RAF Gaydon is a former Royal Air Force station located 5.2 miles (8.4 km) east of Wellesbourne, Warwickshire and 10.8 miles (17.4 km) north west of Banbury, Oxfordshire.
RAF Gaydon opened in 1942 and is known for its role during the Cold War when it was under the control of RAF Bomber Command as it was the first RAF station to receive the Vickers Valiant when No. 138 Squadron RAF re-formed there in 1955.
In 1978, the site passed into civilian ownership and today contains the British Motor Museum, the headquarters and factory of Aston Martin, and the Jaguar Land Rover, Gaydon Centre.
Second World War
The airfield was used extensively during the Second World War, being opened in July 1942 and was immediately occupied by No. 12 Operational Training Unit (OTU) as a satellite of RAF Chipping Warden operating Vickers Wellingtons and Avro Ansons training pilots from a number of Allied nations, but mainly Canadian, Czech and New Zealanders.
The OTU took newly qualified crew members and taught them how to fly on operations, including small courses about navigation. The airfield was also used by No. 22 OTU from July 1943 as a satellite from the main base of RAF Wellesbourne Mountford using Wellingtons and Ansons. No. 22 OTU while at Gaydon conducted bombing and air-sea rescue operations helping to aid the allied war effort. A small unit the No. 312 Ferry Training Unit RAF (FTU) was deployed their training pilots to be employed in ferrying aircraft overseas.
Working on an airfield where the training of pilots was taking place was extremely dangerous because of the inexperience of the crews and the worn condition of their aircraft. The OTU Wellingtons were subject to hard use and this resulted in many accidents. The aircraft were often flown in harsh weather conditions both on UK training sorties and on operations over Northern Europe.
The airfield was based upon the standard Class A airfield for wartime operations with pan dispersals and concrete runways. The runway pattern was aligned with prevailing winds to assist take-offs and landings. The airfield originally had a standard bomber type control tower which was demolished sometime before 1955.
Immediately after the war, training bomber crews ceased on 1 July 1945 with No. 3 Glider Training School RAF moving in shortly from RAF Exeter with General Aircraft Hotspurs, Tiger Moths, Airspeed Oxfords and Miles Master II’s. The next unit to join was the Glider Instructors Flight RAF who moved from RAF Croughton on 28 May 1946 however their stay was short as Gaydon closed for flying on 15 August 1946. The station was then put on a care and maintenance basis thirteen days later on 28 August 1946.
A Vickers Valiant- Britain’s first operational V-Bomber.
During 1953 the expansion and widening of the main runway (05-23) had begun with the associated buildings and dispersals being constructed. This included an Operational Readiness Platform and the Gaydon type hangar which was large enough to accommodate the new V-bombers which were coming into service. RAF Gaydon re-opened on 1 March 1954 before the first operational squadron (No. 138 Squadron RAF) arrived on 1 January 1955 which operated the nuclear-capable Vickers Valiants. The squadron stayed at the station until 18 November 1955 when they moved to RAF Wittering.
The next unit to arrive was No. 232 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) which started operating during July 1957 with the Handley Page Victor and the English Electric Canberra T4 with the first 7 Victors arriving on 11 November 1957. All Victor I crews trained at RAF Gaydon alongside the crews of the Valiants. However, in 1962 a similar unit was set up at Wittering called Victor 2 Conversion Unit which was a section of the OCU before the OCU at Gaydon disbanded on 30 June 1965 with the Victor element becoming the Tanker Training Flight, the airfield being passed over to Flying Training Command (FTC).
In 1968 RAF Flying Training Command formed No. 637 Gliding School RAF at RAF Gaydon for the purpose of Air Cadet glider training.
With Britain’s nuclear capability moving from aircraft to the Polaris submarine in the late sixties, the V bomber force was becoming obsolete and Victor and Valiant training at RAF Gaydon ceased in June 1965. All formal flying at the base came to an end following the departure of the Air Navigation School for RAF Finningley in May 1970.
Under FTC the first unit to arrive was No. 2 Air Navigation School RAF (ANS) which flew the Vickers Varsity for nearly five years before moving to RAF Finningley during May 1970 after becoming part of No. 6 Flying Training School RAF on 24 April 1970.
In 1970 the airfield was transferred to HQ Central Flying School; the first unit being allocated to the airfield was the Special Avionics Servicing Unit RAF of No. 1 Group RAF of Strike Command, until it was disbanded on 1 December 1971 when control of the airfield finally passed to No. 71 Maintenance Unit RAF at RAF Bicester, before closing on 31 October 1974. No. 637 Gliding School remained at Gaydon until 1977, thereafter reforming at RAF Little Rissington.
In 1978 the airfield was bought by British Leyland, and with the subsequent development of vehicle test facilities, the site became home to what was then known as BL Technology. The main runway was converted into part of a four-lane test track, and many other tarmac and off-road tracks were created. The buildings that once housed service personnel were sold off and became the village of Lighthorne Heath.
After closure, some of the Gaydon domestic quarters were used as a temporary transit camp for families from Uganda and other overseas countries that had been displaced from their homes by war and civil strife.
In 1975, the 850 pupils of Southam High School were accommodated there for 12 months following enforced evacuation from their Southam building, which had been declared unsafe due to the high alumina cement used in its construction. Jim Skinner, headmaster at the time joked that he knew of no other school anywhere in the world which could land Concorde within its grounds! Jim knew that in earlier times the long Gaydon runway had been one of a small number of designated emergency landing strips for Concorde during the aircraft’s test flights. For a period, the airfield was also considered as a likely site for the third London airport when plans for the expansion of Heathrow and Gatwick were being hotly debated.
Since then both Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin have built extensive research and development facilities.
The former high-security bomb stores at Lighthorne have been adapted as a store by the British Film Institute and now house the BFI National Archive, one of the largest film archives in the world where irreplaceable and highly flammable early nitrate films are stored for posterity.
The present museum opened in 1993 as the amalgamation of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust’s preserved car collection.
The Trust decided that the car collection and artefacts were outgrowing its then two locations, Studley in Warwickshire and a museum in Syon Park in London. A dedicated purpose-built residence was needed to give the collection pride of place and open for public viewing.
It was the Trust’s mission to keep the memory of the British motor industry alive and to tell its story to all, starting from the beginning of the 20th Century to the present day. So a building was designed that not only housed the cars and its extensive motoring archive but also had educational and conference facilities thus ensuring its sustainability. The Heritage Motor Centre, as it was first known, opened in May 1993.
2006/7 Museum Redevelopment
Closed for five months of building work, the Museum was officially re-opened in September 2007 by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, who was fascinated and impressed with the new exhibitions.
The Building of the Collection Centre
With the British Motor Industry Heritage Trusts car collection nearing 300 vehicles and display space within the Museum at a premium, its reserve collection was largely kept unseen, in storage.
It had long been the Trusts plan to build a storage facility that would allow public access to all of its collection, and in 2013 a Heritage Lottery grant, and funding from Jaguar Land Rover, The Garfield Weston Foundation as well as British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and the Jaguar Heritage Trust, made the dream a reality.
The Collections Centre opened in November 2015 as a store for the reserve car collections of both the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and the Jaguar Heritage Trust.
In the winter of 2015 the Museum underwent a further £1.1million refurbishment, dramatically changing the layout of the exhibitions with fresh and interactive interpretation.
With its recent Designated Status and new look Museum, the Trust took the opportunity to change the Museums name from the Heritage Motor Centre to something that more accurately portrays the visitor experience as well as its position and status.
– so, the British Motor Museum was born.
Re-opened in February 2016, and housed within two buildings, the British Motor Museum collections form the world’s largest collection of historic British cars on view to the public.
Looking across the lake with the Collections Centre on the left and the main museum in the background.