Spy flights and superpower tensions - Secrets of Norfolk Cold War relic revealed
PUBLISHED: 13:59 23 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:59 23 February 2014
There may be no tumbleweed blowing about the runway, but the crumbling buildings that freckle Norfolk’s abandoned ‘Little America’ fairly creak with ghostly echoes.
The derelict chapel, the deserted control tower and the desolate accommodation blocks are all monuments to a haunting history smeared with cover-ups and controversy.
Once the cornerstone of a hazardous Anglo-American nuclear deterrent strategy, Sculthorpe’s forlorn air base has long been a place of closely guarded secrets.
And even now, more than 20 years after the ‘stars and stripes’ were lowered for the last time, an air of mystery continues to hang over fields of Norfolk that once teetered on the brink of Armageddon.
Local people speak of seeing more or less constant activity at what is now a Ministry of Defence controlled satellite of the Stanford training area near Thetford.
“It seems almost as though every single day some kind of military exercise is going on there,” says Peter Gunn. “There are joint exercises, involving British and American forces, army and air force personnel, including special operations people, but exactly what they’re doing I don’t know. Nobody does.”
It is a puzzle that strangely fits with the persisting sense of intrigue which led Peter, a Docking-based airfield historian and lifelong aviation enthusiast, to begin delving into the most tumultuous period in Sculthorpe’s aeronautical history.
“Living so close - I must travel past it twice a week - I’ve always been fascinated by all the stories I’ve heard about the incredible things that went on there,” he says. “I wanted to discover the truth behind them and, having researched other bases in Norfolk, I felt I just had to cover this one.”
The result was a three-year odyssey into a shadowy past close to home culminating in a compelling new book that shines fresh light on one of the most dangerous periods in world history.
Sculthorpe: Secrecy and Stealth is a saga of planes, strains and an enduring grand alliance touched by disaster and tested by a conflict like no other.
In charting the rise and demise of the air base, it focuses on a dramatic decade of superpower tensions between the western allies dominated by Britain and the United States and an eastern bloc ruled by the Soviet Union which catapulted a former RAF base near Fakenham into the frontline of a 20th century Cold War.
“It was in the wake of the Berlin blockade,” explains Peter. “The Russians had exploded its first atomic bomb sending shockwaves round the western world. Mao Tse-Tung had come to power in China. A war against communism was being fought in Korea. And there was a great sense of unease, particularly here in Britain where there was what you might call a ‘bomber gap’, a lack of a serious deterrent force.
“That was why we invited the Americans back into Britain. Initially it involved Strategic Air Command units coming in on rotation at a number of bases and Sculthorpe was picked as one of those.”
The second ‘friendly invasion’ of Norfolk began on a February afternoon 65 years ago with the arrival of two B-29 Superfortresses of the 92nd Bomb Group. They were at the forefront of a growing US commitment that would transform Sculthorpe into one of the largest and most important nuclear bases in western Europe.
By the end of the 1950s, the station which started life as a satellite airfield to West Raynham, straddling the parishes of Dunton and Tattersett, would be home to around 10,000 American servicemen and their families, complete with a transplanted, trans-Atlantic version of suburbia of bungalows and bowling alleys, schools and supermarkets.
Behind the peaceable façade, however, lay a hazardous and potentially lethal purpose. A 1951 article published in the New York Times more than hinted at the significance of “a two mile-long strip of concrete running through some barley fields and sugar-beet patches” that was “three B-50 hours from Leningrad [St Petersburg], four from Moscow, nine Russian bomber hours from New York [and] 40 jet minutes from the nearest Soviet fighter field in East Germany”.
Three years later, a Daily Mail reporter went further, describing Sculthorpe as the “biggest and most vital jet bombardment base in western Europe”. Not far from an underground concrete chamber housing weapons of “mass retaliation”, stood a line of RB-45 Tornado bombers “which could within two hours be on their way to strike, loaded with nuclear weapons”.
What the article did not reveal, however, was just how near aircraft such as these had come to triggering a major international incident.
The saga of the secret spy flights flown out of Sculthorpe represents one of the most extraordinary chapters of the Cold War. Even now, 20 years after the missions were first disclosed, they have yet to be fully documented, but from what has emerged into the public domain it is clear that the risks involved in the aerial surveillance flights over Soviet territory were immense.
“The stakes were enormously high,” says Peter. “We knew that the Russians had ‘the Bomb’, but we knew hardly anything about their capability in delivering it to targets in western Europe. It was all very well having a deterrent force, but we knew hardly anything about what the Russians were doing behind the Iron Curtain. There was an intelligence gap that the spy flights were meant to fill.”
Peter charts three that were mounted from Sculthorpe between 1952 and 1955 - two of which were carried out by a top-secret RAF Special Duty Flight operating alongside the 323rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of the United States Air Force.
“Because of the Korean War,” he explains, “President Harry Truman was nervous about such operations and he forbade them. But the US military were desperate for information and when Churchill returned to power he showed himself to be more well-disposed to the idea. So, a deal was struck. The Americans would provide the aircraft, though the serials would be removed and RAF roundels added, and we would supply the crews.
“Hard to believe though it is, the idea was that by flying with British markings the Americans could deny all knowledge of the flights while the British could claim that they did not employ this aircraft type.”
The first mission flown as part of Operation Ju Jitsu, as it was secretly styled, took place in April 1952 and involved three RAF-crewed RB-45s flying into Soviet airspace: one across the Baltic states, a second towards Moscow and a third venturing as far as the Ukraine.
Passing off without incident, the three-pronged incursion was credited with bringing back “valuable information about the Soviet air defences and data about their long-range bomber force… and its locations”.
The Russians were furious. “They knew about the flights but they couldn’t or didn’t wish to make a fuss about them because it would have betrayed the inadequacy of their own defences,” says Peter. “But when the RAF carried out a second surveillance operation there’s no doubt that they were ready for them.”
In his book, Peter relates how the pilot of one of three aircraft, Sqd Ldr John Crampton, was “surprised by a series of flashes visible from the ground”. Crampton, a veteran of the original spy mission two years earlier, pressed on towards Kiev at a height of 36,000 feet. As he did so, “it became obvious that the flashes were anti-aircraft bursts which were detonating at their height”.
Crampton made it safely back to friendly territory and only much later did he learn that, as well as being tracked by Soviet air defences, he had been a target for MiG jet fighters with orders to “ram” him.
His outstanding courage - he had resisted jettisoning his empty wing tanks to gain more speed so as to avoid handing the Russians a propaganda coup - was recognised by the award of a Bar to the Air Force Cross which he had earned for the first flight.
“Of course, no details about the award were ever publicly reported,” says Peter. “Like everything else about the flights, it was all very ‘hush hush’.”
The close encounter marked the end of RAF spying ops from Sculthorpe. “They were considered too risky,” says Peter. The third and, so far as is known, final surveillance sortie flown out of the Norfolk base was mounted by the USAF in 1955 only after being sanctioned by President Eisenhower.
Three RB-45s from the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew a night mission to photograph Soviet cities and military installations. All returned safely.
Through a mixture of skill and good fortune, Sculthorpe’s clandestine role in the intelligence war had been accomplished without loss, but the scrapping of spy flights from the base did not spell the end of Cold War drama.
Alarms and alerts were not infrequent occurrences. Peter cites a worker at one of the clubs on the base who recalled such incidents. “Sometimes the aircraft actually took off, as if there was to be an attack on the Eastern bloc and then the mission would be aborted,” he said. “They probably didn’t know at the time if it was for real.
“It sometimes happened on a club or dining-in night, at awkward times. If it was a Friday night I dread to think what state the guys were in! ”
Given the potential for such ‘scares’ becoming grim reality, it is ironic that two of the greatest crises faced by Norfolk’s ‘Little America’ had nothing to do with Cold War tensions.
The first, which inflicted the highest loss of life among Sculthorpe personnel and their families, resulted from a natural disaster and the second, involving a threat to one of the base’s nuclear storage facilities, was self-inflicted.
As with the spy flights, the authorities, both British and American, did their level best to cover-up the alarming truth about the 1958 incident involving a deranged airman armed with a .45 pistol who had locked himself in an atom bomb bunker for eight hours.
Senior US officials didn’t just seek to play down the danger posed by nuclear weapons technician Master Sergeant Leander Cunningham, they created an entirely fictional account of the episode.
The only trouble was there were plenty of local people working on the base who knew different. Rumours fed press reports which prompted fresh denials that did little to quieten fears.
More than half a century on, the base’s latest historian is more circumspect. “Quite honestly, I think the danger has been over-dramatised,” he says. “Clearly, there could have been an explosion, but from my understanding the worst case scenario would have been the scattering of some nuclear material. The idea that it might have been Armageddon is frankly not the case.”
As it was, its greatest significance may have been the potential damage to Anglo-American relations. Partial admission came later only after questions were raised in the House of Commons, and a US source reckoned it was as well the truth had not emerged earlier when he felt “disclosure… would have knocked us out of England”.
There was no such need for subterfuge five years earlier when 16 Americans were among some 40 people who died when the North Sea surge swept away their homes. Then, a harrowing night of tragedy was followed by myriad acts of selfless heroism performed by young US airmen who joined the rescue effort.
Notable among them was 22-year-old Reis Leming. Wading neck-deep through freezing floodwater, he saved 27 people and, in the process, became the most celebrated of all Sculthorpe’s Cold War warriors.
By being, as he put it, “in the wrong place at the right time”, Leming and other airmen like him did much to cement a peacetime alliance told in Gunn’s study of a vanished ‘Little America’.