Bassingbourn Libyan troops 'threw village upside down'

Bassingbourn Barracks Image copyright PA
Image caption Bassingbourn Barracks has been home to the military since World War Two when it was an RAF base

The Cambridgeshire village of Bassingbourn and its barracks have a long and deeply intertwined relationship. But does that affinity remain, now that Libyan cadets stationed there have been convicted of sex offences in the area?

There is not much in Bassingbourn (population 4,000), aside from chocolate-box houses, a couple of pubs, a couple of schools, a newsagent and roadside barrows selling asparagus.

But the roar of warplanes and the stamping of military boots have been heard here since World War Two.

When the domestic training unit at its barracks shut in 2012, the site was mothballed for months, prompting uncertainty about its future.

So, when it was announced that 300 Libyan troops would be stationed there from June 2014, and that eventually 2,000 cadets would come, local people were delighted.

The training of Libyan forces was part of an international effort to support the country's democratic transition following the collapse of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011.

But what happened since has "thrown the village upside down", said Pat Moore, whose home of 14 years backs on to the barracks on Guise Lane.

Image caption The Libyan troops were the first of 2,000 due to be trained at the barracks near Cambridge

First there were tales of trainees going missing, being caught wandering in the village and shopping for alcohol at a nearby Tesco store, despite initially not being allowed unescorted outside the gates.

Then came the news that the soldiers had been arrested and charged with sex offences after making their way to nearby Cambridge in October.

And then came the recriminations. Discipline among the troops had been "extraordinarily difficult", said the head of the Army.

The government terminated the arrangement and Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that no Libyans who had been trained at the base should be granted asylum.

In December, it emerged the Ministry of Defence had been warned of "significant immigration, security and reputational risks to the UK" of allowing Libyan soldiers off the base.

Image copyright Terry Harris
Image caption The first arrivals were sent home early after five were charged with sex offences

Peter Robinson, chairman of Bassingbourn Parish Council, said he had seen photographs of what went on at the base, and had heard allegations of rape among the trainees.

"There was just a lack of control; they could not be disciplined," he said.

He said the MoD had not allowed evicted community sport groups back on to the base.

"There's a lot of ill feeling now. In the past we've always enjoyed pleasant relations with the barracks," said Mr Robinson.

"It won't be the forces that might be stationed there in the future's fault, but they won't be welcomed."

So now, with the base's future once again uncertain, what of those "reputational risks" to opinion in Bassingbourn?

"We now hate the MoD," said Mrs Moore.

"When we knew they [the Libyan trainees] were running wild, you had to make sure that your doors were locked and there was a time when it was really quite scary.

"It was like letting kids in a sweet shop. They were going mad on the drink."

Recently-retired Mrs Moore and her husband Tom said they first saw the Libyan soldiers when a group came over the fields near their house.

Image caption Libyan soldiers were seen escaping across fields off Fen Road
Image caption Guise Lane leads to the rear gate of the barracks

After reporting them to the barracks, a number of military vehicles were despatched to look for them.

"The place was like a sieve. There was no security at all outside the actual compound," said Mr Moore.

"All of a sudden these trucks came flying past. I flagged them down and said, 'You lost somebody?' They said, 'Yes, we have - there's a bunch of them gone missing'.

The military in Bassingbourn

  • The airfield at Bassingbourn first became an RAF training base in 1938
  • The Boeing B-17F bomber Memphis Belle completed 25 combat missions from Bassingbourn after the 91st Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces moved there in September 1942
  • The British Army took over the base in 1970
  • In the 1990s it became home to the Army Training Regiment
  • More than 50,000 soldiers were trained at Bassingbourn during four decades of Army occupation
  • The final tranche of Army recruits marched off the parade square in August 2012

"I asked, 'Is this the first night?' And they said, 'To be honest, this has been going on quite a while'. He said in some cases they had been digging under the fence to get out.

"They had vehicles positioned in different areas with soldiers with binoculars trying to look out for them."

Image caption The rear gate to Bassingbourn Barracks now says: "Closed by order of the QM"
Image caption To the right of the gate (bottom centre) is a hole in the fence, which has been blocked up

Another resident said he saw Libyan men walking along Guise Lane and pointed to a hole in the fence by the barracks' rear gate.

The hole has since been covered up, with razor-sharp wire placed on top.

Bryn White, who lives with his wife Margaret on Guise Lane, said people in the village had seen troops running across fields and vans driving around trying to pick them up.

"When they first announced they [the Libyans] were coming we were quite pleased that the barracks were going to be used again," said Mr White.

"But people were getting more and more alarmed and then we got the reports in Cambridge of what had gone on there, which made it a lot worse."

Image caption Bryn and Margaret White said the troops' behaviour was "alarming"

A village hairdresser, who did not want to be named, said customers spoke of soldiers leering at young women jogging in the village; being aggressive to shop staff when they were refused alcohol and hiding from guards in bushes.

"Being in a small little village you wouldn't think anything like that would be going on. We were all really shocked," she said.

Another resident said trust in the MoD "would never be the same again".

Image caption Libyan soldiers used to visit the Spar convenience store on Bassingbourn High Street
Image caption Many villagers still hope Bassingbourn's links with the military will remain

Mrs Moore said most villagers hoped the base could be used again for troops instead of being sold off for housing, as has happened at nearby Waterbeach, but whatever happens the relationship with the MoD may take years to mend.

"You can't trust them. You can't believe a word they say," she said.

The MoD has yet to comment on its relationship and reputation within the community.

In a report published earlier this year, it said security arrangements at the barracks were "inadequate" but concluded "little could have been done to avert what happened".

After publication, an MoD spokesman said: "We condemn the incidents that took place in Cambridge and Bassingbourn.

"We accept that communication with the local authorities and community was not good enough and we are now carefully considering how best to implement the report's recommendations."

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