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The RAF in London

Find out about the Royal Air Force in London

Life in the Armed Forces

When you’re in London, probably the only time that you’ll have seen the RAF in action is during a fly-pass on the Queen’s Birthday.

Maybe you’ve also been lucky to see some Chinook helicopters flying along the Thames.  Well, the RAF has always been very important to London, and it all started in the World War One when Londoners needed protection from the German Zepplins – massive airships that were dropping bombs.

In the Second World War, the RAF played a very important role in the Battle of Britain defending us from the German Luftwaffe, firstly against their fighters, then their bombers which devastated the city.  At the peak of war, the RAF had 25 bases to protect London and the southeast of England, including famous bases like Biggins Hill which was one of the main fighter bases protecting London and South East England from attack by enemy bombers. Over the course of the war, its fighters claimed 1,400 enemy aircraft.

As well as airfields from which pilots and their crews would launch both offensive missions and defend our airspace, some airfields had far more strategic roles.  RAF Uxbridge housed Fighter Command’s Group Operations Room throughout the Second World War. It was from here that a lot of the Battle of Britain was coordinated, and was thanks to the tireless work of the plotters and controllers that the RAF’s fighter pilots managed to keep the Luftwaffe at bay. The Battle of Britain Bunker Is open a number of times a year, so why not check it out!

Today there are just 4 bases in the South East, and only one of these has a major flying role – RAF Northolt in Hillingdon.  In fact, this airfield is older than the RAF itself!

The airfield opened in March 1915 – not long after the start of the First World War.  The Germans had been sending Zeppelins over the UK and for the first time our country faced a threat from the skies.

The British Armed forces quickly marshalled aircraft to defend our country – even though planes were kind of new and not very fast or strong.  Early planes, such as the BE2 single-engine biplane, flew patrols to protect Londoners.

After the war, the airfield was continually developed over the 1920s and 1930s to cope with the changing design of aircrafts – from the biplanes of World War 1 to sturdier and faster prop planes – aircraft with a closed fuselage and propellers.

RAF Northolt was the first base to operate the new Hurricane fighters and during the Second World War was again one of the key airfields in the defence of London.

It’s fairly safe to say we wouldn’t have won the Battle of Britain without the RAF.  But it wasn’t just defending our homes that RAF Northolt played a role.

RAF Northolt was ‘home’ to a number of British and Allied Hurricane and Spitfire Squadrons, including a Polish Wing. In 1943, Northolt’s Spitfire Squadrons became the first Spitfire Wing to operate as a unit over Germany.  There never seemed to be a quiet moment! Now, you might think that after the war ended, things might have settled a little… but you’d be wrong.

If you’ve ever flown on holiday from London you might have travelled from Heathrow Airport.  It’s one of the busiest civil airports in the world, with over 73 million passengers arriving and leaving each year!

Heathrow was built after the second world war, and whilst it was being built, the RAF let civil aircraft use Northolt instead. Civil aircraft are the non-military ones – so that means people on business, visiting friends and family, or on holiday would fly though Northolt.  In 1952 it was the busiest airfield in Europe, handling an annual total of 50,000 air movements.

Today most of what goes on at Northolt is business for the Armed Forces. As well as support operations to make sure everything behind the scenes operates ‘ship-shape’, or should that be ‘plane-shape’, Northolt is home to the Royal Squadron which transports key decision makers, senior military and VIPs – that’s Very Important Persons, not just across the UK but also in conflict zones, most recently Afghanistan.  It is also home to the Aeronautical Information Documents Unit, the British Forces Post which is responsible for the distribution of mail to military bases and ships wherever they are around the world, and the Central Band of the RAF.

More recently, Northolt was the forward base for the Typhoon jets and Royal Navy helicopters which provided air security for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Now whilst Northolt is important to the RAF, it also has a civilian role.  It can handle a wide range of Boeing and Airbus Business Jets making it a perfect solution for VIP passengers, including Head of State and celebrities!

Most RAF regulars work normal five-day weeks and have evenings and weekends to enjoy with their families, living either on the base or close by. That said, they’re not nine-to-fivers – they do what’s needed to get the job done, which could mean working round the clock, going on a mission at a moment’s notice or transferring to a new location.

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Life in the Armed Forces

Find out about Life in the Armed Forces

More From Life in the Armed Forces