Peter Mitrovitch mourns the impending closure of the South-West's major airfield
After months of rumour and speculation, Defence Minister Adam Ingram made a statement regarding future military airfield requirements in the House of Commons on 17 November 2005. While there was very good news for Scotland, the outlook for one airfield at the opposite end of the country was not so good. The Minister stated that there was no long-term Strike Command requirement for the airfield at RAF St Mawgan and confirmed that military flying from the site will cease in April 2007. This came as a surprise to many, as St Mawgan was virtually rebuilt during the late 1960s/early 1970s to accept the Nimrod and boasts one of the largest runways in the country, a large and modern base servicing hangar, plenty of hardstandings and a HAS Site.
Since the departure of 42 Squadron in 1992 the only permanently based aircraft have been a handful of Sea King HAR3s operated by 203(R) Squadron. Generally speaking the airfield is quiet - military activity is normally confined to the resident Sea Kings engaged in routine training, usually on the north side of the runway, while Jetstreams from Culdrose-based 750 Squadron are often seen in the circuit. Visiting aircraft, particularly from flying training schools can be seen parked on the VASS flightline, however the handful of enthusiasts that frequent the airfield can sometimes have a long wait between movements.
The present site of RAF St Mawgan was opened as a civilian airfield in 1933. It was requisitioned at the outbreak of World War II and named RAF Trebelzue. It initially served as a satellite of nearby RAF St Eval but was expanded with twin concrete runways, and in February 1943 was re-named RAF St Mawgan. In June 1943 the United States Army Air Force took over and carried out a number of major improvements, including a new control tower and a further extension of the main runway. The base was put under maintenance on 1 July 1947.
In 1951 it reopened as a Coastal Command base used for maritime reconnaissance, flying Avro Lancaster and Avro Shackleton aircraft, with 220 and 228 Long Range Reconnaissance Squadrons. These Squadrons were later renumbered 201 and 206 and joined by 42 Squadron. It also became the Headquarters of 22 (Helicopter) Squadron. In 1965 201 and 206 Squadrons moved to Kinloss and in came the Maritime Operational Training Unit. 7 Squadron Canberras operated here as target tugs from 1970 until 1982, with 22 Squadron moving out in 1974. 42 Squadron and 236 OCU moved to RAF Kinloss in 1992 taking away its fixed wing station based aircraft, the Nimrod, which had been at the base since 1969.
St Mawgan is also the home of the Joint Maritime Facility, commissioned on 18 August 1995, a command for undersea tracking operated by the Royal Navy and United States Navy. It is rumoured that the word ‘Facility’ was used because the British and Americans could not agree on the spelling of 'Centre'! It is a jointly staffed Integrated Undersea Surveillance System command comprised of approximately 360 US Navy and 80 Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel. The command was established via a Memorandum of Understanding between the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain in June of 1990, the primary role to provide a link between United Kingdom and United States maritime forces and their headquarters in the United Kingdom and overseas. The command supports anti-submarine warfare commands and tactical forces by detecting, classifying, tracking, and providing timely reporting information concerning submarines and long term oceanographic undersea geological information. JMF is unique in that it is a massive semi-hardened, partially-buried/partially-earthened, reinforced concrete structure capable of completely self-sufficient operations using dedicated supplies.
The vast open and unused acres of concrete on the airfield, coupled with this inactivity, have seen RAF St Mawgan become a favoured location for major exercises. In recent years there have been two or more major 'bare-base' exercises a year, as well as FTS, OCU and Squadron detachments. Bare-base exercises such as the recent NATO Opeval in October and the preceding MAXEVAL held at St Mawgan during June and July involve large numbers of personnel deploying 'out of area' to an airfield with 'basic infrastructure'. During the weeks leading up to a deployment, vast quantities of equipment are transported down to Cornwall, convoys of articulated container lorries arriving at the base are always an indication that a major exercise is about to take place. A typical exercise will see aircraft deployed to RAF St Mawgan for an average of ten days with the final three days (usually a Monday - Wednesday) being the actual 'war phase'.
The future of the airfield would appear to have been decided. Very recently it was announced that the April 2007 withdrawal date for 203(R) Squadron has been put back until the October, primarily to give Cornwall County Council more time to ensure the airport meets Civil Aviation Authority standards - when the military presence is completely withdrawn, the civilian airport will have to provide its own runway maintenance, firefighter cover and air traffic control. Whether or not Newquay airport will be able to survive without the infrastructure currently provided by the MoD is the subject of much debate, what is certain however is that the RAF will be losing one of its largest and best equipped airfields. The JMF will continue, but a spokesman recently said an ongoing review of staffing was under way as a result of new technology and the end of the Cold War, an option being considered is to cut the number of US personnel by up to 140, a reduction of forty percent.
History courtesy Wikipedia.org