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