RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 4)

As Leuchars emerged from the Second World War in Part 3, it entered a new phase in its long and distinguished life. No longer operating maritime patrols, it was now entering the Cold War, and under a new Command, that of Fighter Command, it would take on a new role with a new breed of aircraft.

Throughout the war Leuchars had been a maritime operations base, with submarine hunts, convoy patrols and anti-shipping flights taking the role of its front line squadrons. But with the last of the long range patrol aircraft being posted out, Leuchars’ role would now change, and a new breed of aircraft would be seen along its runways.

The Cold War brought a new dimension to warfare, nuclear weapons and the arms race were the flavour of the day. With both sides fearing preemptive attacks, fighters and bombers capable of carrying these potent weapons were in great need. Whilst bomber airfields across the length and breadth of Britain were modified to accommodate newer and bigger aircraft, Leuchars physically changed very little. However, being transferred to the control of RAF Fighter Command, Leuchars would be propelled to the forefront of RAF operations, with both day and night fighters soon shattering the quiet of this post war airfield.

This new focus would mean that the 1950s would see Leuchars aircraft participating in a number of high profile exercises ‘Coronet‘, ‘Premraf‘, ‘Kingpin‘, ‘Formulate‘ and ‘Fabulous‘ which often required the deployment of detachments to airfields around the United Kingdom. These exercises, varied in their structure, would often include Leuchars aircraft acting as the enemy trying to attack shipping or other targets at altitudes from very low level up to 50,000 feet. Air-to-air gunnery was also involved as war air-to-ground rocketry.

With this transfer came further changes. The first jet to arrive was the Meteor in the form of the F4. with 222 Sqn in May 1950. After staying for seven years upgrading to the F.8 and then returning back to the F.4, the unit was finally disbanded in 1957 only to re-emerge as a Bloodhound operator at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The next squadron to arrive, 43 Sqn, arrived in November 1950, and also brought the Meteor F.8. On 22nd October 1952, one of these aircraft Meteor F8 VZ461 ‘W’ was lost on route from  RAF Acklington to Leuchars as part of  three-ship formation. The aircraft (number two in the formation) suffered problems when its artificial horizon failed. The pilot, Pilot Officer Maurice William Prior, notified the lead pilot who instructed him to make a starboard turn and rejoin the group above the clouds. Unfortunately the Meteor descended instead, and struck the sea near to Coquet Island off Amble, Northumberland. In the accident, which was put down to ‘instrument failure’, the pilot lost his life.*9

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Hunter F.1s of 43 sqn RAF Leuchars, in a vertical climb. © IWM RAF-T 42a

43 Sqn retained their Meteors until 1954, they then replaced them with the Hawker Hunter; flying marks including the: F.1, F.4, F.6 and F.G.A.9 in a front line role. After transferring to Nicosia in 1961 and eventual disbandment, the squadron was reformed here at Leuchars in in 1969 with the McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1. An upgrade to the FGR.2 in May 1988 eventually led to the Phantom being replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1989. This made 43 Sqn one of the longest standing front line squadrons to reside at Leuchars in its entire history.

1951 would see another long standing resident unit at Leuchars. But the early months were noted for more short stay units. The ‘sister’ of the Meteor, the DH. Vampire, made a presence through 602, 612 and 603 Sqns between April and July that year, each reflecting Leuchars’ war time record and staying for short periods before moving on. For a while over the summer months, Leuchars would be home to no less than six front line squadrons, five of them with Meteors or Vampires with a sixth flying that old favourite the Spitfire.

Then in September 1951, 151 Sqn was reformed, an ex-wartime unit it had its roots firmly in 1918. Initially flying the Vampire NF.10, Meteor NF.11, and then in September 1955, the Venom NF.3, it left for a spell at Turnhouse before returning to Leuchars in 1957 with the Delta Winged Gloster Javelin FAW.5. In September 1961, the squadron disbanded again being reformed a year later at Watton.  During the war it had operated as a night fighter unit, a role it continued here at Leuchars. Donned with the Saltire of St. Andrew, the flag of the patron Saint of Scotland, it would make a good companion for 43 Sqn with whom it had flown with during the Battle of Britain with Hurricanes.

In 1952, a 222 Sqn Meteor from Leuchars took off on a low level training sortie over the Scottish mountains. The aircraft, an F.8 ‘WA882’ piloted by Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, departed Leuchars at 9:58am in poor conditions. Snow covered the mountains and frequent snow showers were experienced over the area. At 10:20, a witness reported hearing a crash and seeing black smoke rising from the Scottish mountain Oxen Craig, in the Bennnachie hills, Aberdeenshire. The Meteor had struck the mountain killing the pilot. It took some two weeks to locate the wreckage, most of which was buried at the scene by RAF rescue teams, after which a small memorial was built to commemorate not only the life of P.O. Lightfoot, but also the crew of a Westland Wallace ‘K6028’ which had crashed at the same location in September 1939. The official cause of the pilot’s death was attributed to “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”. It was one more loss in the Scottish hills*11.

The 50s saw a more permanent move by some RAF squadrons. 264 Sqn who only stayed for six months in 1952 with Meteors led the way. In 1954 ‘C’ Flight of 275 Sqn arrived, this signified another change in role for Leuchars as it brought the first of the helicopters to the airfield – the Sycamore HR.14. This squadron, formed in 1941 continued to perform its role of Air Sea Rescue (a much needed but over looked service during the war), and the Flight stayed here until the entire squadron was disbanded in 1959. As an Air Sea Rescue unit it understandably had Flights based at a number of sites around the UK, and took on the Whirlwind HAR 2 and 4 prior to disbandment. Working in conjunction with the Mountain Rescue Teams, many civilians as well as aircrew owe them a great deal of gratitude.

1957 then saw Leuchars enter the film industry when a crew arrived to make a film using 43 Sqn as its main squadron. Headlined by Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Leslie Philips (Squadron Leader Blake) and John Le Mesurier as the Commandant, it was about a Commanding Officer of an RAF Training School (Cranwell) who must deal with a difficult cadet. The problem was not the cadet’s behaviour so much as the fact that he reminded the Commandant of himself when he was young. The film included shots of 43 Sqn in low level, gunnery and aerobatic manoeuvres which were filmed until the end of the year when the days were too short to carry on.

The squadron initially identified with the ‘starring role’ was 111 Sqn, who had only that year been recognised as the RAF’s official Fighter Command Aerobatics team, pipping their Leuchars stable mates, 43 Sqn, at the post. ‘Treble One’ took the name of ‘Black Arrows‘ and with their nine ship formation went on to be as famous as the Red Arrows are today. 43 Sqn’s ‘Fighting Cocks‘ were a four ship group and the disappointment of not achieving the status of their Leuchars partners, ended a decade of pageants, displays and European tours where they had been centre stage across many countries.

As the decade drew to a close, so July 1958 would see the arrival of yet more Meteors with 29 Sqn. These NF.12s were operated until replaced by the Javelin, Gloster’s delta wing fighter, before they departed to Nicosia in 1963. This time  would also see the arrival of another Air Sea Rescue detachment, that of ‘C’ Flight from 228 Squadron also with the Sycamore helicopter. Throughout the war they had flown in Sunderland flying boats, including from the Scottish West coast base at Oban in 1941. The detachment had remained here until 1964 when it was renumbered as 202 Sqn.

The next forty years would see more front line jet squadrons, 25 Sqn with Javelins FAW.7s who retained these until their disbandment in 1962. They were followed by 23 Sqn who had disposed of their Javelins in preparation for the mighty Lightning, which they received a year after their arrival here in 1963. For eleven years they flew both the F.3 and the F.6, before they too were disbanded in preparation for yet more modern upgrades.

The arrival of the Lightning also heralded the arrival of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, the Lightning proving to be a huge step forward in terms of aircraft speed and climb rate compared to its predecessors, was an ideal interceptor; only the appalling fuel consumption and limited armaments of early models prevented it from being the ultimate attack aircraft.

Although QRA’s origins are associated with the Lightning, the Hunters of 43 and 222 Squadrons had previously retained a two minute readiness with aircrew remaining in the cockpit at all times, a rota that kept aircraft at the ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting in the cockpit for many hours, waiting for the chance to intercept a Soviet aircraft, must have been somewhat tedious on occasions – a draining but very necessary part of the job.

Two more units arrived in 1964, 74 (Tiger) Sqn and 202 Sqn. 74 Sqn had had the honour of being the first Lightning squadron in 1960, and for bringing the first Lightning to Leuchars, roaring into the Fife skies in August that year. They remained here for three years whilst another detachment from 202 brought the Whirlwind HAR.10 strengthening Leuchars’ role in Air Sea Rescue. For the next twelve years the helicopters of ‘C’ Flight would operate from here, with other detachments at similar sites including Boulmer and Coltishall.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Lightning F.6 of No 74 Squadron, RAF Leuchars. Armed with Red Top air-to-air missiles, and carrying over-wing long range fuel tanks.(© IWM RAF-T 6973)

74 Sqn soon took on the upgraded Avon powered Lightning F.3, this proved to be a godsend as the MK.Is were soon becoming worn out, regular faults being difficult to repair meant that flying hours were starting to fall. This upgrade was followed in September 1966 by the F.6. With this new aircraft they, and Leuchars, would participate in the sixth ‘Tiger Meet’, which saw a gathering of NATO ‘Tiger’ units from across the European and American nations. As Leuchars was hosting the gathering, it would mean a range of unusual aircraft types would appear here, if only for a short period of time. For four days in July 1966: F-100D Super Sabres, Super Mystére B2s, F-104G and CF-104 Starfighters along with F-4D Phantom IIs and a range of support aircraft, would all be present in these operations. This brought a multinational collection of pilots and crews from France, the US, Belgium and Germany to this Scottish airfield.

Unfortunately, the event was marred by the death of French pilot Capt. Joel Dancel, whose Armée de l’Air Super Mystère B.2 struck the ground shortly after take off killing him. As a mark of respect the final days solo displays, which he was practising for, went ahead with the flags of all nations at half mast.

Then followed the infamous Labour Government’s decision in 1965 to axe large parts of the defence budget, thus cancelling numerous projects such as TSR.2. This meant that Britain’s future strike capability was seriously weakened. The various separate commands were rapidly becoming no longer viable, and so now the nearly non-existent Bomber Command and Fighter Command were both amalgamated to form the new Strike Command. It was this Command that would take Leuchars on into the 1970s and beyond.

With more Lightnings arriving in April 1967 with the reforming of the fighter squadron 11 Sqn,  a stay of some five years would see the Lightnings continue the role of policing Britain’s North Sea airspace. The RAF’s ongoing interest in Leuchars would also be kept alive and well by the the newly formed 43 Sqn, who joined 11 Sqn in 1967 with the Phantom FG.1. 43 Sqn would remain at Leuchars for over forty years, taking over where the Lightning left off, and  eventually taking on the Tornado in 1989/90.

The end of the 1960s saw what was a first for not only 23 Squadron but perhaps even the RAF, when two Lightnings of the squadron left Leuchars to perform at an airshow in Toronto. The flight, made non-stop with the help of over-wing tanks and no less than six Victors for in-flight refuelling, was made by Sdn. Ldr. Ed Durham and Flg. Off. Geoff Brindle, supported by a VC10 carrying ground crew, supplies and spare pilots. The flight, which had lasted for some seven and a half hours, ended at Toronto in front of a massed crowd of well wishers and press, a real coup for the crews of Leuchars.

Leuchars personnel would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAF in 1968, when it was granted the freedom of St. Andrews. A parade through the town was supported by all makes of aircraft stationed at Leuchars including no less than sixteen Lightnings. Whirlwinds and Chipmunks from both the Air Sea Rescue service and the University Air Squadron also took part, further cementing the strong bond that had existed between Leuchars and its neighbouring town.

The 1960s finally drew to a close, world war had so far been averted but Leuchars remained on the front line, monitoring and intercepting Soviet aircraft over the North Sea, at least for the time being.

In the fifth and final part of this trail, we see how Leuchars is affected by defence cuts. The QRA status is at risk as is the very future of this historic airfield.

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

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 3)

In Part 2, a number of twin engined models frequented Leuchars performing anti shipping roles and U Boat hunts out in the North Sea. BOAC had begun its clandestine role and shipping ball-bearings back from neutral Sweden. We now see a change to these flights and as the war ends, a new much larger breed begin to appear here are Leuchars.

Throughout all these changes at Leuchars, the BOAC company had been continually running its clandestine operations to Sweden. But by now it was clear that a new, faster more agile aircraft was needed. Even though they were marked with civilian markings and flown by Swedish crews, the Electras were slow and cumbersome and made easy targets for both fighters and flak. Now, with the development of the Mosquito, the opportunity had finally arrived.

It was during December 1942 that the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived here at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and would begin flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943, after which it was joined by six other aircraft. These MK.VIs were given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to GH, and would arrive during the April and May of that year.

By the end of April the following year, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

BOAC Mosqquito BAE Systems (@BAE Systems)

All these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

It was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, however, this made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

These operations were by now carrying more than just mail and ball-bearings though. These covert operations, took the civilian marked and unarmed Mosquito across the North Sea to Sweden, where it would drop off the mail, papers and other written material held within its bomb bay, and return with prominent scientists, special agents or allied aircrew who had been interned in Sweden as well as vital ball-bearings produced by the Swedes. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

The returning ‘passenger’ on these flights had the unfortunate prospect of having to sit in a modified ventral bay for the whole duration of the flight. The prospect of further internment probably outweighing that of cramp and three hours of discomfort.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden, was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory, had won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922.*4 He would go on to work on the Atom Bomb in the Manhattan Project, the results of which were seen at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’, a former 27 MU aircraft, was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board were killed as it approached on return from Stockholm; the passenger being a BOAC Mosquito pilot himself. The crash was believed to have been caused by a structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. By the war’s end fourteen Mosquitoes had been used in some way by BOAC, five of which crashed.*6

As the war moved on, squadron numbers at Leuchars begin to diminish. 1943 brought only two, that of 235 Sqn and 333 (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Sqn who were formed here on April 5th as ‘B’ Flight after the dividing and renumbering of 1477 (Norwegian) Flight. This was a split unit, one part flying the Catalina from Woodhaven, whilst ‘B’ Flight flew the Mosquito MK.II. An upgrade to the MK.VI then saw the unit move to join the famous Banff Strike Wing in September 1944. Whilst at Leuchars they operated as sub-hunters and convoy escorts, whilst ‘A’ flight flew more clandestine operations smuggling secret agents and supplies into occupied Norway. The Mosquito as a multi-function aircraft performed well in these duties, and by the end of the war numerous U-boats had been attacked by aircraft based at the Scottish airfield.

RAF Leuchars

One of the Hangars at Leuchars 2018

With 1944 dawning and major events happening on the continent, more changes would take place at Leuchars.

In the early months, proposals to extend and widen one of the runways was put forward, a part of which was agreed in April. This move also required the relocation of the Watch Office and widening of the perimeter tracks. A further three squadrons would pass through this year beginning with a detachment of 281 Sqn, who stayed for a year from February. A second unit 206 Sqn, stayed here for less than three weeks. But then September/October would bring a new and interesting model in the shape of the B-24 Liberator and 547 Sqn. A change to the smaller twin-engined models that had frequented Leuchars for the last four years or so, the move here was unfortunately a signal of their ending though, the squadron being disbanded in June 1945 never to appear again.

Whilst here, the Liberators would patrol the Norwegian coast in the A/U (anti-U boat) role, many of these patrols being uneventful, the U-boat threat by now greatly reduced compared to its previous Atlantic successes. However, on October 12th, Liberator MK.VI “G” did spot a U boat on the surface which it attacked with both front and rear turrets. Strikes from both guns were seen on and around the conning tower, and it was initially thought that the sub was sunk. After patrolling for a further 45 minutes, the U boat was again sighted some two miles away, but managed to escape in the poor weather. It was believed by the crew to have been a 740 ton vessel which had subsequently suffered damage from the attack.

The B-24s of the these RAF squadrons would be complemented by B-24s now flying separate runs to Sweden by the Americans. In addition to these, Leuchars also saw the reintroduction of the popular and highly successful American built Douglas DC3. The route to Stockholm now being a little less dangerous than it had been in previous years.

The arrival of the Liberator had signified a big change in direction for Leuchars,  they were to be the first of many four engined heavies to serve from the Fife base.

In 1945, 519 Sqn brought along the Halifax III, but sadly they were to go the way of 547 Sqn and disband here at Leuchars in the following May; it too would not reappear in the RAF’s inventory of operational Squadrons. 519 were a meteorological unit, collecting data for flying operations. Using both the Spitfire VII and Halifax IIIs, they would climb to altitudes of around 40,000 ft, and collect valuable meteorological data. Using Prata I, Prata II and Recipe I (Pressure And Temperature Ascent) many of these flights would take the aircraft high out over the North Sea.

With the close of the war, Leuchars had seen no less than twenty-eight operational squadrons pass through its doors, some of these merely staying for a day, whilst others were more prolonged. A range of aircraft had come and gone, mainly twin-engined models operating in the photographic reconnaissance or anti-shipping role. With its position on the north eastern coast, Leuchars had proven vital to maritime operations protecting the seas between Britain and Scandinavia, an area it had operated in, in a number of clandestine roles. But with the war now at an end, these were no longer required, and Leuchars’ role would again revert back to its original one – that of training.

The post war world was very different to the pre-war one, Britain like many other countries was rapidly trying to revert to pre-war budgets. A reduction in the armed forces was seen as essential to cutting costs, whilst rebuilding the nations cities that had been so heavily bombed in the Blitz, was paramount. As a result, the RAF as with the other forces, were having to do with what they had. A reduction in man power and machinery though would not only mean a reduction in squadrons, but the airfields that used them.

Leuchars, like so many, was now under the potential threat of closure. However, the increasing post war tensions between the east and west created the Cold War, with a strained and anxious stand off between Soviet and Western forces right across the European frontier. As had happened before, Leuchars’ position would once again be its saviour. Over the coming years it would see a wealth of operational aircraft and a broad range of front line fighters be based in this small corner of Scotland,

The coming months after the war’s end would see further four-engined models reappear, a previous resident 203 Sqn who had been here in the 1920s, returned from overseas operations in May 1946, bringing back with them the B-24 (Liberator VIII). Within two months though, this would be replaced by the Lancaster GR.3, a version of the mighty four-engined heavy that had wreaked so much devastation across Germany’s industrial cities. But by 1947, 203’s link with the Scottish airfield would finally draw to a close, and the squadron would depart for good.

160 Sqn who arrived a month later in June, also brought the Liberator, and similarly began taking on the Lancaster GR.3. By October though their demise had also arrived, they were renumbered and reformed as 120 Sqn, and by 1947 they had lost the last of their Liberators retaining only the Lancaster.

In December 1950, 120 Sqn were posted to Kinloss, where its wartime bombers were replaced with the newer Avro model, the long range maritime patrol aircraft, the Shackleton with its rare contra-rotating props.

Avro Shackleton MR.3 (WR989) of 120 Sqn RAF (@BAE Sytems)

The aircraft, built in response to the growing Soviet threat, was designed around the Lancaster,  Roy Chadwick’s dream bomber. Chadwick, like R.J. Mitchell, having sadly died before their dream had finally been put into service. Built to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Shackleton was initially designed with gun turrets and two Rolls-Royce Griffon 57A engines inboard, and two Roll-Royce Griffon 57 engines outboard.

One other unit arrived here at Leuchars that year, that of 82 Sqn, initially as a Lancaster detachment and then in June 1947 as a base with its own detachments at Eastleigh, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. The last of the prop driven aircraft were now making their ultimate RAF appearances, and soon Leuchars would enter in the jet age.

In Part 4 Leuchars enters the jet age. The Cold War begins and Leuchars takes on a new challenge as it moves to a new Command, that of Fighter Command.

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

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 2)

After Part 1 in which we saw how Leuchars came about and develop as we moved towards the Second World War, we enter the early 1940s. Here we now see anti shipping sorties, U boat hunts and a strange relationship spawn between the recently formed civilian organisation BOAC and RAF Leuchars.

Immediately after the declaration of war, searches began with flights penetrating out over the North Sea. On the September 4th, a Hudson of 224 Sqn spotted a Dornier 18. The Dornier attacked the Hudson which sustained damage in both the fuselage and fuel tank. Thankfully, the pilot evaded further damage and manged to nurse the aircraft back home to Leuchars without further problems. Leuchars’ position on the eastern coast provided an ideal opportunity for such flights, hunting for bombers, U-boats and ships over the North Sea; it was this operation perhaps that marked the beginning of these maritime searches- a role it would carry out for the next 5 years.

Armourers secure 250lb bombs in the bomb-bay of a Lockheed Hudson of No. 224 Squadron at RAF Leuchars. (public domain)

The two units at  Leuchars continued with repeated patrols, with 233 sighting  both enemy flying boats and a submarine on September 7th. Attacks were made on both but no signs of damage were reported to either. Sadly, on this day, a 224 Sqn Hudson was seen diving into the sea, no explanation was available as to the cause, and a launch was dispatched to search for survivors – sadly with no results. This rolling programme of patrols over the North Sea pretty much set the scene for the remainder of 1940, culminating in the departure of 233 Sqn in September, followed not long after by 224 Sqn on April 15th the following year.

At the base itself, more hangars were built, four (austerity) ‘C’ type hangars were added which expanded the servicing and maintenance area hugely. Leuchars was clearly expanding.

Leuchars like many of Britain’s airfields would not only operate ‘operational’ squadrons from them, but numerous support flights that would run along side. Some of these included: training flights, communications flights, Army support and co-operation flights, and Leuchars was no different. One such unit was that of  18 Group Communications Flight, who resided at Leuchars from the spring of 1940 right the way through to 1960. With only a brief spell at Turnhouse, it would operate a wide range of aircraft throughout its long service and be one of, if not the longest serving unit at the airfield.

The early part of 1940 saw yet another front line squadron arrive here at Leuchars, that of 605 Sqn with Hurricanes. The fighter squadron, whose battle honours would include The Battle of Britain and the Malta campaign,  would only stay for a very short period of time, transferring again at the end of the month to the rather unsuitable Wick, where only one Bessineau hangar existed and there were little or no dispersal facilities. As two other squadrons were also moving onto the airfield at the same time, it was decided to billet the non operational crews off the airfield site, an idea that became the norm in the following war years.

Over the next few years, there would be a plethora of squadrons use Leuchars. In October, 320 Sqn arrived in a move that saw the return of the Avro Anson. Within days of their arrival though the squadron would begin receiving the Hudson I. What makes this particular unit special was the fact that both it, and 321 Sqn with whom it would soon merge, were both formerly of the Royal Dutch Naval Air Service, and had arrived at Pembroke Dock in June that year after the Germans invaded Holland. They brought with them Fokker T VIII seaplanes which were quickly replaced with the Anson.

On January 18th 1941, the two units were merged to form 320 (Dutch) Sqn, whose headquarters were at Carew Cheriton under the command of Lieutenant Commander W. van Lier, at which point all but one of the Ansons were disposed of. For short time the unit would perform from both there and Silloth training crews on aerial photography in the Hudson, before returning here to Leuchars in the March, where upon they gradually updated the Hudsons with the MK.II, the MK.III and eventually the MK.IV before ending their link with Leuchars and departing to Bircham Newton in the April of 1942.

Another unusual squadron to arrive at Leuchars was that of 72 Sqn in November 1940. A Spitfire unit, they had then taken on the Gloster Gladiator, a 1934 designed bi-plane that became famous in the defence of Malta as ‘Faith‘, ‘Hope’, and ‘Charity‘. The switch to the bi-plane appears to have been made as a result of an unsuitable airfield at Acklington. However, and even though the Gladiator was in no way equal to the Spitfire, 72 Sqn retained the Gladiator well into the Spring of 1941, at which point they upgraded to the newer Spitfire, the IIa.

Arriving at Leuchars on November 29th, 1940, 72 Sqn immediately began flying patrols over the sea, their first being in the area around Dunbar. However, the Scottish winter weather dogged operational flying resulting in many cancelled flights and patrols. On December 8th, Green section led by P.O. Norfolk struck lucky, and the flight encountered a lone Luftwaffe Heinkel He.111 over Holy Island. The Spitfire engaged the Heinkel firing numerous shots at the enemy aircraft, but the bomber made his escape flying into the heavy cloud that blanketed the coastal skies. As a result, P.O. Norfolk was unable to make a claim against it. It was this very same bad weather that prevented the squadron’s proposed move back to Acklington, meaning that the planned trip for the 15th, was delayed, the aircraft unable to make the transfer until the end of the month.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 152 BEAUFORT.

Beaufort Mark I, N1172 ‘AW-S’, of 42 Sqn RAF, in flight with L9834, also of 42 Sqn (@ IWM CH 2775)

The majority of 1941 saw similar moves; short stays by 86 Sqn (2nd February – 3rd March) with Blenheims; 42 Sqn (1st March – 18th June) with Beauforts on their way to the Far East; 107 Sqn (3rd March – 11th May) with Blenheims and 114 Sqn (13th May – 19th July) also with Blenheims, all of which brought a number of twin-engined models to the Scottish airfield. The primary role for these units was maritime patrols, monitoring and photographing vessels out over the cold waters of the North Sea.

In 1941 a strange relationship spawned between the recently formed British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and RAF Leuchars. BOAC – being formed by the amalgamation of British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways – formed a partnership with Leuchars that would remain at the airfield up until the war’s end, operating in an ‘open’ but rather contradictory clandestine role.

The civilian company would initially operate a single Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra (the forerunner of the Hudson) named ‘Bashful Gertie‘, between Leuchars and Stockholm in neutral Sweden. Piloted by Swedish aircrew, the idea behind the route was to pass POW mail into Sweden where it could be forwarded to prison camps in occupied Europe. At the time though, Sweden was one of Europe’s largest producers of ball-bearings, a commodity that both the allied and axis powers needed in order to keep their war machine turning. It is now known that much of Germany’s war supply of ball-bearings was in fact coming from Sweden, but they were not the only country buying the Swedish goods. After dropping off the post, the Electra would be refuelled and filled with ball-bearings before returning to Leuchars. This run hence became known as the ‘ball-bearing run’. These operations would continue for several years from Leuchars, but upgrades at a later date, would see a new form take over from these rather slow and vulnerable aircraft.

On August 12th, another new squadron was formed here at Leuchars, that of 489 Sqn with Beauforts, who kept them until the January of 1942. At this point they began replacing them with the Blenheim IV. After departing to Thorney Island in March 1942, they returned here as a full squadron in October 1943. At this point they began receiving the Beaufighter X an aircraft they kept until the war’s end. Prior to D-day the squadron moved to RAF Langham in Norfolk where they donned invasion stripes ready for their part in the forthcoming invasion of Normandy*3.

A detachment of the Horsham-St-Faith based 105 Sqn, arrived at Leuchars in December 1941 bringing yet another twin-engined, but new design, to these Scottish shores. A revolution in aircraft design, it was the envy of the Luftwaffe and a joy for British pilots – the de Havilland Mosquito IV.

Aircrew of 105 Sqn next to a Mosquito (location unknown) (@IWM CH 018011 1)

The detachment would stay here until after September 1942 whereupon it would reform as a complete unit at RAF Marham in Norfolk. In the last days of September however, four aircraft would leave Leuchars to attack a ‘special’ target in Oslo.

In Oslo on this day was a gathering of high level Nazi officials at the Gestapo headquarters, and this was to be the primary target for the four aircraft. After bombing successfully, they four sped away at low level toward the sea and home, only to be attacked, by four FW-190s. All four Mosquitoes received damage to varying degrees, and one was sadly lost, that flown by twenty-six year old Flt. Sgt. F. Carter and his navigator twenty-year old Sgt. Young. The Mosquito was seen heading toward the Oslo Fjord (Lake Engervann) with its starboard engine on fire. Unable to maintain height, the aircraft clipped trees and struck the water killing the two crew. The two bodies were successfully  pulled from the Fjord by local fishermen and buried in Oslo. The four crews had only been posted to Leuchars the day before.

Little changed throughout 1942. More short detachments and movements through Leuchars saw 217 Sqn, 415 Sqn, 455 (RAAF), 144 Sqn and 544 Sqn bringing mainly twin engined models to Leuchars. Only the detachment of 544 Sqn with Spitfires saw any major changes. The longest standing unit at this time was 144 Sqn with Hampdens, but they were spread far and wide, detachments being located at Skitten, Sumburgh, Wick, Afrikanda and Vaenga.

In October, a month after the departure of 105 Sqn, the Mosquito returned once more. This time a new unit, 540 Sqn, who were created from both ‘H’ and ‘L’ flights of 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). The multiple flights of this former RAF Benson unit was divided up into five separate consecutive squadrons 540 – 544. Flying models that included:  Mosquito II ‘DD615’, IV ‘DZ592’, VIII ‘DZ424 and IX ‘LR422 they would also use the Spitfire IV up to the end of the year. Their role here was primarily to photograph targets in Norway and northern Europe, a role they performed until early February 1944. They would eventually return to their former home at RAF Benson leaving a year’s long stay at Leuchars behind.

In Part 3, the running of BOAC aircraft from Leuchars see a change, the war comes to a close and new larger aircraft begin to appear here at the Scottish base.

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

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.

Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

For many weeks the British had been monitoring the vessels awaiting some movement out to sea. Then,  German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting false readings to interfere with British radar sets on the south coast. In mid February, the Luftwaffe organised themselves over northern France and the radars went wild with false readings and interference. Temporarily blinded by these measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation Fuller was a disaster not only for the Royal Navy but also for the Royal Air Force. A force of some 100 aircraft made up from almost every Group of Bomber Command also made its way to the Channel. By the time evening had dawned it had become clear that some fifteen aircraft from the force had been lost. The loss of life from those fifteen aircraft totalled sixty-three, with a further five being captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war.*1

February 12th had been a disaster, but from that disaster came stories of untold heroism, bravery and self sacrifice that have turned this event into one of Britain’s most remarkable stories of the war.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.

Further reading

*1 To read more about Bomber Commands part in Operation Fuller and a German film of the event, see the Pathfinders Website

RAF Seahouses – A short lived airfield of the First World War.

A final stop on Trail 47 sees us north again, a few miles from the A1 on England’s north east coast, where in the distance are the Farne Islands, a small group of islands that are home to some 150,000 seabirds all fighting for their own small piece of space during the breeding season. A little further north is Bamburgh Castle and beyond that, Holy Island and Lindisfarne with its Castle and monastic history. It is truly a location full of history and beauty.

Here we stop off at the small coastal town of Seahouses, a town much visited by tourists along this beautiful Northumbrian coastal route.

During the First World War though, this was also the site, albeit for only a short time, of a wartime airfield and a marine operating station.

RFC/RAF Seahouses (Elford ).

Seahouses or Elford as it was primarily  known, was initially a landing ground for 77 (HD) Sqn from February 1917. 77 Sqn, who were based at numerous airfields around the country including Thetford, Edinburgh and the not so far away Haggerston, used it well into 1918, flying Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and B.E.12 models. They operated here until it became a Maritime Operations Station (RNAS Seahouses) in the summer of 1918. It was at this point that 256 Sqn were formed at the airfield with the idea of carrying out maritime patrols. Shortly after their creation though, they were absorbed as 256 Sqn into the newly formed Royal Air Force.

In conjunction with this formation, the final 92 acre site was graced with Bessonneau hangars, these were standard aircraft hangars constructed using a canvas covering over a wooden frame, and could be erected by a team of twenty skilled men within forty-eight hours. As a transportable hangar, they were used well into the 1930s being replaced by Bellman hangars after that time.

256 Sqn, initially operated the DH.6, one of  along line of de Havilland models built by Airco and de Havilland. These would be maintained in the hangars and used for anti-submarine patrols over the North Sea.

DH6SideView.jpg

DH 6 Note the roundel under the top wing as a result of the wings being interchangeable. (public domain via Wikipedia)

The Airco company was founded in 1911 by George Holt Thomas, who initially had the idea of selling and maintaining Farman aircraft at Hendon on the outskirts of London. He met with Geoffrey de Havilland at Farnborough and soon an agreement was struck between the two for Airco  to begin manufacturing de Havilland aircraft. After a period away in service, de Havilland returned to Airco and the process of designing new aircraft fr the military began. Many of these new models were given the designation DH.

At Seahouses, 256 Sqn took delivery of the DH.6, their arrival being just after they were formed, in June 1918. A standard British military trainer biplane, it was designed to be cheap and easy to repair, de Havilland considering the mishaps that many pilots were likely to have during training periods.

RFC Seahouses

The memorial plaque erected by Airfield of Britain Conservation trust.

It was a solid basic design, with wings that were interchangeable, heavily braced and with a strong camber. Many considered them ‘too safe’ being almost impossible to stall even by the unwary, and with dual controls any trainee was even less likely to get into trouble as the instructor could easily take over if the situation required it. Even so, those that used them would often refer to them in derogatory ways, a range of unsavoury names becoming the more common wartime references.

256 Sqn consisted of four initial flights: 525, 526, 527 and 528 (Special Duty) Flights all arriving in the summer / autumn of 1918, with 495 (Light Bomber) Flight arriving at the war’s end. With detachments at New Haggerston (a field a few  miles north of here), Remmington, Cairncross and Ashington, the DH.6s were eventually supplemented by Blackburn Kangaroos of 495 (Light Bomber) Flight in the November of 1918. Both of these models operated with 256 Sqn even after they departed Seahouses for Killingholme as a cadre in January 1919. By the June of that year, with the war in Europe long over, the squadron was disbanded.

During their time here at Seahouses, 256 Sqn patrolled the coastal region around the Northumbrian coast. Flying in the twin seaters they were not armed but did carry bombs, luxuries such as parachutes were considered too heavy and so were not permitted. Flying over the sea, they would search for German submarines, but with a four hour duration, flights could be long and cold and concentration was sometimes difficult. Once spotted though, a sub would be forced to submerge, here it could do little damage, wartime submarines being unable to communicate or place mines once under water.

One Flight Lieutenant Morley Roy Shier, one of many Canadian pilots in the fledgling RAF was killed flying from Seahouses in his D.H.6 (C5172), when he went into the sea in fog off Coquet Island. He was killed on September 6th 1918, age 23,  in the last few days of the war. He is commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, a memorial that honours some 1,900 service men and women from the commonwealth who were lost at sea or have no known grave from such action.

Two weeks later on the 19th September, another 256 Sqn accident occurred, also with a D.H.6 (C5174), when a young eighteen year old Air Mechanic 3 Thompson Mackenzie and his Canadian pilot 2Lt Clarence Wilfred Kerr,  were caught in a gust of wind on take-off at Edinburgh. Unable to control the light aircraft in the wind, it crashed killing Thompson Mackenzie and injuring Clarence Kerr.

When the armistice finally came, one over exuberant pilot, Captain Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, decided to ‘celebrate’ in style. He took off from the airfield in a biplane armed with rockets for shooting down Zeppelins, and flew over Seahouses town. He decided he was going to have his own firework display and fired off the rockets toward to the sea. However, some fell short and landed on hay stacks at Seafield Farmhouse, setting fire to the hay. The local people, also excited by the rather large fires, came to watch the event unfold.

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, by Bassano Ltd - NPG x83908

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville by Bassano Ltd. In the Second World War he went on to become a Flight Lieutenant in the RAFVR © National Portrait Gallery, London

With the posting of 256 Sqn, Seahorses as it was now known, returned to agricultural use, any remnants of its aviation heritage being removed very quickly.

This signified the ending of all aviation activity at the site, Seahouses never being brought back to military aviation use again.

On June 14th, 2018, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial plaque in the town centre of Seahouses, to commemorate those who served. It is all that stands to remind us of that small and short lived airfield of the First World War.

 

Sources and Further Reading.

Graces Guide to British Industrial History website.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

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.

Trail 60 – Scotland’s West Coast (Part 1).

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.

RAF Oban (Kerrera)
Oban bay and Kerrera. The slip way is directly in front.

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.

Saro Lerwick L7257 ‘WQ-F’ of 209 Squadron at Oban, August 1940. Note retractable dorsal turret, is this the same house that appears in the modern picture below? © IWM CH 864

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.

A Sunderland Mark I, L2163 ‘DA-G’, of 210 Squadron escorting Convoy 6 (TC.6), to Greenock. © IWM CH 832

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.

Routine maintenance was carried out whilst aircraft were moored the in water. Note the turret withdrawn for mooring. Short Sunderland Mark I of 210 Squadron. © IWM CH 855

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.

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands (Part 2)

After Part 1  of Trail 59, we return to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere, to see how the Second World War affected the tranquil waters of the Lake district. In particular, we go to White Cross Bay, where that majestic aircraft the Short Sunderland made its dramatic appearance.

Windermere White Cross Bay.

In the intermediate war years Windermere remained as it was, tranquil and aviation free, but once war broke out things would change.

With increased bombing of Britain and in particular the growing threat to aircraft production in southern England, the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) began studies into creating new factories in safer areas away from Kent and the south. Short Brothers at Rochester was one such organisation identified for expansion. Primarily home of the Stirling bomber and located not far from London, it was a high risk location, and it was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe’s bombers. In response to the need for expansion and relocation, the ministry turned their attention to Windermere, ordering an immediate feasibility study*4 into the move.

With just three Sunderland Squadrons at the outbreak of war, the defence of shipping and anti-submarine patrols needed a major boost. Production of Sunderlands, Short’s long range Flying boat, had to be increased, and so it was decided, that a new factory independent from Rochester,  would be constructed at Windermere. At 75,000 sq ft, it was to be the largest single span hangar in the country, and it would be at a huge cost too.

As had happened before at Windermere, local objections became a major issue. The thought of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape succumbing to both an aircraft factory and housing  for some 1,200 workers, would not be without its consequences. Other suitable sites were given due consideration too, but with Rochester coming under attack from German bombers, the Government were pushed into making a decision and quickly. On 16th December 1940, it was confirmed, and the go ahead to build at Windermere was given, albeit with some concessions. It was agreed between the Government of the time and the local population, that the factory and all its associated buildings, would be removed once the war was over and the site was no longer needed. A concession that sadly led to virtually nothing of this remarkable venture remaining visible today.

Over the next two years, building work progressed, jigs were brought in and new specialist tools were ordered. There were in essence, two main buildings for the production process, the factory where the various parts were made, and an assembly hangar where the aircraft were fabricated. A third area located at Troutbeck Bridge (subsequently referred to as Calgarth), consisted of a range of accommodation blocks and associated buildings, it was in fact, an entirely new ‘village’.

Known as the Calgarth Estate, it would have everything from two shops to a primary school, a laundry to a football team, it even had its own Policeman! The estate was set out in a semi-circular design, with rows of houses around the outside. The canteen, assembly hall and school were all located withing the centre of the site next to a large and open recreation ground.

Building a flying boat is probably more like building a boat than an aeroplane – rather than fixing stringers over bulkheads allowing the aircraft to be built in sections and pieced together, the Sunderland was built from the keel upwards.

The Sunderland (a pure flying boat) was a massive aircraft, 112 ft in span, 85 feet in length and standing 32 feet high (to the top of the fin), it could fly for some 13 hours with a range of 1,700 miles. With a crew of up to 15, it was an ideal sub-hunter and long range maritime escort. Its hull was a single step hull, with two decks; the upper for the flying crew, and the lower a storage area for bombs and depth charges. Being such a large hull, it also had a wardroom, galley, cooking and washing facilities.

ML824 Sunderland Flying Boat

ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon. Depth charges/bombs were extended out onto the wings from inside the fuselage.

By April 1942 the first hulls had begun to be assembled. Even the enormous hull of the Sunderland was dwarfed by the size of the hangar. The first RAF allocated aircraft, DP176 began construction in April. The jigs were cemented into the ground and the construction process began with six keels being formed. A skeletal fuselage was built up, and then treated aluminium panels (Dural) were added using rivets.

Even though the site at Windermere was huge, the wings, like the engines, were pre-built and delivered to Windermere for adding to the hulls. Space inside the wing was tight, the only way to access internal wing parts (control rods for example) was to crawl inside the wing and work in the very confined space between the two surfaces. Many workers, proud of what they had achieved, left their names inside the wing using a pen.

Each Sunderland built at Windermere (all MK.IIIs) was ‘hand made’, panels bent and riveted, most by hand rather than machine, so that each one was unique. Operating on water, each aircraft had to be water tight, this being tested from the inside under pressure, and any that were not, were stripped down and rebuilt. It was extremely noisy work, mainly using a non-skilled workforce recruited primarily from the local area. As skilled labour was in very short supply, and Short Bros. at Rochester couldn’t afford to let their skilled work force go (many were working on the RAF’s heavy bomber the Stirling) women and youths were drafted in (as part of the Governments recruitment plans) to fill those spaces left by the men who had joined up.

This meant extensive training programmes had to be delivered, and it became a frustrating time for those employed at the site. But, over time, things settled down and production got into full swing, the workers united and a ‘family’ was formed.

Once complete, the aircraft was rolled out using a special tail-trolley with beaching wheels attached to the fuselage sides beneath the wings. As a pure flying boat, the Sunderland could not easily move under its own power whilst on land, but had to be towed by a small tractor. Once in the water, it cold move using its engines and rudder,  but having no water rudder meant it was difficult to manoeuvre. To help, two drogues were used, located either side of the fuselage and passed through the galley windows. These 3 foot wide drogues could catch huge amounts of water, pulling a large cable and a man’s hand with it – if care wasn’t taken. Each man would throw one of the drogues out of the open window and drag it through the water to turn the aircraft, rather like how a canoeist does today. These methods, whilst primitive, were effective.

Once out of the hangar, the aircraft were lowered into the water, and the beaching gear was removed. The aeroplane was then towed, by boat, out onto the Mere where they were moored to buoys. To assist with this, the front turret could be withdrawn into the hull and a crew man would lean out and grab the mooring rope using a hook. Moving the aircraft into and out of the water was a tricky job indeed, and required great skill so as to not damage the hull of the aircraft through grounding.

RAF Museum Hendon

Sunderland ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon showing the front turret withdrawn to enable mooring. Notice also the maintenance panel in the wing, lowered to allow maintenance whilst moored. My father would fasten cork to his tools in case he dropped them into the water.

On September 10th 1942, the first aircraft, DP176, finally left the hangar ready for engine runs and its first flying test. Lashed down to the slipway, the four Bristol Pegasus XXII air-cooled radial engines were started up and ran. After a successful test, the test pilot John Lankaster-Parker, took the aircraft onto the water where it was moored ready for further tests, and its first flight the following day.

The next day, 11th September 1942, the workforce were given the day off to witness their first Sunderland’s flight. As Short Brother’s own test pilot John Lankester-Parker  (who also flew the first Stirling) climbed aboard with a selection of technicians, a large crowd gathered outside the factory. The buzz of seeing the first Windermere Sunderland, was met with cheering and clapping as it gradually rose in to the air. After twenty minutes, Parker returned to the water and all was reported to be well. After further flying tests, DP176 was passed to RAF control, and taken away to have its electronics fitted before commencing operational flying duties with the RAF.

Dad's Photos

A post war picture of a Sunderland launching (photo my father) either Wig Bay or Stranraer. Does anyone know what U.I.D might mean?

The ‘Flying Porcupine’ as the Sunderland was known, became the backbone of Coastal Command operations, a sturdy reliable aircraft it was used as a model for the RAF’s Stirling bomber (less successfully) and went on to be the basis for the Short Shetland, a flying boat that dwarfed even the Sunderland.

In January 1944, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps*5, now the Minister of Aircraft Production (after Churchill had removed him from the War Cabinet for criticising his policies on war) visited Windermere to see the site and meet with the management team. The visit, unbeknown to those at Windermere, had an ulterior motive and in his meeting with the managers he announced that all production at the site was to stop with the last few fuselage frames in the factory being the last. It was a devastating blow for the workforce, but it was not however, the end of Windermere. As part of the change, the factory was to be retained and utilised as a Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) repairing and updating older Sunderlands rather than building new ones.

The job of repairing the aircraft brought home to the workers just how bad things could be. Worn out, damaged and battered aircraft flew into Windermere to be repaired and returned to service. In some cases, women were not allowed entry into the aircraft until the blood and human remains had been removed, such was war. Some aircraft came only to be scrapped, taken apart by the axe, any usable parts were saved and reused on other less worn models.

A number of these damaged aircraft passed through Windermere, many due to action with the enemy, but some due to accidents. Those that were repairable were hauled into the factory on the beaching gear, stripped and repaired. Some were converted into MK.Vs, having new engines fitted with feathering propellers – over heating engines had been an issue on some long flights.

The CRO carried out repairs on Sunderlands, until the war’s end. In 1945 a new direction was taken and upgrading work took over as the main task for the workers. MK.IIIs were brought in, stripped and upgraded to MK.Vs. New Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines were installed, the dorsal turret was removed, and two gun mounts were added to the insides of the fuselage behind the wings. In addition, to extend longevity all of the control cables were replaced.

RAF Museum Hendon

Inside the Sunderland looking forward. The two brackets either side are the gun mounts of the MK.V, the turret having been removed and replaced.

The Sunderland gained the nickname ‘Flying Porcupine’ (Fliegendes Stachelschwein), generally thought so because of its extensive array of aerials. Alternatively, it gained its name from the Germans who fell foul of its powered gun turrets. It is also thought however, and more likely, that this naming was more to do with British propaganda than anything else, as the name appeared in print before any real skirmishes had occurred between RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Coastal Command had only thirty-four Sunderlands on their books, but by the end almost 750 had been built, the majority being MK.IIIs, serving well into 1959. There were four military marks built: MK.I, MK.II, MKIII. and MK.V. The MK.IV being an upgrade of the MK.III with heavier guns: (.50 inch machine guns and 20mm Hispano Canons); a larger tail; longer fuselage and bigger, stronger wings. It also had in addition, more powerful Bristol Hercules engines. It was then considered an entirely new aircraft, and so received the designation S.45 ‘Seaford’. Only 8 examples were ever completed, all of which arrived too late to see combat duties. None of those constructed making it beyond trials with the Royal Air Force.

The last Windermere Sunderland worked on, ML877, arrived from 228 Sqn on April 4th 1945, along with NJ171 to collect and return the crew. The aircraft was upgraded to MK.V standard after which it was taken away and returned to operational duties.

Dad's Photos

The last Sunderland ML877 taken at Pembroke Dock (from my fathers photo album).

With that, Windermere’s aviation history closed. By the time production had ceased, Windermere had produced thirty-five aircraft equipping seventeen front line RAF Squadrons, along with Maintenance Units (MU) and Operational Training Units (OTU). Their service stretched as far as West Africa, Hong Kong and of course bases around the shores of the UK. One of the biggest ‘users’ was 57 MU / 1 FBSU (Flying Boat Service Unit) at Wig Bay, whilst others ended up at Pembroke Dock – both of which my own father was posted to, to work on Sunderland Flying Boats, I wonder if he came across any of these.

Workers from Windermere were transferred to either Rochester or Belfast, others stayed in the area to find alternative employment. After being nationalised by the Government during the war, Shorts in Rochester was closed and all production moved to Belfast. It was eventually taken over by the Canadian company Bombardier. It is believed that some aircraft parts along with general rubbish were dumped into Windermere to dispose of them, and rumours of complete aircraft being scuttled there have long since drawn divers to the area in search of these hidden wrecks. These are unfortunately unfounded, those who worked at the site have not given any credence to the myths, and so it remains a sad truth that the Windermere Sunderlands are indeed now just a part of history.

Back at the Windermere, the Government’s agreement to remove the buildings wasn’t implemented straight away.

In August 1945, the British government agreed to give refuge to 1000 child sufferers of Nazi concentration camps. 300 of them were brought to the Calgarth Estate, the former Short’s accommodation area, where a team of counsellors and volunteers had been assembled hoping to rehabilitate them.

The (4 month) pioneering project run by Oscar Friedman at Windermere, aimed to rehabilitate the children, allowing them to lead a normal life in society once more, after the horrific treatment they had received in the various concentration camps under the Nazi regime.

On arrival the children were separated into girls and boys, asked to remove clothing and given a medical examination. Some, fearful of what had happened before believed they were going to experience similar atrocities. Others were more forgiving and more hopeful. Their clothes were burnt, they were deloused and then the children were fed.

The former flying boat site provided accommodation for the workers, this accommodation would now house the refugees, each older child having their own bed, in their own room. A far cry from the squalid bunks of the concentration camps.

With the freedom of coming and going, even simple things frightened the children. A dogs bark or a uniform could mean the difference between life and death. Their nightmares would linger on for years to come.

During the day, they attended classes, English and sport along with therapy sessions using art as a medium through which they expressed their emotions. The pictures they created reflected the brutal suffering and emotional damage that the Nazi regime had inflicted upon them. Not the happy blue skies and sunny landscapes a ‘normal’ young child would have created.

Very soon the Red Cross brought the devastating news about their families:. Brothers, sisters, parents who had all perished in the various death camps across Eastern Europe. This was another blow to those who were either located here or worked here.

By the time the children were able to leave they had formed great friendships. In all, 732 children passed through British ‘camps’ all going on to make independent lives for themselves. Many set up businesses here in the UK, some in the US. Of those who stayed, many received accolades – an MBE and a knighthood being among them.

Windermere was a place of salvation, of peace and harmony. The journey was a difficult one, but after the horrors of the German concentration camps it brought life, love and lasting friendship to many heartbroken children.

Even though the local people had grown to liking the new factory, eventually the agreement made between them and the Government,  to remove the buildings and all trace of the factory, was carried out. In 1949, the factory element was pulled down, leaving the accommodation area to continue on well into the 1960s.

In July 1990 the world’s last flyable Sunderland flew over Windermere visiting White Cross Bay. ML 814 (known as ‘Islander’), was a Belfast built Sunderland, and served with the RNZAF after the war. She also served as a civilian aircraft operated by Ansett Airlines. She was given permission to land on Windermere during the 1990 Windermere Festival, whilst the then owner Edward Hulton was looking for a permanent base for the aircraft. Sadly it was not to be, the authorities in 1990 were less keen than their predecessors to have large four engined aircraft on the water, and so the aircraft departed eventually being purchased and transported to Florida’s Fantasy of Flight Museum.

Traces of the site remained for many years, but now only the slipway, odd patches of concrete and paths hint at its history. The Holiday camp built on the site has a small display of items to do with the factory, and the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust have erected a memorial stone to all those who served here. The stone stands outside of the ‘club house’.

Once a conglomeration of buildings, it is now a huge holiday park; how many of those who stay here I wonder, give more than a passing glance at the historic value of this once busy and noisy place.

Post Script.

For years rumours of scuttled Sunderlands proliferated around the aviation world drawing divers to explore the depths of Windermere in search of the wrecks. Whilst aircraft were indeed taken apart at Windermere, it would seem none were actually scuttled here and the rumours of such events were indeed just that – rumours. Perhaps they were created by locals wishing to extend the longevity of Windermere’s historic links, or perhaps they were created out of the minds of ex-workers misguided by fading memories. Whatever the origin, it would be nice to think that at least one does remain down there waiting for the day it is discovered and brought back to the surface to rekindle Windermere’s history once more.

Both the Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford and Hendon have a Sunderland Flying boat on display. At Hendon ML824, a MK. V was transferred from the French Navy to Pembroke Dock (see photo above) where it sat outside exposed to the elements for many years. After deteriorating it was transported to Hendon where it was fully restored and now allows public entry into the fuselage.

At Duxford, ML796, the first production MK.V went to Calshot on the Solent  and then onto Wig Bay in 1946. After remaining in storage for three years she was also passed to the French Navy, serving until 1950 when she was transferred to Shorts Brothers in Ireland for modifications. Returning to France in 1951 via Wig Bay, ML796 served again until 1962 at which point she was struck off charge. Purchased privately, she was then unceremoniously gutted being turned into a discotheque and drinks club. She then became the charge of the IWM in 1976 where she too was refurbished. Like her surviving sister, she remains on public display, located in the Airspace hangar.

Both the Windermere site and the Sunderlands that were built there are no more, an important and decisive part of Britain’s aviation history has gone forever. With two models in Britain and less than five globally, the Sunderland is an iconic aircraft that helped in Britain’s defence of Europe, and in the defence of her own borders. It’s such a shame that both this beautiful aircraft and the memory of Windermere, have been allowed to disappear from our skies forever.

Sunderland ML796

Sunderland ML796 at Duxford (2019)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Lake District National Park Website.

*2 Whilst others had attempted, and to some extent achieved flight (both Gnosspelius and Commander Oliver Schwann at Barrow in Furness) Adams gained the title as he was the only one able to keep the aircraft under control, a pre-requisite for being the first.

*3 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website.

*4 National Archives AVIA 15/3622

*5 Spartacus Educational website

Uboat.net website. An excellent site dedicated to the U-Boat war.

English Lakes Website

Windermere Sunderland Flying Boats website.

Westmorland Gazette website.

Imperial War Museum website,

For further information on the production of Sunderlands at Windermere, including personal stories and photographs, I would suggest Allan King’s excellent book “Wings on Windermere“, published in 2008 by MMP.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Early Flying Boats (Part 1)

In Trail 59, we head to the northwest of the country, to an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is an area made famous by its many hills and lakes. It was the home of Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome’s series of books Swallows and Amazons; several water speed records, and it is a mecca for tourists flocking to “get away from it all”.

Surprisingly then, it is an unlikely place for aviation, yet it was up until the end of the Second World War, a major player in Britain’s aviation industry, utilising one of the vast lakes for that spectacular machine the flying boat.

In Trail 59 we head to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere in particular, where there are two sites linked to Britain’s aviation history. The first, at Cockshott Point, is where the aviation link began, whilst the second, White Cross Bay, is where the more substantial part of the trail takes place.

Windermere.

(RNAS Windermere/Cockshott Point / RNAS Hill of Oaks)

Lake Windermere (as it is incorrectly known) is the largest of the 16 bodies of water in the Lake District, and at almost seventy metres deep, eleven miles long and just under a mile wide, it is actually classed as a ‘Mere’, and not a lake. It is however, probably the most famous of all the Lakes, Meres or Tarns in the district and certainly it is the most visited.  In 2018, Windermere helped draw more than 19,000,000*1 visitors to the area, many taking up recreational activities on its 14.8 square kilometres of water.

Windermere’s aviation connection began in 1911, when a civil engineer, Oscar Gnosspelius, and a barrister, Captain Edward William Wakefield, began trials of flying from water both men using Windermere as their base. Progress for the two was slow, each finding out for themselves the perils of trying to take off from water. Both men trove to be the first to achieve this challenging task, and both found the many difficulties of such an action.

After many failed attempts of breaking the water’s hold over these  ‘hydro-aeroplanes’, both Gnosspelius and Wakefield reached a point where they believed take off was truly possible, all it needed was good weather.

The notoriously poor climate of the Lakes finally broke, and on 25th November 1911, Gnosspelius made his attempt first. After steering his aircraft along the water, lift was achieved, and it momentarily rose from the lake only to have the wing strike the water bringing the aircraft and Gnosspelius crashing down.

Wakefield meanwhile, had teamed up with a Rolls Royce engineer, 27 year old Herbert Stanley Adams, whilst he was based at Brooklands. Wakefield had offered him the job of test pilot, which Adams duly accepted. On the same day that Gnosspelius made his attempt, Adams took Wakefield’s aircraft, an Avro adapted Curtiss biplane, out onto Windermere water. The first run failed to gain any lift at all, but then, on his second run, he turned the craft and headed north. Now with a good headwind, the aircraft broke the surface tension and it gradually rose from the water flying some 50 feet or so above its surface. History was at last made, and Adams became the first man in the UK to fly an aircraft that had taken off from water*2

Lake Windermere

November 25th 1911, the date Adams took off from Windermere and flew the first UK flight from, and back, to water.

And so, Adams’ achievement set in motion a series of events that would lead Windermere on a long, and difficult path to aviation history. As confidence grew in waterborne aviation, more and more flights were made which soon led to the formation of the Lakes Flying Company. All this activity and the noise from albeit small aircraft engines,  inevitably led to vehement objections from many locals including Beatrix Potter herself. These objections were so strong that organisations were set up to oppose the continuation of flying. Support for them rapidly grew, and soon they had amassed over 10,000 signatures in their support. But the argument in favour of flying was also strong. Many had the foresight to see where flying from water could lead, and in April 1912, the Government made the decision to allow further flights from Windermere, a decision that enabled Wakefield to continue with his business endeavour.

Fearing other nations were also trialling flight from water, especially France, the Government debated at length the need for such measures. During one such debate, the Rt. Honourable Mr. Joyson-Hicks directed his questions about France’s progress in hydro-planes, directly to the then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Mr. Joyson-Hicks asked Churchill  how many such hydro-aeroplanes the British Navy owned. Mr. Churchill, in his answer, explained that there was indeed one under construction at East-Church, two others on order, and another thirty-two experiments with machines of this type occurring at: Sheerness, Lake Windermere, and at Barrow. He went on to explain that the  results obtained so far from these trials “were promising“.*3

Gnosspelius meanwhile, repaired his damaged aircraft. Learning from his mistakes he modified it and retested it – it flew, giving him the lesser honour of becoming the first person to fly an aircraft built solely in Cumbria; albeit in the shadow of Adams’ and Wakefield’s triumphant achievement.

By the time World War I arrived, the benefits of taking off from water were well and truly clear, the Royal Naval Air Service took a great interest in the exploration seeing a future for water borne aircraft within their service. Wanting to perform their duties, both Adams and Gnosspelius joined up, leaving the company without anyone to lead it. Seizing on the opportunity, it was bought out by William R. Ding, an instructor who had been brought in by Wakefield, and had also realised the potential of taking off from water. In light of the RNAS’s interest, he could see profit in training pilots to perform the task. Eventually, so keen to investigate and carry on the idea themselves, the RNAS requisitioned the company and took over the site renaming it RNAS Hill of Oaks.

Many of the civilian staff who were already employed on the site remained for the time being, but when the last individuals left in 1916, it became a naval base, and as such was renamed again – this time the more appropriate RNAS Windermere. Training continued under the supervisory eye of the RNAS, but eventually, as the war approached its end, operations from Windermere began to wind down. Predictably, it reached a point where flying ceased altogether and the RNAS departed the site.

This could well have been the end of the line for Windermere, but a short reprieve in 1919 saw the once famous 1914 Schneider Trophy air race pilot, Charles Howard Pixton, return to the site. Utilising Avro 504K floatplanes, he set up and carried out tourist flights, which he combined with an newspaper delivery service to the Isle of Man. These operations breathed new life into waterborne flight, and in particular, into Windermere.

Eventually though even these ceased, and during these post war years, flying activity gradually declined at Windermere, and apart from a few recreational flights onto the water, it eventually ceased altogether. With this, the final flight had been made, and Cockshott Bay, a place unique in British aviation history, would no longer resound to the sound of aircraft engines. This part of Windermere’s aviation life had come to an end.

Now a major marina, only a tiny section of slipway remains, its access is difficult even for boat owners, primarily due to its location. It is rather sad, especially considering the importance of this site that nothing more tangible remains (a memorial stone from Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust is nearby) to commemorate the incredible deeds of Adams, Wakefield and Gnosspelius, who between them took Windermere into the annals of aviation history.

The second site visited today lies a few miles north from here, also along Windermere’s  eastern bank. It is this site that is perhaps the more prominent, and perhaps the more defining, of the two. From here we take a short trip north stopping off at White Cross Bay.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.