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Cold War decontamination suite opened to public at Greenham Common

A THOUSAND people gathered to see first-hand a hidden Cold War artefact at Greenham Common.

Greenham Control Tower volunteers, with permission of Greenham Trust, opened the Decontamination Suite within Building 274 to unprecedented public interest at Greenham Business Park.

Free guided tours – led by local history experts – ran at the weekend from 11am to 4pm. The theme of the Heritage Open Days this year was Astounding Inventions.

Hundreds queue to see a piece of Cold War history. (59445740)
Hundreds queue to see a piece of Cold War history. (59445740)

With East-West diplomatic tensions rising, in June 1980, the decision was made to store Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) at RAF/USAF Greenham Common. The first missiles arrived in November 1983.

By 1986, a total of 96 missiles were stored at the base, only two miles away from the populations of Newbury and Thatcham. This development warranted the construction of specialised storage and control facilities, including the Decontamination Suite and Ground Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA).

The Decontamination Suite, completed in 1985, served as the command centre for the USAF 501st Tactical Missile Wing between 1982 and 1991. The wing was responsible for coordinating the deployment of missiles in the event of a Soviet attack.

The building was constructed to withstand biological and chemical, though not nuclear, warfare.

Visitors explored the same eerie, claustrophobic circuit as contaminated soldiers would have undergone. Each room is secured with thick, reinforced concrete walls and ceilings and sealed with blast-proof steel doors, weighing several tonnes. First, visitors entered the room where the contaminated would remove their respirators.

Still wearing their uniforms, the soldiers then showered, cleaned their weapons and doused themselves with Fuller’s earth, a skin decontaminant used to treat exposure to chemical agents. They proceeded to shower properly and dispose of their uniforms, which were sent for incineration.

The tour ended with the Plant Room, an area self-sufficient in air, water and sanitation. In the event of a napalm attack, the entire site could survive on a six hour supply of emergency oxygen.

Fortunately, the suite never witnessed combat.

Shower Room and clothes disposal shute. (59448116)
Shower Room and clothes disposal shute. (59448116)

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the USA and USSR in December 1987 led to the total withdrawal of cruise missiles from Greenham Common by mid-1991, much to the delight of surrounding communities and peace protestors. The base closed for good in 1992.

Building 274 has been privately owned and used for secure data storage since 2014. The nearby GAMA silos have also been owned by a private company since 2003. Both are classified as scheduled monuments, meaning they are protected from future development or demolition.

The Decontamination Suite is still sometimes used for military training exercises.

Plant Room of the Decontamination Suite. (59445682)
Plant Room of the Decontamination Suite. (59445682)

Activities offered at the control tower were also well attended. These included talks, tours and walks around the common. The café reported that it had one of its busiest weekends.

Visitors also enjoyed a concert performed by the East Woodhay Silver Band.

Pam Hart, the control tower’s volunteer coordinator, relayed her gratitude to the volunteers for their hard work, saying "it made such a difference".

Those interested in volunteering or keeping updated about future heritage events at Greenham Common should visit https://www.greenhamtower.org.uk/ or follow the organisation's facebook page.

The tower also thanked those visitors who had expressed an interest in joining the volunteering team.

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