In this Trail, we head north of the border again and return to Scotland. We go beyond the historic city of Edinburgh and into Fife. The beautiful coastal route here takes you through numerous small fishing villages with their quaint harbours and small houses. The views across the Firth of Fourth are stunning and if you like golf, this is the area to be. With St. Andrews to the northern end of Fife, there is plenty to offer, and here we visit three airfields, two of which, are now closed. One is the Mary Celeste of aviation, one sadly is gone and the third is still active but in a much lower capacity than it had been previously. All three are valuable in their historic elements, with one even being listed by Historic Scotland.
In Trail 53 we visit Fife’s eastern coast. Our first stop is a remarkable airfield that has to be one of the most extraordinary Second World War airfields in the country. Not only is this site remote, sitting just outside the small village of Crail, and accessible by only one road, but it is an airfield that has been locked in a time capsule, an airfield that looks like the Mary Celeste of wartime sites. It is an airfield that looks like it was left the very day the last man walked out the door.
Our first stop is the Royal Naval Air Station at Crail.
RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)
Crail has to be virtually unique, complete almost in its entirety, from accommodation, to the technical buildings, its runways and even the Naval watch office, they are all standing (albeit in a poor state) as they were when the site was closed in 1958.
Now very much rundown, it has to be one of the most compete examples of wartime airfields in the UK today. This is primarily due to Historic Scotland who have scheduled the entire site listing many of the buildings for preservation.
Originally Crail was the site of a World War I airfield, opened and closed within a year 1918 -1919, and was designed specifically to train new pilots before posting to front line squadrons in France. The airfield was home to both No. 50 and 64 Training Squadrons, who were both immediately disbanded, and then reformed under the control of the newly formed Royal Air Force as No. 27 Training Depot Squadron RAF, on July 15th 1918.
Flying RE8, FE2b, Avro 504A & 504K aircraft and Sopwith Camels, they were to give airmen who had passed their basic flying training programme, instruction in techniques in both fighter-reconnaissance and air combat. Pilots would progress from one aircraft type to another learning to fly amongst other things, simulated dogfights which hopefully prepared them for combat over northern France.
At the end of 1918 US airmen were being sent across the Atlantic and some of these too were trained here at Crail. But as the war finally closed, there was little need to train new pilots and so flying duties were slowly withdrawn. The number of flights at Crail began to dwindle and its end looked near.
In March of 1919, a cadre of 104 Sqn DH.10s landed here, but with little or no flying taking place, they were soon surplus to requirements, the RAF being cut back to save money. As a result of these cuts, they were no longer needed and so were disbanded at the end of June.
During its short eight month life Crail would be a busy station seeing many aircraft types. It would also be developed quite extensively, having a range of buildings erected on site which included three coupled General Service sheds, recognisable by their curved roof using the ‘Belfast Truss’ construction method; and a single Aircraft Repair Shed, all typical of Training stations in the latter stages of the war.
Like many World War II airfields later on, Crail was unfinished when these first bi-plane units moved in, and once the war was over, like the aircraft, the buildings were all removed and the land returned to agriculture once more.
When war broke out for the second time, Crail was identified as a possible site for a new airfield for use by the Royal Navy (RN), a satellite being used at nearby Dunino. Having a record of good weather and drainage, it was a perfect location, quiet, secluded and on the coast of Scotland. It was an ideal location both for training and for operations over the North Sea.
Being a Royal Naval airfield it would differ from RAF airfields in that it had four runways and not three, each being of tarmac. However, because they would not be used for heavy aircraft especially the larger bombers, these runways would be considerably smaller, 3 x 1000 yds and 1 x 1,200 yds each only 33 yds wide. The other reason for these narrow and short runways were that they were used to train pilots to land as they would on aircraft carriers, using much shorter and narrower landings spaces than their RAF counterparts.
World War II Crail would be considerably larger than its First World War predecessor, and would have numerous state-of-the-art buildings and features. With construction starting in 1939, it would open in the Autumn of 1940 but would continue to be adapted and updated right the way through to the war’s end in 1945. As Crail was a Royal Navy station, it would have to follow Royal Navy law and have its crew named after an actual floating vessel. Hence, on October 1st 1940, it was commissioned as HMS Jackdaw, following the tradition of using bird names for land based stations.
As with many wartime RAF airfields, Crail was split by the main road, the accommodation areas to the north-west and the active airfield to the south-east. Accommodation would cater for around 2,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, WRNs (Wrens) being used, like WAAFs, not only in the administration and communication roles, but for aircraft maintenance, parachute packing and other maintenance duties.
Many of these accommodation blocks were single story, laid out in blocks of four (some grouped as eight) in a grid-style layout. Whilst separate from the active side of the airfield, it was not truly dispersed as RAF airfields were later on. Also on this site, close to the entrance, are the communal buildings such as the gymnasium/cinema and chapel, providing comfort and entertainment for those off duty times.
On the technical side of the airfield Crail had a number of hangars, an Aircraft Repair Shop, torpedo attack training building (TAT), bombing training building and a watch office along with many other support and technical buildings. A bomb store was located in the southern area of the airfield.
The TAT building revolutionised torpedo attacks, removing the ‘educated’ guesswork that pilots had to make using bow waves, ships’ angles and speed estimations. These deflected attacks reminiscent of deflected shooting by fighter pilots and gunners of the RAF, they were much harder to calculate and so more difficult to score hits. This new ‘F’ director system fed information from the aircraft directly into the torpedo which once released, could accelerate away at accurately calculated deflection angles from the aircraft. These buildings used a large hemispherical screen linked to a TAT trainer which looked not unlike a Link trainer. Designed to drawing number 1697/42 they were large buildings, with a large lighting gantry suspended from the ceiling constructed by technicians from closed theatres in London. The example at Crail was the first such building and led the way to other similar structures being built at other Naval Air Stations. Today this is the only known example left and whilst the innards of the building have gone, it has been listed as a Historic building Category ‘A’ by Historic Scotland.
In conjunction with the synthetic training provided at Crail, cameras were used that would be strapped beneath the wings of the aircraft and would take a photo as the torpedo release button was depressed. Classed as ‘Aerial Light Torpedo’ it was a simulated attack that would take an image of the vessel under attack, allowing an examiner to calculate the success of it without the need to use a dummy torpedo. Pilots at Crail would carry out several mock attacks every day and so the use of a camera and synthetic training, reduced the use of dummy torpedoes that could not be collected once dropped.
An additional aspect of synthetic training at Crail was the bombing teacher building, another rare and rather unique example. An example based on the earliest 1926/1927 designs, it remained unchanged and is said to be the only existing example of its kind left in Britain. The fore-runner of the AML bombing teacher, it was a two-story building that projected an image on to the floor beneath the bomb aimer. Designed to simulate a variety of conditions, the bomb aimer would lay on a platform feeding signals to a projector above, and the image would move simulating an aircraft flying at 90 mph at an altitude of 8,000ft.
But by far the most prominent building at Crail is the Aircraft Repair Shed (ARS) at 250 feet in length with its ‘zig-zag’ roof, these were unique to Naval Air Stations and were able to take numerous aircraft for full strip down and rebuilding work. In conjunction with this were a number of well equipped workshops and seven squadron hangars all 185 feet long and 105 feet wide. Five of these hangars were grouped together in the technical area with two more to the eastern side of the airfield. Specifically designed for naval use, these Pentad transportable hangars were able to accommodate aircraft with folding wings, as would be used on aircraft carriers during the war. Again especially built for Naval Air Stations, the sides were canted to allow close parking of aircraft. Sadly these hangars have now gone but their concrete foundations and door rails do still remain.
Another exclusive building at Crail is the watch Office, again a building design unique to RNAS sites. The idea behind these offices was to create a standard floor design in a room of 38 ft x 30 ft, which could, depending upon the needs of the individual station in use, easily have a second, third or even fourth floor added should the airfield be expanded later on. Crail’s watch office has all four floors, the top being a largely glazed structure with commanding views not only across the airfield, but the Firth of Fourth and beyond to the Isle of May. Built into the ground level of the watch office is a fire tender shed, and rooms for the crews. Built to the basic drawing 3860/42, it remains one of only a few such examples today.
Crail was an extremely busy airfield, it would, at some point, house 29 different squadrons, only 8 of these were training (or non front line units as denoted by the preceding ‘7’), the remainder being temporary stays by front line units either on training or whilst their vessels were in dock. As a training station it would pass a huge number of trainees, all having undertaken basic training through the Empire Air Training Scheme abroad. The task of training these crews fell to a small number of resident squadrons at Crail, the first being 785 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) who arrived on November 4th 1940, under the command of Station Commander Lieutenant-Commander P.G.O. Sydney-Turner RN.
No. 785 NAS were a training squadron, formed from the Naval element of the Torpedo Training Unit at Abbotsinch. They were a Torpedo Bomber Reconnaissance (TBR) Training Squadron, equipped from the beginning by two aircraft types, the Fairy Swordfish and the Blackburn Shark. The Sharks were the last in a line of Blackburn bi-planes and were an all metal framed aircraft covered with fabric. They were powered by a radial engine and were manufactured both in the UK and under licence in Canada. Introduced in 1934, the Shark was considered out-of-date by the time war broke out and was quickly replaced by both the Swordfish and later at Crail, by the Fairy Albacore in 1941.
No. 785 NAS was joined that same month by No. 786 NAS, another training squadron, also flying Albacores. As the more successful Swordfish became more widely available these too were also replaced.
In the summer of 1941 No.770 NAS arrived at Crail. 770 were a Fleet Requirements Unit tasked with supporting surface vessels in their training needs. Ideally they would tow targets for ship borne gunners to shoot at; provide simulated surface attacks and spot for shore bombardments. They would use a variety of aircraft to fulfil this role before moving off to Crail’s satellite station Dunino a few miles west of Crail. 770 NAS were also to be based at RAF Drem and there was talk of placing them at RAF Macmerry, a move that never materialised.
1943 brought yet another flying unit to Crail, No. 778 NAS – a Service Trials Unit. Their purpose was to test new aircraft suitable for deck landings, and to achieve this they used a range of aircraft including both the Barracuda and Supermarine’s Seafire, the naval version of the Spitfire. A Griffon powered aircraft, the early Seafires had good low altitude speed but take-off and landings proved difficult due to their poor handling characteristics. One flaw with the Seafire was the tendency to drift to the right due to the high torque developed by the Griffon. Eventually, Supermarine would fit a contra-rotating propeller, and the problem was solved.
The dawn of 1944 brought another collection of aircraft into Crail with a detachment of 758 NAS, a stay that was short-lived, lasting only three months almost to the day.
The last flying unit to arrive at Crail was the training Squadron No. 711 NAS in September that same year, also with Fairy Barracudas. At the war’s end, these were replaced with Grumman Avengers, the Torpedo bomber that proved such a success in the Pacific theatre. The Avenger was renamed the ‘Tarpon’ in British use, but this name never really caught on and Avenger stayed. This arrival brought the number of aircraft at Crail to around 240, however, the end of hostilities meant that training programmes were facing being cut down, and 711 NAS was disbanded being absorbed into No. 785 NAS in December 1945.
It was during these last two months of 1945 that another short stay unit would arrive at Crail, No. 747 NAS only staying between November and December that year.
Throughout the war a number of front line squadrons used Crail either whilst their vessel was in for repair, or for training purposes on the various ranges in the area. These disembarked units included: 800, 810, 811, 812, 816, 817, 819, 820, 822, 823, 826, 827, 828, 829, 831, 832, 833, 834, 836, 837 and 846 NAS all front line squadrons.
The last Fleet Air Arm squadron to use Crail was a detachment from 780 NAS which arrived here from Hinstock in the closing days of 1946. Staying here for only a very short period, they were to see the last of flying activities, and in 1947 flying at Crail finally ceased. The Royal Navy did retain the site though, renaming it HMS Bruce, they used the accommodation blocks to train new naval recruits and the airfield was maintained ‘operational’ allowing aircraft from other bases to use its runways for landing practice.
In 1949, the training part of Crail was closed, whether or not this was due to the harsh discipline found at Crail or not is unclear, but it was to signify the impending end of the Royal Navy’s relationship with Crail.
Other short reprieves came with the stationing of the Black Watch here during the Korean War, and a joint languages school (Joint Services School of Linguistics – JSSL) was set up here to train students in speaking Russian and Czechoslovakian.
The 1950s brought another short flying reprieve, as Leuchars’ runways were lengthened, the St. Andrews University Air Squadron who were based there, used Crail on a temporary basis.
The late 50s also saw the consideration of reopening Crail for jet aircraft, but due to the lack of runways space and with them being so close to the shoreline, lengthening them was out of the question. The idea was shelved and the Navy decided to close Crail for good. The land was eventually sold off, and returned to the state it is in today.
The airfield lies on the coast, 1/2 mile north-east of the coastal village it takes its name from, Crail. From the village take the road to Fife Ness and you arrive at the airfield within a few minutes. The main airfield is to your right and the accommodation areas to your left. The site is so large that it cannot be missed. The main entrance to the airfield is part way down this road, but a small road passes along the perimeter just after the site and leads all the way to the coast beyond. This road allows for excellent views across the entire airfield.
In the village itself, in the tourist information centre (limited opening hours), is a small display of photographs, letters and other personal effects from those who were stationed at Crail during the war. It is certainly worth a visit.
Crail exists today as a prime example of Royal Naval stations, its uniqueness qualifying many of the buildings for protected status. Classed as either category ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’, Historic Scotland has recognised the importance of this site and laid the way to protect it as much as possible. The majority of the airfield was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1997, and following a review in 2006, this was reduced to an area covering the runways along with a selection of 32 buildings which are all now listed.
This said, many of the buildings are in poor condition, internal features being removed and damaged extensively by constant exposure to the Scottish weather. Of those that are in a better condition, many are used for light industrial purposes or for the storage of farm machinery / produce. The Scottish Kart club operates on part of the site and it is used as a Drag strip and raceway offering Sprint packages to those wishing to race their car around its 1.25 mile track. Putting all this aside though, it is the ‘wholeness’ of Crail that is remarkable, and one that makes it such an important site to Britain’s aviation and wartime heritage.
After we depart Crail we head north-west to its satellite station Dunino and then on to the former RAF base at Leuchars.
Sources and Further Reading (Crail)
The Aggleton Family website has log books, images and recollections of life at Crail and is certainly worth a visit.
Tony Drury’s website ‘Fleet Air Arm Bases’ has a wealth of information on Royal Navy stations across the country. Another site worthy of a visit.
Hobb, D Commander MBE, RN (Ret), HMS Jackdaw, Royal Naval Air Station Crail, Crail Museum Trust, (2104)
A full list of those buildings listed can be found on the Historic Scotland website,