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RAF Lossiemouth

Scotland’s sole RAF station keeping Britain safe day and night 

A LITTLE over a decade ago, the future of RAF Lossiemouth hung in the balance, a defence review launched by the coalition government earmarking at least one RAF station in Scotland for closure.

A Tornado GR4 of 617 Squadron over RAF Lossiemouth during 2009

(A Tornado GR4 of 617 Squadron over RAF Lossiemouth during 2009)

The crucial decision that saved Lossie was to switch plans to locate the new fleet of Typhoons to the Moray station, a move that spelled the end for Leuchars as a fully-functioning RAF station. Leuchars became an army base, home to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, following on from the decision to close RAF Kinloss, also switching military operations and becoming the base for 39 Engineer Regiment.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the importance of effectively defending Britain from overseas threats, and it would appear preposterous in today’s military climate to have a repeat scenario where RAF stations was effectively pitted against each other in a fight to stay open.

A sense of that came recently when Lossiemouth’s runway needed a major upgrade, the Quick Reaction Alert, QRA, Typhoons temporarily rehomed at Leuchars allowing the smooth continuation of the crucial role that sees the jets scrambled immediately to intercept any rogue aircraft flying on the edge of UK airspace. Other Typhoons and aircraft relocated to Kinloss, with military chiefs later confirming that Leuchars would remain as back-up for Lossiemouth’s fast jets.

But a back-up is not a fully operational base, and today Lossiemouth stands as the sole RAF station in Scotland, and arguably the most important in the UK. It is home to four front-line fast-jet units operating the Typhoon – Nos. 1, 2, 6 and 9 Squadrons – as well as Nos. 120 and 201 Squadrons flying the Poseidon MRA1 maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.

120 Sqn Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flying over RAF Lossiemouth

(120 Sqn Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flying over RAF Lossiemouth)

More than 3,000 military and civilian personnel work at Lossiemouth, and its location close to the Scandinavian peninsula increases its strategic importance, with Scottish Secretary Alister Jack describing the station as ‘one of the most important air bases for monitoring threats in the North Atlantic both above and below the surface’.

That location is as important now as it was more than 80 years ago when Lossiemouth welcomed its first unit, No. 15 Flying Training School, FTS, with aircraft initially stored in the open before construction of the first hangars was completed in August 1939.

The first front-line aircraft at the station were No. 99 Squadron’s 12 Wellington bombers, arriving in November 1939, their role to attack German ships operating between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. The role as a base for bomber aircraft saw No. 15 FTS relocate to Hampshire early in 1940, and it became clear that the Germans had Lossiemouth in their sites with a first attack on October 1940 – the Hurricanes of No. 232 Squadron were moved to a satellite airfield at Elgin soon after. 

Poor weather conditions saw flying activity limited during the winter of 1941, with the grass airfield becoming so muddy that aircraft were relocated, notably Wellingtons moving to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk. In late 1942, an engineering battalion of the US Army Air Force, USAAF, constructed a concrete runway which helped reduce flying interruptions due to ground conditions, the station continuing its anti-shipping role.

617 Squadron crew and their Lancaster bomber following the successful operation launched from Lossiemouth against the German battleship Tirpitz on 12 November 1944

(617 Squadron crew and their Lancaster bomber following the successful operation launched from Lossiemouth against the German battleship Tirpitz on 12 November 1944)

One of the most famous successful attacks launched from Lossiemouth was Operation Catechism, the final successful mission to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz, a constant tormentor of the Allied arctic convoys during the Second World War. Several unsuccessful attempts had been made against Tirpitz over a number of years before Catechism was launched on November 12, 1944 – Nos 9 and 617 (Dambusters) Squadrons leading the assault on the ship which was anchored at Tromso in Norway. A total of 32 bombers attacked the sea fortress, nicknamed the Beast by Churchill, with two tallboy bombs, each weighing in excess of 12,000lb, penetrating her armoured deck, the ship capsizing minutes later. 

Following the end of hostilities, the station transferred to the Fleet Air Arm, becoming Royal Navy Air Station (RNAS) Lossiemouth. or HMS Fulmar, with a 26-year wait before it reverted to Royal Air Force control. In 1972, it returned to its original name of RAF Lossiemouth, with the Search and Rescue helicopters of 202 Squadron the first of the new arrivals, the Jaguar Conversion Team joining them in May 1973 to train the RAF’s first SEPECAT Jaguar crews – Nos 6 and 54 Squadrons operational in 1974.

A Shackleton AEW.2 of 8 Squadron which was based at Lossiemouth from 1973 to 1991

(A Shackleton AEW.2 of 8 Squadron which was based at Lossiemouth from 1973 to 1991)

No. 8 Squadron arrived with their Shackletons from Kinloss, operating as airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, and by the late 1970s No. 48 Squadron RAF Regiment, equipped with the Rapier surface-to-air missile system, were also operating from Lossiemouth; the station also seeing the formation of No. 2622 (Highland) RAF Auxiliary Regiment to provide a dedicated ground defence capability.  

By the early 1990s three Buccaneer squadrons were flying out of Lossiemouth, all taking part in operations during the First Gulf War, and in 1993 No. 12 Squadron took delivery of Tornados; the station still operated Jaguars until July 2000, when their 27-year association with that aircraft ended with the departure of No 16 (R) Squadron for Coltishall.

It was shortly after the 2010 general election that the future of Lossiemouth came under intense scrutiny, many RAF stations across the UK seemingly at risk of the axe. A campaign to keep Lossiemouth open included a march and rally, followed by the delivery of 30,000-strong petition to 10 Downing Street, confirmation that the station would escape the threat of closure arriving in July 2011.

The good news for Lossiemouth was bad for Leuchars, the new Typhoons and QRA role switching from Fife to Moray, followed in 2020 by the arrival of the first Poseidon MRA1 – No. 120 Squadron stood up two years earlier as a dedicated Poseidon squadron, training commencing with the US Navy at Jacksonville, Florida.

Further investment in Lossiemouth’s air fleet will see the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail AEW1 arrive in 2024, replacement for the E-3D Sentry AEW1, with a near £400million development programme currently ongoing at a station whose importance in the defence of Britain grows year-by-year.

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