RAF Henlow centenary: 100 years of the UK’s best grass airfield

PUBLISHED: 16:13 08 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:13 08 May 2018

The RAF 100 Chipmunk Flypast at RAF Henlow to celebrate the air force's 100th birthday in April. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018

The RAF 100 Chipmunk Flypast at RAF Henlow to celebrate the air force's 100th birthday in April. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018

MOD Crown Copyright 2018

One would hardly know where to start a list of all the things that have changed since May 1918 – but Henlow’s Royal Air Force base has been there through it all.

The RAF 100 Chipmunk Flypast at RAF Henlow to celebrate the air force's 100th birthday. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018The RAF 100 Chipmunk Flypast at RAF Henlow to celebrate the air force's 100th birthday. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018

RAF Henlow officially opened on May 8, 1918 – towards the end of the First World War, and only a month after the air force itself was formed on April 1.

According to the base, it is one of only six stations still open that appears on the April 1918 RAF list, and owner of the best grass airfield in the UK.

But amid the celebrations at the base, the centenary is somewhat bittersweet – as Henlow is set to close next year, after more than 100 years of continuous operation.

The countless personnel who have served at Henlow over the years include Dave Thompson, who is now deputy curator of the RAF Signals Museum based there.

Hangars at RAF Henlow during the flypast. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018Hangars at RAF Henlow during the flypast. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018

“We are very proud of the fact that Henlow has achieved 100 years of continuous service – as far as we know the only station to achieve this,” Dave told the Comet.

“I personally served there for one year as a corporal in charge of a workshop area, in 1965.

“That’s the year when what is now the Battle of Britain Flight Lancaster left Henlow on the first leg of its new role. I watched it take off as it flew away to RAF Waddington, near Lincoln. Now we see it flying just about every summer, of course.

“I retired from full-time working there in 2006, my last 16 years as a civilian apprentice tutor. But by then I was already working at the signals museum, and we hope we can somehow keep the museum open in the future – even with the station closure hanging over us.”

Youngsters pose with the RAF flag during the centenary flypast at Henlow. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018Youngsters pose with the RAF flag during the centenary flypast at Henlow. Picture: Crown Copyright 2018

RAF Henlow formally opened a century ago this week with the arrival of the first station commander, Lt-Col Robert Stapleton-Cotton – who was accompanied by the first contingent of 40 airmen, posted in from RAF Farnborough.

It became the first parachute testing centre in 1920, and later housed the officers’ engineering school that moved there from Farnborough. In the 1930s, jet engine pioneer Sir Frank Whittle studied at the base’s technical college and spent time in charge of aero engine testing there.

After the Second World War began in 1939, Henlow became one of the biggest RAF maintenance units in the country and made an invaluable contribution to defeating the Nazis.

The base was used to assemble Hawker Hurricane fighters – built and tested in Canada before shipping to Britain in pieces, and reassembled at the base.

Flight Lieutenant Gavin Nicholson stands in the hangar that was built in 1917, originally to house aircraft for training flights, which now houses restored aircraft that have seen service with the RAF. Picture: STEPHEN HARVEYFlight Lieutenant Gavin Nicholson stands in the hangar that was built in 1917, originally to house aircraft for training flights, which now houses restored aircraft that have seen service with the RAF. Picture: STEPHEN HARVEY

After the war, Henlow became a base for signals engineering and a major RAF technical traiing college. Its airfield and original control tower, built using the empty crates the Hurricane planes were shipped in, featured in the 1969 film Battle of Britain.

As well as the signals museum, the base is also now home to restored historic aircraft in a hangar dating back to 1917.

These include a modified Tiger Moth plane called a Queen Bee, which land-to-air gunners used for target practice during the Second World War, and the bright red Chipmunk T10 plane in which Prince Charles learned to fly at RAF Tangmere and RAF Bassingbourn in the late 1960s.

Flight Lieutenant Gavin Nicholson, who has been involved in the planes’ restoration, said: “RAF Henlow has the best grass airfield in the UK, that has seen its creation from the First World War through the Second World War to the current day.”

This Chipmunk T10 housed at RAF Henlow, WP903, was the plane that Prince Charles used for flight training at Bassingbourn. Unlike other Chipmunks, this aircraft had a red light mounted on the cockpit window to signal to other aircraft when the prince was using it to fly. Picture: STEPHEN HARVEYThis Chipmunk T10 housed at RAF Henlow, WP903, was the plane that Prince Charles used for flight training at Bassingbourn. Unlike other Chipmunks, this aircraft had a red light mounted on the cockpit window to signal to other aircraft when the prince was using it to fly. Picture: STEPHEN HARVEY

Flying Officer Luke Pearce added: “It is important to celebrate the history at Royal Air Force Henlow. This will inspire the next generation of the Royal Air Force as we lead them into an exciting future.”

RAF Henlow is one of 13 Ministry of Defence sites being sold off by the government as part of a £1 billion savings programme. Some 780 homes are set to be built in its place.

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