Boscombe Down image


First published in ‘The Radiator’ (CND Southern Region magazine) June 1982. This was fairly typical of what was going on right across the country during the latter stages of the cold war. So far as I know, Boscombe Down airbase (outside Amesbury in Wiltshire) is still available for use by the US Air Force. 

In the 1950s “Boscombe … had the longest runway in Europe, the back-up facilities to go with it, and, up above, the clear blue Wiltshire skies. A better playground for a test pilot could not be imagined.” Today, the Aircraft and Armaments Experimental Establishment is being run down, and Europe’s longest runway is being put at the disposal of the US Air Force. 34 reinforced blast resistant hangars, each one 120 feet long, 70 feet wide and 27 feet high, are being constructed at the airfield along with ‘ancillary buildings’ which include deep underground bunkers. The two mile runway makes Boscombe a key base for the Americans, for the rapid deployment of their strategic forces in wartime. The playground is being stocked with more dangerous toys. 

The hangars are being bult as part of a general “strengthening” programme for US air bases in Europe. Boscombe’s importance within this context would appear to be substantial, if the size of the construction work, the urgency with which it is being carried out, and the general atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the developments, are anything to go by. But its significance goes further than that, for it heralds a greater shift than ever away from national control of Britain’s air defences – indeed, from ‘national security’ in any meaningful sense at all.

In February 1979, Cynthia Roberts (prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Eastleigh) pointed out that “There are now more USAF fighter planes in this country than there are in the whole of our own RAF, which … makes this country a de facto colony of the USA.” By the mid 1980’s, with cruise missiles installed and USAF facilities strengthened and expanded, Britain will be not so much a colony as a piece of disposable equipment.

The situation at Boscombe Down highlights both the utilitarian attitude of the United States towards its ‘allies’ and the economic priorities of our present government, which helps to make such abuse possible; attitudes and priorities which together have an effect on the environment that has caused Greenpeace to take an interest, as well as CND. And finally, if Boscombe is to be used for refueling in transit, of aircraft deployed with maximum speed from the other side of the Atlantic, it raises the question of whether the actual nuclear weaponry is to be stored right here in Wiltshire, to be picked up en route for Eastern Europe by the USAF.

The Size of the Construction Work

The new developments at Boscombe Down were first announced to the public via the ‘Salisbury Journal’ in March of 1978. Few details were given, but it was stated that 34 hangars armoured with a massive reinforced concrete coating were to be constructed over a period of six years. Along with taxiways and ancillary buildings they would cover no less than 56 acres in all. The cost was not divulged, but it was later reported that the first stage, 18 of the hangars, alone cost £6,600,000.

Each hangar consists of nearly 15,000 square feet of 2-foot-thick reinforced concrete, lined with corrugated steel arch liners which are held in place with pre-stressed concrete tie-beams at ground level: each one a major feat of civil engineering, and a substantial blot on the skyline.

Since these monstrosities are being built by the Ministry of Defence, no planning permission was required beforehand. Amesbury District Councillor Austin Underwood said at the time that the announcement came as a “complete bombshell”, and that Salisbury District Council had been “kept in the dark.”

Outline proposals were made available for public inspection, “to discover whether there was any local reaction”, and comments and opinions on the scheme’s environmental implications were invited. ‘Outline’ was a very precise description of what the public were allowed to see – a small scale site plan – and the invitation was held open for only two weeks. The local enquiry demanded by Councillor Underwood never came about. The work began in the following December.

At the time, the proposals had been “reluctantly accepted” by the District Council, though district planning chairman Mike Pearce had stated that “I still feel the wilds of Scotland would be a better place for it.” Much was made of the new employment that would come about – which in fact amounted to 130 short-term jobs in all, a third of them locally recruited and the rest brought in by outside contractors.

It was known from the start that the project was being carried out in conjunction with the USAF, though the Ministry of Defence denied that long-term civilian jobs at the base would be reduced. In the past month, however, substantial redundancies amongst the 1800 civilian employees at Boscombe have now been announced.

The Urgency of the Project

The indications are that the Defence Ministry is pulling out all the stops to have the work completed on time. Mr Jack Swinburne, Wiltshire’s county planning liaison officer, said in March 1978 that defence chiefs were “desperately keen” to press ahead with the development as soon as possible. Whether this is because the site is of key strategic importance, or because the United States will pay rental for the base and the British government is anxious for the revenue, cannot be said. Probably both.

The fact that the land is easily accessible and already belonged to the MoD makes the project that much more speedy, and helps to explain why the wilds of Scotland were not chosen. The first stage was completed in the summer of 1981, and the first American staff arrived before the end of the year. Exercises involving F1-11’s [fighter bombers], and 500 American military personnel, were carried out as early as May 1980.

Labour relations at Boscombe during the construction period have not been entirely smooth, but this has not been allowed to seriously interrupt the progress. Workers have complained of “Gestapo-style tactics” by MoD police, who are particularly diligent in their “routine” searches of craftsmen’s vehicles and lockers on site. In February 1979, one man collapsed during questioning, though no charges of dishonesty or pilfering were ever brought against him.

The incident caused a mass walk-out, but the men were rapidly got back to work, and one union official claimed he had been “warned off” by the management from talking in public about the dispute. It is interesting to note that when a strike broke out during similar construction work on the East Anglian airfields, a plane-load of Italians were flown in, an unprecedented attempt to bring foreign black-leg labour into this country to break a strike.

The project was originally scheduled for completion in 1985, and although start on the work was delayed fo two months it appears to be well on target. From a USAF point of view, the base will be fully operational before the end of 1984 – soon after the proposed siting of cruise missiles near Newbury.

Secrecy and Security

Right from the first announcement, according to the Salisbury Journal, “officials are remaining tight-lipped and saying as little as possible about the development, for reasons of national security.” And this attitude continues; notices prominently displayed warn anyone off from taking photographs of the construction work, for instance. And they mean it: when a local photographer stopped outside the perimeter and took out his camera, a dozen security men appeared before he could take one picture. But it is well known that the Soviet Union, like the United States, has developed satellite surveillance to a fine art, and will be monitoring all such developments more keenly than anyone. So what does “reasons of national security” mean?

The only logical answer is a desire to restrict public information and public debate; the only logical reason is that if many people become aware of just what is being built, they would refuse to have it on their doorsteps. “National security” means keeping the Ministry of Defence and its plans secure from the people.

The Extent of American Involvement 

The strengthening of Boscombe Down is officially described as an ‘Anglo-American’ project, but it is in fact an American project on English soil. The US Defence Secretary has stated that “We are increasing the number of shelters” for the protection of “our aircraft.” The scheme is largely American financed. The USA, in order to deploy its strategic reserve for the reinforcement of its forward-based forces in Europe, has thus gained rights of not only transit, but also basing; presumably ‘in the event of an emergency’ but in actual practice a standing right, since they come here on exercises in peace time and materials must be pre-positioned in support. As with cruise missiles, the weapons system is entirely under American control, and as far as Britain is concerned does nothing except raise the risk of Soviet retaliation.

The December 1978 ‘Peace News’ reported that when the construction work is complete, “Three things are expected to come about: a USAF officer will assume command, there will be no more work on the contract for the construction workers, and some of these will be less after the USAF/NATO take-over.” NATO itself made clear before the start of the work that the airfield was one of their key European bases, which means that it would be at the disposal of ‘SACEUR’ (Supreme Allied Commander in Europe), who is always an American. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defence has denied that there will be an eventual NATO take-over of Boscombe Down.

Early last year, a number of civilian employees at Boscombe Dowm received notice that they were to be dispersed to other bases, at various times between late 1981 and early 1984.

Environmental Effects 

The government’s economic priorities were highlighted at Boscombe by the closing down of Tidworth hospital, seven miles away, in the same month that plans to extend the airfield were announced. Though Tidworth hospital was financed through the Defence budget, it treated civilians as well as soldiers. It fell victim to the Conservatives’ first round of spending cuts.

The new hangars and taxiways at Boscombe itself are being built on what was until then 56 acres of good agricultural land. It is an eyesore, and potentially an extreme hazard to people for many miles around. When local district councillors were told of the scheme, it was the environmental impact that first worried them; and certainly in normal circumstances such a project would not have been given planning permission. However, in the words of the District Planning Chairman, “We’re stuck with it.”

Southampton CND and Greenpeace first teamed up to focus opposition to the Boscombe Down extension, under the banner ‘Nuclear Bombs or Fresh Farm Food?’ They raised a petition and proposed, rather hopefully, that the land be put to use as a market garden. It is a sad reflection on the present state of our nation that their plan, which would include extensive glass houses and a horticultural college, does seem so far-fetched. Nevertheless it shows that such an area could be used for peaceful, productive purposes, giving permanent employment to as many people as are presently, and only temporarily, engaged in building blast-resistant hangars for the US Air Force.

The Military Reality

Some interesting graffiti appeared on a railway bridge parapet near to the base at the beginning of last July. The USAF were again carrying out exercises, and some of their airmen had plenty to drink on Independence Day. The message, in letters scrawled over a foot high, was from “Steve, Doug, Bill” from Cannon, New Mexico. “4 JULY INDEPENDENCE DAY” they announced, “F-111-D’s ARE COMING BACK!!!” And again, “COMING SOON! 27 TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) RAF BD.”

Boscombe has been designated as a ‘standby’ airfield, for use in times of ‘tension’ by the USAF. This means effectively that at least the new part of the airfield will be under permanent American control, for the use of F-111 fighter-bombers from the strategic reserve. The F-111-D is the ‘strike aircraft’ variety, with a range of nearly 2,000 miles. It can carry up to six ‘short range attack missiles’, themselves with a range of 100 miles, and each armed with a nuclear warhead (‘small’ by modern standards) of 200 kilotons – at least ten times the explosive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There are already 7 squadrons of F-111’s based in this country, and another 5 in the strategic reserve.

In March 1980, a Ministry of Defence spokesman claimed that “There are absolutely no plans for a permanent deployment of Americans or any other NATO forces at the establishment.” Perhaps the truth of his statement depends on the dictionary definition of ‘permanent’. But be that as it may, readers of the ‘New Statesman’ (3.10.80) will know that Boscombe Down was already envisaged, at the time of the 1980 Civil Defence exercise ‘Operation Square Leg’, to be not just a priority target for attack, but actually the first likely to be struck.


The article above was followed up by this piece published in the ‘Radiator’s Glastonbury Festival special edition, also in June 1982. 

If anything seems permanent in the south of England, it is the imposing bulk of Stonehenge. The last stones to fall down collapsed in 1797; before that, 1620. They are a point of reference for everyone who lives in or travels through the area. The Stones are less than two miles from RAF Boscombe Down, an airfield that is currently being strengthened and given new strategic significance – making it the prime target for nuclear attack in the British Isles.

Stonehenge is the greatest megalithic monument in the British Isles, and one of the oldest. The outer earthworks around the Stones were first dug out by the ancient ‘Beaker’ people in, perhaps, 4,000 BC. Amongst the legends, stories and theories as to why and how Stonehenge was constructed, there is one which tells that it was built by the Devil: he put it there to make people puzzle themselves stupid over why and how it was constructed.

Within the outer circle, there are two separate sets of stonework, possibly erected at different times. An outer circle and inner horse-shoe configuration of enormous ‘trilithons’ (two uprights and a third as a lintel) were worked out of ‘sarsen’ stone, a form of sandstone that is still found scattered on Salisbury Plain.

And there is an inner circle and an inner horseshoe of smaller, ‘foreign’ stones, not found anywhere in Wiltshire; proof that Stonehenge was a focus for people from all over Britain, and probably further. Stonehenge was completed in the late Stone Age, around 2,000-1,500 BC, though most of the barrows and burial mounds that surround the monument are later, used in the Bronze Age. To the Romans, Stonehenge was already an antique curiosity.

In medieval times the Stones wwee associated with Merlin, who was supposed to have used his magic art to bring the ‘healing stones’ from Ireland to the ‘Mount of Ambrosius’, Amesbury. To the enlightened men of the eighteenth century, this fable was replaced with the commonsense notion that Stonehenge had been built by the Romans; until the eccentric antiquarian Dr Stukely exploded this theory and replaced it with one of his own – that Stonehenge was the mystical centre of the Druids.

For 4,000 years and more, Stonehnge has been a symbol and expression of the continuing and changing lives of people in that part of the country. It is due to be demolished in the next few years.

In March 1978 it was first announced that 34 enormous ‘blast-proof’ hangars were to be built at Boscome Down. In the government civil defence exercise ‘Operation Square Leg’ – in October 1980, when work on the hangars had scarcely begun – it was already assumed that Boscombe would be the very first target in a nuclear attack on Britain. In time of war, Boscombe would be sued by American F-111 fighter-bombers, flown in to reinforce their ‘Euro-Strategic Nuclear Forces’. The F111 is an aeroplane that uses 30 gallons of fuel a minute, and can fly from here to Moscow carrying nuclear weapons.

The new reinforced hangars are supposed to provide protection against nuclear attack; but no above-ground structure can be designed for any such thing. Even a well-aimed ‘conventional’ weapon is bound to do substantial damage. However, there are 34 hangars spaced around a 56-acre site, as if the plan was drawn by a computer linked up to a random number generator.

If the Russians wanted to be sure of destroying the whole airfield, they would have to use one of their very large 25-megaton ballistic missiles. But these are restricted in number by the SALT treaties, and are mostly targeted on North America. It is possible that Boscombe, and other USAF bases in Europe that are being similarly strengthened, are simply there to draw nuclear fire-power away from the United States.

But Boscombe Down is more likely to come under attack from ‘small’, 1-megaton bombs or missiles. In that case, there would be a statistical probability that a significant number of the hangars would survive in some fashion, with their contents; they are protected by thick layers of steel and concrete. There is an absolute certainty that the surrounding villages and countryside would be entirely devastated.

Boscombe’s real usefulness would be not during but immediately preceding any outbreak of nuclear war. The fuel and ammunition stores must be stocked beforehand, though ‘ammunition’ is a tame description of the weaponry carried by these aircraft. The continued use of the base would make some sense in a purely ‘conventional’ war, but if there were a general outbreak of hostilities in Europe it would be unlikely to remain conventional for very long.

In any case, NATO have confirmed Boscombe’s importance for defence against nuclear attack. But there is no defence against nuclear attack; only counter-attack or pre-emptive strike. During the period of ‘increased tension’ imagined to precede such an eventuality, during which cruise missiles would be dispersed and USAFE (United States Air Forces Europe) nuclear forces would be on red alert, aircraft from the US strategic reserve would have to be already on their way across the Atlantic.

If NATO, faced with a situation getting rapidly out of control, went ahead with their plan to make a limited nuclear attack on Eastern Europe in the hope of deterring the Russians from making any further move, the aircraft at Boscombe Down would have to be already in the hangars, arming and refueling for the likely follow-up attack. If, as the Americans’ own ‘war games’ have most certainly predicted, the Russians responded with massive retaliation, the aircraft from Boscombe Down would have to be already in the air; there would be nothing for them to return to.