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RAF Ayr

(Redirected from HMS Wagtail)

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RAF Ayr, Heathfield airfield, was a World War II airfield located at Prestwick, two miles north of Ayr on the west coast.

The area was no stranger to such activity, as the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had established a school of aerial gunnery to the south, on the site of Ayr Racecourse, which had moved to Craigie in 1907, from its original site at Seafield, further to the south. The racecourse gained some fame when Suffragette Catherine Taylor (a cinema cashier from the Gorbals area of Glasgow) burnt down the grandstand in 1913.

The racecourse continues to occupy the site, and had utilised at least two of the original RFC hangars for its own building. Both heavily modified, one served as the course tearoom until 1991, when it was demolished to make way for a supermarket. The second survived until 2004, when it was demolished for reasons of safety, leaving a clear area now used to host events and for parking.

The airfield at Heathfield lay to the north of the original RFC site and the racecourse, and was commissioned as RAF Ayr early in World War II, later to be shared with the USAF during the war. Towards the end of the conflict, ownership passed to the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm (FAA), when it was commissioned as HMS Wagtail. Paid off at the end of the war, the site was acquired by the USAF during most of the 1950s, after which the airfield was closed, and the land subsequently developed for housing and retail use.

RAF Ayr should not be confused with RAF Prestwick which was a completely separate facility, and would develop into Prestwick Airport. Located adjacent to Prestwick, Ayr became home to transatlantic operations arising from the Lend Lease agreement between Britain and America, which explains the significant American operation on the site.

World War I

Although not on the Heatfhield site, which lies to the north, the RFC established Aerial Gunnery School No 1 at Ayr, while No 2 Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery, RFC, was located at RAF Turnberry.[1] [2] During its operating years, the school at Ayr took on a number of titles:

  • No 1 School of Aerial Fighting (September 19, 1917 - May 10, 1918)
  • No 1 School of Aerial Fighting & Gunnery (May 10 - May 29, 1918)
  • No 1 Fighting School (May 29, 1918 - April 1, 1919)

The Turnberry school was equipped with ground targets, in the form of aircraft silhouettes laid out on the beach.

World War II

Construction of the wartime airfield began in October 1940, with RAF Ayr opening formally as a fighter sector station on April 7, 1941. A number of the surrounding buildings were requisitioned to serve the airfield, with the most significant being Powbank Mill which lay to the southwest of the site and became the fighter sector headquarters for the west of Scotland in January 1941. This is said to be of significance, since at that time the overland radar system were yet to come into operation. RAF Ayr/Heathfield was directly controlled by No 13 Group.

A separate history of the mill indicates that it closed around the outbreak of the war, when it was requisitioned to support RAF squadrons as a NAAFI (Navy Army and Air Force Institutes) canteen. The mill never returned to the family which had previously owned it. Following the end of the war it was used by the Scottish Aviation Club, which stayed there until the St Cuthbert's Club moved out of premises in Kirk Street, after which the club moved out of the mill and into the vacated Kirk Street site.[3] Unfortunately, there seems to be no further details regarding these clubs.

Runways and roads on the airfield were tarmac/asphalt, with the runways being 150 feet (46 m) wide, the perimeter road 50 feet (15 m), and the taxi ways and dispersal roads 35 feet (11 m). The three runways were originally configured in the standard triangular pattern, however one runway was later reconfigured by the FAA to accommodate practice aircraft carrier landings. The two sets of dimensions and orientations given below are from separate histories, for comparison, and are not intended be read as conversions:

  • 07/25 1,463 metres (07/25 4,700 feet)
  • 18/36 1,262 metres (01/19 4,100 feet)
  • 13/31 1,097 metres (13/31 4,500 feet)

The airfield served as a base for both day and night fighter squadrons such as 410 Squadron[4] until 1943, when it became an Armament Practice Camp, and the USAF operated from the field between June 1943, and November 1943.

HMS Wagtail

On September 6, 1944, the airfield was transferred on loan to the Royal Navy and commissioned as HMS Wagtail in October 1944.

The FAA used the airfield to disembark squadrons, and it was also home to an FRU, calibration flight, bombardment spotting school, and a communications squadron, with accommodation for up to 110 aircraft. Also reported to have hosted a FOCT (Fleet Operations Conversion Training) squadron, two disembarked squadrons, with accommodation reserved for two RAF Squadrons, and a MAP (Ministry of Aircraft Production) maritime establishment.

On March 10, 1946, HMS Wagtail was reduced to care and maintenance, accountable to HMS Sanderling, (RNAS Abbotsinch), finally paid of during 1946.

Transatlantic operations

RAF Prestwick began on the grass runways of Prestwick airfield, which was the transatlantic terminal where increasing numbers of aircraft such as Hudsons, Liberators, and Fortesses were expected to arrive, and a combined circuit was arranged to allow occasional use to be made of the newly completed runways at RAF Ayr. By 1941, Prestwick had gained concrete runways, and ATFERO (Atlantic Ferry Organisation) had been formed there to manage aircraft being flown from Canada and America to Great Britain, and recorded some 37,000 aircraft landing at the transatlantic terminal. These movements arose from the Lend Lease agreement between the USA and Britain.

Spitfire AD540 Blue Peter

Blue Peter was named after the winner of the 1939 Derby, and was a Spitfire MK Vb which had been presented to the RAF in 1941 by the people of Newmarket, who had raised Ł5,100 towards the war effort.

On May 23, 1941, Blue Peter took of from RAF Ayr at 13:00 flown by PO (Pilot Officer) David Hunter Blair to provide aerial cover to the RMS Queen Mary, then serving as a troop ship and arriving home with American personnel. PO Blair was accompanied by Flight Sergeant Gordon "Matt" Mathers in a second Spitfire, and while en route to the Queen Mary the pair was diverted to investigate a possible sighting of enemy aircraft inland.

Flying at 20,000 feet, Blair's aircraft was seen to behave erratically and descend - failure in his oxygen supply had rendered Blair unconscious. As he lost height, Blair recovered conciousness but was unable to regain control of the falling aircraft and baled out. Unfortunately, his parachute did not deploy fully, and the 19 year old pilot died on Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (797 m). The event was witnessed by a local farm worker.

Pilot Officer David Hunter Blair was buried with full military honours on the family estate of Blairquhan Castle, only 15 miles from where he had lost his life.

The wreckage of Blue Peter lay buried where it had crashed, until it was discovered 51 years to the day after the crash, by a team including members of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group led by Ralph Davidson, chairman of the Scottish region of The Spitfire Society.[5]

Spitfire P7540 Loch Doon

Spitfire MK IIA P7540 of 312 Czech Squadron EAF was lost on October 25, 1941, when it crashed into Loch Doon.

The aircraft was on a training flight from RAF Ayr and flying low over the water of the loch when the pilot is reported to have banked the aircraft with the result that the wing tip contacted the surface of the loch, catching the aircraft and causing it to crash. The RAF searched the loch, but no trace was found of the pilot or his aircraft. The aircraft was being flown by F/O František Hekl, (age unknown), RAFVR. F/O Hekl's name is engraved on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 30. His body was never recovered from the loch.

In 1977, the Dumfries and Galloway Sub Aqua Club, together with other affiliated clubs operating under RAF license, assisted the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum in a successful search for the aircraft, and the fuselage and other parts were recovered from the loch in 1982.[6] The aircraft is under restoration at the museum.[7]

Liberator AM260 crash

On August 14, 1941, Consolidated YB-24 Liberator AM260, an American heavy bomber, veered off the runway during take-off, striking a small building and coming to rest in an embankment. 22 personnel in the aircraft were killed.

Liberators numbered in the range AM258 to AM263 are understood to have been early models converted for use as unarmed long-range cargo carriers. These aircraft flew between Britain and Egypt, detouring around Spain via the Atlantic, and were used in the evacuation of Java. The RAF took delivery of Liberator IIs in early 1941, numbered 40-696 to 40-702, with all but 702 being cargo carriers. The aircraft were also used by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) for transatlantic service and various other long-range transport duties. The USAF designated this variant the LB-30A.

Liberator AM261 crash

On August 10, 1941, c.20:35, Consolidated LB-30A Liberator AM261, an American heavy bomber operated by the RAF took off from RAF Ayr, bound for Gander, eastern Canada, and transporting ferry crews there assigned to ferry new aircraft across the Atlantic and back to Britain. A short time after departing from Ayr, AM261 crashed into Mullach Buidhe near the head of Coire Lan on the island of Arran.

The accident was attributed to navigational error in overcast conditions with low visibility in cloud and rain.

22 lives were lost in the accident, 5 crew and 17 passengers from RAF Ferry Command, the Air Transport Auxiliary, and BOAC (British Overseas Aircraft Corporation). This was recorded as the worst such accident to take place on Arran.

Only two weeks earlier, the same aircraft had been used to fly the Duke of Kent across the Atlantic, the first such time a member of the royal family had crossed the Atlantic by air.[8]

Postwar operation

The former RAF facilities were taken over by the USAF when they returned to the area in 1951 and opened a base on the Heathfield site, from which they operated the USAF Military Air Transport Service (MATS) 1631st Air Base Squadron. In 1953, this operation expanded to use the facilities available in the new Prestwick International Airport to the north of Heathfield, towards Monkton. Prestwick's new 03/21 runway encroached on the northern limits of Heathfield in the latter part of the 1950s, and the Heathfield section of the base closed in 1957. The remaining Prestwick section closing in 1966.

Commons question 1954

On January 20, 1954, a question was raised in the House of Commons regarding the clearance of the airfield:

Heathfield Aerodrome

HC Deb 20 January 1954 vol 522 cc1004-5 1004

47. Sir T. Moore : asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation if he will give early instructions for the removal of the derelict huts on Heathfield airfield at Ayr

Mr. Lennox-Boyd : My Department is taking over responsibility for the area of the former Heathfield Aerodrome still held under requisition because part of it will be required for the new runway to be constructed at Prestwick Airport. The question of the disposal of the land and buildings at Heathfield is being examined, and I will communicate with my hon. Friend.

Sir T. Moore : Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that these huts have now lost all purpose, useful or otherwise, and are merely an eyesore on the countryside?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd : I will bear that in mind certainly, but I also hope that my hon. Friend will not regret any action which is necessary to increase the value of Prestwick.

Sir T. Moore : Hear, hear.

- Hansard, January 20, 1954.[9]

Postwar development

Following the departure of the USAF and the final closure of the airfield, much of the land it formerly occupied was absorbed during the 1960s by a housing estate, and expansion of Glasgow Prestwick Airport, with the addition of a subsidiary runway to cope with increasing traffic.

The Heathfield Retail Park opened in 1994, and occupies most of what would have been the southern part of the airfield. The road into the retail park is named Liberator Drive in recognition of the large number of Consolidated Liberator bombers that were serviced in the area during World War II. The entrance to the park was originally marked by a replica Supermarine Spitfire mounted on a pole when the park first opened, a memorial to 602 Squadron which served at the airfield, however the replica was lost during severe storms in 1996, leaving only the propeller to be seen on the mounting.

One hangar has been reported have survived, while a golf clubhouse lies on the remaining threshold of runway 13, and the premises of a transport training association occupy part of the remains of runway 13/31.

References

1 Gunnery School reference

2 The Interrogation of Lieutenant A. Couston, History of the Australian Flying Corps Dead link, 2008.

3 Powbank Mill history

4 210 Squadron, RCAF night fighters

5 A Spitfire called Blue Peter

6 Dumfries and Galloway Sub Aqua Club, Loch Doon Spitfire

7 Loch Doon, Spitfire lla, P7540 (Restoration on site)

8 AM261 accident details

9 Hansard, January 20, 1954.

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