The Cold War near disasters at RAF Lakenheath could have left Suffolk as a nuclear wasteland
During the height of the Cold War nuclear bombs were dotted across the country, ready to wipe the USSR off the face of the map at a moment’s notice: but, on two separate occasions, Suffolk almost became victim to the very weapons which were meant to protect it.
July 27, 1956 was like any other summer’s day. Across the country attention was glued to the Ashes fourth test at Old Trafford, and four American airmen were in a B-47 bomber, on a routine training mission from RAF Lakenheath.
But, as they were practising touch-and-go landings, their bomber careered out of control and went off the runway.
It ploughed into an igloo containing three Mark-6 nuclear weapons, tearing the building apart.
The plane then exploded, killing all four men on board, and showered the world-ending weapons with burning aviation fuel.
With their deadly plutonium cores installed, each would have had the explosive power ten times greater than the Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and would have easily vaporised Lakenheath and its surrounding villages instantly.
“Most of A/C [Aircraft] wreckage pivoted on igloo and came to rest with A/C nose just beyond igloo bank which kept main fuel fire outside smashed igloo. “Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officers says a miracle that one Mark Six with exposed detonators sheared didn't go. Firefighters extinguished fire around Mark Sixes fast." - Telegram from RAF Lakenheath to Washington DC
Fortunately the atomic power of the bomb was missing that day, with the cores un-installed in all three for storage, but the explosives needed to trigger the deadly nuclear reaction were still in place.
With 8,000 pounds of high explosives combined with depleted uranium-238, they were a nuclear ticking time bomb as firefighters fought to put out the blaze.
Had they exploded the radioactive uranium would have been scattered over a wide area, and, depending on the wind, tens of thousands of people would have been at risk from the toxic dust across Suffolk.
Knowing the enormity of the situation base fire chief Master Sgt L. H. Dunn ordered his crew to ignore the burning wreckage of the bomber, and the airman inside, and douse the flames engulfing the nuclear storage building.
At the time it had been shrouded in secrecy, but decades later one senior US officer made it very clear how lucky Suffolk was to have narrowly missed out on a nuclear disaster.
“It is possible that part of Eastern England would have become a desert,” the then former officer told Omaha World Herald in Nebraska, who revealed the potentially catastrophic incident in November 1979.
Another said that “disaster was averted by tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God”.
A top secret telegram sent to Washington DC from the base, which has since been revealed, told of the near miss. “Most of A/C [Aircraft] wreckage pivoted on igloo and came to rest with A/C nose just beyond igloo bank which kept main fuel fire outside smashed igloo.
“Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officers says a miracle that one Mark-6 with exposed detonators sheared didn't go. Firefighters extinguished fire around Mark-6s fast."
After the magnitude of the crash had set in it was easy to be succinct, but at the time as news of the crash got around the base there was not just panic but a stampede.
Firefighters rushing to the scene were, according to historian Jim Wilson, met with a convoy of cars packed full of American women and children frantically trying to get away from what they thought was impending doom.
According to one report one airman dashed from the gates of the base to get a taxi, and told the driver: “Go anywhere, just get away from here!”
Suffolk was lucky this time, but the incident caused great alarm in the British government, and it was decided it would try and block US authorities from ordering base evacuations because of the concern of causing mass panic in the country.
But what would happen if word got out that its most important ally had, almost, accidentally, made a huge part of the United Kingdom a nuclear wasteland?
Simple: Its policy for decades, if the press ever caught wind of the near miss, was to just deny it. After the news was broken in the American press in 1979, only then was it acknowledged something happened.
On November 5 that year the US Air Force and the Ministry of Defence would only admit the B-47 did crash.
In fact it took until 1996, some four decades after the near disaster, for the British state to accept the true scale of the accident in public.
But that near miss wasn’t the only one.
For on January 16, 1961, an F-100 Super Sabre, loaded with a Mark 28 hydrogen bomb caught on fire after the pilot jettisoned his fuel tanks when he switched his engines on.
As they hit the concrete runway the fuel ignited and engulfed the nuclear weapon - a 70 kilotons - and left it “scorched and blistered”.
Suffolk was saved again by the brave work of base firefighters who brought the blaze under control before the bomb’s high explosive detonated or its arming components activated.
Terrifyingly it was later discovered by American engineers that a flaw in the wiring of Mark 28 hydrogen bombs could allow prolonged heat to circumvent the safety mechanisms and trigger a nuclear explosion.
Had it gone, thousands of people would be dead within seconds, and thousands more would have been injured. As with the first incident, as well as the immediate blast, radioactive debris could have fallen in towns as far away as Ipswich and Lowestoft, given the right wind direction, spreading the toxic dust across Suffolk.
Since Clement Attlee ordered the scientists to investigate the creation of a nuclear bomb in August 1945, the British state has known that being a nuclear power comes with risk as well as reward.
It also knew it paid to be part of a nuclear alliance, NATO, and with it came American nuclear bombs and the risk they brought.
Beyond the maths of working out how large the explosion would have been, it is impossible to know the true implications.
RAF Lakenheath was listed as a probable target for Soviet attack according to now released Cold War era documents, and intelligence agencies and war planners expected two 500 kiloton missiles to hit the site if the West was under attack.
Disaster creates uncertainty. Nobody would have known it was an accident within the minutes and hours after a blast, they would have just been dragged into a nuclear bunker and told of a large explosion at an airbase in Suffolk.
Where would that have left a British prime minister, an American president, and the rest of NATO, thinking they have come under attack?
In July 1956, and again in January 1961, those firefighters didn't just save Suffolk … they might have saved the world.