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Fighting for Air: Visit to RAF Museum, Colindale


On Saturday (18 November), some of the Fighting for Air team of volunteers went to the other side of London to visit the RAF Museum at Colindale or Hendon. We were there specifically to visit First World War in the Air galleries, which opened in 2014. The museum is on the site of a former aerodrome, that had itself been used as one of the ten defensive aerodrome bases encircling London in early 1916. Hendon itself had been used for years before the war and we heard about its early history, the history of the Grahame White factory and the general role of aviation in the war from the RAF Museum’s fantastic volunteer Sandra.

In the Foyer of the RAF Museum
Before we set off, one of the museum staff shared with us pictures of his dad’s cousin who fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and had been stationed at Croydon. I wrote down the name as Henry Michael Ferris so hope that is right!
It was a very drizzly November day so this photograph does not do the exterior of the original Grahame White offices and factory justice. Sandra explained about the almost forgotten figure of Claude Grahame White, who pioneered civil aviation before the war, holding flying weekends known as the ‘Hendon Habit’ that attracted enormous crowds and were on a par with Henley Regatta or the Grand National. Grahame also warned about the dangers of the ‘war in the air’ in an article Wake Up Britain! But the government did very little.
Grahame White Factory and Offices
When war broke out, the factory and airfield at Hendon were taken into the control of the government. The factory continued to make Grahame White’ signature aircraft, the Avro 504K, which was a good training plane, from 1913 to 1918, but made many more parts of other planes or put aircraft together. The factory expanded to have a workforce of 6,000 and had a welfare scheme, days out etc and was in many ways comparable to the later (and short lived) National Aircraft Factory at Croydon. Sandra explained how the Factory was moved brick by brick from its original location, just behind to the land of the RAF Museum. The link above also takes you to a virtual tour of the recreated offices.
In the hangar itself, real and replica aircraft tell the story of the ‘War in the Air’ alongside exhibits of training equipment, uniforms, aviation gear, a hut for leisure and various maps. This was all incredibly useful to help us understand how the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) used Croydon / Beddington Aerodrome as air defences in 1916-17 and training from 1917 to the end of the war. The Gosport system and tools of training, such as a speaking tube so an instructor could speak to a pilot, developed by Major Robert Smith Barry enabled me to understand the significance of the photographs our project has just had digitised. These photographs show training at Gosport and are part of our Lansdowne Albums (more on that in future posts, but a sneak preview of a page below).

It was a fascinating trip and I urge people to visit. Various parts are closed, though the main hangar and the WW1 galleries are open. The new hangar for Battle of Britain and other areas is finished in 2018 to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force’s existence. Staff thought the opening would be July / August.

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