Distant from the early aviation pioneers who were operating near the engineering centres of excellence further south, the North of Scotland started to see aviation activity after World War 1 (WW1). Enterprising individuals such as Captain E. E. Fresson saw the possibilities for civil air travel to reduce the travelling time to the towns and cities. He set up Highland Airways Ltd operating from Inverness to Wick and Kirkwall in 1933. Aviation in the area really expanded during WW2. In providing airfields as far north as possible it allowed aircraft to reach out to Norway and the European coast to attack German targets on land and sea.
RAF Alness started life in 1924 when flying boats made a brief appearance here. Originally referred to as Invergordon its name did not change till 1943. In 1938 activity picked up as various flying boat squadrons came and went operating types such as the Stranraer, London and Singapore! In Jun 1941 Alness settled down to be a training unit operating Catalinas and Sunderlands and this continued throughout the war until training ceased in Jul 1945 and disbandment in Apr 1946.
RAF Evanton was originally constructed in the mid-1930s as a grass strip. It was shared by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) throughout the war and the latter used it to disembark aircraft, mainly Swordfish, from aircraft carriers in the anchorage at Invergordon. In 1937 the airfield became a training unit making use of the nearby weapons ranges, particularly Tain, operating types such as the Audax, Gordon and Henley. This armament training role continued until Aug 1944 and at its peak there were up to a hundred aircraft. From 1939 the field also had operational detachments of fighters on air defence duties. In Sep 1944 the Royal Navy took over and it became HMS Fieldfare operating as an aircraft storage and repair unit. Evanton finally closed in Mar 1948.
Tain started life in 1937 as a range for RAF Evanton. It was developed in 1940 into an RAF airfield and opened in Sep 1941 as a fighter base operating Hurricanes, Spitfires and Sea Hurricanes of the FAA in till Feb 1942. The first bomber detachments arrived in Mar 1942 as units forward based for raids far into Norway. The most famous target was the Tirpitz attacked from Tain a number of times with Halifaxes. In 1943 the airfield became a maritime attack training unit whilst maintaining its fighter and bomber responsibilities. Beaufighters were the predominant anti-ship type until the runway was lengthened in 1944 when bigger types such as Liberators became the norm, one of which was the Czech 311 Squadron. The FAA also used Tain rotating Barracuda squadrons from their aircraft carriers. RAF Fearn was established as a relief for Tain in Oct 1941. It was little used and transferred to the Royal Navy as HMS Owl in Aug 1942. Various training and operational units used Fearn during it’s time as an FAA station operating types such as the Swordfish, Barracuda and Anson with a brief dalliance with the Avenger and Firefly towards the end of the war. HMS Owl was disbanded in Jul 1946 and handed back to the RAF who put it in care and maintenance.
RAF Wick opened as a Fighter Command station in Dec 1939 charged with protecting the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow, Orkney. Although a fighter base Wick’s geographic position made it desirable for maritime operations, so Spitfires and Hurricanes rubbed shoulders with Ansons and Hudsons till Oct 1941 when the fighters left and the airfield was left to Coastal Command. By 1943 Beaufighters and Wellingtons had taken over in the anti-shipping role and were joined by a meteorological unit flying Spitfires, Hudsons and Hampdens. The final military aircraft to operate from Wick were Polish Mustangs who left in 1946 when the station reverted to being a civilian airfield. In Jun 1940 RAF Castletown opened as a satellite fighter base for Wick. Various units cycled through often taking a breather from the more intense fighting in the south of England. Spitfires and Hurricanes were the main types but Fulmars of the FAA made a brief appearance in the autumn of 1940. Ansons arrived in the training role in Nov 1942 followed in Jan 1943 by an Air-Sea Rescue unit flying the Walrus. By early 1944 units were leaving and the base closed in 1945. RAF Skitten opened at the end of 1940 operating RAF Hurricanes and FAA Martlets as another satellite airfield for Wick. In 1941 it switched to anti-shipping patrols operating types such as the Blenheim and Beaufort. In Dec 1943 Skitten was joined by a meteorological reconnaissance unit operating various types such as the Hampden and Spitfire, collecting vital data on the weather for military planners. This meteorological unit were last to leave Skitten in Nov 1944 bringing operations to an end.
RAF Kirkton, RAF Dornoch and RAF Black Isle were Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG) for RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth. They opened in Aug/Sep 1941 and closed in May, Sep and Oct 1945 respectively. Their role was to store aircraft awaiting maintenance. Dornoch’s peak period was 1944 when 108 aircraft were there with 117 aircraft at Black Isle in Jul 1944, mainly Beaufighters and Lancasters.
RAF Dounreay opened in 1944 but went straight into care and maintenance. Despite various different proposals it was never used in anger and was eventually handed back to the Air Ministry and in 1954 construction began on a nuclear power station of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
RAF Tain reopened in 1951 in its original role as a weapons range. Over time it has become one of the busiest ranges in the UK, serving aircraft from the RAF, USAF and other NATO countries. RAF Alness continued after the war as a Marine Craft unit operating inshore motor vessels for Search and Rescue and support to near bye Tain range. The unit was civilianized in the 1980s and RAF Alness finally closed in 1986.
In the second half of the 1950s as part of the UK’s Programme (ROTOR 3) to provide radar cover for the north and west of the British Isles a radar site was built at RAF Faraid Head for service from 1956. However, the programme was overtaken by events and Faraid Head was dismantled in Feb 1957 and the site was abandoned in Sep 1958. One of the buildings was renovated for use as a range control tower for the Cape Wrath and Garvie Island naval ranges still in use today. Two new Ground Control Intercept stations were also proposed as part of the ROTOR 3 programme, with one at Wick although it was never completed.
Wick was originally a grass strip used by Highland Airways later Scottish Airways Ltd from 1933 to 1939. British European Airways (BEA) ran some unsuccessful scheduled services after the war but it was not until the late 1970s that Loganair were able to make the routes a commercial success. The airfield is now Wick John O’Groats Airport under the control of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL). There are several small airfields in the area. Culbockie near Dingwall, is a private airfield principally used for microlight flying. Knockbain House has a hilltop grass strip used for General Aviation (GA) and there is a grass strip at Portmahomack adjacent to Tain range.
Most of the wartime bases and the odd town and village have memorials to personnel who lost their lives during WW2 and there are individual memorials for specific crash sites scattered across the area. Skitten was the launch pad for Operation Freshman in Nov 1942, a dramatic airborne raid on the German heavy water plant at Vermork, Norway. Sadly the raid went badly wrong and there is a memorial at Skitten to commemorate those soldiers and airmen who lost their lives. One of the most infamous aviation incidents in the area was the death of the Duke of Kent in a Sunderland crash departing from Alness bound for Iceland in Aug 1942. There is a memorial to mark the crash site and a subsidiary stone to mark where the Duke’s body was found, at Eagles Rock, Dunbeath several miles from the nearest road. Another memorial that requires some hillwalking experience is the one near Lochailort to commemorate a Shackleton crash in Dec 1967.
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