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

RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 2).

After Part 1 of ‘RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue’ we see how Boulmer developed during and after the Cold War. From a small decoy airfield, to a training facility for fighter pilots of 57 Operational Training Unit it then closed at the end of World War 2. Laying dormant for a while, flying would return, and Boulmer would become one of the most sophisticated RAF facilities anywhere in the United Kingdom.

RAF Boulmer

Boulmer’s modern watch office and hangar

After this, the RAF had no need to retain Boulmer, and so it was placed into care and maintenance. But then, in the early 1950s with the Cold War heating up, Boulmer was put back into action but not as an operational airfield flying front line aircraft, but as part of a sophisticated network of radar stations monitoring British airspace. To accommodate this new equipment, a new part to the of the airfield was opened up, located on both new land and former domestic sites to the north-west of the main airfield. This new construction took the name of the airfield but remains separate from its namesake, and well guarded from prying eyes.

During this time Boulmer would use  Linesman Passive Detection equipment, *1 to detect jamming targets in mass formations. An innovative design they were eventually removed as new and more modern equipment came into operation. In conjunction with this was the primary radar, the Marconi Type 84 and 85 search radars. These massive structures used  antenna reflectors measuring some 60 feet wide by 22 feet high, completing a full rotation four times every minute.

It was at this time, in the mid 1960s, that Boulmer the airfield, would once again see military flying take place. But by now the hard runways had been removed, and Boulmer’s gain had sadly been Acklington’s loss.

The closure of RAF Acklington meant that the Search and Rescue helicopters of 202 Sqn ‘A’ flight, would be moved into Boulmer to carry out Search and Rescue operations over the eastern regions of England and Scotland.  The Whirlwind HAR 10s of 202 Sqn were spread far and wide in a complex range of changes that saw them move as far a field as Coltishall, Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Manston and Port Stanley. These moves placed many stresses on the unit, and with the reduction in operational aircraft, Boulmer’s search area became much bigger.

A series of updates over the coming years meant several changes to the  various sites at Boulmer.  For a short period between 1968 and 1974, Boulmer Radar Station (Lesbury) was closed, as upgrading took place which saw ‘electronic’ warfare, and later a computerised interception control system, added. By the 1990s mobile radar was becoming more widely available and the giant Type 85 radar was dismantled and replaced by modern 3-D screening and automated tracking radar. Part of this network being housed on part of the former RAF Brunton.

In 1975 the robust Search and Rescue helicopters on the former airfield began being replaced by the successful Sea King HAR-3, an aircraft they operated for a further forty years in the Search & Rescue role. In 1978, the Sea King was withdrawn from some of these 202 Sqn operations and replaced themselves by the Wessex HAR 2, but three Sea King helicopters continued on at Boulmer, being the last aircraft to fly here under Military control. In conjunction with these changes, the main headquarters of 202 Sqn also moved into premises at RAF Boulmer, giving a new and extended lease of life to the former airfield.

In this new role Boulmer would regularly bear witness to accidents and fatalities. On Sunday 17th May 1987, an ex Boulmer airmen F/Sgt. Philip Scott crashed in an Steen Skybolt he had built himself at Boulmer. The aircraft ploughing into the ground killing  both F/Sgt. Scott and his passenger Cpl. Martin Leitner. It was suggested that a suitcase on board the aircraft had restricted control column movement leading to the crash.

In July 1989 an RAF Sea King from Boulmer was involved in a rescue mission to save two downed military airmen. A Tornado F3 of 23 Sqn RAF Leeming crashed into the sea 35 miles off Tynemouth, both airmen ejected, and whilst the navigator was saved, the pilot F/Lt. Stephen Moir was killed, trapped under his parachute in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Another RAF Leeming Tornado F3 (11 Sqn) got into difficulties later in 1994, the crew ejecting again but not before managing to transmit a distress call. This time both airmen were pulled from the water and taken to hospital with minor injuries, RAF Boulmer crews being on the spot within minutes.

A year later, 1995 saw another rescue mission by a Boulmer Sea King, when two Tornadoes collided 60 miles off the coast of Berwick-upon-Tweed. All four aircrew survived with two ejecting from one aircraft at the scene, whist the second (ZE773) was gingerly nursed back to RAF Leuchars. The aircraft landed without further incident even though it had no hydraulics or navigational aids.

In 2003 the Government put forward plans to close Boulmer, but protests from those opposed to the end of search and rescue operations led to a reprieve, and Boulmer would live a little longer.

Then during 2015, it was decided that the last six remaining UK RAF Search and Rescue bases – RAF Lossiemouth (202 Sn ‘D’ Flt.), DST Leconfield (202 Sqn ‘E’ Flt.), RAF Valley (22 Sqn ‘C’ Flt.), RAF Wattisham (22 Sqn ‘B’ Flt.), RAF Chivenor (22 Sqn ‘A’ Flt.) and RAF Boulmer’s ‘A’ Flight – would close, as Search and Rescue operations were finally privatised. Boulmer ceased operations on 30th September, with the last crews at RAF Chivenor being told to ‘Stand down’ a few days later on October 4th 2015, an event that ended seventy-four years of Search and Rescue history.

Since April 1st 1983 Search and Rescue units had answered 34,122 call-outs during which time 26,916 people have been rescued from both the sea and land*2.  Boulmer’s operations had now ended, raising a feeling of great sadness in the local community, a community who had regularly witnessed the S & R helicopters over their small village.

RAF Boulmer

Many of the private gardens around the airfield use shelters for storage.

During this time the Sea Kings had operated in some of the most treacherous of conditions and some of the most important events in recent history. This included rescue operations in the Lockerbie bombing, the collapsed North Sea oil rig ‘Alexander Kielland‘ and the Carlisle floods.

Boulmer’s name would not end there though, now forming the backbone of Britain’s Air Defence Network as the headquarters of the Air Surveillance and Control System Force (ASACS), it monitors the UK and NATO airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days year.  As part of a sophisticated network of mobile and fixed radar monitoring stations, it is linked to European based networks ready to intercept any threat or unidentified aircraft entering British Airspace. Boulmer remains the headquarters of this force with No.1 Air Control Centre currently at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, but due to return to Lossiemouth once Scampton has closed and refurbishment at Lossiemouth are complete. Together their information can lead to the dispatch of QRA Typhoons from RAF Coningsby or RAF Lossiemouth depending upon the direction and location of the threat.

Whilst the main airfield site is still owned and used by the RAF, there are currently no flying operations taking place. High tech training is the order of the day, Boulmer being home to the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management (SABM). This is a worldwide centre of excellence leading battlespace management training and education for not only the UK’s Armed Forces, but NATO and other foreign military personnel as well. A range of associated technical units also serve and train here, giving Boulmer one of the most sophisticated organisational groups in RAF service. There are currently some 1,000 Service, civilian and contracted personnel working at the site at any time.

RAF Boulmer

RAF Phantom guarding RAF Boulmer.

Whilst flying ceased some years ago, Boulmer’s aviation history has not been forgotten. The main gate at Boulmer continues today to be guarded by Phantom XV415 an FGR.2 which operated with eight RAF squadrons before its final retirement. Prior to this, Spitfire MKVb EP120 was in pride of place until 1967 when it was removed for use in the film ‘The Battle of Britain‘. Its replacement was another Spitfire F, Mk XVI TB252 which left in December 1969 for RAF Leuchars.

These Spitfires headed a succession of aircraft to guard Boulmer’s gate. In 1972 Lightning XP745 became guardian as  tribute to the close work carried out between the radar station and 11 Group’s fighters. The twenty-sixth MK.3 Lightning built, XP745 was formerly based at RAF Wattisham with 56 Sqn, it moved to Akrotiri and then back to Wattisham and 29 Sqn. The Lightning made its last flight on February 4th 1975 to Leconfield, where it remained for a number of years donating parts and being gradually stripped of its components. Eventually it was given to Boulmer and returned to guardian standard. The current gate guardian, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR.2 XV415 ‘E’, like its predecessor, also stands at Boulmer in the colours of No. 56 Sqn formerly of RAF Wattisham.

Even though Boulmer is no longer a flying RAF base, it is heavily guarded and its operations kept secret behind high fences. The main airfield site has itself gone, the runways all removed (a small patch remained at the time of visit in 2018) and little of the wartime airfield remains in public view.  The road approaching Boulmer gives you a choice, turning right takes you to the Radar centre an area patrolled by dog handlers and armed guards, this gives some indication of the seriousness taken inside the perimeter fence. Taking the left fork brings you to the main gate of the former airfield and Air Sea Rescue centre, and the location of the Phantom gate guard mentioned above. Behind here are the various training facilities, again guarded from prying eyes and unwanted visitors.

Carrying on past here, in a small coppice on the left, is a small collection of wartime buildings, very much left to the elements they are still mainly intact and possibly the best reminders of any wartime activity here at Boulmer.

Continue on from here along the coast road. This takes you to the eastern end of the former airfield, and in parts, along the original perimeter track used during Boulmer’s flying life. A caravan park sits on what was part of the airfield here, the only location where the remnants of the runway can still be found.

RAF Boulmer

What’s left of Boulmer’s runways are barely distinguishable beneath the stones.

Further along this road and you come to a bend, this is the threshold to the two main runways with their location still visible as scars on the earth disappearing into the distance. Distant views also allow sighting of the current hangar and watch office, but there is little to be gained here. The road then continues round and whilst the perimeter track carries on into the field, the road leaves here and passes away from the airfield site. The perimeter track at this point is now a mere single track hardly distinguishable as an airfield perimeter track.

RAF Boulmer

The scars of the two runways can still be seen in the fields of Boulmer.

Other than small buildings found in private gardens, little exists of this rather interesting site. Whilst its early wartime history is not earth shattering, it has however become one of the most important and key RAF sites in the UK today.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 For a detailed explanation of these radar systems and personal accounts of using them, visit Dick Barrett’s excellent website.

*2 MOD Memo dated 10 May 2016 in response to a freedom of information request.

Chronical Live website accessed September 29, 2015 “Farewell to the Sea Kings at RAF Boulmer as new era in search and rescue dawns

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.

80 Years Of A True Legend Of The Skies

March 5th 2016 marks an incredible 80 years since the first flight of the Supermarine Spitfire. The first prototype, K5054, designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, took off from Eastleigh Aerodrome on March 5th 1936 and while it may have looked a little rough around the edges it was unmistakably a Spit’ with its beautiful wing shape and […]

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