Unexplored Berkshire: Greenham Decontamination Suite

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Greenham Decontamination Suite sits on Greenham Common in the North Wessex Downs. The large common land has played an important role in Cold War history. Greenham Common was an active US Army Air Force airfield from WWII onwards. The most famous period was between 1982- 1991 when it was home to the US Air Force 501st Tactical Missile Wing. This triggered mass protest and huge media publicity. Greenham Common will forever be famous for the women’s peace protests. The Decontamination Suite in building 274 was attached to the command centre for the 501st Tactical Missile Wing. Its purpose was to cleanse military personnel of nerve agents in the event of a chemical attack.

WWII

Greenham Common was developed as a military airbase during WWII. In May 1941 it was requisitioned by the government to be used as an airfield for the nearby RAF Aldermaston. In 1943 the airfield was taken over by the US Army Air Force. Eisenhower oversaw the departures for D-Day from Greenham Manor. In June 1946, the US no longer needed the site and it was given back to the RAF and then decommissioned a year later. However the growing threat of the Cold War caused it to be requisitioned again just a few years later in 1951.

Cold War

It was believed that the Soviets would not want to destroy the airbase at Greenham Common. Instead they would want to use it themselves. This led to the creation of the Decontamination Suite in building 274. The hope was that the Decontamination Suite would save people during a biological or chemical attack. The Suite is a grade II listed building that is completely airtight with external doors that weigh 15 tons. The walls are blast-proof and it would be self-sufficient with its own air, water and sanitation facilities if needed during an attack.

Visit

We had the pleasure of visiting during a Heritage Open Day event and were taken around by a very informative local guide. The Decontamination Suite is kept locked up and is very rarely open to the public. It has been kept as it was when it was decommissioned which made the visit very special.

Our tour began by walking through two blast-proof steel doors and through to the undressing room. There are arrows along the floor to show which way to follow if you had to decontaminate yourself. The whole process would have been closely monitored by leadership. At the undressing stage there was a chute for your decontaminated clothes to be destroyed. Then came the shower room then the drying room. There were tubs of Fuller’s Earth which was used to clean weapons as it would absorb chemical residue.

Once we had decontaminated ourselves we were allowed into the command room. There was a map of the Suite which would tell the commanders what stage people were at and would allow them to open and lock the rooms. The chair was original and we had the opportunity to sit at the desk and experience a bit of forgotten history. Then we headed to the plant room which held the Suite’s source of water, air and sanitation. A lot was cramped into a small room to enable it to survive a Soviet chemical attack.

Few buildings survive from this time at Greenham Common. The Greenham Control Tower is now open to the public as a visitor centre and it is well worth a visit and the cafe serve excellent milkshakes. Greenham Common is now also home to a herd of cows so there is something for everyone!

Last Updated on 3 December 2023 by Leonie

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