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RAF Geilenkirchen

The ‘clutch’ station still crucial to NATO operations today

THE recent visit by Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington provided major issues for the NATO countries involved in ensuring the Ukraine president arrived safely in the US to meet Joe Biden and speak to Congress.

Fighter jets and spy planes were dispatched from a number of stations across Europe to provide protection for Zelensky and his entourage at all times, with a USAF F-15E Strike Eagle from RAF Mildenhall shadowing the Boeing C-40 military transport plane as it flew over the UK.

Ahead of the flight departing from Rzeszow in Poland direct to Washington, a US surveillance plane (E-3A Sentry) conducted a scouting mission over the North Sea, an area regularly patrolled by Russian submarines, to ensure there were no threats as the plane made its way across Europe and onwards to the US.

The entrance to NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen

The surveillance aircraft departed from Geilenkirchen in the North Rhine-Westphalia, a station well-known to the RAF, built by the British military after World War II and operating as RAF Geilenkirchen from 1953 until 1968, when it was handed over to the German Air Force.

In the 15 years it served the British military, a number of squadrons were based at a site which was the second of the so-called four ‘clutch’ German airfields – four RAF stations accommodating part of the rapidly expanding western military presence in the country, and all located close to the Dutch border west of the Rhine: Wildenrath, Bruggen, Laarbruch and Geilenkirchen.

The stations were key to NATO’s defence against the Soviet Bloc as part of the Cold War, the stand-off between the west and Soviet forces that began shortly after Second World War. While the Cold War was believed to have ended when the Berlin Wall came down, recent events have shown that it is well and truly back up and running.

On May 24, 1953, RAF Geilenkirchen opened, with the first unit arriving No. 3 Squadron, initially with Canadian Sabres, soon followed by No. 234 Squadron, also flying the Sabre. No. 2 Squadron arrived in 1955 with their Gloster Meteors as the station built up its force of personnel and aircraft throughout the 1950s.

Gloster Javelin FAW.9 of No. 11 Squadron in 1965

(Gloster Javelin FAW.9 of No. 11 Squadron in 1965)

The 1960s saw the outdated Meteors, Vampires and Venoms leave service, a range of aircraft replacing them at all RAF sites in Germany. Lightnings flew from the station throughout the 60s, with No. 92 Squadron operating the interceptor aircraft capable of flying at Mach 2, with a number of Gloster Javelins also based there: squadrons including Nos. 3, 5, 11 and 96 were transferred to the aircraft which was the last to bear the famous Gloster name.

Squadron Nos. 59 and 256 were also stationed at Geilenkirchen – 59 flying Canberras and 256 operating Gloster Meteors.

Canberra XM266

(Canberra XM266 flown by Flt Lt Moore)

In 1961, No. 3 Squadron switched from the Javelin to the Canberra bomber, an aircraft they took with them when they moved to RAF Laarbruch in 1968. Tragedy hit the squadron, however, in their first year operating the Canberra, a high-low-high training exercise from Geilenkirchen to RAF Chivenor in Devon ending with the deaths of both pilot and navigator, the aircraft crashing at West Manley, near Tiverton in Devon.

The flight pattern on the evening of November 21, 1961, was a typical exercise for a Canberra: the high ingress was followed by a low approach to its target, in this case RAF Chivenor, before a high return to Germany. After flying at 31,000 feet all seemed in order, the aircraft dropping to 4,000 feet over south west England. At this point Ft Lt Roger Moore, the pilot, radioed in a mayday with at least one engine appearing to fail at low altitude.

The plane started to spiral and dive before crashing into the Grand Western Canal, with wreckage scattered over a 300m radius – both Roger Moore and navigator Martin Archard of No. 3 Squadron were killed.

In 2003, contractors dredging the waterway near Tiverton noticed a strong smell of fuel, with shards of metal soon starting to be brought up by the process. When the history of the site became apparent, dredging was halted, with a recovery operation implemented. A service was held in November 2006 on the 45th anniversary of the crash, with a plaque unveiled to commemorate the two men killed.

Memorial Plaque Flt Lt Roger Moore and Fg Off Martin Archard
(Memorial Plaque Flt Lt Roger Moore and Fg Off Martin Archard)

While the squadron and their colleagues at Geilenkirchen mourned the loss of two of their own, the RAF work in Germany continued, with the decision to close Geilenkirchen in 1967 a blow to the British military, and especially the RAF. Cutbacks in the defence budget required the RAF to relinquish one of its airfields in Germany, the only problem being that the RAF was expected to maintain its 12 squadrons.

While arguments ensued that the existing five stations – the four ‘clutch’ sites plus Gutersloh – were essential to accommodate service personnel and equipment, there was to be no reprieve and, after a short review, the axe fell on Geilenkirchen. The decision was based on the fact that as it was the most southerly of the stations, it was perceived as the ‘least worst’ to lose for the British military. The fact that it was popular with RAF personnel and their families appeared lost in the review, but there would undoubtedly be problems whichever station was earmarked for closure.

Flying ceased in January 1968 and when it was handed over to German authorities, two squadrons remained, No. 92 with their Lightnings and No. 3 with Canberras – No. 92 Squadron transferring to Gutersloh and No. 3 Squadron to Laarbruch.

It was initially used as a missile wing by the German authorities with the support of the US Army – the surface-to-surface Pershing missiles housed there during the 1970s. In 1980, it became NATO Air Base, Geilenkirchen, the main operating base for NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control force, operating Boeing E-3A Sentry Aircraft.

The RAF’s presence in Germany continued until 2001, the closure of Bruggen ending a 56-year presence in the country that began in the final year of WW2 when Allied forces pushed Hitler’s army back to Berlin, which was liberated in May 1945.

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1 comment

  • My Uncle Flt Lt Roger Moore was the pilot of the Canberra B(I)8 XM266 pictured above. I attended the memorial service at Manley Bridge in November 2011

    Jeremy Moore

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