. I arrived at Upper Heyford as the shelters were in the process of getting build, and I left as the base was turning down. I really liked it when Octopussy was shot. Notice in the background how the same aircraft goes back and forth. I met Roger Moore and he was not very friendly. I was in the background during the scene of the parade. Another memorable time was when I had to show the Russians our arsenal of weapons during peace talks. They were amazed at our freedoms. The BX that you call a supermarket hosted a Dodge Viper free drive for anyone that was interested. At one point during the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) occupation, the British Marines took over our building and encamped all around our perimeter to keep the CND protestors out. I also remember the EF-111A crashing out near the Finmere Market. At the time, I lived near there.

    • Hi Matt, thanks for sharing this. You’re absolutely right – I was walking around these empty spaces, trying hard to imagine what happened there. There’s only so much you can fill in from history books and Wikipedia, so it’s been a real education for me reading all the comments here and coming to understand the more human side of things too. Like watching a James Bond marathon – somehow, that just makes it all feel that much more real. I’ll be looking out for you next time I watch Octopussy…

  33. I was station at RAF Upper Heyford from 1956 to 1959, I enjoyed my time at the base. I was in the fire crash rescue portion of the bast. The fire house was just up from HQ, afterr etering the base you would make a left turn and the fire station was on the left just past the AP Station. I remeber the time we were put on guard duty right across from the FH because the was a transformer for the base electric, we were to guard it be cause of the Suez Crisis.

  34. I served there from 83-84. Good Memories.. Bad memories.. I worked in the Avionics building near the beginning of your blog and remember clearly the decontamination area as well as my workshop ( 2nd room on the right as you enter the hall). The BX (Base exchange) or what you are calling the supermarket is exactly as I remember it. I remember very clearly the protests by ATOM in 1983. The protesters had set up right at the entrance to the main gate. As Americans we were not allowed to confront or touch any British national.. so, the British police would open up a sort of human tunnel for us to pass through to get to the gate.. Of course, we were plastered by spit, curses and other “nasty” items from these protesters as we were the focus of their hatred.. In hindsight I suppose I can’t blame them. What I do remember however was how roughly the British police treated the protesters..

    Thanks for posting these images and writing about it.. Although the cold war was a dark splotch on history, it was a significant era.. and may speak a bit to human nature that we can take things to the brink but somehow in the end reel it back in from armagedon..

    • Thanks for sharing this, it’s not the sort of details that get featured in the history books. Like you say, it was such a significant period – and it’s been fascinating for me first visiting the site, then having it brought to life with stories like your own. I’m really glad you found the images interesting.

  35. I was there 79 & 80… it sucked

  36. I did two tours at RAF Upper Heyford. 72-74, 83-87, between RAF Bentwaters, 76-79. I know some of the places well on your blog.
    My career in the us military started enthusiastically with quite allot of trepidation.Scared at eighteen and excited at the same time , England and the military at such a young age. The experience was wonderful. Now , at age62, I can look back and see photos of my past. The definition of life!

  37. The main road that bisected the camp was always owned by Oxfordshire County Council much to the Americans disgust and British rules took preference. The day the F 111s came back from bombing Libya I was employed bu a private street lighting contractor along this road changing light bulbs using a tower wagon. I had not heard the news that morning so did not know about the base being used. I set up my tower on the runway side of the road and went to change the first bulb 30ft in the air when I heard shouting, looking down their were 2 American MPs standing at the bottom pointing guns up at me! I quickly came down and a full and frank discussion ensued between them, me. a council official and a British copper. The upshot was I was allowed to continue providing I didnt take any pictures or allow the tower to be used by members of the press who by now had arrived in large numbers. This was long before camera phones so not a problem and the 2 MPs stayed with me to make sure we complied. when the jets started to land after their mission I had probably the best view being perched 30 ft in the air near the runway. A moment in history I have never forgotten.

  38. I was stationed at Upper Heyford from Dec 76 to Dec 78 then later on at RAR Lakenheath. I have a lot of good and bad memories of England. Hope to return again for another vacation. Alot has changed each time I return.

  39. I was stationed at upper heyford from 74 to 78. Painted many of the F111’s. my cottage I rented in Steeple Aston over looked the runway. Took glider lessons at RAF Bicester. Over all have good memories and your pictures bring back more

  40. I have been back a couple of times in the last few years. A lot has changed since this was written. They are now building new housing and have torn down most of the buildings. It is sad to see it go down as it did but the new housing is pretty impressive. Too bad they couldn’t have used the hospital and maybe the BX as is instead of tearing them down.

  41. The base was first occupied by the American army in the years just after the war. With anti aircraft guns on the side of the road. They pulled out 49-50 with a big parade for the locals as I a little boy was there to watch.

  42. I loved every moment at that base as a Security Police Spec. Its sad to see what’s happen but it’s great to know we all played a part for peace. My wife is a HADITE for life.(77-79/86-89)

  43. I worked for AAFES at upper heyford form dec 1969 to sept 1994. I had the job of closing down all the aafes shops, supermarkets, garage, main store. leaving just the bare walls

  44. It’s shameful that all the tax money spent by the Brits & the Americans are left in disarray, only to rot away.

  45. My dad fell off one of those hangers. He was working on the roof and someone moved the ladder on him

  46. Very interesting I used to work in the quick reaction alert unit, a shame to see it all like this.

  47. heyford boy born n bred , grew up here still work on the base its shamefull how its been allowed to fall into disrepair and the new houses are just awfull, one point the guard tower you mentined the ghost story , thats total myth

    • Yeah, I gathered that – but still, I’ve heard from a few people now that there was such a story floating about, so I felt it’d be fun to include it. I didn’t mean to suggest for a moment that there was any truth to it though.

  48. Similar to Jules’ and mark’s comments: The aircrews were not restricted to the cockpits or Alert Facility. A lot of the time was spent at their assigned squadrons or other business around base. We had some destination restrictions due to required return time to the QRA. I was there from 1981-1985 and thoroughly enjoyed my tour of duty with 55TFS. I recently found F-111E 68-055 at the Aviation Museum, Warner Robins GA. She has undergone a great face lift and looks good. I miss the flying and the friends I came to know.

  49. I was employed at Heyford and Croughton in the early 90’s so sad to see it like it is now.

  50. We live 20mins from Heyford and made friends with some of the great guys stationed there.
    Used to meet up in Skylanes with our old American cars.
    Great times, great people.

  51. I was another Yank stationed there ’89-92. Was the American football coach for the base team as well. Loved England and the people. Our oldest daughter was born there. Thanks for the great memories.

  52. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane! We were there with the 79th Tigers from June 1990 – December 1992. My oldest son was born there so RAF Upperheyford will always be special for our family.

  53. I was stationed in upper hey ford 1966 to 1969 as a SP and Desk Sergeant Patrolled the base many a time and would like to thank you for bringing back some old memories

  54. 89-92 sp Whiskey21 tower in wsa and flight line . Had a great time. Still in Constant contact with friends in UK still today

  55. Thank you so much for posting. RAF Upper Heyford was my first operational assignment in the USAF. I graduated Undergraduate Pilot Training in October 1986 and after transition training at Mountain Home AFB in Boise Idaho, I was assigned to the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron as a Second Lieutenant and F-111E Aircraft Commander. I was stationed there from September 1987 to July 1991 and flew the F-111E all over England with some missions in France, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Turkey. I logged just over 1000 hours in the Aardvark and loved to fly this fantastic jet. I now fly for United Airlines as a Captain in the A320 Airbus. I would love to someday have a tour in person. The old drug den you photographed was actually our squadron bar in the 77TFS soft ops. This photo tour makes me feel like these experiences happened to me just yesterday. I have so many fond memories of living in England. I absolutely loved me time there. I could go on but will stop by saying thanks so much again for sharing.

    • Gordo. I think I flew with you a couple times. I was a WSO in the 79th from 88-91. I am at American Airlines now. Small world.

    • You’re very welcome, Gordo. Honestly, I had no idea I’d get so many responses from people actually stationed here. It has just been amazing for me, sitting back and reading all these comments and stories flooding in. Absolutely fascinating – really brings the whole picture to life. So thank you too for sharing, and I’m glad this brought back some memories.

  56. I was stationed there from 88-90 brought back a lot of memories.

  57. Though I was not stationed at RAF Upper Heyford we used to travel there from RAF Welford/RAF Welford, to weapons qualify at the small arms range there. Jan 79-85. Great story and great memories.

  58. I was stationed there 88-91…in the 77th. Lots of great memories from being stationed there. Wish they didn’t close the base. It’s in a great location.

  59. I was stationed there from 1986 to 1990. Worked in the jet engine shop. I remember the many many times of being on alert, 12 hour shifts, chem gear etc. Sure looks a lot different now. Wonder how Bicester is doing now that the base is gone.

  60. I was stationed there from Oct. 1990 to Oct. 1992 and worked avionics. I truly enjoyed reading this.

    Thank you for writing this. It really brought back some wonderful memories. I was there from 1990 to 1992 and worked avionics.

  61. I was there from January, 1978 to January, 1979. I recognize some of the buildings but not all. I was 19 years old and thought I know everything. I really grew up here.

  62. What a fantastic insight!! I grew up a few miles from Heyford during the 80’s and 90’s and my neighbours were personnel stationed at the base . I have fond memories of many a days spent sharing bbqs with staff there but i never saw the heart of the operation. I later went on to work for the USAF at RAF Croughton in 2000 and every time i travelled from Bicester to Beynards Green i just hoped i would see one of those F-111 once again.

  63. I was there from 1981 to 1983. I worked from time to time in the QRA. At no time did I see “a lone airman” sitting in the cockpit of an alert aircraft with the engine running. If I had, I would have been obligated to shoot him/her.

  64. I was stationed there as a security police area supervisor 1978-81. Worked the QRA and weapons storage area. Great time. Had a daughter born in 1980

  65. I only wish that when I was stationed there that we had a tour of all the intricate places that I had no idea that were there until after I left.

  66. Brings back MANY memories of my early years…it was my first base…620th SPS (1988-90)…THANK YOU for publishing this. Sad to see its demise…hopefully the UK will grant it being a Heritage site before it get totally reclaimed my nature.

  67. Was stationed there during Desert Storm as a drop off for air evacuation flight back to the state living quarters where at RAF Crowten was a nice base

  68. I was part of the 4th group of people to show up at Upper Heyford to set up for the F-111’s to arrive. l liked the story, but was missing the 20th tfw pior to the F-111’s getting there. The 20th was at RAF Weathersfield and RAF Woodbridge with F-100’s. I was at Upper Heyford from April 1970 to April 1974.

  69. Lived there as a dependent and worked as a secretary in personnel services 1960-1963. In your article you refer to the B-50 aircraft. Believe that should be B-52 instead. Many memories of those years. Visited there in 2013. Sad to see its present condition.

  70. Awesome article! We were stationed at Heyford from 70-74 (I was in school 2nd-5th grade). My father worked on the F111’s. I’ll be forwarding this to him, as I am SURE he will enjoy it!

  71. Wow thank so much for that walk down memory lane! I was stationed there from 1980 – 1984 and again from 1992-1994. I was one of the last 6 medics to leave the base and one of the last to work in the hospital. UH holds many fond memories for me, I met my wife there, my daughter was born in Horton, (UH hospital had already closed its OB ward by May 94. I made so many friends there, American and British and still keep in touch with most of them. I was there the night of Eldorado Canyon and I was there the day Maj McGuire and Capt Lindh lost their lives in the tragic F111 crash, a day I will never forget. I truly hope it becomes a heritage site…places like UH can’t be created again. Oh and I will never for get the Peace Camp and all the pints and fun we all had at the Three Horseshoes!! Thanks again for the memories!

  72. Way cool.
    I was stationed at UH ’80-’83.
    Worked in the Avionics branch, first in bldg 300 then we moved into the new facility (shown above).

    FYI: Aircraft are put in hangars.
    Coats are put on hangers.

  73. Thank you for this, my father (now deceased) was stationed at UH sister base RAF Lakenheath from 1981-1989, the best days of my childhood were spent on that base. I get quite emotional when the memories come flooding back. I miss my Dad greatly, he loved his job and took it very seriously. Your article touched on the lives and families of the airmen stationed at UH. From experience I’m here to tell you it truly was “just home” to us. Thanks again for the memories, growing up an Air Force Brat over seas has left a huge mark on me.

    • Thanks Scott, I’m happy to hear that this brought back some good memories. It’s amazing for me to see all these personal stories coming out on here – I’m really glad to have been able to share in it.

  74. Any chance you have photos of the school? We were stationed there 1976-1981 . Living there is by far one of the best childhood memories I have.

  75. The watch tower that had the chair and wooden box in it looked the same from the days I had to sit there on many midnight shifts from 1989-1991. It was a spooky place when the fog would roll in and the wind would blow all alone with the “Urban Legend Ghost Story” going on in my head. We would always tell the ghost story before we posted someone in that tower. Thanks for the stroll back in time.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Andy – it’s really interesting to hear from someone who was posted there. I never heard the ghost story first hand, I’ve just been told that it was something people used to talk about… so thanks for confirming that! I bet it was pretty atmospheric on a foggy night.

      • Hi I was at UH 80-83 20th SPS B flt. When I was there W13 as we called it was an abandoned post btween the fences. One night while we were external patrol we call from the tower W13 was ringing the ECP. We responded and sent a JEEP out to check it out. After he climbed up and poked his head in the shack he suddenly lit out of it and ran only stoping when he got back to the 6 pack. He said he saw something wierd and refused to discuss it further. Thats just one ghost story about the flightline. Im sure you all heard about the Spitfire on foggy nights and the man in black sitting on aircraft. Great memorys.

  76. I don’t know where you got your info on the qr a or as it was called Victor Alert is wrong as someone that did two tours there at the new and one at the old one, some of the things you said never happened (violations under NATO).

    • Hi Mark, thanks for letting me know. I had a similar comment from Jules, below this one, and have just made a couple of edits. Thanks for the feedback – I appreciate hearing it from someone who actually knew the place.

  77. The QRA aircraft sat on standby with their engines idling? That doesn’t sound right IMHO, and from personal experience it only takes minutes to start and launch a properly configured aircraft when the signal is given.

    • Hi Jules. I was quite surprised as well, when I first read that – and searching for it now, I can’t even find the sources I got it from. (I spent weeks preparing this post, and trawled through dozens of websites for the info)

      Anyway, thanks for drawing my attention to it. As it does sound a bit extreme, and without being able to find a good source for it now, I think I’ll just remove it from the post… and err on the side of caution. Cheers!

  78. Wow! You must be connected to get these photos! I was turned away 15 years ago when I tried to get on base! Did you by chance have any photos of the POL hut? Best to you …Jim

    • Hi Jim. I had a pretty good contact at the time, though unfortunately he’s no longer involved with the place. So I’m glad I got in when I did!

      And no, I didn’t see the POL hut – I think I’ve featured photos from pretty much everywhere I went in this post.

    • Hey Jim I went there in 2013 there is a guy there that you can talk to can not remember his name, he gave me a tour of the base it was awsome. I left there in 1990 worked in the machine shop

  79. Thanks for the article. I was stationed at Heyford in it’s final days as the Commander of the Mission Support Squadron. When I got there in the summer of 1991, I was one of only a few people at the base that knew it was going to close and spent the next 2 1/2 years planning and replanning the personnel aspects of US personnel departure while still maintaining operational capability. I have fond memories of the MOD personnel who worked with us so closely, many of whom has spent their adult lives working with US forces.

    • Thanks for commenting, Ken – having only seen this place as it is now, I find it really interesting to get the human story from people who were actually stationed there. I imagine that must have been a fairly massive undertaking, to keep a place like that running while simultaneously preparing for departures.

  80. Is there any possibilty of sending any pictures of both weapon storage areas including the tower you crawled through I was stationed there from 1986 to 1990 the pictures I had where lost in the altantic ocean off the coast of new jersey I enjoyed you tour of the base. Thank you

    • Hi Leslie, good to hear from you. I’m very happy to send you some images, although I only saw one of the two weapons storage areas. Anyway, I’ll send you an email now.

      • I was stationed at Heyford from 1960-63 in the Air Police. I was posted in some of those guard tower you showed. Never heard the ghost story. The only towers I remember were around the MMS area, where the nukes were kept. Yes, we stored nuclear weapons on base. B-47s would fly in from stateside, be uploaded with nukes and go on alert. For a bit, I can’t remember how long, we had U-2s. They would take off at dusk and return at dawn, gliding in engine off, not making a sound. Painted matte black. Spooky. Great memories of the place.

  81. I see that, since my prolonged and deplorable absence from your esteemed organ, the superlative quality of the reportage has altered not in the slightest.
    Tremendous article sir, thanks for the tour.

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