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RAF Wittering: Nuclear bomb loading crane

A Grade II Listed Building in Easton on the Hill, Northamptonshire

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Latitude: 52.6043 / 52°36'15"N

Longitude: -0.5025 / 0°30'9"W

OS Eastings: 501509

OS Northings: 301771

OS Grid: TF015017

Mapcode National: GBR FW9.RRS

Mapcode Global: WHGM3.7SYW

Entry Name: RAF Wittering: Nuclear bomb loading crane

Listing Date: 11 July 2011

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1402775

Location: Easton on the Hill, East Northamptonshire, Northamptonshire, PE8

County: Northamptonshire

District: East Northamptonshire

Civil Parish: Easton on the Hill

Traditional County: Northamptonshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Northamptonshire

Church of England Parish: Easton-on-the-Hill All Saints

Church of England Diocese: Peterborough

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A fixed gantry crane constructed in November 1952 to the designs by the Air Ministry Works Department as part of the United Kingdom and NATO strategic airborne nuclear deterrent.


Rolled I-section steel joists and corrugated iron sheet.

The structure is a fixed gantry crane spanning the access road in the form of two tripod frame columns constructed of rolled steel joists and braced with diagonal and horizontal angle-iron stiffeners. Linking the apices of each tripod is a heavier-section RSJ runway beam which supports the travelling electrical hoist, which at rest is housed in a cube-shaped casing clad with corrugated iron sheet and which is open to the bottom and towards the runway beam. It has a very shallow gabled roof, and at the bottom a triangular steel outrigger. Fixed to the upper surface of the runway beam is a lighting gantry and the electrical control box is fixed towards the base of one tripod leg.


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 fighter 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, as 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 which was fitted into the existing Blue Danube casing. 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 loading crane served the six bomb storage bunkers. It was required to lift the bomb casings from the lorries which had delivered them from Aldermaston onto the purpose-built bomb trolleys for removal into the bunkers. The only known photograph of the Blue Danube, the first British atomic bomb, shows it being lifted by this crane at Wittering.

Reasons for Listing

The Nuclear Bomb Lifting Crane at RAF Wittering, built in 1952, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* RARITY: It is a rare survival of a nuclear bomb crane specifically designed for arming nuclear bombs during the Cold War.
* INTACTNESS: The crane survives in a complete state.
* HISTORIC INTEREST: It is the earliest such crane built on an operating airfield in Britain. RAF Wittering housed the Bomber Command Armament School and was where the atomic bomb went operational in Britain.
* LANDSCAPE: The structure is a 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: It forms 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

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