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RAF Tain

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RAF Tain entrance, 2008
RAF Tain entrance
© sylvia duckworth

RAF Tain was a World War II airfield built on Morrich More to the north east of the town of Tain, which lies on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Invergordon.

The area has served as both a wartime airfield for the RAF, the FAA, and the USAAF, with flying continuing after the war until the 1960s. Its use as a weapons range dates back as far as World War I, and range operations have continued and developed there since that time.

Early history - Tain Range

The area’s links with military aviation date back to 1913, when the War Office surveyed it for possible use as an aerial naval base to complement existing fortifications in the Cromarty Firth. Records showed the area provided good weather conditions for extended flying operations, and its proximity to Kinloss and Lossiemouth led to the construction of the original Tain Range in the period between World Wars I and II, and was in use by both RAF and FAA aircraft prior to the outbreak of World War II.

World War II

In 1940, an airfield with three runways was built close to, and on part of, the Tain Range, south of Morrich More and occupying a large area to the north and south of the public road to Portmahomack. An early invasion scare led to the seaward side of the area being obstructed with barbed wire and old cars to deter possible landings by German troop carriers. The airfield was officially opened as a Fighter Sector Station on September 16, 1941.

RAF Tain’s history dates back to 1913 when the war office surveyed a site at Tain for possible use as an aerial naval base to compliment the Cromarty Firth fortifications. Its attractiveness was due largely to its excellent weather record and proximity to Kinloss and Lossiemouth. Tain Range was constructed between the wars and used by both RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircraft before the start of WWII. During 1940 the area was obstructed with coils of barbed wire and old cars to deter German troop carrier landings.

Tain airfield was developed from a pre-war landing ground serving the Tain Bombing Ranges, a part of which was used to build the complex. The airfield consisted of three runways, from 4,350ft to 6,000ft in length with three dispersal areas, and Bellman, Blister and 'T2' type hangars. The airfield was opened officially on 16th September 1941 as a Fighter Sector Station. Along with RAF Lossiemouth, Tain had been designated as a forward base for bombers, attacking the battleship Tirpitz when it was based at Trondheim in Norway.

In 1943 a Torpedo refresher school was formed to keep crew up to date with the torpedo training and both RAF and FAA crews used the facilities. In May 1944 the NE-SW runway was extended in preparation for the arrival of the Liberators. One of the first actions by 66 squadron Liberators from Tain was fought on 26th June 1944 when a U-boat was spotted on the surface. Two attacks were made, and on the second, three depth charges exploding on the starboard side of the U-boat caused it to turn over and sink. The Liberator had been damaged by gunfire and had to land at Stornoway where it was found that a shell had gone through the main spar. After six years of flying operations Tain reverted to its original role as a weapons range and now it is one of the busiest ranges in the UK, used by RAF, USAAF, and NATO planes.

The modern Tain bombing range covers a large area of Morrich More, to the north of Tain Airfield. It consists of a modern control tower and support buildings with several targets to the northwest near to Green Hillock and Green Hill. The modern tower replaced an older wooden version which survived until c.1991, with the control room situated on top of a wooden trestle construction which had once supported a radar beacon.
- Royal Air Force Tain Integrated Rural Management Plan. Defence Estates, Spring 2008.[1]

Tirpitz operations

Together with Lossiemouth, Tain was designated as a forward base for bombers attacking the battleship Tirpitz at Trondheim, Norway. On March 30, 1942, the first operation by 12 Halifax aircraft was unsuccessful, with one aircraft failing to return. In April 1942, two further raids were carried out, with a number of bombs being dropped, but no results observed thanks to the battleship’s smoke screen.

30/31 March 1942 Trondheim

34 Halifaxes attempted to bomb the Tirpitz in a fjord near Trondheim. The Tirpitz was not located; 3 aircraft bombed Flak positions. 1 Halifax lost in the sea.

- Bomber Command Campaign Diary March 1942.[2]

27/28 April 1942 Trondheim

31 Halifaxes and 12 Lancasters to attack the Tirpitz and other German warships in Trondheim Fjord. The Tirpitz was found and bombed but no hits were scored. 4 Halifaxes and 1 Lancaster lost.

One of the lost Halifaxes was piloted by Wing Commander D. C. T. Bennett, later the commander of the Pathfinders; Bennett escaped to neutral Sweden and returned to England 5 weeks later.

Another Halifax lost on this raid, W1048 of 35 Squadron, was damaged by Flak and its pilot, Pilot Officer Donald Mclntyre, crash-landed it on the frozen surface of a nearby lake, Lake Hoklingen. The crew all survived and the Halifax, a new aircraft on its first operational flight, sank gently. In 1973 this aircraft was salvaged from the bed of the lake and, after restoration by airmen at R.A.F. Wyton, was placed on public display in the R.A.F. Museum at Hendon.

- Bomber Command Campaign Diary April 1942.[3]

Further detail of these raids has been identified in an operational history of the Tirpitz:

During the night between 30 - 31 March 1942

Tirpitz was attacked by 32 Halifaxes from 10 Squadron (10 aircraft took of from Lossiemouth, Scotland), 35 Squadron (12 aircraft took off from Kinloss, Scotland) and 76 Squadron (10 aircraft took off from Tain, Scotland). The attack was unsuccessful due to bad weather.

- Tirpitz Operational History.[4]

In October 1942 the USAAF arrived to extend the runway, and use the station as an Advanced Strike Base.

In 1943 a Torpedo Refresher School was formed, intended to keep crews up to date with the torpedo training, again used by both RAF and FAA crews.

In February 1943, the station transferred to Coastal Command and served as an advance base for attacks on shipping near Norway, although no squadrons were permanently stationed there.

In May 1944, the NE/SW runway was extended in anticipation of operation by Liberator aircraft. On June 26, 1944, Liberators of 66 Squadron attacked a U-Boat which had been detected on the surface. On the second of two attack runs, three depth charges exploded to starboard of the U-Boat, which rolled and sank. On landing at Stornoway, the attacking Liberator was found to have been damaged by gunfire, with a shell passing through its main spar.

Aerial photographs taken by the RAF in 1945 show the airfield and its buildings were still in operation, together with the tracked target range.

Flying operations at Tain continued for a further six years, after which the area reverted to its former use as a weapons range.

Tain accommodation camps

Lochslin Camp, 2005
Lochslin Camp
© Steven Brown

Two accommodation camps straddled the road at NH 8364 8086 near Lochslin Farm, with little remaining, although the ration store at NH 8360 8090 is reported to have been reroofed and used by the farm. WAAF and RAF sleeping quarters and sick quarters are reported to survive up the hill, together with some accommodation huts, mess halls and water storage towers among the farm buildings.

About 900 metres to the east are two further camps, with little remaining to the south of the road. A few hut bases and a transformer building are reported, with new housing having been built on the former camp furthest to the east. Known as No 2 and No 4 dispersed sites for the airfield, they included quarters for officers, WOs, and Sergeants, with No 4 accommodation site being mostly living quarters for all ranks.

Postwar development

Range and observation tower, 2005
Range and observation tower
© Steven Brown

The site and surrounding area are now home to the modern Tain Bombing Range, or more accurately, Air Weapons Range (AWR), which covers a large area of Morrich More. The abandoned airfield lies within the area of the range, and the three runways are still extant. The main NE/SW runway is reported to have been occupied by an oil pipeline fabricator, who laid a large diameter pipe along its full length. The actual development was actually more extensive, and this extension ran not only along the line of the runway, but for some considerable distance further, all the way to the shore to the northeast, in a straight line across both land and water. The remains of this feature can be seen clearly seen on the ground, in aerial views of the site.

The pipeline manufacturer wad reported (in 2012) to have been closed for a number of years, with building and a second warehouse on the site next being used by the Glenmorangie Distillery for storage. The pipeline and extension to the northeast have gone, leaving only their marks on the ground.

A number of derelict buildings have been reported as still being in use by the farm for storage and animal shelter, including the old control tower. Many buildings on the site have been demolished or simply fallen down, leaving only large mounds of rubble which have not been cleared away.

The remaining runways, hardstandings and parkways have become overgrown with grass, and a number of World War II airfield buildings in various states of decay can be seen from the road to Inverness and Portmahomack.

Air Weapons Range

The AWR consists of a modern control tower and support buildings, with several targets to the north west near Green Hillock and Green Hill, with a further observation tower located at NH 8190 8337, used to co-ordinate weapons drops. The modern tower replaced an older wooden version at NH 8373 8330, which survived until about 1991, and supported a control room located on top of a wooden trestle which once supported a radar beacon. Only practice weapons are dropped at Tain, concrete bombs of 3 kg, 14 kg and 1,000 lb. Live weapons drops take place further to the north, on the range at Cape Wrath.

Range control tower, 2008
Range control tower
© sylvia duckworth

The range is used by the RAF, USAF, and NATO aircraft to practice low-level flying and weapons drops on simulated targets such as buildings and military vehicles, with aircraft flying close to the ground on their way to and from the range, which is within designated Low Flying Area LFA 14. Approaches can range anywhere from 150 feet up to 15,000 fee t, plus ground strafing. RAF Tain is one of the most heavily used air weapons ranges in the country, due to its close proximity to RAF Lossiemouth. In the operating period 2001-2002, an answer published in Hansard disclosed the operating cost of the range at £930,000.

In April 2004, the Secretary of State for Defence published the number of passes made by RAF and non-RAF aircraft (ie NATO) over RAF Tain:

DateRAF passesNon-RAF passes
199923,479213
200020,709484
200113,6511,026
200221,743755
200322,8751,302

Demolition 2006

In December 2006, the Ross-shire Journal carried an article and photographs describing the demolition of a number of World War II airfield buildings at Tain:

Demolition work at one of the many former wartime RAF buildings which many believe have long been and eyesore on the Tain landscape. In a fitting tribute, two RAF Hercules transporter planes carried out a fly past at the site on Fendom Road as the building was razed to the ground. Local councillor Allan Torrance, who has long supported demolition of the scores of concrete buildings dotted throughout farming land, said he hopes this would be the first of many to come.

© Ross-shire Journal

Local Councillor – Alan Torrance
telephone: 01862 893658
email: [email protected]

References

1 Royal Air Force Tain Integrated Rural Management Plan. Defence Estates, Spring 2008. Retrieved March 3, 2011.

2 Bomber Command Campaign Diary March 1942.

3 Bomber Command Campaign Diary April 1942.

4 Tirpitz Operational History.

External links

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