In The Beginning.

The R31 airship built by Shorts in 1918

The R31 airship built by Shorts in 1918

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The R31 airship built by Shorts in 1918

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The Royal Airship Works at Cardington

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The R101 airship

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The two airship sheds These much loved sheds are still standing today

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This website is about the history of RAF Cardington which was established in 1936 on the site of a former airship works. Some of the main activities already on the site were further developed under the RAF umbrella.

In 1915 the government appointed Short Bros to build airships for use in WW1. The brothers chose land by Cardington village near Bedford to base their factory. The site would initially include one shed for the airships, a gas plant to produce hydrogen gas for the ships, numerous workshops, a large admin building for the design team (The Shorts Building later known as Station HQ in the RAF years) and a small village named Shortstown consisting of 150 houses opposite the site to house some of their key workers.

The picture (top left) shows the Shorts built R31 outside Shed no 1. The R31 was a wooden airship built to government specifications, her first trial flight was made in July 1918 in the closing months of WW1. She was fully commissioned in November 1918, ironically she was never used in a battle capacity as the war finished in the same month. Shorts also completed the R32 soon after.

Work then started on the R38 in 1919 but the government took over production soon after. Shorts left the area and The Royal Airship Works was formed. After WWI due to severe financial constraints the British government agreed to sell the R38 to America and a US crew was sent over to the UK for training. The ship would then be flown back to America with a US crew. The airship left Cardington in June 1921 and flew to Howden for further testing. During a test flight on August 24th the ship crashed in the River Humber near Hull claiming 44 lives. Following the crash airship production was suspended and between 1921 and 1924 the number of employees on site fell with only maintenance staff utlised for the shed (which housed the R33). However the gas plant remained open and it appears that low key balloon and kite balloon research continued.

A change in fortune came about in 1924 when the government took the decision to build two new airships one of which would be at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. For the next six years until 1930 the site was engaged in the construction of the R101 which captured the nations imagination and promised great things for commercial travel. In 1926 a second shed was added to the site. In the years 1929 & 1930 thousands of people flocked to catch a glimpse of the ship on its mooring mast. In Dec 1929 the newly completed R100 arrived at Cardington and made a successful flight to Canada and back in  Aug/Sept 1930. Sadly on 4th October 1930 the R101 left Cardington and crashed hours later in Beauvais in France killing 48 of the 54 men on board. This effectively ended airship production in this country and once again Cardington workers found themdelves redundant.


A boost for the site came in 1932 when the Air Ministry decided to make use of the huge space available in both sheds by using them to store aircraft so this part of the site became known as No 2 Aircraft Storage Depot.

The task of leading this new depot was assigned to Sqdrn Leader S Dixon who was at the time Superintendent of the Royal Airship Works. At first work had to be done to prepare the area for safe landings in front of the sheds. A further problem presented itself when initially men had to be bussed in daily from RAF Henlow to take on the work due to the lack of suitable accommodation on site. This problem was eventually resolved when the old huts on the camp were made habitable.

Thanks to the late Arthur Thurston who worked on the site we have notes that show that eventually over 300 aircraft of various types were stored in the sheds and spilled over into The Arcade (a large workshop on the site). It is recorded that in one year during this period there were over 3,000 take offs and landings without a single accident.

In 1934 the decision was taken that the unit should be run by civilians which provided employment for local people. In 1938 No 2 Aircraft Storage Unit was moved to Brize Norton and the sheds were put to other uses.

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1936 proved to be a pivotal year in the history of the airship works. The site became part of the RAF and was known as No 1 Balloon Training Unit (N0 1 BTU Cardington). The first ever Commander of the new station was the much decorated Group Captain Arthur Thomson (more details of this man can be found on the Station Officers page. In 1937 No 2 School of Recruits Training was transferred in from Henlow and organised 12 weeks training for new recruits (later reduced to 8 weeks when the prospect of war appeared likely).

Training of barrage balloon operators was also stepped up at Cardington as was the research and development of balloons.

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Extract of the Staff lists for the station dated 1938

Shown is an extract from the RAF officer lists at RAF Cardington as at January 1938. It is a very useful point of reference for us as it shows the structure of the station at the time. The list starts of course with Group Captain Thomson who was the Station Commander. More details about the CO's can be found on the Station Officers page.

RAF Cardington was formed in December 1936 and from this list we can see station has expanded as new branches are now included. March 1937 saw the creation of the Medical branch, followed by the Dental and Chaplains branches.

Next came the equipment branch in August followed by the Education and Accountant branches.

At the base of the list we learn that the station was made up of No 1 Balloon Training Unit, No 2 R. A. F. Depot and the Royal Airship Works.

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Above: This map of the camp was issued to visitors for the annual Empire Day held at Cardington in 1938. It is interesting to note that as late as 1938 the station was open to the general public and maps freely given out. Twelve months later this freedom of information would be inconceivable.