October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Fifty years ago the first GIs arrived in England. We’ve all read of the mighty doings of the bomber boys and their little friends in the P-47s and P-SIs, but no one as far as I know has made great mention of the transports, the C-47s and the Waco CG-4a gliders that they pulled. I was a teen-ager at grammar school in Newbury, and they were our heroes.
The aerodromes seemed to spring up in western Berkshire almost overnight: Aldermaston and Harwell, both now United Kingdom atomic-energy establishments; Membury, lost under the motorway to Wales and its service area; Hampstead Norris and Welford, reverted to the farmland they once were. Only Greenham Common survives there on its plateau just south of Newbury. They were all built to the World War II standard: two or three runways, depending on the available real estate, the longest going west into the prevailing winds; the control tower; the collection of little stove-heated huts that were offices, living quarters, and hospitals; and the sand-filled firing butts—repeated many times all over the U.K.
There seemed to be no security. At Greenham the main Basingstoke road ran between hangars and runways; we kids could and did get everywhere on our bikes, and classmates kept us informed of the state of the art at the other bases too. Just a mention of “there’s a Stirling at Welford” and off we’d shoot after school, to the detriment of homework. Harwell Hampstead always had the Royal Air Force, first Ops Training Units, later Halifaxes, Stirlings, and Albemarles that towed Hamilcar and Horsa gliders. The GIs and their C-47s concentrated on the remaining bases. Suddenly they all left; the next day we heard that Operation Torch had happened in North Africa. Then for some weeks Greenham was home to wings of P-47s and P-SIs, most exciting as they calibrated their 50 calibers in the butts—providing a ready source of cordite for our experimental explosions, much better than black powder. If my kids did the half of what we got up to …
Probably the fighter wings came in to give closer support to the raids on the Atlantic coast of France; with our long runway and no obstructions, Greenham was handy for the returning B-17s in trouble too. We spent many after-school hours watching bombers with bits (so many bits) missing, belly landings, howling ambulances, and fire engines. One is not very thoughtful at fifteen.
Then our C-47s started to come back: new ones from the States and the ones from Africa that had their olive-green paint sun-scorched to a sort of purple.
Newbury racecourse had been graveled over and laid with railway lines and was a major marshaling yard. From it now came scores of flatbed trucks loaded with packing cases. Cases were split open at the northern end of the hangars to expose the nose, main body, and tail section of the CG-4a. These were assembled in the first hangar, then pushed out to meet the pair of wings from their boxes between the hangars, and the final rigging in a second hangar. Compasses were swung, and off the gliders went, behind jeeps, some to stay at Greenham, the others to be distributed to the bases nearby—a wonderful example of mass production!
We of course knew all about D-day about a week before. Those black-andwhite recognition stripes, painted on the planes but only whitewashed on the gliders—well, they were only going one way! The evening before was unforgettable to all who saw it. Just after dusk the planes and their gliders took off from all the bases around Newbury and circled and circled to take up formation—seemed like hours—and they had their nav lights on, a huge Christmas-tree effect. Remember, we’d had a complete blackout for four years and had never seen nav lights before, let alone so many. Fantastic! The rest of World War II was an anticlimax.
The leftover crates, the ones that didn’t get burned as fuel, were much in demand. Many became hen houses and garden sheds; my pal Bob’s father used his influence as the village mayor to get one of the big (fuselage) ones, and he set it up on brick piers with a door and windows, electricity, an intercom to the house, a wireless, and a gramophone. It was gang base, study, workshop, model room. A belated thank you, Mr. Waco! Each base included a “graveyard” for wrecked planes, of course, another very happy hunting ground. Those nav lights brightened up our bikes, and cable and pulleys and plywood all were put to good use. Just about every farm trailer had wheels courtesy of the CG-4as, and the landing skids made the best sleds in winter.
Are there any CGs left in museums anywhere? Have you ever flown in one? I did, once: my first flight. I said there was no security, didn’t I?
Greenham Common’s main runway was extended in the fifties to take B-47s and B-52s and tankers. It has been home to yearly Air Days. Then it gained notoriety as a NATO missile base. There was much underground building, the road through was closed, and a new bypass built. A dreadful women’s protesting camp grew up at the main entry. Then with Mr. Gorbachev the C-5as took away the missiles, and the base is another scheduled to be bereft of GIs again.
But the next time you take off from Heathrow, over all those reservoirs, and with those white knuckles, just remember that a few minutes along the way there is this nice long runway—in case you do get into trouble.