RAF Molesworth’s Ground Launched Cruise Missiles – 25 Years On
Cars and people pass them every day: an empty sentry tower here, a weed-covered “pill-box” there, and a dark tower standing watch over abandoned bunkers.
The infrastructure built to support the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) system at RAF Molesworth has become the ghosts of the Cold War era, and October 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of its passing. We were given permission to visit and image the GAMA 25 years on, and the following provides some insights into the status of what was built to be an impenetrable nuclear missile facility.
Tucked away in England’s East Anglia farmland is RAF Molesworth with its long and well-documented history that dates to the early 1900s and is most known for its role supporting the allies during World War II. But, its designation in 1981, to host sixty-four mobile nuclear-tipped missiles garnered a less hospitable response and earned Molesworth a more infamous place in British history.
Together with the better known RAF Greenham Common, RAF Molesworth became a focal point for anti-war and anti-nuclear protests. Despite protests, remaining World War II vestiges such as runways, hardstands, taxis, and other support structures were removed and four hardened bunkers, a watch tower, and extensive perimeter security were built in their place to become the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) alert and maintenance area (GAMA).
Missiles deployed to RAF Molesworth in 1986, and the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing, supported by the 87th Tactical Missile Squadron, was activated in December that same year. But, the GLCM mission was short-lived as in 1987 the United States and the former Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which led to the removal of all nuclear missiles from the base by the end of October 1988. The 303rd Tactical Missile Wing and the 87th Tactical Missile Squadron were both deactivated on 30 January 1989.
To mark the 25th anniversary of its closing, we were given permission to visit and image the bunkers, ground control tower, and supporting infrastructure—sentry towers and security points—to document the condition of the facilities given the almost non-use or significant maintenance for twenty-five years. During its operational heyday, GAMA would have been abuzz with security patrols, blinding perimeter lighting, safety inspectors, and routine military base life. However, except for the occasional clank of loose cables bouncing against inactive antenna poles and a few hares munching on clover patches, there was little to indicate a more modern presence in the GAMA zone.
Perhaps the most mysterious are the bunkers, which remained mostly unlocked and partially accessible but only to those for those who could gain legal access to the base. Rabbit holes dot the dirt covering and thick vegetation has blocked some of the side entrances. Although dry outside, the long sloping concrete tunnel leading into Bunker #26 was damp. We decided to use flashlights rather than the tunnels own lighting until we reached the dryer interior bay. Thirty year-old fluorescent bulbs hummed and flickered as energy flowed through explosion-proof wiring to partially illuminate steel rebar reinforced concrete walls.
Each of the four bunkers contained three bays housing one BGM-109G Gryphon Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) and sixteen missiles, and two launch control centers and a MAN AG 8 x 8 tractor. During bunker operations, massive hydraulic pistons at both ends raised and lowered thick steel plated bay doors over moat-like trench, and movement between the bays would have been through ship style passages with thick steel doors.
But when closed, the bay doors would sit against steel plates with specialized rubber seals to create an air-tight environment, and each bunker contained an extensive air filtration system to ensure survivability in the event of an attack or accident.
In addition to missile and equipment storage, one of the four bunkers also designed the Command Bunker, which contained an operational center below and possibly sleeping quarters above the missile systems. When the GAMA zone was active, access to the Command Bunker’s operational center was by a ‘down ladder’ through the floor of the bay or from an outside sloping concrete tunneled entrance.
The lower level contained a small kitchen area, a bathroom with a single shower stall, and a conference room with massive air vents. We climbed to the upper bay and was surprised at the near- mint condition of industrial-sized air filtration systems and generators. Critical operational components and communications would have sat behind heavy steel doors, but were removed as part of the closure agreement with the Soviet Union.
There was very little dust and almost no rust on any of the equipment. The only indicator of age was the presence of manual control knobs and pressure gauges instead of today’s digital monitors and computer displays. Although mostly unused after the closure, some modifications included aluminum and corrugated steel frame extensions, chain-drive roll-up doors resting atop the permanently lowered steel panels, and built-in office spaces to support the 423rd Security Forces training area.
Hosting GLCM systems at an active airbase presented security challenges, not just from Cold War era adversaries but from opponents to nuclear weapons. Security personnel would have manned sentry guard towers and communicated with a subterranean concrete bunker nest and an U-shaped concrete firing position likely intended for the M113 armored personnel carrier and a .50 caliber M2 machine gun.
As part of the reclamation process, base managers removed all of the sentry towers shortly after we concluded our documentation. The other vestiges will probably remain in place until fully reclaimed by nature as breaking and removing the concrete would not be cost-effective.
As part of that security system, and the most notable artifact of the GAMA zone is the aqua-tinted glass cube sitting atop the four-story tall ground control tower. When GAMA was active, the tower ran off its own power system. Today, no power runs through the tower’s system. We began our 150ft climb up the narrow, bird-waste encrusted metal stair case wearing make-shift hazmat suits and carrying flashlights. Even with air masks, the stench of 25 years powerful.
The tower offers a stunning 360 degree view that stretches for miles into the British country side. But, what remained of the control panels and security system was covered in bird droppings, feathers, bones, and material from the partially collapsed roof. A security officer would have kept a close watch on the square BARC monitors and dutifully managed the security control panel which probably displayed myriad flashing and solid lights on a flat panel. Today, the tower is occupied by pigeons and other fowl, which enter through the partially collapsed roof top and open windows.
Despite its long-inactive status, the GAMA zone’s bunkers, tower, and perimeter security system still presents a mysterious profile when viewed from outside the main base. Twenty-five years on, the GLCM facility still serves as a stark reminder of the Cold War era now sitting empty and in an eerily quiet state of decay.
Written by Cindy Eccles
Contributing Source : CAECCLES