OLD PLYMOUTH . UK
www.oldplymouth.uk
 

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: June 12, 2020
Webpage updated: June 13, 2020

        

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ROYAL AIR FORCE, MOUNT BATTEN

Although officially regarded as being a Plymouth base -- it's postal address was "RAF Mount Batten, Plymouth, Devon" -- it was actually located on the southern side of the Cattewater in the Ancient Parish of Plymstock within the area administered by the Plymouth Saint Mary Rural District Council.

On Wednesday August 7th 1925 the Royal Assent was given to the Air Ministry (Cattewater Seaplane Station) Act 1925 and after extensive  construction work on October 1st 1928 the former Royal Air Force, Cattewater was re-opened as Royal Air Force, Mount Batten.

A variety of seaplanes were stationed at RAF Mount Batten over the years.  In January 1929 number 203 squadron was formed from number 482 Coastal Reconnaissance Flight and equipped with Supermarine Southamptons, a twin-engine biplane.  The following month number 204 squadron was formed and they were provided with Fairey IIID seaplanes until they, too, converted to Southamptons.  203 squadron left Mount Batten in April 1929.

On January 15th 1930 number 209 squadron was re-formed and went into service with the large Blackburn Iris flying boats.  Two of these came to grief.  Aircraft S238 crashed into Plymouth Sound on Monday February 9th 1931, withthe loss of nine lives, including the pilot, Wing-Commander Charles Gilbert Tucker, while the second crashed shortly after landing in 1933, when it hit the steam pinnace "Alexandra".  In 1934 209 squadron was re-equipped with Blackburn Perth flying boats and left Mount Batten on May 1st 1935.

When 204 squadron left for Suez from September 23rd 1935 until August 1936 and was replaced by two Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm units.  There is some disagreement as to the date this took place:  Teague  [2] gives February 21st 1934 as the date upon which Group Captain I T Lloyd took command but  it is also claimed that it was on April 25th 1935 that Mount Batten became a Fleet Air Arm base.  Whichever is correct, and they may both be right, number 407 Fleet Fighter Unit had Hawker Osprey biplanes while number 444 Fleet Spotter Reconnaissance Flight operated the Fairey III.

The total strength in early 1935 was given as 23 officers and 203 airmen.

On Tuesday June 11th 1935 the first ever meteorological course was held at Mount Batten for the Fleet Air Arm.

Work commenced in October 1938 on constructing underground oil tanks adjacent to Turnchapel Railway Station for the use of the air station.  Messrs Wimpey of London were the contractors.  This was followed in January 1940 by the opening of a pipeline from Turnchapel Wharf to the tanks.

In January 1939 Mount Batten was the base of Number 204 General Reconnaissance Squadron, Number 16 Reconnaissance Group.  The commanding office of the base was Group Captain E D Johnson AFC.  He was assisted by Squadron Leader W A J Satchell, Flight Lieutenant A H Goldie RAFC, and Captain W S Newton-Clare MBE, late of the RAF.  They were responsible for the Equipment Branch, the Accountant Branch, the Medical Branch, the Engineer Office, and the Signal Office.  In charge of Number 204 Squadron was Wing Commander K B Lloyd AFC.  Under him were Squadron-Leader E S Moulten-Barrett; Flight Lieutenants H M T Neugebauer and J B P Thomas; and Flight Officers (in order of seniority, which was very important in those days) E L Hyde, H B Johnson, R P A Harrison, SR Gibbs, F Phillips, R C O Lovelock, D E Hughes, and J Barrett.

When the Second World War started in September 1939 the base hosted the six Sunderland flying boats of Number 204 Squadron and an unknown number of Stranraers of Number 209 Squadron.  There were also two squadrons, numbers 210 and 228, at Pembroke Dock.  They were used to patrol the south-western approaches.

It was not long before they saw action.  On Saturday September 9th 1939 a Sunderland launched the first attack on a German U-boat in the Channel and on Monday September 18th 1939 they helped to rescue the crew off the SS "Kensington Court", which had been torpedoed 70 miles off the Isles of Scilly.  The Sunderland's pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Barrett, was able to drop eight of his bombs on the spot where the U-boat had submerged before landing to pick up 14 of the crew from the stricken cargo vessel.  All the crew were saved and as a result Flight-Lieutenant Barrett was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) at the first wartime investiture on Wednesday November 1st 1939.

When 204 Squadron left for North Africa they were replaced number 10 Royal Australian Air Force Squadron, who not only stayed for the remainder of the War but were set to become Mount Batten's most famous occupants.  The squadron was formed at Pembroke Dock as that is where the Australian airmen had gone to collect some new Sunderlands.  Once their training was completed they found themselves under orders to remain in the UK and they were then moved to Mount Batten, where they apparently arrived on April 1st 1940.

A fascinating and detailed account of their wartime exploits hunting German U-boats has been told by Dennis Teague (1928-1998) in his book "Strike First: They shall not pass unseen".  By the time they left the base in October 1945, so Dennis Teague relates, they had flown 4,553,860 nautical miles, undertaken 3,177 operational flights, sunk 5 submarines, received 25 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), one DFC with Bar, 9 Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM), 1 British Empire Medal (BEM) and had 36 'mentioned in despatches'.  Before they left England they were awarded a Crest by His Majesty King George VI with the motto 'Strike First'.

In 1940 Mount Batten assumed control of RAF Roborough.

That year also saw the construction of a hangar and a new Mess.  The Station was also very active in flying important members of the Government and military to Gibraltar, North Africa and the Middle East.  Three Short 'G' class flying boats from number 119 squadron, originally civilian passenger aircraft named "Golden Fleece", "Golden Hind" and "Golden Horn", were frequently used for that purpose.  The first-named sank and the "Golden Hind" sprung a leak so all three were returned to the manufacturers and 119 squadron was disbanded at Pembroke Dock.

As a result of the damage caused in the Blitz on Plymouth in March and April 1941, number 10 squadron Royal Australian Air Force was moved to relative safety at Pembroke Dock on May 28th 1941 and did not return to Mount Batten until January 5th 1942.

One notable flying boat flight landed at Mount Batten in the early hours of Saturday January 17th 1942, with Mr (later Sir) Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook and the Air Chief Marshall, Sir Charles Portal, on board.  Their flight from Norfolk, Virginia, via Bermuda (to fool enemy aircraft out hunting for the aircraft) in a Boeing 314A named "Berwick" operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), had covered 3,287 miles and arrived twelve minutes ahead of schedule.  Mr Churchill had taken over the controls from senior pilot Commander Kelly Rogers for part of the journey.  the flight from Bermuda to Plymouth had taken 17 hours 55 minutes.  They left Plymouth for London by special train shortly after 11am.

During 1943 and 1944 the battle to free the English Channel of enemy submarines continued unabated and resulted in the inevitable loss of flying boats that were shot down.  In the run-up to the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944 Plymouth Sound became crowded with vessels awaiting the crossing and the flying boats were responsible for dealing with any enemy vessels or aircraft seen approaching, a duty in which they were extremely successful.

Once the War was over and the Royal Australian Air Force left for home the Station was placed in the care of number 238 Maintenance Unit.  However, Sunderlands continued to visit the Cattewater from Calshot and Pembroke Dock.  In September 1953 the Marine Craft Training School took over Mount Batten and remained for over thirty years.

On Wednesday January 30th 1957, Air Vice Marshall G I L Saye, the air officer commanding No. 19 Coastal Command, embarked at Mount Batten on one of Pembroke Dock's Sunderland flying boats to return to that base for the disbandment ceremony of 201 and 230 Squadrons, the last in Britain to fly Sunderlands.

The RAF School of Combat Survival arrived in July 1959 and in 1961 Mount Batten became the principal base for training and maintenance of vessels belonging to the RAF Marine Branch.  They were involved in towing targets and Air/Sea Rescue operations.

A Sunderland flying-boat from the French Navy touched down in Plymouth Sound on Tuesday March 3rd 1959.  It carried two important passengers, both recently appointed to senior posts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  Captain Kervella was the Air Commander at Brest and Captain de Lachadenede was the Chief of Staff there.  They paid an official call upon the Air Officer Commanding 19 Group, Coastal Command, Air Vice-Marshall G I L Saye, at Mount Batten and later in the day called upon the Commander-in-Chief of Plymouth Command, Admiral Sit Richard Onslow, at Mount Wise.  The French Navy were still using Sunderlands for reconnaissance work.

205 Squadron provided the aircraft for the last operational flight of a Sunderland flying boat on May 15th 1959.

The formal end of flying from Mount Batten came on Saturday March 5th 1960, when a special ceremony was held at the base.

To mark the 50th anniversary of RAF Mount Batten a special parade was held in pouring rain on Friday February 3rd 1967, during which the Air Officer Commanding Number 19 Group (Coastal Command), Air Vice-Marshall J Barraclough CBE DFC AFC, announced that the existing class 200 high-speed air/sea rescue launches were soon to be replaced by a new type of recovery vessel.  After inspecting a 30-strong guard of honour, he addressed the 200 Air Force personnel who were on parade, telling them that before 1917 the peninsula was a pleasure beach for Plymothians and in the summer had been dotted with cockle stalls and fun fairs.  Among those present were the Station commander, Wing-Commander E N Stone; Mr E E Pearson, who served as an aircraftman with the Royal Navy in 1918; Air Commodore Sydney W Smith, who was commander at Mount Batten from 1929 until 1931; and retired Wing Commander S J Andrews, who lived locally in Oreston and was sporting the Royal Flying Corps' tie.

Air Vice-Marshall Barraclough unveiled a bronze plaque before taking the salute at a march-past.

Number 19 Group Coastal Command RAF left Mount Batten in 1968, which was the beginning of the run-down of the Station. 

The ceremony for the disbanding of the RAF Marine Branch was held at Mount Batten on Wednesday January 8th 1986 when 600 past and current members of the organisation paraded before Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig, the Chief of the Air Staff.  He said that the closure of the Marine Branch had been ordered by the Junior Defence Minster, Mr John Lee MP, in 1984 and that the 68-years-old organisation would close down on March 31st 1986.  Out of the 100 men who worked for the Branch at Mount Batten, only 18 had found jobs with the new operators of the six Royal Air Force launches, Messrs James Fisher.  They would be used for target towing and survival training.  Sir David and the Air Officer Commanding Strike Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir peter Harding, then watched a display by an RAF Band and drill displays by the Queen's Colour Squadron of the RAF Regiment.  150 RAF personnel remained on the site, awaiting a decision about the future of the Station.

RAF Mount Batten closed on Sunday July 5th 1992.

The land and buildings were subsequently handed over to the Plymouth Development Corporation, who were responsible for the development and facilities seen there today.

 

  With acknowledgement to the late Mr Dennis Charles Teague (1928-1998), whose research forms the basis of this informatioin.