Page last updated at 07:24 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

St Athan defence base reveals its fighting nature

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales

A Hurricane fighter pictured in September 1939 (Photo courtesy SJ Bond)
St Athan's became a frontline airfield in the Battle of Britain with fighters accounting for a number of enemy

With a £12bn deal for a state-of-the-art military academy promised but not yet delivered, and the imminent winding up of their last aeroplane maintenance contract, walking around MoD St Athan, (formally RAF St Athan) you'd expect to see pensive faces.

But the truth is, uncertainty over the future is nothing new to the staff of the Vale of Glamorgan base, its entire history has been a 72-year battle for survival.

Originally conceived in 1938 as a maintenance base, the site was chosen because it was thought that south Wales would lie beyond the range of Luftwaffe bombers.

But within two years of 32 Squadron, Maintenance Unit (32MU) and 4 Squadron, School of Technical Training (4TT) moving in, the concept of a safe haven had been rendered obsolete.

For miles around RAF St. Athan, all you could see were fields upon fields of Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters and Wellingtons rusting as they waited their turn to be scrapped
Archivist Brian Acott

On 20 June 1940, a German attack on RAF St Athan brought the war to Wales for the very first time.

Brian Acott, who served 37 years with 4TT from 1955, is the base's archivist and military historian.

"Once the notion had been shattered that the RAF could have a site beyond the reach of the Luftwaffe, where they could maintain and repair aircraft at their leisure, the War Office began to question whether St Athan offered anything they didn't already have at other bases.

"The other problem was that at the height of the war, and particularly during the Battle of Britain, we were going through planes at such a rate, that the whole idea of even bothering to repair them at all seemed like King Canute trying to hold back the waves.

"So we had to re-invent ourselves for the first time, becoming experts in the reclamation of badly-needed spares from irreparably damaged aircraft, thus finding a niche to carry us through the rest of the war."

This niche was also to prove St Athan's salvation in the immediate post-war period. While RAF bases across the UK were closing, thousands of surplus aircraft came to Wales to be decommissioned.

Vulcan XM 650 (Photo courtesy SJ Bond)
Vulcan XM 650 gives a 'head up display' before it is dismantled

"In some ways it was a sad period in our history. For miles around RAF St Athan, all you could see were fields upon fields of Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters and Wellingtons rusting as they waited their turn to be scrapped."

To this day forgotten planes which were missed at the time still occasionally pop up in farmers' fields."

"I don't think any airman would have said they were happy to be cutting up the planes which had won us the war, but if someone had to do it, then we had to make certain that the work came to 32MU."

Post-war austerity also benefitted 4TT, as a rationalisation of military facilities saw them gain the tri-service advanced driving and mechanical school from Blackpool.

But tragically 4TT's newly acquired skills were called into action sooner than they'd have reckoned upon, when, on 12 March 1950, they supplied specialist lifting and cutting equipment following the Llandow air disaster.

An Avro Tudor V, operated by Fairflight, was returning rugby fans after Wales' Triple Crown victory over Ireland, when it stalled and crashed on approach to landing at Llandow aerodrome, just a few miles from St Athan.

Actually maintaining aeroplanes was something of a forgotten art in the 1950s, during the war they'd usually been blown up long before they ever needed an overhaul!
Archivist Brian Acott

Eighty of the 83 passengers were killed, making it what was at the time, the world's worst aviation disaster. 4TT helped in the rescue operation, and transported 11 of the victims to their military hospital on the St Athan base, although eight of these died of their injuries shortly after.

The biggest break for 32MU came with the Cold War, and Britain's acquisition of a nuclear deterrent, in the form of Vulcan bombers, which needed somewhere to be maintained and overhauled.

Mr Acott said: "Actually maintaining aeroplanes was something of a forgotten art in the 1950s, during the war they'd usually been blown up long before they ever needed an overhaul!

"But once the V bombers came along, with a nuclear deterrent which would hopefully never be needed, but which had to be kept in a state of constant readiness, St Athan came into its own - and probably for the first time, we had the opportunity to do the job for which the base had been created."

Ironically, it was during this period of unprecedented significance within the RAF, that St Athan hit an all-time low in its relations with the local population and the wider public.

Two Eurofighter Typhoons taking off
The St Athan project failed when the MoD moved jet repairs to other bases

As support for CND and the hippy movement grew, so too did opposition, on moral and safety grounds, to the base's maintenance of nuclear bombers, though in fact no Vulcan ever landed at RAF St Athan while armed with nuclear weapons.

As the nuclear deterrent shifted from bombers to submarines, 32MU's future in south Wales was again thrown into doubt.

During the late 1960s and early 70s St Athan was earmarked for closure, before another MoD U-turn brought them the maintenance contract for the RAF's fleet of VC10 air tankers, followed a few years later by the newly-launched Tornado fighter-jets.

It was to mark a turning point in the base's public relations, once again gaining popular affection by exploiting the variety of new planes present to hold annual 'Battle of Britain' air shows throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Perhaps 32MU's finest hour came in 1982, when they played a key role in the looming Falklands War.

As the nearest available landing-strip for British forces was on Ascension Island, 3,800 miles from the Falklands, in-flight refuelling suddenly became an overriding priority.

Margaret Thatcher

32MU worked flat-out converting passenger VC10s and Vulcan bombers into tankers, as well as retro-fitting older combat aircraft to accept air-to-air refuelling.

However, if 32MU thought that they'd finally secured their future, they were very much mistaken.

Mr Acott said: "Even though all the forces fought heroically, after the Falklands it was pretty obvious how thinly stretched the military had become.

"Thatcher came up with the 'Front Line First' principle, whereby all in-house engineering and logistics staff were attached to combat groups, and all facilities at UK bases were put out to tender in the private sector."

"At the time it was quite a popular move, but looking back on it, it spelt the end for 32MU, and eventually the end of St Athan as we know it.

"So I suppose you could say that Thatcher succeeded where the Luftwaffe failed!"

Archive footage shows RAF St Athan during a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh

The civilian consortium, Defence Aviation Repair Agency (Dara) took on 32MU's work with the VC10s and Tornados.

In 2000, the Welsh Assembly Government, having assumed control of the St Athan site, announced plans for a £134m "super hangar", as part of Project Red Dragon.

The aim was to turn St Athan into a UK centre of excellence for both civil and military aircraft maintenance, but in 2005, just as the super hangar was opening, the MoD announced that Dara had lost the contract for fast jet maintenance.

The assembly's public accounts committee slammed the assembly government's handling of the project earlier this year, criticising its failure to secure vital information from the MoD, and describing the project as "a lesson in how public sector bodies should not work together".

Worse, but slightly more expected news came last month, when Defence Minister Quentin Davies confirmed that St Athan's last remaining plane, the 40-year-old VC10 tanker, was to be phased out by 2013, with the loss of the last 350 flight engineering jobs at the base.

Plans for a £12bn tri-service defence academy are still due to save St Athan from closure, but Brian Acott's time on the base has taught him never to take anything for granted.


"Perhaps the academy will come along as promised, but five years ago we were saying the same thing about Project Red Dragon.

"It's terribly terribly sad to see the VC10 retiring, she's been a grand old girl, and of course it seems as though that'll mark the end of aeroplane maintenance here.

"But there's no point in crying about it - if the last 72 years have taught us anything, it's that just when things seem at their bleakest is usually when something turns up out of the blue!"

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