Bentwaters Air Base in Suffolk
was on Red Alert last night for the first time in more than 20 years.
But don’t panic – it was all for fun as Bentwaters Cold War Museum opened its doors to the public last night as part of the UK’s Festival of After-Hours Culture and Heritage.
Bentwaters may have been in the grip of a cold, wet and miserable night but that didn’t stop the dedicated museum staff from putting on an excellent show. It also did not stop the public from trekking out to the windy airfield to go back in time. The old Bentwaters air base has been a huge part of Suffolk life for more than 70 years, however, for its active life it was shrouded in secrecy. It has a rich military history having been in the hands of both the British and United States Air Forces. Bentwaters and its nearby twin base, RAF Woodbridge have held great mysteries for Suffolk residents over the years, with most people never being quite sure what went on there.
And there was a good reason for that, given the highly sensitive work of the military. So who could ever have imagined that one day, the previously impenetrable ring of security around Bentwaters would open wide to reveal its secrets. Who could have dreamed that the day would come when some of the most protected activities of the US Air Force during the Cold War, would be explained in detail to a public hungry to discover what went on under their noses. Back in the days when Bentwaters was operational, it was beyond the wildest imagination to think anyone could stand in the War Operations room and be told how it all worked. However, that is exactly what happened on the night of May 14th when a group of BCWM staff re-enacted a state of alert in the War Ops room, a room also known as ‘the pit’.
Bentwaters Comes Back to Life
The War Operations room is housed in a bomb-proof bunker that has an atmosphere you could cut with a knife. For first-time visitors, it is quite a powerful experience walking in and seeing it for the first time. The War Operations room is the jewel in the crown of BCWM and usually sits quietly at the heart of the museum, off-limits to visitors, except from the observation windows that overlook the room. The dim lighting of the bunker makes it look and feel like an eerie fairground attraction however, there are reminders everywhere you look that this place was once a serious nerve centre at the heart of a deadly international game. It was a game that could have resulted in a nuclear war.
This room, once the scene of top-secret activities in the heart of the leafy Suffolk countryside, came to life again briefly as museum visitors watched and listened to a live re-enactment of military operations during a NATO ‘red alert’ situation.
Most people living near the USAF air bases when they were operational were familiar with the term ‘red alert’. Anyone who had American friends was aware of when the bases had gone into ‘red alert’ but how many really knew what that meant? The reality is quite staggering when you listen to USAF veteran Bob Hale who was stationed at Bentwaters when the US military finally left at the end of the Cold War.
During normal museum opening hours, Bob can be found in the control room that overlooks the main operations room, giving very detailed talks about what went on there. As people stand and listen, Bob takes them on a verbal tour of a day in the life of the War Operations room. He points a laser down into the darkened room to show how the massive charts were used but no-one usually actually sets foot in there. So it was a rare treat for those who braved the miserable weather to attend the event, to be allowed into the hallowed space to watch the re-enactment close up.
Volunteer actors manned the banks of analogue communications equipment while others brought in messages and orders to be recorded on the boards that dominate the room. As the actors gathered pace and got into the spirit of the event, they did a very good job of portraying their various roles. Despite the lack of American accents, the whole group was so convincing, there were times when I forgot the people in uniform were actors!
Bentwaters In A State of Alert
Meanwhile, in other parts of the bunker and outside, visitors were being treated to some very real scenes of what it could have been like in this part of the world if the balloon had gone up. Cold War Re-enactment players Dave Baynes, Lee Shave and Jonathan Calver were very convincing with their silent, ominous looking patrols. Clutching some deadly looking weapons and wearing full protective clothing, including sinister looking full-face masks, they mingled silently with the visitors like ghosts from another era. It’s an era that you can’t quite believe was real – but sadly, it was.
And outside, there was a rare visual treat that was not diminished by the rain – in fact, in some ways the rain added atmosphere. Museum Manager and Chairman of the Bentwaters Aviation Society, Graham Haynes, along with his dedicated team of volunteers had worked very hard to provide a visual spectacle on the night. The Harrier and the Phantom aircraft that stand in the grounds of the museum were lit up thanks to the work done on the wiring. To add to the effect, the planes had signs next to them warning that they were armed. They were being guarded by mean looking men with guns!
And there was more…
The cast of re-enactors had gone all out to make this a very special night for those who attended. Even press photographer Simon Parker had ditched his camera for a shooter of another kind – and he looked a good deal scarier than he does with a camera round his neck!
The passion that these guys have for the history of Bentwaters is very clear and we in Suffolk are lucky to have such a valuable historical resource available to us to learn from. In moments when the play-acting stopped and the re-enactors took a break from looking deadly serious about protecting the base – it was easy to see what makes them such a productive team.
Bentwaters Night Opening a Big Success
Graham and his team worked hard prior to the event to make it all happen and today, Graham said:
“The evening was a great success with around 100 visitors braving the rain. This was the first time that we have ever put on an event like this and all the staff thoroughly enjoyed themselves. No doubt it won’t be the last time we stage a night event.”
Sadly, while Graham was busy at the sharp end of running a museum night event – he missed the team putting the finishing touches to a brilliant night by having a group picture taken in the War Operations room – can’t believe no one went to drag him out of the Harrier cockpit!
So it looks as if the museum really will have to do it all again to make sure the whole crew gets into the shot next time.
And finally, while the guys and a lone female (see centre of the group if you haven’t already spotted her) were working hard to pull off the historic night, there was another large team of civvies providing support to make sure the event went smoothly. Karen Haynes and her helpers spent the evening keeping visitors fed and watered in the cafe – not to mention thirsty actors!
Bentwaters Cold War Museum – Well Worth a Visit
And if you missed the night event – don’t worry, you can still see everything the museum has to offer, albeit in daylight hours. The museum is open the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month during the season – for more details visit the website by clicking here.
Thanks to the former US servicemen from Bentwaters who have got in touch since reading this. It’s great hearing about your memories. I would love to hear more from former Bentwaters personnel. Please visit https://www.facebook.com/gilly.maddison or fill in the contact form here.