RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 5)

After Part 4, in this, the final part of Trail 62, we round off our look at RAF Leuchars. We have seen how to grew from a balloon training ground in the pre-war years to a training station for early flyers. Then on to maritime patrol, the Cold War and QRA status. Now as the years pass, defence cuts rear their heads once gain, Leuchars is once more under threat from politics.

The 1970s would see a return to training here at Leuchars with both the RAF and the Royal Navy embarking on new ventures with the Phantom – McDonnell Douglas’s all round, all-weather, multi-role aircraft. With new models, come new training units, and with the arrival of 111 Sqn the famous ‘Treble One’, in November 1975, also came a training support unit – the Post Operational Conversion Unit (later known as the Phantom Training Flight). The primary role of this unit was to train Fleet Air Arm aircrews for carrier borne models of the Phantom.

A No. 111 Squadron McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FG.1, an aircraft closely associated with RAF Leuchars. (License: GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

By the early 1970s, the shortcomings of the Lightning were now more than apparent, a lack of range and loitering ability becoming more obvious as the Phantom’s capabilities outshone it. A slower, but far more advanced Phantom, was proving to be more than just a suitable replacement for the now ageing ‘rocket of the skies’.

Whilst the Phantom was phased in and the Lightning phased out, pilots of the Lightnings continued to be wary of its tendency for engine fires, a problem that had  been present for some time. One such incident saw Lightning XS918 catch fire before the pilot (Flying Officer Doidge) manged to eject over the North Sea, West of The Bell Rock, 9 miles East of RAF Leuchars. Unfortunately controversy surrounded several aspects of the pilots kit, after he ejected he became detached from his survival kit, an inquiry highlighting ‘modifications’ to his clothing that may or may not have led to his tragic loss of life. In what appears to have been common practice amongst many airmen, changes were officially made to the kits supplied to aircrew in light of the accident.

The transition between Phantom and Lightning was a smooth if not rapid one. At Leuchars, the final farewell was made at the annual open day in September 1975, when six of 23 Squadron’s Lightnings and and four Phantoms of 43 Sqn formed a flypast. The Lightnings passing over the airfield in dramatic style saying a last farewell to the station where it has performed its duties so well for many years. With their disbandment in October, the baton and well and truly been passed over to a new breed of aircraft.

Between 1972 and 1978, Leuchars saw further sporadic returns of the Royal Navy, with 892 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal utilising the ground space for its operations. By 1978 though, 892 Sqn was disbanded, and their ship – the Ark Royal – decommissioned, bringing an end to this relationship between the navy and Leuchars. However, the FG.1 Phantoms used by 892 were absorbed into 111 Sqn, replacing the FGR.2s they had been operating before.

The end of 892 Sqn was marred by a tragic accident When rehearsing for the final solo display, the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG 1 ‘XT868’ flown by Cdr. C. C. N. Davies and his navigator/observer Lt J. Gavin, suffered multiple engine failures whilst flying low, downwind along the runway axis. The aircraft entered a tight right hand turn through 180º to fly dead stick back along the runway. The Phantom’s right wing then struck the ground, and with the aircraft now perpendicular to the runway, the pilot ejected followed almost immediately by the observer. In their exits, the pilot was severely injured whilst the observer was sadly killed.

The decision to scrap the angled-decked carriers of the Navy would in turn have an eventual knock on effect at Leuchars. With both naval Buccaneers and Phantoms transferring to the RAF, no new training would take place – the Navy now looking toward the introduction the Harrier. The Phantom Training Flight would for now, remain at Leuchars though its role ‘downgraded’ to performing refresher training, ensuring that a round the clock, carrier based status was maintained in the UK.

It was also at this time that another film crew arrived – this time from the BBC – who used Ark Royal and her on-board flying units, including 892 Sqn, for their documentary ‘Sailor‘. The iconic insight into carrier operations was perhaps made even more famous by its theme tune of a similar name sung by Rod Stewart.

The 1970s saw continuous and increased intrusions into the the northern airspace around the UK, and as a result QRA scrambles became more common place at Leuchars than any other UK station. A massed show of force on Lenin’s centenary provided a massive ‘target’ for the QRA aircraft, with no less than 60 ‘Bears’ and ‘Badgers’ filling the skies on one day alone over the North Sea. A major headache for the QRA crews, it did however provide an excellent photo opportunity even allowing for a Marham Victor to shadow a Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ much to the annoyance of the AOC No.1 Group when he got to hear about it.

With continued use, the runway needed a further resurfacing, and after the Phantoms of 43 Sqn had departed to Kinloss for a ‘Bolthole’ (where Station based aircraft deploy to temporary locations) deployment to carry out QRA operations from there, and those of 111 had left for Coningsby, Leuchars was left to the developers, and for an estimated eight months the airfield was effectively out of front line action.

Now with restricted runway use, the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters and later Sea Kings, of 22 Sqn, would be the main users of Leuchars; their Air Sea Rescue operations combining with the Scottish Mountain Rescue teams, saving not only downed aircrew but stranded climbers as well . They would also be joined by the University Air Squadrons from nearby St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen and Dundee (later amalgamated to form the  East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron) who would use Leuchars for training with their Scottish Aviation Beagle Bulldogs.

Once completed, a second phase of work was then undertaken, new hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were to be built. Common place on bases in Germany, these were designed to withstand conventional attacks, providing protection for individual aircraft whilst dispersed around the airfield. In an announcement made by Sir Michael Beetham the Chief of the Air Staff, Leuchars and five other airfields were to receive these ‘new’ shelters. It would take several years though before those at Leuchars were ready with its QRA aircraft safely tucked inside.

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the Phantom had now reached the end of its life and the new Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) the ‘Tornado’ would soon be appearing. The two Leuchars based squadrons, 43 and 111 were both stood down, the Phantoms removed and the Tornadoes brought in. 43 Sqn, who had been based at Leuchars since 1969 being the first to receive the new aircraft, a transition that saw all the Phantoms gone from the Scottish base within a year.

The introduction of the Tornado was not without its own political and military wrangling. Doubts cast upon the ability of the multi-role aircraft to perform as well as those aircraft it was designed to replace were raised by the military. History had shown some dramatic failures on this score whilst others, such as the Mosquito, had shown it more than possible with great success. Politicians however, seemed more drawn between upsetting the Americans who were trying to sell the F-15, and the multi national consortium Panavia Aircraft GmbH,  who collectively built the Tornado.  The decision would be a fine balance.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet incursions  around the UK’s airspace would drop, the need for interceptors had now seemingly reduced, and so a review of the RAF’s front line operations was once again on the cards. The withdrawal of both the Phantom and shortly after the Buccaneer, left the Tornado as Britain’s only front line defence aircraft.

With the Gulf War in the 1991, the Tornadoes of Leuchars would play a major part and all eyes would be on them, scrutinising their every move. The gradual phasing out of Buccaneers and Jaguars leaving a lot on the shoulders of Tornado crews.

In 1995 two 43 Sqn Tornadoes from Leuchars were involved in a mid air collision over the North Sea. One of the aircraft ZE210 collided with the second, ZE733, during a joining up manoeuvre at 12,000ft whilst using night vision goggles. The pilot of ZE733 lost control and the two crew (Flt. Lt. McCarry and Flt. Lt. Booth) safely ejected, being rescued by an Air Sea Rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer.  The second aircraft, ZE210, suffered damage to the hood and electrics, which knocked out the navigational aids. On landing, it took a considerable time to extract the crew due to the damage sustained to the hood. The aircraft was not repaired instead being used for spares before finally being dumped at St. Athan. *8

RAF Leuchars Tornado ZE967 Gate Guard at Leuchars 2018.

The 2000s saw further upgrades to aircraft and new squadrons arrive. An Operation Conversion Unit for Tornadoes No. 56 (Reserve) Squadron, arrived in 2003. It was designed to upgrade pilots to the new variant Tornado. Absorbed into the long standing 43 Sqn, it remained on site and active until 2009 when it too was disbanded.

Further cut backs to finances meant the final departure of the Jaguars from bases in England. For Leuchars it would see the reforming of the University Air Squadrons into the ESUAS. A single training unit operating in conjunction with the three Scottish Universities .

After 2010 the Tornadoes were replaced by the Typhoons of 1 and 6 Sqns. 1 Sqn was reformed here on 15th September 2012, and joined 6 Sqn who had been reformed here on 6th September 2010, this offered an almost seamless transition from Tornadoes to Typhoons. These modern fighters now formed Britain’s front line of defence against potential aggressors taking over the QRA status for the north.  But in 2014, orders came through to move the RAF out of Leuchars transferring the aircraft, personnel and role to Lossiemouth in Moray. On 31st March 2015 at 12:00 hrs, ownership of Leuchars officially passed over to the Army, Leuchars’ named was changed to Leuchars Station, and its history as an operational airfield had finally come to an end.

Designated an emergency landing ground, (Master Diversion Airfield or MDA) between 2015 and 2016 no fewer than fifteen aircraft used Leuchars for ’emergency’ landings. These included: Tucanoes (Linton-on-Ouse), Tornadoes GR4 (Lossiemouth); Hawks (Leeming); Typhoons (Coningsby) and F15s from Lakenheath in Suffolk.

A minor respite in 2020 saw the QRA Typhoons return briefly as work was carried out on Lossiemouth’s runway. Within a short period of time though, this was completed and the aircraft departed once more leaving Leuchars quiet again.

This move signified the last full use of Leuchars by the Royal Air Force, responsibility of this long standing Scottish airfield being handed over to the the British Army who now based the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Engineers here. Various other non-flying units do serve here including The Military police units and 612 (R) Squadron, a medical unit of the RAF.

Whilst the defence cuts of 2010 indicated the closure of Leuchars, in October 2020, it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence that they were looking into increasing both civilian and military usage of the airfield at Leuchars. Whilst there remains no intention to retain, or base aircraft here, the installation of fuel facilities does give hope that aviation will return in some form in the future. The indications are that by opening Leuchars to civilian traffic, it could bring revenue in to the hard pressed MOD*7.

Leuchars played a major part in two World conflicts being used primarily by the RAF throughout its life. The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) have also been based here, as have the Army who are now the current main residents of the base. Other users include: the Dutch,  the Norwegians, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealand Air Forces as well as civil aviation organisations and University Air Squadrons.

More recently, with it being located closer to international airspace which is regularly penetrated by Soviet aircraft, the RAF’s Northern QRA aircraft were based here for many years before moving away to Lossiemouth in Moray, someway further north. Leuchars’ history is therefore long and very varied, covering a wide range of users in a multitude of roles.

RAF Leuchars has a history going back over 100 years. It was never upgraded to ‘A’ class status, and has only ever had two runways. Originally built from concrete and wood chip, the surface was upgraded to accommodate the jets of modern warfare, and the infrastructure has been added to as the airfield grew.

It has been home to a considerable number of front line squadrons along with an extensive collection of support flights, training flights and non-flying units. The number of people that have passed through its doors probably uncountable. It performed during the first World War, trained air crew in the inter-war years, and carried out vital work during the Second. Post war, it formed the front line of defence against potential Soviet aggression before returning to training through the University Air Squadrons across Scotland. Now home to the British Army, it is at least for the time being open for business, but as a flying military site, it is all but closed.

Its location has been in many ways its saviour. Operating maritime patrols and clandestine operations into occupied and neutral Europe. The Fleet Air Arm were formed from its units, and the Air Forces of several nations have been based here. It has a history that is so diverse and dynamic that very few other airfields in Britain can match it. As with other airfields across the country, its future hangs in the balance, I hope that this long living and prestigious site remains alive and well to honour all those who over the last 100 years have served from its runways.

Leuchars as an operational military site is not accessible to the general public and views across it are limited. It is thought that two rare First World War Double Royal Flying Corps General Service Aircraft Sheds are among the few original buildings that survive on the site. The accommodation areas have now been sold off to private buyers, but the airfield is intact as it is used as an emergency landing ground and by the ESUAS. With care, opportunities are there to see this historic and fascinating piece of Britain’s aviation history.

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

Sources and further reading

*1 Fatal Air Accidents website 12th November 1918 – November 1919

*2 Royal Flying Corp Website

*3 An interesting film of 489 Beaufighters with invasion markings appears on the IWM website, it shows the take off and formation flying of the squadron along with some interesting ground shots too.

*4 For additional information and pilot stories about the ‘ball-bearing’ run see the Royal Institute of Navigation Blog.

*5 Thirsk, I. “de Havilland Mosquito – An illustrated History Vol.2“, Crecy 2006

*6 Further details about the BOAC Mosquitoes appear n ‘Mosquitoes on BOAC Service.

*7 The Courier.co.uk newspaper website.

*8, 11 Aviation Safety Network Website.

*9 National Archives AIR 27/2612/1

*10 Defence Transformation Volume 531: debated on Monday 18 July 2011 Dr. Liam Fox’s announcement to Parliament. UK Parliament House of Commons.

Gracie’s Guide to British Industrial History website.

Flying Magazine, (August 1972) website.

National Archives: AIR 27/1383

AIR 27/624/29

AIR 27/624/33

BAE Systems Website accessed 6/3/21.

For first hand stories of MRT work see Heavy Whalley’s blog

For a detailed account of life at Leuchars, read “Northern Q – The History of RAF Leuchars” by Ian Smith Watson.

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 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.

RNAS Dunino – in the shadow of St. Andrews.

Continuing on in Trail 53, Scotland’s east coast, we visit another Royal Naval Air Station, this one, a satellite of RNAS Crail, is not quite so well preserved.  However, with that said, a number of buildings do still exist, and whilst most are on private land, some are visible from the public road.

Sitting not far from Scotland’s east coast and a short distance from the parent airfield at Crail, we visit an airfield that had a short military life, but one that saw many squadrons use it. With these squadrons came a multitude of aircraft types, but one in particular stood out as the predominant type- the Fairy Swordfish, a biplane that became famous with the Royal Naval Air Service.

On this trip, we visit another of Scotland’s relics, this time the former Royal Naval Air Station at Dunino.

RNAS Dunino (HMS Jackdaw II, HMS Merlin III).

Dunino is a small hamlet in the north eastern region of Fife in Scotland. The area around here is littered with golf courses, the most famous being St. Andrews the home of international golf and perhaps the most famous golf course in the world. Played on by the world’s top golfers, it is known to be at least 600 years old, and probably even older with its origins going as far back as the 12th Century.

The Firth of Forth forms the main shoreline of St. Andrews and encompasses this whole region of Fife. A beautiful region, it has views out across the North Sea in a landscape broken by undulating hills, castles and quaint fishing villages.

The airfield of Dunino, sits about two miles east of the hamlet from which it takes its name, and about 3.5 miles west of its parent airfield at Crail. Dunino being so small, is often overlooked by visitors to the region, but its claim to fame is a sacred grove and a Holy Well which remain there to this day.

The airfield initially opened as a satellite for nearby RAF Leuchars, a neighbour of St. Andrew’s, after requisition of the land on which its sits in 1939. As a satellite of RAF Leuchars some 5 miles away, Dunino lacked all the comforts of home, wide open and exposed to the elements, it was not the best place to be posted to. In many ways Dunino was primitive, lacking proper accommodation and hard runways, it was perhaps one of the less comforting of the north’s operational bases. With little to occupy themselves, many ‘residents’ visited the ancient cities of Perth or Dundee, or strolled the streets of St. Andrews not far away.

The airfields itself was an irregular oval shape with a main runway running south-west to north-east, initially made of grass and later Sommerfeld tracking, a steel matting laid down on many of Britain’s temporary airfields and advanced landing grounds.

The other landing strips at Dunino remained grass, joined together by a concrete perimeter track intersected with hardstands and blister hangars. For a satellite, it had a large quantity of hangars, eight Super -blisters, four blister and another four hangars used for storage. A further aircraft repair shed (ARS) was used to maintain and repair aircraft on site.

Accommodation was located on three sites to the east of the airfield and could cater for 88 officers, 647 ratings, and 140 WRNS of mixed rank. Accommodation was not sufficient for all visitors to have a roof over their heads, some visiting units having to sleep in tents scattered around the airfield. Most naval airfields were built to similar designs as Royal Air Force designs, although they were not so tightly controlled, and variation within designs was more common.

Dunino’s watch office was initially the standard RAF watch office for Fighter Satellite Stations, a small single storey building it was later abandoned when the Royal Navy took over and built their own standard two story naval type to design 3860/42.

Not long after opening in 1940, the airfield passed from RAF control to Royal Navy control, who used it as  a satellite airfield for nearby RNAS Crail.

RNAS Dunino

The current Watch Office at Dunino is a two storey building designed by the RNAS.

On May 24th 1939, the Board of Admiralty took over control of the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Air Force, a force that included all carrier based aircraft, some 230 examples across 20 squadrons. Squadron numbers were issued between 700 – 899, those in the range of 700 – 749 initially being catapult units, and 750-799 as training units – which were then changed to ‘Second Line’ or permanent training units. Those in the range of 800 – 809 and 870 – 899, were allocated to single seat fighter squadrons, including all carrier based and land based operational units. Those in between were allocated to torpedo units, spotter squadrons and other front line squadrons*1.

Operating primarily from ships, the Fleet Air Arm needed land bases to place their aircraft when ships were in for repairs or refurbishments, this allowed maintenance and training to continue, and even allowed for off-shore protection with torpedo aircraft carrying out patrols and attacks on enemy shipping where possible. As with all Royal Naval Air Stations, Dunino took a bird’s name and the designation of a floating vessel as its own name, being a satellite, Dunino took HMS Jackdaw II after Crail’s HMS Jackdaw. Such was the demand for airfields that the Fleet Air Arm took over five airfields initially, but then implemented their own building programme, a programme that saw the total number of air stations reach twenty-four (plus seven non-commissioned sites) by 1944 along with fifteen satellites more commonly known in Naval circles as “Tenders”.*1 It was this need to place aircraft and their crews that led to Dunino having such a high number of users, many being just short stays whilst their carriers were refurbished.

The first users of Dunino were two training squadrons, the first, 785 NAS was formed out of the Naval element of the Torpedo Training Unit at Abbotsinch. Primarily a Torpedo Bomber Reconnaissance (TBR) Training Squadron, they were based at Crail and flew the Swordfish and Blackburn Shark, a bi-plane very much out of date by the time war broke out. The Swordfish, the Shark’s replacement, was also a bi-plane, but one that went on to be successful under naval control in numerous operations including the Channel Dash in 1942. The Swordfish was such a good little aeroplane, it even outshone its designed replacement, the Albacore, an ‘upgraded’ version of the Swordfish, which never managed to fulfil the role as well as its predecessor.

Like 785, their sister unit 786 NAS, was also a  training squadron and also operated from Crail using Dunino as a secondary field from which to operate.

During this time of Naval residency, the RAF also used Dunino posting 309 (Polish) Sqn here with Westland Lysanders. An Army Co-operation unit they were the only Polish squadron to have been formed in Scotland (at Abbotsinch during the Autumn of 1940). After moving from Renfrew into RAF Scone in Perth, they were posted here to Dunino,  arriving in early may 1941. On arrival, the crews were told the bad news, that their accommodation was to be tents in the local woods surrounding the airfield – not a pleasant surprise in the least.

This region of Scotland became a mecca for the Poles, many being posted here to protect Scotland’s east coast from German attack. They developed deep and sincere relationships with the locals, frequenting the bars and towns of Fife, including Cupar and St. Andrews, and built strong friendships that have lasted to this day.

The Lysander, famous for its SOE operations, was a small aircraft with high wing and STOL (short take of and landing) capabilities. Ideal for spotting and landing in small areas, it went on to excel in airborne operations over occupied France.

Not long after arriving at Dunino an accident in Lysander V9608 piloted by Sgt. Kowalczyk with observer Flt. Lt. Lukinski, saw a very-light pistol fall from its secure holding onto the floor of the cockpit whereupon it fired, igniting the cockpit. Taking immediate and remedial action, Sgt. Kowalczyk attempted an emergency landing, but crashed in the process. Both pilot and observer survived, but both suffered burnt hands and feet and were treated in the Polish Military Hospital No.1, (understood to be the requisitioned Taymouth Castle in Perth).

Whilst here, the Polish crews undertook a number of training operations including on the 20th – 21st June 1941, operations with 614 Sqn who were based at RAF Macmerry in the Borders. Orders were, that on the 19th, three aircraft from both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights were to depart with their crews by air at 16:00 hrs, to arrive shortly after at RAF Macmerry. The ground party would depart earlier at 14:00 hrs, taking the drive south arriving later that afternoon. The air party was led by F/Lt. Pictrowski and the ground party by Sgt. Kouarba. Whilst operating out of Macmerry, the two Flights would fall under the control of the O.C.of 614 Squadron who were also operating Lysanders at that time.

The MK. III Lysanders used by 309 Sqn, where soon replaced with the MK.IIIA which was based on the MK.I but with an updated engine, a model they would use until August 1942, by which point the first of the new Mustang Is had already began arriving. By the July, ‘B’ Flight had completely converted over to the new American built aircraft. Going from the slow Lysander to the powerful Mustang must have proven to be both a major challenge and huge step up in the eyes of the Polish crews.

Westland Lysander Mk IIIAs No. 309 (Polish) Squadron based at Dunino, taking part in a low-level bombing exercise in Scotland (12/3/42). © IWM (H 17776)

In November 1942, the Polish crews departed, in a move that ended the RAF’s dealings with Dunino, although 309 would return to Scotland and RAF Drem later on in the war.

After a quiet winter over 1942-43, Dunino would then, in the February / March, spring into life once more, and it would be this period that would see a great deal of movement here at Dunino.

There would initially be two front line squadrons arrive here, 825 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and 837 NAS both flying the Fairy Swordfish. It was 825 NAS who so bravely attacked the German fleet that sailed from Brest to their home in the Baltics, a force of mighty ships that included the ScharnhorstGneisenau and Prinz Eugen . After a cat and mouse game between the RAF and the German navy, a dash was made by the fleet under heavy escort and a powerful air umbrella through the English Channel. It was at this time that 825 NAS were launched from RAF Manston in Kent to attack the fleet, the six aircraft led by  Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde, being decimated in the attack with the loss of thirteen airmen. The full story of the suicidal mission became known as ‘Operation Fuller – The Channel Dash‘.

837 NAS was originally formed in Jamaica, and sailed to the United Kingdom in the summer of 1942. After arriving here, they formed two flights, one going to Gibraltar and the other posting to Iceland, both operating the Swordfish. In March of 1943, the two flights recombined here at Dunino, remaining here until the summer at which point the squadron disbanded temporarily.

A third squadron was also here at this time, 737 NAS, formed here on 22nd Feb 1943, as an amphibious Bomber Reconnaissance Training Squadron. 737 NAS would eventually leave Dunino on September 28th 1943, seven months after they were formed.

There then followed a period of activity during 1943 at the airfield which saw a series of short stays for 824 NAS, 827 NAS, 860 NAS and 833 NAS whose departure coincided with the arrival of 813 NAS. All these squadrons, apart from from 827, operated the Swordfish, 827 operating the Fairey Barracuda, the first Fleet Air Arm squadron to do so. The Barracuda, like the Albacore, was designed to replace the Swordfish. Crewed by three, it was the result of design specification S.24/37, but was never truly successful being hampered by supply problems.  However, the Barracuda did go on to serve well into the 1950s, with over 2,500 examples being built.

The end of January 1944 saw the penultimate unit arrive, 838 NAS who arrived mid January and stayed to see in the new Month of February before they too left the cold and openness of Dunino behind. That left just one further squadron to fly out of Dunino, 770 Sqn, who had been here since January 29th leaving on July 16th 1944.

By this time, Dunino had been extensively developed, and although not equal to front line stations in terms of quality, it boasted a good range of hangarage and storage that many other airfields could not even come close to.

RNAS Dunino

One of the many buildings that stand at the former RNAS Dunino. Now derelict, many house farm machinery and general rubbish.

With the departure of 770 Sqn, came the gradual demise of the airfield. With the war’s end, flying all but ceased and Dunino became a site for storing military hardware. With many aircraft being kept here well  into 1945, it was then closed off and emptied of its aircraft, the site remaining under military ownership until the late 1950’s.

Since then, many of the buildings have been removed, a few examples lay dormant in the wooded areas that surround the airfield, and the tower, visible from the public road, sits forlorn and empty in the middle of a field detached from the reminder of the airfield’s remnants.

Scattered around the perimeter and on farms are the tell-tale signs of a time gone by, dilapidated buildings used for storage of farm machinery and agricultural products, they are reminders of a day when Royal Naval flying was in its infancy and biplanes still remained in service against the more powerful aircraft of a determined and ruthless enemy.

Dunino is a difficult airfield to find, even though a fair number of buildings still exist. Taking the B9131 from St. Andrew’s head south. Pass through the hamlet of Stravithie, onto Dunino, itself little more than an old closed school and a few houses, the road takes south towards Beleybridge where we turn left. The first signs of it being a wartime location are seen here, with further buildings along side the road. A wooded area on your left, houses further buildings away from public view and access over farmland to where the airfield lies. Further along this road, the tower can be seen in the distance, as can some of the former blister hangars some way off.

Without walking through this wood, or across open farmland, access is limited, but the more intrepid adventurer would discover some interesting remnants in this area.

Dunino may have been a satellite, but the number of aircraft types and crews who passed through here were large. Primarily a Royal Naval Air Station it saw a good deal of action and along with its parent station at Crail, led the way with Naval Flying in this, a remote area of eastern Scotland.

Sources and further reading (RNAS Dunino)

*1 Lavery, B. “Churchill’s Navy: The Ships, People and Organisation, 1939-1945“, (2006) Bloomsbury

National Archives – AIR 27/1677/3

RNAS Crail – The Mary Celeste of Aviation (Part 2)

After Part 1 of RNAS Crail, we continue looking at the buildings that remain, along with the units that served from here. We also look at the wide range of aircraft and the airfield’s current status.

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.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

The Watch office remains rare and whilst in poor condition, a good example of Naval Air Station Watch Offices. The door on the bottom right is the fire tender door. The building to the left is the photographic block. Both these are listed buildings.

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.

785 Naval Air Squadron Swordfish Mk I during a training flight from RNAS Crail (© IWM A 3536)

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.

A Grumman Avenger of No 785 Naval Air Squadron at Crail Fleet Air Arm Station The torpedoes carried in the belly of the aircraft. The Avenger (Tarpon) was a huge success in the Pacific war, particularly in the hands of the US Navy. © IWM (A 18237)

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.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

Many buildings remain at Crail, a unique site, it is one of the biggest ‘preserved’ Naval Air Station example in the country.

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.

Sources and Further Reading

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,

RNAS Crail – The Mary Celeste of Aviation (Part 1).

On the eastern coast of Fife in Scotland, lies a remarkable airfield that has to be one of the most extraordinary Second World War airfields in the country. It is a change from the usual sites we look at, being neither RAF nor USAAF, but instead it is a Royal Naval Air Station.

Not only is this site remote, sitting just outside the small village of Crail, and accessible by 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.

As we head north again, this time close to the famous golf course at St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, Trail 53 visits the former Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at Crail, an airfield that looks like it was left the very day the last man walked out the door.

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.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

Crail’s Aircraft Repair Shop with its category ‘A’ listing dominates the skyline.

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.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

The Guard House, whilst listed (Cat B) is reflective of the condition of most buildings at Crail.

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.

Wren parachute packers at Royal Naval Air Station Crail. © IWM (A 6289)

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.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

The Gymnasium / Cinema at Crail is Category ‘B’ listed.

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.

A camera attached to the wing of Swordfish at Crail allowed examiners to calculate the success of hits against surface targets.(© IWM A 9413)

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.

In the next post we shall continue looking at RNAS Crail, and the huge number of squadrons that used it during its operational life. We shall look at the variety of aircraft that would operate from here, along with its post war history and its current status. It truly is the Mary Celeste of aviation.