Loch Doon Aerial Gunnery School
Loch Doon Aerial Gunnery School was located to the west of Dalmellington, on the site of a World War I airfield constructed for the purpose between the B741 road and Bogton Loch. The airfield was part of a disastrous attempt by the War Office to establish a gunnery school on the site, which began in 1916, and ended unsuccessfully two years later, having consumed at least £500,000 to no useful end. The true cost was never disclosed, and various accounts of the school raise this figure to £1 million, while others climb to £3 million. Regardless of the correct figure, correcting any of the figures given to express the cost in current monetary terms means this would be reported by the media as a multi-million pound Government funded scandal,
Conceived by Colonel (later Brigadier General) Sefton Brancker when he discovered a similar facility some 35 miles from Bordeaux, while on active service in France, the school was an inspired concept in a world where the military saw aircraft as a novelty, good only for observation and token gestures such as hand-thrown bombs with little real destructive effect. Having achieved the position of Deputy Director of Military Aeronautics before resigning his post and serving abroad, Brancker was able to use his prior position to win acceptance of the concept. His scheme called for a landlocked body of water, and on paper at least, Loch Doon met this requirement, and was also well positioned close to steeply sloping hills, which would provide a suitable location on which to site the tracks for the target bogies.
The airfield was probably the outstanding folly established on the site, and appears to have been created without any consideration for local knowledge which could have been provided by the area's residents. The completed airfield was found to virtually useless, rendered largely inoperable by the combined effects of the marshy land it had been built on, and the adverse weather conditions which affected the location. It was all but useless for the aircraft types that were supposed to operate and train from the field.
The gunnery ranges were located in the nearby hills, and comprised rail mounted targets which zigzagged up and down the hillsides, followed by the trainee gunners, also on tracks, in carriages with guns mounted to reproduce their installations in aircraft.
Construction of the school had been a massive undertaking, requiring the construction of a light railway to the south west of Dalmellington to facilitate the work. Completed around April 1917, the track ran from a point about 200 metres northwest of Dalmellington Station, to Bogton Airfield, and terminated in the area of Dalfarson, less than a mile to the south. A plan to extend the railway to the north end of Bogton Loch, which would have involved blasting for a new tunnel, finally resulted in the Air Ministry examining the whole plan and ultimately led to the project being questioned and halted.
In addition to the airfield and railway, the plan also called for the construction of a dam and hydroelectric scheme on Loch Doon; an accommodation camp for 500 men in 18 brick built barracks; further accommodation for 1,500 civilian contractors working for Messrs McAlpine (the contractor) and for some 1,200 German PoWs employed as labourers. The site was also provided with a 400 seat cinema, sewage treatment works and water supply system. The airfield was equipped with workshop, stores, and had two centrally heated hangars. Intended to cater for both land and sea planes, purpose built seaplane hangars were located to the south, on the west shore of Loch Doon.
Camlarg House, Dalmellington, lay nearby and was requisitioned to serves as the Royal Flying Corps Headquarters. Camlarg House no longer exists, having since been demolished.
Nothing significant remains of the airfield, and RAF aerial photographic surveys carried out after World War II showed the area had already been cleared of the installation. The seaplane hangars are also known to have been lost when construction of a local reservoir flooded the area. The school's own dam raised the level six feet, and the later works in 1936 raised this another 30 feet, engulfing the hangars which were necessarily located at the water's edge. Trace evidence of the gunnery school can still be found in the area, with some sections of the zigzag ranges and trenches still extant, and visible on the ground.
World War II
During World War II, the area was again used for training, with troops training being carried out in the surrounding hills, and amphibious exercises on Bogton Loch.
Climatology and an abandoned flying school
A disastrous plan to create an Aerial Gunnery School at Loch Doon in Ayrshire was reported in the Times and Nature some time prior to 1920. The text appears to have been scanned automatically, with no corrections made thereafter, so the following account is our own best guess recovery based on what was reproduced:
[Reprinted from Nature. London. May 30, 191?.]
This REVIEW January ? Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Report. No. 13. Meteorology and aeronautics, by R. Blair. Washington, 1917. 60 p. So.
The Times of May 20 contains a summary of the Committee on National Expenditure, which gives the material facts about the abortive scheme of the War Office to establish at Loch Doon, Ayrshire, a large school for the training of airmen in gunnery. It is a striking and very expensive example of that incoherence or lack of coordination under stress against which the discipline of science as a part of education should be our safeguard. In 1916 the Air Board wanted an aerodrome for special purposes, and found a site at Loch Doon which would fulfil their requirements provided that a peat-bog on the western side of the lake could be drained and certain engineering work carried out on the eastern side. Taken independently, both these conditions could be satisfied, and operations were set on foot. By May, 1917, the estimated cost was £350,000; afterwards, large further sums were being asked for to complete the scheme; but, though each item had been separately satisfied, the object was not achieved. The climatic conditions were quite unsuitable for a training school, the local bogs were a great drawback for the special purpose of the aerodrome, the conditions of the surrounding area placed intolerable restrictions upon its use, and on account of the increased speed of flight the engineering works were already out of date. In January, 1918, the Air Council decided to cut the loss and abandon the scheme. Looking back at the evolution of this fiasco, various points are evident. The air authorities apparently worked by the map, the engineers considered only the questions of draining a bog and constructing certain railways, hangars, etc., not the making of an aerodrome; and the vexatious details of the climate of the British Isles were left to express themselves in their own inexorable way when the mechanical operations had been provided for. The last is, perhaps, the most instructive feature of the situation. Climatology is the science which uses the common experience of past weather to safeguard the future of all operations that depend upon weather. Its basis of fact is merely organized pubic memory. The Meteorological Committee, in its reports, has frequently urged that, in the public interest, local authorities should keep suitable records. If this course had been followed in Ayrshire, some £500,000 might have been saved. But our local authorities have not yet acknowledged the duty.
It has been left to the meteorological societies, or the Meteorological Office, or the British Rainfall Organization to collect such observations of weather as are made for country landowners or by meteorological enthusiasts in various localities; the distribution is naturally haphazard. Moreover, with the possible exception of the water engineer, the people who have to carry out such schemes have no training in the use of the collected information or in how to find it, and without some experience the tables are difficult to use. Much of the information requires reworking in order to answer special questions. For those who know where to look for it, there is a vast mine of information about the climatology of the British Isles, but it is largely unworked for lack of schools devoted to such sciences. An authoritative compilation is much needed. The Royal Meteorological Society, in cooperation with the Meteorological Office, began to work the data for a climatological atlas shortly before the war, but has had to discontinue the task for the present. It was thought at the time to be an undertaking of great utility, but that its cost might run to six figures in a single case was clearly not advised.
Overview of the school
A paragraph summarising the main features of the school was found on an unrelated site dedicated to Stobs Camp:
The Loch Doon Aerial Gunnery School was a project that wasted over £3 million (over £100m in today's money) in trying to establish an aerial gunnery school, with rail-mounted targets zig-zagging down steep hillsides to simulate enemy aircraft in flight. The project included the construction of an airfield, a dam, a hydro-electric scheme, a light railway and several camp sites to accommodate 1500 civilian contractors from Messrs McAlpine, 1200 German POWs and some 500 troops, together with sewage and water systems and also included a cinema to seat an audience of 400. The work commenced in September 1916 and was abandoned in January 1918, when the Whitehall authorities finally realised, as they had been advised by the locals all along, that adverse weather conditions made flying impossible for much of the time and the wet marshy ground was unsuitable for use as an airfield.
Loch Doon Dam
A dam was constructed at Loch Doon in 1916, as part of the attempt to create an Aerial Gunnery School nearby.
The purpose of the dam was to raise the level of the loch by 6 ft, to provide sufficient head of water to drive a hydroelectric generating scheme to power the school and its systems.
A later dam and adjacent valve tower, begun in 1936, raised the level by a further 30 ft for the Galloway Hydroelectric Scheme. As with its predecessor, its function was only to provide seasonal storage and to control the level of the loch to provide an operating head of water, and did not contain any power generating equipment itself. A report from 1937 notes that the dam supplied the Water of Deugh, feeding power stations at Kendoon, Carsfad, Earlstoun, and Tongland.
Specifications of Loch Doon Dam (1936)
Loch Doon dam
Purpose: seasonal storage
Maximum height of footway above riverbed: 43 ft (13.1 m)
Total length along crest: 980 ft (298.7 m)
Spillway level: 705 ft (22.9 m) OD
Normal maximum depth over crest: 3 ft (0.9 m)
Overfall spillway length: 110 ft (33.5 m)
Syphons (3): 5 ft 6 in (1.7 m) outlet diameter
Normal maximum spillway capacity: 4,675 cusecs
Anon. 1938 Galloway Hydro-Electric Development.
Related Canmore/RCAHMS and ScotlandsPlaces (SP) entries:-
- Tiny pic of McAlpine workers at Loch Doon
- Doom at Loch Doon, a Scottish Memories article, September 2001
- Reference to the school
- Short summary of the school's history
- Camlarg House postcard
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