In the North Wessex Downs in Berkshire and not far from the town of Newbury is Greenham Common, a large expanse of common land which played a critical role in both British cold war and protest history, and whose name is now synonymous with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Women's rights. Much of the land is open to visitors and is covered with relics of its fascinating past, but the completely intact Decontamination Suite is kept locked away behind its bomb proof doors and is only very rarely opened up to the public. When it is however, it is most definitely worth a visit.
Greenham Common and its neighbour Crookham Common form the largest continuous tract of open lowland heath in Berkshire, which covers more than 10 square miles and includes ancient woodland, reedbeds, rivers and streams. Its history as common land can be traced back to the Neolithic and it has a history of military use going back to the Civil War. It is now a place filled with nature and walkers, but its serene appearance hides its history of military aggression and political tension.
A brief history of Greenham Common
Greenham Common was used by the military in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as World War I, but during World War II it was developed as a military airbase, requisitioned by the Air Ministry in May 1941 as a satellite airfield for a nearby RAF base at Aldermaston and it became RAF Greenham Common.
In 1943 the airfield was taken over by the United States Army Air Force and during D-Day General Eisenhower watched the departure of some of the 10,000 sorties from Greenham Manor heading to Utah Beach. After the war in June 1946 the airfield reverted to the RAF and was finally decommissioned in 1947 but with the development of the Cold War it was requisitioned again in 1951.
The World War II airfield had to be rebuilt to cope with the new large aircraft and its new landing strip of 10,000 feet was one of the longest military runways in the world. In 1980 it was announced that Tomahawk Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) were to be deployed at six sites in Europe which included Greenham Common, and the first of them arrived 3 years later.
The site rose to prominence with the arrival of the protestors and became famous as the site for women protesting the presence of US nuclear weapons in the UK. You can read more about the protestors in this article on the Greenham Common Peace Garden, a site you can visit just a few minutes away from the Common.
The USA and USSR signed a Treaty in 1987 and the last of the cruise missiles was removed in 1991, with the base closing in 1992. Bought by the Greenham Common Community Trust in 1997, the part of the base known as the technical area was developed into an industrial estate and the rest was returned to open heathland.
Today the common is central to the West Berkshire Living Landscape and is home to Exmoor ponies, cattle, birds of prey and is particularly important for some of Britain’s rarest ground-nesting birds, including nightjar, woodlark and lapwing.
Across the common you will find various remnants of its chequered past; the odd metal fire hydrant, part of the runway and buildings such as the control tower which is open to the public, and others such as the missile bunkers and the decontamination suite, which are not.
The Greenham Common Decontamination Suite
There is however sometimes the chance to visit the decontamination suite, such as on Heritage Open Days - the wonderful few days each September when you get to visit buildings that are normally closed to the public. I visited last year and it was only the second time that the building had been opened to the public - the queues to get in were immense as over 1000 people visited and we waited well over an hour in the sun as it is so small that only very limited numbers can visit at any one time
The Decontamination Suite is located at the western end of the main bunker and is made of stainless steel. Completely airtight and with an external set of doors which weigh 15 tons, it is one of the last surviving key buildings of the Cold War on Greenham Common and is now Grade II listed. It was attached to the command and control centre of US airbase - that part is now privately owned and has unfortunately been stripped of its heritage. The decontamination unit however is completely intact and has not been altered since it was decommissioned.
The Allies knew that in the event of an attack, the Soviets would not aim to destroy the base, but would want to keep the infrastructure together, particularly the long runway which they would need to use themselves, so any threat would be from conventional biological and chemical weapons rather than nuclear. The buildings were designed to withstand direct bomb hits to some degree, but that was not the priority. Instead it was thought that they would use chemical weapons to kill the military personnel whilst keeping the buildings safe. The decontamination suite was there to save personnel who had been subjected to a chemical attack, and it was attached to the main command building, so they could be cleaned before accessing the HQ.
Potentially contaminated personnel would enter past the guard room via an airlock with thick steel blast-proof doors, their whole route mapped out by arrows on the floor - red for contaminated, blue for clean. The first room has the start of the wash down facilities where they would send their clothing down a chute to be destroyed, then wash under showers over a grilled floor which would drain the chemicals away, and had a container of Fuller's Earth which was used to absorb chemicals and where they could clean their guns.
They would pass through a series of rooms including a drying off room and a kit room filled with lockers where they could put on clean uniform before moving to a holding room when they could follow the blue arrows once they were considered clean. The whole process was watched by observers in the centre of the unit, who were kept safe by secure windows and in command of all of the processes, using microphones to issue orders and with Geiger counters at every step of the way. The command room could lock all doors and had total control over what went on in the suite.
The unit has two plant rooms which still have all of their original installations. One was the water and sewage management room and the other was for air and oxygen bottles. In the event of a napalm attack, all inlets, ducts and cables had valves to enable them to be completely shut off and they had enough air to keep them going for 6 hours.
It is a bleak place with steel ceilings, bare walls, strip lights and cramped spaces. The command desk now looks like a technological relic with its basic design and flashing lights but there is no mistaking the horrifying purpose that the building could have been used for, or the relief you feel as you leave, safe in the knowledge that it never had to be put to purpose.
It is a fascinating and stark reminder of our very recent history.
Follow Greenham Control Tower on Eventbrite or Heritage Open Days to be the first to know about the tours of the Decontamination Suite.