Historical places, airship, Bedfordshire local history, airships, national heritage sites, historic preservation, attractions in the UK, heritage sites in the UK, historical monuments, historical landmarks, tourist attractions in the UK, places in UK to visit, tourist in England, historical tourism, R101 and R100 airships.

The Camp 1916-1938

First of all it is worth mentioning that in these years the site was known both as 'The Aerodrome' or 'Camp' with newspaper articles often using both terms.
Inevitably over the years Shortstown has always been linked to the Camp and in many ways it has been hard to separate the two when presenting this research. As we know the site came into being in 1916/17 and was overseen by the Short brothers to build Airships. However other industries operated in tandem and we know for example that from the very beginning a Gas plant was built to produce Hydrogen gas to fill the Airships. (Gas production continued for years after airship construction was abandoned.) There were also various offshoot aerial research projects going on in these years which came to the fore and made possible the sites survival in future decades.

RAW Badge cropped

In 1919 the government took over the site and it became known as The Royal Airship Works - this image shows the RAW emblem. (Image shown with the kind permission of John Day from his Ampthill Images Collection). During this time hundreds of Bedford men and women were employed building the R38 airship. Apart from the local workforce from Bedford there would have been members of the Royal Navy which oversaw Airships at that time - in a document outlining the history of the base from 1915 onwards collated by the late Mr Arthur Thurston a one time employee on the camp it is recorded that in these early years there were huts on site to cater for approx 230 officers, crewmembers and ground staff.
Following the crash of the R38 in 1921 Airship production was suspended and between 1921 and 1924 the number of employees fell - with mainly maintenance staff for the shed and plant remaining. However in 1924 the government took the decision to build two new airships one of which would be at Cardington so in the years following the site was again up to full capacity. At the same time research was undertaken in developing Balloons and much testing was done on these. The R101 crash in Oct 1930 signalled the end of all airship production in this country and so the workforce dwindled but there was still activity on the camp with both the Gas Plant and Balloon Units kept open.

RAF Cardington1

Barrage Balloons

Balloons have a long association with the Camp with low key research on these starting towards the end of The First World War and continuing throughout the Airship years and beyond so balloons would have been a familiar sight to Bedford people in these years. Around 1934/5 a Unit was formed at the base to test both Kite & Barrage balloons and in 1936 No 1 Balloon Training Unit was formed (known as No 1 BTU Cardington) as the research took on a more vital role with events in Europe taking a sinister turn.

Air Day May 1938 BP Box

(Image shown with permission of Beds & Luton Archive Services BP Box 227).

This photograph was taken in May 1938 and shows men operating a barrage balloon with the old airship mooring mast visible to the right. The balloons were fixed to lorries especially built and equipped to transport and manoeuvre them into place and men were taught specific driving\winch skills at the camp to operate them. Again thanks to Arthur's notes we know that three months training was needed to master the necessary skills (this time reduced to two as WW2 progressed)
In 1937 it was reported that 10 balloons were struck by lightning as they were lined up on the site and all were destroyed by fire.

With the increased threat of war more and more balloons were made and as a consequence greater supplies of gas had to be produced and again thanks to Arthur Thurston it is recorded that in 1938 modifications were made to the existing Gas Plant which doubled capacity.
Due to a shortage of men in 1940 it was decided that women were to be trained to operate these balloons and so in that year and until 1943 WAAFS were stationed at the base.

No 2 School of Recruits Training

The base was certainly busy at this time! Another section on site was No 2 School of Recruits Training - as the title suggests this was a centre set up to train new recruits to the RAF. This section was transferred in from RAF Henlow in 1937 but it soon became obvious that more accommodation would be needed on the camp for the numbers anticipated. More huts were built in 1938 to cater for this influx of men which became known as 3 Wing.

Civilians on camp
Of course all the various sections on the camp would need support in various forms from a civilian population which could provide ancillary services i.e. catering and this provided work for the people in Shortstown. It is also recorded that a Home Guard Company was formed on the station made up of civilian employees.

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