The former airfield at Waterbeach was used by both the RAF and the Royal Engineers, and this history is connected with Cambridgeshire ACF as our County Headquarters are built on part of the same site. Bombers based here during The Second Word War flew many missions over enemy territory during the Second World War, and 122 aircraft and at least 437 airmen did not return. After the war, the site was taken over by the Royal Engineers who saw action, and suffered losses, all over the world.
Some of the lost airmen of Lancaster NN775. Picture; Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum
The history of RAF Waterbeach began in 1938 with the acquisition of farm land to be turned into an airfield. The airfield came into operation in 1941, with Bomber Command, and was almost immediately attacked by a German Dornier Do17 which bombed the airfield. In the following years the airfield was attacked on multiple other occasions, killing one serviceman. Throughout WW2, the base was home to various types of bomber aircraft including Wellingtons and Lancasters, which saw considerable combat during bombing runs over Germany. The many losses from Waterbeach included Lancaster NN775 which crashed at Glabeek, Belgium in March 1945 with the loss of all seven crewmen.
Waterbeach Memorial Garden. Picture: Doug Stuart
In the post war period, Waterbeach was home to Douglas Dakotas which took part in the Berlin airlift in 1948. In 1950 the site was transferred to Fighter Command, and became home to jet aircraft such as Meteors, Venoms, Vampires and Javelins. In 1966 the site was transferred to The Royal Engineers who could make direct use of the airfield in various training capacities. The following year 39 Engineer Regiment was formed at Waterbeach. Their role included repairing runways and related facilities, and combat engineering, including mine clearance and other Explosive Ordnance Disposal, which they performed in The Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq and Oman amongst others. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Regiment engaged in bomb disposal work and construction of army observation posts, and most recently was extensively engaged in the construction of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
Waterbeach Control Tower. Picture: Doug Stuart
Warrant Officer Mike Barry, MM, served at Waterbeach Barracks during the 1970’s and later, as a Quarter Master Sergeant Major Instructor. He said ‘Engineers are the first in and the first out, purely because, in a war, there will be mines that need to be cleared, there will be obstacles that need to be overcome. I had to blow up a mortar bomb which had been fired but it didn’t explode. My role then was to put sandbags around it, put a detonator and a little bit of plastic explosive underneath, and that got rid of it.’ His service took him to many different countries, including to Oman, where he was involved in mapping a minefield. He said; ‘It had already been mapped, but things change, so my role was to walk through the minefield and check where things were. For some reason, they gave me a Military Medal for doing it.’
The site began transferring to civilian redevelopment in 2012, under the management of Urban&Civic. Over the next few decades, they plan to build a whole new community on the site, with 1600 homes, a school, shops and other amenities. They also plan to keep and maintain key historic features, including many historic buildings, a memorial garden opened in 2009, and the museum.
Part of the Royal Engineers display at the museum. Picture; Doug Stuart
The history of the site is recorded today in Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum, located on the South East edge of the airfield. The museum was first opened by The Royal Engineers in 1984, and is now a trust staffed by volunteers. The museum has two rooms dedicated to The Royal Engineers and three to the RAF, and includes displays of flying equipment, pieces of crashed aircraft, mine detecting equipment and munitions. Visits are by appointment only, on certain days. You can contact the museum at; firstname.lastname@example.org Tel; 01223 861846
Text by P.I. Stuart with thanks to Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum