RAF BENTWATERS HISTORY
The RAF Bentwaters site was first discovered by the Air Ministry in August 1942 and was immediately identified as a suitable location for the development of an airfield. The area was ideal for wartime flying operations, being flat, remote, sparsely populated and only a few miles from the coast. At this time the search for suitable airfield locations was taking on a real sense of urgency due to the imminent build-up of the United States Army Air Force’s Eighth Air Force in England. The airfield was originally given the name ‘Butley’, after the village situated a mile or so to the southeast and allocated the USAAF identity ‘Station 151.’ Construction work began in late 1942 but by March the following year this had ceased with the workforce transferring to other airfields in East Anglia whose completion was considered a much higher priority. The workforce returned in late 1943 and the airfield was renamed ‘Bentwaters.’ The name was taken from two cottages (‘Bentwaters Cottages’) that had stood on the site of the main runway. The construction work became less urgent in mid 1944 and the future use of Bentwaters as an airfield was placed in doubt. This doubt was heightened during May when the last USAAF Bomb Group arrived in England and took up residence at Debach, about seven miles to the west of Bentwaters. This brought to an end the planned build-up of the Eighth Air Force. As a consequence of this, Bentwaters was no longer required by the USAAF and, after construction was completed, the airfield was placed under ‘Care and Maintenance’ whilst its future was considered.
Bentwaters became a welcome sight for Allied aircrew returning from missions in battle-damaged aircraft. The deserted airfield provided them with the opportunity to make an emergency landing instead of attempting to make it back to their home bases. The first aircraft to use Bentwaters for this purpose was a Snetterton Heath-based Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress. The 96th Bomb Group aircraft made a successful emergency landing on 20th July 1944, somehow avoiding the obstructions that had been deliberately placed on the runway to prevent its unauthorised use. In October, a second B-17 attempted an emergency landing but this time was less fortunate. The aircraft hit some of the runway obstructions causing considerable and unnecessary damage to the airframe. After this incident the runway was cleared and Bentwaters was designated an official Emergency Landing Ground. On 24th October three USAAF North American P-51D Mustangs, belonging to the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham, became the first aircraft to land at Bentwaters after removal of the obstructions when they were forced to divert after running low of fuel.
In the latter part of 1944 the Eighth Air Force handed over control of Bentwaters to the Air Ministry. After RAF Bomber Command declined its use the airfield was taken over, on 22nd November 1944, by No. 11 Group of RAF Fighter Command and became the last RAF airfield to be activated during the Second World War. On 11th December 1944 the first aircraft to be based at Bentwaters arrived in the shape of the North American Mustang IIIs belonging to No. 129 Squadron. Four days later, on 15th December, two more squadrons, Nos. 118 and 165 arrived at the base. Both of these squadrons were equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire, albeit different versions. No. 118 Squadron flew the Mk. LFVb and the Mk. VII, whilst No. 165 Squadron flew the Mk. IX.
The Spitfire’s days at Bentwaters were short-lived because both squadrons converted to the Mustang III before the end of January 1945. A fourth Mustang III squadron, No. 234, followed on 17th December with the number rising to five on the 29th December when No. 64 Squadron relocated from Bradwell Bay, Essex. The sixth and final Mustang III squadron arrived the following day when No. 126 Squadron, also from Bradwell Bay, flew in to Bentwaters. The task of commanding the Bentwaters Mustang wing was given to Wing Commander H.A.C. Bird-Wilson. The first wartime mission from Bentwaters took place on 23rd December 1944 when the Mustang IIIs escorted over 150 Avro Lancasters on a bombing raid to the railway yards at Trier, Germany, a few miles east of the border with Luxembourg. Numerous other escort missions were flown by the Mustang wing prior to the end of the war. Among the most notable of these was that of 21st March 1945 when Nos. 64 and 126 Squadrons were involved in Operation Carthage. This mission saw 28 Mustangs escort 18 Fersfield-based Mosquito FB.IVs on a daylight raid to the Gestapo headquarters located in the Shellhuss, Copenhagen. Although deemed a success, 4 Mosquitos and 1 Mustang failed to return to their respective home bases.
Also in March 1945, No. 234 Squadron converted to the Mustang IV and on 1st May the squadron relocated to Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, reducing the number of operational squadrons at Bentwaters to five. On 4th May 1945, the Mustang wing was tasked with escorting Beaufighters on an anti-U-Boat raid in the Great Belt off Denmark. This was to be the RAF’s last wartime mission from Bentwaters and by early September of that year all of the Mustang squadrons had been withdrawn. The first squadron to leave was No. 129 on 26th May, followed three days later by No. 165, which relocated to Dyce, Aberdeenshire. Nearly three months passed before the next squadrons prepared to depart. No. 118 Squadron left Bentwaters on 11th August 1945 followed four days later, on the 15th August, by No. 64 Squadron. The Mustang III era at Bentwaters was brought to a close on 5th September 1945 when the final squadron, No. 126, left the Suffolk base to take up residence at Hethel, Norfolk. Prior to the departure of the Mustang squadrons, another two units had arrived at Bentwaters. No. 65 Squadron arrived on 15th May 1945 equipped with the Spitfire LF XVIe and they were followed two months later by No. 234 Squadron. The latter was a former resident at Bentwaters whilst equipped with the Mustang III but 234’s second stint at the base saw it operate the Spitfire HF IX.
The RAF remained resident during the early post-war years, using the airfield for flying training with a number of aircraft types. On 6th October 1945, 16 Gloster Meteor IIIs arrived at the base, heralding Bentwaters’ entrance into the jet-age. The Meteors were assigned to 1335 Conversion Unit (No. 124 (Shadow) Squadron) and had relocated from RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire. The Meteor III was not the only type operated by 1335 CU. The unit was split into four flights, the other three flights being equipped with the de Havilland Hornet F.1, Hawker Tempest II and the de Havilland Vampire FB.1. These were busy times for the Suffolk base!
The 12th February 1946 saw No. 234 Squadron depart Bentwaters and relocate to Molesworth for conversion to the Meteor III. A few weeks later, on 1st April 1946, the Meteor Flight of 1335 CU was re-numbered as No. 56 Squadron and ceased to be part of the conversion unit. Otherwise known as the ‘Firebirds,’ No. 56 Squadron had previously flown the Hawker Tempest V from Fassberg, Germany and in converting to its new mount, had become the first ‘front-line’ squadron in the RAF to receive the Mk. III version of the Meteor. The remaining three flights of 1335 CU carried on with their training role at Bentwaters for a further four months until the unit was disbanded during August 1946. The personnel and aircraft of 1335 CU were used to form No. 226 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Molesworth on the 15th of that month. June 1946 saw No. 65 Squadron begin replacing it’s Spitfire LF XVIe’s with the de Havilland Hornet F.1 prior to a move to Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire a few months later. June 1946 also saw the Meteor IIIs of No. 245 Squadron take up residence at Bentwaters alongside those of No. 56 Squadron. 245’s stay was to be very brief as they departed for Boxted during the middle of August 1946. The Meteors of No. 56 Squadron followed them four weeks later, on 16th September, when they too relocated to the Essex base.
The departure of No. 56 Squadron left Bentwaters with no resident units remaining. This was to be short-lived as 10th October 1946 saw No. 226 Operational Conversion Unit move in from Molesworth. No. 226 OCU were tasked with training pilots for the day-fighter and fighter-reconnaissance role and to this end were equipped with various aircraft types. Among the aircraft assigned were the Avro Anson I, North American Harvard I, de Havilland Vampire FB.1, de Havilland Mosquito T.III, Hawker Tempest II and the Gloster Meteor F.4. No. 226 OCU remained at Bentwaters until 26th August 1949 when it began the process of relocating to RAF Driffield in Yorkshire. With the relocation of No. 226 OCU complete, Bentwaters was deactivated and placed under Care and Maintenance on 1st September 1949. On 16th March 1951 control of Bentwaters was handed over to the United States Air Force. During May, a detachment of the Shepherds Grove-based 1980th Airways & Air Communication Service became established at the base to prepare the site for the arrival of the first aircraft.
The first aircraft arrived two months later, on 1st July 1951, when C-Flight of the 9th Air Rescue Squadron settled in at Bentwaters bringing with it the largest aircraft that would ever be stationed at the base – the Boeing SB-29. Nicknamed ‘Super Dumbo,’ the SB-29 was basically a B-29 Superfortress modified for the air rescue role by the addition of an air-droppable lifeboat. In addition to the SB-29, C-Flight also brought the Grumman SA-16A Albatross amphibian to Bentwaters. The unit’s stay at the base was, however, relatively short as it departed for a more permanent location at Burtonwood, Cheshire on 14th November 1952.
On 5th September 1951, two months prior to the departure of C-Flight, the 81st Fighter-Interceptor Wing became the new host unit for the base. On 26th September, three weeks after taking control of the base, the wing’s first aircraft arrived in the form of North American F-86A Sabres belonging to the 91st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. The 91st FIS was assigned to the 81st Fighter-Interceptor Group, the primary operational component of the 81st FIW. The 81st’s role was to assist No. 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command, with the air defence of the U.K.
On 22nd March 1952 another unit arrived to take up temporary residence at the base. This unit was the 7554th Target Tow Flight and, as the designation suggests, its role was to tow aerial targets used for gunnery practice by NATO fighter aircraft. The unit operated a number of Stinson L-5E Sentinels and Douglas TB-26C Invaders that were instantly recognisable by their high visibility ‘candy-stripe’ painted tail fins and horizontal stabilisers. The purpose of this colouring was to prevent attacking fighters from mistakenly shooting at the tow-aircraft instead of the target! The 7554th TTF remained at Bentwaters until 16th December 1952 when it relocated to RAF Sculthorpe. Although their stay at Bentwaters was short, the TB-26Cs and the L-5Es became a familiar sight in the skies around the base, flying several missions per day. In late 1952 Bentwaters became a temporary home for the Republic F-84G Thunderjets of the 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadron. The 79th’s 25 F-84Gs had relocated from RAF Woodbridge whilst the construction of a weapon storage facility at that base was being carried out. The squadron moved back to Woodbridge on 1st October 1954.
After three years of Sabre operations the base was about to take on a very important change of role. This change began in October 1954 with the arrival of the first examples of the successor to the F-86As of the 91st FIS, namely the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak. The arrival of the new aircraft at Bentwaters brought about the end of the air defence duty that the F-86A had carried out since it arrived at Bentwaters, replacing it with the role of tactical nuclear strike. This change in role was formally completed in early 1955 when the 91st (redesignated a Fighter-Bomber Squadron) attained operational status with the Thunderstreak. The F-84F was a swept-wing derivative of the F-84G Thunderjet which, at the time, equipped the 79th FBS at Woodbridge. The F-84F could carry up to three times the amount of ordnance of the Thunderjet, at higher altitudes and greater speeds.
The 91st remained the only squadron at Bentwaters until 13th December 1954 when it was joined by the 87th FIS flying the all-weather interceptor version of the Sabre – the F-86D ‘Sabre Dog.’ The first examples of the F-86D arrived at the base eight days later, on 21st December. The 87th FIS was controlled directly from the Third Air Force headquarters for the duration of its stay at Bentwaters and not assigned to the 81st FIW. The 87th FIS was deactivated on 8th September 1955 and its personnel and equipment were handed over to the 512th FIS. The 512th FIS, a component of the RAF Manston-based 406th Fighter-Interceptor Wing, continued flying the F-86D from Bentwaters until 24th March 1958 when it left to take up residence at Sembach AB, West Germany. Once again, the 91st FBS became the base’s only resident squadron, although this time it was to be short-lived. On 30th April, the 91st was joined by the 92nd FBS, previously based at RAF Manston and also equipped with the F-84F. The arrival of this second squadron was in preparation for another change of aircraft type at the base – a type that would prove to be one of the most memorable for many people, both military and civilian alike.
Base personnel had their first experience of the new type on 7th July 1958 with the arrival of four McDonnell F-101C Voodoos from the 522nd TFS/27th TFW at Bergstrom AFB, Texas. These aircraft stopped off at Bentwaters on the return leg of a transatlantic proving flight to Bierset in Belgium. On the following day, in readiness for its conversion to the Voodoo, the 81st became a Tactical Fighter Wing and its component squadrons became Tactical Fighter Squadrons. An F-101 Mobile Training Detachment was set up in the area of the base occupied by the 92nd TFS. This training facility included an F-101 flight simulator that had been brought in from Bergstrom.
More changes came in July 1958. With East-West relations worsening as a result of the U.S. involvement in the Lebanon crisis, the 81st TFW became involved with Operation Blast Off. In a bid to reduce reaction times for strike aircraft getting airborne, Operation Blast Off introduced the concept of maintaining armed and fuelled aircraft, together with crews, round-the-clock, with the ability to be launched at a moments notice. By the end of 1958, Operation Blast Off was renamed to Victor Alert and by July 1959, eight purpose-built aircraft shelters had been built in a high-security area of the base in order to house the ‘alert’ aircraft. These shelters became known as Victor Alert ‘barns.’
On Sunday 10th August 1958, a little over a month after the last visit, service personnel and civilian employees gathered at Bentwaters to witness the impressive arrival of seven 27th TFW F-101A/C Voodoos, breaking into the circuit following an upward bomb-burst. The aircraft were drawn from all four of the 27th’s component squadrons – one from the 522nd TFS and two each from the 481st, 523rd and 524th TFSs. The pilots that carried out this record-breaking flight were Maj Walter Eichelberger, Maj Brian Lincoln, Maj Adrian Drew, Capt Charles Cleveland, Capt Carl Mackenzie, Capt Howard Maree and Capt Jim Ramsey. This was the culmination of an eleven-hour, 5199-mile, transatlantic flight during which they had refuelled twice from KC-135 tankers and established a distance record for formation flying. The purpose of this visit was to allow base personnel the opportunity to get acquainted with the aircraft that was soon to replace the 81st TFW’s Thunderstreaks. The seven Voodoos returned to Bergstrom AFB on Friday 15th August 1958.
December 1958 saw both the 91st TFS and the 92nd TFS begin to receive deliveries of the Voodoo, with the first five examples (F-101As) arriving at the base on the 4th of that month. By the end of the year the 81st TFW had received a total of 48 Voodoos, a mixture of ‘A’ and ‘C’ variants. This number had risen to 75 by March 1959, with 25 of these being assigned to the 78th TFS at Woodbridge. During this conversion period, the majority of the surplus Thunderstreaks were transferred to the Luftwaffe. With conversion to the F-101 completed, the remaining F-84Fs were flown back to the U.S. where they were assigned to Air National Guard units. The Voodoo, or ‘One-O-Wonder’ as it became known, was to remain at Bentwaters for the next seven years.
The 13th June 1962 saw a brief visit of two aircraft that were to become a familiar sight at the base in future years. The visitors were a pair of U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom IIs on loan to the USAF and given the designation F-110A. (This designation would be scrapped in favour of F-4 before the type entered USAF service). The F-110As had flown in from Ramstein AB, West Germany whilst on a European tour, the purpose of which was to allow USAFE personnel a chance see the new aircraft first-hand.
On 4th October 1965 the first example of the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II (64-0828) for the 81st TFW touched down at Bentwaters having flown in from Shaw AFB, South Carolina via Moron AB in Spain. Further deliveries of the F-4C – the close air support and ground attack version of the Phantom – arrived in quick succession and the wing’s full complement was reached by 26th April 1966. The 81st TFW’s last five Voodoos left Woodbridge on 3rd January 1966, bound for the U.S. where they were to be given a new lease of life, along with most of the other ex-81st machines, as RF-101Gs and RF-101Hs operating in the photo reconnaissance role.
After eight years of flying the F-4C, August 1973 saw the type begin to get phased out in favour of the superior F-4D version of the Phantom. The ‘D’ was virtually identical in appearance to the earlier ‘C,’ with most of the modifications being confined to an updated avionics suite. The changeover was complete by October when both the 91st TFS and the 92nd TFS had re-equipped with the F-4D. The surplus F-4Cs were either reassigned to the 401st TFW at Torrejon AB, Spain or transferred to the Spanish Air Force. By January 1974 Bentwaters was home to around 50 F-4Ds.
On 18th February 1978 the now customary visit by a future Bentwaters aircraft type occurred when four Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt IIs from the 57th Tactical Training Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada, arrived at the base. The A-10s were en route back to the U.S. having participated in ‘Coronet Jay,’ an exercise in West Germany to test the suitability of the Maverick missile for the anti-tank role. The visit enabled base personnel and the press to get a taste of what was to come in the near future. It also enabled local residents to witness how much quieter this aircraft was compared to its predecessors. The four A-10s departed for home on the 23rd February. This visit was not, however, the first time an A-10 had landed at Bentwaters. During the previous year (on 8th September 1977), two 355th TFW A-10s from Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, stopped off briefly whilst returning to the U.S. from Sembach AB, Germany. The pair were amongst six of the type that had taken part in exercise ‘Coronet Bantam.’
Another A-10 visited Bentwaters on 19th June 1978 having flown direct from Loring AFB, Texas. The purpose of this visit was to test out systems at the base prior to the arrival of the first of the 81st TFW’s own ‘Warthogs.’ The aircraft returned to the U.S. on 24th June.
On 24th August 1978 the first three 81st TFW A-10s were delivered to Bentwaters to allow maintenance training to begin prior to the main batch of deliveries arriving. The next four aircraft arrived three months later, on 8th December. At approximately 14:00 hours on 25th January 1979 the first main batch of fourteen A-10s arrived at a snow-covered Bentwaters after a five-and-a-half hour flight from the Azores. The lead aircraft was flown by the 81st TFW’s commander, Col Rudolph F. Wacker, and after their arrival the aircraft were handed over to Commander Allied Forces in Central Europe, Col John Pauly. This event marked the activation of the 92nd TFS as the first operational A-10 squadron in Europe. Following conversion to the A-10 the base gained three more squadrons, the 509th, 510th and 511th Tactical Fighter Squadrons but lost the 91st TFS when it moved to Woodbridge to operate the new type alongside the already-resident 78th TFS.
The 15th April 1988 saw the base lose one of its squadrons when the 509th TFS was transferred to the 10th TFW at RAF Alconbury. This was followed eleven weeks later, on 1st July 1988, by the loss of a second squadron when the 511th TFS was also transferred to the 10th TFW. This left Bentwaters with only two remaining A-10 squadrons, the 92nd TFS and the 510th TFS.
In between the departure of the 509th TFS and the 511th TFS, the base gained another squadron when the 527th Aggressor Squadron arrived after transferring from the 10th TFW. The first two of an intended complement of eighteen General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcons arrived at Bentwaters on 14th June 1988. The complement had reached twelve on the 16th January 1989 when one F-16C was delivered from Spangdahlem AB, Germany. Unfortunately the sight of these F-16Cs at Bentwaters was short-lived and, in November 1989, the 527th AS began disposing of its aircraft in preparation for deactivation, having never reached its full complement. The first two F-16Cs to leave were flown to Spangdahlem AB on the 29th November 1989. The 527th AS had reassigned its entire fleet of 12 aircraft by early 1990 and deactivated later that year.
During the same year Bentwaters was short-listed as a possible base for the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle. The decision eventually went against Bentwaters, possibly due to protests around the base by certain factions such as CND and some ‘local’ pressure groups. The F-15E ended up being based at RAF Lakenheath and this decision was almost certainly the final nail in Bentwaters’ coffin. Had this decision turned out in favour of Bentwaters it would undoubtedly have secured the base’s future, possibly at the expense of Lakenheath.
Flying operations from Bentwaters finally came to an end on 23rd March 1993 when the last two A-10s departed for their new home at Spangdahlem AB in Germany. The aircraft were flown by Col Roger R. Radcliff, the 81st TFW Commander and his Deputy Commander for Operations (DCO), Col Wally Berg. The base was opened to the public to enable local residents to witness this historical and emotional event. Bentwaters was formally closed on 1st July 1993 after the deactivation of the 81st TFW. This ended the American presence at the base, which had lasted just over 42 years.
On the morning of Monday 19th September 1994 the sound of jet engines could once again be heard around Bentwaters as the first wave of Harrier GR.7s approached Runway 25 for the start of the two-week ‘Hazel Flute’ deployment. About 22 Harrier GR.7s were involved in Hazel Flute with eight coming from 1(F) Squadron, six from 3(F) Squadron and another eight from 4(F) Squadron. At various times during the two week deployment Harriers from 20(R) Squadron (the Harrier Operational Conversion Unit) at RAF Wittering made visits to the base. Not only was this the first time all three front-line Harrier squadrons had trained together it was also the first time for four years that the UK had hosted a mobile deployment on such a large scale. The aim of Hazel Flute was to enable the Royal Air Force Harrier wing to prepare for their new role as part of NATO’s Reaction Forces (Air) from 1995. The theory that this deployment was to determine the suitability of Bentwaters for the location of the Harrier wing after withdrawal from Germany was unfounded. When RAF Laarbruch was eventually closed in 1999, 3(F) and 4(F) Squadrons were transferred to their new home at RAF Cottesmore along with 1(F) Squadron from RAF Wittering to form part of Joint Force Harrier – a combined Royal Air Force Harrier and Royal Navy Sea Harrier rapid reaction force.