Signals Museum

R.A.F. Henlow History

Henlow is a good choice for the location of the Signals Museum as it has a long standing connection with Signals and Radar engineering.

The RAF base was established on May 10th 1918 at the end of World War One. Initially it was a depot to repair and construct aircraft and train the men who would be doing this work. In 1924 Henlow became the home of the School of Aeronautical Engineering. It is a well known fact that the inventor of the jet engine, Sir Frank Whittle was a student at the School. In 1938, No.13 Maintenance Unit was established, responsible for assembling, repairing and modifying front line aircraft throughout the coming war. The War years saw Henlow play a major rôle in the war effort and it became one of the largest maintenance units in the country. Amongst the aircraft handled here were Hurricanes, Spitfires, Hampdens, Whitleys, Lancasters and Mosquitos. Well over 1000 Hurricanes were assembled and modified alone. At this time the Station strength was around 9000 . The former Air Traffic Control building at Henlow was constructed from packing cases used to transport Canadian built Hurricanes to Henlow for final assembly. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 2006 as it had reached a point where it was un-maintainable due to rot in the wooden stucture.

After the War, emphasis on aircraft production declined and a new rôle was found for Henlow. No.13 MU was disbanded in 1947 and in 1950, the Radio Engineering Unit (REU) was established with the responsibility for installing ground radio and telecommunications equipment throughout the RAF. The REU also supplied, repaired and calibrated a vast range of radio equipment at home and overseas.

In 1980, a detachment of the RAF Support Command Signals HQ was formed at Henlow. This grew steadily until in 1981 it was split into two parts, one of which was the RAF Signals Engineering Establishment (RAFSEE), with a task to design, manufacture and install worldwide communications, ground radars and other airfield navigational aids to meet the operational needs of the RAF. In 2000, RAFSEE became the Directorate of Engineering and Interoperability (DEI) a branch of the DCSA. This changed yet again in 2007 but Henlow now provides communications facilities for all three services.

The RAF Henlow Station Badge depicts a Dragon repairing a castle with the motto: “Labor Arma Ministrat” - “Hard Work Provides Arms” and has been the centre of many discussions as to it’s origins. Apparently, it pre-dates the Royal Air Force and was unofficially adopted in1918 from the insignia of the Royal Engineers who were responsible for building No. 5 Eastern Area Depot at Henlow. This unit had served in China at the time of the Second Boxer rebellion and so the Dragon is Chinese and not Welsh! The dragon is repairing the broken tower, a reference to the Station’s original role of maintaining and repairing aircraft from the Western Front in World War 1. The badge was transferred between units as Henlow was renamed over the years and was officially revived as the Station Badge in 1968.

RAF Henlow, the Future:

RAF Henlow celebrated it’s Centenary in May 2018. It is the only RAF Station that opened in WW1 that has had continuous service for the whole period which is quite a record and of course it did open as an RAF Station only 1 month after the inauguration of the RAF on April 1 1918. However, the Station is now set for closure and sale but as yet, no buyer has come forward. The local Council apparently has a plan to keep the airfield and maybe develop the site for light industry and scientific projects that may require an airfield. We shall have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the Signals museum will remain open for as long as possible and we hope that maybe the site purchaser may have the need to retain the museum on the site. We can only hope.

Some of the pictures of RAF Henlow
from the History Book which is on sale in the Museum.

Click on any picture for details.

We have now been set a closure date by the authorities at RAF Henlow. This will be by the end of June 2024 but we will close for visitors after the May 2024 Open Day, and start to dispose of our exhibits.

Please go to the   Museum Closure page for more information.

If you have any comments, complaints, suggestions, requests etc, please drop me a line via my Genuki email page.

Page last updated 12th July 2023 by Colin Hinson.