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RAF Stations in Bedfordshire

Similar to many other regions of the UK, Bedfordshire saw many airfields and stations created in the years pre-WW2 and during the conflict, some as basic as cut strips of grass with decoy model aircraft; the aim to persuade Luftwaffe pilots and crews to drop their payloads away from their real targets. Here, we look at some of the best-known sites of the county that saw sustained RAF activity – those still in operation today, and those that have closed their doors for good.

Currently Active

RAF Henlow

RAF Henlow Station Sign

Metal Station Sign £19.99

Opened: 1918

One of the original stations that opened soon after the Royal Flying Corps was transformed into the Royal Air Force, it is one of only six that remain to this day: Halton, Leuchars, Northolt, Waddington and Wittering the others. However, its closure was announced in 2016 as part of cost-cutting exercise, and despite being pushed back several years, flying operations ceased in 2020 and it is expected all services will have been relocated by 2026.

It was initially a repair site for aircraft and the RAF’s first parachute testing centre, Squadron Nos. 19, 23, 40 and 80 making the station four miles north of Hitchin their home. During the Second World War it was used to assemble Hurricanes, becoming one of the largest RAF maintenance units in the country, personnel working day and night during the Battle of Britain in 1940 to patch up damaged planes.

Post-war, a technical training college was established at the site and Henlow was utilised for radio equipment calibration and signals development, and currently it houses the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine, the Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), elements of Defence Equipment and Support, and the Signals Museum.

RAF Cranfield/Cranfield Airport

Opened: 1937

While no longer in use as an RAF station, Cranfield started life pre-WW2 as a base for Nos. 62 and 82 Squadrons, No. 62 leaving for Singapore in August 1939. In August 1941, Cranfield became a night fighter training centre, and post-war it became the sight for a new College of Aeronautics (now Cranfield University), a centre best-known for its work developing the Harrier jump jet. The college was also used to service the aircraft of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with the sole remaining working Lancaster based at Cranfield until 1964.

Aerial view of present day Cranfield

(Aerial view of present day Cranfield)

Many RAF personnel have graduated at Cranfield, utilising its role as the MoD’s Academic Provider, its educational offering constantly updated to cope with changes in military design and technology. The airport and airfield, eight miles south west of Bedford, is used for a variety of business and private flights, along with continued work on research and development.

Closed Stations

RAF Cardington

Opened: 1917

Closed: 2000

Beginning life as private airship venture, 700-ft long hangars were constructed and two of the aircraft were built for the Admiralty, the site two miles south of Beford becoming the Royal Airship Works in 1919. Assembly of the infamous R101 was carried out in the late 1920s, the airship crashing in France in October 1930 resulting in the deaths of 48 of the 54 people on board, including Air Minster Lord Thomson, effectively ending Britain’s airship programme.

WAAF Barrage Balloon crews at RAF Cardington

(WAAF Barrage Balloon crews at RAF Cardington)

In the late 1930s barrage balloons were built at Cardington, the station becoming No. 1 RAF Balloon Training Unit responsible for the storage of balloons and training of operators, and in the late 1940s the two airship sheds were moved outside the site, the station becoming a reception unit for National Service – the Paras were also based there, using balloons to make their first drops.

The station and hangars were used for various research projects and made available for a number of different ventures including for film – the hangars utilised in a number of TV and film projects; a number of airship businesses have also been based at Cardington, most recently Hybrid Air Vehicles.

RAF Chicksands

Opened: 1937

Closed: 1997, taken over by British Army

The station 11 miles south of Bedford was used as a Signal Intelligence Collection (SIGINT) site throughout WW2, intercepting German communications and passing relevant information to Bletchley Park. In 1950, it was handed over to the USAF becoming the base for the 6940th, continuing its SIGINT work through the Cold War. In 1996 the USAF withdrew from the station and handed it back to the MoD.

RAF Podington

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1947

The airfield six miles south east of Wellingborough was used by several USAF units during 1942 and 1943 before the arrival of the 93rd airborne in September 1943 from RAF Alconbury in Cambridgeshire – two of the 93rd’s Boeing B-17s colliding on May 20, 1944 as they readied to depart on an early morning bombing raid in heavy fog, killing 21 crew members with the runway badly damaged.
Aerial photograph of Podington airfield: year 2000 picture overlaid with 1945 layout

(Aerial photograph of Podington airfield: year 2000 picture overlaid with 1945 layout)

It was the summer of 1945 that USAAF Station No. 109 reverted to RAF control, eventually closing in 1947 when the War Office took control. Used for various ventures since then including filming of the opening scene of The Prisoner TV series, Podington became Santa Pod, one of Europe’s top dragster racing circuits.

RAF Stanbridge

Opened: 1939

Closed: 2013

Opening as RAF Leighton Buzzard, Stanbridge was specifically designed to handle RAF communications, a telegraph and telephone exchange centre that allowed Bomber Command to link with all squadrons, playing an integral part in major operations like the Battle of Britain and D-Day. The site’s extensive communications network was also crucial during the Cold War, later becoming the RAF Supply Control Centre, RAFSCC, responsible for tracking logistics and supply records for the RAF across the world.

RAF Tempsford

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1947

The Control Tower at RAF Tempsford during the Second World War

(The Control Tower at RAF Tempsford during the Second World War)

Often described as the RAF’s most secret station during WW2, the site, two miles north east of Sandy, was home to 138 and 161 (Special Duty) Squadrons, tasked with dropping supplies and agents into occupied Europe, often using unarmed Lysanders to make personnel drops or pick-ups. Among the more memorable passengers either inserted into occupied Europe or returned to England were the first female agents dropped into France, Andree Borrel and Lise de Baissac (parachuted in on September 24, 1942), Violette Szabo, later immortalised in the film, Carve Her Name With Pride, and Francois Mitterand, later to become President of France.

RAF Thurleigh

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1997

RAF Thurleigh on 12 March 1943

(RAF Thurleigh on 12 March 1943)

Five miles north of Bedford, Thurleigh was built for Bomber Command but soon handed over to the USAAF in 1942, the runways improved so it could be used by B-17 Flying Fortresses on heavy bombing operations. Post-war, it became known as Royal Aircraft Establishment, RAE Bedford, with the runway further extended to accommodate the ill-fated Bristol Brabazon aircraft, a transatlantic passenger plane project that was eventually cancelled; the site was also used as a centre for research into aerospace technology. During the Covid pandemic, the airfield became famous as a storage site for new and used cars.

RAF Twinwood Farm

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1946

Aerial photograph of RAF Twinwood Farm on 28 March 1948

(Aerial photograph of RAF Twinwood Farm on 28 March 1948)

A WW2 RAF training centre located four miles north of Bedford, Twinwood Farm is perhaps best known as the last known location of Major Glenn Miller, the American band leader stationed in the UK during the war who boarded a plane at Twinwood heading for France but was never seen again.

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