A history of Walney Airfield

by Lawrence Hill


1928 . The government asked Barrow Council to consider a municipal airport.  The council suggested Sowerby Wood to the north of Barrow, but little happened.

1935 . Again, the government suggested that Barrow Council should consider an airport.  It was in 1937 the present Walney Airfield site was acquired.  It was a compulsory purchase requiring the demolition of North End Farm at a cost of £8050.

1940 . The RAF (Royal Airforce) Airfield started construction the main contractor being Laing.  This was a period of rapid airfield expansion around the country because of World War 2.  The airfield was designated as an Air Gunnery School, the coastal site being ideal. 

1941 . In October number 10 Air Gunnery School was opened with 10 Westland Lysander aircraft for towing target drogues and 2 Boulton and Paul Defiants for instructor and pupils to have airborne practice.  By December there were 17 Defiants  and there was now sufficient barrack space for 100 officers, 140 sergeants and 1,200 airmen.  For reasons unknown the school was moved to Castle Kennedy near Stranraer and the existing school at Castle Kennedy was moved to Walney on 1 December.

Intensive training commenced, some pupils being trained as wireless operator/air gunner with a total training period of 18 months;  but for air gunner only 6 months.  Courses averaged 40 pupils made up of all ranks from LAC to Sergeant with 5 courses in progress at any time. Training started on the ground in a turret trainer.   Then, still on the ground, two parallel tracks were laid, one with a powered turret moving backwards and forwards and the target on the other track moving in the opposite direction,  This simulated air to air firing.  All shooting was out to sea!  When competent, pupils were taken in the Defiant to shoot from the rear-powered turret at drogues and targets in the sea.  The trainee dipped the tips of the bullets he was to fire in paint so his accuracy could be assessed when the drogues or targets were inspected.  Later, cine-gun cameras were used as well.

With such intensive training, accidents started to happen.  The aircraft were already battle-weary and the mechanics, working to maintain the aircraft, were not experienced and were working in poor conditions at first.

1942 . Millom – RAF Millom was a flying training field but was very near to Black Combe and other high ground.  Because of aircraft flying into high ground in poor conditions, the first Mountain Rescue Team was established at Millom.

1942 . In January, at RAF Walney, flying ceased with the airfield under 16inches of snow.  After over a weeks delay, training started again.  Time had to be caught up and training was intense.

March 1942 . A bad day when a Gipsy Moth overturned on landing and 2 Defiants made forced landings away from the airfield.  No-one was badly injured.  With the airfield being so near to Barrow Docks, part of Barrow defences were barrage balloons up to 4500 feet – flying at the airfield had to stop for safety reasons.  Unfortunately an Avro Anson from Wigtown, flew into a balloon cable and crashed into Cavendish Dock.

July 1942 . After the very cold winter, June was so hot that the tar was melting on the runways.  Flying stopped and 100 men were engaged in applying 160 tons of gravel to the runways.

Early 1943 . Defiants were not proving efficient as only one student and an instructor could fly at any one time. As a result, Avro Ansons were brought in;  they could carry three students, instructor and pilot.  This speeded up training.

Late 1943 . By the end of the year, over 5,000 air gunners had been trained.  By now, Walney was well established for training .Maintenance of aircraft was much improved. Increased use of gunnery cameras and 75 feet of film previously allowed was extended to 100 ft!  During December, the number of live rounds fired by students was 3,500. On the social side the station held a Christmas party for children from Walney, There was a station Concert Party and a Dramatic Socierty.  Also, an ENSA Party came and performed “The Merchant of Venice”

1944 Feb. The Comanding Officer visited an Italian prisoner of war camp at Milnthorpe to see if sympathetic prisoners would come to Walney to cultivate vegetables. Apparently this was agreed and 26 prisoners came but there is no documentary evidence of what they grew or where they were housed but it must have helped the diet of the airmen and women.

1944 . There was an incident at Walney when a Pilot of a ditched Anson from Cranich (Cheshire) was washed up on the southeast bay on Walney;  his crew of three had died of exposure after 36 hours at sea.

!944 . D Day  came and went but there was no let up in training and for a period all leave was stopped  for all personnel. Rest camps within the station were set up to allow personnel to relax off duty.  

1944 . Allies were pushing across Europe but there was a long way to go in the Pacific.  The demand for gunners continued unabated. 

1945. January snow disrupted flying but around this time many aircraft were transiting up and down the country and often landed at Walney, Cark or Millom for fuel, overnight stays or just being lost.

February 1945 . Vickers Wellingtons started to replace the Ansons. With 2 gun turrets and camera guns they allowed more efficient training, Also real fighters, Hurricanes and Spitfires provided moving targets.  Presumably using the camera guns !.

8 May 1945 . VE Day – no flying and great celebrations.  However, the demand for gunners, though reduced, continued.

August 1945 . VJ Day  There was a Victory Day Holiday

Late 1945 . The gunnery school was still active and the Mountain Rescue Unit from Cark was moved to Walney.

May 1946 . The gunnery school was moved to RAF Valley on Anglesey.  By the end of 1946 there were no aircraft at Walney.

1947 . The ATC (Air Training Corp) Gliding School was moved from Cark and continued with some pauses until 1955 when the airfield was closed.

1 September 1955 . No sooner had the RAF moved out, squatters occupied numerous buildings.  Most of the people had been made homeless by bombing of Barrow.  They remained at Walney until Barrow Council re-housed them.  Once they moved out, the buildings were demolished to stop others moving in.

Barrow Council was under pressure to turn Walney into a civil airport as had happened at Blackpool. The Council bought the airfield in 1946 and Loxhams  Air Taxi service of Lancaster was established. They used three seater Austers a very basic aircraft but hoped to use surplus Avro Ansons. These never materialised  and they went out of business. Some commercial flying took place but on a mainly occasional basis to events such as the Isle of Man TT Races or the Cup Final at Wembley using Dakotas and Ansons.

I968 . Vickers took over the airfield and allowed other aircraft to operate beside their own executive aircraft.  The Lakes Gliding Club also operated from Walney;  the chairman of which was Sir Leonard Redshaw – chairman of Vickers.

1982-3 . Air Ecosse flew to Edinburgh, Carlisle and Liverpool using Banderantes and then went out of business.

1984 . Air Furness using Brittan Norman Islanders flew mainly to Manchester but went into liquidation.

1991-2 . Telair or Northern Airlines using Islanders with a service to Manchester and Blackpool.They went out of business.

2006 . BAE Systems upgraded the airfield making it licensed with runways re-surfaced and an ILS (Instrument Landing System) .  With 2 Beachcraft Super  Kingairs intensive flying takes place.  The Lakes Gliding Club is based at Walney plus some privately owned power aircraft.

(Page created 14/08/08)