Best Preserved Wartime Airfield in Northern Ireland -
by Bob Crookes - 25th March 2004
It's easy to understand why Northern Ireland landowners
were once keen to remove all traces of wartime architecture
once they’d been reunited with their property
at the end of WWII. For many it was a need to remove
what they saw as eyesores; for others it was an act
of getting rid of any form of reminder of that grim
period that had oppressed their lives.
Little was thought in the immediate post-war era about
preservation; who in their right mind would want to
keep a collection of slabby grey buildings that were
often literally ‘thrown up’ overnight and
which plainly had no architectural merit?. The few that
did remain through the years were mostly retained because
of their value as agricultural buildings; others remained
because they were just too difficult to dismantle.
We are all now much more aware than ever before of
historical value. So little is left to see these days
of that significant period in our history, that any
location with all its parts almost perfectly preserved
should rightly be considered a site of national importance.
Such is Enniskillen's airport at Rossihilly, 3 miles
North of the town, better known to all as St. Angelo.
Bomber's eye view of the Runway at St. Angelo aerodrome
St. Angelo became a military airfield in April 1941
and, because of poor drainage and boggy conditions,
grass landing strips were out of the question and solid
runways were built; one on a North/South axis the other
East to West. The RAF took it over in August 1941 and
it opened as a fighter station on September 15th with
parts of 133 and 134 squadrons, equipped with Spitfires
and Hurricanes, who used St. Angelo as a base to intercept
enemy reconnaissance aircraft off the west coast of
Listen - James O'Neill
of Environment & Heritage Service was visiting
St Angelo, making a survey for Defence Heritage
as part of the process to preserve these now rare
wartime buildings. He told Bob Crookes that St Angelo
had been a very busy airfield from the early days
During the advance of Hitler’s forces through
the Low Countries, intelligence showed that the use
of paratroopers - never seen before - had influenced
a change in tactics in capturing airfields. Where attacks
had once come from outside the airfield now the inside
too was vulnerable.
Listen - One of the stranger
things the casual observer notes is that most of
the defensive pill boxes face inwards towards the
Hilltop Command Post with overview
of St. Angelo aerodrome
So St. Angelo is likely to have been one of the first airfields where protective
pill-boxes, housing machine gun crews, were built facing
inwards facing towards the runways, ready for the attack
from within. On top of the hill at the side of the N/S
runway, with a commanding view over the whole area,
stands a massive blockhouse that was the battle headquarters
from where any battle for the airfield would be directed.
(To afficianados of such buildings, this was built to
the 11008/41 design).
In August 1943, Coastal Command took over the station
and it became a satellite of the Catalina and Sunderland
flying boat base at Killadeas.
Listen - Later the emphasis
at St Angelo moved towards supporting the search
for the U-boat packs in the Western Approaches in
Catalinas over Lough Erne, 1943 - picture
by courtesy of Breege McCusker
The airfield also became the home for 235Sqn in October 1943 and they flew
the long range torpedo bomber, the Beaufighter, in the ceaseless war against
the U-Boat packs who were harrying the convoys fighting their way across
the Atlantic with desperately needed supplies.
One recorded incident out of St Angelo reads:
On 10th March 1944 Short Sunderland MKIII, RAF s/n
EK591, aircraft “2-U” of No. 422 (General
Reconnaissance) Squadron based at St Angelo, County
Fermanagh, Ireland with Warrant Officer 2nd Class
W.F Morton and crew, sank U-625 at 52-53N 20-19W.
This was W/O Morton’s first operational mission
as an aircraft commander
Listen - With all the hills around Enniskillen the sight of a large hill topped by a church with a tower sitting right at the end of the main runway must have frightened the wits out of new arrival at St Angelo. James O'Neill thought it might not have been the most popular airfield to visit.
Beaufighter, in the ceaseless war against the U-Boat
One of the best preserved areas around St Angelo airfield is well away from
the public gaze and a trek alongside the main runway
is needed to find the ‘e-pens’ or blast
shelters. These were called e-pens because, in shape,
they looked like today’s symbol for the euro.
These were built around the airfield and places where
bombers would have been dispersed to make them harder
targets to find should an enemy attack occur. The safety
of maintenance crews was paramount too and the blast
shelters were never more than a few yards away from
where they worked on the aircraft – somewhere
to take cover during an attack. Although now overgrown
these are well preserved and most probably the last
in existence in Northern Ireland.
Listen - The significance of St Angelo is that it is in such a fine state of preservation with so many buildings intact.
A number of E-Pens remain in almost perfect condition
-25th March 2004
During the war the airfield – or aerodrome as it was known locally – was
known as Rossihilly and, sometimes, Ballycassidy but the name Saint Angelo
is derived from the nearby Bishop’s residence, called St. Angelo, which
was commandeered, apparently for the use of the Station Commander, and the
name became attached to the airfield.
On 1st May 1944 the RAF opened No12 (Operational) Flying
Instructors School with the sole purpose of training
ex operational pilots as instructors who would then
go on to instruct basic trainee pilots . They started
with Wellingtons, Beaufighters and Mosquitos but it
was quickly decided that they would included instructors
on Sunderlands and Catalinas who would do their training
out of Killadeas.
Listen - Moving further
down the airfield we see some of the protective
shelters that were built to protect maintenance
crews in the dispersal areas.
At the end of the war the airfield became a maintenance base and before
it was officially disbanded in February 1947 it was used as a place for storing
and breaking up the Avro Anson transport aircraft.
The fact that St. Angelo played an important part in the defence of the Western
Approaches is largely understated but there is little
doubt that aircraft from St. Angelo and the bases at
Castle Archdale and Killadeas played a significant part
in the strategy to overcome the menace of the U-boats.
Listen - James tells how
he was visiting St Angelo as part of an official
At the time or writing, this airfield is scheduled to become an historic
monument which will be a fitting tribute to all those men who lived, fought
small area of County Fermanagh and, although the architecture of the time
might not be described as beautiful, it deserves to be preserved as a record
for future generations.
Note from the Editor:
Sadly, just two days after this article was written,
virtually all of the WWII structures on the St.
Angelo site were destroyed. You can read about
their destruction here on BBC
How the above
structures looked just two days later, after
the diggers had
See the YP&M WAR
Have you any special memories of this or other airfields
around NI? Please let us know by using the form below.