Military Heritage at Waterbeach

The now completely disused aerodrome at Waterbeach keeps its own secrets behind long locked doors. Waterbeach is a small and very unimposing township about six miles north of Cambridge. The aerodrome associated with it remains the location of a museum exhibiting many facets of it’s very varied past history. I made a visit recently to observe the contents.

Operations staffWaterbeach aerodrome was constructed alongside the A10 road north of Cambridge in preparation for RAF flying operations. It began providing flying training in early twin engine aircraft for crews to gain experience of bombing raids. Waterbeach ultimately acquired a sort of culture for many different training roles in a number of fields. Ultimately, personnel who served at Waterbeach provided much service and comfort for the local community and the wider world beyond. I remember it well from 60 years ago.

The RAF subsequently used the aerodrome as an operational bomber, transport aircraft and finally a jet fighter base. The aerodrome was handed over to the army in 1966 and was used by the Royal Anglian Regiment for their component of the Royal Engineers.

The Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum is completely packed to the ceilings with photographs of RAF crews and army personal. It contains surplus equipment, documents and parts of recovered wreckage that bring the military past at Waterbeach back to life. The museum is quite extraordinary as so much history is crammed into such a small collection of compact rooms. Some visitors who served at Waterbeach may well see faces looking back at them in the photographs that they recognise. Some may recognise fellows, now long gone, of young crew members who lost their lives. The displayed photos are largely black and white and a little fusty, but they somehow seem to come back to real life again.

Original bomber Germany target mapWaterbeach aerodrome opened in 1941 with its robust long concrete runways and taxiways. Wellington bombers were first based there and later Short Sterling aircraft. The Sterling was of little success due to its lower power. It was replaced by the Lancaster bomber which contributed much to the ultimate allied victory.

After the war, Waterbeach was passed to transport aircraft types that gave much to the world reconstruction. Dakota aircraft operated initially and a little later by Avro York aircraft that pioneered global air routes.  Boeing Liberator bomber aircraft were converted for troop carrying operations. They travelled to India and the Far East. Four engine Hastings types were used briefly for long range VIP positioning after the hostilities had ended. Waterbeach based Douglas Dakota aeroplanes were very actively involved with the postwar Berlin Airlift. The Museum preserves so much of the details, documents and photographs from both periods of war and peacetime activities.

King inspecting Hunter pilotsNext, Fighter Command came along. Initially postwar Meteor and then Venom aircraft were based at Waterbeach. These were the early jet aircraft that were developed in 1945. The Supermarine Swift was next. This had serious technical difficulties and only lasted a year. They were replaced with the superb Hawker Hunter that made such a name for itself during its RAF service. The Armstrong Whitworth Javelin was located at Waterbeach as well. This was the very first delta wing twin jet fighter in service. The Javelin was designed with a very long range and endurance and intended for Russian bomber interceptions during the subsequent Cold War. The special museum displays all the photos and documents for visitors to browse.

In 1966 formal flying operations ended and the aerodrome was handed by the MOD to the army. The soldiers, as part of the Royal Engineers, came and lived at the ‘Barracks’ as the station was known. They provided a lively input into the social affairs of Waterbeach town. They also contributed much to the restoration of the local Parish Hall.

The Royal Engineers at Waterbeach served foreign tours during the Falkland Islands War and later in Afghanistan. Their history at Waterbeach is also intensively exhibited in the museum with numerous photographs of long moved on faces. They concentrate the attention so well. There is also much of their no longer needed equipment displayed. Radio sets, ground moving tools, mine detectors and so much more. I was tempted to plug in some of the old radio sets to see if they still worked. They probably still do.

Museum exhibitsWhilst the Engineers were at Waterbeach, the aerodrome was used as a training ground once more. The runways and taxiways were chewed up and re-laid to modern standards. Aviation came back as a result briefly to exploit the new construction. In 2007 the early Jump Jet Harriers came in for vertical flight trials attracting much local attention. The robust concrete pads that the army had built were ideal for the assessments.

Waterbeach was also used as a relief landing ground for advanced Vickers Varsity training aircraft based at nearby Oakington in the late sixties and early seventies. Flying training at Waterbeach once again became quite intensive for a short period.

The wartime control tower at Waterbeach still stands. I am always fascinated by it as it is just the same as an Airfix kit that I bought and assembled so many years ago. Visitors can look at it from the roadside. I believe it is still occasionally used to support local town functions as they come along. It is pictured of course in the museum as well.

Royal EngineersMarshall of Cambridge has always been close by. This is a very prestigious aircraft maintenance and manufacturer that has held a number of large scale government contracts. Marshall even manufactured the Concorde ‘droop snoot’. Over the years, Marshall have used rented hangar space at Waterbeach to provide maintenance and modification work for service aircraft flying from the base. They provided engineering services for Meteor and Venom aircraft.

During my very early childhood, my mother occasionally took me to visit air displays at Waterbeach. I have no idea why as she never had expressed the slightest interest in things that fly. Such events though provided my inspiration to pursue a flying career much later on. I remember watching the Hawker Hunter ‘Black Arrows’ in awe from so many years ago. Find the photographs of them in the museum as well.

There have been in my recollection two ‘Gate Guardian’ aircraft at Waterbeach. The first was a semi dilapidated Spitfire. This was taken away and sold to the United States. I learnt that it has been restored and is flying again. The second one was a Hawker Hunter aircraft. This was passed to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northamptonshire and is being re-furbished as a ground display item.

Royal Engineers mine detectorVisits to the museum at Waterbeach are free but currently only by appointment. See the contact number below and find the very detailed historical booklet inside the museum. There is also a memorial garden available to sit in that is quite close by. The station has closed completely but the guarded entrance gate is still manned. The museum is just by the entrance though and there is plenty of car parking space. As I was leaving after my visit, the Gurkha guard opened the barrier and saluted me in military style!

The local planning people in Cambridgeshire have decided now to convert all the infrastructure at Waterbeach into a whole new town. The demand for new housing close to Cambridge is large but the museum will always be a protected site I am assured. Time moves on as ever.

The Military Heritage Museum at Waterbeach is superb. I have never seen so much exhibited before in such a compact building. There is so much to occupy minds and thought and it is well worth a visit.

Contact details:  01223 861846  / 07710 710289.  Speak to Adrian.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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