Beds, Herts & Bucks

RAF Stanbridge: The small base with a big history

The original RAF Central Communications Centre at Stanbridge
Image caption The original RAF Central Communications Centre at Stanbridge played a vital role in World War II

A single Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will fly over a Bedfordshire RAF station on Thursday as the ensign is lowered for the last time.

Underneath, at the unassuming base in the English countryside, current personnel, local dignitaries and military guests will watch a parade, accompanied by the RAF Central Band.

RAF Stanbridge, near Leighton Buzzard, is one of the smallest stations left in the UK, which first opened just before World War II as a central communications base for the RAF.

It was latterly home to the RAF Supply Central Control System computer, controlling British military logistics worldwide, until the service was outsourced to Boeing Defence UK and moved to a purpose built centre in Milton Keynes.

'Unique atmosphere'

The special ceremony will mark the end of more than 70 years of history and was arranged ahead of the site's complete closure in March 2013.

Head of establishment, Flt Lt Steve Hawkins, who moved to Stanbridge in March 2011 to manage the closure, said something special was needed to mark the end of the site because its history "deserved it".

"I have been in the RAF for 33 years and this base is totally different from any I have served at, because it's so small it has a very unique atmosphere" he said.

"Lowering the ensign for the last time is a tradition of the RAF and we could make it as small or as big an event as we wanted to.

"I wanted it to be big so that all its history is recognised and I wanted to do it early while people are still here."

RAF Stanbridge opened as RAF Leighton Buzzard in May 1939 after the force's own telephone and teleprinter system, provided in 1936, had expanded so fast that a station designed specifically for handling communications needed to be built.

Image caption The current site will officially close in March 2013

Leighton Buzzard was chosen due to its proximity to both the GPO main cable routes and London.

The telephone and telegraph exchange centre was staffed by more than 600 servicemen who handled RAF telephone, teleprinter and radio communications, linking bomber command and all the squadrons and playing a vital part in the significant campaigns of the war such as D-Day and the Battle of Britain.

During the Cold War the station was still used as a communications base, but in 1987 there was major change with the relocation of the RAF Supply Control Centre (RAFSCC) and the supply computer from RAF Hendon along with the Joint Services Air Trooping Centre.

Stanbridge not only became the control centre for supply logistics worldwide, it was also the Brize Norton of its day with all service personnel travelling overseas going through the station before flying out from Luton.

In 1990 all of its activities were outsourced apart from the Supply Control Centre, but in 2011 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) contracted this work to Boeing.

MoD civil servants moved out in March 2011, with a small contingent of RAF personnel remaining. The 16 left will be redeployed prior to the site's final closure.

'Huge wrench'

Debbie Docherty, who worked at the site from 1987 before transferring to Milton Keynes, called the move a "huge wrench".

"The majority of staff had worked there for many, many years, so the transfer was a big change, but I guess we are lucky that we've still got jobs and reasonable security into the future with Boeing," she said.

"Looking back, I will remember the people, who have always been fantastic, it was a real family atmosphere, everyone knew each other, but as well as working hard we had a very good social life, did a lot of charity events and had a big involvement in the community.

"I am also very proud of our achievements in supporting military operations.

"We made sure that our front line troops had the right equipment wherever they were in the world, but that legacy will continue with Boeing."

The site was given the Freedom of Leighton Buzzard in 1988 and at the ceremony on Thursday the scroll will be returned to town mayor Alan Brandham to show that its support for the community has had to come to an end.

Flt Lt Hawkins said this would be a poignant moment, but the day was also designed to be a celebration.

The festivities will continue into the evening with live music, a firework display and another fly past from a Hawker Hunter aircraft, to remember the one was the site's gate guard from 1974-1995.

"I have told the people here it's one of the most important days in the history of the unit - it will be a big day but one to enjoy," he said.

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