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The Camp 1939-1945

'An RAF base somewhere in Bedfordshire'

Whilst researching these years it became increasingly apparent just how chaotic and fast moving life was during the war - people were often uprooted overnight as they adapted to ever changing circumstances. Bedford for example suddenly had to cope with an influx of evacuees, US airmen, and the entire BBC music department which left the capital for safety reasons and stayed from 1940 - 1945. Events at the camp were equally fast moving with thousands of personnel passing through its doors. At the start and during the war it was used to enrol and train men into the RAF and also for training WAAFS to operate Barrage Balloons (also made on the camp). It then became a 'Demob' centre at the end of the war.

And inevitably once again due to war many events could not be reported and makes research difficult.
Bedford newpapers in the early months of 1939 frequently report on the sports and social activities at 'RAF Cardingon' as this talent show article shows but by the end of the year events are described as being held 'somewhere in Bedfordshire' and sports teams are referrred to as RAF teams with no other reference given.

Balloonatics Apr 40 cropped
Talant contest Feb 39SM
Empire Air day
Empire Air Day 23 May 19392
Empire Air Day May 39 BP Box 5912

These images are of an Empire Air Day held at the base in May 1939 for the general public. This was one stop of a national tour promoting awareness of the RAF. Throughout the day there were many aerial displays. (Original images taken from Beds & Luton Archive Services Boxes 570 & 591 Photography courtesy John Day)
With a growing need for air defences over the UK it was decided to increase output of Barrage Balloons and RAF Cardington was pivotal in the success of this operation training hundreds of staff to operate them. Again with grateful thanks to Arthur Thurston who collated this information we have an informative record of the growth of this unit. In 1941 due to a shortage of male manpower to work the balloons it was decided to recruit WAAFS for these roles. The training was very intense taking three months (this was reduced to 2 months as the war progressed) and the women performed exceptionally well. After their training they were sent out to other cities around the country.

WAAF parade July 42 Ampt 159SM

(Original image Beds & Luton Archive Services Times & Citizen collection BP 1362/4 - Photography John Day).

The caption on this picture taken in July 1942 reads RAF Cardington but the houses in the background look like those in The Crescent which would make sense as the entry to the base was at the main gate opposite.

RAF concert party Aug 1941SM
Balloonatics Aug 1941SM

Entertainment was a very important part of camp life and ways were always being found to boost morale. There was a gym on site which was also big enough to be used as a dance hall twice a week (very popular by all accounts with Bedford folk) and a cinema showing nightly programmes. Sport was also encouraged and Mr Bell recalls regular boxing matches arranged between the RAF and other armed forces. There is a reference in Mr Thurston's notes of a talented entertainment troupe formed called 'The Balloonatics' who put on regular shows for the camp - we have proof of this from the article shown earlier on this page followed by the advert left, and photograph right from the Bedford Record in August 1941.

(Source The Bedford Record Beds & Luton Archive Services)

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