Although the Royal Air Force formed on 1 April 1918, there had been military air activity before this by the Royal Flying Corps of the British Army and the Royal Naval Air Service.Both of these formations had units operating from Scottish airfields during the First World War – particularly for Home Defence purposes. Airfields such as Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport), East Fortune and Drem in East Lothian and Renfrew to the west of Glasgow operated during the First World War but were sooner or later taken over by the RAF which was an amalgamation of the two existing air services. During the First World War, in 1916, Edinburgh was attacked by a German Zeppelin airship whose bombs caused minor damage.
Between the wars, the need for improved air defences to respond to attacks coming from the east (particularly Germany) saw a huge expansion in the construction of airfields all over the United Kingdom and in Scotland. As well as increasing the number of airfields across the UK, a reservist organisation, similar to the Territorial Army, was established to complement the regulars of the RAF. This was the Auxiliary Air Force (post-war to become the Royal Auxiliary Air Force) with three squadrons in Scotland – 602 (City of Glasgow), 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 612 (County of Aberdeen). The aim, which was achieved, was that these reserve squadrons would be trained up to the same standard as regular RAF squadrons and, if war came, would fight alongside them as equals.
602 was the first of all the Auxiliary squadrons to form in 1925 with 603 forming shortly after it. Both were initially bomber squadrons but shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War they became fighter squadrons. Auxiliary squadrons were based on centres of population so that their members were all from the same locality and formed strong spirits of comradeship – particularly amongst the ground crews who remained together during the war whilst the aircrew changed frequently because of casualties and the postings of experienced leaders to other units. Officers of the Scottish Auxiliary squadrons were granted the right to wear the kilt (Grey Douglas tartan) with mess kit and this is a practice that continues to the present day.
But during this period, the regular RAF operated from Scottish airfields built, amongst other reasons to provide protection to the major naval bases at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow in Orkney as well as all the other lesser bases up and down the coasts.
In the afternoon of 16 October 1939, German aircraft made the first major air attack of the war against Britain when 12 Junkers Ju88s in four waves attempted to attack ships of the Royal Navy anchored in the Firth of Forth just to the east of the iconic rail bridge. They caused some damage and casualties to the ships but the attacks were intercepted by aircraft of 602 and 603 Squadrons by now flying Spitfires (the cutting edge aeroplane of the time) and two were brought down into the Firth – one off Prestonpans, the other off Crail in Fife – with both squadrons claiming one each. There has been some controversy as to which was brought down first, but the real point is that these first German aircraft to be brought down in British airspace were intercepted by Auxiliary airmen flying the most technologically advanced aircraft of the time.
Scotland was strategically important during the Second World War because of the need to prevent German ships slipping through the gaps between Greenland/Iceland/Faroes both by the actions of the maritime patrol and attack aircraft of Coastal Command and the even more critical need to protect the major Royal Navy bases north of the border which was the responsibility of Fighter Command (or Air Defence of Great Britain as it was sometimes named).
During the Second World War, Britain depended for its survival on the Atlantic convoys to and from Canada and the USA which came under serious and significant attacks from German submarines (U-boats). Also, Britain supplied aid to the Soviet Union via the Arctic convoys sailing round the North Cape of Norway to Murmansk. Coastal Command squadrons based in Scotland at places such as Oban in Argyll and Sullom Voe in Shetland flew long and dangerous patrols over the Atlantic Ocean to protect the convoys. Mainly tedious and boring but with brief, sharp confrontations with the U-boats which often resulted in their sinking, the Scottish based Sunderlands, Catalinas and all the other aircraft contributed hugely to keeping open the lifelines and helping Britain withstand the rigours of the war.
Airfields located in the north east of Scotland such as Kinloss, Lossiemouth and Banff provided springboards for attacks on German shipping in the North Sea and on the Norwegian mainland. Indeed, Lancasters of 617 Squadron, the famous ‘Dambusters’ took off from Lossiemouth to bomb the German battleship Tirpitz lying in a Norwegian fjord although the initial attack had to be aborted with the British aircraft flying on to a Russian airfield. The Coastal Command ‘Banff Strike Wing’ based at Boyndie flying Beaufighters and Mosquitoes took a heavy toll of enemy shipping running the gauntlet of the RAF up and down the Norwegian coast.
Of course, the service of many Scots – both men and women – who served in the RAF and the WAAF during the war both at home and abroad should not be forgotten.
By the time the Second World War ended, there were over 60 airfields (of both the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm) in Scotland although not all were operational stations, with some used for training purposes. From Sumburgh in Shetland to Wigtown in Galloway, Castletown in Caithness to Charterhall in Berwickshire, most towns and villages were not far from an airfield. Many were quickly closed following the end of the war as the threat changed with the advent of the Cold War and the range and technology of the aircraft themselves (both the enemy and the RAF) improved. As well as early warning radar stations at Buchan (Peterhead) and Saxa Vord on the northernmost tip of Shetland, the main bases left were Leuchars near St Andrews as a fighter station (Lightnings, Phantoms, Tornados and now Typhoons), Kinloss near Elgin which operated maritime patrol aircraft (Nimrods) and Lossiemouth which was a Fleet Air Arm base until taken over by the RAF. With the most recent round of defence cuts the only remaining base is set to be Lossiemouth long since returned to the RAF.
For many years, the main threat from enemy aircraft came from the east, but when the Soviets introduced the Tupolev Tu22 ‘Backfire’ strategic bomber, its increased range meant that attacks could come in from the Atlantic as well and this resulted in the upgrading of airfields on the west coast – including Stornoway airport – to be able to handle military aircraft.
Although for many the Cold War was a period of peace, with the United Kingdom an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), for the radar stations, the maritime patrol aircraft and the fighter aircraft based at Leuchars, it was a period of intense and real operational activity. Soviet bloc ships and aircraft constantly approached British waters and airspace and had to be tracked, intercepted and not allowed to carry out any aggressive acts. Often, Soviet Tupolev Tu95 ‘Bear’ aircraft would approach the Scottish coast from their bases near Murmansk and other places and be intercepted by Lightnings and later Phantoms, Tornadoes and today Typhoons. At its height, these interceptions were being made several times a week with the RAF pilots reporting that sometimes the Soviet crewmen would wave to them, on others train their guns on the RAF fighters.
The Shackletons and Nimrods from Kinloss and Lossiemouth tracked Soviet warships and submarines on their passages to and from bases in the Barents Sea and monitored Soviet fleet exercises.
Scotland was in the front line. If a nuclear war had broken out, there can be little doubt that the radar stations and the operational airfields at KInloss, Lossiemouth, Leuchars, Machrihanish and the like would have been targets for Soviet atomic weapons early on with the unthinkable consequences for the communities living nearby who would been, to use that dreadful term, ‘collateral damage’.
For the Auxiliaries, their squadrons were disbanded in 1957 but they continued to work closely with their regular RAF colleagues in new roles. 2 Maritime Headquarters Unit (2 MHU) worked with the maritime forces from its base in Edinburgh and at Pitreavie Castle near Dunfermline until the end of the Cold War.
During this period, RAF airfields in Scotland hosted regular joint exercises with the forces of its NATO partners. Much of this involved low flying through the Highland glens and valleys which, on the one hand drew complaints from some of the residents and farmers but on the other, gave aircraft enthusiasts dramatic views of many different kinds of aircraft cresting ridges and scraping valley bottoms. Jaguars, Phantoms, F-14s, F-16s, Harriers, A-10 Thunderbolts, even an occasional Vulcan bomber and C-130 Hercules transport. It wasn’t unusual for hillwalkers half way up a Munro to find themselves looking down on a pair of Jaguars following the contours below them.
Up to date
With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the threat faced by Britain and NATO changed and the new assessment has, in turn, changed the operations of the RAF in the world and in Scotland. Aircraft from Scottish bases have taken part in the recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the Auxiliary units too have been involved with many being called up for active service.
As a general philosophy, current defence strategy is to reduce the size of the regular forces whilst increasing the size of the reserves. For the RAF in Scotland, this will mean that there will be only one airfield, at Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth but countered by increases in the money spent on the Auxiliary units and the demands placed on them.
For those who can recognise them, when travelling around Scotland (and indeed the UK), old, derelict and disused RAF airfields are everywhere, a reminder of the service given by past veterans to preserve our way of life.
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For those interested to read further, Chapter 17 ‘Air Wars’ of the book ‘Phantom F-4’ by Robert Prest includes a particularly vivid account of a low level exercise through the Highlands.