In 1940, the Air Ministry selected Lakenheath as an alternative for nearby RAF Mildenhall and used it as a decoy airfield. Surfaced runways were constructed in 1941, with the main runway being 3,000 feet (910 m), and the two subsidiary runways at 2,000 feet (610 m).
Lakenheath was used by RAF flying units on detachment late in 1941. The station soon functioned as a Mildenhall satellite with Short Stirling bombers of No. 149 Squadron dispersed from the parent airfield as conditions allowed. The squadron exchanged its Vickers Wellingtons for Stirlings late in November 1941. After becoming fully operational with its new aircraft, the squadron moved into Lakenheath on 6 April 1942 and remained until mid 1944 when the squadron moved to RAF Methwold in Norfolk. One Stirling pilot, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for valour on the night of 28–29 November 1942, when despite serious face wounds and loss of blood from shell-fire during a raid on the Fiat works at Turin in Italy, he brought the damaged aircraft back towards southern England. With fuel nearly exhausted his crew were ordered to bail out.
On 21 June 1943, No. 199 Squadron was established as a second Stirling squadron. It conducted mine laying operations at sea before moving to RAF North Creake in Norfolk on 1 May 1944. No. 149 Squadron ended its association with RAF Lakenheath the same month, taking its Stirlings to RAF Methwold. The reason for the departure of the two bomber squadrons was Lakenheath's selection for upgrading to a Very Heavy Bomber airfield.
The period between 1972 and 1977 can be described as a five-year aircraft conversion. Beginning in late 1971, the 48th TFW started its conversion to the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II. The conversion to the F-4D took several years, with initial operational capability being achieved on 1 July 1975. The F-4's service with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing was short, as operation "Ready Switch" resulted in 48th Tactical Fighter Wing receiving General Dynamics F-111sMountain Home AFB, Idaho in October 1976.
Lakenheath received its first McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles in 1992. On 16 December 1992, the last F-111 departed the base. Along with its departure, the 493d FS was inactivated, but then reactivated as a F-15C squadron.
On 2 March 2011, members of the 48th Security Forces Squadron were involved in a shooting at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. The members were on a bus bound for Ramstein Air Base in Germany when they were attacked by a lone gunman.
On 22 March 2011, F-15E 91-0304 crash-landed and was destroyed in eastern Libya after reportedly suffering from a mechanical failure. Both crewmen ejected and were safely recovered. On 7 January 2014, a Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk from the base crashed following a bird strike while on a low-level training exercise with another helicopter (also a Pave Hawk), into the Cley Marshes near Cley next the Sea on the nearby North Norfolk coast. All four occupants died in the crash.
On 8 October 2014, F-15D 86-0182 belonging to the 493d Fighter Squadron crashed during a training flight in a field outside Spalding, Lincolnshire. The pilot successfully ejected and was shortly recovered back to Lakenheath on board a Pave Hawk.
A US Marine CorpsBoeing F/A-18 Hornet of VMFA-232 "Red Devils" from MCAS. Miramar, California, crashed after taking off from RAF Lakenheath on 21 October 2015. The pilot, Major Taj "Cabbie" Sareen (34), did not survive.
In addition to supporting three combat-ready squadrons of fighter aircraft, the Liberty Wing housed the 56th Rescue Squadron's HH-60G Combat Search and Rescue helicopters. The 56th Rescue Squadron re-located to Aviano Air Base in 2018.
In January 2015, the US Department of Defense announced that from 2020, Lakenheath would become home to 54 of the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II multi-role fighters. The aircraft would be split between two squadrons and there would be an increase of 1,200 military personnel and between 60 and 100 civilian workers at the station. The F-35 would operate alongside the two existing F-15E squadrons based at Lakenheath. By November 2018, the number of craft had been revised to 48.
To accommodate the new aircraft a F-35 Campus is to be constructed on the south side of the airfield.
The main new operational buildings being developed as part of the F-35 project are as follows.
Two six-bay maintenance hangars – Space for service, maintenance, storage, and staff support facilities (to be known as Hangars 4-1 and 4–2).
Hangar 6 (Consolidated Parts Store) – Single-storey extension to the southern side of Hangar 6, including offices and warehouses and the storage of aircraft equipment and parts.
Dual Squadron Operations/Aircraft Maintenance Unit – A three-storey building to provide combined facilities for two squadrons comprising Squadron Operations and Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) facilities, including mission planning, administration space in the operations section and offices to manage the maintenance of aircraft and storage space.
Corrosion control and wash rack facility – Comprising single-storey hangar to maintain aircraft including a paint and sanding booth and wash rack.
Flight simulator facility – Comprising a single-storey building to accommodate six F-35A flight simulators, administration, records, classrooms, brief/debrief rooms, and storage space.
A Field Training Detachment Facility, comprising A three-storey building to provide F-35A training programme to maintain the aircraft, incorporating classrooms and administration rooms. Field Training Detachment Facility – A three-storey building to provide F-35A maintenance, including classrooms and administration rooms.
Aircraft Ground Equipment (AGE) Facilities – A single storey building extension and new covered storage associated with an existing building used for maintenance and storage of AGE related to the F-35A.
Fuel System Maintenance Dock – A single storey hangar with fuel system maintenance dock to support the operation of the F-35A.
Munitions Maintenance Facility – A single storey building extension and new covered storage to an existing building for the maintenance of munitions used by the F-35A.
Residential accommodation – A three or four-storey dormitory for up to 144 beds to accommodate the increase in station personnel.
Flight-line Dining Facility
Munitions Storage Administration Maintenance building
Hospital – Replacement medical facility up to four storeys to provide inpatient services, outpatient and speciality care clinics, ancillary services, support and medical administrative functions.
High school – A three or four-storey building to house approximately 560 students.
The airfield operational surfaces would also be expanded as follows.
Charlie Apron, currently used by F-15's will be redeveloped and extended to allow the parking of up to forty-two F-35A aircraft in dual-occupancy shelters constructed from a light weight, canopy structure with open sides. The total area of Charlie Apron once extended will be approximately 78,392 square metres, combining the retained area of 58,780 square metres with the new area of 19,612 square metres. It will be connected to Maintenance Hangars 4-1 and 4-2 and the Squadron Operations/AMU building.
Alpha-Bravo Apron will be extended to accommodate existing F-15 aircraft currently using Charlie Apron. The total area of Alpha-Bravo Apron once extended will be approximately 54,179 square metres, combining the retained area of 39,750 square metres with the new area of 14,429 square metres. Up to thirty-eight F-15 aircraft will be capable of being accommodated on the open apron which would not feature any shelters.
Investment of $148.4 million (£116.7M) for the delivery of F-35A infrastructure at Lakenheath was authorised by the US administration in August 2018.
To make way for the F-35 Campus, demolition of the first of eighteen buildings began in March 2019. The work on Alpha-Bravo Apron was completed in August 2020, allowing F-15E Strike Eagle operations of the 492nd and 494th Fighter Squadrons to be consolidated on one ramp.
Near nuclear disasters
Because RAF Lakenheath was one of several British air bases which was used by the U.S. Air Force to store nuclear weapons during the Cold War, there was a possibility of nuclear incidents occurring at the air base. Records show that there were at least two serious near nuclear disasters at the base. The first near nuclear accident occurred on 27 July 1956, when a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo containing three Mark-6 nuclear weapons. The aircraft exploded and the nuclear bombs were showered with burning fuel. Although the bombs did not have their plutonium fissile cores installed, each of them contained a quantity of depleted uranium-238. The crash and ensuing fire did not ignite the high explosives and no detonation occurred. However, a bomb disposal expert stated it was a miracle exposed detonators on one bomb did not fire, which would have released nuclear material into the environment. The B-47 involved in the accident, which killed four crewmen, was part of the 307th Bombardment Wing.
The event caused great concern for the British government, and as a result of the incident it was determined that it would be desirable to block US authorities from ordering evacuations in future if one of its nuclear weapons fell upon the British countryside. This began a debate over how to block the US military from alerting the public - and thereby causing expected national panic. The policy for the next few years was to completely deny any incident had occurred if the press got word of a nuclear accident. A similar near nuclear disaster occurred at RAF Greenham Common less than two years later in February 1958, when an aircraft allegedly carrying a nuclear bomb caught fire.
The 1956 incident was not a freak occurrence, and a second near nuclear disaster occurred at Lakenheath five years later. In January 1961, a parked U.S. Air Force F-100 Super Sabre loaded with a mark 28 hydrogen bomb caught fire after the pilot accidentally jettisoned his fuel tanks, rupturing as they struck the concrete runway beneath. The aviation fuel ignited and flames engulfed the nuclear bomb beneath the aircraft, but the fire was brought under control before the bomb's high explosive detonated or before the fire caused the bombs arming components to function. However, the incident left the weapon "scorched and blistered".
Flying and notable non-flying units based at RAF Lakenheath.
Lakenheath was one of the proposed sites of the NATO Pershing II Missile System. The deployment of the Missile system sparked protests all over Western Europe, and RAF Lakenheath was one of the most prominent military sites. The radical historian E.P. Thompson wrote in a pamphlet that basing the system at RAF Lakenheath directly endangered the lives of those in the nearby city of Cambridge:
"...Lakenheath is, by crow or cruise, just over twenty miles from Cambridge. It is possible that Cambridge but less probable that Oxford will fall outside the CEP. Within the CEP we must suppose some fifteen or twenty detonations at least on the scale of Hiroshima, without taking into account any possible detonations, release of radio-active materials, etc., if the strike should succeed in finding out the cruise missiles at which it was aimed."
A semi-permanent 'peace camp' was set up outside RAF Lakenheath. In 1985, the future Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was arrested for singing psalms at a CND protest at Lakenheath.
Protestors including Jeremy Corbyn, outside RAF Lakenheath in 2006.
Iraq war and later
The 2003 Iraq War sparked a new wave of peace protests. In one incident, 9 protestors gained access to the base by cutting through its perimeter fence.The protestors rode bicycles along the main runway, before chaining themselves together.
Activists later established a 'peace camp' outside RAF Lakenheath to draw attention to the base.
In 2006, a group of 200 people protested against the alleged nuclear weapons stored at RAF Lakenheath. Addressing the crowd was Jeremy Corbyn, who cycled to RAF Lakenheath from the railway station in Ely. There were further protests on this issue in 2008.
48th Fighter Wing
A 492d Fighter Squadron F-15E Strike Eagle from Lakenheath lifts off from the airfield's runway
The F-100 is displayed on a permanent stand. It was the second aircraft to represent the Liberty Wing. It flew for the 48th Fighter Wing between 1956 and 1972 before it was replaced by the F-4 Phantom.
F-15C Eagle aircraft from the 493rd Fighter Squadron, 48th Fighter Wing, parked on the tarmac at RAF Lakenheath
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^"Arrests made after air base break-in". East Anglian Daily Times. 11 March 2003.
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^"Indymedia Cambridge, UK | Anti-Nuclear Campaigners Locked-On to Munitions Gate at USAF Lakenheath NOW". www.indymedia.org.uk. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
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^Gooderham, Dave (19 May 2008). "'Nuclear bombs' protest at Suffolk base". East Anglian Daily Times. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
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USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers—1908 to Present