Lord Kitchener inspects troops

RAF Halton Heritage

Royal Air Force Halton has a long tradition and fine reputation as a training unit. It also has an illustrious history. The following merely outlines the salient points of the latter. Those seeking deeper knowledge of the station’s history should visit the Trenchard Museum at Henderson parade ground which contains several impressive displays of Halton’s past. There is also an archive containing the records, both paper and in digital form, of all former Halton Apprentices, and hundreds of photographs covering the Rothschilds era to the present day.


A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROYAL AIR FORCE HALTON


In September 1913, the owner of the Halton Estate, Alfred de Rothschild, invited the Army to use his land for its summer manoeuvres. The soldiers were joined by No 3 Squadron RFC with a handful of frail machines. The first recorded flight at Halton was on 18 September when one of the squadron's aircraft landed on the area known today as Maitland parade square. (Unfortunately the aircraft type was not recorded but was probably a Henry Farman or a Bleriot). On the outbreak of WW1, Alfred offered his estate to Lord Kitchener for military training. By 1916, Halton was covered in tents and wooden huts accommodating up to 20,000 infantry troops. Many of these young men were to die on the Western Front.


In 1917 there was a pressing need to expand technical training in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and Halton became the main training unit for aircraft mechanics. Permanent workshops were constructed to house the RFCs many trade specialities now named The School of Technical Training (Men). The School population expanded rapidly and, by the end of 1917 despite its spartan facilities, some 14,000 air mechanics had been trained. At the end of the war In November 1918 the station had under training 6000 airmen mechanics, 2000 women, and 2000 boys at a Boys Training Depot, all supported by 1,700 instructors. An Australian Flying Corps unit also lodged at Halton. Training courses varied in length between a few weeks and a few months.


On Alfred de Rothschild’s death in January 1918, his nephew Lionel inherited Halton House and it’s lands. The Air Board were keen to purchase the estate as an officer cadet college for the nacent Royal Air Force which had been formed on 1 April from an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Fortunately, Lionel was a willing seller and the estate including Halton House was purchased by the War Office in 1919 for £112,000. The was about a quarter of the probate value of the estate; clearly a bargain for the War Office (now MOD).


RAF Halton Heritage Following the end of WW1, Trenchard’s vision of a permanent RAF was published in a now famous memorandum which was endorsed by Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for Air, in December 1919. An RAF Apprentice Scheme based at Halton, was a key thrust in the paper. Trenchard believed that the only way to recruit high quality mechanics for the ever-more technical Service was to train them internally. At the heart of his vision was the recruitment of well educated boys between the ages of 15 and 16 who, because of their resourcefulness and intelligence, could rapidly absorb the necessary technical training , and thereby complete their apprenticeship in 3 years, instead of the standard 5 years in civilian life.


The first Entry of some 500 boys arrived in January 1922 to be accommodated in permanent buildings erected especially for the school now named No 1 School of Technical Training. Trenchard envisaged ex -apprentices going on to form almost 40% of the RAF’s groundcrew and more than 60% of it’s skilled tradesmen. An important added benefit was that such training would foster a spirit in the RAF on which so much was to depend in the future.


After 73 distinguished years during which 40,000 boys were trained, the Halton Apprentice Scheme ended, leaving a legacy of excellence in aircraft engineering acknowledged world-wide. This international recognition brought boys from many old commonwealth and foreign countries to Halton to serve apprenticeships before returning to help establish their own national air forces.The achievements of former Halton apprentices, both within and without the Service are legion. In recognition of its outstanding contribution to the country in peace and war, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded Her Colour to the School in July 1952. As this Colour was received from Her Majesty by a Sergeant Apprentice, it is unique in being the only Colour which can be carried by an NCO. Moreover, it is the only Colour ever presented to a military youth training school in any of the Armed Services.


During WW2 the School also trained thousands of adult tradesmen and women providing a vast number of the maintenance crews needed during the conflict. And it continued adult training throughout the Cold War, and during the many other conflicts since 1945 and the present day. Halton has also trained many chefs, cooks and stewards at No 1 School of Cookery, based here for several decades. Last but not least, Halton is famous for it’s hospital opened by Princess Mary in 1927 and to which she graciously gave Her Name. Princess Mary Royal Air Force Hospital has an impressive history in medical science and the development of innovative surgical procedures.


Today Halton is the Gateway to the Royal Air Force of the 21st Century, and continues to uphold the Trenchard tradition of excellence. It no longer trains aircraft engineers, but the equally important support trades such as administration, catering, and logistics; leadership, management and career development are widely covered in the curriculum. Following in the footsteps of their apprentice predecessors, young recruits both male and female undergo 9 weeks’ basic training before embarking on their trade training. In October 1997, Halton was honoured with a Queen’s Colour in recognition of its outstanding contribution to training over many years.


The Halton spirit, the seeds of which were sown in the Royal Flying Corps, nurtured to maturity by generations of apprentices, is still evident in all activities carried out at Royal Air Force Halton today
The Trenchard Museum is open to the public every Tuesday from 10 to 4pm. Other days can be arranged on request. To visit, first make contact with the curators on 01296 624095 or trenchard63@btinternet.com

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