I have always had a fascination about old military bases, particularly those that are ex-Royal Air Force. Perhaps it’s because I was born on one, or maybe because I spent the first 11 years of my life living on them. Whatever it is, whenever I have the opportunity to explore any these places, filled as they usually are with memories of a bygone era, I grab it with both hands.
Imagine my delight then, when I got a call from Andy Jansen of Firefight Combat Simulations, telling me they had done a deal to use RAF Bentwaters for airsoft. To be honest, at first I thought I had misheard what he said and asked him to repeat; “RAF Bentwaters? Do you mean the RAF Bentwaters, in Suffolk?” “Yes”, he answered and, even though I couldn’t see him, I just knew he had one big mutha of a grin on his face!
A little history
Although originally called RAF Butley, by the time it was opened for operational use in 1944, the station had been renamed RAF Bentwaters, reputedly being named after one of two cottages that were demolished during construction. The station was intended for use by Bomber Command but was transferred to RAF Fighter Command shortly after becoming operational.
From then until 1949 it was home to a number of RAF Squadrons, flying a variety of aircraft including Spitfires, Mustangs and some of the first generation of jets, such as the Gloucester Meteor. However on 26th August 1949, less than five and a half years after it opened, RAF Bentwaters was mothballed (placed into “Care and Maintenance” status – not used but still looked after) and this is how it was to stay until March 1951, when the United States Air Force assumed control.
The American Air Force poured a huge amount of resources into RAF Bentwaters to bring it up to the standard required by NATO and, in September 1951, it became the new home of the 81st Fighter-Interceptor Wing (FIW). The 81st FIW had been tasked jointly with 11 Group RAF Fighter Command to provide air defence cover and flew F-86A “Sabre” aircraft. Incidentally, this was the first time that a foreign air force had actively participated in peacetime air defence of the UK.
In 1954 the 81st FIW’s mission priority was changed from an interceptor role to bomber and became the 81st Fighter-Bomber Wing, until changing again in 1958 when, along with its “Twin Base”, RAF Woodbridge, it became the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing.
If you are a bit of an aircraft nut, the planes that flew out of Bentwaters would probably feature somewhere in your list of all-time “got to see one of those” aircraft: F-86A “Sabre”, F-84F “Thunderstreak”, F-101A/C “Voodoo”, F4 “Phantom”, F-16C “Fighting Falcon” and, one of my personal all-time favourites, the Republic A-10 “Warthog” (don’t the Americans give their aircraft some great names!)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the USAF’s role at Bentwaters was wound down. On 23rd March 1993 the last Warthog flew out and the station returned to Ministry of Defence control when the 81st TFW was deactivated on 1st July the same year.
Today, like many former RAF Stations, Bentwaters is now a development site with businesses taking full advantage of the high level of security a base such as this affords. It is also where you will find the Bentwaters Cold War Museum, which is well worth a visit in its own right and, on top of all that, is now also the location of a truly wicked airsoft site.
Once I’d got over the surprise, Andy gave me an overview of the site and I quickly realised that we were talking something a bit special. Phrases like “1,000 acres of playing area”, “massive ammunition dump”, “CQB area” and “two-story kill-house” jumped out at me and it was a no-brainer when he asked if I’d like to do a review – especially when he added that the HQ had accommodation with real beds!
Getting to the site is really easy; stick “IP12 2TW” in your satnav and follow the signs to “Bentwaters Park” when you get close. This will bring you to the barrier at the Mani Entrance and once through, the HQ is in a securely fenced area just inside. If the saying “first impressions count” is true, then it is also true to say I was impressed.
“HQ” is a two-story building with proper reception, offices, briefing rooms and Staff room downstairs, whilst upstairs are a number of four-bedded rooms and toilets etc. Evidence of its Cold War history is everywhere you look, as all external doors and windows are fitted with heavy duty blackout blinds and closures.
I arrived just after 09:00 and the place was already buzzing with activity as Andy and his team put the finishing touches to their plans and players started arriving. JB from BadgerTac 2 had taken up station under the main stairway and was doing a brisk trade in gas, ammo and pyros, along with the odd weapon or two.
Thirty-odd players had booked and they were split roughly 50/50 into an “SF” or “PMC” team, along camo v black lines. With play due to start at 10:30 they were quick to get themselves a room sorted and back down to the Ops Room for individual team briefings.
FCS events are not your ordinary “skirmish-type” game, in that they are heavily mission-orientated, as opposed to two teams going at it hammer and tongs on full-auto and, with that in mind, Andy had devised a series of scenarios that would appeal to both type of player. The Saturday would be all about stealth, making moves based upon an overall mission objective and which would affect the eventual outcome. Here the focus would be upon co-ordinated movement designed to draw the opposition in one direction whilst the objective was quietly achieved in another. Ammo was limited to 300 rounds per player and throughout the day objectives would have to be achieved by a set time, or abandoned.
Sunday would be all about making assaults on heavily defended positions, knowing you would be walking into a fire-fight but again, with objectives to achieve in the process.
Briefings at FCS are straight forward and they very much believe in treating adults like adults. There is no “bang” rule and although knife kills are perfectly valid, a couple of shots to centre mass is still the preferred method of despatch. One thing you won’t see is marshals in Hi-Viz vests, they all take part in the play and, being in with close comms with Andy, ensure the game continues to flow.
Due to the size of the playing area, vehicles would be used to transport the players to their respective FoBs and also to ferry players back there to regen. When I first heard this, I must admit it raised an eyebrow but, thinking about it, it made perfect sense. The distances involved would mean players being out of the game for a considerable time and, in a real-life situation, MediVacs would be doing just the same. In practice it worked very effectively and I did not hear a single complaint.
RAF Bentwaters covers a huge area and one of its great features are the twenty-five hard dispersal points “hidden” on the edge of Rendlesham Forest, all linked by a series of taxiways and surrounded by dense woodland. Also dotted throughout the area are a number of buildings and other structures, some obviously used for storing things that went “bang” (judging by the blast walls surrounding them). It was in this area that Saturday’s play was concentrated and it quickly became obvious that to be successful, you definitely needed two things – a good sense of direction and a map! The plantation-like trees and completely untouched ground cover made for some “interesting” directional choices. I pride myself on being able to navigate pretty well (most of the time) but soon found that it was easy to mistake one location for somewhere completely different and ended up nearly half a mile from where the action was taking place. This also lead to the only “gripe” I heard all weekend, when a player remarked that he’d “spent two hours wandering through a forest, hadn’t seen any opposition and hadn’t fired a shot”. Mind you, I saw the same player the following day with the biggest smile on his face, as he led a bunker assault.
As light started to fade on Saturday afternoon, the final objective was to defend a blast-sheltered building (codename “Amazon”) and witnessed some really great play, as first one then the other team took and lost possession. Open to the front and standing right on the edge of the trees to the rear, it was always going to be difficult to defend, as both teams soon found out.
End-ex was called and it was back to HQ for debriefings – but this was not the end of the day.
For those players who were staying on, Andy had something special in store, in the form of the aptly-named “Kill House”. This two-story structure stands alone on an area of concrete pan, with open approaches on all sides and the objective was simple: Get in and clear it. Difficult enough in daylight but at night, in the pitch dark and with only one available entrance, not something for the feint-hearted. Judging by the adrenalinised players that trooped back into the HQ a few hours later, it had been an exciting encounter – there would be a few beers drunk before most headed off to grab some kip.
07:00 on Sunday morning was under brilliant sunshine and players soon started stirring as the smell of cooking bacon wafted through the HQ building – bacon sarnies, hot coffee, sunshine, fresh air and airsoft; the perfect recipe before another day of airsoft action!
If yesterday was all about stealth, then today would be about simply overwhelming the opposition with controlled aggression. Gone were the sneaky-beakies of the day before (although snipers would still play an active role), to be replaced with tactical assaults on a series of heavily defended targets. Time would still be an added enemy as each phase had to be completed within a certain timeframe, or abandoned. There would be laptops and USB sticks to find, HVTs to acquire and positions to be held and ammo limits would still apply, so no spray and pray.
The day started back at Amazon and although it looked completely different in daylight, it turned out to be just as difficult to hold for any length of time and prompted some amazing tactics and firefights.
I don’t know what happened to the time but it was suddenly time for the last phase of the day and it was time for me to leave – but I couldn’t. I just had to see how things would pan out in one of the most unique fighting environments I think I have ever seen on any airsoft site, anywhere.
In 1954, when the 81st’s mission changed to one of Fighter-Bomber, they armed their aircraft with both conventional and nuclear weapons. I do not know where they stored this ordnance but to the south of the airfield is an area that, to my untrained eye, looks a likely candidate.
Surrounded by two high barbed-wire topped fences, clearly spaced for patrols to move between them and with the tress cut back to expose the area outside the fences, a tall guard tower looks out over a series of grass bunkers. Double entry gates close the only entrance and the whole place screams one thing: Secure Area!
Hidden under each grass mound and entered via a pair of massive steel doors is a small concrete cave. We could only guess at what used to be stored in these dark places but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that it must have been something a bit “special”. Luckily one of the bunkers was open but a good look inside only served to heighten out thoughts about what it used to contain.
Positioned towards the back wall was a concrete cell, with massively thick walls. To one side of the cell the entrance was sealed by what I can only describe as a door that would not look out of place in a Swiss Bank Vault; a hugely heavy, 18-inch thick door with double combination and key locks and numerous deadbolts on all sides. Inside this a door barred the way to a very small, very secure room which I could quite believe would protect its contents from pretty much anything. However, for today it would become the location where the opposition would find their HVT – and also the location of the aforementioned player’s impression of the Cheshire Cat!
The long, narrow corridors between the bunkers, surrounded as they are by tall walls and flat-topped bunkers, all contained within a small fighting area, made for some intense action and pushed players to the limits of their communication and tactical skills – a great climax to a superb weekend of airsoft.
As the light again started to dwindle it was time for me to get back to the reality of a four-hour drive home but I’ll tell you something – it was worthy every minute of the return journey.
I’ve been trying to come up with a summary of The Airbase in just a few words but there is simply so much of it, I think I’ll leave it to one of the players instead, who said: “This has got to be the best airsoft site in the UK, if not the World!” I don’t know about that, but it is probably damn close!
Firefight Combat Simulations
Tel: 07973 240177
Google Maps: 52.126638, 1.433115 (switch to satellite view and zoom out!)
In December 1980, dozens of US Air Force personnel became eyewitnesses to the alleged multiple landings of “craft of an unknown origin”, in Rendlesham Forest, not far from both RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge. The events started with a Guard at the East Gate of RAF Woodbridge reporting that he has seen “lights” descending into the forest and continued over a three day period. They went on to become the most well-known UFO sightings in the UK, rivalling even those of Roswell.
Enquiries as to what actually happened have never been fully answered and the lights seen have been variously explained away as The Orford Ness Lighthouse, bright stars and even a fireball.