WARTIME HISTORY OF RAF STORNOWAY 1941 - 45

RAF Stornoway crest

BEFORE RAF STORNOWAY

Although Royal Air Force Station Stornoway only officially existed between 1941 and just after the end of World War II (until reinstated in the 1960s), the RAF association with Stornoway goes back to 21st May 1928. On this date a Southampton flying boat, [believed to be from 480(Coastal Reconnaissance) Flight, based at RAF Calshot*], touched down in Stornoway harbour. This was followed by several other visits over the years by service flying boats as, at the time, there was no landing ground for wheeled aircraft on the island.

*(Information kindly supplied by Mr. D. Smith)

The first flight to land on the island itself was undertaken by the aviation pioneer Capt. E. E. Fresson, on 8th March 1934, utilizing the golf links at Melbost, just outside Stornoway and near the present day site of Stornoway Airport. Proper grass runways were only completed on the site in August 1939, with the intention of opening regular commercial flights to Inverness. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939 put a halt to true commercial flights but Scottish Airways, formed by Fresson and others to operate to the islands, were used by the Air Ministry during the war to fly communication flights to Stornoway.

THE WAR YEARS

With the outbreak of war and sightings of U-boats in the Minches (the strip of water separating the Isle of Lewis and Harris from the mainland) during early 1940, a detachment of 612 Squadron, based at Dyce airfield outside Aberdeen, and consisting of Avro Anson aircraft of 'B' Flt., were stationed at Stornoway from June 1940. The airfield still had grass runways and no real infrastructure to support intensive flying operations. The Golf Clubhouse was used as Flight Headquarters and Officer's Mess. Officers were accommodated in the County Hotel in town, with other ranks billeted in a few hastily erected Nissen huts or lodgings locally.

The Avro Anson was a general duties reconnaissance aircraft which had entered service in 1936 and, by 1940, was not best suited to long arduous over water patrols hunting submarines in all weathers. But, with precious few other assets at its disposal, RAF Coastal Command had to make the best of what it had. In many cases, it was the crews who made the difference. Flt. Lt. Grocett of 612 Sqn. remembers the hospitality of the island people and related an amusing incident during the squadron's stay. It illustrates the comparative peace and quiet enjoyed on the islands at the time, compared with other parts of the country under almost constant air attack. Returning from a patrol, Grocett's air-gunner fired his gun at a flock of ducks in the South Lochs area. On landing at Stornoway airfield, he found everything on high alert as the firing had been heard and taken to be enemy aircraft attacking the island!
Representation of an Avro Anson of 612 Sqn. as operated out of RAF Stornoway

Although 612 Sqn. did encounter U-boats on several occasions, no sinkings were recorded and the squadron left Stornoway in December 1940. Also present on the island, from late 1940 to mid-1941, and based at Stornoway harbour, were 701 Sqn. Fleet Air Arm (FAA), who flew Walrus bi-plane flying boats. These were used on anit-submarine and air-sea rescue duties.

48 Sqn. replaced 612 Sqn. in December 1940, also flying Ansons. It's C/O, Wg. Cdr. C. Broughton, assumed command of the airfield. Nothing much had changed, with grass runways and the Clubhouse still in use. Charles Broughton remembers two incidents of 48 Sqn's stay. The first involved one of the squadron pilots who, after returning from a patrol on a Sunday, was making his way to Station HQ, via a path which was a public right of way. He encountered an elderly lady who proceeded to hit him about the head with her umbrella for daring to fly on the Sabbath! The other incident also occurred on a Sunday, when dockers at Stornoway Harbour refused to work on the Sabbath to unload a consignment of aviation fuel. As it was vital for the squadron to receive the fuel immediately, the RAF personnel ended-up unloading the cargo themselves.

(Wg. Cdr. Broughton's memories reproduced by kind permission of Norman MacLean)

ENTER THE GERMANS

At the end of 1940, a brief attack was undertaken by a German aircraft on the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Not long after mid-day on 16th November 1940, a Focke-Wulf FW200C Condor aircraft of 1 Gruppe Kampfgeschwade 40, operating from Bordeaux-Merignac in France, strafed the lighthouse during its return from an anti-shipping patrol over the Atlantic. Little damage was caused apart from a few broken windows.

Early in 1941, the Germans carried out regular high flying reconnaissance flights over the Stornoway area, taking photograghs of the island, as evidenced by photos found by branch member Reg Brown in Germany at the end of the war. He came across rows of filing cabinets containing thousands of aerial photos of nearly every part of the U.K., all arranged in alphabetical order in typical German thoroughness. He managed to 'liberate' the photos showing Stornoway harbour and town and also the airfield. So regular were these German visits, that a plan was put in place to bring a Spitfire across from the mainland to try and intercept this intruder. The Spitfire arrived and sat fully armed and fuelled, awaiting its German prey. Lo and behold, the German failed to appear while the Spitfire was present and, it was only when the fighter had returned to the mainland, that the high flying German returned! Was this a coincidence or was there a spy at work?

On 22nd June 1941, a German aircraft dropped a number of bombs near Arnol on the west coast of the island, the only known time bombs were dropped. No casualties or material damage were caused. On investigation, it was found that some of the bombs had failed to explode, due to the soft peat soil. When the bomb disposal team, of which Reg Brown was a member, tried to dig the bombs out for de-fusing, they merely sank deeper into the peat, so it was decided to re-bury them.

STORNOWAY EXPANDS

With the Avro Anson being less than ideal for the task, it was replaced by the American built Lockheed Hudson aircraft, as more of this type were being shipped from the States. These aircraft, being heavier and carrying a larger fuel and bomb load, required tarmac runways to operate from. With the airfield being officially designated an RAF Station on 1st April 1941, the new runways were laid during the first half of the year. It was probably because of the disruption that this caused that, between March and May, 827 Sqn. FAA were attached to the airfield, as their Fairey Albacore bi-plane aircraft (similar to the famous Swordfish), required little take-off and landing space.

During the construction of the runways at Stornoway, 48 Sqn. had been re-equipping with Hudsons and, on 7th August 1941, undertook the first sorties from the new runways. At the same time as the runway construction, the technical and domestic accommodation on the airfield was greatly expanded. Between mid-1941 and mid-1942, all personnel were housed on the airfield, ten hangars were erected, an underground Battle Headquarters constructed for use if the airfield came under attack, a bomb dump built and finally, a pigeon loft with pigeon keeper established.
Representation of a Lockheed Hudson of 48 Sqn. operated out of RAF Stornoway

HERE COME THE YANKS

By mid-July 1942, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had requested the use of Stornoway airfield to support the increasing number of American aircraft crossing the Atlantic for use by the British and themselves. With the added influx of American personnel, the airfield was in a state of steady growth over the next 3 years. More equipment was added to support this Atlantic ferry route, as well as an increase in RAF activity.

48 Sqn. had moved out in October 1941 to be replaced by 500 Sqn. between May and August 1942, also operating Hudsons. Then, in September, they were in turn replaced by 58 Sqn. equipped with Whitley twin-engined bombers. Mid-1942 also saw the start of the regular USAAF ferry flights, with a varied assortment of aircraft types passing through.
Representation of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley of 58 Sqn. operated out of RAF Stornoway

Operational sorties also continued by the RAF, in their constant battle with the U-boat menace. This resulted in several U-boat sinkings but unfortunately also several aircraft being lost to either enemy action or other causes. These losses suffered over the war years are now commemorated by the RAF Stornoway Memorial, sited opposite the gates of the present day Stornoway Airport and the Book of Remembrance held in Martin's Memorial Church, Stornoway. A list of those casualties also appears on the 'War Dead'

page of this website.. In January 1943, with the departure of 58 Sqn., 303 Ferry Training Unit, flying Wellingtons, were stationed at Stornoway, but remained for only 3 months, departing again in March.

By June 1943, over 100 USAAF personnel had joined those of the RAF at Stornoway. Kramer Norris served with the USAAF at Stornoway and recalls, 'We helped man a wireless direction finding unit at Stornoway with the RAF fellows. The call-sign allocated us was PIGSTY. We had quite an argument with them about the name but they won and the name stayed'. The call-sign for the tower was BREADCRUST.

THE HALIFAX ERA BEGINS

From July to August 1943, 518 Sqn. with Halifax aircraft occupied Stornoway. These aircraft were engaged on meterological flights, forcasting the prevailing westerly weather for use in the bomber offensive over Germany. On 1st November 1943, control of RAF Stornoway passed from Coastal Command to Transport Command. Then, in December, the main runways were extended again to accommodate larger B-17 and B-24 aircraft. As part of this expansion, Sandwick Hill to the west of the airfield was removed, as it presented a hazard to aircraft landing from the west. Today, Sandwick Hill remains in name only!. Also around this time, a Fighter Sector Control Centre was constructed underground where the present day Mossend Industrial site is. The inside of this building would have been familiar to anyone who has seen a film about the Battle of Britain, with a plotting table and information boards on the wall.

By February 1944, the combined strength at Stornoway numbered 832. On 10th August 1944, Stornoway was again assigned to Coastal Command.

In September, 58 Sqn. returned to Stornoway, this time with Halifax bombers, and were accompanied by 502 Sqn., also with Halifaxes. These two squadrons were to remain here until the end of the war. Both squadrons operated from Stornoway on anti-shipping sorties to the Norwegian and Danish coasts, attacking German shipping, initially in daylight and later at night. With this increase in personnel, the station strength reached over 2000 in October 1944.

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Representation of 502 Sqn. Halifax operated out of RAF Stornoway

Stornoway was a busy airfield by 1944, with two operational squadrons, numerous ferry flights and other miscellaneous movements. One incident reported on 12th Nov. 1944 was, a B-24 Liberator of 311(Czech.) Sqn. from Tain, made an emergency wheels-up belly landing after its flight engineer misread the pilots notes and shut down the engine which drove the hydraulic pump for the undercarriage. The whole crew was sent on an English language course!

Another incident around this time occured on 13th Jan. 1945. A Halifax of 58 Sqn. had just taken-off and, as the undercarriage was being raised, the aircraft lost power and sank back onto the runway, luckily with no injuries to the crew. The aircraft was scrapped and Mr. Mackenzie of Grimshader bought the rear fuselage section for use as a hen shed. In 1984, this section of aircraft was given to the Yorkshire Aviation Museum to help in the rebuilding of a Halifax they were restoring. A similar section was also donated to a Halifax restoration project undertaken in Canada.

Meanwhile, back at RAF Stornoway, a new stage had been built in the WAAF Dining Hall and, on 9th Feb. 1945, saw the first performance of 'Northern Lights', a variety show performed by station personnel. The show ran for 3 nights and was also performed in the Town Hall for the public of Stornoway.

Back with the two operational squadrons, successes and losses were mounting. Although attacks were now being carried out under cover of darkness, it also meant that attacks had to be pressed home to be effective. One incident was probably one of the most remarkable of the war. Halifax PN425 of 58 Sqn. took-off on 9th April 1945. On reaching their patrol area, a parachute flare was released but got trapped in the bomb bay and exploded. The explosion blew-off the radar blister under the aircraft, leaving a large hole. The mid-upper gunner, Flt. Sgt. John F. Smith, was detailed to investigate the damage. He fell through the hole but miraculously, part of his harness caught on the aircraft and he was left hanging face down outside the fuselage. When other crew members went to locate him, they assumed he had fallen through the hole and perished. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Carnaby, near Bridlington and upon inspection, Flt. Sgt. Smith was found semi-conscious hanging from the aircraft. He had spent 3 hours outside the aircraft at 3000 ft. at a speed of 150 m.p.h. He eventually made a full recovery and survived the war.

By May 1945, station strength stood at 2004 and, on 8th May, a large party was held to celebrate the end of the war in Europe. Shortly afterwards on 25th May, it was announced that 58 and 502 Sqn's would disband. Also during May a group of local youths, aged between 10 and 18, managed to 'liberate' 111 hand grenades, 753 detonators, 8 electrial detonators and 24 burster bombs from the RAF store. Most of the munitions were recovered, but not before a few 'experimental' explosions took place! Luckily, no one was injured.

AT WARS END

With the end of the war, the tempo of operations declined but Stornoway still retained an important role for the masses of US aircraft re-crossing the Atlantic on their way home. This is a role that Stornoway still serves today, as an important waypoint for commercial trans-Atlantic air traffic, by way of the radar site at Maybury, just outside Stornoway Airport. The runways built during the war remained in use post war, after the RAF and USAAF moved out, for the growing commercial air traffic serving the islands and Stornoway became a staging post for smaller aircraft attempting the trans-Atlantic crossing.

SHOWN BELOW ARE THE VARIOUS RAF CRESTS ASSOCIATED WITH RAF STORNOWAY DURING WARTIME SERVICE

(Kindly submitted by Norman MacLean)
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