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  • US Air Force Bases in the UK by Paul Bingley

    When it was suggested that I write a book about US Air Force bases in the UK, I jumped at the chance. After all, as the chairman of a museum dedicated to one base in particular, I knew I had a solid foundation on which to build. Shortly afterwards, though, I began to wonder if I had the tools for the job.

    The 'Stars and Stripes' are raised at RAF Burtonwood on 22 October 1943. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    My first task was to determine exactly how many US Air Force (USAF) bases there had been. This was no easy task, especially considering that the USAF and its antecedents – the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces – had been in the UK since 1942. After some time, I concluded that there had been approximately 186 airfields used by the Americans at one time or another. This was not counting those that were allocated to them by the British and never actually used (probably another 40 or so); nor their support and non-flying facilities, which numbered around 300. Even a lengthy USAF report compiled in 1985 failed to fully determine the actual number of wartime American installations in the UK. So how to write about such a huge, undefined subject with a limited word count? My foundations were looking decidedly weak.

    With so many disused bases around the country, it would have been easy just to list each one and give a brief description of its current condition. However, for a reader with scant knowledge of the story behind the USAF’s presence in the UK, it would have failed to answer two very important questions: why was a particular airfield given over to the Americans, and why was it built where it was?

    A Douglas C-54 Skymaster lifts off from RAF Prestwick loaded with wounded GIs bound for the US. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    The most logical way of answering these questions was to build a chronological picture of airfield construction and use. Starting with the earliest American air force arrivals (but always bearing in mind those airfields that are still in use with today’s USAF), I began compiling a timeline of events running from January 1939 to the present day. Using this as the basis for a narrative, I then decided to ‘thread’ the story of present-day USAF facilities throughout, whilst highlighting other wartime airfields that had either continued to be used by the USAF post-war, or had particularly interesting back stories, i.e. emergency and advanced landing grounds, and those built by the Americans themselves.

    It must be said that my research was the easy part. Having a passion for a subject that I had a basic knowledge of meant that I knew roughly where to look. Putting it into words, however, was much more difficult. Using the timeline as my guide, I quickly realised that the restricted word count would mean that I could only focus on a limited number of bases. As a result, I decided to select 50 airfields and other facilities, including those still in use today. But this presented me with another challenge.

    The scale of RAF Burtonwood can be seen from this aerial image taken in August 1945. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the writing process, I was mindful of those who share my passion. Like me, many enthusiasts are devoted to particular airfields (in my case, the former RAF Ridgewell). I soon realised that by not touching on over 100 other American bases, I was risking the wrath of many in the airfield history community. Unfortunately, it was something that could not be helped, so I added a caveat to the preface and concentrated on the wider picture. Again, writing a limited number of words on such a sizeable subject was the most hindering aspect.

    Next, came the images. I already possessed a large collection of historical photographs, but I required some up-to-date shots of the bases as they are today. Thankfully, a very good friend and airfield aficionado came to the rescue. Richard E. Flagg has been on a mission to photograph airfields all over the UK. Moderator of various Facebook groups and content creator of the website, ukairfields.org.uk, Richard owns a fantastic library that he kindly gave me access to. The bulk of the images used in US Air Force Bases in the UK came through the lens of Richard.

    An F-15 Strike Eagle of the 48th FW ('Liberty Wing') outside its Hardened Aircraft Shelter at Lakenheath. (Richard E. Flagg, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Finally, I began seeking a foreword written by someone highly regarded in the field of military history. I had given a small amount of assistance to the Battle of Britain historian, James Holland, for his most recent book, Big Week. To say I was overjoyed when he agreed to write my foreword is an understatement.

    Shortly after US Air Force Bases in the UK was released, I was invited to attend a book-signing event at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. This was a huge moment for me, having been a volunteer tour guide in its AirSpace gallery for over five years. To see my book on the gift shop’s shelf (rather appropriately, below James Holland’s Big Week) was certainly a proud moment. But to sign it for other enthusiasts was the most humbling experience. Needless to say, when someone asked me if ‘their’ airfield was included, I was greeted with a look of despondency when I announced that it wasn’t. I guess this is the life of a writer – risking reputations to help educate others. One thing’s for sure, though – I now know I have the tools to build on something special.

    Paul Bingley's new book US Air Force Bases in the UK is available for purchase now.

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