Strategic Air Command in the United Kingdom

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Bases of the United States Air Force
Strategic Air Command in the United Kingdom
Roundel of the USAF.svg
Part of the Cold War
SAC-UK-MAP2.jpg
Royal Air Force Stations used by the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command.
Date 1948-1966
Location United Kingdom
Result No Longer Required by SAC as a result of ICBM development and phaseout of medium-class bombers.
Bell-Atlanta B-29-60-BA Superfortress serial 44-84088 assigned to the 718th Bomb Squadron (28th BW) at RAF Scampton, 1948

During the mid-to-late 1940s the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) was occupied with supporting the movement of men and aircraft of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to bases in England.

Early Cold War Tensions[edit]

Tensions with the Soviet Union began as early as 1946, and U.S. President Harry S. Truman decided to realign USAFE into a combat-capable force. In November, six B-29 Superfortress bombers from SAC's 43d Bombardment Group were sent to RAF Burtonwood, and from there to various bases in West Germany as a "training deployment".

In May 1947, additional B-29s were sent to the UK and West Germany to keep up the presence of a training program. These deployments were only a cover-up, as the true aim of these B-29s was to have a strategic air force permanently stationed in Europe.

By 1948 Berlin had become the focal point of East-West confrontation, and when surface entry into the city was cut by the Soviets, the Allies countered with the now famous Berlin Airlift. To counter further moves by the Communists, SAC again deployed units to the United Kingdom. SAC continued rotational deployments of its strategic bomber force, keeping a strategic bomber force in Europe for almost 20 years until 1966, when the B-47 Stratojet was phased out of SAC's inventory.

B-29 deployments[edit]

Strategic Air Command B-29s began deploying to Europe on a regular basis during 1947, and during that year, nine aircraft of the 97th Bomb Group were based at Giebelstadt Army Airfield, West Germany, for a thirty-day training/goodwill tour.

Several weeks before the Soviets blockaded Berlin, SAC – as a precautionary measure – sent a B-29 squadron from the 301st Bombardment Group to Furstenfeldbruck Air Base, West Germany and temporarily stationed two other squadrons from the 301st at Goose Bay Air Base, Newfoundland, Canada, where they were held in readiness for instant deployment to European bases. The Pentagon hoped that the stationing of these atomic weapon-capable bombers would have a deterrent effect in the conflict. However, there were safety risks posed by putting the B-29s so close to the Soviet-occupied zone—Giehelstadt and Furstenfeldbruck were 100 and 200 kilometers from the Iron Curtain respectively, and therefore well within the reach of Soviet fighter-bombers operating from bases in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. All things considered, the SAC decided not to send future B-29 deployments to bases in West Germany but to less vulnerable bases in England.

All B-29 operations in England were placed under the command of the newly formed 3rd Air Division, headquartered at the RAF Bomber Command base at RAF Marham. In addition, the RAF had put several other airfields at the Americans' disposal including RAF Scampton, RAF Waddington and RAF Lakenheath.

One of the first Groups to arrive in England for a ninety-day tour was the 28th Bombardment Group which deployed from Rapid City AFB, South Dakota, to RAF Scampton during 1948. 28th BG aircraft carried a Black R within a Black circle on both sides of the fin. The R denoted the Group while the circle identified the parent unit, the 15th Air Force. Many units later carried their parent numbered Air Force unit badge on the base of the fin. These aircraft also had various colored nose wheel doors and fin tips denoting their respective squadrons.

The 2nd Air Force carried a Black square on its B-29s and the 8th Air Force used a triangle. It is believed that when a Group or Wing transferred from one numbered Air Force to another, their identification letter remained the same; however, the numbered air force geometric identification symbol changed.

During this time frame, the B-29s often carried colorful personal markings and squadron colors. The squadron colors were usually carried on the nose wheel doors, fin tips and as fuselage bands. Some B-29s retained the Korean War flat black undersurfaces while others carried red tail sections and outer wing panels, known as Arctic markings, which were used to make the aircraft more visible in the event of a forced landing on snow-covered terrain.

Aircraft of the 93rd Bombardment Group carried individual squadron letters on the fuselage sides followed by the last two digits of the aircraft's serial number. The three squadrons within the Group were, the 328th Bomb Squadron (A), the 329th Squadron (C) and the 330th Squadron (B). By 1954, the use of Bomb Group letter codes and Air Force geometric identification symbols had terminated.

One of RAF 90 Squadron's Washington B.1 Superfortresses

A number of B-29s of the 97th Bombardment Group paid a similar visit to RAF Marham, the very same base where No. 90 Squadron RAF was based, as one of the squadrons using the Washington B.1 British variant of the Superfortress from 1950 through 1954. The 97th's early B-29s carried no group markings and most were overall natural metal, although a few had Flat Black undersurfaces. The aircraft carried standard USAF markings, with buzz numbers in Black on natural metal aircraft and in Yellow on aircraft with Flat Black undersurfaces. Later, B-29s began carrying geometric symbols painted on the fin, usually surrounding a Group identification letter.

Occasionally, SB-29 rescue aircraft were also seen in the United Kingdom. These aircraft carried their usual rescue markings including a Yellow, outlined in Black, rear fuselage identification band. SB-29 deployments were usually accompanied by an F-13 (RB-29) photo reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft also carried the Yellow rescue markings and sometimes a Black tail code.

B-50 deployments[edit]

Boeing B-50D-110-BO Superfortress Serial 49–260 of the 93d Bomb Group at RAF St Eval, 1950

During 1949, the 43d Bombardment Group deployed to Britain with the first Boeing B-50 Superfortress. The Boeing B-50 Superfortress was a post-World War II revision of the wartime B-29 Superfortress with new, more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines, a taller vertical stabilizer, and other improvements. The B-50 started as a B-29D, however for political reasons, a new designation was made.

Earlier, the B-29s had required forward bases for refueling, however most of the B-50s were equipped with in-flight refueling capability. To refuel the B-50s, the 43d Group had a squadron of KB-29M tankers (B-29s with no armament and large fuel tanks installed in the bomb bays and fuel transfer gear added). The KB-29s carried the same style markings as the B-50s (diagonal stripes in squadron colors).

The 2nd Bombardment Group continued the style of markings used with the earlier B-29s on their B-50s (painted nose wheel doors, fuselage bands and fin tips). Additionally, large squadron badges were carried on the sides of the aircraft nose.

SAC B-50s were regular visitors to RAF St Eval in Cornwall, and they regularly participated in static displays at various RAF bases during the Battle of Britain celebrations between 1948 and 1951.

B-36 deployments[edit]

Consolidated B-36B-1-CF Peacemaker Serial 44-92028 of the 7th Bombardment Wing; B-36s such as this from the 7th Bomb Wing made routine visits to RAF Lakenheath during the 1950s.

On 4 September 1949 the United States received reports that a B-29 over the north Pacific Ocean had observed a large radiation cloud. Analysis showed that this cloud was from an atomic explosion on the Asian mainland sometime between 26 and 29 August. The Soviet Union had the atom bomb, far earlier than the United States expected it.

The atomic umbrella which the B-29s and B-50s brought to Western Europe consisted of just thirty atom bombs, probably stored in West Germany or England. In 1948, there were only 32 B-29s converted to carry nuclear weapons. With the Soviet Union having the atomic bomb, American strategy had to be changed drastically. These changes radically affected SAC, as its nuclear force in 1950 consisted of obsolescent B-29s and B-50s. These bombers had to be replaced and the massive B-36 Peacemaker was introduced to Western Europe.

The first B-36Ds deployed to England were those of the 7th Bombardment Group which were based at RAF Lakenheath during exercise OPERATION UK held in January 1951. These aircraft were in natural metal with the last three digits of the serial number on the forward fuselage sides and the 8th Air Force badge carried on the base of the fin.

B-36s made regular visits to England for exercises between 1951 and 1959. On one occasion, an RB-36H (51–5744) of the 72d Bombardment Wing was making a fly-by during RAF St Mawgan's Battle of Britain display (September 1952) when it developed engine trouble. The aircraft landed, giving the crowd an opportunity to closely inspect an SAC B-36. The aircraft was natural metal with a large Black triangle and S letter code on the fin. The last three digits of the serial were positioned on the forward fuselage sides, the fin tip was Black and the nose wheel doors were Black with a diagonal White stripe.

The 42nd Bombardment Wing visited RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Burtonwood between 15 and 23 September 1954 and later the entire wing deployed to RAF Upper Heyford (October/November 1955). Sixteen B-36s visited RAF Burtonwood in 1956, while RAF Brize Norton also played host to a number of these giants. The B-36s now carried White under surfaces with the legend U.S. Air Force in Black on the fuselage sides and sometimes the last three digits of the serial number. A Blue Strategic Air Command sash was carried on both sides of the nose with the SAC badge on the port side and the Bomb Wing badge on the starboard side (early aircraft did not always carry the Wing badge).

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 reached its peak in October when an estimated hundred thousand Hungarians demonstrated in Heroes Square in Budapest. American Defense Secretary Wilson ordered Strategic Air Command to deploy sixteen Convair B-36H Peacemaker long-range bombers to England from the 42nd Bombardment Wing at Loring AFB, Maine. They landed on 21 October after a non-stop flight over the Atlantic to RAF Greenham Common. It was possibly the first time that such a large number of B-36s had been sent to an overseas USAF base. Also, it was perhaps also the first time since the Berlin Crisis of 1948 that the United States so openly threw its nuclear power into the political ring.

The American show of force did not restrain the Soviet Union because on 4 December 1956 the Red Army invaded Hungary to crush the uprising against the communist regime.

The B-36s remained in England until January when the crisis passed from the headlines. It was the only time the Peacemaker was used in a show of force. It is not known whether the B-36s were at nuclear alert during their stay and were ready to use nuclear weapons. With the withdrawal of the B-36s, the 310th Bombardment Wing from Smokey Hill AFB, Kansas deployed to Greenham Common with B-47 Stratojets as part of a routine Reflex deployment.

B-47 deployments[edit]

Boeing B-47E-65-LM Stratojet Serial 53-1904 on SAC Reflex alert pad – RAF Brize Norton, 1954

Stationing SAC bombers at British air bases, from where the Soviet Union was within range, offered a certain amount of support to America's strategic plans. The Pentagon's strategy was based on massive retaliation against Russia if the Soviet Union started a war. This plan, code-named `Trojan', meant Strategic Air Command going into full scale action.

Trojan's `backbone' was formed by the Boeing B-47A Stratojets that had been in service with SAC since the end of 1951. The Stratojet could reach a speed of more than 1,000 km/h, which at the time was faster than most interceptor fighters, and fly for 7,000 kilometers without refuelling – more than enough to be able to strike at large tracts of the Soviet Union from bases in England.

To support the Trojan strategy the 7th Air Division was established in May 1951 at RAF South Ruislip (near London) and later Relocated to RAF High Wycombe (later renamed: U.S. Air Base High Wycombe; High Wycombe Air Station; RAF High Wycombe). The 7th used several RAF stations in England. Reconstruction of four former RAF bases was begun. Work to make these airfields – Fairford, RAF Brize Norton, Upper Heyford and Greenham Common – suitable for use by B-47s included lengthening the take-off and landing strips and building concrete bunkers for the nuclear weapons.

During 1950-51 it was decided that the USAF would re-establish a larger presence in the United Kingdom and the refurbishment of several additional World War II airfields would take place. However these bases were far from adequate in their World War II configuration, both in their flying facilities and in their accommodations, so plans were designed for a major expansion to accommodate the new jet aircraft and other operational facilities. On-going construction of airfield facilities and the conversion of temporary wartime buildings to permanent structures continued for some years.

In 1953 the 7th Air Division began a system of B-47 deployments to English bases. These temporary duty postings (TDY) generally involved an entire Wing of 45 B-47s, together with around twenty Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighters (flying tankers), being held at readiness at an English base for ninety days. At the end of the TDY period they were relieved by another Wing that was, generally, stationed at a different airfield.

The first B-47s to visit the United Kingdom arrived on 7 April 1953, when the two aircraft of the 306th Bombardment Wing landed at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, after flying non-stop from Limestone AFB, Maine. After a short visit, they returned to MacDill AFB, Florida. The 306th Bomb Wing, which was based at MacDill AFB, was the first SAC unit to equip with the B-47B and was the first unit to deploy to the United Kingdom for a ninety-day tour of duty. The Wing arrived at Fairford Air Base on Thursday 4 June 1953 accompanied by fourteen aircraft. A further fifteen B-47s followed over the next two days, bringing the Wing up to its full strength of forty-five aircraft. Squadron markings consisted of a tail band in the appropriate color and a small squadron badge on the fuselage just below the cockpit. The B-47s remained in USAFE until August/September 1953.

The 305th Bombardment Wing was the next Stratojet unit to deploy. The wing arrived at Fairford in September 1953 and returned to the U.S. on 3 December 1953. The wing had been accompanied during its deployment by KC-97 tankers, which were also based in England during the bomber's ninety day tour of duty and carried out air-to-air refueling of the B-47s both on the trip to England and on their return to the States. The refueling squadrons were normally assigned to the particular bomb wing for the entire period of their deployment. The tankers were usually overall natural metal with a band on the fin in the squadron color and Arctic Red outer wing panels and tail sections. The 22nd Bombardment Wing followed and was based at RAF Upper Heyford from December 1953 until March 1954.

The 97th Bombardment Wing deployed with their B-47Es to RAF Upper Heyford from May to July 1956 together with the KC-97s of the 97th Refueling Squadron. The B-47Es had a slightly revised anti-nuclear paint scheme, with the White area being reduced.

Other Bomb Wings that rotated through English bases included the 98th Bombardment Wing at RAF Lakenheath (November 1955 – January 1956) and the 310th Bombardment Wing at RAF Greenham Common (October 1956 – January 1957).

After several years of constant deployments, the B-47s began to suffer noticeably from the intensive use. Also, the deployments became a heavy burden for the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) which had to transport thousands of personnel and tons of material to and from the United States in just a few days to support these rotations.

In 1958 it was decided the TDY postings would be replaced by a new system of overseas deployments called Reflex. The ninety-day deployments were replaced by twenty-one day deployments of aircraft and crews instead of entire bomber wings. In this way a permanent SAC presence would be established at bases with aircraft being deployed for three weeks from several SAC bases, being kept on full alert status ready for instant takeoff. The Stratojets were based at RAF Brize Norton (3920th Strategic Wing), RAF Fairford (3919th Combat Support Group), RAF Greenham Common 3909th Combat Support Group, RAF Mildenhall 3910th Combat Support Group, and RAF Upper Heyford (3918th Strategic Wing). In 1960 SAC withdrew from RAF Lakenheath and released the base to USAFE for the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing relocating from France.

SAC units using these bases included the 98th, 307th and 310th Bomb Wings (Greenham Common) and the 2nd, 308th and 384th Bomb Wings (RAF Fairford). The 100th, 301st and 98th also used RAF Bruntingthorpe, RAF Chelveston and RAF Upper Heyford for short periods.

Other units known to have operated in England were the 301st and 380th Wings with EB-47s at RAF Brize Norton, the 340th Wing at RAF Fairford with B-47Es, and the 96th and 307th Wings at RAF Upper Heyford. This method of bomber deployment lasted until 1965.

Besides B-47E bombers, English bases also played host to the RB-47Es, EB-47s and RB-47Hs of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. The RB-47s based at RAF Brize Norton, and relocated to RAF Upper Heyford mid-1965. After the Inactivation of the B-47 and KC-97 units, the SAC mission was performed by Detachment 1, 98th Strategic Wing at RAF Upper Heyford, (The 98th Strategic Wing, operated the Spanish Tanker Task Force, with KC-135's, from Torrejon AB, Spain). These units performed some of the most sensitive reconnaissance missions of the Cold War. During its service, at least two of these planes were lost flying missions over the Soviet Union. One incident occurred during a photographic mission over the Soviet Union. The plane was intercepted and fired upon by Soviet MiGs and sustained wing damage. Fortunately, it was able to outrun them at altitude and return to England. The second aircraft was shot down in the near but outside Soviet airspace in July 1960. The RB-47's were eventually retired from SAC in December 1965m and replaced with the RC-135's operation from RAF Upper Heyford until April 1970 when the Detachment relocated to RAF Mildenhall, these mission later supported by the Lockheed U-2's, TR-1's, and SR-71's.

The progressive phase-out of the B-47 and KC-97 from the USAF inventory in the mid-1960s brought the end of SAC's Reflex operations and to the 7th Air Division in Europe. The advent of reliable multiple warhead Intercontinental ballistic missiles based in the United States and intercontinental B-52 bombers with inflight refueling capability made many of SAC's UK bases redundant. By 1966 SAC had transferred some of its UK bases to USAFE and reduced its operations to a reconnaissance and aerial refueling Detachment at RAF Upper Heyford. Some of these bases, (Upper Heyford) were used to accommodate the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in 1965, (RAF Mildenall) at the 513th Troop Carrier Wing in 1966, being relocated from France, while others were returned to RAF control or put into standby status (Chevelston, Fairford, Greenham Common).

B-52 deployments[edit]

B-52H from the 96th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Wing at RAF Fairford.

The 93rd Bombardment Wing at Castle AFB, California, had been serving as the Combat Crew Training Unit for the B-47 when it was selected to become the B-52 Combat Crew Training Wing, receiving its first aircraft during mid-1955. The 93rd made a number of record flights with the B-52, including the first non-stop jet flight around the world during January 1957. Five B-52Bs took off from Castle AFB to participate in the record attempt. Three aircraft completed the 23,574 miles trip in an average time of 45.19 hours. Two aircraft diverted, with one landing in Newfoundland and the other at Brize Norton. This aircraft, a B-52B (53–395) named "City of Turlock" was assigned to the 330th Bomb Squadron.

During the Cold War years, B-52s became regular visitors to the United Kingdom, turning up at bases such as Greenham Common and also taking part in RAF Bomber competitions, but were deployed to NATO on an individual basis, not as groups or wings.

In August 1968, Chevelston was put on alert for a possible B-52 deployment during the Czechoslovakian Crisis, but no units or aircraft were deployed there.

In 1977 the USAF announced plans to reactivate Greenham Common to house a squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers, due to a lack of capacity at the KC-135's main UK base, RAF Mildenhall. This led to widespread local opposition, and in 1978 the British Defence Secretary vetoed the plan. Instead, Fairford was reopened and the 11th Strategic Group activated with the aerial refueling mission. The aerial tankers supported B-52s performing airborne alert duty under codenames such as Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Giant Lance, refueling bombers which loitered near points outside the Soviet Union. These tankers would play a major role in supporting the attack on Libya in 1986. The KC-135s were withdrawn in 1990 at the end of the Cold War and the airfield was returned to standby status.

During Operation Desert Storm, B-52s used RAF Fairford as a forward operating base. Fairford was also used during Operation Allied Force in 1999, and during the 2003 Iraq War. During these three conflicts, the Fairford was the home to B-52s, along with the B-1 Lancer, and KC-135 aircraft, and their support personnel. In recent years Fairford has been used by Air Combat Command B-2 Spirit stealth bombers.

European Reconnaissance Center[edit]

SAC TR-1A of the 95th Recon Squadron, RAF Alconbury

In the 1970s a growing SAC presence with refuelling tankers and aerial reconnaissance led to the reactivation of the 7th Air Division at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany in June 1978, and later being reassigned to RAF Mildenhall. The 7th AD controlled all SAC operations in Europe though the 306th Strategic Wing. Operations included B-52 deployments, U-2 strategic reconnaissance operations at RAF Alconbury and SR-71, KC-135 and RC-135 activities at Mildenhall.

With the arrival of the 306th SW, Mildenhall also became known as SAC's European Reconnaissance center. For many years various types of reconnaissance aircraft were observed regularly arriving and departing from the Mildenhall runway. Most of these aircraft were deployed from the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

For many years various types of Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft were observed regularly arriving and departing from the Mildenhall runway. Most of these aircraft had the capability to receive radar and radio signals from far behind the borders of the Communist Eastern Bloc. From Mildenhall the RC-135s flew ELINT and COMINT missions along the borders of Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The twenty or so specialists on board the RC-135s during such missions listened to and recorded military radio frequencies and communications.

In 1976 Detachment 4, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing arrived at Mildenhall, which controlled rotational Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird operations from the base. It is not known when SAC first began making reconnaissance flights in Europe with these aircraft. There are indications that these fast aircraft have been operating in Europe since the end of the 1960s, with an SR-71 making a stopover in August 1970 at RAF Upper Heyford before a mission over the Middle East.

These aircraft carried out strategic photo reconnaissance missions for NATO and the USAF within the framework of the SALT I Agreement of 1972. Under this agreement the Soviet Union and the United States reached agreement on a partial freeze on the number of offensive nuclear weapons and these flights were to check that the Soviets were adhering to the agreement.

As well as the photo missions the 9th SRW gathered telemetry signals from Soviet missile systems. Such missions were carried out using the SR-71 and U-2/TR-1 aircraft and Boeing RC-135s from the 55th SRW. This information was analysed, together with information originating from reconnaissance satellites to present an intelligence picture for analysis to assemble a good picture of Soviet activities for national decision-making.

The 306th SW also played a major role in the success of Operation El Dorado Canyon, the American attack on the Libyan capital of Tripoli in 1986. In support of this 14-hour, radio-silence rendezvous mission, the unit deployed the largest number of refuelling aircraft ever flown over Europe and the largest fleet of KC-10's ever airborne at one time. In addition, the day after the attack 9th SW aircraft made several unmolested flights over the bombed military targets in and around Tripoli and Benghazi.

From their arrival until the departure of the last SR-71 on 18 January 1990, the 306th Strategic Wing's SR-71 and U-2 aircraft came to symbolize RAF Mildenhall in the local public's eye.

With the inactivation of Strategic Air Command in 1992 and the end of the Cold War, current activities at Mildenhall are now controlled by Air Combat Command and USAFE.

Emblem gallery[edit]

In fiction[edit]

Literary scholars[who?] have suggested that in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell's use of the term "Airstrip One" for Britain was a reference to the concept that for NATO, England was little more than a glorified airbase, a natural "aircraft carrier," from which to base the sorties of the seemingly inevitable World War III.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Fletcher, Harry R. (1989) Air Force Bases Volume II, Active Air Force Bases outside the United States of America on 17 September 1982. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-53-6
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. (2000) A Cold War Legacy, A Tribute to Strategic Air Command, 1946–1992, Pictorial Histories Pub ISBN 1-57510-052-5
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947–1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-12-9.
  • Robinson, Robert (1990) USAF Europe in Color, Volume 2, 1947–1963 Squadron/Signal Publications ISBN 0-89747-250-0
  • Rodrigues, Rick (2006), Aircraft Markings of the Strategic Air Command 1946–1953, McFarland & Company ISBN 0-7864-2496-6
  • Steijger, Cees (1991), A History of USAFE, Airlife Publishing Limited, ISBN 1-85310-075-7
  • [1] USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers—1908 to Present