Coastal Command: 10 Abandoned Bases of the RAF’s Maritime Arm

Rediscover the abandoned RAF Coastal Command bases of World War Two (Image: Hector Patrick; abandoned Coastal Command maintenance jetty, RAF Castle Archdale)

When the Fleet Air Arm was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1937, Coastal Command became the RAF’s sole maritime arm. Bearing the motto Constant Endeavour, RAF Coastal Command tasked with the protection of Allied convoys and the defence of supply lines from German U-Boats and aircraft. The formation operated graceful flying boats as well as more conventional aircraft – including the Beaufighter, Spitfire and Lancaster – during the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War.

Operating between 1936-1969 and unflatteringly known by some as the ‘Cinderella Service’, RAF Coastal Command nevertheless proved its worth flying exhausting missions over treacherous seas in search of enemy ships. In World War Two alone, its members racked up over one million flying hours with nearly 6,000 personnel killed in action. And while the formation itself may long ago have been absorbed into other outfits, evidence of the RAF maritime arm’s short life still remains.

Abandoned Coastal Command bases lie dotted around the shores of Britain, most of them long since forgotten or adapted for other uses. The ruins of 10 such facilities can be seen here.

 

RAF Castle Archdale, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

RAF Castle Archdale, Northern Ireland

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-castle-archdale-2

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-castle-archdale-3 (Images: IWM (top, middle, bottom); Sunderland & Catalina flying boats at RAF Castle Archdale)

One of the most-westerly RAF bases in the whole of Britain, Castle Archdale was almost one of the most controversial too. Situated on the eastern shore of Lower Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, its position placed it a mere 30 miles from the Atlantic. Unfortunately, those 30 miles didn’t pass through Allied airspace. Instead, they crossed over County Donegal, part of neutral Ireland.

Given the history of animosity between Britain and Ireland (more apt in the 1940s than today), this could have led to disaster. Surprisingly, though, the two governments reached a secret agreement. RAF planes would be allowed to fly over County Donegal provided they stuck to a very narrow air corridor aptly known as the Donegal Corridor. Unlikely as it was, this decision allowed Coastal Command to dominate their part of the Atlantic. It also managed to last the entire war.

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-castle-archdale-9

The ruins of RAF Castle Archdale, an abandoned Coastal Command base in County Fermanagh (Images: Hector Patrick; station beacon and abandoned refueling jetty)

The site of RAF Castle Archdale today (Image: Bing; the abandoned Coastal Command base today)

Today, not much remains of the old base. Just some overgrown buildings fallen into disuse, and the  derelict slipway. Sections of it have even been turned into a caravan park, although a museum has also opened on the site, charting its role in defeating the German war machine.

RAF Dounreay Coastal Command Base, Highlands, Scotland

Abandoned Coastal Command: RAF Dounreay, Highlands, Scotland

Derelict Coastal Command airfield RAF Dounreay

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abandoned-coastal-command-raf-dounreay-4 (Images: Bing Maps; Google Maps; abandoned Coastal Command runways of Dounreay)

Of all the bases on our list, RAF Dounreay in the north of Scotland undoubtedly had the shortest career. Constructed for use by Coastal Command in 1942, it was inspected, found to be good to put to use, then promptly forgotten about. During its entire existence, it was never once occupied.

The plan had been to use it as an advance base for expected attacks on Norway, then under occupation by German forces. However, the plans in that form never went ahead, rendering RAF Dounreay pointless. It wasn’t until well into the Cold War that a practical use was finally found for it: nuclear facilities were established there, placing it high on the Soviet’s list of targets in event of a thermonuclear exchange.

Many years later, the abandoned Coastal Command airfield is still visible, especially when seen from above. On the ground, it remains the strangest of enigmas. An entire airfield that practically never was.

RAF Dallachy, Moray, Scotland

RAF Dallachy, Moray, Scotland

RAF Dallachy, a former Coastal Command airfield in Moray

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Dallachy-Black-Friday-3

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Dallachy-Black-Friday-5 (Images: Bing; Anne Burgess (1, 2); Christopher Gillan; RAF Dallachy today)

If you were to unwittingly walk into RAF Dallachy today, you’d be hard-pressed to find much evidence of its lively history. Now a desolate rain swept wasteland, its better known as the location of a waste recycling plant than of any acts of heroics. Yet go back in time 70 years, and you’d find an RAF Coastal Command airbase in the grip of unspeakable tragedy.

Constructed in 1942 some 118 miles north of Edinburgh, RAF Dallachy was principally useful for conducting raids against Norway. It was during one such raid that disaster struck. In February 1945, the Germans had only a single destroyer left, hidden in a fjord in Norway. On the 9th of that month, Coastal Command deployed 32 Beaufighters from Dallachy to take it out. What followed next was a massacre.

Crashed Beaufighter at RAF Dallachy on Black Friday (Image: RAF; crashed Beaufighter at RAF Dallachy on Black Friday – February 9, 1945)

Even severely weakened by the war’s endgame, the Luftwaffe managed to get the jump on the Allies. A dozen FW-190s attacked, resulting in the largest aerial battle ever fought over Norway. In the carnage that followed, nine Beaufighters were downed, 14 Allied airmen killed, and another four captured. It was the single biggest disaster Coastal Command faced during a single operation in the entire war. In certain circles, the date became known as ‘Black Friday.’

RAF Davidstow Moor, Cornwall, England

RAF Davidstow Moor, Cornwall

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-2

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-3

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-4

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-5 (Images: Bing; Google; abandoned Coastal Command airfield at Davidstow Moor)

Seen today, RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall has a distinctly eerie quality. A vast ‘A’ with elongated limbs, trapped inside a shapeless bubble of concrete, it sits isolated and alone in Cornwall’s rural interior. Its old buildings decay to rack and ruin on the periphery. Though criss-crossed by country lanes, the abandoned Coastal Command airfield looks almost totally forgotten. But seen from above, the abandoned runways and taxiways flanked by dozens of hard standings sit hauntingly intact amid the peaceful farmland.

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-7

abandoned-coastal-command-RAF-Davidstow-Moor-6 (Images: Canadian Forces; Google; Bristol Beaufighter and the abandoned main runway)

Things weren’t much different in its brief life. Despite being active from 1942 to 1954, the base was one of Coastal Command’s least-used in the whole of England. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Cornwall’s moors are notoriously desolate, and easier-to-reach bases in close driving distance must have made RAF Davidstow Moor seem like a backwater. That’s not to say the lonely base didn’t play its part. Today, an onsite museum documents its contributions to World War Two, as well as serving as a memorial to the servicemen who lost their lives.

RAF St Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales

RAF St Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales (Images: Group Captain E. C. Kidd; Google Maps; RAF St David’s then and now)

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abandoned-coastal-command-raf-st-davids-5 (Images: Google Maps; Bing Maps; abandoned Coastal Command runways at RAF St David’s)

Most visitors are drawn to St Davids in Wales for its cathedral and status as Britain’s smallest city (population: 2,000). But the abandoned Coastal Command airfield offers at least one more reason to drop by. Built at the Western extreme of Pembrokeshire, it was a key base in Britain’s then-raging Battle of the Atlantic.

At the time, this was seen as crucial for winning the war. German U-Boats were in the habit of torpedoing ships bound for the UK, hoping to cut off all supplies to the island. Along with similar bases in Ireland and the South West, RAF St Davids was responsible for ensuring that didn’t happen. Multiple bombing raids were taken over the empty wastes of the ocean, desperately trying to preserve a link between the increasingly-isolated UK and distant America and Canada.

Although much of this legacy has long since been lost, a few signs remain of the nightly battle that raged from the former airfield. Eleven structures still survive, some in various stages of decay, others repurposed. Take a walk along the Pembrokeshire coastal path and you might just catch a glimpse of the sort of place this once was.

RAF Oban, Argyll and Bute, Scotland

RAF Oban, Argyll and Bute, Scotland

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-oban (Images: Bing Maps; Stuart Wilding; former Kerrera base & 18 Group war memorial)

Located out on Scotland’s remote and craggy west coast, RAF Oban was notable among wartime Coastal Command bases in that it was split over two nearby locations. The flying boat base itself sat on the north side of Kerrera island, across Ardantrive Bay from the picturesque old town of Oban. Elsewhere, a couple of miles north of the town, a maintenance base operated out of Ganavan. They were known collectively as RAF Oban.

A Coastal Command Short Sunderland at Ganavan

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-oban-ganavan-2 (Images: IWM; Google Maps; Short Sunderland and former Ganavan maintenance ramp)

The history of the now-abandoned Coastal Command base is slightly patchy. In 1933, flying boats were already using the bay as a landing point. But it wasn’t until 1937 that it began to resemble anything even remotely like an active base. At first existing purely as a refuelling point for aircraft making the long slog around Britain, it was finally upgraded to fully operational status with the advent of World War Two. For the next few years, the bay would see all manner of RAF Coastal Command aircraft come and go, heading out into the devastation of the unfolding war.

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-oban-2 (Image: ㇹヮィㇳ; the sad remains of Catalina flying boat on Vatersay)

Today, visitors can still make out the old pier, and a few wartime buildings scattered around. There’s even a little museum that contains a vast model flying boat; a hat-tip to the old days.

RAF Beccles, Suffolk, England

RAF Beccles, Suffolk, England

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-beccles-2 (Images: Helen Steed; Bing; abandoned Coastal Command airfield and control tower)

Unlike many on our list, RAF Beccles in Suffolk continues to see light aircraft use. Small companies operate out of there, scheduling private flights and offering everything from training courses to parachute jumps. They’re the last remnants of a legacy that stretches back over 70 years.

The last World War Two airbase to be built in Suffolk, Beccles was originally intended to house the US Air Force after America came steamrollering into the war. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the war had shifted gear by the time the base was completed, and the USAAF had no need to station its planes there. Instead, the airfield passed to Coastal Command, who used it as a convenient air-sea rescue post until Victory in Europe Day.

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-beccles-3

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-beccles-4 (Images: John Chorley; Google; RAF Beccles’ abandoned runway & surviving wartime hangar)

Today, much of the abandoned Coastal Command base has been ploughed over. Broken stretches of runway and perimeter track still remain, as does the derelict wartime control tower: a lost concrete box tucked away amidst the trees.

RAF Castletown, Caithness, Scotland

RAF Castletown, Caithness, Scotland

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-castletown-2

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-castletown-3 (Images: Bing Maps; Google Maps; Peter Moore; abandoned RAF Castletown)

In the uncertain months of the Phony War, remote Castletown in Scotland was the site of an unexpected race against time. Hitler’s Germany had yet to start bombing the UK, but the top brass were all-too aware that the crucial Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow was exceedingly vulnerable to attack. Although RNAS Hatston (covered in our feature of the Royal Navy’s abandoned Fleet Air Arm bases) was nearby, it had no permanent aircraft allocation. The solution: build another airfield as quickly as possible.

It was from this panic that RAF Castletown was born. Although not officially opened until May 1940, it was to prove invaluable throughout the Battle of Britain. As German aircraft filled the skies overhead, penetrating through the dark Scottish night in streaks of fire, airmen would scramble out of Castletown – seemingly the last line of defense in this remote part of the country.

Although the base spent most of its life under the control of No. 13 Group RAF Fighter Command, it was briefly held as a satellite of No. 18 Group’s Coastal Command base at Wick. Today, Wick is still a functioning commuter airport. Castletown, by contrast, is a collection of three abandoned concrete runways lost in the fields. Meanwhile, Castletown’s own satellite, the long-disused RAF Skitten (below), makes up the trio of wartime airfields in the area.

RAF Skitten, Caithness, Scotland

RAF Skitten, Caithness, Scotland

The abandoned Coastal Command runways of RAF Skitten, Caithness, from above

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abandoned-coastal-command-raf-skitten-4 (Images: Steven Brown; Bing; Google Maps; abandoned Coastal Command base RAF Skitten)

If you were looking for somewhere in Scotland to film a cheap Mad Max knock-off, you could do worse than the former RAF Skitten. Turned into a quarry sometime in the late 20th century, it now looks like an abandoned airfield at the end of the world. Runways have been torn up. Gouges cut deep into the Earth. What remains is in a state of decay so advanced it seems impossible to ever row back from.

All of which seems a shame, as RAF Skitten has a definite claim to fame. Built as a satellite of RAF Castletown, the small airfield was designed to accommodate a single fighter squadron but wound up becoming a satellite of RAF Wick – then part of Coastal Command. The most significant period of its history only came, however, after it was transferred to RAF Bomber Command in 1943. It was here that pilots began training with the Highball bomb, a derivative of the famous Upkeep bouncing bomb used by No. 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron against the Ruhr dams. It also saw a spectacular feint on the part of the Allies. Under the guise of the ‘Washington Cup’, pilots were able to train there for a raid on Norway without German interference.

RAF Carew Cheriton, Pembrokeshire, Wales

RAF Carew Cheriton, Pembrokeshire, Wales

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-carew-cheriton-2 (Images: Bing Maps; Wikipedia; abandoned RAF Carew Cheriton today and in 1917)

Finally, we return to Pembrokeshire for one last look at RAF Carew Cheriton. A former First World War airfield that was reopened (as many were) during World War Two, the Coastal Command base is perhaps remembered more as the scene of tragedy than anything else.

A support station for the flying boats at RAF Pembroke Dock, Carew Cheriton should have been way down the list of German targets. When first opened in 1938, its crew had to make do with grass runways. It was a minor target in every sense of the word. Yet on 15 April, 1942 it was the target of a devastating Luftwaffe raid. Out of nowhere, German planes suddenly dropped from the sky, unleashing a torrent of bombs. Significantly, one scored a direct hit on the station’s sickbay. In the resulting explosion, twelve servicemen were killed instantly.

Avro Anson aircraft from RAF Carew Cheriton

abandoned-coastal-command-raf-carew-cheriton-4 (Images: IWM; Jeremy Bolwell; Avro Anson and the small RAF cemetery at Carew Cheriton)

The base never really recovered. Later that year, it was reassigned as a radio school for training operators. No more active missions were flown. In 1945, RAF Carew Cheriton was shut down altogether. Today, the abandoned Coastal Command airfield has been extensive redeveloped as a business park, while the restored wartime control tower has become a small museum dedicated to the station’s turbulent history.

Related – Related – The Remains of Britain’s Massive Emergency Runways Seen from Above

 

About the author: Morris M

 

 
 
 


 
 

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