& Base Facilities
It may be seen as rather a simple fact, but before you build
an airship, you need somewhere to build it in. This is the
main factor which dictates the design and size considerations
of an airship. The simple fact is that the size of the ship
is dependent on the size of the shed it is built in.
Today, the two Cardington Sheds can be seen dominating the
skyline for many many miles around and are seeing a new change
with the buildings surrounding them.
did a small village some 5 miles from the centre of Bedford
come to be the centre of Airship operations and excellence?
story starts not with the village but with the Shorts Brothers
Engineering Company. Having won a contract for the construction
of an airship in 1916, the original design team had set
up offices in a private house in Hampstead, London. In September
of 1916 they decided to move to Bedford, choosing this market
town for its sufficiency of high grade light engineering
works and its population of about 35,000. Outside the town,
at Putnoe, was a stretch of farmland being used as an aerodrome
for the Royal Flying Corps as part of the United Kingdom's
defense network against the Zeppelins. Within sight of Putnoe
was, and still is, the village of Cardington.
who headed up the enterprise for the Shorts Company was a
young man by the name of Claude Lipscomb. At 29, Claude had
already served his apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal but
had joined Shorts at the outbreak of the war in 1914 attracted
by the prospect of technological advancement in the new aviation
world. Claude set up his first drawing office in a loft of
the coach repair shop in Bedford. Having been attacked by
Zeppelin Raiders that September and with the threat of the
new Super Zeppelins, agreement was reached to develop our
own ships. With its gentle prevailing wind, the site of farmland
south west of Bedford and the site of Cardington was chosen.
Cardington having been chosen, the airship project was begun
and proposals were framed as to what was needed in the way
of resources to actually build airships of this scale. When
the proposal was reviewed, it was realised that it could take
an act of Parliament to release the thousands of tons of steel
to construct the hanger alone!
The shed was the biggest to be built in Britain at that time.
It was to provide a minimum of space for two ships under one
cantilever roof. The dimensions were such that it would be
possible to build ships that at that time would in no way
be inferior to the biggest Zeppelins. Additional steel was
needed for the enormous windbreaks which were set up at both
ends of the shed. These screens, as long as the shed itself,
were designed to protect an airship during the time it was
being maneuvered in to and out of the sheds from either end
Length: 812 ft
Width: 180 ft
Height: 157 ft
Total weight of steel: 4,000 tons
Airships and Imperial Airship Service
The first ship to come out of the Cardington airship facility
was the R31. The ship was commissioned only 5 days before
the Armistice on 11th November 1918, and exactly two years
and two months from the time that Claude Lipscomb had set
up in Bedford. The shed was an impressive construction and
design project, admirable even in retrospect in a time of
high powered computers and modern communication. Today it
is easy to forget that it was hand designed and hand built.
became one of the World's best airship facilities. Due to
the economic depression of the post war years, the Airship
station was closed in 1921 after the construction of the
R38 and the scrapping of the R37.
However the station was reopened in 1924 following the announcement
of the Imperial Airship Service and the undertaking of the
construction of, amongst others, the R101.
original shed was too small for the designed R101, and so
had to be lenghthened and also raised in height. Work was
started in October 1924 on the lenghtening and raising of
Shed 1, which was completed in May 1926. A second shed was
also required, and so it was agreed that shed 2 from the Pulham
operational base be used. This was dismantled in June 1927,
and re-errected next to Shed 1. The second shed was completed
in 1928. In that time the R101 was slowly being assembled
in shed 1 next door. Shed 2 was going to house the R100 which
was being built in the airship construction facility in Howden,
original siteplan circa 1916
huge airship mast was constructed for the civil programme
in 1926, built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company
under the direction of Major General Sir William Liddell,
Director of Works and and Buildings at the Air Ministry.
202 feet high and 70 feet in diameter at the base, the tower
was the first ever cantilever mooring mast to be built.
It was demolished in 1943 to help the war effort. For more
information on the Cardington Mast site, and an insight
in to life after the airship service,
please click here
For communications, a wireless station and Cardington control
tower was constructed in 1928 behind the Administration
the Giants 1930-1938
Discussions in Parliament following the crash of the R101
in October 1930 led to the Committee on National Expenditure's
final decision to dismantle the R100 in shed no.2.
In 1931, the Station was nearly closed, with only a skeleton
maintenance staff of some 44 people remaining. However this
was only a temporary decision as work soon resumed quickly
in 1932, when the Air Ministry decided to use shed 2 as
aeroplane storeage. At the same time the R-100 had been
stored in Shed 1, and hung, with the decision awaiting it's
future during 1931. It was only in late 1931 that the descion
for the ship to be scrapped was made, and this continued
in to 1932. The site them became known as No.2 Aircraft
Storage Depot. The task of leading the new depot was given
to Sqdrn Leader S.Dixon, who at the time was Superintendent
of the Royal Airship Works
To prepare for the incomming aircraft which were to be
stored, work had to be undertaken to make the former airship
landing field, prepared for landing aircraft on a grass
strip in front of the shed. Due to the lack of suitable
accommodation on the Cardington site, the workforce had
to be brought in by bus from the nearby RAF base at Henlow.
This problem was eventually resolved when the old naval
huts on the site were made habitable. It was noted that
some 300 aircraft of various types were stored in the Shed
2 and then later in Shed 1 when space became available.
Storeage also spilled over in to the "Arcade" which was
a large workshop behind the Administration building, on
the site. During the pre-war years, it was noted in one
year that there were over 3,000 take off's and landings
recorded, without any accidents or incidents.
In 1934 a decision was taken that the unit should be run
by civillias which then provided much needed employment
for the local workforce, who had been involved with the
Cardington site, since it's creation in 1916. During this
time the Number 2 Aircraft Storeage Unit was moved to Brize
Norton, in West Oxfordshire, just before the war in 1938.
The existing gas handling and storage facilities, along
with Cardington's experience in airships gas handling was
to return as low key balloon and kite balloon experiments
were continued at the site.
In December 1936 RAF Cardington was established. On 1st
January 1937 Number 1 Balloon Training unit was formed.
It was no surprise that due to the balloon testing an research,
which had already been established, that the station came
under Balloon Command.
In 1937 recruits began arriving at Cardington. Each recruit
would undertake a 12 week programme of training, prior to
being posted out to various trade centres. Due to the war
beginning in late 1939, to speed up the number of recruits
to be processed through the Cardington training establishment,
the training period was reduced from 12 weeks, to 8 weeks.
The realisation that the barage balloon system would be a
perfect defence system at home to try and deter aerial attack,
the training of barrage balloon operators was stepped up along
with the research and development of balloons.
1938 was an extremely busy year for RAF Cardington, as
increasingly more young recruits arrived for initial selection
and training. It is known that the local Bedford workforce
was employed to build more huts for the new arrivals.
During the 1930's Empire Air days were held up and down
the country at RAF Stations. Empire Air Days were designed
to give the public a 'behind the scenes' insight to British
aviation. They were organised by the Royal Air Force in
conjunction with the Air League of the British Empire. The
official reason for the air days was threefold
1) To arouse greater public interest in flying and a more
enlightened public opinion about flying matters
2) to encourage flying itself and
3) to hasten the progress of Imperial air development.
The first Empire Air Day was held in 1934 and continued
on an annual basis until the outbreak of World War Two in
1939. RAF Cardington continued this with hosting an Empire
Air Day in 1938.
In 1939 activity was increasingly stepped up further with
the preparations underway around the station in the event
of any war. On 3rd September 1939, war was declared on Germany,
and RAF Cardington was to expand further with thousands
of recuits arriving at the gates of the base
With the threat of war looming at the end of the 1930s Cardington
was back in business with the development and creation off
thousands of kite balloons for barage balloon aerial defences.
The deportment of the balloon defence would create a deterrent
in the form of an aerial wall which would deter attacks. A
wire would be held between two balloons, with long steel wires
hanging down. With this fighters and bombers could not fly
between the wires. It was a very simple but effective form
of defence. It sounded simple but every balloon had to be
large enough to carry a couple of miles of steel cable and
required a trained crew who could monitor the balloon 24 hours
a day. Also required for each was a winch and motor transport.
At its peak Cardington was producing some 26 balloons a week.
War was declared with Germany on 3rd September 1939, and
this signalled a flurry of activity at the RAF base. It
is noted from extracts from the 1939 Station records that
there was a lot of pre-planning in the anticipation and
event of war.
Sept 3: Provision of guard from 2 platoons of the 5/16th Foot.
A A machine guns manned by Foot.
Sept 6: Tented accommodation provided for Foot. Air raid warnings.
Sept 19: Station blackout inspected from shed no.2 by station
Sept 23: Completion of 90 shelters. Also 25 trench units.
Both give shelter for 5,000 bodies. Total strength 7,000.
Sept 25: 10 other shelters sanctioned for 500 men. Hutted
accommodation for Foot.
sheds 1990, (prior to shed 2 being restored in 1994)
4th November RAF Cardington saw the arrival of it's new Station
Commander. Grp Cpt Arnold arrived and was to become the longest
serving Commander of the station facility. During the next
twelve months, more shelters were added, along with defence
protection of six pill box armed defense shelters. A 25 yard
machine gun range was also set up and machine gun posts were
installed beside the roads around the RAF station. A pill
box gun emplacement still survives today at the roadside at
the Cotton End side of the RAF station land.
this time, the two airship sheds were camouflaged, which would
have taken up a lot of manpower and resources. Air raid warnings
were sounded almost every hour. The Station itself was extremely
lucky that throught the war period, there were only a few
isolated incidents of bombs being dropped on site, and no
major damage was sustained. Against the backdrop of constant
air raid warnings, thousands of new recuits were enlisted
and kitted out.
the numbers of recruits being trained at RAF Cardington, it
wasn’t a crowded site. A report taken from The Bedford Record
and Circular during a “Home Day” in 1945, just at the
end of the war where members of the public could visit the
base, the base was described as a “picture of neatness”.
Each hut was well attended, and tidy, with outside lawns and
flower beds surrounding each hut. The RAF base had it’s
own roads, all of which were named after healers of the air,
such as Gibson Road (named after Wing Commander Guy Gibson
V.C). For the off duty airmen, there were many places to spend
their downtime. The RAF base boasted many reading rooms for
peace and quiet, and recreation areas. A onsite cinema, and
gymnasium was also available, which was also used for the
RAF station dances.
the doors was by hand and required a team of men to winch
the 70 ton doors open, before they were later motorised
large NAAFI canteen was equipt with billiard and table tennis
tables. A surgery, dentist and and well equipt medical centre
was also available for all the people on the station. The
spacious dining rooms were capable of accommodating 1,000
people at one time, and with well equipt kitchens to provide
same article provided some very interesting statistics on
the numbers of people who had been processed by the RAF station:
Number of recuits for General Traders processed: 200,000
(of which 1,000 were Dutch)
Number of NCO for all Ground Trades: 40,000
RAF Officers: 800
WAAF Officers: 300
Drivers of Motor Transport: 700
Balloon Winch Drivers: 15,000
RAF Balloon Trades: 25,000
WAAF Balloon Trades: 18,000
Grand Total: 299,800
imposing doors of shed no 2. (large file to download)
the war was declared over in May 1945, RAF Cardington became
home to the newly formed Number 102 Personnel Dispersal Centre.
Many thousands of RAF personnel passed through the RAF station
to be “demobbed” or demobilised and returned to civilian
life, or known as a return to “city street”. For most
trooped who arrived at Cardington after the war, the demobilisation
process took than 24 hours. Each serviceman was entitled to
a new “demob” suit, two shirts, shoes and socks, a tie,
a hat and coat which would equipt then for life back at home.
Each man who arrived at RAF Cardington was given a folder
containing information about the facilities and those in Bedford.
shed no 1. (large file to download)
was a great deal of entertainment available on the site, with
the cinema opening every day, and dances held twice a week.
The gymnasium remained open, along with a post office. For
the men returning from the war in Europe, all the facilities
for them were set up at the Cardington base.
No 102 Personnel Dispersal Centre was closed in August 1946.
with all RAF bases, and the same happened after the First
World War, after the war had ended, activities on the Station
slowed down considerably. On March 21st 1945 RAF Cardington
was transferred from Balloon Command to Techincal Training.
On 1st August 1946, the station came under the responsibility
of Number 22 Group.
mast and winch houses under construction
the 1950s RAF Cardington undertook many experimental projects,
with the experience which had been gathered since the 1920s
and 30s with airships and balloon gas handling. Many of these
projects were deemed top secret. Celebrations and recognition
was in order at the end of the decade, on 16th July 1959,
the then Station Commander Group Captain Lousada, the serving
Commanding Officer, formerly received “The Freedom of entry
in to the Borough of Bedford” on behalf of the Station.
of the experience of the staff at the Station during the post
war demobilisation period and as a major recruiting centre
during the war years, RAF Cardington progressed to be become
a centre to screen young men called up for National Service.
However by late 1960, National Service came to an end, and
this was no longer needed at the Station.
Balloon Unit still remained active and men were trained
at RAF Cardington, and sent overseas with the balloons.
Experiments continued within the sheds. It was on 31st October
1966, the Balloon Unit was transferred to Hullavington,
Wiltshire. This was a major blow for RAF Cardington.
RAF Cardington became home to various Air Ministry departments
in the 1970’s and the sheds were available to be leased
as large open spaces for projects.
of the mast from the nose of the R101.Steam from
the winch houses can be clearly seen
of the Airship
the 1980s Shed 1 was leased to Airship Industries who were
able to build and operate a fleet of airships, and run a schedule
service from Cardington. The company re-kindled the use of
lighter than air travel in the 1980s and established the foundations
for the lighter than air airships seen today. Shed 2 became
home to the Building Research Establishment who were instrumental
in researching the fire safety of aeroplanes and buildings,
as Shed 2 was a controlled environment to record the fire
behaviours in large buildings. A 13 storey experimental office
block was build within Shed 2 for this purpose.
Administration block in 1917
original sheds were 80 years old at this point, and starting
to deteriorate. Shed 2 was re-clad and painted in 1994.
In 1998 it was announced that the RAF Station we be closed
on 31st March 2000. In this time the RAF base gated were
closed for the final time and the RAF base disposed of.
In 2000, the buildings which were the original workshop
behind the Administration Block, were demolished, but the
Administration Block, and Sheds remained.
Administration July 2000 block prior to sympathetic and extensive
re-development by Belway Homes Limited
The main Administration building with the date of 1917 above
the entrance in Roman numerals, is still here today. With
the exception of the windbreaks and the addition of many
more houses in Shortstown and the impressive second shed
from Pulham, the site remains as nearly complete as it was
constructed and planned back in 1916.
original construction buildings and workshops which were
situated behind the Administration Block (also known as
Shorts Building) were demolished as part of the disposal
of the site in 1999 and 2000. The site was left as bare
land but later developed in the latter part of 2007 with
the expansion and re-development of the site.
A new village was created opposite the original Shortstown
village which was created in 1917 on the site of the workshops.
The new housing development was named New Cardington. Further
development of the old site is being considered and proposed,
however is being subject to acceptance and review by the
Bedfordshire planning authorities. Also under review is
the development of the north and eastern side of the flying
Building today 2011, centerpiece of new development. and apartments.
Inside the Shed, it has also housed limited airship and lighter
than air activities, of which a Goodyear
Lightship was constructed, and launched from shed 1 in 2011
The visit of the first Zeppelin in 80 years was commemorated
by the visit of the Zeppelin NT as part of it's 2008 tour.
2012 Shed 2 was leased by the film company Warner Brothers,
and had been utilised as a sound stage for filming. The
condition of Shed 1 had deteriorated and needed restroration.
1 was restored in 2013- 15 it was used by Hybrid Air Vehicles
for their Airlander assembly. With the Airland trials completed
by 2017 the shed was leased to Warner Brothers as another
sound stage for filming. In December 2018 the shed was sold
by Cardington Developments Limited to local property company,
Gallagher Properties who currently own shed 1 and the surrounding
workshops by the Cardington Sheds
have also returned to Cardington in the form of Hybrid Air
Vehicles who are developing the prototye Airlander 10. The
Airlander 10 successfuly few two flights in August 2016, but
a heavy landing on the third flight damaged the cockpit. The
ship returned to Shed 1 to undertake repairs and a return
to flight programme in early 2017 was put in place. A second
mooring incident with the HAV Airlander had the ship return
to shed 1 for assessment. Hybird Air Vehciles then decided
to move operations from Cardington Shed 1, when the lease
on the space had expired.Cardington is ever changing and shed
2 has been leased out to a film company and is enjoying a
second life as a "sound stage".
1 came under the ownership of Fosbern Hangers, and the company
undertook the restoration of the shed, which shots of the
restoration work can be found
information on the activities in the sheds can be found
here and on our links
permission has been granted to the area surrounding the
north side of the shed, and around the original 1917 administration
original Shorts Building, constructed in 1917, which housed
the design and administration block, and later the control
tower during World War 2, has been restored and utilised.
This is seen as the imposing building on the A600 road between
Shortstown village and the village of Cotton End. Today the
town of New Cardington is being developed and the Administration
Block is still a prominent building in part of the new development,
containing community services such as a crèche, doctors
surgery, and apartments.
The AHT has been fundamental in ensuring that the communal
areas open to visitors have pictures of the work which was
carried out at the site, and of the R101 and construction,
to ensure that the importance and history of the building
is known to it's visitors and tenants.
More pictures can be found
18th May 2019, a memorial stone was unveilled outside the
Shorts Building, to RAF Cardington by Mr Micheal Lousada
with a speech by Sqn Ldr Emrys Rogers from RAF Henlow, to
commemorate the those units and personnel who served there.
|The new Goodyear
"Spirit of Safety"
built at Cardington 2011
You Know... Both the RMS Mauritania and the RMS Lusitania
could comfortably fit in each shed with the doors closed and
the RMS Titanic would have almost fitted with only 40ft of
her bow sticking out of the open doors. Also, did you know
that the size of an airship is dependent only on the size
of the shed she is built in!
10 in August 2016