Looking back with Ian Scott: Grangemouth's airfield and its role in World War II

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Last week brought the 10th anniversary of the unveiling of the replica Spitfire on Bo’ness Road, Grangemouth, close to the site of the wartime airfield.

It was the culmination of a long campaign by the Grangemouth Air Cadets to honour their predecessors who gave their lives at the ‘Drome’ during training, many of whom lie buried in a special section of Grandsable Cemetery. It was also an opportunity then as now to recall the story of the airfield which might well have gone on to be Scotland’s most important had the War not intervened.

Back in February 1939 Scottish Aviation Limited announced plans to provide central Scotland with what was planned to be the largest airport in the country. Five hundred acres of farm land were purchased in the Grangemouth area by the firm which had secured a Government contract to train pilots in preparation for the war that everyone seemed to expect. They had also decided that there was a real opportunity to develop a commercial airport serving both Glasgow and Edinburgh, and within two months of starting work the new grass runways were in use for a commercial flight on the Shetland to London route. The first ticket was sold to Provost Robert Peddie for £9 10shillings and he flew south in a six-seater de Havilland Dragon Rapide. By June the airport was almost ready with 2000 feet of runway, a fine terminal building and control tower and two large hangers. It cost £160,000 and was officially opened by Air Marshall Viscount Trenchard, the ‘Father of the RAF’ on July 1. But the outbreak of war a few months later changed everything. The airport’s commercial activities came to an abrupt end as the military took over.

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Grangemouth was designated as a base for fighter aircraft given the task of defending against enemy bombers aiming for our local iron foundries, dockyards and chemical factories. When the fear of such bombing raids declined at the end of 1940 Grangemouth became a training centre where young pilots were introduced to the Spitfire and taught the skills of formation flying aerobatics and gunnery, and it remained in this role until near the end of the war. Over 60 young men, from Britain and all parts of the Commonwealth as well as Poland, Holland and Czechoslovakia, died while learning the daring manoeuvres demanded in those incredible times. In all nearly 80 air and ground crew lost their lives while serving at Grangemouth.

Members of the 1333 Grangemouth air cadet squadron celebrate the unveiling of the Spitfire in 2013.  (Pic: Neil Hanna)Members of the 1333 Grangemouth air cadet squadron celebrate the unveiling of the Spitfire in 2013.  (Pic: Neil Hanna)
Members of the 1333 Grangemouth air cadet squadron celebrate the unveiling of the Spitfire in 2013. (Pic: Neil Hanna)

With the peace in 1945 came a change of heart by the authorities and the ambitious plans were abandoned as was the airfield. In 1955 it was closed to flying altogether and its runways provided practice ground for learner drivers and courting couples! By the 1960s it was being ripped up and gradually filled with streets, houses, warehouses and factories. The hangers survive but that’s about all. But the service and sacrifice of those who came here has never been forgotten by 1333 (Spitfire) Squadron. The boys and girls, under the inspirational leadership of Squadron Leader Tom McMorrow, pushed on with their ambitious plans and the fantastic memorial Spitfire is the result.

It stands today as a reminder to the present generation and those still to come that the land surrounding the memorial once thronged with young men and women and hummed with the sound of propellers turning and engines roaring as they prepared to defend the liberty which we all take for granted today.

The Spitfire project had its origins five years ago after the cadets visited Poland as guests of the Polish Air Force whose pilots had played such a distinguished part in the story of RAF Grangemouth. The complex fund raising and organisation was handed over to the Grangemouth Memorial Spitfire Trust

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