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516 Squadron RAF (Combined Operations ) - SW Scotland

In Support of Landing Craft Training and Radar calibration on Fighter Direction Tenders

Instrument Section RAF Dundonald, Ayrshire, Scotland with rare background of an RAF plane bearing the Combined Operations baDge.516 Squadron RAF (Combined Operations), primarily provided air support for Combined Operations training exercises in amphibious landings. As the landing craft approached the training beaches to discharge their troops in the final stages of training courses, aircraft from the squadron would lay down smoke and/or strafe the beach area to simulate the conditions the troops would encounter in battle.

[The photo opposite is believed to be the only example of an RAF aircraft bearing the Combined Operations badge.]

The Squadron also helped to calibrate the radar of three newly commissioned Fighter Direction Tenders, which would provide forward radar cover off the Normandy beaches. Much of the training in amphibious landings and 516 Squadron were located in the west of Scotland.


On the 27th October 1941, a reluctant Lord Louis Mountbatten was urgently recalled from Pearl Harbour to London by Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Mountbatten had taken time out while his beloved ship, HMS Illustrious, was undergoing repairs in Norfolk, Virginia. After a thorough briefing by Churchill at Chequers, Mountbatten took over the position of Adviser and Commodore of Combined Operations (ACO) from Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Keyes.

His primary task was, in harmony with the Chiefs of Staff of the three main armed services, to develop a strategy for an overwhelming invasion against the entrenched enemy forces along the coast of mainland Europe and North Africa. This included the acquisition and development of landing craft and equipment and the recruitment and training of hundreds of thousands of service personnel in amphibious warfare. Mountbatten was to think offensively, while the three main services concentrated on the defence of the country on the high seas and in the air, while the Army recruited, re-equipped and trained land forces for the battles that lay ahead on mainland Europe and elsewhere.

Personnel for the top positions in Combined Operations Command HQ (COHQ) were recruited from the best the three Services had to offer. Their enormous task in training and equipping hundreds of thousands of service personnel for amphibious landings on hostile beaches needed personnel of the highest calibre. The service personnel from the three services needed realistic training to work together as a disciplined, unified force. To provide air support for these complex training operations and in calibrating and testing new equipment such as radar, an Air Staff with aircraft appropriate to the task, were needed for Combined Operations.

Google map of Central Scotland showing various Combined Operations bases.Plans and Preparations

During the first meeting of the Combined Operations Policy Committee on the 6th November 1941, the question of the Air Staff needed by the ACO was deferred to an Ad Hoc Committee. This was chaired by the Assistant Adviser on Combined Operations (Air) Group Captain Willetts, who was the most senior RAF Officer on the ACO's staff at the time. They recommended that Air Staff would form part of the Combined Training Centre at the No 1 Combined Training Centre,  Inveraray, commanded by a rank equivalent to Navy & Army ranks there and that a composite or heterogeneous air squadron was needed for experimental purposes.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

An exchange of letters followed between the ACO and the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. In his reply of the 8th November 1941, Portal sanctioned the provision of a nucleus staff but he made no mention of the experimental air squadron. On the 9th of November, AVMWF Dickson, Director of Plans at the Air Ministry, instructed the Director General of Organisation to establish the Air Staff but, once again, there was no decision on the formation of an Air Force Unit. It was not until the 14th of January 1942 that the Air Ministry at RAF Abbotsinch (now Glasgow Airport), announced the formation of the long awaited Air Force Unit. It was designated No 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight and was to operate within No 17 Group at Abbotsinch until the emergency landing ground at Dundonald was ready.

Map of RAF Dundonald, Ayrshire, Scotland.LAC (Leading Air Craftsman), Ernie Saunders, remembered his time at Abbotsinch with affection. "We were stationed at Abbotsinch for nearly a year and I regard it as one of the better places I visited. We were billeted in a Roman Catholic convent school on Renfrew Road. It was quite unlike an RAF base as we lived a mainly alfresco existence with a complete absence of bull. We were issued with bicycles to go to and from the aerodrome and I can't recollect having a parade the whole time we were there.

We used to call at the corner canteen on the way back from work and we were fed lovely fry ups by the local WVS (Woman's Voluntary Service) ladies. Then back to our billet to prepare for a few pints at the Station Bar, then the Templars dance hall filled with all the local lovelies. There were reputed to be nine females to every male in Paisley at that time. Bliss! I was only 18!" Ernie was an ex Halton apprentice who joined the RAF in 1938. He was later promoted Corporal and was discharged from the RAF in 1948. He now lives in Swindon. The flight continued to operate at Abbotsinch until the 19th October 1942 when 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight completed their move to RAF Dundonald (Bogside) with 6 Officers and 90 Airmen.

A number of  locations had been considered as the permanent base for the Air Force Unit, including Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre. However, Dundonald in Ayrshire was closer to the training establishments and it had more favourable weather conditions. Dundonald had very humble origins. In October 1939, Bogside Farm was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for use as an emergency landing ground. The land was prepared and turf laid by local workers. On completion, a simple cross was laid out on the turf to help identify the ground from the air as a prepared emergency landing strip. The airfield was immediately brought into use as a reserve landing ground for No 12 Elementary Flying Training School based at nearby Prestwick - an arrangement which endured until the unit disbanded in March 1941. RAF Dundonald soon became known affectionately by its local name of 'Bogside.'

RAF Dundonald (pre formation of 516 Squadron)

Dankeith House, part of RAF Dundonald.RAF Dundonald, was located a few miles inland from the Ayrshire coastal town of Troon. Before it could become the operational base for 1441 Flight, new strengthened runways were needed, because the ground was soft and mossy. Birch trees were laid down to provide a solid base for spoil taken from the nearby Hillhouse Quarry. This was topped off with hessian material and wire mesh secured by steel pickets to anchor them to the ground.

[Photo; Dankeith House, courtesy Jim Rolt.]

Of the resultant two runways, No 1was 1480 x 50 yards, positioned to take advantage of the prevailing westerly wind and No 2 was 900 x 50 yards as the secondary runway. There was also a small grass airstrip at the Dundonald Barrasie Golf Club, which was used as an interim measure.

Aircraft hard-standings were formed from pressed steel planking (PSP) which was later used extensively in France after D-Day. Airfield buildings and accommodation were quickly erected and officers were billeted at nearby Dankeith House, with other accommodation provided at nearby Auchengate Camp for all 3 Services. Auchengate was later renamed Dundonald Camp because of its association with the airfield.

When the Navy arrived, it became known as HMS Dundonald. Airmen and NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) were billeted along the Drybridge Road in Jimmy the One Huts. Some officers, with 'living out' passes, rented houses in the locality with their wives. The Bogside farm buildings were used as the administration centre for the airfield (see photo below).

Early days of 1441 Combined Operations Flight outside Bogside HQ building.The flight itself was to be trained in all aspects of air co-operation involving fighter support and control, smoke laying, close support bombing/strafing and front gun recognition of assault ships, landing craft and HM ships.

In those early days, the establishment aircraft amounted to 2 Ansons, 2 Lysanders and a Tiger Moth. A lone Mustang joined the flight in February 42, followed by another Mustang and a Mk1 Hurricane in August. September witnessed the arrival of a second Hurricane Mk1.

Both Hurricanes were 'well used' and, as if to prove the point, W9187 was written-off in September 42 when, the then F/O (Flying Officer) Rymer, crash-landed at Firnock near Inverkip on the River Clyde. Engine failure, caused by a fractured camshaft in the Merlin 3 engine, was later found to be the cause.

The suitability of the aircraft allocated to the flight, was soon raised with the CCO.  The allocation of obsolescent Ansons & Lysanders not only hindered the development of doctrine and tactics, but had a demoralising effect on Combined Operations personnel. It was not unreasonable to speculate, that the air aspect of Combined Operations, as viewed by the powers that be, was not worthy of a few modern machines, such as Hurricane Mk l's.

The Combined Operations Policy Committee, met to address some of these concerns. The flight was to be designated a 'Development' unit, with the mission to become expert in all air aspects of Combined Operations. They were to evolve the best techniques appropriate to their tasks, and other operational squadrons were, periodically, to be attached to the Combined Operations Command for exercises with the Army & Navy in the Dundonald area.

Squadrons Attached to 516 Squadron

Mustang AG 419 at RAF Dundonald.The First four listed in the table below as 1441 Flight Abbotsinch, Glasgow, the fifth as 1441 Flight at Dundonald and the remainder as 516 Squadron RAF at Dundonald. Many other squadrons from both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm were detached to Bogside for Combined Operations Training and other supporting roles. One such example was in the provision of air support in the calibration of radar and other electronic equipment on the three Fighter Direction Tenders in the River Clyde. Sea trials started on the 27th February, 1944 and aircraft were provided by 29 Squadron RAF, 409 Squadron, RCAF and 516 Combined Operations Squadron, RAF, all flying from RAF Dundonald.

239 Squadron. 2/5/42 to 14/5/42; Mustang Mk 1s; Training in Tactical Reconnaissance. In June 42 commenced ground attack and tactical reconnaissance sorties over FranceBlenheim aircraft laying down smoke at Newton on Loch Fyne.

18. 13/5/42 to 15/5/42; Blenheims; No training as such at Abbotsinch but used Dundonald as a staging post on the way back from the Middle East to Ayr. Mostly Malta based. Arrived Algeria Nov 42 and was involved in N Africa (Op Torch) mainly on bombing raids.

225. 13/5/42 to 21/5/42; Hurricanes & Mustang Mk 1s; Training in Tactical Reconnaissance.  Served in N Africa (Op Torch) on tactical reconnaissance for 1st Army in Tunisia.

21. 20/5/42 to 22/5/42; Blenheims; Took part in Exercise Schuyt 3.  On the 6/12/42 the Squadron's first operation took place when 17 Blenheims bombed the Phillips factory at the Dutch city of Eindhoven during daylight.

Hurricane LF 383 in flight.2. 11/3/44 to 24/3/44; Mustangs; Trained in naval bombardment spotting for D-Day landings + aerial photography of German coastal defences in France.

409 RCAF. 27/2/44 to ?; Beaufighter; Provided air support for the calibration of  radar and other aids onboard Fighter Direction Tenders. The squadron was a night fighter unit and in May 44 became part of 2nd Tactical Air Force (T.A.F.) becoming fully involved in intruder missions and flying night cover over the Normandy beachhead.

414 RCAF. 28/2/44 to 11/3/44; Mustangs; Trained in tactical reconnaissance in preparation for Overlord. The Squadron joined 2nd T.A.F. on its formation and was engaged in reconnaissance as its main role but also took part in offensive patrols over France. As D-day approached 414 began to build up coverage of enemy defence positions. The unit later converted to Spitfires.

Westland Lysander P1725 of 1441 Combined Operations off Castle Toward.268. 26/3/44 to 8/4/44; Mustangs; Trained in Naval Bombardment and Spotting.  In June 1943, 268 Squadron joined the newly formed 2nd TAF in preparation for the invasion of Europe, after undertaking a course in spotting for naval bombardment in the Clyde. A task the unit undertook on D-day.

63. 9/4/44 to 21/4/44; Hurricanes; Training in providing landing and battle ships with directions. Improved technology resulted in two equipment changes and the allocation of Spitfires rather than Hurricanes by D-Day. They flew many sorties spotting for the naval guns bombarding shore positions.

26. 10/4/44 to 21/4/44; Mustangs; Trained in naval gun spotting. Spitfires were used over Normandy reverting to Mustangs later.

Westland Lysander P1725 with smoke pods.Fleet Air Arm Squadrons on detachment to R.A.F. Dundonald 43/44 - ?

879 FAA. 24/4/43 to 1/5/43; Seafires. Participated in Naval Exercise at Dundonald and left for Stretton. Took part in the Salerno landings. On return to the U.K in Feb 44, 879 Squadron formed part of the 4th Naval Fighter Wing absorbing the aircraft and some crew of 886 Sqd.

29. 6/4/44 to 12/4/44; Mosquitos; Calibration trials of Radar Equipment on newly equipped Fighter Direction Tenders which later provided sea borne radar, communications and beacon cover off Normandy for about 3 weeks in June 1944.

808 FAA. 22/4/44 to 6/5/44; Seafires; Trained in bombardment, spotting & target reconnaissance. In May the unit was attached to No 34 Recce Wing of 2nd T.A.F. By the time of Normandy the squadron was equipped with Seafires and put its training to good use.

Bleheim Z7425 with Tiger Moth and Anson under blister in background at RAF Dundonald.885 FAA. 22/4/44 to 6/5/44; Seafires; Trained in bombardment spotting and escort work. Formed part of the Air Spotting Pool of 34 Recon Wg 2nd T.A.F. providing Bombardment Spotting and Escort's for the Invasion Fleet. In July 44, 885 Squadron absorbed the remnants of 886 and 897 FAA Sqdn's.

897 FAA. 6/5/44 to 21/5/44; Spitfires; Training in tactical reconnaissance and bombardment spotting work. On D-Day 897 was responsible for shooting down an Me 109 and damaging a midget submarine.

886 FAA. 13/5/44 to 20/5/44; Seafires; Trained in Bombardment Spotting and Target Reconnaissance Training. From D-day 886 operated as part of the Air Spotting Pool of No 34 Recce Wg 2nd T.A.F. undertaking bombardment spotting, offensive sweeps, escort and anti-submarine patrols In July 44 it was absorbed into 885 FAA Squadron.

Squadron Leader Drinkwater, took up command of 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight on the 28th Jan, 1942. There were a number of VIP visits including one by Air Commodore FW Walker, Commander of the newly formed Air Staff at the No 1 Combined Training Centre, Inveraray. As the flight became operational, the squadrons listed above were attached for Combined Operations training. Amongst the first were 239 Squadron, who were at Abbotsinch from May 2 - May 14, 21 Squadron, and 225 Squadron. The latter took part in Operation Torch in North Africa in Nov 42, where it flew tactical reconnaissance support for the 1st Army.

Cartoon caricatures of service personnel at RAF DundonaldCartoon caricatures of service personnel at RAF DundonaldNo 105 Wing, late of 71 Squadron, was established on the 28th Feb 1943 at Dankeith House. As Wing Headquarters, they carried out administrative work for all air staff located at the various CTCs (Combined Training Centres) bases on the west coast of Scotland under the Command of Group Captain Geoff Wood, OBE, DFC. This newly formed wing also looked after 1441 CO Flight. HQ 105 Wing, itself, came under the direct command of Air Commodore Orlebar at COHQ at Richmond Terrace, London. It also administered units at Inveraray Castle, Toward, Troon, Skelmorlie, Arran and Largs. Air Commodore Orlebar was famous for his daring exploits in the Schneider Trophy (high speed racing with powerful sea-planes) when he flew a Super-marine S6 - the forerunner of the Spitfire.

On the 27th April 1943, 1441 FIight was disbanded and became 516 Combined Operations Squadron. All personnel and equipment were signed over to 516 Squadron on the 28th April 1943.

516 Squadron

As the Combined Operations training programme rapidly expanded, it was essential to upgrade the smaller flight to full squadron strength to meet increased demands. The roles given to 516 Squadron were many and varied including smoke screen, laying attacks on naval shipping, tactical reconnaissance and attacks on ground forces practising amphibious beach landings from landing craft. In all cases the RAF involvement was the provision of realistic battle conditions using live ordnance in the final stages of training. The job required skills in very low flying and accidents and fatalities were suffered by both aircrews and ground forces.

Map of Mull, Coll and mainland showing plane crash sites from Combined Operations training exercises.On the 6th of February 1944, three hurricanes from 516 Squadron took off from RAF Connell on a training exercise in the Kentra Bay area on the NE corner of the Ardnamurchan Peninsular (map opposite). Their task was to undertake mock, low flying attacks on amphibious training beach landings to provide realistic battle conditions for the navy crews of the landing craft and the army trainees they carried.

Their mission completed, the pilots set course for RAF Connell to the south east but found themselves enveloped by thick cloud and mist which had rolled in from the west at sea level. They split up and tried to reach any base they could.

W/O Stephen made for RAF Tiree to the west, Flt Lt Woodgate took a sea level route south-east to RAF Connel, via the Sound of Mull and P/O Larry Figgis, climbed above the cloud ceiling at over 6000 ft on an easterly course. Not sure of his position, and running low on fuel, he was on the point of baling out when a small break in the cloud appeared below him. He dived through it to a successful belly landing in a field on Carse Farm near Stirling. The other two were not so lucky.

Three days later on the 9th of February, police found  W/O (Warrant Officer) Stephen's Plaque attached to a natural stone in remembrance of two pilots killed during a training exrcise.crashed Hurricane on the island of Coll and the following day that of Fl/Lt Woodgate on the side of Beinn na Seilg near Ghleamn Locha Kilchoan Bay on Ardnamurchan.

In 1995, at the instigation of Phillip Jones, a plaque dedicated to the memory of the pilots was secured to a granite boulder from which both crash sites were visible. W/O J E Stephen, RAF, was 24 and Fl/Lt A J Woodgate, RNZAF, was just 21 years of age when they died. (See 'Correspondence' below).

Tragically, a month later, Sgt Robert Rhodes lost his life when his Hurricane struck the ramp of a landing craft. His plane was never recovered from the sea and he is therefore remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

There were casualties, too, among the servicemen involved in the landing exercises - proof, if it were needed, of the realistic nature of these training exercises. In a very real sense, the sacrifices of the few brave men who lost their lives during training exercises, saved countless lives just over a year later, when the quality of the training would be tested to the utmost. The success of the anticipated Fl/Lt A J Woodgate killed during a Combined Operation training exercise.invasion, would W/O J E Stephen killed during a Combined Operations training exercise.largely depend on the three services working closely together as they were trained to do.

[Photos; W/O J E Stephen and Fl/Lt A J Woodgate with their memorial plaque above.]

Most of 516 Squadron's flying, was concentrated around Loch Fyne and along the Firth of Clyde from Barassie to Largs. When fighter aircraft were used in more distant places, such as the Ardnamurchan Peninsular, they used forward landing grounds, including RAF Connel, near Oban and RAF Tiree, in the Inner Hebrides, for refuelling.

The Run-down

516 had a mixed bag of aircraft including Hurricanes, Mustangs, Lysanders, Blenlheims, Ansons, a Miles Master, a Tiger Moth and a Proctor. This allowed the unit to fulfil their commitments to the other services but often under great pressure. As operation Overlord approached, the pace of activity at Bogside increased dramatically and continued well after the event, as exercises with units of the Fleet Air Arm were undertaken. However, as the nature of the conflict in France changed to a land based operation, the demand for Combined Operations training diminished. A signal received on the 15th Aug 1944 from HQ 105 Wing at Dankeith ordered 516 Sqd to move from 26 Group Bomber Command to 44 Group Transport Command and it would be administered from Prestwick.

A notice to disband after the 2nd December was received, and by the 31st Dec, 44, 516 Squadron no longer existed. It had been a living, vibrant community and now there was nothing left. Personnel were posted to other units and Bogside, the location of so much frenetic activity, was placed on a care and maintenance basis with the objective of keeping the airfield in good working order for possible future operations and as a emergency landing ground.

The Royal Navy returned to Bogside in March 45 to test a target glider and the airfield served as an emergency landing ground on several prior occasions. The army's 22nd Beach Signals Unit, used the station for accommodation purposes during May 45; but all this activity was of an ad hoc nature and was unable to secure the future of the airfield, which officially closed on 1st Aug, 1945. The Army retained control of the site until it was derequisitioned in1952, when it was returned to farmland. Fifty years on, the second runway can still be seen in places as can the airfield drainage and the concrete foundation of one of the windsocks. These physical remnants are all that remain as evidence of the vital role RAF Dundonald, and 516 Combined Operations Squadron, played in the preparations for D-Day.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

516 Squadron - Memories of a Pilot - humorous recollections of New Zealander, Douglas Shears who served as a pilot with 516 Combined Operations Squadron from 17/7/44 to late Dec 44.

Airfield Focus - No. 35 Dundonald by Phil Jones. Published by GMS Enterprises, 67 Pyhill, Peterborough, PE3 8QQ in 1998. 34 Pages. ISBN1 870384 66 0 £4.95

Damn my Two Left Feet....and how I Flew with Them by Doug Shears. Published 2001 by Jeff Mill & Associates 4/8 Nile Street, Timaru, NEW Zealand. Doug was a pilot with 516 and the book includes a chapter on his experiences with them.

If you have any information or book recommendations about 516 Combined Operations Squadron please contact us.


Initials carved in a tree at Dundonald initially thought to be from 1944 but later found to be 1994.Hi Geoff.

I lived in Dundonald for10 years until recently and still live in nearby Troon. I'm a self confessed history freak and have spent many a day visiting memorials and battlefields throughout Europe and beyond.

Whilst walking our dogs in the woods near Auchans house ruins, Dundonald, we came across carvings in a tree. The woods overlook what was the airfield and I understand they were used for exercises during the operational period.

I often wonder what became of the men who carved their initials on what appears to be their last day before moving on from Dundonald shortly before D Day.

I hope this is of interest to you.

Kind regards

Jim Quinn

Boy's carving of guitarist on tree.Remarkably, the owner of the initial GY has been in touch, but he's not the veteran we supposed. The year was 1994, not 1944 and the occasion was the last day at school for him and his pals. GY has confirmed that they are all well. Geoff [July 2020.]

Dedication of memorial on Coll for Warrant Officer John Stephen August 2008.Dedication plaque on Coll for Warrant Officer John Stephen August 2008.A plaque, commemorating Warrant Officer John Stephen, was unveiled on 18th August 2008, close to the spot on the Isle of Coll where his Hurricane plane crashed in 1944. Relatives travelled from London and a great nephew flew from Hong Kong to be present.  They were joined by some islanders to witness the unveiling of the plaque which was draped with a Union flag. A thin drizzle slightly marred the event.

It was mainly as a result of police Sergeant Neil Owen’s efforts that the event took place.  Owen (seen crouched next to the plaque) had researched and written about the 1944 event, i.e. the flight of three Hurricanes from Oban’s Connel airfield.

The relatives met the islander who, as a young lad, had heard the crash but then had difficulty convincing adults of the situation. After the unveiling, they saw some of the few remains of the plane and were given a tour of the island.

Ewen McGee


This account of 516 Combined Operations Squadron was based on research material provided by Phillip C Jones. Phil gratefully acknowledges the willing help of ex squadron members in the provision of photographs, illustrations and reminiscences.

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