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Cranfield University and Airport

Note: The summary below has kindly been prepared by staff of the Cranfield Aeronautical History Department to give an authoritative account of the evolution of the site to the present day.

The WWII history of Cranfield Airfield is not included here.


The present-day Cranfield University evolved from the original establishment of RAF Cranfield in 1937 and subsequently the founding of the College of Aeronautics on the site in 1946.  Since that time a process of strong organic growth has seen the College spawn a succession of offshoot that have become the five Schools of Cranfield University as it exists today. 

Over this period starting in 1946, the institution has repeatedly transformed itself – it was granted university status in 1969, becoming the Cranfield Institute of Technology, and it changed its name to Cranfield University in 1993.  The MOD awarded it a teaching and research contract in 1984 which led directly to today’s College of Defence Management and Technology (DCMT) at Shrivenham and a continuity of its defence education mission through to 2027.  An example of this was the contribution made to aircraft safety (e.g., the work of the late Professor Helen Muir in the aftermath of the Manchester air disaster).

The early days – 1937-1947

Responding to Hitler’s rearmament programme, the Air Ministry acquired over 100 acres of farmland in June 1935 to build an airfield.  This was formally opened on 1 June 1937 and became the home of 62 and 82 Squadrons of No. 1 (Bomber) Group (62 Squadron July was transferred to Singapore in August 1939 where it was decimated in the struggle against the Japanese invasion).

Cranfield expanded quickly with the outbreak of war, replacing the grass landing strip with 3 properly hardened surfaced runways.

High explosive and incendiary bombs fell on the airfield in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain.  A month later Cranfield was attacked by a parachute mine, which caused damages to houses and shops in Cranfield village High Street.  A second mine was found dangling from a tree in nearby Hulcote Wood on 13 October. 

On 2 occasions in July and August 1040 Vivian Hollowday risked his life attempting to save aircrew from blazing crashed aircraft.  He was awarded the George Cross for his heroism.  The graves of the crash victims are in the Cranfield village churchyard.

By August 1941 No. 51 Night Fighter Operational Training Unit (OTU) arrived at Cranfield.  One training method involved scores of aircrew equipped with dark glasses riding around the barracks square on ‘stop me and buy one’ Walls ice-cream tricycles.

The OUT disbanded in June 1945, and all aircraft left by the end of August until November 1945 when the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) transferred to Cranfield for 2 years.

College of Aeronautics

A major driving force for the new College was Sir Roy Feddon, who produced a mission report on his research of the US air industry highlighting that British companies were drastically short of qualified engineers.  The Air Minister, Sir Stafford Cripps, was very much the driving force to follow up on this and the resulting investigation recommended the establishment of a postgraduate aeronautical school in 1943 to address this gap.  Professor WJ Duncan, the writer of the report, became the first Professor of Aerodynamics at Cranfield.

Despite hostility to the idea of a ‘US style super Institute of Technology by both academics and industrialists, Cranfield was identified as the site for the new College of Aeronautics, with the RAF and MOD becoming major customers.  Notable projects included R&D on the Harrier, and the ongoing servicing of valuable aircraft such as Spitfires, Hurricanes and the Lancaster which serve as permanent reminders of the Battle of Britain

1946-1950 – The period of development 

A Board of Governors was appointed under the Chairmanship of Sir Edgar Ludlow Hewitt, which met for the first time in 1945.   The College received funding directly from the Ministry of Education (£3126.9s.11p for the period December 1945-end March 1946, followed by £271,740 for year ending March 1947).

The period between the allocation of money and the intake of the first students meant that there an incredible amount of work in months rather than years to convert the existing buildings into suitable accommodation for the first intake of students in October 1946, e.g.

  • The Airmen’s Dining Hall (now Stafford Cripps Building) became a ‘Hall of Assembly’ and used for a library, lecture hall, 2 common rooms and a recreation room for the teaching staff
  • Existing barrack blocks were converted into small laboratories, with lecture rooms and drawing offices fitted out on the upper floors
  • The first floor of the old RAF HQ building was used for offices for the Principal, Registrar, Bursar and other clerical staff
  • The original Sergeants Mess (later named Mitchell Hall) was converted into a hall of residence for the 1st year student intake
  • The departure of the ETPS in July 1947 enabled the conversion of the Officers Mess (later named Lanchester Hall) into a second hall of residence

1951-1955 – A period of crisis

This was a period of austerity for the country as a whole and the College was not immune to this. The need for more money to make improvements to accommodation, payment for higher quality staff and the need to attract sufficient candidates of the right qualification were major issues during these years.  The visit by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1952 was part of the PR campaign to promote the College’s value.

The Annual Report in 1952 supported the need for diversification, and the following year a Work Study School (later to evolve into the Cranfield School of Management in the 1960s) began to address this issue, funded by a range of industrial sponsors (e.g., ICI, Hoover, and the British Institute of Management).

1955-1969 – The period of diversification

The Air Ministry transferred the deed for the property to the College of Aeronautics in 1963, which gave the College financial security.

The 1957 Defence White Paper emphasised the importance of missile technology and the space age (the Russians had launched Sputnik that year).  It heralded great changes in the UK aircraft industry and a series of mergers which led to the disappearance of many famous aircraft companies.

The policy of diversification therefore continued with the creation of a new Department of Aircraft Electrical Engineering and of Mathematics in 1995, and in October 1958 the creation of a Department of Aircraft Materials.  This was followed by new courses such as fluid mechanics, control engineering and automotive engineering.  By 1961 the word ‘aircraft’ was dropped from department names to enhance the diversification.

The Robbins report on the College recognised its status as a postgraduate Institute of Technology, although it had reservations on the small size of the college to award its own degrees.  It therefore recommended that it form an appropriate association with a university. This was contested and subsequently it was recommended that its best contribution to the national technological effort lay in developing a postgraduate institution providing courses in engineering science, technology and management subjects directly related to the needs of industry.  In July 1967 the college became the Cranfield Institute of Technology by Royal Charter (Neil Armstrong is an Honorary Graduate).

A change of leadership

1967 was also the year that the new city of Milton Keynes was designated, only 4 miles from the Institute.  This was to have a major impact on the Institute, not least of which being the new VC, Sir Henry Chilver (later Lord Chilver), was also Chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation for a period.  Under his leadership there was an enormous increase in R&D income, and an increasing reputation for the quality and relevance of its work.

In 1975 the National College of Agricultural Engineering at Silsoe became part of the Institute, followed in 1984 by the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham becoming the third campus of the Institute.

Chilver’s influence enabled the individual heads of school to develop their own sources of income apart from government funded education, and the Institute benefitted from an income from commercial and research activities.  

In 1979-1980 Cranfield pioneered a double degree course with the University of Compiegne, near Paris, which allowed students to earn degrees from both participating organisations.  This has become the flagship of Cranfield’s international activity

Cranfield Technology Park and Industry Links

An obvious symbol of the strong links with industry is the Technology Park at the entrance to the university, with companies such as Nissan’s European Technology Centre, British Aerospace and Rolls Royce taking advantage of the benefits of the university’s technological expertise.

Reference: Cranfield College of Aeronautics History: previously unpublished

Additional material held by Bedfordshire Archives

The archives hold some items from the press, some photographs and some oral history recordings relating to Cranfield University. There is also a letter following a visit by HRH Princess Anne.

  • X881/4/K7 - Beds on Sunday: January 1995 photographs ref Dr Susan Kelman Crash Test Centre         
  • X881/4/N2 - Beds on Sunday: Professor Colin New, Chairman of Cranfield School of Management Graduate Programmes, with Professor Leo Murray, Director of the School of Management from 1986, and Professor Frank Hartley, Vice Chancellor of Cranfield University from 1989-2006 at the opening of the Cranfield School of Management Building 
  • X881/7/B60/1 - Business on Sunday draft edition 1995 Draft of Business on Sunday supplement from the Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper. Pages are all overprinted with 'Dummy Edition'. Undated, possibly late 1995, as per the advertisements inside. Includes a reference to franchising and engineering at Cranfield University. 
  • X881/7/C34 - Aerial image c1996 of University campus and of construction of building 83 next to the airfield and the IMEC building
  • X881/7/C34/1 - Aerial image c 1996of University campus, view looking northwest with airfield at bottom of photograph. Information on reverse of photograph states: "Cranfield, the top aerospace university has ordered a powerful digital telephone system from Siemens to provide 784 postgraduate students at its Bedfordshire campus with individual telephones and voicemail in their rooms." NB the refurbishment project mentioned included the building of three new blocks at the rear of Lanchester Hall, originally the RAF Officers' Mess. 
  • Z1130/104/16/2 - Coloured postcard c1995 Silsoe: BE-0166'. A multiview card showing the School House Mews, Cranfield University, The Cage (Church Road) and the High Street. School House Mews is located on the east side of the High Street, just south of the junction with Ampthill Road. Photography by Gordon Flanagan, Exclusive to Silsoe News, published by "Photographic Heritage" Bedfordshire Heritage Collectors Cards. 
  • Z1205/196 - Oral history Male b 1923. Mechanical engineer at Cranfield University. When he went to Cranfield College of Aeronautics, there were just 39 students doing advanced aeronautical science. Worked with the Chief Draughtsman on design, under the Resident Engineer. Worked on wind tunnels design. The Aircraft Research Association tunnels at Thurleigh grew out of the work he did at Cranfield. Spent 9 years in the Engineering Dept. Was invited to lecture in the Work Study School. Became a member of the Institute of Management Studies. 
  • Z1205/231 - Oral history Male b 1912. Professor. Head of Department, Cranfield University. Got married during the war and then moved to Bedfordshire in 1946.The Director of Munitions told him about a post teaching at the Institute of Technology at Cranfield. His job was to set up a production department at the post-graduate institute. Eventually he built it up to 200 people. Numerous American forces’ graduates in their thirties came to gain post-graduate qualifications. 
  • Z1515/6/15/23 - Letter of thanks from Geoffrey Farr to Professor R. Fletcher at Cranfield University dated 24 March 1999 following the visit by the Princess Royal to the Cranfield Innovation Centre, 23 March 1999.