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The First Airfield
Montrose airfield is peaceful now, home to skylarks and rabbits. Only the concrete bunkers around the perimeter and a lonely barrier in the middle of nothing tell a different story. 70 years ago this is where “the few” trained: the young men of the RAF who saved Britain in the hot summer of 1940.
In 1913 Montrose was Britain’s first military airfield and the original hangars are still in use as workshops and warehouses. The first planes flew here from Farnborough in Surrey, taking 12 days. When they needed fuel pilots landed, ordered it from the nearest blacksmith or chemist’s shop, waited for it, and flew on.
Three years later the first squadrons of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) left from Montrose to fight over the trenches in France. Many didn’t return. Most pilots on the Western Front died within two weeks, and the airfield where they trained is notorious for its ghosts.
The Station Headquarters building now houses the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre. My guide, John Melville, told me his ghost experience. He was approached by a middle-aged couple asking to see a photo of their son at the base. He went off to find other information for them; when he returned there was no sign of them and no-one else had seen them. Then someone pointed out that their son had died during World War II…
Visitors are shown a film of the airfield through the years. One lady said, “All the boys enjoyed the film” – ghosts who recognised the buildings, flyers and ground crew featured in the show.
Flying crashes were common around Montrose. The base sits between the mountains and the sea, both lethal to flyers without “blind flying” instruments. (Another ghost story tells of a “shepherd” plane from WWI guiding a WWII pilot down to the base in haar and then vanishing.) Both air/sea- and mountain-rescue were pioneered here.
The museum houses exhibits covering the life of the Air Station from 1913 to 1950, when it closed. One case is devoted to heroes who flew from Montrose, including the pilot Richard Hillary, author of the World War II classic “The Last Enemy”.
The Butler Building houses a Sopwith Camel, standard issue during World War I and famously flown by Biggles. The “kite” seems so small and frail – bits of cloth, wire and balsa wood, more like a model than a fighting machine. There was no protection for the pilot and I was left with a deep admiration for the courage of the men who flew them.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the air is never still at Montrose airfield, however hot the day may be. Some would say it’s because the sea is just over the dunes, but I think it has a lot to do with the ghosts of the aeroplanes and the men and women who flew and maintained them. It doesn’t disturb the rabbits or the skylarks – but it serves to remind you that things were not always so peaceful here.[Since this was written in 2009 the Museum has been enlarged. Do go and visit – you never know what you may see!]