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RAF Wittering: Nuclear Bomb Store Buildings Vw16, Vw17, Vw18, Vw20, Vw21 and A22, Easton on the Hill

Description: RAF Wittering: Nuclear Bomb Store Buildings Vw16, Vw17, Vw18, Vw20, Vw21 and A22

Grade: II
Date Listed: 11 July 2011
English Heritage Building ID: 1402769

OS Grid Reference: TF0148501619
OS Grid Coordinates: 501484, 301622
Latitude/Longitude: 52.6029, -0.5029

Locality: Easton on the Hill
Local Authority: East Northamptonshire District Council
County: Northamptonshire
Country: England
Postcode: PE8 6NP

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Listing Text


Six nuclear bomb storage bunkers, constructed in September and October 1952 and designed by the Air Ministry Works Department as part of the United Kingdom and NATO strategic airborne nuclear deterrent.

Reason for Listing

The Nuclear Bomb Stores at RAF Wittering, built in 1952, are listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* INTACTNESS- They are rare and complete survivals of nuclear bomb stores specifically designed for arming nuclear bombs during the Cold War and exemplify nuclear bomb storage in its earliest phase.
* HISTORIC INTEREST- They are the earliest of these bunkers built on an operating airfield in Britain. RAF Wittering housed the Bomber Command Armaments School and was where the atomic bomb went operational in Britain.
* LANDSCAPE- The building is a major component of the pre-eminent airfield landscape that was completely reconstructed for the deployment of Britain's principal deterrent force in the post-war years.
* GROUP VALUE- They form a group with other buildings on the site which together provided the means of maintenance, preparation and delivery of nuclear weapons. Of the ten former British V-bomber bases Wittering is the only one which retains all of these elements.


RAF Wittering was established in 1916 for the Royal Flying Corps and saw considerable service in both World Wars; after a period as the main RAF flying school, it became a figher aerodrome in 1935. The advent of the Cold War and the development of the atomic bomb resulted in the selection of ten existing military airfields in the early 1950s as the main bases for the V-force, which carried Britain's airborne nuclear deterrent from 1953 to 1969. These formed a central part of Britain's and NATO's policy of preventing nuclear war by the threat of unleashing the nuclear bomber force.

Wittering is the pre-eminent example of an airfield landscape that was completely reconstructed in the second half of 1952 for the deployment of Britain's principal deterrent force. It was also the home of the Bomber Command Armament School. The main runway was re-laid in concrete, 2,743 metres long, replacing the existing asphalt runway created in 1940-42 when the neighbouring runway of Collyweston airfield was incorporated into an unusually long overall lay-out. A wide-span Gaydon hangar for the Canberra B2 bombers was constructed along with a new control tower, avionics building and nuclear storage and maintenance facilities. The first British operational atomic bomb, the Blue Danube, was deployed to RAF Wittering in November 1953. The first V-bombers (the Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan) were delivered in July 1955. In 1957-58 tests were carried out at Wittering of the first British hydrogen bomb. This was fitted into the existing Blue Danube casing, and four Valiant bombers flew out of Wittering to Christmas Island in the Pacific, one of them dropping the first device on 15 May 1957.

To counter improved Soviet air defences and to extend the life of the V-force a rocket-propelled stand-off missile, the Blue Steel, was developed in 1966 and fitted to Victor bombers. Wittering and RAF Scampton were the only two V-bomber bases to house this weapon. For this purpose, new ground facilities were built for its storage and maintenance, and these facilities, with the other nine V-bomber bases, constituted Britain's principal nuclear deterrent through the 1960s. However, in the late 1960s NATO's nuclear deterrent policy changed to that of a submarine-based force, and the requirement for airborne-delivered nuclear weapons disappeared. Accordingly the V-force was disbanded and in 1969 RAF Wittering became the principal base for the Harrier VTOL aircraft.

The six bomb storage bunkers were each intended to house two Blue Danube thermonuclear bombs on their trolleys and were fitted with an internal crane gantry to carry the 7.32 metre-long casings, which contained all of the circuitry, detonators, initiators and enriched plutonium required. The fissile cores were stored separately in the adjacent core storage buildings and were only loaded into the bomb casings immediately before they were needed, to provide the critical mass which would result in detonation of the main charge. In 1953 the perceived British stockpile requirement was 800 bombs each yielding between ten and twelve kilotons of explosive power. There are several hundred such munitions bunkers on British post-war airfields, most of which did not house nuclear devices, but these six bunkers were the earliest to be constructed and brought into service.


MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete to floors, walls and roof, all under a natural earth mound.

PLAN: The six bunkers have individual access roads leading from a central spine road connecting them with the fissile core stores. The entrance to each bunker either faces the side wall of its neighbour or open land, to minimise blast damage should one bunker explode.

The six earth mounds each have a single entrance set back into the mound below a deep concrete overhang and between concrete side walls dropping down to the ground at the perimeter of the mounds. This has tubular handrails all round. In either the right or left of these concrete outer walls are recesses containing the electrical switchgear and the air-conditioning room for each individual installation, and they terminate in a further concrete wall where there are the doorways. Bunkers Vw 16 and VA 22 have their original double timber folding doors on horizontal top and bottom runners and with an integral pedestrian entrance as well as the original light fittings. The remainder have 1980s steel vertical roller doors and plain pedestrian doors to one side.

The bunkers have rectangular interiors with reinforced concrete roof joists and similar side pilasters which support the wide horizontal rails on the side walls. These formed the runways for a manually-operated five-ton steel top-running bridge crane with an upper running trolley and hoist manufactured by Herbert Morris Ltd. of Loughborough. The cranes survive intact in bunkers Vw18 and Vw21. Bunker A22 has a similar type of motorized crane made by Matterson of Rochdale in 1958. In the end wall, over the doorways and in the lower part of the opposite wall, are two square ventilation grilles for the forced-air ventilation system fed by compressors in a recess in the outer walls.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.