The Royal Air Force (RAF) was founded on 1st April 1918.
The formation of a new and separate service was, at the time, a controversial decision and it reflected the growing role of airpower in warfare, and the need for a single command of air research, training, resources and operations.
Historic England has helped protect some of the structures that illustrate key achievements of the RAF during the twentieth century. Here we take a look at 9 of them.
1. RAF Stow Maries, Essex
Towards the end of the First World War, the newly formed RAF took over a number of airfields that had been used to protect London from the new threat of aerial attack from airships and Gotha bombers. RAF Stow Maries, listed Grade II*, is a well-preserved example of this type of base and illustrates the ‘high street’ layout before the dispersal of buildings was identified as a key element in surviving aerial attack.
The world’s first independent air force was founded by the first Chief of Staff, General Sir Hugh Trenchard, who concentrated upon developing its strategic role as an offensive bomber force. His primary considerations were in laying the foundations for a technology-based service, through the training of officers and technicians. The RAF was conceived as a meritocracy and in 1944, the Halton Apprentice Scheme allowed any entrant the opportunity to develop a full career and possibly go on to become Chief of Staff.
2. RAF Bicester, Oxfordshire
More than 100 airbases were built between 1923 and 1939. RAF Bicester, a Scheduled Monument, is one such airfield and is the most complete surviving bomber site from this period. The grass flying field still survives with its 1939 boundaries largely intact, bounded by a group of bomb stores from 1928-29 and airfield defences built in the early stages of the war. The remains include the listed hangars, and other key structures within this military landscape
Heritage at Risk funding has been provided by Historic England to help the Bicester Heritage Trust to repair eight defendable air-raid shelters and one gun emplacement.
A defended air-raid shelter at RAF Bicester before and after repair. © Historic England and Bicester Heritage Trust
3. RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire
RAF Duxford (centred on the Operations block, Grade II*) represents one of the finest and best-preserved examples of an RAF fighter base, representative of the period up to 1945.
The 38 listed buildings include a uniquely complete First World War technical group, in addition to technical and domestic buildings that are typical of the inter-war Expansion Period of the RAF. Duxford played an important role in the Battle of Britain and provided fighter support for the American Eight Air Force daylight bombing raids.
4. RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire
By 1933, training of RAF officers was established in a new purpose built facility at RAF Cranwell, listed Grade II*, which was designed by the Officer of Works architect J G West, FRIBA. The monumental elevations and clock tower were intended to promote a sense of pride and history for the newly formed service.
5. RAF Biggin Hill, London
Perhaps the Second World War provided the greatest test for the independent air force. The fighter pens at Biggin Hill (listed Grade II) are of the early E-type design and recognised as being nationally rare. Biggin Hill’s location south of London guaranteed its front line involvement in fighter operations throughout the Second World War, from the Battle of France to the support of daylight raids by Bomber Command. By the end of the war more enemy aircraft had been destroyed by squadrons based at Biggin Hill than any other airfield and it is probably the most famous of the Battle of Britain airfields.
6. Underground operations room at 11 Group HQ, London
The underground operations room at 11 Group HQ (listed Grade I) was built in 1938 and played a role of fundamental importance in the economic marshalling of air defence that sustained victory in the Battle of Britain and in other key actions of the Second World War.
7. Building 58 at RAF Barnham, Suffolk
In the post-war age the RAF was responsible for delivering our nuclear deterrent. The atomic bomb store ‘Building 58’ (Grade II*), at the former RAF Barnham, was built to house components of the ‘Blue Danube’ atomic bomb. These bombs were designed to be delivered by new and futuristic V bombers such as the Victor.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 took western forces to the brink of a nuclear conflict. The Thor missile site at RAF North Luffenham (Grade II*) is a physical reminder of this tense period during which 59 of the 60 missiles were made ready to fire. The missiles were under a joint-key control by RAF and United States Air Force (USAF) officers.
8. RAF Dunsfold, Surrey
Defence from nuclear attack was also a key requirement. Military planners forecast that our primary RAF bases would bear the brunt of an attack within four minutes of the start of a nuclear conflict. Aircraft such as the Hunter fighter were used by the RAF in a quick reaction air defence role, where crews would be airborne inside the four-minute warning.
The V/STOL (Vertical Short Take Off and Landing) Harrier was designed to continue operating away from established airbases, after the first nuclear exchange. Both aircraft were developed at RAF Dunsfold, where the engine running pens and the VSTOL blast grid survive, with both listed at Grade II.
9. The RAF Museum, London
It is fitting that on the centenary of the RAF’s establishment, its place in military history is secured and represented by a dedicated museum. The museum fabric includes a pair of 1914 timber framed hangars with elliptical Belfast trusses and timber lattice supports (Grade II).
Written by Simon Hawkins, Assistant Listing Advisor in the South.
- 100 Years of the Royal Air Force
- Historic Military Aviation Sites: Conservation Guidance (updated in October 2016).