Runway: 02/20 - 2550m/... - concrete (CLOSED)
Runway: 10/28 - 1600m/... - concrete (CLOSED)
Air field Laon-Couvron (french: Aérodrome de Laon-Couvron or Base Aerienne Laon-Couvron, also known as Laon-Couvron Air Base) is a former airfield located northwest of the city of Laon in the Aisne department, Picardy, France.
WW1 Couvron airfield was north of the village; south of the futur Couvron large airfield were two German airfields, one of which was used some time by French aeronautique militaire in 1918-1919. when the Germans build an airstrip here for defending the Paris Gun, a.k.a. "Big Bertha". Forming the headquarters of Groupement de Chasse 23 (Fighter Group 23) with G.C. II/2 being the operational squadron. The squadron had about 26 Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters assigned, along with 2 Curtiss Hawk 75s in May 1940, just prior to the Battle of France.
The airfield was seized by the Germans in late May during the Battle of France. The Luftwaffe quickly moved in combat strike units to continue the Blitzkrieg against the French and British Expeditionary Force units in the battle.
Known units assigned during that time were:
Jagdgeschwader53 (JG53) from 26 May until 1 June 1940, flying the Messerschmitt Bf109E
Jagdgeschwader2 (JG2) from 26 May until 16 June 1940, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109E
Sturzkampfgeschwader2 (SKG2) from 12 June until July 1940, flying the Junkers Ju 87B Stuka
The Battle of France saw JG53 score heavily during May and June 1940 against Armee de l'Air and Royal Air Force forces, while JG2 was tasked with escorting raids and defending German airspace to the south of Heinz Guderian's Panzer forces which were encircling the French and the British Expeditionary Force. SKG2 provided air-ground support of Wehrmacht units that were moving rapidly south into France and along the English Channel coast against mostly French Army units.
In the immediate aftermath of the German victory in France, the Luftwaffe moved in Kampfgeschwader77 (KG77), a bomber wing initially equipped with Dornier Do 17Z, and with Junkers Ju 88As from mid July 1940 onwards. It was tasked with carrying out raids on England during the Battle of Britain. Starting out with 35 Ju-88s, this unit suffered the loss of 9 Ju-88s on a single mission against Gravesend on 18 September, one of the highest losses of any units in a single mission. On 27 September I./KG 77 lost six J 88s when raiding London, while II./KG 77 lost another six on the same night. In February 1941, the unit was moved to Reims.
As soon as the bombers moved out, the Luftwaffe started improving the airfield, putting down two 1600m concrete runways (02/20 and 10/28) and concrete taxiways, dispersal hardstands and improved the support station and barracks. The improved airfield came back onto operational status when a Luftwaffe pathfinder group, Kampfgeschwader100 (KG100) moved in on 7 October 1942. This group, flying He-111H, led night bombing attacks over England for other Luftwaffe units. It remained until December 1942 when it moved to Glifada, Greece (Athens). The airfield then remained peaceful for more than a year.
Kampfgeschwader101 (KG101) moved in in March 1944, followed by Kampfgeschwader30 (KG30) in July 1944. KG101 was part of the Mistel (English: Mistletoe) project, in which Junkers Ju-88A bombers were controlled by a Messerschmitt Bf 109E mounted on top which controlled the combination. At launch point the Ju88 would separate and fly under guidance to its target with a shaped 1,800 kg charge at the nose of the aircraft, as an unmanned powered bomb. KG101 flew several attacks against hardened Allied targets along the English channel coast with this combination, and later KG30 flew conventional bombing attacks against Allied harbors in newly-liberated areas of the French Channel coast. These activities drew Allied attention to the base, and so it was attacked by B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Forces' 100th Bombardment Group on 5 May 1944.
While the bombers moved out, the Luftwaffe turned Laon-Couvron into a fighter-interceptor base, with Jagdgeschwader27 (JG27) flying Bf-109G day interceptors against Eighth Air Force bomber groups over Occupied Europe. Largely due to its use as a base for interceptors, Laon-Couvron was attacked by USAAF Ninth Air Force B-26 Marauder medium bombers and P-47 Thunderbolts. The attacks were timed to have the maximum effect possible to keep the interceptors pinned down on the ground and be unable to attack while Eighth Air Force heavy bombers (B-17s, B-24s) were within interception range of the Luftwaffe aircraft assigned to the base. USAAF Ninth Air Force B-26 Marauder medium bombers and P-47 Thunderbolts would attack, mostly with 500-pound General-Purpose bombs, unguided rockets and .50 caliber machine gun sweeps. P-51 Mustang fighter-escort groups of Eighth Air Force would drop down on their return back to England and attack the base with a fighter sweep and attack any target of opportunity to be found at the airfield.
Late in August 1944 the Laon area was liberated by the Third Army and Laon-Couvron was captured around 7 September. The airfield was repaired by the IX Engineering Command, 820th Engineer Aviation Battalion, and declared operationally ready for combat on 10 September. Under American control it was designated as Advanced Landing Ground "A-70 Laon-Couvron".
Ninth Air Force assigned the 50th Fighter Group and based P-47 Thunderbolt fighters to the airfield on 15 September, which remained until 28 September. The fighters flew support missions during the Allied invasion of France, patrolling roads, strafing German military vehicles and dropping bombs on gun emplacements, anti-aircraft artillery and concentrations of German troops if spotted. B-26 Marauder-equipped 409th Bombardment Group arrived in February 1945 and remained at the base until June when the base was closed. Laon Air Base was returned to the French Air Ministry on 23 October 1945.
Under French control the base was partly abandoned for several years. The southern dispersal site was used to store surplus war supplies for some time. The French Air Ministry leased the remaining lands, concrete runways, structures and all, out to farmers for agricultural use, after having sent in unexploded ordnance teams to remove any remaining dangerous munitions.
Laon-Couvron in 1949. Clearly visible are the two german built runways. Less obvious are the rows of war surplus stored on the southern dispersal area (IGN, via Géoportail.fr).
5 years after the war, as a result of the perceived Cold War threat of the Soviet Union, the air base at Laon-Couvron was offered to the United States Air Force by the French Air Ministry as part of the French commitment to NATO in order to establish a modern Air Force Base at the site. During the negotiations about selected sites the World War II airfield at Laon-Couvron was initially proposed by the USAF to become a Light Bomber air base and also an Air Division Headquarters base. The base was chosen because the USAF had historical ties to the base during its use in World War II and the base was unused at the time. An agreement was reached with the French Air Ministry in early 1951 allowing the Americans to return to Laon-Couvron and redevelop the base so a USAF light bomber wing could be stationed there as soon as possible.
On 15 June 1951 construction began to upgrade the wartime facilities to NATO standards. When USAF engineers arrived they found the base much as the USAAF had left it in 1945, with wrecked hangars and support facilities full of garbage and vermin after years of abandonment, still in ruins from the numerous bombing raids, two patched runways, and various aircraft wrecks moved off the grass areas which were leased to farmers in the postwar years. The entire base had to be bulldozed and cleared before construction could begin. New water wells were dug and new water lines and sewage pipes were laid and a new water treatment plant, along with upgraded roads were built. In 1952, a new 8000ft jet runway was constructed over the existing wartime secondary runway (02/20), the primary was resurfaced to be used as a taxiway to a new maintenance support site. The first USAF unit to use Laon-Couvron AB was the activated Air National Guard 126th Bombardment Wing, flying the World War II vintage Douglas B-26B/C "Invader" light bomber. The wing consisted of the 108th, 168th and 180th Bomb Squadrons (Light). Their aircraft were marked by various color bands on the vertical stabilizer and rudder: Black/Yellow/Blue for the 108th; Black/Yellow/Red for the 168th, and Black/Yellow/Green for the 180th. The 126th BW was called to active service on 1 April 1951 and was initially deployed to Bordeaux AB in November 1951, but on 25 May 1952 the wing was relocated to Laon-Couvron, with Bordeaux becoming a support base. A total of 5 B-26Bs, 6 TB-26Bs, and 26 B-26Cs were transferred from Bordeaux, and an additional 48 B-26C's painted black and equipped for night missions were deployed from CONUS to Laon-Couvron. At Laon, the 126th BW used its B-26's for training and maneuvers at Laon. The summer weather was excellent, allowinging the wing to fly about 1,200 hours per month. The squadrons did weapons training with air to ground gunnery and bombing missions at Wheelus AB, Tripoli, Libya. Air to ground rocket firings were conducted at ranges off the English coast. Amazingly, napalm training was done by dropping the napalm tanks on Laon AB parallel to the runway, as a suitable range could not be found anywhere else. USAF Project 7019 required one crew per squadron (pilot, navigator, and gunner) began departing every month for a 60-day combat tour in Korea. At the same time, training of French B-26 crews continued at Laon. Exercises involving US and NATO ground forces, with the 126th supplying close air support, continued at various exercises in Belgium, France, and Germany. In addition, radar calibration, MSQ-1 radar directed bombing, and night cross-country navigation training missions added to the busy flying schedule until December. then on midnight of the 31st, they were relieved from active duty and transferred, without personnel and equipment, back to the control of the Illinois Air National Guard on 1 January 1953. At the same time, the flying assets of the 126th Bomb Wing (Light) were transferred to the 38th Tactical Bombardment Wing (Light). The 38th's squadrons were designated the 71st, 405th, and 822nd Bomb Squadrons, which continued flying the B-26's until 1956.
As main air bases such as Laon-Couvron became operational, USAFE planners had decided on the best dispersal of tactical aircraft against enemy counter air strikes using both conventional and nuclear weapons. Their goal was to have no more than one squadron at a single base in the event of war. The 1954 concept would place one squadron forward on alert in West Germany, one squadron at a DOB (Dispersed Operating Base) in France (Laon-Athies in case of Laon-Couvron), and one squadron at its main air base. The design of the main air base was to park aircraft as far apart as possible by the construction of a circular system of hardstands (marguerite) that could be revetted later with earth for added protection. Typically the margueriete consisted of fifteen to eighteen hardstands around a large central hangar. Each hardstand held one or two aircraft, and allowed the planes to be spaced approximately 150feet (50meters) apart. Each squadron was assigned its own separate hangar/hardstand complex.
The DOB concept was considered by all to be worth the costs and operational hardships. Usually one tactical squadron would fly to a DOB and operate for a week or two while undergoing an operational readiness inspection. The maintenance sections would pack up their shop semitrailers, drive to the DOB, set up the camp site and support a very active flying schedule. The other Laon air base, Laon-Athies, is only two minutes flying time away.
Douglas B-26C, #44-35549 of the 180th Light Bombardment Squadron (Wikipedia).
In April 1955 the 38th Bomb Wing converted to the Martin B-57 "Canberra", and with their arrival the B-26's were returned to CONUS. License produced for the US by the Martin company because English Electric was unable to meet the USAF delivery schedule, a total of 49 B-57B and 8 2-seat B-57C models were deployed to Laon. The B-57 mission was to provide a nuclear deterrent for NATO and to deliver nuclear weapons against pre-selected targets, by day or by night. The aircraft at Laon were painted gloss black. An aerobatic team called the Black Knights was organized using five B-57's, which performed at several air shows around Western Europe, including the 1957 Paris Air Show. The Black Knights were the only tactical bomber aerobatic team in the world.
Laon-Couvron in March 1956. Clearly a lot of work had been done since lengthening the 02/20 runway in 1951. Most visible changes are the three 'marguerites'. The aircraft parked on them are all black Martin B-57 Canberras (IGN, via Géoportail.fr).
Martin B-57B-MA Serial 52-1560 of the 71st Light Bomber Squadron - 1957. This aircraft was also one of the "Black Knights" aerial acrobatic team. (Wikipedia).
In 1958, General De Gaulle announced that all nuclear weapons and delivery aircraft had to be put under French command, or removed from French soil by July 1958. Because NATO strategy had evolved into "massive nuclear retaliation" and NATO did not intend to hand over control, this meant all tactical fighter and bombing wings had to leave France.
For the 38th TBW this meant it was to be inactivated at Laon on 18 June 1958. Redesignated as the 38th Tactical Missile Wing it stood up again at Hahn Air Base West Germany, operating and maintaining the TM-61 "Matador" cruise missile. The support personnel of the 38th were reassigned to the incoming 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the aircraft were sent back to CONUS to be reassigned or converted.
With the forced withdrawal of the nuclear-equipped B-57's from France, USAFE decided to move the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, assigned to Sembach AB in West Germany, to Laon. As the flying facilities at Sembach were inadequate and the base was too small to support flying operations, this move happened to be in accordance with USAFEs plan to realign the posture of various bases in anticipation of aircraft conversion.
On 10 July 1958 66th TRW Wing Headquarters was transferred to Laon, but its flying squadrons (32nd, 38th, 302nd and 303rd TRS) were located at Phalsbourg AB until considerable runway improvements, in particular the preparation of runway overuns could be made at Laon.
In September, 64 RF-84F "Thunderstreak" tactical reconnaissance aircraft of 66TRW arrived at Laon. In a public relations exercise just prior to the move, 302TRS engaged in some large scale oblique photo coverage of all towns and cities within a 30 mile radius of Laon, presenting the processed photos to the various town and city officials as a means of introducing the newcomers to the community. In early 1959 it was announced that 302 and 303TRS were to be deactivated to have their places taken by 17 and 18TRS from Shaw AFB, South Carolina. Around the same time (in January 1959), the announcement was made that 32 and 38 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons were to receive the McDonnell RF-101C "Voodoo". The two Shaw units arrived at Laon in May 1959, with the 302nd and 303rd being officially deactivated on 20 June. Many of the pilots of the 302nd and 303rd squadrons were transferred to the new Voodoo squadrons. All the RF-84s were ferried to the IRAN facility at Naples for eventual distribution to NATO forces.
A U.S. Air Force McDonnell RF-101C-55-MC Voodoo (s/n 56-0217) of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, Laon-Couvron Air Base, France, 1959.
The combination green, yellow, blue and red stripes on the tail signified the wing commander's aircraft. (Wikipedia).
On 7 March 1966, Gen. Charles De Gaulle announced that France would withdraw from NATO's military structure but not leave the political organization. NATO forces were given one year (until 1 April 1967) to leave France. On 10 June 1966 the 7379th Tactical Group was activated at Laon AB to facilitate the closure of the base. As there was no space available in Germany to relocate the 66th TRW, Strategic Air Command's standby base at RAF Upper Heyford, England, was transferred to USAFE and the wing relocated to the UK after eight years at Laon AB. Relocation of the 66th TRW was completed by November 1966.
Under command of the US Embassy in Paris, 7260th Support Group-DET18 MLS, provided security, while a caretaker force with 6 French nationals for records and utility system operations remained until 30 March 1967 when the remaining USAF equipment and personnel were transferred out of Laon and the base was returned to the French.
After the withdrawal of the USAF, the French Army moved into Laon Air Base and renamed the facility 'Quartier Mangin sur l'ancienne base de Couvron' (Mangin Quarters on the old airfield of Couvron). It became home to the 4th Regiment Artillery, equipped with nuclear tipped Pluton Short Range Missiles.
Laon-Couvron in May 1973, about 6 years after the Americans had left the base. With the exception of some construction on the southern dispersal area, the French Army had nod made very obvious changes to the former airfield yet. The runway was seemingly still active, as it still carries 3/21 on its ends, and does not have large 'X' markings to indicate they are closed (IGN, via Géoportail.fr).
Laon-Couvron airfield in 1979. Although faded, the runway markings are still in place. More obvious changes are the large amount of construction on the southern 'marguerite', almost completely erasing all evidence of the dispersal, and the secure facility on the northeast 'marguerite' which alledgedly was the Special Ammunitions Storage ('special', indicating 'nuclear weapons') of the 4th Regiment Artillery (IGN, via Géoportail.fr).
With the exception of a running track between the runway and the main taxi track, nothing seemed different in this May 1982 photo. The running track IS significant however, because its presence reveals that the runway was permanently closed, which is further proven by two pairs of 'X' on either end of the runway (only visible in the original photo). Note that the old German dispersal south of the base still exists, although it has not been part of the base complex since the 1950s (IGN, via Géoportail.fr).
Since 1980 no major changes have taken place at the base. Even after almost half a century of use by the French Army much of the airbase remains.
Many of the old USAF buildings remain at the technical area and support base, and are used by the French.
The 4th Regiment Artillery was dissolved in 1991 and since it was the home of the 1er Régiment d'Artillerie de Marine (1er RAMa), the self-propelled First Marine Artillery Regiment, until they were relocated to Châlons-en-Champagne in 2012. Since, the facility has been closed.
The three large hangars on the 'marguerite' parking ramps have been removed, with new-purpose-built structures being erected on 2 of the three areas. The northwestern squadron dispersal is still relatively intact albeit with deteriorating hardstands; the marguerite to the east is built over with a secure facillity.
The main runway, although no longer used, appears to be well maintained when seen from the air, along with the main taxiway. A small section of the runway was used for helicopter operations. The entire length of the German 10/28 runway is still visible, having been used as an east-west access road and storage area for excess vehicles.
A large area on the southwest side of the base consists of abandoned streets, with concrete foundations of former buildings still remaining in the grass areas between them. In the USAFE/NATO era, this was where the Americans were housed.
After the closure of the base in 2012, the base is to be converted into an automobile racing circuit, to be completed in 2015. The project is getting finance from the French state, several local entities and from former Formula 1 pilot Jonathan Palmer, who will invest between 8 and 10 million Euros (25% of the budget) from his own private funds. Already owning already 5 other circuits of this type in the United Kingdom, the Briton has chosen this site to realise a sixth (and the first one on mainland Europe) at the old Laon Couvron military base .
The former Laon-Couvron Air Base, 2006 (Google Earth).
The former Laon-Couvron Air Base and Laon/Athies Air Base are very close to each other, as is visible in this Google Earth Shot.