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2010 Articles

APR 06 2010
Farewell to RAF Uxbridge

There has been a military presence on the site of RAF Uxbridge since the purchase of the Hillingdon House Estate by the government in 1915. The original intention was to use the site as a prisoner of war camp, but local objections meant that instead it became a convalescent hospital for Canadian troops returning from the front line during WWI.

In 1917, the Royal Flying Corps established a School of Armament at Uxbridge, and with formation of the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918, the site passed into the ownership of the new service.

During the inter-war period, RAF Uxbridge was mainly involved with the training of new RAF recruits, who arrived at No 1 RAF Depot, and the demobilisation of service personnel. Another notable unit to arrive during this period was the RAF School of Music, with the Central Band of the RAF being formed in 1920 at Uxbridge and based there up until the station’s closure in 2010.

In 1922, T E Lawrence (well known as Lawrence of Arabia) served at RAF Uxbridge under the assumed name of John Hulme Ross. Serving as a lowly AC2, he wrote about his experiences in “The Mint” until his true identity was revealed by The Daily Express.

In 1926, Uxbridge was chosen as the location for the newly established HQ Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) as it was considered to be sufficiently distant from the central London to reduce the risk of being attacked from the air by enemy forces. The HQ facilities were developed throughout the 1930s, reaching a peak with the establishment at Uxbridge of 11 Group RAF in May 1936. Shortly afterwards, HQ ADGB was replaced by a number of commands, including Fighter Command whose HQ was moved to Bentley Priory. HQ 11 Gp assumed responsibility for air defence of London and the south east of England, so was to bear the brunt of any future conflict.

A new operations room was planned for 11 Gp, and work began on the state of the art bunker facility in 1938. The operations room was built 60 ft underground, able to withstand a direct hit from a 500 lb bomb and it became operational on 25th August 1939, just ten days before the start of WWII. For the early period of the war, 11 Gp mainly provided air defence of shipping in the English Channel along with offensive patrols over northern France. During the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, 11 Gp provided air cover over the beaches, with all of these activities being controlled from the bunker at RAF Uxbridge.

On 5th May 1940 the New Zealander Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Sir Keith Park assumed command of 11 Gp. AVM Park was to lead the group throughout the impending Battle of Britain, with his headquarters being at Hillingdon House. One of the key reasons that the RAF was able to withstand the Luftwaffe assault and eventually win the Battle of Britain was the provision of information on the position of enemy aircraft from radar and the Observer Corps and the ability to communicate this information to facilities such as the 11 Gp Operations Room. This allowed the command staff to allocate resources effectively to combat the enemy threat.

During the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the 11 Gp Operations Room on several occasions – after one particular visit on 16th August 1940, during the height of the Battle, he was moved to comment to General Ismay, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. He repeated the quote in the House of Commons four days later, and this line above all others has become synonymous with the Battle of Britain.

The 11 Gp Ops Room remained in use for the remainder of the war, and was heavily involved in providing air support for the raid on Dieppe (Operation JUBILEE) and the D-Day landings (Operation OVERLORD). It remained in use until 1958, when 11 Gp moved to Martlesham Heath. The Ops Room was sealed and remained unused until it was restored to its original Battle of Britain condition in 1975. It is now a museum, with its “tote board” set as it was at 1130 on the 15th September 1940 – Battle of Britain Day. GAR intends to bring you a full report on the bunker and its history as part of our Battle of Britain anniversary coverage later in the year.

After the end of WWII, RAF Uxbridge was once again involved in the resettlement of personnel who were leaving the service. Notably in 1951, the King’s Colour Escort Squadron was established at Uxbridge. Their ceremonial duties were assumed by the Queen’s Colours Squadron, which was established in 1960. The official duty of the unit is to escort the Queen’s Colours whenever it is paraded, but increasingly the squadron has a dual role as 63 Sqn RAF Regiment, an RAF Regiment Field Squadron.

In recent years 63 Sqn has deployed on operations in Bosnia, Cyprus, Kuwait, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan. In Feb 2009, 63 Sqn was deployed to Kandahar Airfield for six months to provide off base force protection. On their return from operations, a crowd of 22,000 people turned out to welcome them home, a measure of the esteem that local people hold the personnel of Uxbridge.

The other notable unit to be based at Uxbridge in the post war period has been the Central Band of the RAF. The Central Band was formed in 1920 at Uxbridge and alongside the QCS will be one of the last units to leave the base on closure. Over the last 90 years, the Central Band has gained an international reputation for musical excellence and has performed at countless venues in the UK and abroad.

In 1981, members of the Central Band were grateful to the vigilance of two of their number, ACs Roger Clarkson and Andrew Mannas who discovered an IRA bomb planted in their barracks block. These men, along with others were commended for moving a large quantity of petrol away from the device, much reducing the damage caused and averting a certain tragedy.

In recent years, the Ministry of Defence has embarked on Project MoDEL (MoD Estates in London), seeking to rationalise its existing facilities in the Greater London area. As part of this project, RAF Uxbridge was scheduled to close and its units transfer to nearby RAF Northolt. As a result, on 1st April 2008, Uxbridge lost its independent status and was subsumed into RAF Northolt, under the command of the Northolt Station Commander. The drawdown of the station was continued up until the date earmarked for the RAF presence to leave, the 31st March 2010.

To mark the closure of the station, a ceremony was held on the final day, an unseasonably cold March evening. The venue was the historic Parade Square at RAF Uxbridge, and the event took place in the presence of senior RAF officers, along with guests including representatives of the local community.

Two of the final units based at Uxbridge, the Queen’s Colour Squadron and the RAF Central Band, both played a major part in the ceremony. The QCS supplied a Guard of Honour, which was inspected by the AOC 2 Gp, AVM Steve Hillier, along with the Station Commander, Group Captain Tom Barrett and the Mayor of Hillingdon, Councillor Shirley Harper-O’Neill. After a superb performance from the Central Band, the RAF Ensign was lowered for the final time over RAF Uxbridge, signifying the closure of the station. This was accompanied by a flypast from a Supermarine Spitfire, an appropriate type given the station’s history.

With the parade formalities over, the guests made their way to the Mess for a further brief ceremony. Several of the buildings which are to be preserved at Uxbridge will be adorned with ‘Blue Plaques’ by the local council. The first of these was unveiled by The Mayor at the mess, and it commemorates the time spent by Gp Capt Sir Douglas Bader at Uxbridge. In 1932, Bader spent six months at the RAF hospital at Uxbridge, learning to walk on his artificial legs.

After the Mayor had unveiled the plaque, the final official act of an emotional day was left to Sqn Ldr Gareth Rossiter, OC RAF Uxbridge. In his role as leader of the closure team, it has been Sqn Ldr Rossiter’s duty to oversee the withdrawal of the RAF personnel from Uxbridge, and he brought proceedings to a close by handing over the RAF Uxbridge crest to 1083 Sqn Air Training Corps. This ATC squadron will remain at Uxbridge and are now the custodians of the proud past of this historic station.

In the foreword for the programme given to all guests, Gp Capt Barrett paid tribute to the team who organised the drawdown of the station. As Station Commander, Gp Capt Barrett has been responsible for RAF Uxbridge during his tenure at RAF Northolt. “I am immensely proud in the way that Station personnel have achieved this difficult and somewhat emotional task, which is very much appreciated by our forebears, many of whom have contacted me, and by the local population whose voice is heard through our strong links with the Borough of Hillingdon.”

The station will now pass to Defence Estates for disposal and it is anticipated that much of the site will be redeveloped for housing. Some buildings will remain though and happily one of these will be the former 11 Gp Operations Room. The “Bunker” will be retained as an enclave of RAF Northolt, and GAR will bring more details of this project in a future report. The remaining units at Uxbridge are now moving to brand new purpose built accommodation at RAF Northolt, officially marching into their new home the day after Uxbridge closed.

The closure of RAF Uxbridge is undoubtedly the end of an era for this particular corner of north west London, and it is certainly sad to see the station’s history come to an end. However it is pleasing that some of the historic buildings will remain, especially the 11 Gp Ops Room. In the words of Gp Capt Barrett, “The spirit of RAF Uxbridge will remain in our enclaved “Bunker” site, as well as in all of our hearts”.

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