Somewhere approximately ten miles from Oxford and sitting on a windswept hill is the almost surreal landscape of Upper Heyford Airbase. There is still some signage to guide you there once you get off the motorway, even though the base was handed back to the Ministry of Defence in 1994. The Cold War was over and the Americans were then pulling their troops back from Europe. The last F111 fighter jets had flown out the year before having completed their final missions in the first Gulf War, the Kurdish relief and Bosnia.
An open day has been arranged for an impressive list of conservation bodies interested in military history from their various points of expertise. The local parish councils have also been consulted, as well as other interested individuals and when I arrive the bus that has been hired to drive us around the vast site is full to capacity with more people still pulling up. We finally leave in convoy formation with people following the bus in their cars.
Upper Heyford had developed as an airfield during World War I and later played a significant role in getting Britain’s air force ready for the Second World War. It became a model for the development of airfields in the inter-war years and RADAR was developed there as well. But our interest in the site lies principally with the tremendous concrete structures that were built by the Americans, when they took over Upper Heyford in1965. By 1971 they had expanded the site into the largest fighter base in Europe and continued building throughout that decade.
The long runway bisects the site from east to west. To the north and south are 56 hardened aircraft shelters that look like they have been strewn randomly about the field. We are informed that they actually have been placed in strategically tactical positions. In the occasion of attack by air, no more than two of these could have been hit at one time during one bombing run. But standing on this field now surrounded by swathes of overgrown grassland the concrete hangars look completely detached from any former function or rationale. It’s like the play things of a gigantic child that have been abandoned for a more interesting toy. The soldiers have all gone home; the jets have flown to a different battlefield.
The bus that is taking the conservationists around, circles the site on a peripheral road. We pass the bunkers of the hardened telephone exchange and battle command centre that are still in excellent condition with most of the fixtures remaining. The guide says that the command centre is still supposed to have its red telephone inside. English Heritage is recommending these structures for scheduling because they are so complete and the site owners are talking about turning this particular area into a museum at some time in the future.
We pass three nose docking sheds and the avionics maintenance facility that are up for listing before we cross the far end of the runway in the West. From there the bus heads to the northern tip of the site passing the quick reaction alert area before heading back towards the eastern end of the runway. The guide gestures to our left and the northern bomb stores and special weapons area. Both of these areas are earmarked for listing as well. All of a sudden the cold reality of this site comes rushing back. These concrete structures that now serve as safe storage facilities for fireworks at one time housed nuclear bombs. The Special Alert Area for the nuclear ready flight compound was provided with additional barbed perimeter fencing and guard towers. There is high intensity lighting placed above this part of the base for maximum illumination at nightfall. Nine hardened aircraft shelters are located here that were serviced by their own headquarters with offices, briefing room, recreation area and a canteen that has remained in a 1970s time warp: It is America’s favourite fast food restaurant with all the trimmings but without the branding – still instantly recognizable.
It is in these areas that the human/inhuman dimension is reinserted into this abandoned place. We can almost hear the clattering of trays and testosterone laden banter echoing from the walls. At some of the aircraft shelters the gigantic concrete gates have been left open just enough to imply that the place is still in use. You can walk inside and see the aircraft’s insignia painted on the walls by ground staff. And if you look closely you can see a wrench or a battery lying in the long golden grass as if someone had only just dropped them.
Upper Heyford Airbase is a tremendous place in all meanings of the word. The weapons that had promised unspeakable destruction are now gone. They had for the most part been kept remote from Western European citizens with pictures only shown on television news broadcasts. Although the Cold War has been over now for more than ten years this place has not lost its strength as a reminder of what the military is still capable of today. And while the nuclear capability is now stored elsewhere these buildings still tell us of the terrifying reality of an imminent nuclear conflict.