How much do you know about Suffolk’s former RAF airbases?

Thousands visited the open days held at the United States Air Force base at Bentwaters. This was the static display in 1969

Thousands visited the open days held at the United States Air Force base at RAF Bentwaters. This was the static display in 1969 - Credit: Archant Archives

Throughout various conflicts, Suffolk has long played a vital role in defending Britain’s shores and skies. 

You’ve got Landguard Fort on the county’s coast, with a history of maritime defence that goes all the way back to the Dutch Invasion in the 17th century. And further inland, there are a number of former airbases that, while no longer active, once served an important purpose during the war. 

Home to over 30 airbases during World War II, Suffolk housed the majority of the 400,000 US airmen who were stationed here during the conflict.  

Here is a brief history of just a few of those Royal Air Force and United States Air Force bases, and what’s since become of them.  

A flypast at RAF Bentwaters in September 1963 during a change of command ceremony

A flypast at RAF Bentwaters in September 1963 during a change of command ceremony - Credit: Archant

RAF Bentwaters 

Perhaps the most famous on this list, former RAF Bentwaters has a long and fascinating history. Established during the Second World War, the Air Ministry saw great potential in this airfield for the United States Army Air Force’s Eighth Air Force due its location, flat landscape, and proximity to the coast.  

Bentwaters was first suggested as an airbase in 1942, but wasn’t completed until a year later due to more urgent work needed on other airfields elsewhere.  

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And in December 1944, the first aircraft due to be based at the Suffolk airfield arrived – the North American Mustang, which belonged to the No. 129 Squadron RAF. And just a few days later, Squadrons No. 118 and 165 arrived, operating the Spitfire Mk IX.  

On December 23 1944, the airbase’s first mission took place, and saw the Mustang IIIs escort over 150 Avro Lancasters on a bombing raid at Trier, Germany. Bentwaters’ final wartime mission occurred on May 9 1945, and a few months later, all of the Mustang squadrons left.  

However, this wasn’t it for the airbase. In the post-war period, it continued operation and was used as a training airfield for prospective pilots. And in the summer of 1951, Bentwaters was given to the United States Air Force to make way for the 81st Fighter Wing. Bentwaters, along with the now-defunct RAF Woodbridge, played host to the airmen four decades and colloquially became known as the ‘Twin Bases’. 

Fans watch as a Vulcan bomber roars over the crowd at a RAF Bentwaters open day in 1973

Fans watch as a Vulcan bomber roars over the crowd at a RAF Bentwaters open day in 1973 - Credit: Archant

In the subsequent years, a number of iconic airplanes were stationed at the Suffolk base – including Douglas TB-26C Invaders, Republic F-84G Thunderjets, Stinson L-5E Sentinels, and McDonnell F-101 Voodoos.  

During its operation under the United States Air Force, Bentwaters would regularly open its doors and welcome in members of the public on annual open days, giving the local community the chance to see what life was like on an American airbase. However, these came to an end in September 1992, and on July 1 1993, the base was formally closed after decades of operation.  

Following its closure, Bentwaters Cold War Museum opened up on the site of the airfield in 2003. Based in the former command post, its war operations room, battle cabin, telephone exchange room, decontamination showers, and airlock are all open and available for people to view. RAF Bentwaters has also been used as a filming location for a handful of film and television productions.  

Beccles Airfield

Beccles Airfield - Credit: Archant

Beccles Airfield 

Also known as Ellough Airfield, this Suffolk airfield was built in August 1942 for the United States Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force by construction company Holland, Hannen & Cubitts.  

However, it was the last Suffolk airfield to be completed during World War II, and the United States Air Force had no use for it. Instead, it was given to the RAF Bomber Command during the summer of 1944 who were there for a short period of time until the Coastal Command took over that August.  

During September and October 1944, the 618 Squadron were stationed there as they were trained how drop specialist spinning Highball bombs from de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito aircraft which were used to breach dams in Germany. Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown, a test pilot who flew 487 types of aircraft, visited the airfield to demonstrate his deck landing skills and meet the designer of the bouncing bombs, Barnes Wallis.  

Also during this time, pilots from the 119 Squadron flew Albacores and the 819 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm flew Swordfish biplanes from the Suffolk airfield.  

Beccles Airfield – which was the most easterly wartime airfield - had three concrete runways, 50 loop-shaped hard standings, two T2 aircraft hangars and accommodation for the airfield personnel.  

Following the war, the airfield was dormant until 1965 when it became a heliport, serving North Sea gas and oil rigs until the 1990s.  

But in 2009, the wartime control tower was demolished and currently the airfield is used to host a regular farmer’s market.  

79th Fighter Squadron at RAF Woodbridge in 1962

79th Fighter Squadron at RAF Woodbridge in 1962 - Credit: Archant

RAF Woodbridge 

Built in 1943, the former RAF Woodbridge was constructed in order to accept distressed aircraft upon their return from German raids during the Second World War. It was fitted with heavy-duty, extra-long runways, and would await returning bombers that had either suffered suspected hydraulic or pneumatic damage, or were low on fuel.  

By the end of World War II, around 4,200 aircraft made emergency landings in Woodbridge. Once the conflict had ended, RAF Woodbridge was used for RAF experiments, in which Avro Lancaster planes practised dropping bombs on nearby Orford Ness. The Blind Landing Experimental Unit was also located at this former airbase before it closed in March 1948.  

However, this wasn’t to be RAF Woodbridge’s final use. As tensions began to heat up between the United States and the Soviet Union, this airbase was given to the Americans in 1952, who based their 3928th Air Base Squadron there. On October 1 1952, the 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadron arrived, following a short stint at nearby RAF Bentwaters.  

This squadron flew a variety of planes out of Suffolk, including the Republic F-84G Thunderjet, and its mission was to escort Strategic Air Command (SAC) Boeing B-47 Stratojets from RAF Sturgate in Lincolnshire until 1964. It also commanded F-84F Thunderstreaks between 1955 and 1958. 

In 1980, RAF Woodbridge came into public prominence after it became linked to the Rendlesham Forest incident – a supposed UFO sighting that is thought to have taken place in the nearby woodland. Various United States Air Force personnel claim to have seen UFOs near the airbase – an event which has since commonly been referred to as ‘Britain’s Roswell’.  

As the Cold War began to dwindle towards the end of the 20th century, the United States Air Force slowly began the phasing out process and removed its squadrons and aircrafts. The final aircraft departed RAF Woodbridge in August 1993, and the Americans handed the airbase back to the Ministry of Defence.  

As of 2006, RAF Woodbridge is now known as MOD Woodbridge – its airfield is used for aircraft training by the Army Air Corps while the barracks house the Royal Engineers’ 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault). 

Are there any airbases in Suffolk that you feel have a particularly interesting history? Get in touch with danielle.lett@archant.co.uk to share your photos and stories.