Both the BBC and Wales Online have reported how the St. Athan RAF base in Wales’ Vale of Glamorgan, which was thought to be obsolete within two years of opening, is celebrating its 75th birthday. The celebration took place yesterday with a parade and a flypast, but there is once again some uncertainty as to the base’s future.
The St. Athan RAF base was conceived in 1938 as a maintenance base with the site being chosen because it was thought that south Wales was beyond the range of Luftwaffe bombers. However and on June 20, 1940, a German attack on the base launched from captured French airfields quickly brought any notion of a safe haven to an end. Moreover, the RAF was loosing so many aircraft that repairing what survived in combat seemed like an impossible task. This forced the base to reinvent itself as a source of experts in the reclamation of badly-needed spares from irreparably damaged aircraft.
In the 1950s, the base was given the task of maintaining Vulcan Bombers carrying Britain’s nuclear warheads, but its future became doubtful after nuclear warheads shifted from bombers to submarines. St. Athan RAF base was ultimately saved by the receipt of a maintenance contract for the RAF’s fleet of VC10 air tankers and later on by the newly-launched Tornado fighter jets.
Later on, many buildings were demolished as part of a doomed £14 billion scheme to create a tri-service Defence Technical College. Nevertheless, the base’s tradition of repairing aircraft is alive and well because according to Wing Cmdr Paul Regan:
"The recruits who come to St Athan today arrive with 10 weeks basic training and leave eighteen months later with such a range of engineering skills that we often have a job to hold onto them within the forces. We may not do the glamorous work here, but our graduates are the young men and women with the ability to repair equipment under fire, or manufacture a bespoke part for an aircraft in the middle of Afghanistan when it could take weeks to fly one in from the UK."
However, the base ceased being called RAF St Athan in 2006, and it now seems likely that there will be no RAF presence at the base by 2016. With that said, there is growing number of commercial businesses attracted by the Welsh Government’s business park on part of the base as St Athan continues to reinvent itself to stay relevant.