Trail 60 – Scotland’s West Coast (Part 2).

In the second part of this Trail we continue at Oban (Karrera) off the west coast of Scotland.

In Part 1 we saw how Oban developed into a major Flying Boat base utilising the long stretches of water between Karrera and Oban and how Patrols were being sent out to search for the German Battleship Bismark.

The arrival of the Catalinas not only brought a new aircraft, but new accents to this part of Scotland too. A number of Americans had now joined the Air Force and it was one of these who flew the first Bismark Patrol in May 1941. Taking off at 09:20 in AH531 was F.Lt Van der Kiste D.S.O. and Lt. Maulsby, an American, who together carried out cross over patrols for twelve hours before returning to Oban empty handed. The first attempt to locate Bismark was unsuccessful.

For the next three days, aircraft of 210 Sqn from Oban and Reykjavik searched tirelessly for the Battleship, and on the 26th their efforts paid off. Catalina W8416, flown by F.Lt Hatfield and Lt. Rinehart (another US flyer), took off at 12:23 searching for the rest of the day. At 23:40 Bismark was sighted, without her escort. The Catalina remained on site, shadowing the Battleship for the remainder of the night. Some twenty-seven hours later the aircraft returned to Oban, the endurance of both the aircraft and crew being truly remarkable*2.

For the remainder of the year regular patrols intercepted both Condor reconnaissance aircraft and marauding U-boats, attacking mainly with depth charges, some of these proving highly successful.

When February 1942 arrived, the squadron began to transfer to Sullom Voe, Catalinas transferring large numbers of crewmen whilst Handly Page Harrows transferred ground personnel via the airfield on the mainland at Prestwick.

Within a month though, the Sunderland would return to Oban with the arrival of another new squadron, 228 Squadron. Their move coinciding with the replacement of the Mk.IIs they currently possessed with the updated Mk. IIIs, these remaining here until December of that same year.

Two months after 228’s arrival, another Sunderland squadron arrived at Oban. Being formed on 18th May 1942, 423 Sqn brought yet more Sunderland MK. IIs, and shortly after MK.IIIs. The summer of 1942  was becoming a very busy time in the waters between Kerrera and Oban.

For the first few days, organisational matters were the priority for 423 Sqn. New staff were brought in and rooms were allocated for operations. Two buildings on Kerrera were handed over to the Canadians for their use, one of which was immediately utilised by the Signals Section. Control of 423 Sqn was initially taken over by Sqn. Ldr J.D.E. Hughes DFC, who transferred from 4 OTU at Stranraer. He immediately took the role of Flight Commander. The headquarters were set up in the navigation room, and within days of each other, an adjutant, navigation officer, Medical Officer, Signals Officer and a handful of ground personnel had all arrived. Sqn. Ldr. Hughes then detached to Pembroke Dock so he could oversee the transfer of aircrew, ground personnel and aircraft to Oban.

RAF Oban (Kerrera)
The Slip way on Kerrera. There are buildings to the right and behind.

By July 1st there were twelve Officers and sixty-two ‘other ranks’, but as yet no aircraft had arrived. In addition to this, the development of the site was being hampered by lack of supplies, difficulties in getting suitable building materials preventing the construction of appropriate offices.

At last on the 16th the first aircraft arrived, a MK.II Sunderland ‘W6001’, flown in by Sqn. Ldr. Hughes himself. This momentous moment was followed two days later by the second aircraft, ‘W6000’, being flown by Flt.Lt Lindsay DFC. By the end of the month the Canadian squadron in Oban consisted of twenty-six officers and 160 ‘other ranks’, but still only two aircraft. However, it did mean that at last training flights could now commence*3.

In August 1942, the quiet island of Kerrera and its neighbouring town of Oban, were struck by tragedy. The loss of not only almost an entire crew, but a very special dignitary as well. The tragedy would bring home sharply the dangers that crews faced when flying from coastal bases.

On the 23rd, Sunderland W4026, ‘DQ-M’ of 228 Sqn, with F.Lt. Goyen, W.C. Moseley, P.O Smith and P.O Saunders onboard, took off on a transit flight to the large flying boat base at Invergordon on Scotland’s East Coast. Also on board that day was Sgt. W. Sweet,  Flt.Sgt. W. Jones, Flt.Sgt. E. Hewerdine, Sgt. E. Blacklock, Sgt. A. Catt, Flt.Sgt. A. Jack and Flt.Sgt. C. Lewis. They arrived at Invergordon at 16:30 and began to prepare for their visitor.

Two days later, the aircraft with all eleven crew onboard, along with their special guest  H.R.H. Prince George, The Duke of Kent, and three members of his party, took off for a transit flight to Iceland. At approximately 14:00, the aircraft crashed at Eagles Mount near Dunbeath in poor visibility killing all onboard except the rear gunner Sgt. Andrew Jack. The board of enquiry carried out an investigation and concluded that a navigational error had caused the crash, in which the aircraft, full of fuel, exploded. The flight was on an official flight to Reykjavik, and it is believed that the crew didn’t account for strong winds blowing in off the sea. This it is thought, caused the aircraft to drift. When altering course, the aircraft didn’t have sufficient altitude to clear the high ground in front. Thirteen of the fourteen occupants were instantly killed. At the time, it was recorded as the worst Short Sunderland accident, and Britain’s third worst air accident.*4

By November 1942, it was time for change once again at Oban, as one Canadian squadron swapped with another. The departure of 423 Sqn signalled the arrival of 422 Sqn, one Sunderland squadron replacing another.

Since their inception in April 1942, 422 Sqn had operated two aircraft, the Lerwick and the Catalina IB. On Arrival at Oban, they immediately began to receive the Sunderland III. With four aircraft on roll by December, the squadron had settled in well, and crew training was well underway. However, none of the airmen had any experience of the Sunderland, and so training was going to be long. The bitter cold of the Scottish winter began to bite, which in conjunction with early problems with the towing tractors, hampered training. Gusts and swell in the sea prevented many take offs and crews often had to resort to sleeping on board their aircraft.

RAF Oban (Kerrera)
Kerrera. Is this the same house that appeared behind the Saro Lerwick?

Four months later tragedy would strike again at Kerrera. On the 19th December 1942, 422 Sqn suffered a tragic loss when Sunderland W6029 crashed in the Firth of Lorne, the body of water between Kerrera and the Island of Mull beyond. The aircraft, a MK.III, was returning from a flight to Sullom Voe, picking up a new crew and other passengers. On its return, the weather and sea conditions at Oban were deemed to be unsuitable for landing, but radio contact with the aircraft had been lost. Unaware that they were to divert to Invergordon, the crew attempted to land, and at 16:41 lives were lost. As the aircraft touched down, a swell in the sea caused the front of the aircraft to collapse, severely damaging it, causing the aircraft to overturn and sink.

Killed that day were: F.O. David Mclean Cameron (s/n: 113530); F.O. James Kemp Potter (s/n: J/10323); F.O. Harold Francis Burt-Gerrans (s/n: J/16744); Sgt. Alun Griffiths Rees (s/n: 405084); Sgt. John Luke (s/n: 639582) and LAC William Arthur Allan (s/n: R/118882). Also killed was Intelligence Officer Major John Cox (Black Watch). A further three were seriously injured and the remainder suffered minor injuries, including the pilot Flt. Lt. John D. Reed. In all, over twenty personnel were killed or injured that day, in an accident that shook the lives of those living in the area. Many survivors were taken to the Highland Cottage hospital at Oban, where they thankfully recovered from their injuries.*5

By the end of December there were seven Sunderlands on charge and 109 hours of flying training had been achieved. No operations had as yet been carried out, and despite the recent tragic accidents both aircrew and ground crew were getting to grips with their new aircraft.

The dawn of 1943 saw more patrols and escort duties. Another international squadron would arrive bringing the Catalina with them. 330 (Norwegian) Sqn were a Reykjavik based unit who moved to Oban whilst continuing to operate a detachment out of Reykjavik. Within a month, they would begin to replace their aircraft with Sunderland MK.IIIs, then a year later with MK.IIs before departing to Sullom Voe in July 1943.

The eventual departure of 330 Sqn allowed for their space to be taken a few days later, on July 15th, by 302 Ferry Training Unit (FTU). The unit, which had formed in the previous September at Loch Erne, was set up to train ferry crews specifically for the long range Catalinas and Sunderlands. Overseas operations were now in need of the flying boats and crews were needed to transport them there. The unit remained active at Oban until the war’s end, transferring to Killadeas in mid 1945, prior to disbanding a year later.

In December 1943, a new squadron was formed at Oban, 524 Squadron, although this time it would not be the Sunderland nor the Catalina, but a new model would appear on the water. The Mariner was another US designed aircraft constructed by Martin, Lockheed’s competitor.

A large, deep hulled, twin engined aircraft its distinctive gull wing and angled twin-tail, made it easily recognisable. The squadron was set up under the Command of 15 Group, with a view to gaining operational experience on the new type of aircraft. Initially six Mariners were ordered, and modified to the minimum required for operational purposes. The long term view was that 524 Sqn would transfer overseas once the operational trials were completed.

The initial squadron set up was with 43 Officers, 111 Senior NCOs, 118 Corporals and A.C.s and 15 WAAFs. This combination would allow for the initial establishment of 14 aircrew.

The first aircraft (JX.100, JX.105, JX.106 and JX.110) were received on October 25th, after modification by Saunders-Roe, ready for operational flying. During the time with 524 Sqn, there was great difficulty in obtaining both spares and manuals and the Mariners did not become popular. The situation became so bad that by December the squadron was wound down and disbanded. All aircraft were given a 40 hour inspection and then prepared for disposal. The majority of the squadron staff were retained at Oban in the two training units 302 FTU and 131 OTU, whilst others were dispersed to new squadrons.

Martin (PBM-3B) Mariner I JX103 of No 524 Squadron at Oban, October 1943. © IWM MH 5097

By the end of January 1944 all four Mariners had gone with no more than 90 hours flying time having been completed.

In the lead up to D-day, Oban and the waters around Karrera were utilised for construction of the Mulbury harbour, a floating harbour than enabled men and machinery to be transferred from ship to shore quickly. At Oban Blockships were assembled, these would be used as the outer breakwater for the Mulberry harbours once at Normandy.

Blockships in the waters around Karerra used as the outer breakwater for the Mulberry harbours assembled at Oban. © IWM A 27070

After that, little operational flying took place from Kerrera. As the war began to wind down the Atlantic arena demanded fewer Maritime patrols, the numbers of U-boats at sea now declining below 100. The training units continued to operate for a short time, and then by April 1945 the site was put into care and maintenance. By early 1946, the RAF’s connection had all but ceased and the base was closed.

The Hotels used by the aircrew are still in use today, The Dungallen House Hotel (the former headquarters) being outside of Oban, whilst the Regent Hotel (the sergeants mess) stands on the waterfront.

The slip way on Kerrera and a handful are buildings are known to still survive, these can just about be seen from Oban. Whilst there is a good sized granite memorial and original slipway at Ganavan Sands, there is no official memorial in Oban town, and a return is definitely on the cards to visit these.

The Island of Kerrera is accessible by ferry. It is a small island with a few houses and businesses. The bay used for maintenance now accommodates small boats, the slipway, still present, is visible from Oban. A few buildings still remain on the island and some of these are also visible (with a decent telephoto lens or binoculars) from Oban. The museum which houses a display of memorabilia relating to Oban’s wartime history was closed at this time due to Government restrictions, but I am reliably informed that it has a good range of photographs of Oban’s Sunderlands and Catalinas.

The museum boasts two models, the first a 1/8 scale radio controlled Sunderland, the model being that of the 228 Sqn aircraft that operated from Oban in 1942 and the one that was lost with H.R.H. Prince George, The Duke of Kent onboard. A further and smaller model of a Catalina is also on show, it also having been lost whilst on operations.

The waters around Oban were indeed very busy in the early 1940s. With long range patrols and escort duties being performed, many of Britain’s merchant vessels were protected by these aircraft. The history of Oban has never been forgotten though, with a museum and several hotels boasting displays, the remnants on Kererra have been given new life which tell the story of life at RAF Oban.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1292/4

*2 National Archives AIR-27-1299-9

*3 National Archives AIR 27/1832/1

*4 Aviation Safety Network website.

*5 National Archives AIR/271831

National Archives AIR 27/1415/15

National Archives AIR 27/1415/16

The U-Boat War website. An excellent resource covering all aspects of the U-boat war.

The War and Peace Museum Oban website.

BBC Website “WW2 People’s War” – a record of personal stories.

“Dive Oban And Argyll” website has video / still of aircraft wrecks around Oban.