Guide hopes Oppenheimer link will increase interest in RAF Barnham, near Thetford – former home to the Blue Danube nuclear weapon
A tour guide of a former Cold War atomic bomb storage base in Suffolk, once regarded as one of the most top secret places in the UK, hopes its link to summer blockbuster Oppenheimer will increase the public’s interest in the site.
A section of RAF Barnham, near Thetford, was once under the name of No. 94 Maintenance Unit Royal Air Force and was home to Blue Danube – the first British operational nuclear weapon.
Its creator, mathematician and physicist Dr William Penney, worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project – a U.S. government research project that produced the world’s first atomic bomb – at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.
Mark Selwood, who runs Hidden History Tours with his wife Joanna and takes people four times a year around the Elveden Road site, said he feels with the release of Oppenheimer back in July it could increase the popularity of the already well attended tours.
He added: “We normally sell-out on our tours of RAF Barnham, we only have a few tickets left for the ones we are doing there on Saturday.
“These will be the first ones we have done since the film came out and I think, with it being so popular with filmgoers, we will definitely see an increase in those wanting to find out more about RAF Barnham.”
The two-and-a-half hour tour includes film displays and a walk around a site which would have been heavily guarded in times gone by.
Mark said: “It was probably one of the most secret locations in Britain when it was operationally active and if you would have walked inside there in the late 1950s early 60s you could well have been shot or hunted down by attack dogs.
“The secrecy of these places is very much a draw to people, you have seen them on the films, with armed guards and passes, and to feel like you can walk in the same spaces is quite special for people.
“To go to places where history was literally made and to sit and go to spots that you read about in history books and learned about at school gives you quite a buzz.”
The guide also said that Cold War history in general has seen an upsurge in interest and that RAF Barnham is unique as it was only one of two places, the other being RAF Faldingworth in Lincolnshire, that housed the Blue Danube bombs.
He said: “The base was a maintenance site where they looked after the bombs for when they were needed.
“The main bomb casing, including its high explosive initiators, were kept in huge 100-metre long concrete bunkers that are surrounded by earth mounds.
“The plutonium cores, which would have been about the size of a cricket ball, were kept in ‘hutches’ on site.
“These were brick sheds with massive thick steel doors that you would have to be unlock with a combination lock, like a bank vault. Inside were two lead-lined metal safe mounted to the ground where the cores were stored.”
As the Cold War began, the US froze Britain out of the Manhattan Project and a few years after returning to England Dr Penney was asked by the MoD to recreate, from memory, what they made during his time in the U.S.
In 1952, during Operation Hurricane in Australia, a device similar to Oppenheimer’s work was detonated.
Around four years later, the process was weaponsied and the 24-foot long Blue Danube bombs were born.
Mark said: “The Blue Danube from Dr Penney and his team was basically a copy of Oppenheimer’s third bomb, the one which was used on Nagasaki in Japan.
“At RAF Barnham, though we don’t know for sure as it is still top secret, we believe at least 20 of the bombs were stored on site at one time but they had capacity for 50.
“It is believed that they created more storage than they needed so that if there was a Soviet flyover and pictures were taken, it looked like the site had more than they actually did.”
After the bomb storage part of the site was not needed anymore, as technology moved to rockets, the MoD sold that part of the base to Keith Eldred in 1966.
The site survived, Mark said, due to Keith initially using the bomb hangers for a mushroom growing business and creating what is now Gorse Industrial Estate.
He added: “This bespectacled mild-mannered individual, who popped out for a pint of milk and a newspaper one day and came back to tell his wife he had bought a former weapons storage site, secured RAF Barnham for future generations.
“English Heritage and the Eldred family have jointly put money into the site, which until a few years ago was on the English Heritage’s site at risk list, but with a programme of funding and restoration it now means film fans and history fans can enjoy RAF Barnham for years to come.”
To find out more about the tours of RAF Barnham, go to the Hidden History Tours website.