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Scottish Cradle of Military Aviation – The Scottish Banner

March 31st, 2013

Burkes sheds A Busy Day
2013 MARKS the Centenary Year of Britain’s first operational military airfield which was established in north-east Scotland at Montrose, between Dundee and Aberdeen. The Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre (MASHC) is finalising its preparations to celebrate 100 years of military flight from 1913 – 2013.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in May 1912 as the air arm of the British Army to investigate and assess the military potential of manned flight, and the men of No.2 Squadron were professional soldiers.

As interest in aerial warfare grew Montrose’s strategic coastal position influenced the RFC’s decision to site its first operational airfield there. Aircraft from Montrose Air Station could provide protection such as anti-submarine patrols for Royal Navy ships sailing between Rosyth Naval Docks and Scapa Flow in Orkney, northern base of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. There is a suggestion that Winston Churchill was a prime mover in the decision to come to the town.

The airfield and its host town contributed enormously to the development of military aviation and to the war effort in two World Wars.

The Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre was formed in 1983 after the Ministry of Defence (MOD) had finally given up the facilities at Montrose. The Centre has grown into a national treasure that tells a global story as is evident from the list of nationalities from around the world who trained at Montrose.

Upper Dysart some three miles south of Montrose is a bare, windswept farm and it was here, on a sloping field, that three Maurice Farmans and two BE 2s of No.2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Major Charles Burke, touched down on 26th February 1913. (As a historical footnote, No.1 Squadron had been formed as a balloon squadron for artillery observation.)

It is an indication of the fragility of the earliest aircraft that it had taken thirteen days to fly the 450 miles from Farnborough in Hampshire to Montrose. Few, if anyone, in Montrose was likely to have seen an aeroplane and schoolchildren were given a holiday to watch their arrival – doubtless their teachers were just as excited.

Dysart had no resources. No buildings – the aircraft were housed in tents; no communications; no facilities for servicing the machines and the squadron was billeted in Montrose. It was clearly an impractical spot for a military air station.

Maj. Burke quickly identified the open moorland at Broomfield, at the north end of Montrose, as an ideal location which met many of his criteria for an air station. Flat, with well drained, sandy soil, close to the railway, blessed with good weather conditions for flying and it was already a cavalry depot which smoothed his task of developing it for the RFC’s specific needs.

You always fight the last war and perhaps Maj. Burke’s greatest hurdle was to convince sceptical generals, still fighting the Boer War with horses and lances, that aircraft and aerial warfare had a military value.

One of the earliest improvements instigated by Maj. Burke was the erection of three wooden-framed sheds which allowed the squadron to move from Upper Dysart to Montrose. Known as Burke’s Sheds they still exist in good condition and are believed to be the oldest surviving examples of WW1 aircraft hangars.

Initially Montrose was used to train pilots to fly but it pioneered aerial reconnaissance techniques and aerial photography. The concept of using aeroplanes as fighters carrying armament was another early development.

With flight effectively in its infancy it is not surprising that there were regular crashes and near misses – “one or two accidents a day, not all of them fatal but there would be quite a few in the course of the month.”

Inevitably there were fatalities and the first was Lt. Desmond Arthur on 25th May 1913 whose BE 2 broke up at 2000 feet due to “shoddy repairs” to a broken wing. There was no question of him having the protection of a parachute because High Command refused to issue them to pilots on the grounds that in the event of engine failure pilots’ first thoughts would be for their own safety rather than saving their precious aircraft! Along with other airmen from both World Wars Lt. Arthur is buried in Montrose’s fittingly named Sleepyhillock Cemetery.

The first sighting of Lt. Arthur’s ghost was in 1916 and sightings have continued to the present day along with others of phantom aircraft, a phantom dog and other figures dressed in aviation dress.

On 4th August 1914, a week after the outbreak of World War One, Maj. Burke and No.2 Squadron flew south from Montrose and led the vanguard of four RFC squadrons to France. Thirty six aircraft flew without mishap across the English Channel, an eloquent endorsement of Maj. Burke’s confidence in the capabilities of his aircraft and his men.

In the belief that the war would be over by Christmas the men of No.2 Squadron left their kit at Montrose ready for their return. They never came back.

Throughout the war Montrose Air Station continued as an effective training school for student pilots and expanded its activities. New training aircraft such as SE5As, Airco DH6 Trainers, Avro 504Ks and a French Caudron with wings similar to a bat and controlled on the warped wing principle, were introduced.

New squadrons, Nos. 25, 43, 83 and 80, were formed at Montrose. Trainees came to Montrose from all over the world. Montrose may be able to lay claim to being the birthplace of the Canadian Air Force as No.82 and No.85 (Canadian) Reserve Squadrons were formed there in 1917.

The importance of Montrose in World War One as a training establishment cannot be overemphasised. When No.2 Squadron left Montrose at the beginning of August 1914 the RFC had less than 100 aircraft. By the cessation of hostilities the RFC had transformed into the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1st April 1918 to become an independent service and had over 20,000 aircraft. Many pilots and ground crew had undergone their training at Montrose.

Major Burke did not survive to see the fulfilment of his vision. He had served with distinction and been decorated in the South African (Boer) War. His experience as one of the earliest pioneers of army flying singled him out for CO of the first operative RFC squadron. In 1916, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he returned to his old regiment to command a battalion of the East Lancs (East Lancashire) and was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order).

He was killed in action in 1917 at the Battle of Arras – on the ground.
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The story of Montrose Air Station’s contribution in World War II will appear next month.
The author acknowledges the assistance of volunteers from Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre in the preparation of this article. The Centre’s publication “Learning to Fly at Montrose” has been referred to for quotations.

Written on Sunday, March 31st, 2013 at 5:12 pm for Claivers.