With war looming and a need to expand the RAF, construction work began hastily in the spring of 1938 to establish RAF Kinloss as a pilot training school. Land was requisitioned from local farms Easter Langcot, Muirton and Kinloss as well as Kinloss House and on 1 April 1939 with 14 Flying Training School (FTS) on camp and 45 Maintenance Unit soon to follow, RAF Kinloss opened.
At that time, many of those personnel who were posted to Kinloss had never heard of the station and were taken aback at how far north it was, rumours abound of little daylight and biting winds. However it did have its compensations as it was soon discovered that local hotels were at times an excellent source of food that could not be found further south!
One year later, 14 FTS moved south and were replaced by 19 Operational Training Unit (OTU) training bomber crews for the offensive.
During those early years contractors worked around the clock to lay concrete runways on the airfield. [One of the main concerns at that time was the possibility of enemy attack and many attempts were made to camouflage the airfield. However one attempt to hide the airfield by painting building outlines on grass apparently amused the Germans more than confused them and the camouflage was photographed by a German aircraft and the pictures published in a magazine!]
The station defences were gradually established and by May 1940, Group Captain Jarman reported that the defence of Kinloss was in order.
As the war continued, Airmen living on camp did not find everything cosy, it was often cold, accommodation was poor and with rationing, finding enough food was always a problem. [Things got so bad that at one time, the Group Captain ordered an aircraft to drop a small bomb in Burghead Bay to collect stunned fish! Something the Group Captain himself would get a rocket for today!]
Of course it was not all work and no play, entertainment was important in maintaining morale. The station sports teams were formed although they obviously lacked practise as Huntly beat the RAF 5-1 in their first football match.
Those activities helped to establish a rapport with the local communities who became involved with the Station through the Home Guard and the local Air Training Corps 446 Forres Squadron. In 1941, with many roads blocked after a particularly severe snow fall and many roads were blocked, the local population, station personnel and the Station Commander, set to with shovels and marched up and down the runway to keep the planes flying.
Throughout the majority of the war 19 Operational Training Unit was the primary training unit. Between July 1940 and June 1941 it flew over 22,073 hours almost four times the rate achieved by 14 FTS the previous year.
The war seemed a long way off from Kinloss but as the months went by the Station flag appeared to be almost permanently at half mast as aircraft frequently crashed on training sorties. Unfortunately the inexperience of the pilots being pushed through training to supply front line squadrons, the worn-out aircraft and poor weather caused many accidents, over 68 in the first year of 19 OTU’s operations. Sadly, many of those arriving at Kinloss for the first time saw the remains of aircraft around the airfield and at one time, even on Tolbooth Street, Forres.
Not surprisingly many trainees ended up ditching in Findhorn Bay which was a Catch 22 situation. If you ended up in the bay when the tide was out the dinghy was useless as the bay was a quagmire, when the tide was in it occasionally flooded the airfield. This caught one crew out totally when they landed and saw the water, thinking they had overshot the runway, they made a distress call and climbed into the dinghies, only to see the fire trucks drive right up beside them.
Not long after VE Day 19 OTU was disbanded and the arrival of 6 Coastal OTU saw the beginning of Kinloss’s association with maritime operations, an association that continues to this day.
The wartime Lancaster was adapted without great upheaval for anti-submarine and search and rescue duties and RAF Kinloss changed from a Bomber training unit, to a Coastal Command base training maritime aircrew. Its personnel now also included National Servicemen. It also became the final resting place for many surplus aircraft with 45 MU’s job to dispose of them. There was no longer a satellite airfield at Forres.
19 (C)OTU was split into 236 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and the School of Maritime Reconnaissance in 1947 with 236 remaining at Kinloss. A further change in 1956 saw the units recombine as the Maritime Operational Training Unit MOTU, which remained at Kinloss until 1965, leaving the three squadrons 120, 201 and 206 who remain today.
Links with the local community were increasingly strengthened and new Clubs were also beginning to appear, such as the Sailing Club and the Mountain Rescue Team and later in the 1950’s the Pipe Band. Since then countless climbers and hillwalkers owe their lives to the Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and the Team have received many awards. In 1971 and again in 1981 the rescue work of the MRT, as well as the work of the Station personnel in raising funds for charity helped earn the station the Wilkinson Sword of Peace.
In July 1962, the Station received one of its highest honours, the Civic Freedom of the Royal and Ancient Burgh of Forres, allowing Kinloss personnel the right to march through the Burgh with swords drawn. This was the first time any military unit had been so honoured by Forres throughout the Burgh’s 1400 year history.
Throughout the history of the station, the development of community relations has always been extremely important. Every year an open day was held to which local dignitaries and members of the local community were invited . One frequent visitor was Lady McRoberts, whose four sons were all killed in action with the RAF during the war, such was her loyalty to the service that she bought a complete Lancaster Bomber, known as ‘McRoberts’ Revenge’ in their memory.
Another neighbour was Royal Naval Air Station Lossiemouth, (now RAF) which was a constant source of good natured rivalry between the ‘darker’ and ‘lighter’ shades of blue. One particular story tells of Kinloss locking the Lossiemouth Air Traffic Controller in his tower, and wiping all the Lossiemouth crockery with petrol. The next morning two helicopters hovered over Kinloss threatening to dump white paint over the navy blue Neptune planes unless the keys to the control tower were returned.
Post-war RAF Kinloss has been involved in Maritime operations throughout the world, with its resident squadrons being detached to many overseas bases. During the ‘Cold War’ Kinloss squadrons carried out anti-submarine duties, locating and shadowing Russian naval units.
Kinloss aircrafts’ ability to respond rapidly to emergencies and incidents were demonstrated when in 1967 Kinloss aircraft located and plotted the oil slicks to help prevent the cargo of oil from the Torrey Canyon from polluting Britain’s coastline.
In 1972 and 1976 the new Nimrod proved its capabilities when it flew surveillance sorties over Iceland’s disputed fishing limits, providing support for the Royal Navy and British trawlers in the ‘Cod Wars’. Indeed its long endurance and surveillance abilities, has also proved invaluable in many thousands of search and rescues. Formerly these included the 1979 Fastnet race when storm force winds had wrecked numerous yachts and in 1980 when the Alexander Keilland oil rig overturned in the North Sea with 280 persons on board and more recently to rescuers after the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion.
After the Argentines invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Nimrod MR2’s adapted for air to air refuelling, were deployed to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. In 1992 Nimrod aircraft deployed to the Persian Gulf as an integral component of the coalition forces to recapture Kuwait. Furthermore Nimrods have been actively involved in the Adriatic as part of the United Nations peace-keeping force
Since their introduction Nimrods have an excellent safety record, although two tragic accidents stand out in the memories of all service personnel. In 1980 two pilots Flight Lieutenant Anthony and Flying Officer Belcher were killed when their aircraft struck birds on take off and crashed in woods to the east of Kinloss airfield. The remainder of the crew survived. In 1995 at the Toronto Airshow, the entire Nimrod Display team were killed when their Nimrod crashed.
Today RAF Kinloss continues to play a vital role in the ever more sophisticated and demanding task of protecting the UK’s maritime interests, including those in the South Atlantic and its crews are on 24 hour call to assist with search and rescue duties.
As well as its fleet of Nimrods, and the vital ground support which help keep the fleet flying from the air traffic controllers to the fire fighters and engineers and office personnel. Amongst other Kinloss is now home to the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre co-ordinating RAF search and rescue assets throughout the UK and surrounding sea areas.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the life and attitude of a maritime base is to use the words of the Unser Secretary of State for Air in 1944, the Rt Honourable Harold Balfour MC MP, his words could apply today as much as they did then to groundcrew and aircrew alike.
“Hats off to Coastal Command who, day and night, whatever the weather, fly the oceans on the allotted duties. Theirs is not the sharp glory of fighter combat, nor the concentrated destruction (of Germany’s war machine) by bomber offensive. Theirs is the physically arduous and equally hazardous job of flying far out in the front line…”