Past Talks : May 2022

“Wings over Lee” – Aviation at Lee-on-Solent 1917 to 2022 by Bob Wealthy of the Daedalus Aviation & Heritage Group

The airfield at Lee-on-Solent has been known by a great many names over the last 100+ years, but above all, I suspect, HMS Daedalus is the most familiar. Why Daedalus? In Greek mythology, Daedalus and his son Icarus had to escape from Crete, so Daedalus, being a skilled craftsman, created wings so that they could fly off to safety. As is well known, Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings together melted, causing him to crash to his death. Meanwhile his father, Daedalus, survived as did his name.

Lee-on-Solent is on the coast in Hampshire, near to Gosport and the naval dockyard at Portsmouth. It is one of many locations for airfields and aviation within quite a small area of this coast since the very early days of flying. The first recorded landing in the area was that of a Maurice Farman bi-plane in 1912 as a demonstration flight, followed quite closely by an aircraft operated by the Army. However, these aircraft simply landed in a field.

Nearby at Calshot the Naval Air Station was established in 1913 by the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) for the testing of seaplanes for the RFC Naval Wing. By 1914 the Royal Navy had formed the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) and took over the Calshot base and its aircraft development and training functions.

After the start of WW1, the role of the Calshot base expanded to include protection of shipping in the English Channel, plus the training of observer kite balloons and airships. In consequence, by 1917 due to the grave shortage of seaplane pilots for anti-submarine patrols, it became critical to augment the Calshot training facilities with the opening of a separate dedicated base. The intention was to construct a new base in the north of England and while this was being built, Lee-on-Solent was chosen as a convenient site near Calshot in the interim. It was never intended as a long term location, with the unambiguous declaration that the “station was to be strictly temporary with absolutely minimum permanent construction … aircraft to be housed in Bessoneau hangars ….. officers to be billeted, men to live under canvas.”

That is how military aviation at Lee-on-Solent began in July 1917, with minimum facilities and the requisition of a number of local properties. The aircraft in use at the time were seaplanes which were brought out of the hangars on trolleys, ready to be launched into the sea, just a few yards away. However, between the air base and the sea was a small cliff. Each aircraft then had to be lifted by crane, over the cliff and onto another trolley to roll it down the beach.

By November 1917 it was apparent that Lee-on-Solent should become established as a permanent base and five sea plane sheds were promptly built and still stand to this day. Also within a year two proper slipways were built enabling aircraft to roll directly down to the sea. One of the original concrete blocks on which the now redundant crane was mounted still stands on the cliff and is now marked with a commemorative plaque.

In this period, typical aircraft operations were conducted with Short 184 and 827 aircraft and Bob Wealthy delighted us with an abundance of photographs.

One novel feature on the cliff edge in 1918 was a flight simulator of all things. It sat in the open, comprised a fuselage and wings pivoted on a post and being a rather breezy location, the trainee pilot could get a feel for what the controls of an aircraft would do – and perhaps not do.

Also in 1918 more land was requisitioned and building and construction took place to create proper workshops and engineering facilities.

The year 1918 was also prominent for other reasons. On the 1st April the RFC and the RNAS amalgamated to become the Royal Air Force (RAF). As such, the RAF still operated the aircraft to meet the RN’s needs.

Following the armistice the base, then known as the ‘RAF Seaplane School Lee-on-the-Solent’, was reduced in activities and in 1919 was placed into care and maintenance.

Within 6 months the base was reactivated by the RAF for seaplane flying and aerial navigation training. It also became HQ for ’10 Group’ which controlled all air units working with the RN. Around this time a profusion and confusion of names were given to the base, but in 1923 it was known as the ‘RAF School of Naval Co-operation’.

The following year 1924, the ‘Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force’ was adopted universally for the naval elements of the RAF. It did not take long to be abbreviated to the now familiar Fleet Air Arm (FAA).

During the 1930s ’10 Group’ was disbanded and replaced by RAF Coastal Command and Lee-on-Solent itself grew yet larger, with further contracts and schemes for new buildings and hangars over a period of years. The number and variety of aircraft types operated by during this period were a feast for the eye and well illustrated by our speaker Bob Wealthy.

In 1937 the decision was made for the RN to assume full responsibility for the Fleet Air Arm and it was named the ‘Naval Air Branch’ – freedom from the RAF and independence for the RN FAA at last.

With war impending in 1939, Lee-on-Solent was formally commissioned as HMS Daedalus and construction of concrete runways, instead of grass, put in-hand – one 3000ft in length and another 2,250ft. Finally in 1942 a third runway was built and the other two updated to provide runway lengths of 4,290ft; 3,300ft; and 3,000ft, plus a new control tower in place of the earlier Watch Office.

During the duration of WW2, HMS Daedalus was at the forefront of fighting activity, due to its south coast location. In the lead up to Operation Overlord (the D-Day invasion) in 1944, several front line squadrons operated from Lee-on-Solent, comprising: six FAA and RAF squadrons flying Seafires/Spitfires; three squadrons flying P51 Mustangs; one squadron operating a mixture of Mustangs and Hawker Typhoons; and one US Navy squadron (VCS-7) flying Spitfires. On D-Day itself, Daedalus was the busiest air station on the south coast of England, principally involved in gun-spotting and fighter reconnaissance.

Between 1939 and 1945 81 squadrons operating 21 different aircraft types were based at HMS Daedalus, including of course the ever faithful Swordfish, Blackburn Skua, Blackburn Roc (on floats), Walrus, Barracuda and many more.

Post-war, HMS Daedalus remained active and the skies filled with the sight and sound of the Fairey Firefly, Fairey Gannet, Hawker Sea Fury, Blackburn Firebrand, Hawker Sea Hawk and several other classic types. Also operated was a Beech C11 Expeditor for liaison and general transportation duties. Later, this was supplemented with DH Dove and DH Heron passenger carrying aircraft.

The last operational unit to form at Lee-on-Solent was 845 Squadron in December 1955, flying Westland Whirlwind HAS.22 helicopters. After that time, the ‘Air Engineering Establishment’ was formed at Lee-on-Solent, followed shortly after by the ‘Central Air Medical School’, the ‘Naval Air Technical Evaluation Centre’ and several other such facilities. Its role was changing significantly to the point where in 1959 the base name was changed to HMS Ariel to reflect the transfer of electrical training from Worthy Down to Lee-on-Solent. However, by 1965 the name HMS Daedalus was re-adopted.

In 1962 a slipway was brought back into regular use upon the formation of the ‘Joint Service Hovercraft Trials Unit’.

With the closure of RAF Thorney Island in 1973 the Search & Rescue Whirlwind helicopters also transferred to HMS Daedalus.

Finally, in 1996 HMS Daedalus was formally decommissioned after 79 years of continuous operation. It was the spiritual home of the FAA and had made a significant contribution to the defence of this country.

The air station itself is still in operation as a base for the Police Air Support Unit, HM Coastguard Search & Rescue, private flying clubs and for Britten Norman aircraft manufacturing. The base also houses the Hovercraft Museum along with its collection of over 60 different types of hovercraft.

A reminder of the very live and acute risk of Germany invading Britain back at the beginning of WW2, was the foresight shown by installing alongside the runways anti-invasion pipe bombs, designed to destroy the runways in an instant. There were a lot of other crises and distractions at the time and these bombs were duly forgotten until more recent times when they were uncovered during work in the area. All was well in the end, but the imagination could fead for hours on speculation.

Facts, figures and illustrations rolled before us continuously during this absorbing talk. Thank you to Bob Wealthy, and of course to the back-room boys, for an enjoyable evening. If you were not there, you must ask yourself “why not?” You are missing a treat, in good company and for the price of a pint of beer. Do join us for the next talk – and the refreshments!