ROYAL AIR FORCE DREM

- HISTORY -

Background
World War One
The 1920s and 1930s
First Blood
Day of Tragedy
Royal Visit
The Blitz
The Drem Lighting System
RAF Drem Bombed
Night Fighter Squadrons
The Royal Navy and HMS Nighthawk
The Germans Land at Drem
The Present
Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF)

Background

The Firth of Forth river estuary is perhaps best known for its scenic iron-girdered railway bridge, built in the late 1800s, which links Midlothian on the south side with the county of Fife to the north. Besides this strategic bridge, at the time of the World Wars, a major naval base lay on the north bank at Rosyth. The city of Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, received attention from Zeppelins during World War One, and bombers during World War Two.

Royal Air Force Station Drem was one of the most active fighter stations in Scotland during World War Two. Situated in East Lothian, some 20 miles east of the city of Edinburgh, its important position at the mouth of the Forth estuary provided first-line cover for the city, the Forth Bridge and naval base at Rosyth. It also lay in the path of German bombers heading over to Glasgow and Clydebank.

World War One

An airfield existed on this site from 1916, when it was known as West Fenton Aerodrome. The runways were of grass, remaining so throughout its existence. Through 1916-17 it was used by 77 Home Defence Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. No.2 Training Depot Station opened in April 1918 with Avro 504K, SE5a, Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel biplanes. Also, between April and August, an American unit, the 41st Aero Squadron were temporarily based here.

The 1920s and 1930s

By the end of World War One, West Fenton had been renamed Gullane Aerodrome. It was vacated in 1919 and remained unused until 1933. It then saw occasional use during coastal defence exercises by 602 (City of Glasgow), and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadrons, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Both were bomber squadrons at that time, flying Hawker Hart biplanes. Both 602 and 603 Squadrons were redesignated as fighter squadrons a few years later.

With the war clouds looming once again in 1939, the grass airfield which had grown into disrepair, was resurfaced, and renamed RAF Drem. The first unit to use the newly surfaced airfield was 13 Flying Training School, with Airspeed Oxford, Hawker Hart and Audax aircraft.

First Blood

When hostilities began with Germany, RAF Drem became a fighter defence base. 602 Squadron Spitfire Mk.1 aircraft moved in on 13 October, and on the 16th flew from here to intercept the first air raid by German bombers on Britain - twelve Junkers Ju88 attacking naval shipping near the Forth Bridge. Spitfires from 603 Squadron, based at RAF Turnhouse near Edinburgh, joined the fight and claimed the first kill - a Ju88 which hit the sea off Port Seton. Drem aircraft of 602 shot down a second '88 off the Fife village of Crail a few minutes later, the kill being claimed by Flight Lieutenant Pinkerton. These two Ju88s were the first enemy aircraft downed over Britain in World War Two.






On 22 October 1939, a further incursion by a single German Heinkel HeIII bomber ended with it being shot down into the sea further down the coast. On 28th, 602 and 603 Squadrons were scrambled to intercept another HeIII returning from a reconnaissance mission over the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland. Spotted over the island of Inchkeith in the Forth, the HeIII was riddled with .303 bullets and chased inland. Two of the four crew were killed, leaving the pilot and navigator uninjured. The pilot showed remarkable airmanship by crash-landing the stricken plane on an East Lothian hillside with very little airspeed. Unfortunately, the pilot fractured his spine in the impact - an injury not known until later. The dead crewmen were buried with full military honours. The HeIII was the first German aircraft to be taken more or less intact, and provided much intelligence value. During the winter of 1939-40, several more such aircraft were successfully intercepted and either chased away or shot down by fighters from RAF Drem.


German Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph of RAF Drem, 1940
Click on Photo to Enlarge

Day of Tragedy

21 December 1939, a tragic day in 602's history. A combination of errors led to the shooting down of friendly aircraft, and loss of life. A flight of RAF 44 Squadron Handley-Page Hampden bombers were approaching the south coast of the Firth of Forth without properly identifying themselves as friendly, by lowering their undercarriage. Spitfires of 602 Squadron were hastily scrambled, taking-off crosswind. The light was poor, and such was the time of heightened tension, that the Handley-Page Hampdens bore a remarkable resemblance to Dornier Do17 bombers. They both had the same basic layout of twin-engines, and twin-fins on the tailplane. The Hampdens fired flares to confirm their identity, but they were in the wrong sequence. The Spitfires engaged. Two of the Hampdens were shot down in the Forth before the Spitfires realised their mistake. Remarkably, only one Hampden crewmember lost his life.

The remaining Hampdens were escorted into Drem by the Spitfires, and landed safely. They stayed overnight, and the next morning after having taken off, turned and roared back over the airfield at full-throttle, bombing the 602 Squadron quarters with hundreds of toilet rolls! Such black humour shrouded much deeper feelings of dispair and terror, necessarily swept aside as the real threat continued. An inquiry absolved 602's pilots of any responsibility in the accident - just one of many hundreds of "friendly-fire" tragedies to occur in all theatres of the war.

Royal Visit

On 9 February 1940, the Spitfire of 602 Squadron's Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Douglas Farquhar, machine-gunned an HeIII flying over Fife, which subsequently crossed the Forth to crash intact near North Berwick Law. The bomber was taken by road to Drem, where it was repaired and flown to England for evaluation, being given RAF markings. It was used for three years by the RAF for aerial-combat training, until destroyed with tragic loss of life during a landing accident.

On 28 February 1940, King George VI visited RAF Drem, during which he awarded Squadron Leader Farquhar with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Accompanying the King was chief of Fighter Command, Air Marshall Dowding. A few months later, Dowding would lead the remarkable defence against German aerial onslaught in the south, which became known as the Battle of Britain. During the fine summer of 1940, as this battle raged over the English Channel and English cities and counties within range of German bombers, RAF Drem saw a constant stream of different fighter squadrons. Being posted to Drem was usually a temporary rest, and involved patrolling the east coast, escorting convoys and intercepting single bombers and formations.

The Blitz

Scotland was not subjected to the same mass formations of German bombers as England. The ship building centre of Clydebank, near Glasgow, did however receive a terrible pounding. Bombers flew from northern Germany and from the occupied Scandanavian countries, and were at the limits of their range and endurance. They were also totally without fighter cover, Messerschmitts not having the range to fly escort. The Firth of Forth became known by Luftwaffe aircrews as "Suicide Corner". Their bravery for flying such missions, usually alone and with odds stacked against them, cannot be disputed.

Various fighter types were stationed at Drem from 1939-1945, including Whirlwinds, Defiants, Beaufighters, Typhoons, Tempests and Mustangs. Predominantly though, Spitfires and Hurricanes provided the mainstay throughout the war. Please see links below to the "Aircraft" and "Squadrons" pages.

The Drem Lighting System

Of considerable significance was the development at Drem of a special airfield lighting system, which enabled Spitfires and Hurricanes to circuit and land safely at night. So successful was this system that it became standard at all RAF airfields, and was known as the DREM LIGHTING SYSTEM - click on link for more details.

RAF Drem Bombed

On 12 August 1942, Drem became the target for a Junkers Ju88 flying at low level over the East Lothian countryside. The intruder roared over the accommodation and hangar areas, dropping a stick of bombs across the grass airfield. Although the bombs missed the main runway areas, the control tower and some Spitfires received fragment damage. There was one fatality though, at the perimeter of the airfield - a cow!

Night Fighter Squadrons

RAF Drem came to have a significant connection with night fighters. The Bristol Blenheims of No.29 Squadron were the first in April 1940, then 600 (City of London) RAuxAF Bristol Beaufighters in 1941. De Havilland Mosquitos of 605 Squadron flew night intruder missions over Europe from RAF Drem in 1943.

No.1692 (Radio Development) Flight was a secret unit which was assigned with disrupting German radar and radio transmissions - a form of early Electronic Counter Measures. Formed at Drem on 5 July 1943, the Flight experimented with aircraft-mounted radar equipment and jamming devices, and worked on the principles and techniques for employing them.

The Royal Navy and HMS Nighthawk

Between 1942 and 1946, RAF Drem had a Royal Navy presence. The airfield came under the Admiralty entirely in 1945, and was named HMS NIGHTHAWK - click on link for more details.

The Germans Land at Drem - in Peace

On 11 May 1945, three Luftwaffe Junkers Ju52 tri-motor transport aircraft flew from Stavanger in Norway to Drem. Painted white overall to advertise their non-aggression, these aircraft carried Wehrmacht officers responsible for surrendering the German forces stationed in Norway. The Ju52s were escorted to Drem by Spitfires of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron. After the delegation was driven away to Edinburgh Castle in a grand motorcade of staff cars and motorcycle outriders, the Ju52s left Drem again. Their fate is unknown.

Drem was once again returned to the Air Ministry from the Admiralty on 15 March 1946, however it was soon decommissioned, the grass runways being ploughed up and cultivated.

The Present

Only a small number of the hundreds of RAF buildings now remain, including two hangars. The original grass runways no longer exist, having been returned to farmland.

The majority of surviving buildings are now occupied by small businesses as part of the Fenton Barns Retail Village. The atmosphere of the old airfield is still tangible however, and faded memories hang heavy in the air.

A small permanent historical collection and exhibition is open to the public, with free admission. Operated under the auspices of the Arts & Crafts Gallery at Fenton Barns Retail Village, it is located in what was the WAAF accomodation. The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (click for more information) performed a wide variety of duties at RAF Drem, and were vital to the running of the station.

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RAF DREM COLLECTION HISTORY
SQUADRONS AIRCRAFT
PHOTO GALLERY LOCATION MAP
MEMORIAL