Forgotten Fleet Air Arm: 11 Abandoned Royal Navy Air Stations of the UK

Abandoned Royal Navy bases: this derelict Sea Harrier sits on the old Fleet Air Arm base at Predannack, Cornwall (Image: Luke Joyce/website; an abandoned Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Sea Harrier, Predannack)

Last month, we looked at the abandoned Cold War airfields of RAF Germany, followed by a selection of America’s deserted World War Two Air Force bases. This article, meanwhile, examines 11 decommissioned Fleet Air Arm stations of the British Royal Navy, many of which, like their RAF counterparts, lie forgotten across the UK countryside.

As the aviation branch of the British Royal Navy from 1939, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was responsible for defending Britain’s shoreline establishments and projecting military might overseas during the darkest days of World War Two. Although many of its operations were conducted from aircraft carriers and support ships, the FAA also had its own naval air stations on land, which were often shared with or near RAF positions.

The British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm remains active today, though many of its former World War Two airfields lie eerily abandoned or repurposed across the United Kingdom. This article explores a small number of them, from lonely wartime ruins to more recently decommissioned Royal Navy bases.

Abandoned Royal Naval Air Station Crail (HMS Jackdaw), Fife, Scotland

rnas-crail-hms-jackdaw

rnas-crail-hms-jackdaw-6 (Images: Jim Bain; Anne; this abandoned Royal Navy base became Crail Raceway)

An imposing concrete edifice, the derelict control tower of RNAS Crail (officially designated HMS Jackdaw) dominates the abandoned naval base. Built on the site of a short-lived First World War Royal Flying Corp training facility, the base was a valuable asset in World War Two, after which it was repeatedly repurposed for different ends over the coming decades.

rnas-crail-hms-jackdaw-4

rnas-crail-hms-jackdaw-2 (Image: Neil TheasbyIWM; FAA Fairey Swordfish Mk Is await takeoff at RNAS Crail)

Among these, perhaps the most curious came in the 1950s and 1960s. After a stint as a tough training school for boys known as HMS Bruce, it became an intermittent home of the British Army’s Black Watch. An infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Black Watch have something of a formidable reputation, bolstered by its proud combat history as well as being the last British unit to leave Hong Kong in 1997. In 1956, the abandoned RNAS Crail also played home to a Russian language school helping with the Cold War effort.

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rnas-crail (Images: Richard Webb; Bing Maps; abandoned British Royal Navy base from the air)

More recent decades saw the old naval air station become increasingly neglected. Today, you’re more likely to encounter a car boot sale than a troop of soldiers or airmen. The dilapidated buildings, however, still remain. In 2006, Scotland granted them Scheduled Status; thereby preserving the memory of RNAS Crail for generations to come.

RNAS Dunino (HMS Jackdaw II), Fife, Scotland

rnas-crail-hms-jackdaw-5 (Image: James Allan; abandoned Fleet Air Arm control tower of RNAS Dunino)

The Fleet Air Arm base at Crail also had its own satellite airfield – RNAS Dunino – located several miles to the north west. Like its parent facility, the site has been repurposed over the years for various other uses, with much of it returning to agriculture, but a number of period buildings survive in a reasonable state of repair. Unlike Crail, RNAS Dunino (aptly known as HMS Jackdaw II) had no concrete runways, operating from grass strips around which were located an assortment of blister hangars, support structures and a control tower, the derelict ruins of which still stand today.

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rnas-dunino-hms-jackdaw-ii-2 (Images: Bing Maps; Richard Webb; abandoned Royal Navy base Dunino)

The short-lived Fleet Air Arm station first opened as an RAF airfield in April 1941 before being transferring to British Royal Navy control. Between April 1943 and January 1944 a variety of Fleet Air Arm units operated there, including the Fairey Barracudas of 827 Naval Air Squadron, the Supermarine Walrus amphibious biplanes of 737 NAS and the Swordfish torpedo bombers of 813 NAS. In the penultimate year of the war, the now-abandoned naval base was struck off active duty and became a storage facility for redundant FAA aircraft awaiting disposal. In this guise, the Fife aerodrome became something of an aircraft graveyard.

rnas-dunino-hms-jackdaw-ii-4

rnas-dunino-hms-jackdaw-ii-3 (Images: (top, bottom) James Allan; surviving blister hangar and skeletal remains of another)

The remnants of RNAS Dunino can still be discerned via Google Earth. In 2008, Secret Scotland took a closer look at the abandoned naval base, revealing a rich wartime heritage silently haunting the farmland. It’s a vaguely incongruous sight today; a glimpse into more tumultuous times amid an otherwise peaceful corner of Scotland.

RNAS Lee-on-Solent (HMS Daedalus), Hampshire, England

rnas-lee-on-solent (Image: Bing Maps; wartime runway layout at RNAS Lee-on-Solent)

An icon of the Fleet Air Arm, RNAS Lee-on-Solent to the west of Portsmouth was once one of the biggest Royal Navy bases of them all. First constructed for seaplane use during the First World War, the naval air station grew into a major training network, dedicated to whipping young personnel into shape.

rnas-lee-on-solent-2 (Image: David Blaikie; Hovercraft Museum at the abandoned naval air station)

At its height, the base was a vital British instrument for both war and deterrence. During the infamous Luftwaffe raids on Portsmouth the naval air station was heavily bombed, with several hangars destroyed in the resulting conflagration. Yet the crippled base rose from the ashes. It’s estimated that almost 100 Naval Air Squadrons were stationed there at some point in the following decades, accounting for an eye-watering number of personnel.

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rnas-lee-on-solent-HMS-Daedalus (Images: IWM (top, middle, bottom); HMS Daedalus during World War Two)

However, the glory days of this major British Royal Navy base eventually faded. RNAS Lee-on-Solent was finally decommissioned in the early 21st century, and gradually sold off piece by piece. As of 2014 part of the airfield is still in use for private aviation, while much of the site now accommodates local businesses and other enterprise.

RNAS Ballyhalbert, County Down, Northern Ireland

RAF-Ballyhalbert-abandoned-control-tower (Image: Irishmanlost/Facebook; abandoned Fleet Air Arm base RNAS Ballyhalbert)

The history of RNAS Ballyhalbert takes us back to the darkest days of World War Two. Constructed in 1940 to defend the region’s capital during the devastating Belfast Blitz, the now-abandoned British Royal Navy station spent the first years of its operational life on the front line between the RAF and the Luftwaffe.

RAF-Ballyhalbert-abandoned-control-tower-2 (Images: Irishmanlost – see Facebook Page; the derelict control tower)

It wasn’t until the war had shifted gear that the Fleet Air Arm established its own naval air station there. Alternatively known as HMS Corncake – a name it ominously shared with a minesweeper sunk in 1943 – the FAA base operated until only 1946 before closing down entirely. Not that RNAS Ballyhalbert was ever anything less than busy. During its brief life, 17 different Naval Air Squadrons were stationed there.

rnas-ballyhalbert-abandoned-2 (Image: Bing Maps; abandoned Fleet Air Arm airfield RNAS Ballyhalbert)

Today, the abandoned Fleet Air Arm base is a strange mix of the derelict and the repurposed. While the abandoned control tower and other structures have been left to crumble into glorious decay, other parts of the old Navy base have been taken over by a caravan park and a modern housing estate. As for the airfield itself, faint traces still remain. When seen from above, the distinctive cross shape of the runways is still very much in evidence.

RNAS Machrihanish (HMS Landrail), Argyll, Scotland

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rnas-machrihanish-fleet-air-arm-scotland-3 (Images: Steve Partridge; Patrick Mackie; abandoned nuclear storage facility & control tower)

From humble beginnings, it might be fair to say that RNAS Machrihanish had the most eventful life of the historic naval air stations in this article. First opened as a Fleet Air Arm base back in the midst of World War One, it went on to participate in the Second World War, the Korean War and the Cold War.

fairey-barracuda-ii-fleet-air-arm (Image: IWM; Fairey Barracuda like those operated by 815 NAS at RNAS Machrihanish)

Yet at one point, it seemed like the former British Royal Navy base was destined to be a mere footnote. After first opening in 1916, it operated for only two years before shutting up shop again in 1918. By the time World War Two rolled round, the original airfield was so neglected that a new one had to be built. Initially known as HMS Landrail, the name was soon ditched in favour of RNAS Machrihanish; a name it was to keep for the next few decades.

The reopened Fleet Air Arm station stood firm as wars came and went. In the 1950s, troops trained there for the deadly Korean War. In the Cold War, it housed planes equipped with nuclear depth charges, ready to sabotage any Russian submarine attack that entered UK waters. There was even a rumour that NASA designated the runway as a potential landing site for distressed Space Shuttles, although this, disappointingly, was never proven.

rnas-machrihanish-fleet-air-arm-scotland (Image: Bing Maps; the long runway at RNAS Machrihanish, lengthened during the Cold War)

Perhaps most compelling of all is a possible link between the former naval air station (now Campbeltown Airport) and a hypothesized American black project aircraft which some believe remains top secret to this day. But again, sadly, there’s no hard evidence for the existence of such a craft.

RNAS Dale (HMS Goldcrest), Pembrokeshire, Wales

rnas-dale-pembrokeshire-hms-goldcrest (Image: Pembrokeshire Coast-o-graphs; RNAS Dale (HMS Goldcrest), Pembrokeshire)

rnas-dale (Image: Bing Maps; abandoned Royal Navy runways and dispersal pans of RNAS Dale)

Situated on the spectacular coastline of Pembrokeshire, six miles west of Milford Haven, RNAS Dale could have won awards for its surroundings. Not that any of the pilots stationed at the old Royal Navy base likely had time to think about such things. Established in 1941, RNAS Dale had barely opened its metaphorical doors before it was catapulted headlong into the grinding war effort.

rnas-dale-pembrokeshire-2

rnas-dale-pembrokeshire-3 (Images: Winkelbohrer; abandoned runway and Nissen hut)

Throughout the early 1940s, the base was a impressive mixture of operational flying and fast-paced training. Squadrons came and went. Numerous personnel passed through its gates. Wartime aircraft took off and vanished out over the water, disappearing under iron grey skies. It must have been incredible to witness. Even after the war ended, the rigorous training programmes at the now-abandoned British Royal Navy base continued up until 1948.

rnas-dale-pembrokeshire-4

rnas-dale-pembrokeshire-5 (Images: Winkelbohrer; abandoned runway and perimeter track)

Eventually, though, the pace of life at Dale did inevitably quieten down. The naval air station closed in 1948, leaving only its distinctive runway layout and extensive dispersal pans visible from the sky. Now owned by a private farmer, the abandoned Royal Navy base was again in the news in 2010, when 2,500 people spontaneously descended on the site for an illegal rave. Generally, though, HMS Goldcrest remains a peaceful place today, the haunting expanses of its abandoned runways silently guarding the headlands of Pembrokeshire.

Royal Naval Air Station St Merryn (HMS Vulture), Cornwall, England

rnas-st-merryn-hms-vulture-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-base (Image: Bing Maps; the unusual wartime runway configuration of RNAS St Merryn)

A few miles north of bleak, windswept expanse of Bodmin Moor lies the remains of one of Cornwall’s most important airfields. Like many of the UK’s naval air stations, the base was opened for the first time during the Second World War. During its short operational career, the vast RNAS St Merryn saw around fifty Naval Air Squadrons pass through its gates.

rnas-st-merryn-hms-vulture-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-base-2 (Image: IWM; formation of rocket-armed Fairey Swordfish biplanes out of HMS Vulture)

Although the base was mainly used for pilot training, rather than operational flying, this didn’t exempt it from Germany’s unwanted attention. In 1941, the Luftwaffe dropped several high explosives onto the airfield, seriously crippling its runways. In general, the year was a bad one for Cornwall. Incendiary bombs rained down on Falmouth and the county’s docks were targeted mercilessly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took another year for operations at RNAS St Merryn to resume.

But unlike many of the abandoned Fleet Air Arm bases documented here, RNAS St Merryn still sees a significant amount of flying. Light aircraft often take off from the former naval air station, spiraling upwards over the decaying control tower and the unusual wartime runway configuration, which featured four concrete strips rather than the standard three runway-layout.

RNAS Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Norfolk, England

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-2

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-3 (Images: Evelyn Simak (top, middle, bottom); derelict Royal Navy structures)

One of the most-important airbases for the recovery of damaged aircraft during World War Two, RNAS Ludham spent most of its short life as an RAF Fighter Command base, and was only finally transferred to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in 1944. Before this point, it’d been mainly used by Spitfires during the epic Battle of Britain, as a satellite station of RAF Coltishall.

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-4

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-5

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-6 (Images: Evelyn Simak (top, middle, bottom); pilot dorm, pillbox and original watch office)

At one point, Spitfires were said to have taken off from the base every day over a three year period during the war. Under the command of the Fleet Air Arm, though, it served a much smaller, though no-less important role. Originally intended as a base for US Air Force planes poised to head out over the war-torn expanses of Europe, it instead became an emergency landing field; somewhere damaged aircraft and injured crews could head for as they flew back from the burning continent.

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-7

rnas-ludham-hms-flycatcher-abandoned-8 (Images: Evelyn Simak; Bing Maps; remains of ‘newer’ control tower and runways)

After the war, the abandoned naval air station was used as a filming located for the 1954 movie Conflict of Wings. Fast forward to the present day, and RNAS Ludham is little more than a wreck in the wilds of Norfolk. Paths are overgrown, buildings are decayed and weeds emerge from the broken remains of the runways. The control tower is understood to have been restored around 2000 before once again falling into ruin. Far from being desolate though, it seems almost peaceful. As if the pain of those dark times has been almost completely swept away.

RNAS Portland (HMS Osprey), Dorset, England

rnas-portland-hms-osprey-abandoned-fleet-air-arm

rnas-portland-hms-osprey-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-2

rnas-portland-hms-osprey-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-3 (Images: Chris Talbot; Simon Palmer; Bing; abandoned helicopter control tower & admin building)

Thanks to its strategically important location, RNAS Portland in Dorset had a rough time of it in both World Wars. Originally opened as HMS Sarepta in 1916, the base had to contend with both U-Boat attacks and then a belligerent Luftwaffe hopping over from France most evenings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to many major groups pulling out during the Second World War, fearful of the terrible damage a bombing raid might incur on the war effort.

rnas-portland-hms-osprey-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-4

rnas-portland-hms-osprey-abandoned-fleet-air-arm-5 (Images: Chris Talbot; Nigel Mykura; no danger of low flying aircraft here)

After the end of World War Two, things finally turned around. A large helicopter facility was established there, which ultimately made the old naval air station one of the busiest bases on the south coast. After a period of relative prosperity, however, it declined. In 1993, sections of the station began shutting down. By 1999, RNAS Portland was closed altogether. Today, it’s the site of local business-led developments; a far cry from its proud days on the charge of the British Royal Navy.

Abandoned RNAS Stretton (HMS Blackcap), Cheshire, England

rnas-stretton-hms-blackcap-abandoned-royal-navy-2

supermarine-seafires-rnas-stretton-faa (Image: Google Street View; RuthAS; abandoned Navy runway, Supermarine Seafires)

In early 1942, the RAF had a major problem. The Luftwaffe was bombing Britain indiscriminately, leaving thousands dead and vital infrastructure crippled. To combat this, the Air Force established dozens of night-fighter bases across the country. Small, often hastily-constructed airfields from where planes could intercept enemy bombers, they would help defend Britain’s cities from the reach of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was from this plan that RNAS Stretton sprang.

rnas-stretton-hms-blackcap-abandoned-royal-navy-3

rnas-stretton-hms-blackcap-abandoned-royal-navy-4

rnas-stretton-hms-blackcap-abandoned-royal-navy-5 (Images: RuthAS (top, middle, bottom); aviation at RNAS Stretton)

Intended to provide cover for Liverpool and Manchester during raids, the airfield at Stretton near Warrington was originally constructed for RAF use in the defence of Britain against enemy raids. However, a shift in Luftwaffe priorities towards Russia meant the base was never put into operation as intended. Instead, it was transferred over to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, which used it in conjunction with its aircraft carriers in the Irish Sea. Repairs were also carried out there. At its postwar peak, the base serviced a third of all British Royal Navy aircraft.

rnas-stretton-hms-blackcap-abandoned-royal-navy (Image: Bing Maps; remains of the abandoned Royal Navy station HMS Blackcap)

Today, little remains of the technical site at RNAS Stretton, which was also known as HMS Blackcap. After it closed in 1958, the abandoned naval air station was left to rot, while parts of it were redeveloped. It’s even been cut in half by the M56 motorway, separating the redeveloped areas of the base to the north from the abandoned main runway, which remains quietly intact to the south of the road.

RNAS Hatston (HMS Sparrowhawk), Orkney, Scotland

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-8

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-memorial-orkney (Images: IWMIain Smith; Fairey Swordfish taxiing in 1942, HMS Sparrowhawk memorial)

Although some form of base was operating there since at least the First World War, RNAS Hatston – which was strategically located near the vital naval base at Scapa Flow – is today associated primarily with a major achievement for the Allies. In April 1940, two squadrons of Blackburn B-24 Skuas took off bound for the distant coast of Norway. Their goal: to sink the German light cruiser Königsberg.

grumman-avengers-hms-sparrowhawk

german-light-cruiser-Königsberg (Images: Royal NavyUS Navy; flight of RNAS Hatston Grumman Avengers & Königsberg)

A heavily-armed ship, the Königsberg had been patrolling the seas since before the Reichstag Fire. Only days earlier, the cruiser had been involved in the invasion of Norway, pounding the coastal defenses while aircraft strafed and whizzed overhead. Despite taking heavy damage, she was still afloat by April 10; at which point the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Skuas attacked. At 7:20 am, the two squadrons swooped in, catching the Germans off-guard. In the short burst of fighting that followed, the Königsberg took five direct hits and two indirect. Almost immediately, the ship started to list. It was RNAS Hatston’s first – and only – major kill in the war.

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-4

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-5

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-6

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-7 (Images: Iain Smith; the abandoned Fleet Air Arm base near Kirkwall today)

When World War Two came to an end, the abandoned naval air station became Orkney’s main airport, until operations were transferred to a larger facility to the southeast of the town. That, too, had opened during the Second World War, initially commissioned as RAF Grimsetter before falling under British Royal Navy control as RNAS Kirkwall (HMS Robin).

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney

rnas-hatston-hms-sparrowhawk-abandoned-orkney-2 (Images: Bing Maps; HMS Sparrowhawk’s former Fleet Air Arm runway)

Now, over 70 years later, the old wartime airfield is gone, lost beneath an industrial estate. With the exception of a fragment of runway which can be seen to motorists on Grainshore Road, little remains to mark this dramatic episode, an early triumph in the days when Britain’s fall still seemed almost inevitable.

Related – Google Earth reveals the Ghostly Images of Britain’s Wartime Airfields

 
 


 
 
 

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