The History of RAF Gibraltar
ROYAL AIR FORCE GIBRALTAR – A BRIEF HISTORY
The first record of aviation in Gibraltar was in 1903 when two officers and 16 NCOs brought a captive balloon and equipment to Gibraltar for reconnaissance and flew from the southern end of the Rock.
The first two RAF camps were constructed in Gibraltar at the beginning of the second world war, The first was North Front Camp which was previously a racecourse, this was to become the main camp. The second was New Camp which was built on reclaimed land next to Montague Bastion. Although these were the first RAF camps in Gibraltar, the history of the RAF’s involvement here starts somewhat earlier.
The idea of an airfield in Gibraltar dates back to the 1920's when the then Governor of Gibraltar and his counterpart in Algeciras formulated a plan to construct a landing strip. The plan however, was rejected by both the Spanish and British governments. Permission was however granted to operate an air passenger service from Gibraltar to Tangier in 1931. The service operated from the racecourse, but was terminated after only three months due to maintenance difficulties.
Work began on a grass strip on 3rd September 1934 and was completed 18 months later on 10th March 1936, all for the princely sum of £573. It was during this construction period that the RAF first dispatched military aircraft to Gibraltar.
Construction of a solid surface runway began in late 1939 and in 1940 it was proposed to extend the existing runway to a length of 1550 Yards. The land reclamation commenced towards the end of 1941 along with the construction of an RAF camp at North Front. It was during this period that the RAF dispatched their next squadron to Gibraltar. It was in September 1939 that war with Germany was declared and the strong possibility of German submarines concentrating in the straits of Gibraltar and using Spanish port facilities, loomed large in Admiralty thinking. So at 0900 hrs on the 9th September 1939 No 202 Sqn was ordered to Gibraltar, loaded to the gunwales with equipment.
It was just after the arrival of No 202 Sqn that No 200 Coastal Group was formed with its headquarters in the Bristol Hotel. It operated as part of RAF Mediterranean Area in control of No 202 Sqn. Later a combined HQ was formed with the Royal Navy at the Tower in the dockyard, and commenced operations in early 1942.
It was at the end of November 1941 that it was decided that the runway should be extended seaward to give a total length of 1550 yards. Construction teams were brought from the UK and stone was blasted from the North face of the Rock and dumped into the sea along with stone taken from tunnel construction at a rate of 7,500 tons/day. The 1,150 yard point was reached on the evening of 3rd April 1942.
The runway was ready for use to it’s full length of 1800 yards in July 43. But towards the end of that year operations in Gibraltar began to dwindle. However, there was no reduction in transit aircraft. In October 1944 RAF New Camp came to an end and became a satellite of North Front.
Considering the amount of aircraft movements during the war there were relatively few accidents, but the most famous was on 4th July 1943 when a Liberator carrying the Polish Prime Minister crashed shortly after take off killing all but the pilot.
In 1955 the runway was extended to its current length of 6000 ft which supports all current day RAF aircraft apart from the VC10 and Tristar. Since the disbandment of 224 Sqn in 1966, there have been no RAF aircraft permanently based here. Though on the closure of the border with Spain in 1969 a detachment of initally Hunters, then Jaguars was based here until the 1980s. Aswel as numerous Nimrod, Fleet Requirement Unit, Buccaneer and allied maritime patrol aircraft involved in Exercises with the Royal Navy and allied Navies. Since then however, RAF Gibraltar has settled into a new role of providing an operational deployment and staging facility and a strategically important Forward Operating Base from which aircraft, personnel and equipment can be deployed as required. It has been extensively used in this role during the Falklands conflict, the Gulf War, Bosnia and very recently in British deployments to Sierra Leone. Also its unique location at the gateway to the Mediterranean offers an invaluable training facility to RAF, RN and allied crews.
Due to Defence cuts RAF Gibraltar has been dramatically reduced in size and many services within the station have been civilianised. In fact the airfield is now run by less than 45 RAF servicemen, commanded by a Wing Commander. Although now a much smaller unit RAF Gibraltar continues to play a critical role within British Forces Gibraltar. The number of aircraft movements over recent years has shown a steady increase and the station’s future looks assured.