Sign at the main entrance to the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom


The Defence Academy’s main site in Shrivenham has a history reaching back to William I’s Doomsday Book of 1086, which values ‘the tithing of Shrivenham,’ at a princely sum of £35. Its military history can be traced back through various owners of Beckett House, including Henry Marten, a prominent parliamentarian who signed the death warrant of Charles I, leading royalists to sack the house in 1648, and Robert Whitehead, inventor of the eponymous torpedo and whose granddaughter married the real Captain George Von Trapp portrayed in ‘The Sound Of Music’. The estate was also owned by the Barrington family, an aristocratic family after whom two towns in Massachusetts are named and who planted the grounds with one of every species of tree which can grow in the northern hemisphere.  In 1936 the War Office bought the property and grounds and an artillery school and airbase – RAF Watchfield – were soon established. 

During the war it served as a training site for two anti-aircraft batteries, a dispersal site for the RAF making it harder for the Luftwaffe to locate its planes, an ammunition store in case Britain was invaded, a training depot for night landings, and a marshalling area for Dunkirk evacuees in 1940. It was also used as a Civil Affairs Centre, offering language and military training to civil affairs officers (who would liaise between the military and local communities) in preparation for Operation Overlord and the liberation of Europe. Moreover, from 1942, much of the estate was given over to the Americans as part of the Lend-Lease programme. They used it as an Officer Cadet Training Unit, and, for two years after the war, as the site for the Shrivenham American University, one of three G.I. Universities set up to provide a transition for US troops between army life and subsequent attendance at a university back home in the USA. Following the closure of the university, Shrivenham’s primary role was to house the Royal Military College of Science (RMCS), the precursor to the modern Technology School. In 2002, the RMCS was joined by the other elements of the Defence Academy, which was formally constituted to serve as the focus for all defence and security postgraduate education, training and research in the United Kingdom.

The schools themselves also have illustrious histories at the forefront of military doctrine and technology and the longest of these histories probably belongs to the Technology School, which can trace its origins back to 1772 when the Military Society was founded in Woolwich to provide training in ordnance, ballistics and explosives for the artillery, and ensure that military technology kept pace with the Industrial Revolution. The Society and its successor institutions remained in Woolwich until the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Military College of Science was relocated to the Old Artillery Ranges in Kent, which was considered a more peaceful location for academic study. However, the conquest of France less than a year later rendered the new site highly vulnerable to aerial bombardment and, as no single suitably large site could be found, the College was divided and dispersed around the United Kingdom, only to be reconstituted after the war at the Shrivenham site where its closest successor remains today.

A more recent innovation to stay at the forefront of defence learning can be found in the Nuclear Department, which started life in 1959 as the Department of Nuclear Science and Technology in the Royal Naval College Greenwich, and which in 1962 built JASON, the first low-power nuclear reactor in a UK educational establishment. The Royal Naval College closed in 1998 and the Nuclear Department transferred to the Marine Engineering School at HMS Sultan, in Gosport, Hampshire, and later became part of the Defence Academy.

The military’s expansion of technical training was soon complemented by a new focus on command training with the 1799 creation of the Royal Military College by John le Marchant, in a room at the Antelope Inn, High Wycombe. This forerunner of the JSCSC was created to better prepare junior officers for staff positions in response to what le Marchant saw as failings in front line command, and was granted a Royal Warrant and a relocation to Farnham two years later. The model of high-level command training conceived by the Royal Military College evolved over the next two centuries into the the Single Service Staff Colleges (Camberley for the Army, Bracknell for the RAF and Greenwich for the Navy), and produced a list of alumni which reads as a who’s who of military and indeed British history, featuring notable figures from Douglas Haig to Bernard Montgomery and Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.  In 1998, the JSCSC consolidated the Single Service Staff Colleges and the Joint Service Defence College, and in 2002 took up residence at Shrivenham. 

Command and strategic training came to be viewed as such a vital part of developing leaders that in 1927, the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin acted on the advice of a Cabinet Committee presided over by Winston Churchill, and created the Imperial Defence College for “… the training of a body of officers and civilian officials in the broadest aspects of imperial strategy”. The institution sought to “unite officers … in the three Services who will go up in time to the higher positions,” a mission reflected in what remains the college’s motto; “Concordia Roborat Artus” (strength though unity). In April 1946, the College moved to Seaford House, Belgravia, originally built in 1842 for Charles William Molyneux, 3rd Earl of Sefton. That inaugural post-war course was the first to see American attendees, and five years later officers from India and Pakistan were also included before the broader addition of members from Commonwealth countries from 1961. This expansion continued following the College’s renaming to the Royal College of Defence Studies in 1971, and today nearly 110 members from fifty countries attend the course every year, in keeping with and contributing to the Defence Academy’s global heritage and outlook.

Landscape view to the front entrance of Beckett House