100 years of the RAF in Northern Ireland

The RAF100 Aircraft Tour visited Newcastle in Northern Ireland. 16,000 people came to see the aircraft on display and take part in some of the other activities on offer.

There has been a tradition of people from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland volunteering to serve in the RAF, a tradition which still exists today. 

Ernie Cromie of the Ulster Aviation Society looks back at the links between Northern Ireland and the RAF.

Before the RAF was formed in April 1918, its predecessors, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, had established a number of airbases in Ireland where airships and aeroplanes had been carrying out offensive operations against U-boats and establishing training depots.

A logistical role was emerging, focused upon Aldergrove, which was developed as an aircraft acceptance park to receive and test-fly hundreds of aircraft being constructed in Belfast by shipbuilders Harland and Wolff.

In 1925, No 502 (Ulster) Squadron was formed at Aldergrove, the first of 21 squadrons of the Special Reserve and Auxiliary Air Force squadrons to be formed in the UK. Initially a bombing squadron, it joined RAF Coastal Command in 1938, being awarded five battle honours in the war against enemy U-boats and shipping prior to disbandment in 1945.

Reformed in 1946, it became a fighter squadron before disbanding with all the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons in 1957, 56 years before being re-embodied at Aldergrove as a non-flying, general squadron in the RAF Reserves.

During the 1930s, the RAF took on additional roles, including the formation of a Meteorological Flight at Aldergrove and the development of an extensive bombing and gunnery range at Lough Neagh.

During the Second World War, there were 25 military airfields in Northern Ireland. All were used by the RAF for various purposes but the most important were those used operationally by RAF Coastal Command – Aldergrove, Limavady, Castle Archdale, Nutts Corner and Ballykelly. These were critical to the successful outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic.

At least 25 U-boats were destroyed by aircraft operating from them, most by Ballykelly-based types, notably the B-24 Liberator. Sunderland flying boats also played a significant role, operating from Lough Erne via an air corridor established by secret agreement negotiated between the governments of the UK and neutral Eire.

The war over, the number of RAF stations gradually declined. Ballykelly, which played an important role during the Cold War, closed in 1971 the penultimate closure being of the defence radar facility at Bishops Court, in 1990.

Aldergrove continued to be a very active station and in 1957 was awarded the Freedom of Belfast. With the end of Operation Banner (1969-2007) however, the station’s days were numbered and in September 2009 the RAF Ensign was lowered for the last time and it became Joint Helicopter Command Flying Station Aldergrove, the sole military aviation presence being the Army Air Corps, with whose helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and those of the Royal Navy, their RAF counterparts had shared a significant chapter in the history of the airfield.

Today the RAF remains present in Northern Ireland through the reformed 502 Sqn Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which has around 140 members and is based at Aldergrove, and through the newly formed Northern Ireland Universities Air Squadron.