History of Royal Air Force Cranwell

1933 Photo of the college hall
1933 Photo of the college hall

Cranwell’s association with aviation began during World War I. The Admiralty needed to establish a series of air stations around the south and east coasts to supplement the coastguard system and to alert our shore defences against sea and air invasion. In 1915, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) sought to establish a single unit at which officers and ratings could be trained to fly aeroplanes, observer kite balloons and airships.

By November 1915, the Admiralty had requisitioned some 2,500 acres of farmland at Cranwell and in the following month, construction of a hutted camp and aircraft hangars began, as well as balloon sheds. The Royal Naval Air Service Central Training Establishment Cranwell was commissioned on 1 April 1916, under the command of Commodore Godfrey M. Paine.

Cranwell later became known as HMS Daedalus. In addition to flying training and airship operations, a Boys’ Training Wing was also established at Cranwell. Its task was to train Naval ratings as air mechanics and riggers.

With the amalgamation of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps on 1 April 1918, ownership of Cranwell was placed in the hands of the newly established RAF. The former Naval base title was replaced by the designation Royal Air Force Station Cranwell.

The Royal Air Force College opened on 5 February 1920 under the command of Air Commodore C.A.H. Longcroft. The Chief of the Air Staff’s message to the first entry of cadets left them in no doubt of his expectations for the College:

“We have to learn by experience how to organise and administer a great Service, both in peace and war, and you, who are present at the College in its first year, will, in future, be at the helm. Therefore, you will have to work your hardest, both as cadets at the College and subsequently as officers, in order to be capable of guiding this great Service through its early days and maintaining its traditions and efficiency in the years to come.”

In 1922, it was decided that the wartime Naval huts should be replaced by permanent college buildings. To save time and money, the task of designing the new college was given to the Ministry of Works. The plans received were extremely disappointing, so the architect, James West was taken to visit Wren’s Royal Hospital in Chelsea and the new design reflected this influence. The result is the Cranwell of today which so gracefully reflects the best of Wren’s ideas.

This prestigious building, known as College Hall, was completed in September 1933 at a cost of £321,000. The building was officially opened by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, in October 1934. In front of the College is its parade ground and a large circle of grass known as the Orange, where graduation ceremonies are still held today.

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