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RAF Leuchars

Despite losing its RAF stripes, Leuchars remains ready to ‘Attack and Protect’ when required

IT was at 12:00 hours on March 31, 2015, that Leuchars officially became an ex-RAF station, more than a century after a balloon squadron of the Royal Engineers first arrived in the Fife coastal area just south of Dundee, setting up in the nearby Tentsmuir Forest.

Despite the site remaining in military hands with the switch to British Army control, the decision to effectively mothball air services at the former QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) station was contentious, decades having been spent creating a home for fighter aircraft that policed the northern UK airspace.

Aerial view looking east over RAF Leuchars
(Aerial view looking east over RAF Leuchars - John Brailsford)

Many of its roles were transferred north to Lossiemouth, Leuchars becoming a RAF diversion location, around 40 full-time personnel employed to maintain a fully operational airfield, the importance of which became apparent five years’ later when the station returned to QRA duties for a short time while runway work was carried out at Lossiemouth.

The origins of flying at Leuchars dates back more than 110 years, with the so-called ‘string and sealing wax’ aircraft of the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, RFC, soon following the balloon squadron which arrived in 1911, the nearby beach at St Andrews proving an ideal landing ground.

It was midway through WWI that a site at Reres Farm south east of Leuchars village was earmarked as an aircraft training facility, work still ongoing when the war ended. Its coastal proximity meant Leuchars was designated as a Naval Fleet Training School, only officially becoming RAF Leuchars on March 16, 1920 while still retaining its naval links.

For a time, the station’s dual role saw RAF and RN personnel cohabit the site, and in 1935 No. 1 Flying Training School, FTS, was established at Leuchars, Tentsmuir Forest providing an ideal location for practice bombing. As war again approached, No. 1 FTS moved to RAF Netheravon in Wiltshire with Leuchars coming under the control of RAF Coastal Command.

In August 1938, a year before the start of WW2, the arrival of Nos. 224 and 233 Squadrons saw Leuchars’ priorities switch from training to operational, with a Lockheed Hudson from the former unit attacking a Dornier Do. 18 over the North Sea in September 1939, recognised as the first time a British aircraft had engaged the enemy in the Second World War.

Armourers secure 250-lb GP bombs in the bomb-bay of a Lockheed Hudson of No. 224 Squadron RAF at RAF Leuchars
(Armourers secure 250-lb GP bombs in the bomb-bay of a Lockheed Hudson of No. 224 Squadron RAF at RAF Leuchars - Devon S A)

Regular maritime patrols were the daily duties of aircraft from Leuchars, and in February 1940, a No. 224 Hudson located the German prison ship, the Altmark, in Norwegian waters, HMS Cossack intercepting the tanker and liberating around 300 British prisoners.

A regular air passage between Leuchars and Stockholm was established during the war years using Mosquitos, the route utilised to repatriate British aircrew who had been forced to make emergency landings in the region.

Post war, Leuchars passed from Coastal to Fighter Command, the Gloster Meteors of Nos. 22 and 43 Squadrons arriving, the ‘Fighting Cocks’ (No. 43) becoming the first squadron to convert to the new Hawker Hunters in July 1954. In 1964, the station’s active air-sea rescue service saw Westland Whirlwind helicopters arrive, but it was the arrival of another aircraft in this year that highlighted the importance of Leuchars to the nation’s defence.

English Electric Lightning F.6 XS938 of 23 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in 1970
(English Electric Lightning F.6 XS938 of 23 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in 1970)

With the Cold War at its height and a real threat from Russia’s long-range bombers, No. 23 Squadron took delivery of the English Electric Lightning, the RAF’s first supersonic jet that would be its chief interceptor, a fitting aircraft to live up to the station motto – ‘Attack and Protect’. No. 23 were soon followed as a Lightning unit by No. 74 Squadron, relocating from Coltishall, and No. 11 Squadron which was reformed at the Fife station in 1967.

In 1969, the importance of Leuchars’ interceptor role saw the arrival of the first Phantom jet, the station’s transition lasting several years with its final Lightning squadron, No. 23, converting and heading south to Coningsby in October 1975. The Phantoms of Leuchars policed Britain’s northerly skies for two decades until they were replaced by Tornados, a process that began in 1989.

As well as the fast jet QRA role, Leuchars’ RAF Search and Rescue (SARF) force was maintained with a range of helicopters: Westland Wessexes arrived in 1975, No. 22 Squadron remaining on site in the SAR role until the station’s closure in 2015, by which time they had been operating Sea Kings for around 20 years.

As part of the protection for the station in the 1980s, No. 27 Squadron RAF Regiment was in situ controlling a Rapier missile system – a role which they maintained for around a decade until they relocated to Scampton.

43 Squadron Tornado at RAF Leuchars

(43 Squadron Tornado at RAF Leuchars - Mike Freer)

The station’s Tornado force continued their intercept role throughout the 1990s and the 2000s until they were gradually phased out, No. 6 Squadron the first at Leuchars to reform with Typhoons in September 2010 – the station home to the last Tornado unit, No. 111 Squadron.

It was 2011 when the decision was made to effectively close Leuchars as an active RAF station, exactly 100 years since the balloon squadron of the Royal Engineers arrived in Tentsmuir Forest, the drawdown beginning in 2013 with the disbandment of the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team.

The first Typhoon unit heading north to Lossiemouth was No. 6 Squadron, making the move in June 2014, with No. 1 Squadron following three months’ later when the QRA role officially transferred to the Moray station. It would be further six months before the control of Leuchars was handed over to the British Army, but several RAF units were retained on site including No. 612 (County of Aberdeen) Squadron RAuxAF and the East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron.

Three years following the transfer it was announced that Leuchars would be back on QRA duty, Typhoons finally returning on August 10, 2020 after a delay in work starting to refurbish the runway at Lossiemouth, the stay lasting two months. Soon after, the MoD announced they were actively looking to increase both military and civilian use of the airfield, reinstalling F34 fuel facilities; however, defence chiefs also stipulated that there were no plans for aircraft to be permanently based on site.

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