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For information relating to the base as it is today see Wattisham Airfieldmarker.

RAF Wattisham was a Royal Air Force station located in East Anglia just outside the village of Wattishammarker, south of Stowmarketmarker in Suffolk, Englandmarker. During the Cold War it was a major front-line air force base. It closed in 1993 and is now operated by the British Army as Wattisham Airfieldmarker.

World War II

RAF use

Wattisham opened on 5 April 1939 as a medium bomber station, the squadrons there being equipped with Bristol Blenheim bombers. Part of No. 2 Group, No. 107 Squadron RAF and No. 110 Squadron RAF were stationed there on the outbreak of war. On 4 September 1939, just 29 hours after the declaration of war, bombers from Wattisham took off on the first attack of the war, against enemy shipping in Wilhelmshavenmarker harbour.

In 1942 the Blenheims left to be replaced with Bristol Beaufighters, but some time after October 1942 the base was handed over to the United States Army Air Forces.


Wattisham was assigned USAAF designation Station 377, and work began on building concrete runways with the intention of adapting the airfield for heavy bomber use. However plans were apparently changed when it was evident that there would be sufficient heavy bomber airfields available for the USAAF, and it was decided that Wattisham would remain an air depot and also house a fighter unit.

Work ceased on the runways leaving only the E-W with a concrete surface and short stretches of the other two. The main SW-NE runway was finished off with steel matting while the remaining NW-SE runway continued to be grass-surfaced for most of its length.

4th Strategic Air Depot

The 4th Strategic Air Depot (originally the 3rd Advanced Air Depot and then 3rd Technical Air Depot) serviced many types of aircraft but, by late 1943, was concentrating on fighter types. An additional technical area with four T2 hangars, some eighteen hardstands and a taxiway loop joining the airfield perimeter track, was constructed on the south side of the airfield. An engineering complex in temporary buildings was built around this area chiefly in the village of Nedging Tye.

The 4th Strategic Air Depot installation was officially named Hitcham, which was actually the name of a village two miles to the north-west of the site, to differentiate it from the fighter station using the same airstrip. The base was, by 1944, responsible for the maintenance of all American fighters in the UK. In May 1944 USAAF fighters in the form of P-38 Lightning and later P-51 Mustangs arrived.

479th Fighter Group

Along with the depot maintenance mission, Wattisham also hosted an Eighth Air Force fighter group, the 479th Fighter Group, arriving from Santa Maria AAF, Californiamarker on 15 May 1944. The group was part of the 65th Fighter Wing of the VIII Fighter Command. Aircraft of the group had no cowling color markings as did other Eighth Air Force fighter groups and were marked only with colored tail rudders. The initial inventory of P-38s, many of which were hand-me-downs from other groups painted in olive drab camouflage, used geometric symbols on the tail to identify squadrons, white for camouflaged aircraft and black for unpainted (natural metal finish) Lightnings.

The group consisted of the following squadrons:

The 479th FG escorted heavy bombers during operations against targets on the Continent, strafed targets of opportunity, and flew fighter-bomber, area and counter-air patrol missions. Engaged primarily in B-17/B-24 escort activities and fighter sweeps until the Normandy invasion in June 1944.

The group patrolled the beachhead during the invasion. Strafed and dive-bombed troops, bridges, locomotives, railway cars, barges, vehicles, airfields, gun emplacements, flak towers, ammunition dumps, power stations, and radar sites while on escort or fighter-bomber missions as the Allies drove across France during the summer and fall of 1944. The unit flew area patrols to support the breakthrough at Saint-Lômarker in July and the airborne attack on Holland in September.

The 479th Fighter Group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the destruction of numerous aircraft on airfields in Francemarker on 18 August and 5 September and during aerial battle near Münstermarker on 26 September. The unit continued escort and fighter-bomber activities from October to mid-December 1944. It converted to P-51s between September 10 and October 1, using both types on missions until conversion was completed.

The group participated in the Battle of the Bulge (Dec 1944-Jan 1945) by escorting bombers to and from targets in the battle area and by strafing transportation targets while on escort duty. From February to April 1945 it continued to fly escort missions, but also provided area patrols to support the airborne attack across the Rhinemarker in March.

The unit returned to Camp Kilmer New Jerseymarker in November 1945, and was inactivated on December 1945. Among the notable pilots of the 479th were its second group commander, Col. Hubert Zemke, and an ace, Major Robin Olds.


The United States Air Force 479th Tactical Fighter Wing at George AFBmarker Californiamarker (1952-1971) was bestowed the lineage, honors and history of the World War II USAAF 479th Fighter Group. The 479th TFW deployed personnel and aircraft to Key West NASmarker Floridamarker in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and deployed squadrons frequently to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Later, the 479th Tactical Training Wing at Holloman AFBmarker New Mexicomarker (1977-1991) provided pilot training.

The 479th Fighter Group at Moody AFBmarker Georgia (2000-present) curretly stands on active duty today.

Cold War

In 1946 the base was returned to RAF hands. In 1949 new runways were laid, and the following year Wattisham became home to the Gloster Meteor, the UK'smarker first jet fighter. 152 Squadron was using Meteor night fighters NF11., and these were added to in 1954 by Hawker Hunters, from 257 and 263 Squadrons, [the UK'smarker next generation fighter, which helped secure Wattisham's future as a major fighter base]. 257 Sqd.had an American C.O., Major Howard E Tanner in 1955, the Station Commander was Group Captain Edwards, another Bader figure with artificial legs, the Wing Commander was one of the four Sowerey brothers, all of which held senior RAF posts. In 1955, with pilots returning from the Korean war with battle and aerobatic expertise, following another renovation, the Royal Air Force's display team, the Black Arrows, was added to Wattisham's roster, flying the Hunters. Air displays were a regular feature from 1955. Shortly afterwards the base moved briefly to Wymeswold in Leicestershire whilst the runways were resurfaced.

In the late fifties the Cold War began to develop and so the RAF began to develop Britain's air defence. So, in 1960, the station was equipped with the very latest in British fighter aircraft: the English Electric Lightning. The combination of the capabilities of this plane and Wattisham's location near the East Anglianmarker coast was very suitable for countering the threats faced from the east. The airfield quickly became one of, if not the front-line airbase in the UKmarker. So throughout the Cold War Wattisham operated it's 'QRA' or Quick Reaction Alert Sheds where live armed jets were on standby at all times and it was also a major 'Blacktop' diversion runway.

In 1974 McDonnell Douglas Phantom arrived to replace the Lightnings. They continued the role of playing a major part in defending Britainmarker's airspace which largely involved intercepting the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 Bear aircraft. The Phantom served right through to 1992 and the end of the Cold War.

Squadron's at Wattisham between 1957 and 1992

Squadron Equipment Dates operational at Wattisham
23 EE Lightning F3
Phantom FGR.2
1974 to 1982
29 EE Lightning F3 1967 to 1974
56 Hawker Hunter
EE Lightning F1A
EE Lightning F6
Phantom FGR.2

1957 to 1967 and 1975 to 1992
74 Phantom F-4J 1984 to 1992
111 Hawker Hunter
EE Lightning F1A
1957 to 1974


Wattisham's future hung in the balance as a major air force base and it was decided that with the Cold War threat gone it was no longer needed by the RAF. Wattisham stood down as a fighter base on 31 October 1992 and was handed over to the British Army in March 1993. The Army Air Corps soon moved in and it rapidly became a major Army airfield. The Royal Air Force returned to operate Sea King Search and Rescue helicopters on the site of the former QRA hangers.

For information relating to the base today see Wattisham Airfieldmarker

See also


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