While it is not typical for WarbirdsNews to comment on modern military matters, we feel it is relevant to mention the recent closure announcement for several historic air bases in the United Kingdom. RAF Mildenhall is by far the most significant of these bases, being more or less continuously operated by the US Air Force since 1950; first as a Strategic Air Command base with B-29 Superfortresses, then B-47s, and later U-2s and SR-71s. During this time, there was always a strong contingent of airbone refueling planes, and that continues to this day with the 100th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135 Stratotankers. The reconnaissance role also continued with the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft from the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron. These units will move on to bases in Germany, as will the MC-130s and CV-22s of the 352nd Special Operations Group.
RAF Mildenhall was a bastion of the cold war, and played a significant role during the first Gulf War, as well as the more recent conflicts in the Middle East. It was also known as “The Gateway to the United Kingdom”, as it was where most US Forces personnel and their families entered the UK. It also played host to many major military air shows, such as their famous Air Fetes, and the International Air Tattoo.
RAF Mildenhall’s history goes back well before US Air Force units first arrived though; the base celebrating its 80th year of operations in 2014. It was the starting point on October 20th, 1934 for perhaps the most famous and important air race of aviation history, the MacRobertson Air Race, a grueling aerial dash between England and Australia. The base also played host to kings and queens, with King George V standing there to review more than 350 of ‘his’ aircraft as they flew overhead in celebration of the monarch’s silver jubilee in 1935.
RAF Mildenhall played host to the men and machines of RAF Bomber Command during WWII; first with Vickers Wellingtons, then Short Stirlings, before finally the mighty Avro Lancaster called it home. Bomber Command crews flew more than 8,000 sorties from RAF Mildenhall and its support fields during WWII, dropping more than 23,000 tons of bombs on the enemy. This all came at a hefty cost though, with more than 2,000 flyers paying the ultimate sacrifice. One of these men, Australian Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton won the Victoria Cross posthumously for bringing his crew home, despite suffering devastating injuries on a bombing operation over Turin, Italy in Short Stirling BF372 on the night of November 28th, 1942. He is buried in a small cemetery on the airfield.
When RAF Mildenhall finally closes sometime in the next few years, it will bring to an end a truly remarkable history. The base will return to UK MOD control, and likely it will slip into history as another industrial or housing estate, with little but road names to remind people of what once was.
The two other US Air Force bases closing in the UK are RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth, neither of which was still an active airfield, but both with rich aviation heritage dating back to before WWII. These two bases were the last of the former 8th Air Force Bases still in use by US Air Force personnel. By 2020, only RAF Lakenheath will remain as an active airfield for the US Air Force in Britain. For those interested in a more thorough history of RAF Mildenhall, please click HERE to see a comprehensive history.