On June 5th 1944, with the world spinning on its axis, General Dwight Eisenhower addressed 1430 American paratroopers, from Greenham Common, England. “The eyes of the world are upon you.” He announced, watching at just before midnight, as at 11 second intervals, eighty one C-47 Dakotas took off for Normandy to participate in one of the most decisive events of World War II, D-DAY.
Greenham Common’s military past
Eisenhower was sixty miles west of London at a United States Air Force (USAF) base on Greenham Common, a well established historical military site. In 1643, during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s men had waited there to stop the forces of King Charles I. In 1745, it was where five thousand troops prepared to quell an invading Scottish rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. In World War I, British tank troops had trained there and in March 1941 before America became involved in World War II, RAF Bomber Command was based there.
Greenham Common as an American World War II base
When the USAF arrived at Greenham in 1942 one of its lodges became the HQ for the 101st Airborne division and one of its manors, Bowden House, the HQ for USSAF 51st Troop Carrier Wing. It was from here that the invasion of North Africa was planned and where in 1944 Churchill, De Gaulle and Eisenhower planned the airborne element of the D-Day landings.
During the time the Americans were based at Greenham, it hosted several famous American stars who visited to entertain the troops. Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller were just some of it’s illustrious visitors.
It was also from here that my father, whose family home was a couple of miles away, first became acquainted with Americans. Servicemen, who according to my father’s teenage recollections, were all handsome and smartly dressed, happy to share their candy with ration deprived English children. It was the beginning of a life long respect and admiration for a country, that over fifty years later, would be where I would live.
Greenham Common is nestled next to the bustling market of town of Newbury where my parents met and to the south lies Watership Down, (immortalized in Richard Adam’s novel of the same name) where bunnies still hop. Close by is Highclere Castle, now world famous as the location for Downton Abbey.
Covering just over two square miles, resplendent with gorse, bracken and purple heather it was where as a child I was taken to pick blackberries and where a few days ago I returned. I went to visit its 1951 Control Tower, recently opened to the public to tell its Cold War story.
The Greenham Common Control Tower
Surveying the panorama before me and blessed with clear skies I discovered other fascinating facts about Greenham. In addition to its military connections, in 1839 it was at Greenham that the winning post of one of England’s finest horse race tracks stood, for the Newbury races. In 1873 it was the site of the Crookham Golf Club, one of the first inland courses in England.
Beginning in 1973 it became the host for Six International Air tattoos several of which I had attended! In 1980 Richard Noble broke the British land speed record here, reaching a speed of 245mph. Chosen by Noble probably because of the length of its runaway, for the same reason, at one point Greenham was designated as an alternative to Heathrow airport for Concorde and as the European landing ground for the Space shuttle.
At the top of the Control tower
The Control Tower was built in 1951 during the Cold War, when the USAF returned to Greenham, and new runways and buildings were constructed. B47 jets were deployed from Greenham followed by B52 bombers until the Americans departed again in 1964. The USAF maintenance hangers, are clearly visible from the tower now part of New Greenham Park Industrial Park.
Greenham as a Cruise Missile Base
The threat of the Cold War gripped the world on into the 1980’s and as a consequence the Americans returned. Greenham became a controversial cruise missile base resulting in a woman’s protest camp being established round its boundaries. When it was announced that 96 cruise missiles would be arriving, on 12 December 1980, thirty thousand people, mostly women, joined hands in protest, circling Greenham’s entire 9 mile perimeter fence. In 1981 seventy thousand people formed a human fourteen mile chain from Greenham to the Atomic Weapon and Research Establishment at Aldermaston where Britain’s nuclear weapons are made.
In 1982 the USAF’s 501st Tactical Missile Wing was activated as a launching ground at Greenham and a year later the first missiles arrived. An Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) site had been built to house the missiles, six shelters all designed to be able to withstand a direct hit. Each one was 50 feet high, 150 feet long and 16 feet wide, covered in reinforced concrete, titanium sheeting, sand and clay one being designed to be on permanent alert with living quarters.
Today they are privately owned and often rented out as movies locations, Star Wars and Top Gear have both been filmed here as well as a music video for singer Beyoncé.
The GAMA shelters at Greenham Common
In 1988, following the signing of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in which USSR & USA agreed to destroy their missiles a Soviet Inspection took place at Greenham. In 1991 the cruise missiles were destroyed and in 1992 the USAF returned Greenham Common to the Ministry of Defence.
In 1994 the airbase was designated as being of special scientific interest and in 1997 the Greenham Common Trust bought it for a million pounds. It eventually became a business park and Newbury District Council bought the open common for one pound. In 2000 the last of the peace camp disbanded and by 2002 the common was opened for all to enjoy as it is today.
In September 2018 The Greenham Common Control Tower was opened.
If you would like to visit it’s free, the tower hosts events and talks, check the website for details and hours. Choose a sunny day and bring your walking shoes as the common is a delight to explore!
Enjoyed your article. My Father was station in the area during the WW II. He was with the 101st Airborne Signal Corp and was encamped on Donnington Castle grounds. I went there in the early ‘70’s to shoot 8mm movies of for him while I was station at RAF West Ruislip outside London. According to him, it hadn’t changed a bit. Prior to going there, he described it perfectly, including Corn Exchange in the center of Newbury. I knew it before getting there. During my tour in England, I made many trips to RAF Greenham Common and Newbury. A wonderful area.
Hi Dennis Thank you so much for contacting me! What a special connection especially as we remember all the incredible people like your father on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Not sure if you subscribe to my blog but today I reposted what I’d written about the Normandy landings from the 70th anniversary http://bit.ly/2ZcrAgE
I know Newbury well both my parents grew up there and it is where my father’s love affair with America began, meeting all the wonderful American servicemen based at Greenham Common! Thanks for reaching out and thanks for wonderful people like your Dad!
In 1967, my husband, baby daughter, Christine, and I lived in the Gatehouse, along the perimeter road by Greenham AFB. He was in the U.S. AirForce and stationed at RAF Welford. We shared the Gatehouse with an English couple, David and Valerie Pilley. I would love to know if the Gatehouse is still there. The manor house was down the road and was used at that time as a school for the U. S. Air Force families, whose housing area was by the Manor house. My daughter is a fanatic for Star Wars and I would love to tell her the house she lived in for 5 months is still there and a backdrop for her beloved Star Wars movies!! The house looked out toward Greenham AFB and its flightline.
Hi Jean Thanks so much for reaching out, how fascinating! I will try to find out for you and get back to you asap! Best Caroline
I live in Newbury and the gatehouse is still there up right opposite greenham common. When I walk dog next I could take picture for you.
Hi Colin that would be terrific thank you so much! My email is email@example.com. So look forward to hearing from you
You can read more on the base at my history website:
My dad was stationed at Welford in 1964 and we lived on the base housing of Greenham common directly in front of the manor house. If anybody has pictures of the base housing from the middle 1960’s I would love to view them.
Hi Thomas, thank you for getting in touch, I will ask my family in UK!
Thank you! Living in England in the 1960’s was for me the most magical time of my life. My brothers and I literally lived in the grounds behind the manor house. My sister was too young to remember and I would love to show her pictures. I’m retiring this year and so want to visit Newbury. What an incredible country England is.
I was there in 1968 as psrt of operation first look. This was a joint operation of the us and uk to assess surveillance techniques of the soviets. We ate in the mamor house nearby. St. Marys was by the boq
Hi Thomas Thank you so much for getting in touch! Greenham Common was such a big part of my family’s life and it’s great to hear from someone who was there. Have you been back and where do you live now? Best Caroline
I remember visiting the airbase as a child of about 7in the 1950s I think. Hundreds of local school children were treated to a party in one of the hangers. We sat at long trestle tables and got to sit in the cockpit of a B bomber wearing a pilots helmet.
My memories are vague and I cannot find any information online of other people’s experiences of this tea party.
Was it a regular PR event?
I now enjoy using it for walking.
Hi Peter thank you for sharing with me your stories about Greenham. My parents grew up in the area so i will ask my mother if she remembers anythign about the tea parties!
My father was an Air force Medic at Greenham in 1963. We lived off base and I believe we were one of a few black American families there.I had a wonderful childhood friend named Julian who had a sister named Marjorie.
Hi Dennis Thank you for reaching out. I so hope you have happy childhood memories of your time in Greenham Common. Although the town of Newbury is much changed, I think you’d find Greenham in many respects very familiar
Does anyone remember the baseball diamond near the officers mess (Greenham Lodge). It had a scoreboard, which still exists and bleachers. We aren’t sure quite when it was put up.
I don’t know, maybe someone else knows how to find this out? Thanks for reaching out!
I served in the U.S. Army’s 804th E.A.B. from 1955 to 1957. Our job was to rebuild Greenham’s 2 mile long runway so it could support heavy bombers. My job was to test the materials used in construction. I enjoyed travel in the UK and in Western Europe. On weekends, the Swindon Moravian Church congregation,”adopted ” me. I taught Sunday School there. My students were fascinated by by my American accent. Perhaps my most memorable experience was celebrating Hogmanay with my buddy and his Scots girlfriend. We “first-footed” her friends and were ‘first-footed” by them. Then we sang “Foggy, Foggy Dew’. Her friends even dressed me in a kilt.
Wow thank you for sharing your story.Have you ever gone back? Hope you’ve got some photos of yourself in that kilt with all your buddies!
My dad was stationed at Greenham Common in 1957…I remember going to school in a fabulous manor house and my fifth grade teacher and his family lived in the sweet little gate house to the manor. I’d love to find a photo of the manor house.. We originally lived in Pangborn near Reading but then rented a home in Newbury, Falklands Garth, built in 1623. It was a wonderous time in my life.
Hi Pam Thank you for getting in touch! So glad your time in England was so special. Was the school St Gabriel’s? When Im next there Ill try and grab you a photo! Take care Caroline
Your story is fascinating and Greenham common is indeed a special place. I feel there is one part of its history which has been given short shrift. I lived in the dormitories or barracks if you will in 1972 for a few months. A Ugandan refugee housed there on arrival by the Uganda Resettlement Board. With the help of voluntary services it became a safe haven for me and my family, although I have scant memories of it.
Wow Seema thanks for getting in touch to explain your connection to Greenham Common! I had no idea that it was used like this and am so glad that your family found refuge there during such terrifying times for your country.
My dad was in the air force and we were stationed there 1965-1968. I went to sixth, seventh and eighth grade in the mansion! I loved exploring the beautiful grounds around the mansion. I had the same teacher, Mr. Watts every year. Good memories!
Hi Karen Thanks for reaching out, I’m so glad you have such happy memories!
My Dad was USAF. We lived in Brimley Cottage, Kingsclere, when I was about three to three and a half. So, 1954 or so. I just found photos of the cottage in my Nan’s small photo album from that era. The wall I was sitting on, across the road, looks like it was still there, but has since been replaced. Cottage was remodeled at some point, judging from the present day photos.
Wow Robbie! Have you ever been back. How amazing to find those photos, I know Kingsclere well we used to go to a great pub there for supper ‘The Crown’!