Please note: due to the recent Covid-19 outbreak the Centre is currently closed, but our website is still open for business.

Royal Naval Air Station East Fortune

A directive to open an air station at East Fortune was issued in September 1915 and the first Royal Navy aircraft arrived at the end of that month. The number of fixed wing craft increased steadily over the winter. They trained in fleet cooperation but in the spring they were called upon to intercept German Zeppelins heading for the Forth. As the base began to develop, military thinking was already planning the next moves. These plans would create Royal Naval Air Station East Fortune.

Airships over East Lothian

Airships over East Lothian

Urgent countermeasures were needed to deal with the submarines of the Imperial German Navy, which had been unleashed on merchant shipping in the North Sea. Britain’s own airships, although inferior to the German Zeppelins, had a marked advantage over fixed wing aircraft when it came to submarine hunting. They could both spot and linger above submerged submarines. And carry a useful bomb load! The names of the steadily improving airship classes make the priorities of the service plain: Sea Scout, Coastal, and North Sea. So the powers that be organised a chain of stations round our coasts to deploy the growing number of airships. East Fortune became an integral part of the chain.

Landing a North Sea Class Airship

Landing a North Sea Class Airship

Development now went on apace. New facilities were constructed, including two monster airship hangers (and a third by the end of the war). Royal Naval Air Station East Fortune was formally declared operational on 23 August 1916. The base eventually housed several thousand personnel. The aviators needed a whole train of support staff: mechanics and fabricators, clerks and storemen, drivers and cooks and a whole panoply of others.

Fixed wing aircraft were at East Fortune all through the war. Most were associated with the naval forces in the Forth; they used East Fortune for training and as a depot. Others were associated with training, an element that increased greatly over time.  Although East Fortune was far from the main fighting fronts, it was an operational as well as a training station. Consequently, it suffered losses.

Crashed aircraft

Crashed aircraft, possibly ‘somewhere in East Lothian’

East Lothian Police Casualty Books record some of these. Six East Fortune based aircraft losses between the years 1916 -1919 are briefly detailed: 12 lives were lost in these incidents. Non-fatal crashes are harder to trace – it is certain there would be many more.

Further developments began in 1918. East Fortune was selected as a base for a new kind of warfare: torpedo bombing. A Torpedo Training School (later 201 Training Squadron) was set up in July 1918. A flotilla of sea-going launches were stationed at Dunbar Harbour. Belhaven Sands were designated a landing ground (complete with hanger and huts on the sands) and Belhaven Bay became a torpedo range! New aircraft were deployed for trials, which began on the 3rd July. The following month the colonel commanding the base forwarded his recommendation: the Sopwith Cuckoo would be the first production torpedo bomber. More arrived at East Fortune and training began in earnest with the intention of tackling the German High Seas Fleet in its home ports. But it was not to be. There were three stumbling blocks. Although an new operational squadron was formed and declared ready at East Fortune, they had never actually worked up on an aircraft carrier. And the Navy had only a single carrier – which was also just newly in service. Thirdly, before these issues could be tackled, the war ended.

The Crew of Airship C20

The Crew of Airship C20

East Fortune was wound down after the war, despite a brief flirtation with rigid airship development. The hangers were dismantled but other station buildings became a Sanatorium. The station was revived during World War Two, served briefly as a stand-in for Edinburgh Turnhouse, and is now home to the Museum of Flight.

Further Reading: Ces Mowthorpe, Battlebags, British Airships of the First World War, Trowbridge, 1995 and external in-page links, above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *