Royal Flying Corps Station West Fenton
The history of Royal Flying Corps Station West Fenton has been sidelined under its greater role as RAF Drem during World War Two. The remains at the site today are mostly from the later period and many of the surviving buildings have been diverted to agricultural and industrial purposes. A small museum that provided a context for the site flourished for a period – but even it barely touched on the station’s start. However, enough is understood to be able to outline the earlier history of the aerodrome and the units stationed there.
West Fenton began in 1916 as a landing ground for aircraft of 77 Home Defence Squadron. That unit had been tasked with protecting the Forth Estuary and, owing to the limitations on the range and speed of the aircraft available at the start of the war, the squadron was dispersed over a number of widely separated bases. It later concentrated at Penston and West Fenton became home to No2 Training Depot.
Training depots were the military’s solution to the efficient production of crew and staff for the different aviation roles that evolved during the war. No2 Training Depot specialised in training ‘scout’ pilots – flying the classic fighters of the period. It had up to 36 Avro 504s and 36 SE5s on establishment, but is also known to have flown Sopwith Pups and Camels. Each cadre it had under training consisted of 120 officer candidates and 60 NCOs. To support them the unit had 50 officers for administration and training duties and around 400 enlisted men. They were complemented by 200 women serving under 7 ‘forewomen’ – the forerunners of the WRAF. At some point in 1918 a school for boy enlistees seems to have operated.
When the RAF was formed in April 1918 the station was renamed RAF Gullane. Shortly thereafter, it hosted an American unit, the 41st Aero Squadron, which underwent training over East Lothian before deployment to France.
1918 was the peak of West Fenton’s operational life. This is tragically reflected in the Police Casualty Record Books (held at the John Gray Centre). Inspection of the entries reveals that between April 1918 and October 1918, 9 aircraft were lost with eight fatalities. Other entries note accidents to the construction teams at the site: riggers fall from roofs, military motor vehicle cause accidents and other serious incidents. The ledgers also give an indication of the wartime infrastructure: injured servicemen were evacuated to the Royal Naval Hospital at Granton or the nearby Gullane VAD Hospital.
The station was wound down at war’s end. It was then closed during 1919 and sold, in 1923, to the proprietor of Fenton Barns. Much of the site was adapted for agricultural purposes – at least until war clouds began again to gather. But that’s another story.
The Story of Drem Airfield, George J. F. Simpson