Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Machrihanish airbase to be sold

Thousands of conspiracy theorists will be reading news of the sale of the former RAF, NATO, Cold War, MoD airbase, and by dismayed that one of their favourite sites – which they christened “Scotland’s Area 51” – is to be sold.

We look forward to their theories as to how the British, and Americans who they must be in cahoots with, will sneak out all the black secrets from the area without being seen, and how all the flying saucers and Top Secret, non-existent, craft that use the area are going to continue without this essential European staging post.

Then there’s the question of the “City Beneath the Runway”. Surely all the resources and peoples living and working down there are not just going to be abandoned. Or will there be another Mary King’s Close event, and the underground city will just be sealed off and forgotten, together with its occupants. This would, of course, conveniently eliminate anyone that might later run to the papers and sell their story and the secret.

(Your scribe used to work with US technical support staff who had been posted to NATO Machrihanish over twenty years ago, and the stories made for great laughter over a pint).

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

The MoD has given an undertaking to consult with the local community prior to completion of the sale, which will see twenty jobs lost, and Argyll and Bute MP Alan Reid has warned the base should not simply be sold to the highest bidder.

At the forefront of concerns is the future of Campbeltown Airport, which uses the western section of the of the former airbase for its operations, however the MoD has already stated that this operation is not threatened by their plans.

Those who will lose their jobs are currently employed as facilities management staff and security guards, however the MoD has said there may be opportunities for them to provide services to the existing tenants, or transfer their positions to the new owners. Campbeltown Airport operates from a section of the site which is leased for the purpose by Highlands and Islands Airports.

They couldn’t put the airfield at risk now, not with the luxurious developments and Machrihanish Dunes golf course moving towards completion, which are sure to depend on it to bring in wealthy visitors.

The airfield has a long military history, and can trace its roots back to World War I, when a small aerodrome with grass runways was established there to provide facilities for non-rigid airships (blimps) and fixed wing aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service.

With the end of World War I in 1918, the military left the area, and the aerodrome became established as a civilian operation, serving the growing number of private and pleasure flyers, created from the ranks of those who had been trained to fly during the war, and were redundant as it ended. By the early 1930s, Midland & Scottish Air Ferries Ltd began to operate scheduled, commercial flights from the airfield, which had become known under a variety of names, including Campbeltown Aerodrome, which is simply the obsolete language form of Campbeltown Airport.

World War II

The outbreak of World War II saw the Royal Navy return to the area, requisitioning the original airfield and the area to its north. Sunley’s (an English construction company) began construction of the new airfield to the north of the existing site, on an area of flat land known as The Laggan. On completion, the new airfield opened as Strabane Naval Air Station, and named HMS Landrail on June 15, 1941, becoming RNAS Machrihanish on Monday, June 23, 1941. The old Strath airfield became HMS Landrail II, and continued to operate as a satellite of the new airfield.

The airfield was reactivated during the Korean War (1950 – 1953), and became operational from December 1, 1951 to December 1, 1952. During this period, squadrons used the area’s training facilities to practice their operations prior to embarking on HMS Indomitable in May, 1952. By 1953, the airfield had again been abandoned.

During the 1950s, tensions relating to the Cold War steadily grew in intensity, and this led to the next, and largest, development at Machrihanish.
The base was also home to a US Navy SEAL (SEa, Air, Land) Commando Unit, a twenty person team known as a Naval Special Warfare Detachment. The unit was located at the western end of the runway, together with the buildings and silos of the Weapons Facility. Three such units have been identified: Navy Special Warfare Unit One, Subic Bay, Philippines; Navy Special Warfare Unit Two, Machrihanish, United Kingdom; Navy Special Warfare Unit Three, Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

The need to maintain the base and facilities at Machrihanish gradually diminished during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Cold War effectively ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

After the Cold War

Operational activity at Machrihanish decreased rapidly in the early 1990s, and on June 30, 1995, the US Navy officially handed control of the base back to the MoD, which is now responsible for the site. Retained on a care and maintenance basis, the airfield could be reverted to military use in times of conflict or national emergency.

Update

On May 26, 2012, the BBC carried news of the sale of the site of the former base, for £1.

The land was bought by a local community group, a company owned and controlled by local people. Their intention is to use the site to reinvigorate the local economy near Campbeltown.

The Machrihanish Airbase Community Company wants to attract businesses to the areas and create jobs.

The site covers some 1,000 acre, and includes Campbeltown Airport and an often troubled factory involved in wind turbine manufacturing. The report by BBC Scotland suggests that both have signed long leases and are unaffected by this deal.

Former RAF Machrihanish bought for £1

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October 7, 2008 - Posted by | Aviation, Cold War, Naval, World War I, World War II | , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. Ough-Zone (John Ough): Search results for machrihanish

    Macash:

    The war in Europe was over. But we knew our war was not. We had always known that we were destined to join the British Pacific Fleet for the final assault on Japan. That was why the lectures we had on escape and capture-evasion techniques were always given by aircrew survivors from the jungles of Burma and Malaya. So though we joined wholeheartedly in the VE celebrations, we still carried out our training exercises very seriously.

    And then a really unexpected turn of events took place. It was normal at the stage of training we had then reached to be sent to an Operational Training Unit to learn to fly a real warplane. But the Admiralty had decided to experiment and send a number of pilots directly to an operational squadron in the process of being regrouped, and see how they fared when coached by the more experienced senior squadron members, the old hands. It was an on-the-job training scheme for fighter pilots. And I and several of the fellows I had been training with, for the past year and a half, were the chosen ones.

    We were sent to Machrihanish Royal Naval Air Station at the tip of the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland, there to join No 805 Seafire Squadron, which at that time was being reformed after several years of active service.

    So this time I had really made it. I was now a fighter pilot and actually a member, though a very junior one, of a real fighter squadron. It was Biggles-move-over time. I was about to fly an aeroplane equipped with two 20mm cannon and four machine guns. The world was about to witness the start of a new era in wartime aviation history.

    But the expected auspicious start was a bit delayed. For when we arrived at Machrihanish and reported to the squadron, we found the commanding officer, Lt.-Commander P.J. Hutton, DSO, and his dozen or so senior pilots had offices, hangars, flight room and a fully-equipped ground crew. We all had a locker in which to keep our parachute, Mae West, helmet, goggles, oxygen mask, flying boots and other bits of clothing. And outside on the tarmac there also was a flight line-but it was absolutely empty. The squadron had everything-except aeroplanes. We had wings but could not fly. We were penguins.

    After a day or two the boss said he would arrange to borrow a Miles Martinet advanced trainer from the RAF across the water at Stranraer. Then at least we could all practise making high speed landings. Luckily this was never needed because three Seafire III fighters flew in from somewhere and then, a day later, a few more and then a few more. There weren’t any proper pilot’s notes for the aircraft, so the senior chaps wrote down from memory on odd bits of paper the usual speeds, temperatures, boost settings and other operational details we needed to know about the aircraft. They also had to explain to us how to get the wheels and flaps up and down, how to trim the aeroplane and things to look out for. Then with the senior pilot standing out at the end of the runway with a radio microphone in his hand to help talk us down, we neophytes took turns in taking up a Seafire for the first time. Alone, of course. It had to be alone. There was only the one small cockpit.
    It was marvellous, even more so than that very first solo of a year ago. The powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the ultra smoothness, the amazing shortness of the wings, the delicacy of the controls, the effortless way it flew-it was poetry in motion. And not in the trite way that phrase is so often used-I mean exquisite poetry in flawless motion.

    In the next few weeks, we flew most every day and the Seafire continued to delight us with its attributes. We were taken with how we could take off using but a fraction of the engine power. On the day that several of us were testing that theory, we didn’t know that the Rolls-Royce representative was visiting the squadron and observing our takeoffs. He nearly blew a gasket at the sight. Later that day, he gave us a lecture. He told us we should use maximum power at all times to get off the ground and for the initial climb. This would keep the engine clean and in good shape. He explained how at the factory they would take an engine from the assembly line, strap it down and run it at full bore for days on end to test its durability. So of course we did as he said and were amazed at the steep angle of climb we could make.

    In the beginning we were a large squadron of thirty five pilots. In the flight room, as we waited for a senior pilot to order us into the air either alone or to take part in an exercise with others, we had an excellent camaraderie and social life. We had all been issued with a comfy navy-blue battle dress and most of us affected white or black silk scarves. These were partly ornamental and partly protective owing to the landing style we used. RAF pilots were wont to throttle back and come in at a fairly rapid clip with their Spitfire’s noses well down, so that they could clearly see down the length of the runway before they flared out and settled down. We on the other hand, in anticipation of future landings on aircraft carriers, were told to make slow, curving approaches to the end of the runway so that we could look out to port and keep the landing area in view up until the last moment when we had to straighten out to preserve the undercarriage. This meant using lots of engine power and coming in on a pronounced nose up attitude.

    With the engine set on full rich petrol mixture and in fully fine pitch ready for emergency manoeuvres, constant throttle changes were often needed to crab the aircraft through the air in this unnatural fashion. Each movement of the throttle meant extra amounts of petrol being squirted into the engine and much of the very rich mixture would ignite in the exhaust system and come out aflame, or at least very hot from the bank of exhaust ports immediately ahead of where the pilot’s head poked out of the cockpit as he peered down towards the touchdown point.

    The helmet, goggles and oxygen face mask protected most of the pilot’s face, but the throat and neck area were mostly bare. Hence the use of a scarf. Anyway, it was a good excuse to be a little flamboyant.

    In the next few weeks, we ranged around the southwestern Scottish highlands and islands. We practised dogfighting, formation flying, radar homings, and many other exercises designed to increase our familiarity with the capabilities of and our handling of the Seafire.

    For air-to-air shooting practice, the obliging RAF would send over a Miles Martinet which pulled a drogue back and forth over the Firth of Clyde. So we learned to make a curve of pursuit and fire our guns. Each pilot’s bullet tips were dipped in differently coloured printers ink so that each individual’s hits on the canvas drogue could be counted at the end of the day, compared with the number of rounds fired, and a batting percentage calculated. This percentage went sky-high when we switched on the gyro gunsight – a formidable piece of equipment dangerously positioned just ahead of the pilot’s head. It had a little circular switch with a pointer that could be positioned to the Me109, 110, Ju88, He111 or other various enemy aircraft positions. Of course it should have been marked in Japanese aircraft types for our purposes. That gunsight was a primitive Heads-Up-Display, consisting of illuminated centre-sight crosshairs and also a dashed circle, the diameter-size of which could be constantly enlarged, or decreased, by twisting the throttle grip in the manner of a motorbike’s. The idea was to keep the circle of dashes, which seemingly floated in space, just encompassing the extremities of the target by flying one’s aircraft so as to keep that target in the ring. It was all rather high-tech for the time. Like all gyro flight instruments, it toppled during violent movements. One of our number had its outline imprinted into his forehead when he made an extra-heavy ADDLE landing.

    Our Seafire IIIs were naturally much faster than the Martinet. But sometimes the RAF would send over a de Havilland Mosquito instead and at times its pilot would wait until we were just closing in to the thirty-degree-angle of pursuit and then suddenly open up to full power and leave our somewhat aged Seafires far behind in frustration. But then in just a period of a few days, a bevy of those wonderful and amazingly versatile women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary ferried up to the squadron a full number of brand new Seafire XVs from the factory down south.

    Among other modifications, these new aircraft had a retractable tail wheel and the more powerful Rolls-Royce Griffin engine which, for some reason I have never found out, turned the propeller the opposite way to most every other engine. They were so much faster than the older model that the first time I met the Mosquito playing his tricks, I had no trouble catching up and completing the mock attack.

    Within a few days, to a large extent, every pilot had pretty well taken over one particular Seafire XV to his own use. This meant that a petty officer pilot could go out on the tarmac with his ground crew and wash the aircraft down with a secret cleansing mixture, and when it was dry, burnish the wing and fuselage surfaces with Mansion House Furniture Polish. This immediately increased performance by about ten knots. Having the Griffin propeller go round the other way meant that all rudder movements were transposed to match the strong torque, which was now reversed. It took a day or two to get used to this variance, especially on take-off and landing. One thing that was common to all British aeroplanes was that the six main flight instruments were placed in a standard central instrument cluster. This extremely practical and common-sensical practice meant that when flying anything from a Tiger Moth to a Lancaster bomber, if suddenly immersed in thick cloud or fog the pilot’s eyes immediately found the most vital instruments in their familiar positions.

    On one occasion several of us had heartfelt cause to be thankful for our past intense instrument training. That continuous refrain of needle, ball and airspeed from our Canadian flight instructors (needle, needle and airspeed in British aircraft where the ball was replaced by another needle) paid off one day when the starboard echelon of a large formation, making its way back to Machrihanish on a radar homing, broke up in very dense and dark cloud. Our leader’s number two man lost him to sight and banked away sharply to starboard causing the next man to also bank away with added violence, as did the next in line with even more exaggerated evasive action, and then the next, me, and then the fellow on my right. Thus, after a long period of flying in tight formation, very tight and close in, in order to keep the next Seafire in view in the thick cloud, there were suddenly five pilots who had to instantly switch their steadfast gaze from the back of the head of the adjacent pilot back into the cockpit to those precious instruments with their needle, needle, airspeed. Instruments that were now far from their normal reading positions owing to the violent action taken to get away from the aircraft on the left who had made his own sudden manoeuvre just a split second before.

    So as soon as each pilot had got his aircraft under passable control amid the dense murk, and fearful of the unseen Seafires blundering along to his left and right, there were suddenly five pilots simultaneously calling control to request a radar homing. The sudden rush of business could not possibly be catered to. Control already was busy with the remaining, intact, port half of the formation. All the lines were busy. Everybody was told to line up and wait until the half formation had been dealt with. Then the others would be served in order. While all this was going on there was nothing to do but concentrate on flying straight and level, hoping one’s fellow aircraft were now far off. And also hoping that the rocky hill tops of the Mull of Kintyre were also keeping their distance. I was lucky. I suddenly passed through a brighter patch and below, down a vertical open funnel no more than a turning circle wide I glimpsed the grey waters of the Irish Sea. At once, before that funnel could close up again, I dove straight down and arrived over the water at a couple of hundred feet altitude. Turning east I found the coast, turned south and followed the coast around the Mull’s southernmost tip to the town of Campbeltown. From there it was straight in to the airfield.

    All engine and flight dials were often referred to as clocks and a common whimsical saying was: And there I was upside down in the middle of a cloud with nothing on the clock but the maker’s name! This joke had special significance for me. Many of the clocks had the word Smiths on them- the name I had written down so many times in the Huson factory mail book three years before.

    When the weather was totally clamped in and unfit for flying, we would go down to the nearby beach and practise skeet shooting and sometimes rifle and revolver shooting. We even threw a hand grenade or two and fired a few shots from 20mm cannon. But at those times when the weather was absolutely hopeless, the squadron management would declare by mid-morning that the day was a holiday, or in naval vernacular, a make-and-mend. So we could disperse to our messes, have a beer, and after lunch catch up on our sleep or go down to Campbeltown to the cinema or somewhere.

    On these days also, as on some weekends, a couple of us petty officers would have a tot of naval issue rum-despite the fact that we were still U/A, or under age, according to regulations. In the navy at that time, all hands over the age of twenty years elected to be G (Grog) or T (Temperance). If G, the person was entitled to a measure of grog-a tot of rum mixed with water. If T, the person did not get a tot but did get an extra threepence a day pay as recompense for his (or her? I don’t know if Wrens got a tot) abstinence. Petty officers received their rum ration neat with no water added. Having only turned nineteen, I was unentitled to any rum, but as an active pilot, just like pregnant women and young children, I was entitled to a daily ration of milk and, I think orange juice. Two of the Wren waitresses in the mess coveted this special ration and as their boyfriends were the rum bosuns, I was happy some days to exchange my milk and orange juice for a tot of rum.

    Sometimes, when we were flying, I would make this exchange not for rum, but for a tin of sardines and a jar of Bovril paste. I had discovered at home some years before that sardines and Bovril mixed wonderfully together. Though many fellow petty officers shook their heads at this strange gastronomic foible of mine, I found ample vindication for it some years later when reading Winston Churchill’s history of the war. In one volume, he recounts how flying across the Atlantic in an RAF aeroplane to meet Mr Roosevelt he instructed the steward to serve a meal every four hours (no Concordes, then) but for immediate consumption he wanted a bottle of brandy and a plate of sardine sandwiches spread with Bovril. He relates how he turned to his chiefs of staff and told them what an excellent combination this made. So there you have it. Great minds think alike.

    Royal Navy galleys had another useful little trick suited to the severe rationing of wartime. Any made-up sandwiches left over from the day before were dipped in batter and deep-fried. Meat sandwiches were served up hot with a savoury sauce over them as appetizers whilst sweet-filling jam sandwiches were served up covered with custard as a dessert. They were surprisingly good to eat.

    Today, Machrihanish, where 805 Squadron was stationed, has long been a navigational set-off turning point for commercial air liners bound for North America. With the hilly Mull of Kintyre, the Isle of Arran and the Inner Hebrides surrounded by water, on certain days the region was a perfect illustration of low orographic cloud as seen from the air. I well remember one day when I realized that if the land masses below were to be suddenly and magically removed, I could easily navigate back to the airfield’s position just by looking at the cloud formations. They were an exact geographical map formed of water vapour-the kind of cloud formed when lower air masses are pushed aloft by higher land,

    One morning approaching the airfield, I saw a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber chugging upwind towards the circuit at a ground-speed all of seventy knots. As I passed them by, I saw that the Stringbag, as the old biplane was affectionately called, had bicycles strapped on either side of the fuselage and its three occupants, waving casually to me, were grouped together in very close and matey proximity as if they were holidaymakers sharing a dodge-’em car at the Southend-on-Mud fun fair.

    By the time they had landed and taxied up to our flight line, I was standing outside the flight room with everyone else to see who were these people with so much time on their hands that they could meander about the sky at will in an elderly Stringbag. Maybe a trio of ancient admirals. Perhaps a clique of unemployed commodores. Possibly a cluster of senior captains.

    Instead they appeared as one venerable chief and two grizzled three-badge, long-service, petty officers. Unhitching their bicycles with the aid of some ground crew, they mounted up and rode over to the hangars where they were greeted warmly by some of our older petty officers. Later in the mess, they were having rum sippers with some old pals from prewar years. And some time even later that afternoon, we saw them weave back to their aeroplane and get their bikes made fast. Then they climbed aboard and went zig-zagging off, as is proper in a tail-wheel-equipped single-engined aircraft, down the perimeter strip. Then instead of turning onto the runway, no doubt deep in conversation, they went straight ahead and actually slowly traversed the whole circumference of the airfield before arriving once again at the duty runway. This time they waited for their green light from the control truck, then opened up their engine to roar along the runway and wobble up into the air. With heads bobbing animatedly together, they disappeared into the blue to only they knew where.

    Old petty officer pilots like that were extremely rare in the Royal Navy. We new petty officer pilots were not quite so rare, but we were still so few in numbers that nobody really knew where to place us in the naval hierarchy. So we were pretty much left well alone and to our own devices. Which happily resulted in us leading a very privileged and comfortable existence. I noticed this often enough in places like large railway stations where naval police were directing personnel in certain situations. They just disregarded me or even steered me to favourable places in trains or facilities.

    Another prime example of this was right at Machrihanish. The Wrens who performed the more technical, managerial or responsible duties, such as air traffic controllers, personal chauffeurs to high-ranking officers, administrators and such, were quartered not in one of the barracks on the air station, but in added comfort in the Ugadale Arms Hotel a mile or two along the beach from the far end of the aerodrome. This typical Scottish golfing hotel, though commandeered by the navy to accommodate these Wrens on its upper floors, still had a public bar in one far corner of the building that was left open to cater to the few local farmers and other villagers. Also, still open at the discretion of the management, was the cozy downstairs lounge complete with cheerful fireplace. But just three P.O. pilots seemed to be the only people to use this comfortable facility. The naval ratings from the air base all went east to the pubs, cinemas and fish and chip shop attractions of the town of Campbeltown and, for some reason, the Ugadale Hotel was out of bounds to officers. Therefore, the trio of petty-officer pilots, of which I was one, who regularly spent their evenings there, had it pretty much to themselves. Except of course for the matching trio of Wrens who came down from the floors above and were naturally the sole reason for our nightly pilgrimage there. So in our own private lounge bar we spent our convivial evenings, cared for by a gracious hotel manager and surfeited by feminine charm. Just another advantage to being one of a very privileged class.

    I also appreciated being associated with the other two extremely agreeable members of our trio: Goff Parker and Danny Bannatyne. For during our time on the squadron, as we had for several previous months, we spent most of our existence together, both in the flight room, in the air and on the ground.
    Our pay was augmented by flying pay, so we found ourselves quite able to afford our leisure time expenses. We had no expenses for everyday food and accommodation and, after having a best uniform suit made by a civilian tailor, we bought all our other clothing at very low prices from the ‘slops’ or naval stores. So inexpensive were these quality items that we often purchased raincoats, shirts and shoes for some of our officer colleagues who found themselves unable to afford tailor prices.
    The wings of the Seafire folded in two places. They folded down about three feet from the tip and were often in that position to leave more space on the flight line. It was common for the pilot to push them up and lock them into place before climbing into the cockpit. The primary fold, also manually operated but a more onerous task, was about five feet out from the wing root and folded upwards. When being folded, a red-painted steel rod, which normally lay flush with the upper wing surface, stuck up about an inch above the surface to denote that the first locking mechanism had been opened and when the secondary unlocking had taken place, the rod stuck up another couple of inches.

    One day practising dog fighting with Goff Parker over the sea, I noticed that my port wing’s red rod was sticking up an inch. How I had missed seeing it while doing my take off checks I don’t know. Perhaps it had just worked its way up during the violent manoeuvres I had been making getting away from Parker’s camera gun. Well anyway, if it did fold up, I thought, Parker would see where I parachuted down and call for help. So I just carried on with the exercise. There was just nothing else to do.
    Later, when I shut down on the flight line, I pointed it out to the rigger. A few minutes later the chief petty officer AA4, the senior member of the ground crew, came up to me white-faced. He was one of my mess mates and old enough to be my grandfather at a pinch. He was terribly upset and and apologised with real feeling and moistened eyes. I told him it was equally my fault for not noticing it before getting in the aircraft.

    A few days later, I was flying in formation as number four in the box of ‘C’ flight. As we climbed up after take-off the number two man lost momentary sight of our leader, Lt. MacDonald. Number two brought his wing down sharply to bring the leader back into his view and his port wing hit the top of the leader’s starboard wing. From my position dead astern of the leader and slightly below, I had a perfect view of his wing tip which was now bent down in a gentle curve. I called the leader and told him of the damage. He wiggled his wings a few times, said it felt okay and so we would carry on.

    The engineers had often told us that the folding wing joints were actually stronger than the rest of the wing. I now fully believed them.

    One day all the pilots flew over to Arbroath on the other side of Scotland. There, four at a time, we entered a decompression chamber and put on oxygen and radio masks. Then the chamber was decompressed to match conditions at high altitude. Then following instructions from the medical officers looking at us through the portholes we performed simple tasks one by one. As the person commenced his task the pilot sitting opposite him was told to lean over and disconnect his oxygen supply. One fellow was told to keep subtracting seven from 100. He started off saying ninety three, eighty six, seventy nine, seventy two, sixty five, pause, fifty eight, long pause, fifty… long pause, fif… then he fell unconscious. The medics at once told his opposite number to connect up his oxygen again. After a few seconds the fellow started saying fifty,.. pause, fifty… No! … fifty one, forty three, thirty six… Then the medic outside said that’s okay number one, you can stop now. “But,” protested number one, “I haven’t finished yet.” “Yes you have,” said the medic, “you passed out for a while and your test is over.” “No. I did not pass out,” protested number one. ” Oh yes you did,” chorused all the other three pilots waiting their turn to do their task.

    And it was the same story for all of us. We didn’t even know we had passed out, let alone feel anything untoward. It was a valuable lesson. Not the least being that there was just one more thing from Hollywood to disbelieve-all those movies where people get locked into airtight rooms by the baddies and fall down gasping and clutching their throats. Deprived of oxygen one just sinks into a gentle slumber. Nowadays, a bigger fuss is made of all this. Modern research on the subject includes medical officers suggesting to aircrew that they will feel symptoms peculiar only to each individual (notably hot or cold feet) which will give warning of oxygen deprivation. As might be expected such suggestions soon become reality. As far as I know none of our 805 pilots had cold feet of any kind. Though, when 805 was a desert squadron-our squadron crest featured sand and a palm tree-I expect some got hot feet.

    When it came to my own turn in the chamber, I was the only one to be given a physical task to perform. I stood up at a dummy Lewis gun and was instructed to fire through the portholes at the medic outside when he waved his hand, firing at the other doctor when he waved his hand, and change the magazine when nobody waved. They said no one had ever completed a magazine change and the chief medical officer had a prize for whoever did so. I managed to do so and almost complete another. An endorsement that recommended me for high-altitude flying was entered in my log book. Ironically, considering the oxygenated nature of the test, instead of the drink in the wardroom, I was presented with a carton of cigarettes.

    Within a week of receiving this little plaudit, I had yet another endorsement written in my log book. This time for taxiing into a No Taxi sign and shattering the tips of my propeller. Well, hell! No one’s perfect.

    Many years later, when the abolition of the death penalty in Britain was under discussion, the New Scientist magazine devoted a large part of one issue to the views of several doctors who were invited to discuss their personal preferences for the most humane methods of execution.

    Remembering the absolutely painless way we had succumbed in the decompression chamber, I wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that a secret and comfortable prison-cell-cum-decompression-chamber be built for maximum carefree departures. I also told of my cigarette prize for having good lungs. My letter was published two issues later.

    By now most of our flying time was in what was called open-finger formation-the four aircraft of the formation taking positions similar to those of spread finger tips. Being spread out like this meant that each pilot could keep in formation and also keep his head moving around to search the surrounding sky. I nearly always flew as number four, the little finger, and if we went into tight formation, my position was right behind and a little lower than number one, the leader. Number two was usually on the leader’s right (starboard) and number three on the leader’s left (port).

    When in finger configuration and the formation turned to change course by more than about thirty-five degrees we used a manoeuvre called cross-over turns. This was an effort to ensure that each aircraft used the same amount of fuel during a long patrol. Because if during a wide circular sweep a series of turns all to port are made the aircraft on the inner or port side has to reduce power to keep his position in relation to the leader. The aircraft on the other, outer side of the turn have to increase their power to keep up. This involves several throttle and propeller speed adjustments which gulp substantial quantities of fuel. Therefore, after an hour or more, the outside aeroplanes have considerably less fuel left in their tanks than the inside aeroplanes. So the formation’s effective patrol duration is shortened accordingly. To negate this effect, the cross-over turn required the outside aircraft to lose just a few feet of height and pass slowly below the leader while the inside aircraft went down a few feet more in order to pass under them. In this way, all the aircraft traversed the same radius of turn and ideally had no significant engine adjustments to make.

    When the turn was completed, the finger formation was reversed with numbers two and three in exchanged positions and number four now on the other side of the formation. After some practice, and I presume a few more white hairs on the leader’s head, it worked quite smoothly. Crumbs!

    While in our open battle formation, we would practise breaking to port or starboard. With plenty of space between our Seafires, we could all watch out for enemy bandits. As soon as any member of the flight saw a bandit coming up on the port side, he was instructed not to waste time reporting the same to the leader but to immediately shout: C Flight. Break Port. Break, Port. Go!

    At this, all pilots immediately banged the control column to port, slammed the pitch lever and throttle fully open and then violently tugged the stick back into the stomach. This resulted in four aircraft all madly banked into a vertical maximum 180-degree turn at full power. As this exercise turned out best if every aeroplane turned in the same direction, we practised knowing which way was port and which way was starboard to a very considerable extent. And then some.

    On foul weather days we had various training aids to keep us busy, the most notable and best enjoyed being the Operational Crew Trainer. This elaborate contraption took up a sizable amount of space in a large darkened building. Its purpose was to teach us to direct the guns of large warships onto their targets. Of course, by this time most of the world’s great battleships had been sunk to the bottom of the sea by attacking aircraft, but you never could tell, so we carried on in proper naval tradition. Two of us at a time, one to act as pilot the other as observer, would climb up into a mock aeroplane and, as the lights dimmed right down, instrument lights would glow, the aircraft would come to life, earphones would hum and curtains would draw back to reveal down below and ahead a few miles of shadowy coastline as viewed by moonlight from about a 3,000-foot altitude. By using his controls, the pilot could turn the aircraft and fly along the coast in either direction with harbours, towns and villages, rivers, inlets, railway lines and stations, woodlands, hills and factories all passing by in realistic fashion and appearance.

    The observer would receive information and instructions regarding the selected target, perhaps a railway marshalling yard. Then the code word Flash (the guns have fired) would come over the headset followed by a number, seventeen (the shells will land near the target in seventeen seconds time). And sure enough in seventeen seconds the shells would burst with a flash of light down below. Perhaps a fountain of water would rise up if the miss fell into the river, several trees rise up and fall down if the salvo fell in the woods, or houses in a nearby town topple. As the pilot turned the aircraft to pass by that part of the coast again, the observer would be radioing the compass bearing and distance of the shooting errors back to the ship.

    Then again we would hear: Flash, seventeen (or sixteen or eighteen) and the game would go on until the target was hit. The realism was amazing. After a few minutes of turning this way and that in the dim, muted light, the illusion of actually flying became very real.

    After many sessions, we were allowed to see the trainer’s workings. The aircraft was mounted on a stationary pedestal, but could be turned through 360 degrees. The coastline and inland topography was a vast relief model resting on a thirty-foot-diameter turntable, which was synchronized with the aircraft’s heading and indicated airspeed. The relief model was a mass of little pegs that when activated by electrical impulse would rise up differing fractions of an inch. These pegs underpinned little houses, trees, locomotives, factory chimneys and other fragments of infrastructure and landscape, some of them hinged so they could topple in lifelike fashion.
    Underneath the turntable was a bewildering mass of electrical spaghetti and tiny electric bulbs of varying intensity. Through a wonderful system of relays and switches, the controller hidden away in her hidden cubicle could select appropriate pegs to rise up sharply with a burst of light and then sink back more slowly into their recesses. All this long before transistors or computers appeared.

    We loved playing this game. Especially Goff Parker. His Wren girlfriend, Mary, who shared all our evenings at the Ugadale Hotel, was one of the trainer’s controllers. At war’s end they married and I expect carried on playing the game by moonlight for some time.

    One of our petty officers climbed up into the overcast one bleak morning to follow another Seafire for dogfighting practice. The first chap circled around above the cloud layer in the sunlight, but the second man never showed up. Nor did he answer radio calls. His body washed up on the beach a day or two later. That evening, I met some Wrens from the control tower who blanched when they saw me. The missing pilot’s general appearance happened to be similar to my own. Someone had told them it was me down in the drink. Crumbs!

    Walking round the perimeter with Goff one day, we watched one of our people circling with one wheel up and one down. Goff Parker said if he had that trouble he’d point the aircraft out to sea and jump out. A few days later, some of us were watching Goff go round with one wheel jammed up. I told everybody we were about to see a fearless feat of parachuting. But we didn’t. I think Goff went up high, dived down at speed and pulled up sharply to get the wheel down by gravity.

    Ailsa Craig is a well-know landmark at the entrance to the Firth of Clyde. The rock is just the right size around which to make a steep turn. The people stationed on it must have been driven mad by all the aeroplanes that visited it each day. Another temptation seldom resisted was to fly alongside the big ocean liner troopships below the level of their main decks and wave back to the people looking down into the cockpit. Two pilots from our sister squadron, 806, across the other side of the airfield played this game one day. They both made sea-level approaches, from either beam, towards a large liner. At the same time. Hidden from each other. It was a completely disasterous meeting.

    As the war in the Pacific looked as if it could develop into a long drawn out battle, we got our fill of low flying over the islands of Islay, Jura, Mull and Arran when practising ground attacks on anything that looked like a target. We augmented this when we knew one of our squadron friends was due back off leave and would be taking the bus from Glasgow to Campbeltown. We would fly low following the twisting highway as it wound along the jagged western coast through Tarbert, Lochgilphead, Inveraray and Loch Lomond to meet the bus, make a couple of low passes over it, then watch for the arm of our friend waving from a window. When half-a-dozen of us were going on leave, the Commander Flying (who actually was a Royal Marine Lieutenant-Colonel), would sometimes graciously fly us over the waters to Glasgow in the station’s sporty Waco biplane, to catch our trains, but when returning we had to take the MacBrayne’s bus.

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    Comment by John Ough | July 23, 2009

  2. Just a short one here, I was there on Det during many JMC’s
    and enjoyed the base, surrounding countryside, and the local people were magic, and I usually listened to Argyll Radio, now Argyll FM.

    Flew with the Canadians in an Orion, on search sorties and did some funny moves with the MAD.

    One thing I did get was a bottle of white wine Rheinhessen 1989 St Johanner Bottled by Abfuller, Weinkellerei, Anton Biroth, D-6531 Schweppenhausen, with the words: Especially Bottled for RAF Station Machrihanish, and the station crest on the label, and still remains unopened.

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    Comment by Tam Brown | May 13, 2010

  3. Came to this site when I found out that my uncle, John Reed, was based here during the war.
    Unfortunately, he and his crewmates disappeared without trace in 1944, flying a Grumman Avenger.
    I am curious to know if there is any memorial there to those who served and lost their lives.

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    Comment by Richard Shaw | October 30, 2010

  4. I have not come across any specific memorials erected around Machrihanish, or to any of the personnel who were posted there. There is a one located at nearby Auchencorvie, but this is in memory of two pupils of the school there, who perished in service with the RAF.

    I think the reason is simply that although personnel who may have spent time at RAF Machrihanish would have been lost, they would have done so while posted to other bases, as Machrihanish was primarily a training, rather than an operation, base.

    This, of course, is not to suggest in any way that pilots and crew were not lost in training, which was hazardous to say the least, but memorials to such events are generally located at the accident site itself. If this happened at the base, then there is often a memorial, or at least a record to be found.

    If you have not located anything relating to your uncle’s loss, you could add any further details you may have, and we could look at the various crash site registers, and see if anything matches.

    Thanks for the note.

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    Comment by Apollo | October 30, 2010


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