Military activity on the site of RAF Henlow pre-dates the formation of the Royal Air Force, to the Summer of 1917 when the Royal Flying Corps purchased 226 acres of farmland.
The Royal Air Force was only 6 weeks old when Lt Col Robert Francis Stapleton-Cotton and a party of 40 airmen arrived from RAF Farnborough on 10 May 1918. The Lt Col was to become the first CO of RAF Henlow in August 1918. Although still under construction, the Depot had achieved a limited output of Bristol Fighters and De Havilland aircraft. In the original list of RAF Stations for April 1918, Henlow counts among only 5 other stations which remain open as RAF stations today: Halton, Leuchars, Northolt, Waddington and Wittering.
During the war years, RAF Henlow became one of the largest RAF Maintenance Units in the country and made an invaluable contribution to the war effort. It is a proud part of our history that RAF Henlow contributed (albeit indirectly) to the Battle of Britain, repairing Hurricanes that were damaged during the Battle. After the 2nd World War, a new role developed for the station, that of radio equipment calibration and signals development.
Through the years RAF Henlow has been home to:
The Parachute Test Unit
RAF Henlow has had a long association with parachute testing, which began in 1925. From the early days of Research and Development into parachute safety, the station evolved and saw the development of specialist equipment for the Special Operations Executive and Special Forces Units. Testing is still undertaken in the local area, not by the RAF, but by Irving Aerospace of Letchworth who undertake tests in direct support of the Armed Forces. Irving established themselves at Letchworth due to the proximity of RAF Henlow.
The Royal Air Force Technical College
On 15 August 1947 the School of Aeronautical Engineering became the RAF Technical College. The increasing complexity of modern aircraft and weapons systems made necessary a highly specialised and intensive technical training for the officers who were to be responsible for them. The College consisted of the College Headquarters, Basic Studies Wing, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Weapons Systems Engineering Wings, and a Cadet Wing which dealt with the officer and general service training of cadets. It also ran courses on guided weapons, advanced specialisations and post graduate studies.
The OCTU years
The RAF Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU), which arrived from Feltwell in 1966, was responsible for the initial training of over 60% of the newly commissioned officers entering service with the RAF. It had been set up at RAF Millom, Cumberland, in 1952, later moving to Jurby, Isle of Man, and then Feltwell in 1963. Its commitments included RAF and WRAF officers for all ground branches, and also airmen aircrew who were to be commissioned in the GD Branch. Unlike Cranwell and the Aircrew Officers’ Training School at Church Fenton, the OCTU did not combine specialist professional training with officer training; it provided only the basic training common to all RAF and WRAF officers. Only on successful completion of the course did newly-commissioned officers undergo specialised professional training at other units before taking up their first appointments.
The OCTU provided 3 types of course: a one-month course for newly-commissioned entrants to the Medical, Dental and Chaplains’ Branches, the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service, and to re-entrant officers; an OCTU Preparatory Course of 2 months duration provided for young men and women between the ages of 17½ and 22 years, who had no professional qualifications, to prepare them for entry to the OCTU Main Course, which lasted 4 months.
During the mid 1970s, the task of the Officer Cadet Training Unit was increased: OCTU became responsible for 80% of initial officer training. However, in 1977 it was decided that the initial training of officers would be better served from a single-gate method of entry and OCTU left Henlow on 24th April 1980. Since then, all officer training whether for graduates, non-graduates, serving airmen and for specialists such as doctors, dentists, nurses and padres, has taken place at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell. During the OCTU’s time at Henlow, a conservative estimate gives the total number of officers trained to be in excess of 10,000.
616 Volunteer Gliding School
No 616 Gliding School was formed at RAF Henlow in 1958 to provide gliding training and experience for local ATC and CCF cadets. The Air Cadets Headquarters (Central and East) was formed in January 1969 at RAF Oakington and moved to RAF Henlow in December 1974.
Signals and Communications
RAF Henlow has historically played an important part of developing military communications systems. In 1947 the Signal Development Unit (SDU) was moved from West Drayton to Henlow. The work of the SDU at Henlow was concerned mainly with the servicing, modification, manufacture and installation of communications equipment. This included the construction of radio vehicles and other associated equipment. Much of the original workshop facilities were used to full advantage. The old foundry was employed in casting wheels and numerous other accessories.
RAF Henlow – The Film Set
In the 1960s, a number of pre-WWII aircraft were flown into Henlow for preservation on behalf of the RAF Museum. This could be the reason why, in September 1964 the film “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” was filmed at the Station, using aircraft from the Shuttleworth Collection, such as the Bristol Boxkite Replica. A number of Station personnel also donned period costumes and appeared as extras. In September of the following year the BBC came to Henlow to film a production called “Pilots and Planes” and in April 1968 the skies over Henlow came alive as Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and Stukas assembled for the film “Battle of Britain
The Falklands War
The Falklands crisis received much media publicity especially when at the end of March 1982 it was decided to send a military task force to attempt to recapture the Islands. This was also a time of great activity at Henlow in support of the conflict and, to co-ordinate the efforts of the Radio Engineering unit ( REU), a Task Management Squadron was formed. One urgent task was the provision of secure speech systems for use in the UK and at Ascension Island. These were manufactured by the REU whose other tasks included modification kits for Puma and Chinook helicopters. The provision of radar and radio communications for Port Stanley Airfield was a major task, which included the Station providing and supplying various different radar types. Many radio links for HF, VHF and UHF were assembled with their associated control units, aerials and masts. Some 20 Station personnel were airlifted out to install the radio links.
RAF Signals Engineering Establishment
The roots of the Royal Air Force Signals Engineering Establishment (RAFSEE) are to be found in three Signals Groups which formed during the second World War: No. 2 Group in Bomber Command, with World-wide responsibilities for communications and airfield facilities, No 60 Group in Fighter Command, which was concerned with ground radar; No 100 Group in Bomber Command and also No 80 Wing which both specialised in Radio Counter Measures (RCM), air and ground respectively. By the end of the war most of these functions were combined to form No 90 Group. In 1958 the Group was given command status, but this was removed and subsumed within the newly formed Strike Command, in
a rationalization of resources, in 1969. In 1973 the title was changed to the Royal Air Force Support Command Signals Headquarters (RAFSCSHQ).
RAF Henlow in recent times
Joint Arms Control Implementation Group
Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), the UK’s military Arms Control Verification Centre, has been based at RAF Henlow since May 1996. The Group’s role is to implement a variety of international arms control treaties and related agreements, which the UK has signed since the end of the Cold War. All these agreements seek to enhance security and promote confidence and openness in military matters amongst nations. Some of the treaties aim to remove or lower holdings of major war fighting equipments, whilst the Open Skies Treaty gives access to former adversaries’ air space and allows us to take aerial photography. However, the overall effect of all the agreements is to reduce the risk of future major conflict in Europe.
Headquarters Provost Marshal (RAF) and No1 (Specialist) Police Wing
Headquarters Provost Marshal (RAF) (HQ PM(RAF)) moved to RAF Henlow in November 1998, under the title of Headquarters RAF Provost & Security Services (HQ RAF P&SS), from RAF Rudloe Manor where it had been located since 1975. On 1 April 2005 the specialist policing and security functions were reorganised to configure for crisis and adapt for peace, rebrigading as the new HQ PM(RAF) and an operational wing – No1 (Specialist) Police Wing (SPW). The Unit is commanded by a Group Captain of the Provost specialisation and exercises command and control over all HQ PM(RAF) and SPW personnel. The Headquarters is responsible for all RAF Policing Policy and Standards. SPW is a High Readiness unit, established to conduct high and intermediate-level provost and security activities in support of wider Force Protection (FP) and Defensive Information Operations (DIO).
RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine
RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine (RAF CAM) was founded on 1 December 1998 from the amalgamation of the School of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough and the Aviation Medicine
Training Centre at RAF North Luffenham. RAF CAM expanded in 2000 when the RAF Medical Board moved from the Station Medical Centre at Henlow to the RAF CAM site and came under the command and control of RAF CAM. In June 2000 the RAF Institute of Health moved from RAF Halton to RAF CAM.RAF CAM currently consists of 4 Wings:
- Occupational and Environmental Medicine Wing
Within Aviation Medicine Wg is included the evaluation and testing of new aircrew clothing and equipment, modification of equipment and the evaluation of mid-life upgrades; accident investigation, which involves medical aspects of aircrew injuries and the evaluation of aircrew survival aids, ejection seats, parachutes, helmets and aircrew clothing. The training section teaches aviation medicine topics to both aircrew and medical officers, while the aviation physiology section carries out operationally focused research, some of which is carried out in conjunction with King’s College, London.