Long Kesh 'Half town'

The story of an airfield

Proposed plans to build a new state of the art sports stadium on the site of the Maze prison and the old Long Kesh internment camp brought the prison back into the media spotlight recently.

To a whole generation, the very name of Long Kesh strikes a cord of political unrest, conflict, internment, hunger strikes, death and escapes. Whatever view one has of its legacy, the Maze/Long Kesh has become an integral part of our current history. Too much happened and subsequently developed from within those H Blocks to just simply ‘wipe it away’, so whatever proposal comes to fruition in ensuring some kind of landmark memorial, it can only, from a historical viewpoint, be a good thing.

But Long Kesh has another history, set in a different type of war, which has been forced into the background, yet its role then is as much of interest to historians, as today’s is.

Opened as an airfield on completion by the British Army’s Royal Engineers in November 1941, it was first used for R.A.F. squadrons to train in low level close support during army exercises. With nearby Maghaberry as its satellite, Long Kesh or ‘Halftown’ as it was known within the locality, acted in a low level role into 1942, the only prominent event being a two month stay by No 74 squadron, R.A.F., with their Spitfires flying defensive patrols.

In August 1942, it was inspected for use by the USAAF., but this did not materialise, although it was used temporarily as USAAF. HQ before they moved to Kircassock House, near Lurgan, in October 1942. In the same month as the Americans were thinking of moving in to Long Kesh, Short Brothers did. They used part of the airfield as an out-station of Sydenham, to assemble and flight-test the heavy Stirling bomber.

However, Long Kesh was to come to the fore as an RAF Coastal Command training airfield as No 5 OTU (Operational Training Unit) moved in to both the ‘Kesh’ and Maghaberry at the beginning of 1943, with their Beaufort aircraft.

Many of these training crews were tasked with tackling Cross Country Navigational Exercises (NAVEX) – night flying practice and other general aircrew training in an area surrounded by a terrain of hills. A similar training unit No 7 OTU was based at Limavady throughout 1943.

Accidents were to be expected flying from airfields surrounded by high ground in restrictive wartimes conditions, but the rate of Beaufort incidents became so serious that within four months they were grounded for engine review. Too many accidents had been caused as a result of engine seizure and a result of reviews discovered that the trouble lay in the oil pipe. This was rectified by a new modified joint being fitted to the oil pipe.

In the spring of 1943 there were over 50 serious incidents with the Beaufort. The other aircraft being used by the OTU, the Hampden, faired much better. In the first two years of the second world war, the Hampden had been the workhorse of Bomber Command in its raids over Germany. However, they were proving to be inadequate for the role and scale of the raids which RAF Bomber Command needed to adopt. They began to pull them out of service to be replaced by the four-engined ‘heavys’ such as the Halifax and Lancaster.

The Hampden was a twin-engined medium bomber with a range of 2,000 miles and it saw service with Bomber Command until withdrawn from a frontline role in September 1942. It continued for another year as a torpedo bomber, mine-laying aircraft and Coastal Command trainer, thus its use by 5 OTU at Long Kesh.

In comparison to the Beaufort, the accident rate of the Hampden was much lower, with ten crashes being recorded. Despite this, these aircraft, or the ex-bomber command Wellingtons being used by 7 OTU at Limavady where many accidents occurred, should never, after their rigorous service, have been used in a training role. Once again, necessity dictated.

In October 1943, 5 OTU converted to Hudsons and continued to operate from Long Kesh, until March 1944, when after its 14 month stay, it moved to Turnberry in Strathclyde, Scotland.

Two squadrons of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm moved into Long Kesh following 5 OTU’s departure, and Hampdens were replaced by 809 Squadron’s Seafires and 879’s Hurricats. The Fleet Air Arms stay was the last real piece of air activity from the airfield with the exception of the RAF’s No 190 Squadron’s stay on training operations for eight months in 1945.

As if to add a final seal to its wartime history, the British King and Queen and the then Princess Elizabeth, landed in a Dakota at Long Kesh on the July 17, 1946, for their first ‘air’ visit to the north. The airfield finally closed in 1946 being kept under care and maintenance until 1948 when like Limavady, it was used by the British Army as a REME vehicle depot.

In 1969, when the recent conflict broke out, what was the British Army’s Command Vehicle Park, became a vast tented encampment for the flow of soldiers pouring into the north. After the introduction of internment without trial on the August 9, 1971, Long Kesh became an internment camp, surrounded by watchtowers and searchlights and styled on the compound or ‘cage’ system of second world war POW camps.

The Nissen huts were the young airmen of 5 OTU once billeted, now had new occupants – Republican internees. One of the huts was said to be haunted by a ghostly figure of an airman complete with flying uniform.

The infamous H Blocks were built amongst the old ‘frying pan’ hardstandings in the mid-70s, by which time most of the internees had been released, as the British attempted to de-politicise those imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

In the early 80s, military units, including a helicopter flight occupied most of the wartime accommodation. One of the four T2 hangers which housed the aircraft remained, as did two Bellman and five of the original six blister hangers.

Traces of the dispersed living sites of which there were seven, can still be seen amid the narrow roads around the former airfield, which was built at an estimated cost of £900,000 by the Royal Engineers and H & J Martin contractors.

By John Quinn