RAF WOODBRIDGE HISTORY
During 1941 the Air Ministry identified the requirement for a number of emergency runways on the east coast of England after RAF Wittering began to be used for this purpose. The 4500 yard grassed runway at the Cambridgeshire airfield soon became blocked by damaged aircraft that had made emergency landings. This severely hampered the station’s normal flying operations and consequently its contribution to the war effort. On the 5th August 1942 a meeting at the Air Ministry in London decided that three emergency runways would be built at Woodbridge in Suffolk, Carnaby in Yorkshire and Manston in Kent.
The site chosen for RAF Woodbridge, or RAF Sutton Heath as it was originally named, was in the middle of Tangham and Rendlesham Forests. The locality was ideal for an airfield, being sparsely populated with a clear, unobstructed approach from both the east and the west and, more importantly, fog did not appear to be a big problem in the area. There was one major obstacle that did need to be overcome however, over one million trees needed to be felled and cleared away before construction could begin. This was met with protests by local residents who were unhappy with the prospect of such a large plantation being destroyed. Nevertheless the felling and clearing was carried out and construction of the massive 3000-yard long, 250-yard wide and 160-acre concrete runway began. In addition to the concrete runway, provision was made for two grassed areas at either end of the runway, each 500 yards long, to deal with the possibility of an aircraft under- or over-shooting.
The main runway was to be split into three lanes for emergency landings. The north lane was to be illuminated by yellow lights and the centre lane by white lights. These two lanes could only be used by aircraft under the direction of Flying Control. The south lane, illuminated by green lights, was to be designated as the emergency lane. Aircraft could use this lane without having prior contact with Flying Control. It was estimated that the construction work would be completed by October 1942 although this was soon considered far to ambitious and was revised to January 1943. The airfield was actually completed ten months later and officially opened in November 1943 although by this time several emergency landings had already been carried out, the first of these was on 18th July 1943.
Within two weeks of its ‘official’ opening a further 54 emergency landings had been made, around 20 of these were due to bad weather conditions over the home airfields. On the night of 16/17th December 1943 a tragic series of events unfolded which was to result in a dramatic change in the way that Woodbridge operated as an emergency airfield. The incident involved several Halifaxes of Tempsford-based Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons which had been forced to abort a mission over France due to low cloud over their target areas. Apart from one Halifax, which made it safely back to its home airfield, the remaining aircraft attempted to recover to Woodbridge, which was itself the victim of fog and low cloud. Only one of the bombers made a safe landing, the others were less fortunate. One struck a pylon after failing to find the runway killing three of the crew and injuring three others; another crashed into trees near the airfield, again after failing to locate the runway; another crashed into the river Deben with the loss of one of its crew and two ditched into the sea off Ipswich. The remaining Halifax crashed into the sea off the Lincolnshire coast. The net outcome of this night of tragedy was that the visibility of the runway needed to be improved in bad weather and this was achieved by the installation of ‘Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation’ otherwise known as FIDO.
A typical FIDO installation comprised of pipelines running either side and each end of the runway into which petrol was injected under pressure. The petrol was ejected through small holes in the pipe and then ignited by burners fitted at certain intervals along its length. The resultant fire produced heat so intense that it literally burned the fog away from the vicinity of the runway. Woodbridge was one of fifteen airfields in England to be equipped with FIDO. It may appear strange that a FIDO installation was needed at Woodbridge; after all the main reason for locating an emergency airfield there in the first place was because fog was not deemed to be a problem. Nevertheless the FIDO installation commenced in early January 1944 and was to take about five months to complete. This would turn out to be the biggest FIDO project ever carried out by the Air Ministry. Four 350,000-gallon fuel tanks were built on the northeast side of the runway to house the vast quantity of petrol that FIDO would consume. To avoid the problem of large convoys of fuel bowsers causing congestion on the narrow roads around the airfield, a 4-mile long underground pipeline was installed which ran initially to existing railway sidings at Dock Lane, Melton. The existing sidings were used as a temporary measure until 6th May when construction of a purpose-built railway siding, also at Dock Lane, was completed. Storage tanks, far smaller than those at Woodbridge itself, were built at the new railway siding and the petrol would be pumped from here to the airfield tanks. Once the new siding was in use it was anticipated that one trainload of petrol would be delivered per day until 25th May, by which time all of the installation tanks would be at full capacity.
Initial testing of the fuel system and burner units began on 17th April, the day after the first trainload of petrol was pumped from the temporary sidings to the airfield tanks. Final testing of the entire installation was completed by 29th April, the same day that another 800 tons of petrol was brought into the sidings. After completion of the final tests the system could be made operational for a limited period of time if required, although it wasn’t declared fully operational until the end of May. FIDO was used operationally for the first time at Woodbridge on 23rd June 1944 when a Lancaster from No. 7 Squadron at Oakington was forced to land at the base having been badly damaged by Luftwaffe night-fighters. The bomber, piloted by Flt Lt Brian Frow, was returning from a raid on V1 installations near Pas de Calais, France.
In early July 1944 a unit of USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses arrived from Knettishall, near Thetford, to take up temporary residence at Woodbridge. The aircraft belonged to 562 Squadron of the 388th Bombardment Group. These were by no means ‘ordinary’ B-17s; they were specially modified examples that were to be used for ‘Operation Aphrodite’ missions. This operation, personally authorised by General Doolittle, was an American attempt to eliminate the threat of Germany’s V-1 ‘Doodle Bug’ and V-2 rockets which were being launched at targets in the United Kingdom. Operation Aphrodite involved the use of war-weary B-17s as ‘robots’, stripped of their defensive armament, packed with 10 tons of explosives and steered via radio control by another B-17 acting as a ‘mother’ ship. The robot was effectively a guided missile and was to be used against the V-1 and V-2 launch sites in Northern France. The robot was flown by a crew of two for takeoff and the initial stages of the mission but, after setting a course for the target area and arming the explosives, they would bail out leaving the mother ship in control. On the 10th July, Mr Duncan Sandys, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply and Chairman of the Committee for Countermeasures Against Pilotless Aircraft, visited Woodbridge for a progress report on the squadron’s preparations.
On the 12th July 1944 crews were briefed for the first Aphrodite mission but this was aborted at the last minute due to heavy rain and low cloud. No Aphrodite mission was ever to be flown from Woodbridge because, after this first aborted attempt, the unit moved up to Fersfield, near Diss in Norfolk. The first mission was launched from Fersfield on Friday 4th August 1944 and involved two robots and two mothers. One of the robots got in to difficulty as it passed overhead Woodbridge town and eventually crashed into Wattling Wood just outside the village of Sudbourne with an explosion that is claimed to be the largest ever known in England. The flight engineer, TSgt Elmer Most bailed out and landed in the grounds of Chillesford church but the pilot, 1st Lt John W. Fisher Jnr., went down with the stricken aircraft and was never found. Some of the later Aphrodite missions met with a similar fate but, although some robots did make it across the North Sea, none ever hit their intended targets.
On 13th July 1944 a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88G-1 night-fighter from Volkel in Holland was an unexpected but extremely welcome visitor to Woodbridge. The crew had become disorientated after failure of their navigational equipment and were convinced that they had landed at an airfield near the Danish and German border. This aircraft was of great interest to the RAF because, as well as being completely intact, it was fitted with the latest Lichtenstein SN-2 interceptor radar and Flensburg and Naxos radar detectors. Within a matter of days the Royal Aircraft Establishment had developed countermeasures for these pieces of equipment. This single mistake provided the RAF and its Allies with examples of some of Germany’s most closely guarded secrets.
From 19th to 24th March 1945 the airfield took on a new role. Woodbridge was temporarily closed for emergency landings due to its involvement in the build-up for Operation Varsity – the airborne support for the U.S. Ninth and British Second Armies crossing of the Rhine. The enormous air armada consisted of more than 1,500 USAAF aircraft and gliders and 1,200 RAF aircraft and gliders. Fighter cover was provided by 880 aircraft from both the USAAF and RAF. The size of this operation can only be appreciated when you consider that there was a time-span of two-and-a-half hours covering the first and last aircraft. 60 Halifax tow aircraft from Nos. 298 and 644 Squadrons and 60 gliders (48 Hamilcars and 12 Horsas), containing troops, tanks and other armoured vehicles, departed from Woodbridge at 06:00 on 24th March, all were airborne within 40 minutes. Although Operation Varsity was deemed a success there were substantial Allied casualties.
The last three months of the war saw 230 aircraft use the airfield for emergency landings but, by the end of July 1945, the number of landings had dramatically reduced. By the end of the war a total of 4200 Allied aircraft had made emergency landings at Woodbridge with a far greater number of aircrews lives saved.
The RAF continued to use Woodbridge after the war, mainly for experimental work. One of the units resident at the base was the Blind Landing Experimental Unit. Equipped with Avro Lancasters, the BLEU carried out the groundwork for the development of what we know today as the Instrument Landing System (ILS). Another Lancaster-equipped unit was tasked with development work for the ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. During the course of this work several of the 26ft long, 22,000lb bombs were dropped on nearby Orford Ness. The RAF had ceased using Woodbridge by March 1948, at which time the base was considered surplus to requirements and placed under ‘Care and Maintenance.’
On 1st June 1952 the airfield received a new lease of life as the USAF’s 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadron moved in, although it wasn’t until the 6th June that the first of its Republic F-84G Thunderjets arrived direct from Langley AFB, Virginia. The 79th FBS was assigned to the 20th Fighter-Bomber Group (FBG), the primary operational component of the 20th Fighter-Bomber Wing (FBW), headquartered at RAF Wethersfield in Essex. Initially the squadron received logistical support from the 81st FBW at RAF Bentwaters but, in September 1952, logistical support was handed back to the 20th FBW. Not long after arriving at Woodbridge, the 79th FBS temporarily relocated to Bentwaters whilst construction work on a suitable weapon storage facility was completed. The squadron moved back to Woodbridge on 1st October 1954.
On 8th February 1955, major restructuring saw the removal of operational groups within the USAF, after which the 79th FBS found itself reporting directly to the 20th FBW. During the autumn of 1955 the 79th converted to the swept-wing Republic F-84F Thunderstreak.
During June 1957, after nearly two years of operating the Thunderstreak, the 79th FBS began transitioning to the North American F-100D/F Super Sabre and, on 8th July 1958, the 79th FBS was renamed the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) when its parent wing, the 20th FBW, became the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW). On the same day, the 20th TFW handed over control of Woodbridge to the 81st TFW. Even though its parent unit no longer controlled Woodbridge, the 79th TFS were destined to remain at the base for another twelve years.
Although the 81st TFW took over operational control of Woodbridge on 8th July 1958, it wasn’t until 22nd December 1958 that its first aircraft arrived. These were Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks belonging to the 78th TFS, which had relocated from RAF Shepherds Grove in preparation for the arrival of their new mount, the McDonnell F-101A/C Voodoo. By March 1959 the 78th TFS had received 25 Voodoos.
Monday 29th December 1958 witnessed a tragic accident involving a 79th TFS F-100D. The F-100D involved (56-2985), was being flown by Lt Charles Prescott and was one of a pair undertaking a routine training sortie. The pilot of the other Super Sabre, and leader of the mission was Lt Guary Walker. The 09:53 takeoff from Runway 27 was uneventful but 2 minutes into the flight Lt Walker noticed that the rear of Lt Prescott’s aircraft was engulfed in flames. After realising there was no chance of recovering to Woodbridge, Lt Prescott ejected from the stricken aircraft. The blazing aircraft went into a dive and struck the Falcon Caravans dealership in Kesgrave, on the outskirts of Ipswich, killing a female office worker. The resulting explosion levelled the garage destroying a dozen caravans in the process. An adjacent bungalow was also destroyed in the incident and several other properties were damaged. Lt Prescott witnessed the events unfolding below him as he descended by parachute, eventually landing two miles away in the village of Martlesham. He was found suffering from shock; his only injury was a cut on the face.
In July 1961 the 79th TFS hosted the first ever NATO ‘Tiger Meet’ at RAF Woodbridge. This event brought together NATO squadrons that had a Tiger depicted in their unit badge and was seen as a means of providing an opportunity to further relationships between the participating air forces. The other units involved in this first meeting were No.74 Squadron, RAF, who made the short trip from Coltishall and EC1/12 of France’s Armee de l’Air. This first meeting was so successful that the 79th TFS decided to host it again, the following year. This time eight squadrons representing six NATO countries attended and from that day on the NATO Tiger Meet has become an annual event with each Tiger Squadron taking its turn to be the host unit. RAF Woodbridge saw its last Tiger Meet in 1969.
RAF Woodbridge witnessed the arrival of another aircraft type during the autumn of 1965. This was the Kaman HH-43B Huskie helicopter operated by a detachment (Det.12) of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing (ARRW). The base received a pair of these small but noisy helicopters for short range fire fighting and rescue duties and they remained at Woodbridge until October 1972 when they were withdrawn from use. By the time of their withdrawal both Huskies had been converted to HH-43F standard but had still proved inadequate for their main role of air-sea rescue due to their size. Both of Woodbridge’s examples were eventually sent to a scrap yard at Snailwell, north of Newmarket.
The final months of 1965 saw the 78th TFS begin conversion to the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II. The first aircraft to arrive was flown direct from Tucson, Arizona by Lt Col Robert R. Fredette, squadron commander of the 78th. The last five Voodoos left Woodbridge on 3rd
January 1966, bound for the U.S. where they were destined to be converted to photo-reconnaissance RF-101Gs and RF-101Hs along with the majority of the other ex-81st machines. The departure of these five Voodoos was significant as, not only were they the last of the 78th TFS’s aircraft, they were also the very last of the 81st TFW’s F-101s to leave the ‘Twin Bases.’
On 23rd April 1969, after three years of operating the F-4C, the 78th TFS began exchanging the type for the more advanced F-4D version of the Phantom (the first of the 81st TFW’s squadrons to do so). The F-4Ds had been acquired from the Hahn-based 50th TFW when that unit upgraded to the F-4E. The 78th’s F-4Cs were transferred to the Ejercito del Aire (Spanish Air Force) where they were assigned to Ala 12 (12 Wing) at Torrejon AB.
In December 1969 Woodbridge gained another squadron when the 67th ARRS arrived, equipped with the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant. The 67th ARRS flew three versions of the Hercules, namely the HC-130H, HC-130N and the HC-130P. As well as its general rescue role, the 67th ARRS also operated with the U.S. Special Forces on clandestine missions, and provided specialist rescue cover for NASA’s space missions.
On 15th January 1970 the 79th TFS relocated to RAF Upper Heyford and converted to the General Dynamics F-111E, becoming the first squadron to be operational with the new aircraft in Europe. On 6th November 1971 the 67th ARRS commenced replacement of its HH-3Es when the first two examples of the bigger, more powerful Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant arrived at the base. In 1978 the 78th TFS received its first Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt IIs to replace the venerable Phantom. At the same time the 91st TFS relocated to Woodbridge from Bentwaters after it had completed the transition from F-4 to A-10.
It is ironic that, despite all of the history associated with the base, RAF Woodbridge is probably best remembered for a series of events that started in the early hours of Friday 26th December 1980. It all began when a Security Police patrol at the East Gate spotted some strange lights in Rendlesham Forest. The sighting of these lights heralded the start of a series of incidents involving a UFO that occurred over two nights. This alleged ‘close encounter’ has evolved into one of the most documented and controversial UFO mysteries ever, only being surpassed by the famous ‘Roswell incident.’ It is still not known whether this UFO was of ‘alien’ or U.S. military origin but one thing is certain, something did happen in Rendlesham Forest during those two nights.
On 3rd June 1988, after a major restructuring of the USAF which saw the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service merge with the Special Operations Forces, the 67th ARRS was reassigned to become the 67th Special Operations Squadron (SOS). During this process the 67th lost its fleet of Super Jolly Green Giants and these were assigned to a new squadron which was activated on the same day at Woodbridge, this being the 21st SOS. On 23rd October 1988, the 21st SOS received the first of six Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low IIIEs to replace its HH-53s. This was airlifted into Woodbridge on board a Lockheed C-5A Galaxy. Further deliveries of the MH-53J were received on 3rd December.
1992 witnessed the beginning of the USAF withdrawal from Woodbridge. On 5th January, as part of the ‘Mission Completion’ programme, the first eight 78th TFS A-10s left the base bound for the U.S. On 15th May, with the 78th TFS withdrawal completed, the squadron was deactivated.
Special Operations forces located in Europe were the subject of a major reorganisation during 1992 which was to have a significant effect on Woodbridge. On 15th January, the 67th and 21st SOS’s parent unit, the 39th Special Operations Wing, moved its headquarters from Rhein-Main AB, Germany to RAF Alconbury. As a consequence of this move, both squadrons left Woodbridge on 20th May, to take up residence at Alconbury.
The one remaining squadron, the 91st TFS, had completed its withdrawal by August and was officially deactivated on the 14th of that month. This move was a significant and historic event by virtue of the fact that it ended the 40-year USAF presence at the base.
Unlike Bentwaters, Woodbridge remains in use today as a helicopter-training area for 3 and 4 Regiment of the Army Air Corps, based at Wattisham Airfield. In addition to helicopter training, Woodbridge is also home to 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault). The base has undergone major redevelopment work with many of the existing buildings being demolished to make way for new ones. Woodbridge (or Rock Barracks as it is now known) is virtually unrecognisable to those people who once lived, worked or just visited the base during the USAF years.