|Wattisham Air Base
With acknowledgements to “RAF Wattisham, A Pictorial History” by David Eade
ISBN 978 0 946958 60 3
Note: The aircraft depicted are illustrative of their type. The photographs do not necessarily show specific aircraft that flew from Wattisham.
Needham Market is just six miles from Wattisham Flying Station, now home to the Apache Attack Helicopter flown by the Army Air Corps. The community has enjoyed close relations with the base since its inception as an RAF grass airfield in 1936. Local tradesmen were among the contractors who erected the first buildings and many in the community have worked at the base ever since in a variety of civilian support roles including, administration, catering, security and (the now privatised) Air Traffic Control.
Wattisham in World War II
Bristol Blenheim light bombers of 107 Squadron from Wattisham participated in the first air attack on Germany on 4 September 1939, the day after war had been declared, attacking German naval ships, including the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, in Willemshaven. Four of the five Wattisham-based aircraft were lost in this raid.
The Blenheims participated in other operations during 1941 but losses were high, demonstrating the unsuitability of this aircraft to attack heavily defended targets. They were replaced by Douglas Boston light bomber aircraft and subsequently by Bristol Beaufighters to attack German shipping in their coastal waters.
In June 1942 Wattisham airfield transferred to the United States Eighth Air Force. The initial occupants were an Observation Group flying the Bell Aircaobra, plus engineering units carrying out reclamation and repair of damaged aircraft and readying new aircraft for deployment to front line units.
From May 1944 three squadrons of Lockheed P38 Lightning fighters with their distinctive twin tail booms operated from Wattisham, escorting bombers on daylight raids into Germany. Aircraft from Wattisham also gave ground support to the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
To maintain the morale of the American forces a number of entertainers visited Wattisham to give concerts for the troops including, at different times, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller. The American had also to come to terms with the different life style of their Suffolk neighbours. Many a cultural exchange took place, usually amicably and sometimes intimately.
In September 1944 the 479th Fighter Group began to re-equip with the P-51 Mustang; one of the iconic aircraft of the war, as the fighter cover accompanied the bombers on longer range raids into occupied eastern Europe.
On these missions the Mustangs encountered the first German Me 262 jet aircraft and managed to shoot down several and also the rocket-powered Me 163 Komet. The Group is credited with destroying the last enemy aircraft claimed by the Eighth Air Force, an Arado 234 jet bomber.
On 16 January 1945 Wattisham reverted to the RAF and a number of different units with a variety of aircraft had the airfield as a temporary home as it was readied for jet aircraft with runways re-laid and increased fuelling and engineering services.
Meteor jet fighters of 257 and 263 Squadrons arrived at Wattisham during October and November 1950. A wide variety of deployments and exercises in Britain and Europe kept the Meteors busy. There were some challenges, such as encountering the swept wing F-86 Sabre fighters of the USAF, now based in East Anglia, some of whose pilots had gained combat experience against Mig 15 Russian aircraft in Korea.
In November 1954 257 Squadron was selected as the first front line unit to operate the new swept wing Hunter fighter and the pace of interceptions increased. An all-weather and night interception capability came to Wattisham in June 1954 with the introduction of the radar-equipped Meteor Mark 12 and Mk14 aircraft. Their distinctive long noses became a feature of eastern skies.
Hunters of different marks, with progressively greater capability, dominated Wattisham airspace until 1960, with several squadrons being based here, usually in pairs. Among the most distinctive was Treble One Squadron the “Black Arrows” aerobatic team, whose aircraft had an all-black colour scheme. They habitually gave displays with nine aircraft in diamond formation. At the 1958 Farnborough Air Show they performed a loop with 22 aircraft in close formation, a record that has not yet been equalled by any other group, in any air force.
The Meteor was replaced as the all weather and night fighter by the delta wing Javelin in 1957. In addition to its distinctive delta wing and flying delta tail plane, the Javelin was the first RAF aircraft to have missiles as its primary armament: four air to air heat-seeking Firestreak missiles, in addition to four 30mm Aden cannon. The Javelin was predominately a high altitude interceptor and crews spent much time at altitudes of 40,000 feet [about 8 miles].
By late 1963 the mach 2 English Electric Lightning, operating under long range radar control superceded both the Hunter and the Javelin in the interceptor role. Again the aircraft progressed through several variants with improvements to power but with two thirsty afterburner Avon engines, they were limited for range and reliant on air to air refuelling for flights of over one hour. Interceptions of probing Russian Bear and Bison aircraft were regularly carried at high altitude over the seas off Norway and even the American U2 spy plane, famed for ultra-high altitude reconnaissance, was not immune from encountering a Wattisham Lightning.
The last line of defence against any attacking aircraft that may have penetrated the screen of interceptors, was Bloodhound – a ground to air missile system capable of engaging targets at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet at a range of over eighty miles. A Flight of 25 Squadron of the missiles was re-located from overseas bases to Wattisham in 1983, where they remained operational until 1991.
By 1975 the Lightnings were being overtaken by technology, especially airborne radar and missile control systems that required a second person, the Weapons Systems Operator, (known as Whizzo), in the aircraft.
In February 1976 the first of the F-4M Phantom of 23 Squadron arrived to take over the interceptor role. With the aircraft also came a lot of political and engineering baggage, as the British F-4K and M variants had to be re-engineered to accommodate Rolls Royce Spey engines and later aircraft, inherited from the Royal Navy, came equipped with folding wingtips and deck landing hooks, which added to the weight and further slowed the aircraft.
The Phantom’s radar had been upgraded since its battle experience in Vietnam and armament comprised four Sparrow radar guided air to air missiles and four Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. A Vulcan rotary cannon could also be carried in a belly pack and the frequency of inflight refuelling was reduced by its greater operational range.
Phantoms from Wattisham were sent to the Falklands in 1983 and 1984 to bolster the defence of the newly re-taken islands.
Army Air Corps
The end of the Cold War and reduction of the perceived threat from Russia in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s brought re-alignment and reduction of Britain’s defences and Wattisham’s life as a key RAF station was called into question. It was announced in 1991 that Wattisham would transfer to the Army Air Corps as the principal base for their growing fleet of helicopters, New accommodation and three new hangars, plus a headquarters building were constructed, together with new workshops for 7 Battalion REME, the Army’s second line maintenance and repair function for all its helicopters..
n the summer of 1993 3 and 4 Regiments of the Army Air Corps re-located from Germany to Wattisham with forty Lynx Mk 9 (troop carriers) and Mk 7 (equipped with TOW anti-tank missiles) [below, left], plus twenty Gazelle scouting and light attack helicopters [below right].
The regiments initially came under 24 Airmobile Brigade, whose headquarters were at Colchester but in September 1999 a new unit called 16 Air Assault Brigade was formed comprising the helicopters, and troops of 24 Airmobile and the Paratroops of 5 Brigade. This unit was seen by many as in some way a return to the roots of airborne soldiers in the 1940s when the Glider Pilot Regiment (whose eagle badge is now worn by the Army Air Corps) and Parachute Brigade were first formed.
Lynx and Gazelles from Wattisham saw active service in the first and second Gulf wars and also in Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.
In January 2005 the first Apache AH1 attack helicopter arrived to replace the Lynx. Equipped with Hellfire missiles. CRV 9 rocket pods each with 16 flechettes and a 30mm chain gun, Longbow target acquisition radar and infra-red nightsights, the aircraft has established itself as potent force multiplier. Wattisham’s Apaches were first deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and the base has been on an active service footing ever since, with up to 30% of its personnel deployed at any one time.
During June – September 2011 Apaches operating form the Commando Carrier HMS Ocean engaged targets in Libya on 39 occasions.
The RAF retained a presence at Wattisham with the Sea King Search and Rescue helicopters of B Flight 22 Squadron The Flight was established in July 1994 and has carried out lifesaving missions both close to the coast of East Anglia and far out into the North Sea, day and night and in fair weather and foul. The SAR Flight operates quite independently of the Army Air Corps hierarchy. The SAR service is to be privatised in 2014 and will be provided by a civilian operator flying from Manston in Kent.
Since October 2000 Suffolk Police Air Unit have operated a Eurocopter 135 from Wattisham. The fight comprises one police sergeant and three civilians: pilot and system operators. Progressively police helicopters are sharing command and maintenance in a national police air organisation.
In recent years RAF and Army personnel have bought and rented houses in the town, so we meet service families going about their daily business, which has increased the close relationship with the base.
663 Squadron Group, Army Air Corps, is twinned with Needham Market and we are pleased and proud to welcome troops from the squadron on Remembrance Sunday when they parade in town.