As part of the forces involved in the 1913 army manoeuvres, 3 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps deployed to Halton to support the operations of the Household Division. They landed and set up their temporary airfield on what was later to become the Maitland Parade Square. Then it was a pasture that belonged to Mr Alfred Rothschild, of the famous banking family, who had inherited the estate in 1879 and had immediately set about developing it into a pastoral paradise for his lavish weekend entertaining. The house, in which he regularly welcomed royalty, high society and many of the top entertainers of the day, was modelled on a French chateau. From this site 3 Squadron launched a series of reconnaissance sorties and staged the first confrontation between aeroplane and airship.
A year later, in 1914, when Lord Kitchener called for his “first hundred thousand” volunteers to augment the professional army, many landowners offered their estates as training grounds. Alfred Rothschild was one of the first and some 20,000 troops descended on Halton, to live in tents through an increasingly muddy winter as they trained for the slaughter of the Western Front. The weather forced the military authorities to start erecting more durable buildings and, in 1916, the Royal Flying Corps moved into a semi-established camp, having outgrown the capacity of Farnborough for the training of air mechanics. For this task Old Workshops was built in 1917, using German PoW labour, and the current airfield was established. By Armistice Day there were some 6,000 British and Australian male mechanics, 2,000 female mechanics and 2,000 boys being trained by some 1,700 staff.
With peace came major changes. Alfred Rothschild had died in 1918 and his heirs were far less affluent and influential. Meanwhile, the newly formed Royal Air Force needed permanent bases and had invested considerable sums in the workshops and accommodation they had built on the estate. After protracted negotiations, the Air Council purchased the whole property, to house its new No 1 School of Technical Training, which moved in from Cranwell in 1919. To house trainees and staff a major building programme produced barrack blocks, messes and an education block to replace the acres of wartime wooden huts. The narrow gauge railway link to Wendover Station, which had been used to transport timber from the Estate in support of the war effort, was replaced with a standard gauge branch line, to bring in coal and building materials. Plans were laid for a permanent hospital, to replace the temporary wartime structure, and a headquarters formation moved into Halton House.
As he re-organised the RAF to meet the requirements of peace Lord Trenchard foresaw the need to produce a pool of skilled aircraft mechanics and Halton was selected as the home for the Aircraft Apprentice Scheme when this was introduced in 1920. The three-year course he initiated was to train 155 Apprentice Entries between 1920 and 1993 and the training they received was to be thorough and broad-based. Apart from the basic syllabus, which combined the academic and practical disciplines, sporting and spare-time activities were closely supervised and enthusiastically encouraged. From this many top-class athletes and sportsmen were to emerge, notably Don Finlay, who was to represent Great Britain in 3 Olympic Games, the last as team captain, and to return later as Chief Instructor. For the less athletic there was gliding, shooting and the preparation for expeditions such as the Nijmegen Marches. All could indulge their interests and talents in the Halton Society, which supported acting, debating, aero-modelling, wireless building, expeditions to the battlefields of Belgium and many other activities. Their most ambitious project was the design and construction of a light aircraft, which became a successful competitor in air races in 1927 and 1928. Also each Wing had a band, behind which it marched between its accommodation and workshops, the “Schools” or the airfield. The high standards of drill instilled by this practice and the proximity of the capital ensured the apprentices’ participation in many major public events, which enhanced the school’s prestige and the boys’ esprit-de-corps. Many of these “Trenchard’s Brats” went on to achieve considerable success and a considerable number rose to the higher ranks during their subsequent careers.
While the apprentice training brought publicity, the station also conducted many shorter and more specialist engineering courses. These produced adult entrant tradesmen, whose numbers and diversity increased enormously in the build up to and during World War II and produced a considerable proportion of the vast numbers of maintenance crews required during that conflict. Apart from these, over the years Halton made significant contributions to the RAF’s other training needs and welfare in many areas. Princess Mary’s RAF Hospital was opened in 1927 and with its younger partner, the Institute of Pathology and Tropical Medicine, provided an excellent specialist and general service, while training medical trades personnel and nurses. Its closure in 1995 was a major blow to the local community as well as to the RAF as a whole. Also the RAF Police, Supply, Catering, Secretarial and Dental personnel have all been trained here from time to time and form a major component of the station’s task today.
World War II brought expansions in activity in other areas too. Flying tasks increased, first with the short stay of 112 Squadron (RCAF) and later with the Cierva autogyros of 402 Squadron, which were used for radar calibration tasks. Also present were the de Haviland Dominies of the communications flight used to ferry staff officers around Bomber Command from its headquarters near High Wycombe. Meanwhile the regular arrival and steady demolition of the redundant aircraft used for the training of mechanics ensured that the airfield was an extremely busy place.
Though the end of the war brought the usual service reductions and retrenchments these were not as drastic as those at the end of World War I. Apprentice training continued and grew during the 1950s and 60s, in response to Cold War requirements and the career prospects offered by the award of an Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering at the end of the course. As Halton’s reputation grew there were many visits from the representatives of other air forces and an influx of foreign and commonwealth trainees. In 1952 the No 1 School of Technical Training received royal recognition when HM Queen Elizabeth presented it with her Colour. It is the only RAF colour or standard to be carried by a non-commissioned bearer and this is regarded by ex-apprentices as their finest accolade.
With the 1970s came the RAF’s withdrawal from the East and the start of its contraction. Technical developments and changes in social aspiration made apprentice training less attractive and less necessary and eventually, with the “peace dividend”, at the end of the Cold War, it was discontinued. All technical training was concentrated at RAF Cosford and, after brief fears of closure, Halton became the RAF’s premier non-technical ground training station. Training organisations were moved in from around the country to provide the courses needed to prepare airmen and airwomen for each stage in their careers. Starting as Basic Recruits, many remain for Trade Training, while all may return for General Service Training when they are promoted through the ranks or require specialist qualifications. The motto: “ Teach, Learn, Apply “ is as appropriate to RAF Halton today as it was in 1918.