RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 1)

Following on from Trail 53 we leave the former RNAS Crail and Dunino behind and head north-west to the mecca of the golfing world, and the historic town of St. Andrew’s, where just outside of the University town is an airfield whose history goes back as far as 1911; this makes it one of Britain’s oldest and most established airfields. Its development then takes it through the First World World War, to the relative peace of the 1920s, the expansion period of the 1930s and on into the Second World War. Faced with potential closure it then went on to be one of the most significant and important airfields in Britain’s Cold War defence network.

Sadly politics played its part as it often does, and in 2011, its fate was sealed when at 4:48pm on July 18th, Dr. Liam Fox the then Secretary of State for Defence announced when talking about bringing the Army back from Germany: “Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth.”*10 With that the airfield was to close, being transferred over to the Army, a transfer that occurred four years later in March 2015. Since then the RAF has, on occasion, returned for flying duties,  but its front line RAF role had gone. A state which exists today.

On this next stop, we take an extensive look at the long and incredible life of RAF Leuchars.

RAF Leuchars.

Leuchars sits on the north-eastern coast of Fife, on the banks of the River Eden as it enters the sea at St. Andrew’s Bay. To the north across the River Tay, lies Dundee, and to the west, the city of Perth. South of Leuchars is the University town of St. Andrews – the home of world golfing. Being literally on the shore line, Leuchars provided an ideal location for a whole host of maritime operations, aerial reconnaissance and even later on, search and rescue.

Its life began just after the turn of the last century in 1911, when powered flight was but a mere few years old.  Even before the first aero-engine had been started here, the site was being put to use by the Royal Engineers with a Balloon Squadron, who used it for reconnaissance training in the Tentsmuir Forest on the edge of what is now the airfield.

With the formation of the RFC in 1912, the Balloon Squadron would become part of the first military flying arm to exist in the UK. It would continue in its role as spotting for artillery, even as powered flight gradually became established. On the nearby beaches, small aircraft were tried and tested, but balloon training would ultimately remain the focus of the squadron.

In 1916, the RNAS then acquired the land and began to develop the site as a place for powered flight. Taking over farmland, and eventually swallowing up the resident farm, the airfield slowly expanded, and by 1918 its future was established. By this time, the RAF had been formed, the flying responsibilities of the Navy were transferred to the RAF and the first unit was ready to move in. The Grand Fleet School of Aerial Fighting and Gunnery, run by the RAF to train Naval airmen, resided at the airfield from the end of 1918 on into 1920. This unit, a new unit in its own right, was formed out of the disbanded 208 (Temporary) Training Depot Station which, whilst formed at East Fortune in the Scottish borders, had only been in existence for as little as one month.

RAF Leuchars

The control tower at Leuchars. The airfield’s proximity to the shore line being evident.

In these early days of flying, risks were high, the thrill of manned flight was a draw for many young men eager to experience the joy of soaring above the clouds. As a result, there were numerous accidents and Leuchars was no different.

On May 19th, 1919, Lt. David Gardiner Cooper (22) lost his life when he misjudged a slow roll whilst flying in his Sopwith Camel (F8497), and on August 1st, Canadian, Lt. Philip Hall-Smith (30) was killed, after his Camel was seen to inexplicably nose dive into the ground.*1*2 Two unfortunate losses after a war that had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives.

During the 1920s, with the war now over, military might was seen as an almost unnecessary waste, units were cutback, airfields that had been established for war were closed, and fighting men were returned to civvy street. Political fighting amongst the three arms of the military, saw the RAF cut back to a fraction of its former self, its cause for survival spearheaded by Lord Trenchard. However, Leuchars managed to cling on, remaining not only active, but receiving further development as well. More land was purchased and in 1925 the base was officially renamed RAF Training Base Leuchars.

It would be a time of dramatic change and turbulence for the fledgling Air Force though, and this was wholly reflected by the number of units appearing at Leuchars during this period. Operating as one of the UK’s major Naval training bases (the RAF being responsible for Naval flying at this point), the first of these units to appear was 203 Sqn in March 1920 which had reformed here after having been disbanded just two months earlier at Scopwick.

On April 1st 1923, the RAF Carrier units were re-designated under the new 400 series of squadron codes – a major stepping stone in RAF / Naval structure. Then a year later in 1924, these units were combined to form the new Fleet Air Arm (FAA), the flying branch of the Royal Navy. These changes had a major impact on operational numbers here at Leuchars.

Formally a Royal Naval Air Service unit, 203 Sqn initially flew the Sopwith Camel, replacing these  in April 1922, with the Nieuport and the General (Gloster) Nightjar. In mid September, the squadron was posted to Turkey, departing Leuchars onboard HMS Argus; a posting that would last for three months. After that, the squadron returned to Leuchars once more, again onboard HMS Argus, remaining active at Leuchars until 1st April 1923. At this point the squadron was disbanded, being divided into two Naval Flights: 401 and 402. The squadron as was, would be reformed later, but it would be another twenty-three years before they would see the shores of Leuchars once more.

203 Sqn would be joined a month after their arrival by another former RNAS unit – 205 Sqn. Like 203, it too was disbanded at Scopwick only to reform here at Leuchars in April 1920. Bringing another new model of aircraft to the Scottish airfield, 205 Sqn flew the Parnall Panther, and would serve in its entirety as 205 until October 1921, when the Mobile Flight element  was reformed as 3 Squadron. The remainder of 205 Sqn continued serving alongside here at Leuchars.

3 Squadron would operate out of the Scottish base until 1st April 1923, at which point it was similarly divided into three flights: 420, 421 and 422 now serving at Gosport. The remainder of 205 were also divided up into separate Flights – 440, 441 and 442, but unlike its sister unit, 205 would not return in any form to these Fife shores.

As part of this formation of the FAA, Leuchars would see all these Flights joined by another seven: 403, 404, 405, 406, 443, 445, and 446, and all around this time. This would bring a whole range of aircraft to these shores: Nightjars, Panthers, Nimrods, Flycatchers and the like.  Some of these units would depart for foreign shores whilst some would remain in the UK at other bases. The skies above Leuchars was now buzzing with activity.

For the majority of the 1930s, Leuchars would remain as an FAA training base, being renamed No. 1 Flying Training School, on April 1st 1935. Aircraft seen here would have included a range of training types including the: Fairey IIIF, Fairey Gordon, Avro Tutor and Avro 504N. For three continuous years pilots trained at Leuchars for the Fleet Air Arm, a branch that continued to be the responsibility of the RAF.

The mid to late 1930s would see tensions slowly rise in Germany, but Britain’s general post war doctrine was to defend her shores rather than attack any potential enemy. The Royal Navy was still seen at these times as the main military force, a belief that would very soon change. Britain in these early years, had not seen Germany (partly due to the devastating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles) but France, as her biggest potential aggressor, and as such long range aircraft or heavy bombers were not seen as an important requirement.

Government ideas that Britain should only arm itself with a view to defence against its nearest potential threat, meant that early on, defences were developed at the cost of attacking units. But by the time it was clear that Germany was the threat, Britain was lacking far behind, as little national development had been undertaken. This doctrine saw a far reaching impact right across Britain’s peace time airfields, which at this time included Leuchars. With only one squadron, 36 Sqn (the former Coastal Defence Torpedo Flt.) transiting through on its way to the Far East, preparation for war and flying in particular, remained limited to training flights here at the Scottish base.

As Britain then entered the Expansion Period, new aircraft specifications were being pushed through and airfield development became increasingly important. A number of new airfields were built and a restructuring of the RAF was once again on the cards. Here at Leuchars, the number of hangars was extended, with 7 Belfast Truss hangars being added to the site.

With further changes in the late 1930s, Leuchars became a Temporary Armament Training Camp (later station) with a small collection of Wapitis who used the nearby range at Tentsmuir.

Then in 1938, this restructuring took place, Leuchars, driven by its coastal location, was passed over to Coastal Command in an exchange that saw the two squadrons based at Thornaby (224 Sqn and 233 Sqn) transfer across here, whilst 1 FTS would leave for Netheravon. The Temporary Armament Training Camp previously established here would also disband.

Both these units brought the Avro Anson with them, 224 replacing them the following year with the Lockheed Hudson, a military aircraft born out of a civil transport model. Over the next two years, 224 Sqn would upgrade each of these with both the MK.II and MK.III models before departing to Limvadi in April 1941.

233 Sqn however, would have a more turbulent time, moving initially to Montrose, and then back to Leuchars, where they also took on the Hudson, only to replace it a month or so later with the Blenheim IV. Then, within less than a year, they would depart Leuchars for good, heading for Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where they would continue their operations with Coastal Command.

As 1938 passed the situation in Europe looked even more grave, and home based units were put on alert. 224 Sqn began carrying out searches of the North Sea, looking for vessels making their way to the open waters of the Atlantic. A further flight began sweeps of the Firth of Forth looking for submarines operating in the waters off the Scottish coast. However, in September, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, and following his ‘Peace in our time’ speech, war had seemingly been averted for the time being, and these precautionary measures were then relaxed.

In mid December, with tensions eased, 224 Sqn was granted 3 weeks leave allowing personnel time to go home over the Christmas period. The relaxation of measures was however, short lived, and a year later the squadron was put on a war footing with mobilisation orders coming through on September 1st 1939.

In part 2 Leuchars enters the war, being a coastal airfield the sea would dominate its actions and the squadrons that would be based here. It would also be the first line of defence against Luftwaffe bombers, ships and U-boats.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

4 thoughts on “RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 1)

  1. I wonder if Leuchars would be in the running for the base which has seen the largest number of aircraft types? There are certainly quite a few there I have never heard of such as the General (Gloster) Nightjar.and the Parnall Panther.

    Liked by 1 person

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