The Royal Air Force in Watton

There is an excellent website that covers the history of The Watton R.A.F. base in Watton and this can be found at

The information below is used with the permission of the owner of the that website.

The station was opened on the 4th. January 1939 under the command of Group Captain F.J. Vincent as a station of 2 Group, Bomber Command. It was built as part of the R.A.F. expansion programme of 1935 / 1936 on farmland that was well known locally as good mushroom land and under the right conditions mushrooms are still to be seen in quantity in the area.

The first two Squadrons to be based here were Nos. 21 and 34 flying mainly training flights until in August of 1939 No. 34 Squadron was posted to Egypt and replaced by No. 82 Squadron, who with 21 Squadron formed No. 79 Wing. These two Squadrons remained until mid 1942. 79 Wing operated from both Watton and Bodney flying from grass flying fields.

The roll of the Wing changed from Photo-Reconnaissance to Maritime-Reconnaissance during the "Cold War" but with the German invasion of Norway the missions became more aggressive and the Wing concentrated on targets in France and Belgium in support of the B.E.F. until Dunkirk and then focused their attention on the invasion ports and targets in Germany.

Twice during the summer of 1940 No.82 Squadron lost eleven out of twelve Blenheims dispatched on raids in daylight and it was not until the middle of 1941 that the fighter escorts were available for operations.

In 1942 No.21 Squadron exchanged their Blenheims for Mitchels although they did not fly any operations with these aircraft and in October of that year the Squadron moved to Methwold. At the same time No.82 Squadron transferred to the Middle East and Watton was occupied by No.17 Advanced Flying Unit. They were equipped with Miles Masters and performed advanced flying training. In July 1943 No.17 A.F.U. left and the Americans moved in.

Soon after their arrival the Americans expanded the airfield and built the single runway at Watton and in July 1944 the 25th B.G. commenced operations these were mainly to do with weather and photo recon., but also some O.S.S. (secret service) missions supporting the resistance organisations in Europe. Sharing the runway were also the 3rd Strategic Air Depot, operating on the South side of the Airfield at a site they called Neaton, their purpose was to provide engineering support for the 8th Air Force and many crippled aircraft landed at Watton to be repaired by them. The Americans remained until August 1945 when the camp was returned to the Royal Air Force.

Having more than played its part in the Second World War, with its RAF squadrons in the early years and the units of the United States Army Air Force in the latter years, the Station was handed back to the Royal Air Force in September 1945. RAF Watton was to have a varied and exciting post-war history and would become one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War.

In October 1945 the Station became the Radio Warfare Establishment. As such Watton was the post-war centre to continue the research and development of radio (electronic) warfare for the RAF. As the Station’s new title implied, most of its activities were of a very highly classified nature. Within the bounds of the Station were a number of secret units. One of these was the Research Laboratory where civilian and service scientists worked on upgrading old and developing new electronic warfare equipment and techniques. Another unit had the task of monitoring or listening to both domestic and foreign signals traffic, in other words signals intelligence (sigint) gathering.

By September 1946, Watton had been designated Central Signals Establishment (CSE) by the Air Ministry and absorbed the RWE. The CSE would operate at Watton under the control of 90 (Signals) Group, which had its HQ at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire and would be responsible for signals task within the RAF. As well as its primary work in electronic warfare research, Watton was to take over the work of other RAF signals units and be given responsibility for a range of signals tasks. Among them were to be the calibration of air defence radar, the new Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) Landing system, and the installation, maintenance and calibration of RAF radio navigational aids and airfield landing aids. The Inspectorate of Radio Installations and Services, ‘IRIS’ was formed at RAF Medmenham and its aircraft was based at Watton. The Naval Air Radio Warfare Unit moved to CSE Watton in March 1947 to work with the CSE but due to shortage of manpower, the Admiralty disbanded the unit later in the same year. This unit was again reformed at Watton in 1951 as No. 751 Naval Air Squadron.

For various reasons, but principally because of congestion, Watton took on RAF Shepherds Grove as a satellite airfield and between 1945 and 1949 most of Flying Wing’s activities were conducted from there. By the end of 1949 all flying tasks were centred on Watton and aircraft of the CSE no longer used the satellite airfield.

Part of the CSE’s remit was to provide radio countermeasures (RCM) aircraft for training exercises with RAF Commands as well as Western Union air, naval and ground forces. These exercises took on new meaning during the blockade of Berlin by Soviet and East German forces and by the invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea. The CSE had several flying units, each being tasked with a particular facet of the work being carried out at Watton. One of these units was concerned with airborne testing of the secret equipment being produced by the research facility. Other units carried out airborne calibration of radar installations and navigation and landing aids. One of the CSE’s Squadrons, 192 Squadron, was reformed at Watton in 1951 for the task of airborne monitoring of potentially hostile radar and communications frequencies. This Squadron, later to be renumbered as 51 Squadron spent a great percentage of its flying time carrying out electronic reconnaissance around the borders of the Soviet Bloc.

During Watton’s post-war history, it’s older aircraft were gradually replaced by newer types, foremost among which were the Avro Lancaster, later to be replaced by the Avro Lincoln and the Vickers Varsity. There were others such as the Boeing B29 Washington (192 Squadron), the English Electric Canberra and a number of other types, the largest of which were the de Havilland Comet and the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy.

In the post-war years the Station has had a number of visiting units, the least known of which was an American (US) unit operating Lockheed U2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft flew from Watton for a period during the latter part of 1958. Watton also had lodger units attached to it. Among the lodger units were No. 24 (Surface to Air Guided Weapons) Wing, and its subordinate operating unit, 263 (SAGW) Squadron with their Bristol Ferranti Mk1. Bloodhound surface to air missiles, 1959-1963, - Eastern Radar Air Traffic Control Reporting Unit, 1965-1988 and later Border Radar Air Traffic Control Reporting Unit 1989-1992.

It was determined that the Station would cease to be an operational airfield by 1968. All flying units moved away to other Stations. By February 1971 Eastern Radar was the only operational unit on Watton. Eastern left Watton in 1988 and Border Radar moved in to the radar site. When Border Radar left three years later the Station closed.

The decision to dispose of RAF Watton was a long time in coming mainly because of political ineptitude. All maintenance of the buildings ceased in 1994 and the site was let to go. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Station was sold, by which time it was in a very run-down state. The Airfield remained and still remains in the hands of the Ministry of Defence. In May 2000 work began on the demolition of most of the buildings on the Station. All that remains now are the four blocks around the Parade Square, the "Shirley Cub" and Hangars 1,2,3 & 4.



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