Marking the 75th anniversary of Western Isles air bases

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This year (2016) sees the 75th anniversary of the official inauguration of the Royal Air Force (RAF) flying bases at Stornoway and Benbecula,.

The history of both airfields is very similar, unsurprising as both were established initially to fulfil a similar role, that of convoy protection from German U-boats in the Atlantic and Minches during World War II.

They both went on to become civilian airports, serving ‘lifeline’ commercial air routes to and from the mainland.

The late 1930s saw attempts to initiate air services throughout the UK, as passenger aircraft became safer and more reliable.

In Scotland, services to the Outer Hebrides group of islands were started by Scottish Airways. Without established landing grounds, any available flat stretches of grassland were used, and this is how both Stornoway and Benbecula started life.

In the case of Stornoway, the existing golf course at Melbost, just outside the town, provided a suitable site, whilst at what was to become Benbecula, a landing ground was established at Balivanich.

Just as services were becoming established, the outbreak of war in 1939 brought them to an end. But these established landing ground sites would serve the war effort in the service of the RAF.

From 1940, both Stornoway and Benbecula saw the start of an ever-growing influx of RAF personnel and aircraft, along with a steady improvement in facilities.

Both airfields became official RAF flying bases in 1941, hence this year’s 75th anniversary, although offensive flying operations commenced from Stornoway in 1940.

In the first three years of the war, the aircraft types available to the RAF to conduct anti U-boat and convoy escort patrols was limited in both range and offensive capability (at Stornoway it was the Avro Anson and Lockheed Hudson, and at Benbecula the Lockheed Hudson).

However, as the war progressed, with both British aircraft production increasing, and the availability of American produced aircraft, more suitable types became available to operate the long distances required to counter the U-boat menace.

At Stornoway these types were the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley, followed by the Handley-Page Halifax, and at Benbecula the B-17 Boeing Flying Fortress, followed by the Vickers Wellington.

Whilst throughout the war years Benbecula’s based aircraft concentrated on patrols out into the North Atlantic, Stornoway aircraft initially flew patrols covering the east and west coasts of the Hebrides and the areas north towards Iceland. Later in the war, Stornoway based squadrons operated off the Norwegian and Danish coasts, attacking German shipping and submarines.

The personnel and aircraft based at both Stornoway and Benbecula made a significant contribution to this country’s war effort and final victory.

Both airfields went on post-war to become commercial airports, serving their communities with air routes to the mainland and inter-island.

There were links maintained with the RAF post-war, in the case of Stornoway with an RAF unit resident at the airfield between the early 1960s until 1998, and at Benbecula from 1958, with the establishment of a missile testing range (now run by a civilian contractor), and currently a Remote Radar Head (RRH) served by an RAF detachment from RAF Buchan.

This significant anniversary is being recognised by both the local branch of the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA), some of whose members served at Stornoway post-war, and the RAF at Benbecula.

In the week prior to 1st April, a display of mementoes will be on view in the Stornoway Library window in the town centre, along with items in the library itself, to include a Book of Remembrance for those airmen lost flying from Stornoway during WWII.

There will be a flag-raising ceremony in Perceval Square, Stornoway on Monday 28th March at 10-30am.

An anniversary dinner will be held in the TA Drill Hall on 1st April for RAFA Stornoway members and guests. A wreath laying ceremony will take place at the RAF Stornoway Memorial in Melbost, adjacent to the entrance to Stornoway Airport, at 1pm on Saturday 2nd April.

Finally, a commemorative church service will be held in Martin’s Memorial Church, Stornoway (which also houses the RAF Stornoway Book of Remembrance) on Sunday 3rd April at 11-00am.