Remembering Grangemouth Airfield during the war

Grangemouth Airfield in 1939
Grangemouth Airfield in 1939

I enjoyed a great moment this week in Grangemouth watching 100-year-old RAF veteran John ‘Dinger’ Bell cut the first spade of earth at the memorial Spitfire site as planes from Tayside Aviation flew overhead in salute.

Over the next couple of months the work will go on apace with the official unveiling of the full size replica spitfire on May 9.

For ‘Dinger’ it was a real walk down memory lane because, 70 years ago, he served here as an airframe fitter working on a fleet of Spitfires which were used in the training of fighter pilots.

Back then hundreds of RAF and civilian personnel served at Grangemouth Airfield and more than 80 air crew from all over the world died while practising the dangerous manoeuvres required in those incredible times.

The construction of the airfield began in early 1939 on 500 acres of farmland. The plan was to create a modern civilian airport to serve central Scotland and a centre for training reserve pilots.

Facilities included two large hangers and a terminal building with a control tower on top and the first passenger flights took place in April.

On July 1, Grangemouth was officially opened by Lord Trenchard, the ‘Father of the RAF’, but the outbreak of hostilities in September brought its commercial activities to an end.

The military took over and Grangemouth was designated as a base for fighter aircraft given the task of defending against enemy bombers aiming for our local iron works and dockyards.

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 and gunnery and it remained in this role until near the end of the war.

With peace came a change of heart 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 Grangemouth Squadron Air Training Corps.

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 fundraising and organisation was handed over to the Grangemouth Memorial Spitfire Trust and chairman Iain Mitchell and his trustees have done a fantastic amount of work to get us to the stage we reached last Thursday with ‘Dinger’ and his trusty spade.

The Spitfire itself is nearly ready and the groundwork is under way along with plaques telling the story of the airfield, the war years, the spitfire and the airmen who gave their lives.

When completed it will stand 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.

Anybody interested in the history of the airfield will find an excellent article by John Walker in ‘Calatria 5’ (1993) and in Geoff Bailey’s comprehensive ‘From Airlines to Air Cadets – the Story of the ’Drome’. (2006).

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