In this Trail we head to Scotland’s stunning west coast, passing the beautiful Lochs and mountains of the Trossachs to an area known as the ‘Gateway to the Isles’. With the Inner and Outer Hebrides only a short boat trip away, it is, according to the Office of National Statistics, the UK’s 50th most popular tourist destination.
Now no longer a military aviation site, it was during the Second World War, a prime location for those sub-hunters and convoy escorts the Flying Boat. With open seas not far away, U-boats could hide in its hidden bays, sheltered by the many small islands and deep waters.
In Trail 60, we continue with the Flying Boat theme and head to the former RAF base at Oban.
RAF Oban (Kerrera).
The Flying boat base at Oban was actually located across the bay from the town on a small island called Kerrera, although personnel were billeted in the many hotels along Oban’s waterfront. With a further maintenance site a few miles north at Ganavan Sands, Oban, and the surrounding area, made a major contribution to coastal operations during the Second World War.
The calm waters of the Sound of Kerrera, the stretch of water between the island and the mainland, provided both good shelter and mooring facilities, as well as a long straight run for both take-off and landings.
However, it was not all plain sailing for those based at Oban. Whilst Kerrera sheltered the bay from the prevailing Atlantic winds, it did cause problems for some, as the wind direction could be unpredictable with swirls often being encountered during these crucial times. Another problem that the pilots frequently encountered were the many small boats that frequented the small bay. Strict guidelines were therefore issued to crews with extreme care and caution being the order of the day.
The RAF arrived in force in 1939, although it is believed that there was some use of the area in the years prior to this, notably from 201 Squadron who flew Supermarine Southamptons.
The first squadron to be posted here was that of 209 Squadron, operating another Supermarine model, the Stranraer. 209 Sqn had a long history, going back as far as World War One, and although it was disbanded in June 1919, it was reformed later in June 1930.
For the next nine years, the squadron would fly a whole range of aircraft types including the: Blackburn Iris III and V, Saunders Roe (Saro) A.7, Supermarine Southampton and Short’s Singapore II and III. All these before taking on the Stranraer in December 1938. Their diversity in aircraft was only matched by the range of bases from which they served. Reformed at Mount Batten in Plymouth, they transferred to half a dozen different bases ‘yo-yoing’ between them and Felixstowe in Suffolk, a place they would become familiar with.
The summer of 1939 was a particularly busy time for 209 Sqn, moving from Stranraer to Felixstowe, from Felixstowe to Invergordon then back once again to Felixstowe. From here, they would make one more move back to Invergordon before finally arriving at Oban on October 7th 1939. This last posting must have provided some light relief for the squadron personnel as they remained here until the end of July 1940. At this point, the squadron would move once again, this time to the major flying boat base at Pembroke Dock. Throughout this hectic and dynamic time, a small detachment of the squadron remained at the base in the Cornish Town of Falmouth.
With no flying in the days preceding the move to Oban, the 7th October saw the first aircraft, Stranraer K7292, depart Invergordon at 14:35. An hour later it arrived at the base at Kerrera, triggering a chain of events that would begin Oban’s aviation history.*1
Over the next few days the number of aircraft transiting to Oban increased and the quantity of Stanraers moored in the bay began to build up.
With local flights, air tests and gunnery practice taking precedence over other flying activities, the first patrols wouldn’t begin until the 18th October. From then on, routine searches would take aircraft around the local islands including Mull, the adjacent island, and out to the Skerrymore Light which was located on the Isle of Tiree.
From then on patrols were carried out mainly between the areas known as Little Minch and North Minch (a stretch of water between the islands), offering a continuous anti-submarine patrol in conjunction with aircraft from 269 Sqn. Any submarines sighted were to be reported rather than attacked, possibly as British Submarines were also operating in the area at that time.
On the 24th October, orders were given to escort the ship SS Hesterus, performing a watch until the Skerrymore Light was reached. At that point the aircraft was ordered to leave the area and return to Oban. The Minch became a submarine hot spot, with new orders coming through on the 25th to now bomb any enemy submarine now seen in this location. German U-boats were now known to lurk in these deep waters waiting for unsuspecting merchant vessels to appear, before they transited to the open sea. With a number of sightings toward the month’s end the war was beginning to heat up.
In December 1939, it was decided to replace the Stranraers with Lerwick Is, a Saunders Roe built aircraft capable of carrying a crew of seven: two pilots, one Air Observer, two Aircrew, one Flight Mechanic and one Flight Rigger. There were some doubts as to the suitability of the Lerwick to operate from Oban’s waters, the rough sea and high terrain surrounding Oban presenting a great risk. It was also advised that night flying and flying in poor weather was also too dangerous, the Stranraer being far more suited to such flights. However, following a study by Wing Commander C.G. Wigglesworth of 209 Sqn, which compared the Lerwick to the Stranraer, he concluded that with a reduction in the overall weight as he prescribed, the Lerwick could be successfully flown from Oban. As a result, four were initially ordered, which would operate in conjunction with the Stranraers until crews became fully acquainted with the new type.
On 25th December, a fuel test combined with an anti submarine patrol was carried out. The speed of the Lerwick (L7255) and duration of its flight returned a usage of 85 gallons per hour, a figure which the Station Commander considered good and in line with what Messers Bristols suggested; albeit at a less economical 100 gallons per hour for the Hercules engine.
In 1940, the patrols continued on, and in June one of these patrols spotted the 3000 ton Finnish vessel “Reculus Suom” . The aircraft contacted the British warship HMS Devonshire, directing her to the vessel’s location. The partnership between the RAF and Navy serving well off the Scottish coast.
Other ships identified on these patrols included Icelandic vessels along with HMS Hood, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Hesperus. With one submarine attacked, patrols and escorts became the primary role of 209 Sqn.
Then on 20th June 1940, aircraft C / 20G was ordered to the position of A.M.C. “Scotstoon”, which had been torpedoed and sunk. On arrival, the aircraft saw 8 lifeboats, along with a considerable amount of oil and wreckage. The pilot contacted a British destroyer which preceded at full speed to pick up the survivors. Whilst the destroyer remained on site, the aircraft patrolled looking for any signs of a U-boat that might be waiting to attack the rescuer. Once all the survivors were gathered, the aircraft returned home to Oban.
Many of these escort duties ran in conjunction with Sunderlands from 15 Group. Some of these would land at Oban, gather fuel and return to their own bases elsewhere. It would soon become a sight that would become the norm.
In July 1940, the Lerwicks of 209 Sqn departed Oban’s waters, heading to Pembroke Dock, allowing space for another squadron, 210 Squadron, flying the larger four engined Short’s aircraft, the Sunderland. In a virtual swap, the Sunderland squadron began arriving two days after 209’s departure.
The Sunderland (detailed in Trail 59) was a big aircraft built and designed like a boat, from the keel up. With its massive fuselage it could maintain flight for some 13 hours covering a range of 1,700 miles. With many comforts built in for crewmen, it was an ideal sub hunter and maritime patrol aircraft.
To give an even greater coverage the squadron had detachments based at Reykjavik (Iceland), Sullom Voe (a major deep water harbour on the Shetland Islands) and Stranrear. It was from Sullom Voe that 210 Sqn Flying Officer John Cruickshank, earned himself the Victoria Cross for his action against a heavily armed German U-boat. During the attack, Cruickshank and four other crewmen were severely injured, his navigator was killed and the aircraft badly damaged. He continued to fly his aircraft (Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y) before relinquishing control to his second pilot. But knowing he couldn’t land the aircraft, Cruickshank refused morphine, circling over the base until daylight which allowed him to supervise the landing of the Catalina by the Second Pilot. His actions that night undoubtedly went a long way to saving his crew and his aircraft.
210 Squadron remained at Oban for the next two years replacing their Sunderlands with Catalina Is in April 1941. In February 1942 they finally departed, heading for the deep water base at Sullom Voe.
The main role of the Sunderland here at Oban was to carry out convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic, especially in the waters off western Ireland. Some U-boats were spotted and engaged by the aircraft, but contacts were infrequent, fog often preventing crews from locating the convoy let alone the U-boats.
On the 5th and 6th January 1941, two 210 Sqn Sunderlands (P9623 and L5798) from Oban located and attacked U-Boats, one of which was recorded as believed sunk. On the 29th, a Luftwaffe Condor, the German long-range reconnaissance aircraft, attacked one of the Sunderlands before departing the area. No damage was recorded by the Sunderland and it too returned to base.
By April, the American built Catalina began to make an appearance, but its introduction seemed to be dogged with compass problems; several aircraft returning from flights with these instruments being faulty. With this corrected, May brought a buzz of activity as the Bismark was thought to be in the area. Regular patrols were put out to find both her and her escorts, with the first flight being on the 23rd.
In Part 2 we see how 210 Sqn began searching the wide open expanses of the Atlantic for the German Battleship. Two major tragedies and what happened as the war finally drew to a close.