RAF Halton was the home of the RAF's Aircraft Apprentices scheme, which sought to take apprentices and train them in a range of technical skills, which they would then take out to the wider RAF following graduation.
The programme started in January 1920 - initially at RAF Cranwell, as Halton's accomodation wouldn't be ready for a couple more years - with the 1st Entry, and finished in June 1993 with the 155th Entry. An "Entry", of which there were generally two or three throughout a year, was a particular intake of apprentices, and they became such an identifier that one of the first questions asked when meeting a fellow former apprentice would be "which Entry are you?".
The Duke of York inspects RAF Halton in 1922, the year that the site opened. This British Pathé film has no sound.
Halton, and its apprentices, who were known as "Brats", became one of the RAF's most famous technical institutions. The Autumn 1958 edition of the Halton magazine wrote of it that:
"There is no doubt that the seeds sown at Halton mature into an endless 'Chestnut Avenue' which stretches throughout the Royal Air Force and around the world. We feel that so long as there is a Royal Air Force, there will always be a Halton to produce these 'Chestnut trees' which have formed the main supports for the RAF during the last twenty to thirty years".
There were several origins claimed for the term "brat", although according to Bill Taylor in his book "Halton and the Apprentice Scheme", the most likely is simply that as "Trenchard's proteges began to filter out into the RAF at large, many of the existing tradesmen called them Trenchard Brats, at first as a term of derision in the true meaning of the word - a troublesome child. However, as time passed and the ex-apprentices were able to prove their worth, the term Brat soon became a name to be proud of".
The Halton estate had been established by Lionel Rothschild, of the famous Rothschild banking family, during the mid 1800s. On his death in 1879, it passed to his middle son, Alfred de Rothschild, who set about building "an English chateau modelled on modern French lines". The house, completed in 1883, was lavishly decorated, with the pinnacle perhaps being its famous Gold Room, the ceiling of which was said to have cost £25,000 (a huge sum in the 19th century). It was also one of the earliest houses to have electric light and central heating.
In 1913, Alfred invited the army to use the estate for manoeuvers, which led to most of its trees being used as trench props in the Great War. In 1917 the Royal Flying Corps established a technical training unit at Halton and commenced with the building of permanent workshops totalling 300,000 square feet of space, using a workforce which included German prisoners of war. By the end of 1917, 14,000 mechanics had been trained at Halton, despite the lack of facilities for most of that time.
A summary of Halton's history appeared in a souvenir brochure for the base's Battle of Britain anniversary open day in September 1952:
Short Review of No. 1 School of Technical Training
The earliest association of Halton with the Air Branch of the Armed Forces of the Crown was in 1913 when the Army Manoeuvres of that year were carried out in the vicinity and a squadron of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps landed on a hill which is now the Maitland Parade Ground. The idea of a scheme for the training of Apprentices for later regular service in the Royal Air Force as skilled technicians, originated with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard to whose ideas the Royal Air Force also owes the foundation of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell.
A School of Technical Training (Boys) was founded at Halton in 1917, under the command of Colonel I. M. Bonham-Carter, who later became Air Officer Commanding Halton as Air Commodore I. M. Bonham-Carter, C.B., O.B.E. In 1920 No. 2 School of Technical Training (Boys) was founded at Cranwell. This school continued its separate identity until the summer of 1926 when all Cranwell Apprentices, other than those under training for Electrical and Wireless trades, were transferred to Halton.
Although the trade training of Apprentices at both Halton and Cranwell has changed to keep in step with the development of the Royal Air Force, and the training of Electrical Fitters has been transferred to Halton, the division of responsibility which gave to Cranwell the training of Signals Apprentices and to Halton the training of all other technical apprentices, has continued since 1926.
In 1917 the wartime hutments began to be replaced by more permanent buildings and Halton House became the Officers' Mess. Since then the transformation of the original scattered hutted camp into the large permanent Royal Air Force Station of today has proceeded steadily. The Henderson and Groves Parade Ground and the surrounding Barrack Blocks, Dining Halls and Institutes were completed in 1922. In this year, His late Majesty King George VI, as H.R.H. The Duke of York, inspected the new Barrack Blocks and took the Salute at a March Past of Apprentices. His late Majesty also visited Halton on April 14th, 1939, when he inspected the latest Workshop building, known as "New Workshops" .
On October 31st, 1927, H.R.H. Princess Mary, Countess Lascelles, opened the new Hospital buildings. To mark the occasion the Hospital is called Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Hospital, Halton. H.R.H. The Princess Royal again visited Halton on November 1st, 1948, to mark the coming-of-age celebrations of the hospital. Air Commodore H.R.H. the late Duke of Kent inspected the Air Training Cadet Camp and the Apprentice Workshops on June 19th, 1942.
Princess Mary opens the new hospital buildings at RAF Halton, and then plants a tree, in 1927. This British Pathé video has no sound.
From its foundation to the outbreak of World War II, No. 1 School of Technical Training trained and passed into the Service of the Royal Air Force an increasing number of apprentices. During the war the School continued to train apprentices but in August, 1939, the length of Apprentice training was reduced to two years and a small number of Naval Apprentices was taken under training. In August, 1943, however, the training period was restored to three years, at which length it has remained.
During 1944 and 1945, a number of Polish Apprentices were taken under training. On May 25th, 1945, the 25th Anniversary of the inauguration of the Royal Air Force Apprentice Scheme was celebrated at Halton, the Inspecting Officer being Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard who, as the then Chief of Air Staff, had inspected the first entry of Apprentices to graduate from the School, in 1925.
In the immediate post World War II period, voluntary recruitment to the apprentice scheme was much below requirements. Numbers are, however, increasing and today there are 2,000 apprentices under training. Although prior to 1939 a small number of boys came regularly to the School from overseas for training, the number has increased during the past five years. At present Apprentices from the following Commonwealth and foreign countries are under instruction: Pakistan, New Zealand, Ceylon, Southern Rhodesia and Burma.
Some 21,500 Apprentices have graduated from Halton since the School was founded of which upwards of 4,000 have received Commissions in various branches of the Royal Air Force. A number of those commissioned have achieved Air Rank. The honours awarded to ex-Apprentices from Halton include the V.C. to Sergeant Thomas Gray (20th Entry) (posthumously), 1 G.C., 1 C.B., 2 C.B.Es., 24 D.S.Os., 28 O.B.Es., 93 M.B.Es., 183 D.F.Cs., 91 A.F.Cs., 6 G.Ms., 256 D.F.Ms., 41 A.F.Ms., 147 B.E.Ms., as well as a number of foreign decorations. There have been over 1,800 mentioned in Despatches.
The aim of the School is to produce the highest class of technical tradesmen to service Royal Air Force air-craft and equipment.
A map of RAF Halton in 1952, as featured in Halton's Battle of Britain anniversary "At Home" open day souvenir brochure
After Alfred de Rothschild died in 1918, the estate and house - which was now an Officers' Mess - was sold to the Air Board for use by the newly-formed RAF. This was just as well as the terms of Rothschild's original lease of Halton to the Army required its return within six months of the end of hostilities in the state in which it had been lent, so the new RAF had little choice other than to buy the estate, since it had built all over it. However, it got a bargain, as the sale price (the equivalent of about £6.4 million in 2020) was roughly one third of the estate's value in probate.
As well as the No. 1 School of Technical Training, Halton was also home to a number of other trade schools. The 1952 open-day souvenir brochure describes them:
No. 1 School of Cookery
The object of the school is to train airmen and airwomen to take their places on stations to carry out the important task of feeding the Royal Air Force. Five types of courses are held, the duration of which range from six to fourteen weeks. These include the Basic Course normally for beginners, two Advanced Courses which train personnel in the high class methods of cooking, one " V.I.P." course and a course for Catering Officers at the commencement of their commissioned service. Every opportunity is given to the National Service airman to train and fit himself for a responsible post on his return to civilian life.
Princess Mary's R.A.F. Hospital
Princess Mary's R.A.F. Hospital, opened in 1927 by the Princess Royal, is a General Hospital for all ranks of the Royal Air Force, their families and the Women's Royal Air Force. It has medical, surgical, ophthalmic, E.N.T, gynaecological and radio-logical departments. Separate buildings are provided for the neuro-psychiatric centre, tuberculosis centre and for infectious cases. In addition advanced training of medical airmen and airwomen in nursing and radiography is carried out in the hospital.
Dental Training Establishment
The function of the Dental Training Establishment is to provide initial and advanced training for Dental Hygienests, Dental Surgery Attendants, and Dental Mechanics. There is also a short administrative course for newly-commissioned dental officers. The duration of the courses varies from one of two years for Dental Mechanics to nine weeks for the initial training course for Dental Surgery Attendants. The training given is recognised by civilian dental authorities as reaching a standard equivalent to that of civilian training institutions.
Institute of Pathology & Tropical Medicine
The Institute is the central pathology laboratory of the Royal Air Force and the centre of tropical medicine, both for diagnostic work and for research and teaching. Courses are held for Medical Officers in tropical medicine and to train them as pathologists. Airmen are trained as laboratory technicians. The Institute is fortunate in possessing a tropical diseases museum, the display cases of which are a gift of Viscount Nuffield.
Prior to the construction of RAF Halton proper, the RFC's home was essentially some dilapidated huts in a field, largely left over from the Army's occupation of the site. The following recollection, as printed in the June 1952 edition of the Halton Magazine, paints a sometimes bleak picture of the conditions at the time:
During a recent visit to Halton by a party of ex-R.F.C. Boys, it was suggested that it would not be inappropriate to give, through your Journal, a brief account of the conditions experienced by the lads of 1917. Although 'Boys' had been recruited into the Royal Flying Corps as early as 1913 it was not until May 1917 that a "Boy Section," as such, was inaugurated. Between that date and December 1917, approximately three thousand boys entered what was then North Camp. No provision was made for technical training and very little for eating.
The writer's recollection dates from a dreary night in November when, after being introduced to his Flight Sergeant and being assured that the fracture inflicted on the cardiac organ of his maternal parent could not be repeated there, he was conducted, through a morass of partly-frozen slush to a hut furnished to a degree of comfort that would call forth adverse criticism in a third-rate penitentiary.
From that moment, life consisted of alternating periods of acute hunger and extreme wind-up. A stranger visiting the camp at that time might have been excused for thinking he had discovered a race of long-legged short-haired sub-humans. The former characteristic was due to normal development, the latter to the activities of a regimental barber who had, it was rumoured, graduated on the sheep-runs of Australasia.
The pay, eightpence per diem, could, after deductions for allotments, barrack-damage charges and losses due to tactical errors in connection with a "crown" and "mud-hook," be expended in the high life of the canteen or Y.M.C.A. (both wooden structures tastefully carpeted with local mud and chalk). One might also use a trading-post which, having no other title, was affectionately known as "Dirty Dick's," an allusion to either the business methods or the personal hygiene of its proprietor.
The keenest event, I believe, was when the "diphtherias" defeated the "scarlet fevers" four-three at soccer
The circumstances attending the sudden disintegration of this select rendezvous were somewhat cloaked in mystery, but a slanderous report at the time, emanating no doubt from the minds of Officers or N.C.O.'s, attributed the occurrence to human agency. It was about this time that "Woodbines" and other consumable goods became temporarily plentiful.
The religious side of camp life was to be found mainly in a "Home from Home" where, in addition to useful knowledge, one might imbibe free refreshments. There was a great demand for religious instruction. It must not be imagined that sport was neglected during this period, especially during the months of quarantine when the promulgated fixtures read like extracts from a medical dictionary. The keenest event, I believe, was when the "diphtherias" defeated the "scarlet fevers" four-three at soccer.
Of the impromptu events, by far the most popular was the Camp's own "Cresta-run" which had advantages over any other "sport" in so far as it could be performed equally well on either snow or mud and needed only a spare sheet of corrugated iron. It was, however, attended by grave risk of concussion or decapitation.
Conditions as described in the foregoing are amusing only when considered in retrospect. They were bad and must never be repeated.
As our party departed after the visit and passed the green field which was once North Camp, it might have been truly said that "here at last is peace."
J. E. Browning
Maitland Barracks at RAF Halton, 1937
The school's crest featured a beech tree, which represented the trees common to the area surrounding Halton. Its choosing was described more poetically in the Christmas 1939 Halton Magazine:
"The County of Bucks is famous for its noble beech woods, and the picture of their changing beauty from the fresh green of Spring through the ample foliage of Summer to their final Autumn splendour is one which must endure in the memory of all who have served at Halton."
"Thus the choice of the beech tree is surely appropriate as the badge of the School. Its motto, 'Crescentes Discimus' — 'We Learn as We Grow' is also, we hope, no less an appropriate description of our activities."
"Crescentes Discimus" — "We Learn as We Grow" is also, we hope, no less an appropriate description of our activities
The references to beech trees ran deep, as this poem, published in the Summer 1938 Halton Magazine, testifies:
I walk in the shade of the cool colonnade
Of the beech trees which tower so high,
My heart bears a song as I wander along,
Then who is so happy as I?
Their trunks, smooth and round, rise in strength from the ground
In columns, like men on the march;
Spreading boughs in their might, extend left and right,
And form a vast overhead arch.
The moss at their feet makes a carpet complete,
Soft and sweet to the wanderer's tread;
While primroses gay bespangle the way
And violets peep from their bed.
The soft notes of song are borne faintly along
From the birds which inhabit the grove,
The dove's tender call surpasses them all,
Like the lover, his passion to prove.
And the wood-creatures play or idle their day,
For who is so care-free as they?
And laze through the hours in lullaby bowers
While time slips unnoticed away.
Men sweat in their toil as they work at the soil
In fields 'neath the hot sun of noon
In foundries and mills they harness their wills
To the engine's monotonous tune.
But there's peace here for me; how I love every tree,
And watch with half-somnolent eye
The bees in their flight and the butterflies bright
That curtsey and dance as they fly.
Here a refuge is found from life's strenuous round,
'Mid quiet and calmness of mind;
Here's food for the soul and its ultimate goal
A haven of beauty enshrined.
A hundred years on these trees may be gone,
Their life as transient as mine
May there come in my place a worthier race,
And in theirs as inspiring a line.
W. A. CAMPION. 1938
The No. 1 School of Technical Training, and the Apprentices scheme, had been founded by Lord (Later Viscount) Hugh Montague Trenchard, the man who was also intrumental in establishing the RAF itself, and maintaining it in the face of much early hostility from the Admiralty and Parliament. His influence was such that he was invited to brief the founders of the US Air Force, who referred to Trenchard as the "Patron Saint of Air Power".
Lord Trenchard - father of the RAF - is laid to rest in 1956
Trenchard's vision for RAF Halton went beyond the obvious "barrack blocks, schools buildings and workshops" but also included things like sports facilities, married quarters, a childrens' school, a railway line to the camp and an on-site electricity generating station - even during the 1950s Halton was not connected to the National Grid and everything ran on DC electricity.
The Number 2 Mess, RAF Halton, Winter 1951/52, Halton Magazine June 1952
The railway line ran from Wendover station to near the on-site bakery, but judging from this letter, which appeared in the May 1953 Halton Magazine, it wasn't actually used for passengers:
Sir, At the beginning of a leave anyone in the vicinity of Halton or Wendover will see scores of heavily-laden apprentices marching to Wendover Station. Could not the station near the camp bakery be used? I am sure the apprentices would not mind paying a small fee for the extra trip into Wendover. I have seen rolling stock on that line, so could it be used for us? This would get us away more quickly, reduce the risk of congestion in the streets of Wendover, and make us look forward more to our leave.
Although the No. 1 School of Technnical Training and the Aircraft Apprentices Scheme ceased in 1993 with the graduation of the 155th Entry from Halton in June (and the subsequent graduation of the 155th Entry at Cosford in October), the site remains active and is still one of the RAF's largest. As of 2020 it hosts various RAF squadrons including Recruit Training, 7644 Royal Auxilliary Air Force, Specialist Training, the RAF Halton Voluntary Band and the Logistics Specialist Training Wing. The entire site however was earmarked for closure by 2022, although that date has now slipped to at least 2025.
Sources: Mainpoint, the magazine of RAF Halton, 1997; https://www.raf.mod.uk/our-organisation/stations/raf-halton/; 69th Entry Newsletter Feb 2020
The final Passing Out parade
The last ever passing out parade of the Halton "Brats" was reported in the Daily Telegraph's Court Circular section, Thursday June 24th 1993. It stated "The Duke of Gloucester today visited the Number One School of Technical Training at Royal Air Force Halton and took the salute at the final Passing Out parade of the Aircraft Engineering Technical Apprentices". The article continued "The Duke of Gloucester was received by Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant for Buckinghamshire, Commander the Honourable John Fremantle RN. Major Nicholas Barne was in attendance".
The almost-obituary finished with "Halton 'Brats' finally passed out today after 74 years of devoted service. No flowers please, donations to RAF HAAA".