Abstract The development of a fully automated test apparatus for near-threshold fatigue crack growth rate measurements in a liquid helium environment is described, and some initial results for AISI 300 series stainless steels are presented. The experimental apparatus consists of a servohydraulic test machine and a cryostat, complete with a minicomputer, a programmable arbituary waveform generator, a programmable digital oscilloscope and a fully automatic liquid helium refill system. The technique uses 6.4 mm thick compact specimens subjected to systematically decreasing loads, with 24 h operation at 40 Hz, the crack growth being continuously monitored by specimen compliance measurements. The results presented in this study include da/ dN vs ΔK curves and threshold fatigue stress intensity factors, ΔK th , at 4 K for AISI 304L, 304LN and 316 stainless steels. The near-threshold fatigue behaviours of these materials are similar, and the fatigue crack growth rate trends at intermediate ΔK levels nearly agree with published results.