History of RAF Marham

Brief history

Prior to use as an aerodrome the site was primarily agricultural with tree/hedge lined fields. Opened in August 1916 Marham base was originally a military night landing ground used by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Marham was originally used in the First World War focusing on defending the UK from Zeppelin raids. An area in the centre of the present airfield being occupied by Marham Aerodrome. Marham Aerodrome closed in 1919.

Construction of the current site began in 1935 and RAF Marham opened on 1 April 1937 as a station for two heavy bomber squadrons, though it was of considerably smaller area than present day. The site consisted of a main technical site to the northwest, bomb stores to the northeast and a grassed landing area and dispersals to the south. The technical site included five ‘C’ type hangars, the Motor Transport (MT) section workshops, equipment sections, and the central heating building all of which are still in use today, with the exception of No.3 Hangar which was recently demolished! With its antiquated Hendon and Harrow bombers, Marham was a front-line bomber base, but fortunately the more modern Wellington bomber had arrived before war broke out in 1939. Marham was involved from the first weeks in the Bomber Command offensive and remained so for the next five years.

In 1942 the airfield expanded to the southwest, east and northeast, principally to facilitate the construction of several dispersals.  During this time RAF Marham was home to Wellingtons, Stirlings and eventually Mosquitos, and was subjected to a number of bombing raids. The Mosquito squadrons flew many spectacular special missions and were frequently in the news. During 1944, RAF Marham closed for the construction of three new concrete runways, perimeter track, and dispersal areas, marking the end of its wartime operations. The runways were of the standard triangular pattern, but Marham was one of only four sites built as a Super Heavy Bomber airfield with the 9,000 ft main runway substantially longer than the standard layout, and this is the main reason that it survived the post-war disposal of RAF airfields. Post reconstruction Marham became home to the Central Bomber Establishment, an important unit with a trials and evaluation role that kept Bomber Command ‘up to date’.

In the late 1940s RAF Marham regularly hosted the United States Air Force with B-29 Superfortress Bombers, and later B-50s for Project “Ruby”, on long distance temporary duty exercises. These exercises tested the effectiveness of deep penetration bombs such as the Grand Slam and Disney against “massive reinforced concrete targets”. Trials were undertaken attacking the Nordsee III U-boat pens in Germany. The exercises were also to show the Soviets that long-range missions were possible. In the early 1950s the Special Weapons Bomb Dump was built, to house the British and American atomic weapons.

By 1956 more buildings were added to the technical site. At this time RAF Marham became one of the first V-force bases, equipped with Vickers Valiant aircraft, and a year later with a nuclear deterrent capability.  This saw the main runway resurfaced to accommodate V-Bomber aircraft. In the early 1960s some Valiant aircraft were converted to the pioneering air-to-air refuelling role, for which Marham was to become the RAF’s main base for many years. By 1965 Handley Page Victors were replacing the Valiant aircraft in the air to air refuelling role, due to the Valiant fleet being scrapped early following the discover of chronic metal fatigue in the wing spars. The Victor went on to serve with distinction in the Falklands war, providing the vital air to air refuelling service that enabled the Vulcan bombers to conduct long-range missions. They also played an important role in the first Gulf War, achieving all of their 299 planned tanking sorties. The Victor fleet was the last of the V-Bombers in service, finally retiring at RAF Marham in 1993.

English Electric Canberra aircraft were first based at RAF Marham from the early 1950s, with a Bomber Wing established as part of the conversion of Bomber Command to jet aircraft, being replaced by the Valiants. The Canberra would feature importantly in the RAF Marham History story up until 2006. The late 1970s saw the development of the two Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) sites and the addition of two NATO BFIs for the Tornado strike aircraft based at RAF Marham. The Tornado would be used for the next 37 years, initially providing a nuclear deterrent until the mid-1990s, whilst also playing a key role during all of the UK’s key operations in the Middle East; Desert Storm – Gulf War 1, Granby, TELIC – Gulf War 2, Op HERRICK, Op ELLAMY and Op SHADER. One of the significant operations occurred on the night of 19/20 March 2011, Tornado GR4s flew a 3,000-mile round trip from Marham to carry out strikes against targets in Libya as part of Operation ELLAMY.

The Tornado GR1/4 and GR1A aircraft, and Canberra PR9 aircraft were stationed at RAF Marham under No.1 Group Strike Command and remained operational in a number of theatres.  The Canberra squadron was disbanded in 2006, ending many years of Canberra operations at Marham, and bringing an end to the RAF’s Canberra era. This left RAF Marham with the Tornado GR4 aircraft, until it retired from service on 1 April 2019, with Marham seeing yet another RAF type out of service.

In 2013 RAF Marham was designated as the sole operating base for the UK F-35B Lightning. The Aircraft is operated jointly by the RAF and Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, designed to operate from the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. The recent investment through Project ANVIL has seen many parts of the RAF Marham estate transform significantly enabling appropriate support to the front-line elements of the Lightning Force.

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