Flying over 'Ben Twitch'
A brief history of Limavady airfield during the second world war
Limavady airfield (locally known as Aghanloo) is situated to the north west of Ireland along the northern shore of Lough Foyle, twelve miles east of Derry. It was, like many wartime airfields, built through necessity, in terrain much unsuited for wartime flying conditions.
To the west of the airfield lay Lough Foyle and the hills of Inishowen, to the north Binevenagh, and to the east the hills around the Roe Valley. Hardly ideal flying conditions! Binevenagh, rising to 1260 feet, lay within the airfield circuit and was to prove a rather formidable obstacle in poor weather conditions and during night flying, especially when the Operational Training Unit (OTU) was based there during the 1942-43 period. To the aircrews of Limavady and Ballykelly the sentinel landmark was nicknamed ‘Ben Twitch’ in recognition of how they often felt when flying low over this beautiful but menacing mountain.
The initial site survey two miles north of the town of Limavady was taken in 1938 and construction approval was given in the same year at an estimated cost of £500,000. Construction commenced in August 1938, a month before the outbreak of war, with the initial purpose of building an armaments’ training and coastal reconnaissance base. The station was opened in September 1940, and the first recorded use was in December 1940 when ‘A’ Flight of 502 (Ulster) Auxiliary Squadron arrived with their Whitleys from Aldergrove. They were joined the following month by detachments of 272 Squadron with Blenheims and 224 Squadron with Hudsons.
Those early days saw makeshift arrangements for everything, and more than one ex-Limavady airman described the site as a ‘sea of mud’. The ground crew had to carry out maintenance in the open, in wind and rain, and this combined with the intense cold made the new aerodrome a bleak place in the early months of 1941.
The first Wellingtons to arrive came in April 1941, when ‘B’ Flight of 221 Squadron arrived from Bircham Newton in Norfolk, England in advance of a full squadron move to Limavady the following month. No.221 Squadron’s Wellingtons were equipped with the new Air-to-Surface radar deemed most urgent in the Atlantic War.
When the Squadron arrived at Limavady the runways and perimeter track were in place but the technical buildings had not yet been erected. The Squadron personnel had to use wooden huts, hastily built as temporary accommodation, and even took over a farmhouse in a dispersal area.
Despite the conditions, 221 did not take long to settle in, and as construction continued, operations increased. New Bellman hangars now housed aircraft from three Squadrons and the technical site began to take shape, with a new operations block now fully functional. No221 Squadron maintained the lowest loss rate per hours flown in Coastal Command at the time, and their crews built up a pattern of steady experience, which became invaluable and was later injected into other squadrons.
Sir Henry Tizard, the man behind Air-to-Surface Vessel (ASV) Radar, visited the squadron at Limavady to assess its performance. From talking there to pilots such as Tony Spooner and Eric Starling, he obtained valuable information that would certainly have led to improved versions of ASV No221 Squadron also carried out experiments in the use of the Leigh Light tasked to attack submarines at night.
In June 1941, the first squadron of long-range Liberators was established at Nutts Corner airfield near Belfast, under the command of a Belfast man, Wing Commander ‘Mac’ McBratney. This was No120 Squadron, destined to become Coastal Command’s top U-boat killers. Personnel from 221 Squadron were part of the squadron nucleus: Flying Officer Jimmy Proctor and crew and Flying Officer Jimmy Ray and crew being the first to transfer.
Others, such as Tony Spooner, were posted to Malta as part of a Wellington ‘Special Duties Flight’. Having been billeted in a farmhouse some three miles from the airfield in the quiet Ulster countryside, moving to Malta, an island under siege from the Axis airforce, presented a big change and a new challenge. Tony Spooner was later awarded the DSO and DFC.
No221 Squadron established themselves so well at Limavady that even after the squadron moved to Iceland in September and just as they were beginning to feel at home in Ireland, the squadron continued to maintain its aircraft at Limavady (in hangars which still stand today) before an eventual move to the Middle East in 1942.
American built Lockheed Hudsons of No224 Squadron were also a familiar sight on the station during this period.
No502 Squadron, who lost several crews in crashes while at Limavady, was formed as a special reserve unit at Aldergrove in 1925. In 1937, with most of the personnel local part-timers, they were converted to Coastal Command, flying Ansons. By early 1941 they were flying Whitleys with ASV radar out of Limavady on Atlantic patrols. Their first success came on February 11, 1941, when Flying Officer J Walker and crew damaged U-93, three hundred miles North West of Ireland. The aircraft, though damaged by returning fire, returned safely and landed at Aldergrove. U-93 met its fate on January 15, 1942, when it was depth-charged by the Destroyer Hesperus.
Throughout the winter of 1941 the squadron continued to locate and attack U-Boats, leaving two badly damaged. They left Limavady for England in January 1942, firstly to Chivenor in North Devon, then to Bircham Newton in Norfolk before a final move to St Eval in Cornwall, where it converted to Halifaxes. 502 Squadron successfully continued its onslaught against U-Boats around the Bay of Biscay until the end of the war.
By the end of 1941, Nos 502, 224 and 221 Squadrons and detachments of 53, 217, 272 and 500 Squadrons had served at Limavady.
In April 1942, the airfield’s role changed to training and No7 (Commonwealth) Operational Training Unit (No7 OTU), equipped with Wellingtons, was formed at Limavady. The airfield had grown in size, and training facilities were expanded to accommodate two years of General Reconnaissance and Air-To-Surface Vessel radar training.
With so many over-water flights in poor weather and with high ground on its circuit, the OTU’s own accident rate was high. In one night in 1943 (January 2/3), three aircraft were lost. However, if the total amount of sorties flown are taken into account during the two years the OTU spent at Limavady, the ratio of losses is in fact very low.
No7 OTU moved to Haverfordwest in South Wales at the beginning of January 1944, and the station returned to operations when 612 Squadron and a Canadian Squadron 407 arrived with Wellington XIVs. They were there for three months until April 1944. During their stay 407 Squadron lost two aircraft in action, but two U-Boats (U-545 and U-283) were successfully attacked and sank by aircraft from these two Squadrons.
In the summer of 1944, aircraft from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm used the airfield, but in September No407 Squadron, along with 172 Squadron returned to Limavady, and on the last day of the year 407 sank U-772. This U-Boat had, in the week prior to its sinking, attacked and sunk three British merchant ships and damaged two American merchant vessels. All 48 crew from the U-Boat were lost, as was the case when 407 Squadron sank U-283 earlier in the year.
No172 Squadron remained at Limavady, flying patrols, until it disbanded on June 4, 1945.
The Battle of the Atlantic was, without doubt, a hard-won victory and was achieved at a cost of much suffering. One veteran described the 50th anniversary in May 1995 as about remembering old friends, many of whom died to bring about that victory.
The Germans also paid a high price. 28,000 U-Boat crewmen are listed as dead or missing, and 5,000 were taken prisoner from a force of approximately 37,000 men. They were in the main young volunteers who endured great hardship, cramped in dank dark conditions for weeks on end. They breathed foul air living in wet clothes, slept in damp beds, choked on poisonous fumes, ate mouldy food and most died in terrifying circumstances, in their ‘iron coffins’.
RAF Coastal Command were never attributed the same glory as fighter pilots or the daring of Bomber Command; yet it was these men, flying long and often tedious patrols, keeping the U-Boats at bay, who held and then secured Britain’s lifeline.
In churchyards all over the north of Ireland lie the remains of men from Britain and its Commonwealth. The majority died in crashes, victims of poor weather and hostile terrain, but also as a result of enemy action.
By John Quinn