The History of RAF Gibraltar
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.
Two RAF camps were constructed in Gibraltar at the beginning of the second world war. The first was RAF North Front on the site of the old racecourse which was to become the main camp. The second was RAF New Camp which was built on reclaimed land next to Montague Bastion. Although these were the first permanent RAF camps in Gibraltar, the history of aviation and the RAF’s involvement 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. However, the plan was rejected by both the Spanish and British governments. Permission was 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 land reclamation commenced towards the end of 1941 along with the construction of the RAF camp at North Front. Following the declaration of war with Germany in September 1939 it was identified that there was a strong possibility of German submarines concentrating in the straits of Gibraltar and using Spanish port facilities.
At 0900 on the 9th September 1939 No 202 Squadron was ordered to Gibraltar, loaded to the gunwales with equipment. Shortly after their arrival No 200 Coastal Group was formed with it's headquarters in the Bristol Hotel. It operated as part of RAF Mediterranean Area and later a combined HQ was formed with the Royal Navy at the Tower in the dockyard. This commenced operations in early 1942.
At the end of November 1941 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 per day. The runway was ready for use to it’s full length in July 1943 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 feet which supports all current day RAF aircraft apart from Voyager. Since the disbandment of 224 Squadron in 1966 there have been no RAF aircraft permanently based here, although, on the closure of the border with Spain in 1969 a detachment of Hunters, then Jaguars, operated from here until the 1980s.
Since then 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 Sierra Leone interventions. Also, it's unique location at the gateway to the Mediterranean offers an invaluable training facility to RAF, RN and allied crews.