Being rather remotely located, the Western Isles were not in the forefront of aviation development in Scotland, although the area would later benefit from air links, including to some interesting landing sites. We always talk about the weather and the Outer Hebrides are well positioned to receive storms and challenging conditions. However, their position also makes them extremely useful for either extending aircraft search ranges or providing diversion options for aircraft operating out in the North Atlantic, a fact not overlooked during the Cold War.
First World War
Thousands of islanders served during the First World War and the Royal Navy erected a signal station on Hirta, St Kilda. Daily radio communications were established for the first time in the history of this remote island. The island was shelled by a German U-boat in 1918 and a 4-inch naval gun was erected to deter further attacks. While the Western Isles have proved to be important to the defence of the United Kingdom, aviation did not feature during the First World War.
Second World War
The Second World War brought the threat of U-boats to the fore once again and the Outer Hebrides provided important bases to defend against German attacks on the islands and to support Atlantic convoys. RAF Stornoway, on Lewis, was created in 1940 on the site of an old golf course. It was home to various Coastal Command squadrons that patrolled the North Atlantic in search of U-boats and surface raiders. Avro Ansons detached from 612 (County of Aberdeen) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force were the first to operate from Stornoway while it was still under construction. These were replaced by 48 Squadron, also using the Anson later that year. 827 RNAS with Fairey Albacores had already arrive by then to augment the Ansons on their maritime patrols. RAF Stornoway was officially “stood up” on 1 April 1941 as part of No.15 (Reconnaissance) Group and then as part of No.18 (Reconnaissance) Group, remaining a Coastal Command airfield throughout. 66 Air-Sea Rescue Marine Craft Unit from Stornoway Harbour from 1943 to 1944. RAF Stornoway became Stornoway Airport at the end of the Second World War. RAF Benbecula on South Uist came into being between 1941 and 1942 and was a part of Coastal Command. Aircraft operated from Benbecula using Lockheed Hudson, Boeing B-17 and Vickers Wellington aircraft in their vital work in support of convoys, often in extreme conditions.
Post War/Cold War
Post war the airfields were no longer required to base military aircraft and returned to civilian use. However, both had other roles to play as the Cold War became the focus as the Soviet Union strengthen its grip on Eastern Europe and threatening the West. Stornoway became the home of 112 Signals Unit in 1960. This was a and Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) training facility for the then Bomber Command based at RAF High Wycombe. RAF’s V-Bomber Force used the facility for training and evaluation. The facility closed in 1983. However, in the early 1980s part of the Airport was upgraded, this work included the extension of the main runway and taxiways along with new hangars, to accept Tornado aircraft. By 1 April 1982 this work was completed, the buildings commissioned and RAF Stornoway was established once again in order to become a Forward Operations Base. After sixteen years in this role and also the end of the Cold War, the station was finally closed on 31 March 1998 and reverted to Stornoway Airport, although memorials and a static aircraft display give a clue to some of its heritage. A Coastguard manned SAR helicopter unit is also based at Stornoway. Benbecula became a civilian airfield again after the war but the military presence and RAF Benbecula maintained as a radar station was established. Part of the UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS), it was linked with RAF Buchan. Downgraded to a Remote Radar Head (RRH) in the late 1990s, the RAF withdrew from the airfield. Control of the RRH was transferred to RAF Boulmer in Northumberland in September 2004. The site remains active, having had its equipment upgraded over the years and, most recently, in 2015. The Army had a large presence in the Outer Hebrides, operating an artillery range on South Uist. This was developed into a rocket testing site in 1957 with an increase in military presence which was not welcomed by all the islanders at the time, despite this development bringing extra facilities to this remote location. Benbecula became an important guided missile test and evaluation range and is now known as MOD Hebrides.
In 1936 Scottish Airways started operations from Balivanich Airfield, now known as Benbecula. Civil operations recommenced after the Second World War with Loganair as the provider today, providing a vital link for North and South Uist. Stornoway has flights with Loganair and Flybe connecting to the main Scottish Airports. Finally, Barra has the unique laim to fame in using the beach for runways, tide dependant of course! Successful flying operations from Barra are part of the folklore and Loganair’s Twin Otters provide an air service to Glasgow. Ironically the beach offers a choice of three runways so an into-wind runway can invariably be used, very useful with changeable weather conditions.
While not aviators, the diaries, recorded in Gaelic, of three soldiers from Lewis and South Uist on their experiences at St Valery are impressive. Gregor MacDonald, Donald John MacDonald and Archie MacPherson were all members of the Territorial Army before World War Two and were mobilised and deployed with the British Expeditionary Force to France in January 1940. As members of the 51st Highland Division, they were cut off from the rest of the British forces and Dunkirk by an extremely rapid panzer-force advance, led in part by Erwin Rommel. The book – St Valery – The Impossible Odds – is an excellent book and, indeed, an emotional read. These men from the Isles coped with immense hardship and brutality. Gregor MacDonald escaped through Spain and fought again. He was aided, like many others, by the “Tartan Pimpernel” – the Rev Donald Caskie from Islay. An incredible story and you’ll need to buy and read the book to get some idea of the character of these men – absolutely amazing.
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