The timeline section of this website features “Peter Long’s Brief History of Watton” which is shown as a series of yearly Textual ‘snapshots’. These ‘snapshots’ are taken from my book
In Support Of So Many
A Story of a Peacetime RAF Station
Royal Air Force Station
which tells RAF Watton’s peacetime story as well as explaining the Station’s role, and is a result of five year’s research and a great deal of correspondence with numerous ‘Old Wattonians’. It was written for, and aimed at all who have an interest in preserving the memory of this very happy Station. If you are wondering why I have an interest in RAF Watton, it is because I spent nearly five extremely enjoyable years there from the end of 1956 to late 1961. Many years later, nearing retirement, I decided to find out what I was doing there. The book says the rest.
As well as an operational history, this book has chapters detailing the base layout and life at RAF Watton, on and off duty. The story is told with lots of contributions from ‘Old Wattonians’. Included, are plans and indexes of the Station and airfield layout. Also featured are the badges of all units at, or associated with Watton during its peacetime existence. The badges are printed in monochrome to reduce the cost of the book. The book is comb bound and contains 195 A4 pages which tell the story, plus 34 pages showing 49 photographs of Station buildings, aircraft and personnel. Some of these are my own but many were generously contributed by ‘Old Wattonians’. The book has been extremely well received by all who have read it.
In October 1945 the Station became the Radio Warfare Establishment. As such Watton was the post-war centre to continue the research and development of radio (electronic) warfare for the RAF. As the Station’s new title implied, most of its activities were of a very highly classified nature. Within the bounds of the Station were a number of secret units. One of these was the Research Laboratory where civilian and service scientists worked on upgrading old and developing new electronic warfare equipment and techniques. Another unit had the task of monitoring or listening to both domestic and foreign signals traffic, in other words signals intelligence (sigint) gathering.
By September 1946, Watton had been designated Central Signals Establishment (CSE) by the Air Ministry and absorbed the RWE. The CSE would operate at Watton under the control of 90 (Signals) Group, which had its HQ at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire and would be responsible for signals task within the RAF. As well as its primary work in electronic warfare research, Watton was to take over the work of other RAF signals units and be given responsibility for a range of signals tasks. Among them were to be the calibration of air defence radar, the new Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) Landing system, and the installation, maintenance and calibration of RAF radio navigational aids and airfield landing aids. The Inspectorate of Radio Installations and Services, ‘IRIS’ was formed at RAF Medmenham and its aircraft was based at Watton. The Naval Air Radio Warfare Unit moved to CSE Watton in March 1947 to work with the CSE but due to shortage of manpower, the Admiralty disbanded the unit later in the same year. This unit was again reformed at Watton in 1951 as No. 751 Naval Air Squadron.
For various reasons, but principally because of congestion, Watton took on RAF Shepherds Grove as a satellite airfield and between 1945 and 1949 most of Flying Wing’s activities were conducted from there. By the end of 1949 all flying tasks were centred on Watton and aircraft of the CSE no longer used the satellite airfield.
Part of the CSE’s remit was to provide radio countermeasures (RCM) aircraft for training exercises with RAF Commands as well as Western Union air, naval and ground forces. These exercises took on new meaning during the blockade of Berlin by Soviet and East German forces and by the invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea. The CSE had several flying units, each being tasked with a particular facet of the work being carried out at Watton. One of these units was concerned with airborne testing of the secret equipment being produced by the research facility. Other units carried out airborne calibration of radar installations and navigation and landing aids. One of the CSE’s Squadrons, 192 Squadron, was reformed at Watton in 1951 for the task of airborne monitoring of potentially hostile radar and communications frequencies. This Squadron, later to be renumbered as 51 Squadron spent a great percentage of its flying time carrying out electronic reconnaissance around the borders of the Soviet Bloc.
During Watton’s post-war history, it’s older aircraft were gradually replaced by newer types, foremost among which were the Avro Lancaster, later to be replaced by the Avro Lincoln and the Vickers Varsity. There were others such as the Boeing B29 Washington (192 Squadron), the English Electric Canberra and a number of other types, the largest of which were the de Havilland Comet and the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy.
In the post-war years the Station has had a number of visiting units, the least known of which was an American (US) unit operating Lockheed U2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft flew from Watton for a period during the latter part of 1958. Watton also had lodger units attached to it. Among the lodger units were No. 24 (Surface to Air Guided Weapons) Wing, and its subordinate operating unit, 263 (SAGW) Squadron with their Bristol Ferranti Mk1. Bloodhound surface to air missiles, 1959-1963, – Eastern Radar Air Traffic Control Reporting Unit, 1965-1988 and later Border Radar Air Traffic Control Reporting Unit 1989-1992.
It was determined that the Station would cease to be an operational airfield by 1968. All flying units moved away to other Stations. By February 1971 Eastern Radar was the only operational unit on Watton. Eastern left Watton in 1988 and Border Radar moved in to the radar site. When Border Radar left three years later the Station closed.
The decision to dispose of RAF Watton was a long time in coming mainly because of political ineptitude. All maintenance of the buildings ceased in 1994 and the site was let to go. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Station was sold, by which time it was in a very run-down state. In May 2000 work began on the demolition of most of the buildings on the Station.
Toady: Most of RAF Watton is now gone. The technical area to the south of the Norwich Road has gone and is now been developed as Blenheim Grange. The airfield has been returned to agricultural use and the runway al but gone. The line of the old Watton to Griston road cut in 1943 has been restored as a Sustrans Cycleway.
The 4 H Blocks and the Airman’s Mess to the North of Norwich Road still stand and are commercially used buildings now.