Library Reference Number: 218
Wartime Airfields in Dumfries and Galloway
On completing over thirty years service in the Royal Air Force, Squadron Leader Dennis Sawden has continued taking an active interest in aviation history. He is author of several publications and edited many others relating to members of aircrew and RAF Stations. In 1997 he originated a Visitors’ Guide to the Yorkshire Air Museum, where it is hoped improved accommodation for Aircrew Archives will be established. Retiring to his present home in Wigtownshire, it became evident that this area had been selected for many WW2 airfields. It also became clear that little had been done to record those events when Dumfries and Galloway had provided the RAF with urgently required training facilities and operational airfields.
Following consultation with author Tom Murchie, Dennis Sawden has now completed further research. Results of this project shown below should be of interest to those involved in aviation, national heritage and local history.
RAF ANNAN. RAF Annan was used from 1942 to 1944 as an operational training airfield for fighter aircraft, initially with Hawker Hurricanes. The purpose of the training was to give pilots experience of flying at low level over the Solway Firth on sorties which later became known as 'Rhubarbs', when conducted by Allied fighter aircraft over the English Channel, attacking enemy targets in France and the Low Countries in the period leading up to and after D-Day on 6 June 1944. Dummy attacks were also made on targets in the Isle of Man nearby. The airfield site later became Chapelcross nuclear power station, which is now in the process of being decommissioned.
RAF CASTLE KENNEDY. The grass strips here were first used by the Royal Flying Corps in August and September 1913. In June 1941, the RAF's Central Gunnery School moved to Castle Kennedy from Warmwell in Dorset. Here they operated Blenheims, Hampdens and Wellingtons and, in July that year, the unit was re-titled No 10 Air Gunnery School, for the training of Air Gunners, operating Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft, the only RAF single-engined aircraft with a power operated turret. However, problems were soon encountered as a result of heavy rainfall. Trainees living under canvas were moved to nearby Dunragit House and the airfield was closed for 4 months for the construction of two runways - as well as permanent accommodation for 1600 RAF and 280 WAAF personnel. The flying was done from RAF West Freugh nearby. Castle Kennedy re-opened in April 1942 when No 3 Air Gunnery School was formed there, with 46 Blackburn Bothas for gunnery training and 27 Fairey Battles for target towing, although the latter were soon replaced by Miles Martinets. Courses were eventually starting fortnightly, with up to 60 trainee air gunners on each course. Late in 1942, Avro Ansons replaced the Bothas and in 1943, Ansons were replaced by Vickers Wellingtons. Training slowed as the war ended in 1945 and the Air Gunnery School closed on 21 June 1945. The airfield was then used to store Wellington and Mosquito aircraft. The airfield closed in November 1946.
CREETOWN. Creetown private grass landing strip at Lennies Farm, Creetown, was used in 1930s by the Duchess of Bedford in her light aircraft when visiting the Stewart family at Cairnsmore House near Newton Stewart.
RAF DUMFRIES. In 1938, the old Arrol-Johnson motor car factory at Heathhall, Dumfries, was taken over by the Air Ministry and a huge airfield plus aircraft storage facilities were built on the site. In June 1940, it was first used by No 18 Maintenance Unit to receive new aircraft straight from factories: here they were tested, modified to RAF standards and made ready for war. By August 1940, there were reckoned to be at least 140 aircraft on the site, including Wellingtons, Beauforts, Hurricanes and Oxfords. During the course of the war, a total of over 4600 aircraft were handled here. In addition, No 10 Bombing & Gunnery School was set up here. This was renamed to No 10 Air Observer School in April 1942 and later the title changed to No 10 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit. In July 1945 this unit moved to RAF Chipping Norton. To-day, in 2011, the part of the old airfield site around the control tower is the home of the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum.
KIDSDALE. Grass strip adjacent to Burrowhead anti-aircraft artillery range near the Isle of Whithorn was used by No 1 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit from May 1939 until May 1942, operating radio-controlled Tiger Moth 'Queen Bee' aircraft, used as targets on the artillery range. In August 1942, No 651 AOP Squadron arrived with seven T aylorcraft aircraft, but shortly afterwards they were warned for service abroad and went overseas. Kidsdale was handed over to the Royal Engineers who used the site for work on the Mulberry Harbour project at Cairnhead and Garlieston.
RAF KIRKPATRICK. This airfield, between Annan and Gretna (also known as The Broats) was used as an Elementary Flying Training School, operating Miles Magister and Tiger Moth aircraft: it also specialised in night flying. RAF Kirkpatrick worked in close co-operation with another training station at Burnfoot, just across the border. Kirkpatrick closed in 1945.
RAF LOW ELDRIG. In December 1940, No 18 MU at Dumfries had a constant flow of new aircraft passing through, all being prepared for service, and needed additional storage space, so No 11 Satellite Landing Ground was opened at Low Eldrig, on the western shore of Luce Bay, a few miles north of Drummore and the Mull of Galloway. However, the airfield surfaces proved to have peaty patches, which were a hazard in wet weather, so it was possible to use only light aircraft in summer here. Further work was done to drain the site, resulting in up to 25 Battles and Blenheims being stored here, but they were flown out on 30 September 1942 and the site was not used again.
RAF STRANRAER. RAF Stranraer opened on 1 August 1940 as part of Coastal Command, but RAF flying boats had been using Loch Ryan as an 'advanced alighting area' for landings and take-offs since 1929. In December 1940, No 209 Squadron arrived from RAF Pembroke Dock with their twin-engined Saunders Roe Lerwick flying boats. RAF Stranraer continued to provide facilities for a variety of operational and training units with flying boats throughout the war years. The station closed on 15 February 1944. (see RAF Wig Bay).
RAF WEST FREUGH. The Air Ministry purchased 2700 acres of land here for £19,400 in August 1936: later, land at East Freugh was absorbed. In January 1937, No 4 Armament Practice Camp was set up here and operated until April 1939, with squadron detachments spending 4-6 weeks on bombing and gunnery training. A wide variety of aircraft used the Practice Camp. Two concrete runways of 1500 yards were built, as were 7 Bellman hangars, with 8 blister hangars added later. No 4 Air Observer School formed here on 17 April 1939, to give Observers training in bombing and gunnery on Heyfords. The unit title changed in June 1943 to No 4 (Observers) AFU, to train the newly-titled aircrew categories of Navigators and Bomb Aimers. This training continued on Ansons until 21 June 1945 when the unit was disbanded. It is estimated that over 2000 Observers, Navigators and Bomb Aimers were trained here. On a lighter note, an ex-airman who served here wrote a book about his experiences on the unit, the book title being 'RAF Wet Through', which tells its own story! After the war, the station operated as an armament experimental establishment, linked to RAE Farnborough, and making use of the Luce Bay bombing and gunnery range. As recently as the years 2000 onwards, Tornado and Harriers used the facilities, but the station is now on Care and Maintenance, although the airfield is still used occasionally for military exercises.
RAF WIG BAY. No 1 Flying Boat Servicing Unit was set up at RAF Wig Bay on 12 March 1942. The location has sheltered moorings by a sand spit close to the village of Kirkcolm, on the western shore of Loch Ryan. The opening of this unit took the pressure off RAF Stranraer and it wasn't long before No 11 Flying Boat Fitting Unit arrived in July 1943, undertaking major overhauls on Sunderland flying boats. Later that year, No 57 MU formed at Wig Bay, absorbing the two units there. In 1944, two hangars were built and the MU was kept busy converting American flying boats, notably Catalinas, for RAF use. By January 1945, the personnel strength of the unit was over 1000 and up to 170 aircraft of various sorts were held. RAF Wig Bay continued in operation after the war, in support of the RAF's Sunderland squadrons worldwide. But in 1948 the unit site was handed over to Short & Harland Ltd, who had been contracted by the RAF to maintain its fleet of Short Sunderlands. The last Sunderland flying boat to leave Wig Bay was purchased and collected by the RNZAF in June 1954. RAF Wig Bay closed in November 1955.
RAF WIGTOWN. Known locally as Baldoon, the station opened in August 1941 with the arrival of Westland Lysanders for target towing over the anti-aircraft artillery range at Burrowhead. Within a few days, No 1 Air Observers' School opened on the station, to become the major user, to acclimatise Observers trained abroad (under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan) to RAF procedures, the UK terrain and weather conditions in NW Europe. Aircraft types were initially Blenheims and Bothas, but in March 1942, the unit title changed to No 1 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit and their aircraft were replaced by mostly Ansons and a few Dominees. The school continued operating throughout the war (with up to 56 Ansons on strength). It disbanded on 12 November 1945. The Bomber Command Trials Unit with Lancasters operated here from June 1947 to May 1948. The station closed on 15 July 1948.
RAF WINTERSHEUGH. Opened originally in 1941 as a satellite landing-ground, it was also used for the storage of aircraft from maintenance units in Cumbria, as these could be hidden in woodland beside the runway. However, despite extensive drainage work, because of water-logging of the airfield surfaces, it could not be used by larger aircraft or during the winter, so it closed in April 1944.
1. Book: 'The RAF in Galloway' by A T (Tom) Murchie - ex-Aircrew Association.
First Edition (1992) ISBN: 1-872350-40-2.
Second Edition (2000) ISBN: 1-872350-18-6
2. Book: 'The Second World War in Dumfries & Galloway'.
D&G Museums Service ISBN: 0-953907-5-6