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Scottish Cradle of Military Aviation: Part 2 of the story of RAF Montrose 1913-2013 – The Scottish Banner

April 30th, 2013

1940: Squadron Leader John Betty, an instructor with No.8 Flight Training School, Montrose in the raised seat of a Miles Master. 1940: Squadron Leader John Betty, an instructor with No.8 Flight Training School, Montrose in the raised seat of a Miles Master. At 11a.m. on 11th November 1918 the Armistice came into effect marking the end of World War One.

On 1st April 1918 the new military service, The Royal Air Force (RAF), had been formed, evolving from its parent Royal Flying Corps to become an independent aerial warfare service with its own chain of command, gaining its own battle honours and building its own traditions.
The role of RAF Montrose, as it now was, had been enormously important to the advancement of the war. As a training establishment it had provided a stream of pilots for the burgeoning number of newly formed squadrons. It had been at the forefront of the development of aerial warfare, pioneering aerial reconnaissance and aerial photography, and the use of armament.

When war ended there was no suitable peacetime application for the airfield and in 1920 it was mothballed as an operational unit.
The remilitarisation of Germany in the 1930s raised fears of a possible new conflict. In 1935 the British government took the decision to expand the RAF in the face of a growing threat from Germany. A priority was the provision of trained pilots. The occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and annexation of Austria in 1938 added further urgency to this requirement.

RAF Montrose’s previous tactical importance was not forgotten. It was virtually unchanged from the First World War and its runways and hangars could readily be brought back into active service. On 1st January 1936 it reopened as No.8 Flying Training School (FTS).
The coastal town of Montrose is situated between Aberdeen and Dundee in the wide, flat valley known as the Howe of Strathmore, extending from Perth in the south-west to Stonehaven in the north-east. Strathmore’s level features were ideal for the construction of satellite airfields which were established at Edzell, Pert, Stracathro, Kinnell, Tealing and other locations with Montrose as the hub.

These were relief landing grounds and tactical exercise units providing blind approach and air firing and evasive action training; others were wireless servicing and aircraft maintenance and repair depots. It highlighted the resurgence of RAF Montrose and emphasised its importance again as a training school for pilots as well as an operational airfield.

Compared with the Great War there had been almost unbelievable changes, improvements and developments in aircraft design, manufacture and capability. This was reflected in the complexity and level of training the World War Two pilots and other aircrew underwent in aircraft such De Havilland Tiger Moths, Miles Masters for fighter pilots, Airspeed Oxfords for bomber pilots, Hawker Harts and Audax. W/T and signals, navigation, air firing, bombing and night flying were amongst the new skills that the trainee pilots acquired.

From its reopening in 1936 until the end of the Battle of Britain in October 1940 some 800 pilots trained and were awarded their ‘wings’ at Montrose. Amongst those who became fighter pilots names such as Paddy Finucane, ‘Cobber’ Kane and Ian Gleed appear on the Roll of Honour of the elite list of British WWII fighter aces.

A colourful cross-section of nationalities had their first experience of Scotland at RAF Montrose. Many young men from what are now Commonwealth countries came to Britain to play their part in the liberation of Europe. Polish, Czech, Russian, Turkish, Free French and Free Norwegians who had escaped German invasion, made their way to Britain to fight for the liberation of their homelands.

RAF Montrose underwent several identity changes. At the outbreak of World War II, No.8 FTS became No.8 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) and continued to train pilots until it was disbanded in March 1942. Three months earlier No.2 Flying Instructors School (FIS) had been formed to teach pilots selected as flying instructors how to teach flying and navigation to the new intakes of novices.
Besides serving as a training base, Montrose also served as an operational airfield for Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons which formed part of the air defences for Edinburgh. Among the units that flew from Montrose were 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn., 248 Sqn., 141 Sqn., 145 Sqn., 232 Sqn., 111 Sqn.

Montrose could be operational only because of the back-up of ground crews, administration staff, catering staff, stores, transport, medical, NAAFI and other essential support staff and services. Aside from its fundamental combat and training functions, generally Montrose was a happy station with a strong sense of identity and purpose and remarkable esprit de corps. Conditions within the camp appear to have been better than in many others and relations with the local community were excellent.

The north-east of Scotland was well within the operational range of German bombers and fighters and Montrose’s busy airfield was an attractive target. One of the worst attacks occurred on 25th October 1940. Hurricanes of 111 Sqn., on rest from the Battle of Britain had been sent to Montrose to provide airfield protection. German bombers destroyed six aircraft, the officers’ mess, a hangar and there were eight fatalities.

As in the First World War there were training fatalities and the foothills of the Grampian Mountains around Montrose were a regular graveyard for crashed aircraft. An informal Mountain Rescue Team was formed which later became regularised and Montrose can claim to have contributed to the formation of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service under the Directorate of Mountain Rescue.

Victory in Europe Day – VE Day – marked Germany’s surrender on 8th May 1945. No.2 FIS was disbanded in July and, without an operational role, Montrose airfield lost its raison d’etre for a second time and was permanently closed on 4th June 1952.

Local man Ian McIntosh became hooked on the airfield’s story and its contribution to two world wars which were a source of pride to the RAF and the town of Montrose. To preserve its unique heritage Ian and a group of enthusiasts established the Montrose Air Station Museum Trust, now the Ian McIntosh Memorial Trust in memory of Ian’s original driving force.

In 1992 the Trust purchased the former airfield Watch Office with an area of ground attached enabling the Trust to create the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre which houses a collection of national significance, including the important Richard Moss Memorial Collection. The Heritage Centre is dedicated as much to the people who served at Montrose, civilian as well as combatant, as to the artefacts of flight and war.

The opening on 23rd February of a special centenary exhibition in Montrose Museum was attended by the CO and representatives of No.2 Squadron – the squadron’s first visit to Montrose since it left in August 1914 to fly to France at the outbreak of the First World War.

The highlight of the centenary celebrations will be the unveiling in June of a replica Spitfire at the Heritage Centre. The flame of endeavour that characterised RAF Montrose in times of national necessity burns as brightly as ever.
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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 Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 at 5:53 pm for Claivers.