Published on April 6th, 2021 | by Andy Green0
All about the base – RAF Burtonwood, US Air Force & Army Base, Warrington (1940-1993).
7.15pm. Burtonwood Village, Warrington, England. September 1978.
The sound of gunfire fills the air. But it’s not a farmer shooting rabbits; it’s a volley of gunfire. In fact it’s multiple volleys of gunfire. A mile from where I stand, smoke billows into the night sky. Tonight, the sleepy country village of Burtonwood is a war-zone. I’m an eleven-year-old boy and my senses are alive with the wonder of it all. It isn’t a dream. There is indeed fighting on the horizon.
Growing up in the 1970s, war films were everywhere. It was as if Reach For The Sky, Sink The Bismarck and Bridge On The River Kwai were on repeat. They brought the emotions and sounds of World War Two to life, right there in our living rooms as we sucked on our Spangle sweets, chewed on our Marathon chocolate bars and swigged on our glasses of Cream Soda. To hear the sound of gunfire – real gunfire – on the streets where I lived was surreal yet exciting. My tummy tingled. But despite my age I knew it wasn’t the type of gunfire that could kill someone. It was peacetime: England was not at war. The noise was coming from the nearby American Army Base, a gigantic fenced-off storage facility with masses of warehousing, jeeps, tanks and containers of who-knows-what on its forecourts. The sounds I could hear were undoubtedly from some form of training exercise taking place there. I imagined myself in the thick of the action, running for cover as bullets whistled past my ears. In my mind I was the hero of the hour. Childhoods always pass too quickly.
7.30am. Renaissance Hotel, Austin, Texas, USA. 28 June 2014.
A trip of a lifetime to the lone star state. As Karyn the breakfast waitress serves me my coffee she asks me where I’m from. “Warrington,” I reply, “Halfway between Liverpool and Manchester,” Even with the Beatles, David Beckham and Manchester United, it still sometimes draws a blank. But not this time. “My brother was born in Warrington,” she replies, “My mom and pop were stationed there during the war in a place called Burtonwood.” A song is playing in the background. It’s a catchy song. The singer seems to be singing “It’s all about the base, about the base, about the base.” Suddenly I realise what a small world it is. It is indeed all about the base.
The Americans did not arrive in Burtonwood until 1942. The base, located two miles west of Warrington, was originally built as an aircraft repair and storage unit for Britain’s RAF. With the Second World War looming, its primary purpose was to add armaments and radio equipment to UK-built aircraft to prepare them for combat. Burtonwood’s flat agricultural land coupled with the nearby support industries of Warrington, Liverpool and Manchester made it an ideal location for such a facility. By the time it was officially opened on 1 April 1940, war with Germany was underway and the base had two 3,150 foot runways, 13 storage hangars and an expanding labour force ready to start work on Hampdens, Oxfords, Beauforts, Buffalos, Wellingtons, Magisters and the most iconic British fighter plane of all, the Spitfire.
3.00am. RAF Control Tower, Burtonwood Airfield. 19th May 1940.
24 hours before 1,000 gallons of camouflage paint is due to arrive to disguise its runways, Burtonwood experiences its first air raid warning. If the enemy discovers the base now it might be damaged before it’s had any significant impact on the war effort. Thankfully, the all-clear comes just 45 minutes later. The fact many of the base’s facilities are already disguised as churches, shops and houses no doubt helps.
Between 1940 and 1942, the RAF employed over 4,700 people at Burtonwood. As well as preparing planes for battle, its largely civilian workforce oversaw the extension of its two runways to 4,200 feet and added a third runway measuring a mile. During this time the base was targeted by the Luftwaffe on two occasions; first on 6 September 1940 when two Junker 88s dropped a series of incendiary bombs on the airfield and again later that year. There were no casualties on either occasion. However lives were lost at Burtonwood. On 6 November 1941 a plane came down killing a Sergeant and civilian and a day later an officer died when another plane crashed during testing. The war was taking its toll. Help was needed and it came in the form of Uncle Sam. On 11 June 1942 the first US contingent of 162 men checked in at Burtonwood. Thousands followed and soon the base’s workshops and hangars were echoing to the sound of American accents. By 1944, a peak of 18,500 US Air Force personnel were stationed at Burtonwood, most living on the base itself or across town in Padgate or Bruche. The men worked hard, processing an astonishing 11,500 aircraft before the end of the war including B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, B-26 Marauders and many other famous American airplanes. Often working 15 hour shifts, the men needed somewhere to let their hair down. Warrington beckoned.
7.55pm, ‘Boots Corner’, Market Gate, Warrington. October 1943.
A group of girls stand waiting for their handsome GI Joes to appear. With lots of confidence and money to spare, the soldiers’ presence has created quite a stir. The kids love them, not least because they toss bubble gum at them as they walk by, but the ladies love them more. A few pints in the Seven Stars, Pelican or Crown & Sceptre and off the soldiers go, partner in hand, to the Casino Ballroom on Buttermarket Street for a night of fun and dancing. Some girls who haven’t got a date sneak in through the fire escape; a doorman sees them but lets them through anyway. The crowd jitterbugs to the sounds of Nat Bookbinder and His Chapters. Dances lead to kisses, kisses lead to courtships and courtships lead to marriage.
The first war-time marriage between an American (a civilian worker from Texas) and a Warringtonian occurred in November 1942. Plenty more followed. By the time VE Day arrived on 8 May 1945 many hundreds had tied to knot. To celebrate victory they headed with the rest of Warrington to Market Gate to sing songs, dance jigs and wave their flags in unison. With the war over, the Americans went home taking their accents, bubble gum and English brides with them. The base was handed back to the RAF in 1946 but with less staff and a reduced demand for battle-ready airplanes, the site soon fell into disrepair. Thankfully, the handover was short-lived. Two years later the Americans were back.
The second coming
With the advent of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s posturing over Berlin, the United States needed to increase its presence in Europe. Given its history, Burtonwood was an obvious choice. In 1948, as the US Air Force moved back in, events in Germany escalated. The Soviets blockaded all road, rail and canal links into West Berlin and so began the famous Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. Burtonwood played a massive role in the airlift servicing every US plane used to deliver supplies to the city on at least three occasions. At its peak, staff at the base were overhauling and servicing over a dozen Berlin-bound C-54 Skymasters a day, each service taking over 700 man hours.
The Soviet Union eventually backed down and with the pressure off, the next decade saw Burtonwood establish itself as the US Air Force’s primary stores and equipment base for its European operations. The site was expanded to include additional hangars, storage sheds and soldiers’ accommodation with 90% of the construction work carried out by British workers. As a result Burtonwood became the largest US-controlled military facility outside of America with 1,636 buildings, 3.5millon sq. ft. of warehousing space,18 miles of roadway and 4.65 miles of railway track. An average of 30,000 take offs and landings occurred each year overseen by an average annual roster of 4,000 American personnel. To put things into perspective, the site’s estimated value in 1958 was £50million – in excess of a billion pounds in today’s money.
8.40am. Entrance to Site No.8, Burtonwood Army Depot. May 1981.
A double-decker bus waits for the gatehouse barrier to rise. Packed full of schoolchildren, the bus has special permission to take a shortcut through the base’s grounds. “You’re gonna get arrested,” shouts Fozzy as I take a drag on Darren Taylor’s cigar. My first taste of tobacco aged 14 and it’s a cigar! I should be thankful: I cough so hard I never smoke again. But my friend has a point. He directs my gaze to a sign that reads “Smoking within 25 ft. of this point is strictly prohibited.” It’s the excuse I need to pass the cigar back. I look again through the window. To my left scores of military vehicles are lined up in front of Header House, the largest storage facility under a single roof in Europe. Rumour has it there are nuclear weapons inside but I doubt they’d be letting us through if that was the case. As the bus bears to the right I see a field I camped on a couple of years back when my local scout group held a jamboree there. I still have some of the spent bullets I found whilst exploring the grounds and the scoutmaster’s warning of “for Gods sake don’t throw any of those on the campfire” still rings in my ears. We’re nearly there now, a short drive past the baseball pitch, and, hey presto, we’re through the Barrowhall Lane exit and onto the car park of Great Sankey High School. But where were the airplanes? Despite making the same journey for the past eight months I’d yet to see a single vehicle with wings on!
As the 1950s drew to a close, America’s more strategically-placed military sites in France meant the need for an air force base in the North West of England was declining. It was no surprise therefore when in 1959 control of the airfield once again reverted back to the RAF, although a token American presence remained at Burtonwood until 1965. Subsidence, caused by years of local coal mining, also led to some sections of the main runway collapsing and by the time the final US troops left on 18 June 1965 the entire site was in decline. In the years that followed things went from bad to worse with entire structures condemned as unsafe. Once again fate intervened. In 1966 France quit NATO and ordered America to take itself and all of its stockpiled equipment out of the country. This time it was the US Army who came calling.
The third coming
The US Army didn’t care about Burtonwood’s damaged runway: it was Header House they wanted. Although dilapidated, the massive warehousing facility was quickly restored at a cost of around £1.3m (£22.5m in today’s money). Around a thousand US service personnel were drafted in, most of them housed in Site Three’s ‘Tobacco Houses’, so called because they were built by the British at their expense in return for American tobacco!
Assisted by a large number of local workers, the US army oversaw the day-to-day operation of a depot that stored everything from jeeps, tanks, clothing, textiles, ready-meals, medical supplies and more.
In 1993, with the threat of war in Europe fading, the site closed forever. Demolition work, completed in 2008, removed all but of a handful of traces of the British and American military beast that had stood at Burtonwood for over 50 years, employing over 75,000 Americans and thousands of local support workers.
4.45pm. RAF Burtonwood Heritage Centre, Warrington. April 2015
“My father-in-law was the last man to turn the lights out,” recalls Roy Thorpe-Apps, UK President of the Burtonwood Association as he shows me around the RAF heritage centre he helps to run. “He worked on the base for many years and as he left the last operational warehouse it was he who flicked the switch.” Our conversation is interrupted by a couple chatting. “Wow, its just like stepping back in time,” says one. “Some of the displays and memorabilia in here are fantastic.” Having just spent two hours in the centre myself, it’s hard to disagree.
Then and now…
Today very little remains of RAF Burtonwood. However at its peak in the mid-to-late 1950s over 16 miles of fencing was required to secure it. The site comprised 1,636 buildings (including over 1,000 Nissen/accommodation huts), over 3.5 million sq. ft. of warehousing space, a two-mile runway and almost 5 miles of railway track. To get an idea of the scale of the site, place your cursor on the ‘then and now’ map below for a close up view of how the base looked in 1955 compared with a satellite image of today (2015). The map is optimised for viewing on laptop computers and may not work as expected on mobile devices.
Want to know more?
Even today the legacy of Burtonwood’s US Air Force and Army Base lives on. Thanks to the sterling work of the Burtonwood Association – who kindly gave permission for some of their images to be used here – the memory of Burtonwood and all who served there is being preserved. Aside from the heritage centre, listen carefully next time you’re out and about and you might just hear one of the base’s legacies for yourself as popular Warrington greetings such as “Hiya, y’alright?” and “OK buddy?” owe their existence to our friends across the Atlantic. Without a doubt the impact of ‘Lancashire’s Detroit’, a fitting description given the base’s phenomenal production output during its peak years, should not to be taken for granted. Indeed, it helped us win the war. Back then it most certainly was all about the base.
- RAF Burtonwood’s Heritage Centre is located alongside Gulliver’s World Theme Park, Warrington WA5 9YZ (1.5 miles from Junction 9 of the M62). Entry is free between 3.00pm and 5.00pm Wednesday to Sunday. Paying theme Park visitors can also access the centre on the same days from 10.30am – 3.00pm. Opening times are correct as of 1/4/15.
- Many thanks to Aldon Ferguson, Founder and Honorary Life President of the Burtonwood Association for his assistance and advice. Additional photographs and a more detailed history of the base can be found in Aldon’s books, ‘Royal Air Force Burtonwood – Fifty Years in Photographs’, available from the Heritage Centre, and ‘Burtonwood: Eighth Air Force Base Air Depot’. The latter is sadly out of print but copies can sometimes be found at Warrington Library.