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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 12:54 GMT
Flying high and low at St Athan
By Catryn Jenkins
BBC Wales News website

RAF bomber crew
Wartime flying skills were honed at RAF St Athan
In a London office three years before World War II began, officials from the Air Ministry signed a deal to buy land in rural south Wales.

St Athan, in the then Glamorgan county, was about to change forever.

The village's East and West Orchards as they were then known, were developed into one of the main training camps for the British air force.

Under the command of Group Captain EB Brice, the base opened in 1938 - as Adolf Hitler planned world domination.

In its infancy, units of fighters, mechanics, riggers and other technical staff flooded through the remote village to begin training.

A regime of strict discipline was instilled into the trainees, who were required to act with good manners and wear their uniforms at all times.

A heated swimming pool, gymnasium and indoor drill hall was built, and several outdoor exercise areas to ensure cadets were at the peak of fitness.

Married quarters were established for those bringing families, and a new community was spawned.

RAF officers
At the height of the war, 14,000 people were at the base

Despite its rural location, the base failed to escape the ravages of war, repeatedly coming under attack from Hitler's bombs.

As well as suffering casualties, the base sustained damage, including to its hospital, which at the time was one of the best-equipped around.

By 1942, the grassy landing area was transformed into a hard runway as more units were trained at the base.

More than 14,000 men and women were based at the site at its wartime peak, with hundreds of locals employed there.

All around it, the area began to thrive with nearby towns and villages benefiting from the influx to the base.

The towns of Bridgend and Llantwit Major were just two which grew as a result of new jobs.

After the war, young cadets continued to be trained at St Athan.

One was Londoner Brian Acott who joined the Royal Air Force aged 17 in 1955.

There was pride in wearing that uniform
Brian Acott, site manager

He said: "It was very strict. In those days we had very tight discipline.

"We had to march everywhere we went and we were always in uniform.

"The accommodation was a 16-man room which is very different to what they've got today.

"I wouldn't call it a glamorous lifestyle at all, but there was pride in wearing that uniform.

"And there was real camaraderie. Everyone in the room would support each other.

"If one got into trouble for not having clean shoes then we'd all help him."

Recalling many visits to St Athan over the last six decades, he said: "It has changed a lot around here.

"When I first came here in the 50s it was very quiet and then it all got developed."

RAF Lancaster bomber in flight
The base at St Athan taught many aspects of aviation

Following the war and the end of national service, the UK government ploughed more funds into the military.

The east side of the base, which had been a hospital, was redeveloped.

Mr Acott added: "It was in the 70s things started to really change here.

"The housing estate went up for one thing."

RAF St Athan became a major maintenance unit for the RAF, and with it followed a constant influx of people and jobs.

But by 2000, there were doubts about the base's future, with claims 1,500 jobs were threatened, which signalled the start of a turbulent time for the base.

Despite several years of job losses and threats of closure, St Athan is now on the brink of a new lease of life.

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