Belfast Telegraph

Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines

The RAF's centenary celebrations touch down in Northern Ireland next week. Ernie Cromie looks at the contribution the province has made - in wartime and in peace - to that illustrious history

Next week, the RAF's centenary celebratory roadshow, the RAF100 Aircraft Tour, comes to Newcastle, Co Down (August 10-12). The centre-piece will be five full-scale replicas of iconic aircraft that have all played pivotal roles in the RAF's first 100 years. These include a Spitfire, Harrier and Typhoon, several of which will have open cockpits for visitors to enjoy a hands-on experience.

The event marks a big moment for the Royal Air Force. One hundred years after it was founded, it's an opportunity for the RAF to mark its role in serving and protecting the nation, but also to acknowledge the role people from Northern Ireland have played in supporting it.

Over the years, there has been a tradition of people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland volunteering to serve in the RAF - a tradition which still exists today.

Before the RAF was formed, in April 1918, its predecessors, the Royal Flying Corp and Royal Navy Air Service, had established several airbases in Ireland. Here, airships and aeroplanes had been carrying out offensive operations against U-boats and establishing training depots.

Moreover, a logistical role was emerging, focused upon Aldergrove, which was developed as an aircraft acceptance park to receive and test-fly hundreds of aircraft being constructed in Belfast by shipbuilders Harland & Wolff.

Growing political unrest in the run-up to partition resulted in an additional role, providing air support to the police and Army for internal security from a number of airfields, including Omagh.

That role would prove to be a recurring aspect of the RAF's presence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, in which helicopter operations made a novel, and vital, contribution.

On May 15, 1925, No 502 (Ulster) Squadron was formed at Aldergrove. It was the first of 21 squadrons of the Special Reserve and Auxiliary Air Force to be formed in the UK.

Initially a bombing squadron, it joined RAF Coastal Command in 1938, being awarded five battle honours in the war against enemy U-boats and shipping prior to disbandment in 1945.

Reformed in 1946, it became a fighter squadron before disbanding along with all the Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons in 1957 - 56 years before being re-embodied at Aldergrove as a non-flying, general squadron in the RAF Reserves.

During the 1930s, the RAF took on additional roles, centred on Aldergrove. In 1936, a Meteorological Flight was formed, followed by several that were created during the Second World War and eventually resulted in No 202 Squadron, which was disbanded in 1964.

In 1936, floating targets which had been set up on Lough Neagh to facilitate the training requirements of 502 Squadron were the nucleus upon which an extensive bombing and gunnery range was developed and administered by a succession of units based at Aldergrove, and used by numerous squadrons until 1959.

During the Second World War, there were 25 military airfields in Northern Ireland. RAF Aldergrove was a "maid of all work", accommodating fighter, general reconnaissance, transport, conversion training units and also No 23 Maintenance Unit.

All were used by the RAF for various purposes, but the most important were those used operationally by RAF Coastal Command - Aldergrove, Limavady, Castle Archdale, Nutts Corner and Ballykelly. These were critical to the successful outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic.

At least 25 U-boats were destroyed by aircraft operating from them, most by Ballykelly-based aircraft, notably the B-24 Liberator. Sunderland flying boats also played a significant role, operating from Lough Erne via an air corridor established by a secret agreement negotiated between the governments of the UK and neutral Eire.

Fermanagh became Northern Ireland's equivalent of Lincolnshire which, during the Second World War, became known as "bomber county" due to the number of RAF bomber bases opened there.

Lough Erne became home to air and ground crews from the RAF, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal New Zealand Airforce and the United States Navy, as maximum effort was made to ensure the UK was supplied with food, oil and weapons from the US. It also played a key role in ensuring that in the build up to D-Day, tens of thousands of troops got across the Atlantic in one piece. By the summer of 1942, one allied ship in four was being sunk and Churchill looked for a solution, upping Coastal Command's assets and brushing aside an initial survey which said Lough Erne was "too rough" for sea plane operations.

The Sunderlands and Catalinas there gave the RAF an extra 100 miles reach into the Atlantic, narrowing down the ability of the U-boats to attack at will. Tens of thousands of lives were saved, but it came at a high price. More than 300 RAF and Commonwealth aircrew were killed while operating from the Lough.

Recently, a new memorial to those killed was unveiled at Lough Erne Yacht Club, which sits on the old site of RAF Killadeas.

The most senior Northern Ireland Officer in the RAF, Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, was at the ceremony and paid tribute to the efforts made to keep the sea lanes open when he said: "The Battle of the Atlantic was a strategically important battle during World War Two and the bases we had here in Co Fermanagh were essential to ensuring all of the UK had food and supplies which, ultimately, helped us win the war.

"I've been really keen to be part of the RAF100 events in Northern Ireland. Just from here at Lough Erne more than 300 aircrew gave their lives as part of Coastal Command.

"We have a great many young people here today and I hope events like this will inspire them to think about both our history and the way the RAF keeps the skies around our islands safe today."

Following the end of the war in 1945, the number of RAF stations in Northern Ireland gradually declined. Ballykelly, which played an important role during the Cold War, closed in 1971. RAF Bishops Court, near Downpatrick, was both a diversionary airfield and a key point in the UK Air Defence Radar network, known as UKADGE. It was closed at the end of the Cold War when the threat from the Russians was believed to have declined.

On the other hand, Aldergrove continued to be a very active station and, in 1957, was awarded the Freedom of Belfast.

Throughout the Troubles, Aldergrove was home to round-the-clock helicopter flying as part of Operation Banner (1969-2007), concentrating on moving troops and RUC officers to border areas and providing reconnaissance support.

72 Squadron became a permanent fixture, flying Wessex helicopters, and was later joined by 230 Squadron, permanently based there flying the larger Pumas.

With the end of the Troubles, the station's days were numbered, due to defence spending cutbacks. In September 2009, the RAF Ensign was lowered for the last time and it became Joint Helicopter Command Flying Station Aldergrove. After this, the sole military aviation presence was the Army Air Corps.

All in all, the Army Air Corps, Royal Navy and their RAF counterparts have shared a significant chapter in the history of the airfield, as well as the history of Northern Ireland.

Ernie Cromie was chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society from 1982 to 2012

Belfast Telegraph

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