Airships over the Bass, Torpedoes in Belhaven Bay
The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed under Army command during 1912 from the army’s ballooning and engineering aviation units. Its initial strength was 12 balloons and 36 areoplanes. In August 1914 it was able to send a force of 60 areoplanes to France, despite losing control of naval aviation to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), which was formed under Admiralty command in July 1914. Both branches of military aviation were to grow enormously during World War One; they reunited in the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918.
East Lothian took its place in the order of battle of both services, and the new airbases of this period have left traces to this date. Three areodromes and several ‘landing grounds’ were used by the RNAS, RFC and the RAF
Royal Naval Air Station East Fortune was opened in 1915, at first to provide spotter planes for naval operations. East Lothian was ideal for this purpose, as there were many naval assets stationed in the Forth (the battlecruiser element of the Grand Fleet was at Rosyth). The strategic positioning of East Lothian in respect to air operations was further recognised as the war developed. RNAS East Fortune became part of a chain of stations tasked with the defence of merchant shipping in the North Sea: at that stage of technology, airships were the best means of discovering and attacking enemy submarines. To this end a succession of airships were deployed at East Fortune from 1916. Both both inflatable and rigid variants took their place in East Lothian’s skies. They were just some of the more than 200 operated by the RNAS during the war, East Fortune’s complement of these giants of the air being 9 non-rigid and a single rigid at war’s end: this made it the largest such base in Scotland.
Royal Flying Corps West Fenton was in use by 1916 for aircraft from 77 Home Defence Squadron based at Edinburgh Turnhouse. The same squadron also used Royal Flying Corps Penston. When the RAF was formed West Fenton became the home of No2 Training Depot and Penston seems to have operated in conjunction with that depot. As the reorganisation happened, West Fenton also became the base for an American unit, the 41st Areo Squadron, which received advanced training over East Lothian before its deployment to France.
Elsewhere in East Lothian a handful of other sites were designated Landing Grounds. With little in the way of infrastructure, these have mostly left no trace. Landing Grounds were at Gifford, Hoprig Mains, South Belton, Skateraw and at Belhaven Bay. The last named was the trial ground for air-dropped torpedoes in conjunction with aircraft from East Fortune. In addition, sea-going launches were stationed at Victoria Harbour with their crews billeted in Dunbar. These were also nominally part of the East Fortune establishment: their role was torpedo recovery and the control and setting of offshore firing ranges as well as air-sea rescue.
Both areoplanes and airships became a familiar sight in the skies of East Lothian. So much so that by 1917 both featured in postcards produced by Reginald Phillimore of North Berwick. Unfortunately, the expansion of the flying services and the fragile nature of their craft meant that a significant toll was taken of these pioneering aviators. Other records in the archives document, for example, civil authority investigations into accidents, demonstrate that flying accidents increased markedly towards the end of the war and the military’s interaction with the civil authorities can also be followed through County and Burgh Council records. Unfortunately, but perhaps naturally, little was reported in the Haddingtonshire Courier until after the war’s end. Then the public debate centred on the future use of the airfields. To discover more about East Lothian’s role in military aviation, visit us.