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Long Kesh & Maghaberry

by Ernie Cromie

Airfield Histories

Significantly though, in terms of its planned role, flying at Long Kesh commenced in October 1941 with the arrival of the first of a number of RAF

Only one further RAF flying unit was based at Long Kesh during the War, from March 1944 until February 1945, when 290 Squadron facilitated the training of anti-aircraft gunners, using Oxfords and Martinets.  At the same time, the airfield was used intermittently as a shore base by a number of squadrons of the Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm).  On 17th July 1945, Their Majesties the King and Queen with HRH Princess Elizabeth arrived in Dakota aircraft for the first airborne Royal Visit to Northern Ireland, followed in August and September, respectively, by General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery.  The last RAF flying unit to be based at Long Kesh was the Communications Flight of HQ RAF Northern Ireland, from September 1945 until the end of the year when it was transferred to Belfast.

Meanwhile, the busiest chapter in Maghaberry’s history had begun on 15th November 1943 when it was handed over to the USAAF to become AAF Station 239. Four ferrying squadrons of the 8th Air Force’s 27th Transport Group were formed there to deliver numerous types of aircraft to and from American airfields in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including the air depot at Langford Lodge.  In addition, it was used by casualty evacuation transports of the 9th Air Force’s Troop Carrier Command — a reflection of its proximity to the 79th Station Hospital at Moira.


Although intensive in nature, this period of use was comparatively short-lived and Maghaberry was handed back to the RAF on 6th June 1944, by which time Stirling assembly work was diminishing.


Six months later, as 101 Satellite Landing Ground, it was placed under the control of 23 Maintenance Unit at Aldergrove for storage and eventual scrapping of hundreds of redundant aircraft, including Stirlings, which was completed in 1947.

For a few months during 1945/46, Miles Aircraft (NI) Ltd used the MAP hangars at Long Kesh for final assembly, painting and test-flying of Messenger aircraft made in Banbridge and there was intermittent gliding activity here and at Maghaberry under the auspices of the Ulster and Shorts Gliding Clubs until the ‘seventies.  For a number of years following the construction of HMP Maze in the early 1970s, a helicopter flight of the Army Air Corps was based in the SE corner of the former airfield, where there was also a Meteorological Station, close to the M1 Motorway.

LK stirling - Copy long-kesh-1942 LK Monty Cropped Stirling Maghaberry LK Glider crop wide

Gliding activity at Long Kesh during the latter half of the 1960s.

The histories of the World War 2 airfields of Long Kesh and its satellite, Maghaberry, have much in common.  Ironically, although both were designed by Air Ministry planners to operate light and medium bomber aircraft, the first pair of hangars to be constructed at each was erected under the auspices of the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) for use by aircraft manufacturers Short & Harland for the assembly of Stirling heavy bombers.


During 1942, at least two Stirlings were completed and test-flown at Long Kesh before the final assembly process was transferred to Maghaberry, leaving Long Kesh to concentrate on Stirling wing production.

This work continued at both airfields until the early part of 1945.

squadrons that were based here during the period up to June 1942, to provide close support to Army ground forces which, had there been an airborne assault on Northern Ireland by German paratroops or imminent threat of an invasion via neutral Eire, would have launched a counter-offensive.

Aerial Photograph of RAF Long Kesh, 28 July 1942.

Following the departure of 74 Squadron, the US Navy commenced a regular air service between London (Hendon) and Londonderry (Eglinton), calling at Long Kesh to drop or collect passengers, light freight and mail, using Lockheed Electra aircraft.


On 1st August, the RAF commenced a regular return troop-carrying towed glider service between Wiltshire and Northern Ireland, normally using Long Kesh as the local terminus.  At the end of that month, personnel of the United States 8th Air Force Composite Command arrived. This organization had overall responsibility for the extensive United States Army Air Force presence in Northern Ireland and was accommodated at Long Kesh until November 1942 when a more permanent Headquarters was completed six miles away at Kircassock House near Moira.


In December 1942, Long Kesh and Maghaberry were taken over by RAF Coastal Command to accommodate   No 5 Operational Training Unit, which remained at Maghaberry until August 1943 and at Long Kesh until February 1944, teaching trainee aircrew the techniques of maritime operations, using Beaufort, Hampden, Hudson, Ventura and Oxford aircraft.

The units concerned were 88, 226,       231 and 651 Squadrons, collectively operating Blenheim, Boston, Lysander, Tomahawk and Auster (Taylorcraft) aircraft.


In December 1941, 1494 (Target Towing) Flight was formed at the airfield within Fighter Command to provide air gunnery refresher training for RAF flying units based in Northern Ireland.


In effect, German plans to invade were abandoned in March 1942, by which time Long Kesh and Maghaberry were taking on new roles.  During February and March, 74 Squadron was based at Long Kesh with Spitfires, to escort troopships bringing the first elements of US Army ground forces to the UK during the final stage of their sea journey.

Taken in December 1942, the fuselage of a Stirling en route from Long Kesh to Maghaberry (Bombardier Aerospace).

Field Marshal Montgomery at    Long Kesh on 13 September 1945. Taken following his arrival in his personal Dakota KN628 from Blackbushe for a visit to Northern Ireland which lasted a number of days.

Sadly, numerous fatal aircraft crashes occurred during that period, to which some of the gravestones in nearby Eglantine Cemetery and a memorial window in the Church bear silent and poignant testimony.

No 101 Storage Sub-Site, Maghaberry in 1947 —

Stirlings were nothing if not impressive in size.