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Cluntoe Airfield

In 1941 an airfield was built in Ardboe. The impact of this has been long lasting, changing the area forever.

Article by John McAliskey

RAF Station Cluntoe

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The creation in the forties of a Second World War airbase in the middle of Ardboe a quiet, rural area, changed life there forever. Before the war houses were thatched and whitewashed. There was no electricity. The majority of the population were farmers, still depending on horses and carts.

A FAR AWAY WAR

In 1939 the outbreak of war seemed very far away to the people of Ardboe. Apart from rationing and an increase in food production for the war effort, life continued on as usual.
Rumours began to spread that an airfield was to be built, although people had no idea what this meant. By 1940 officials had begun to chalk out boundaries and news began to break that 35 families would have to move.

The airfield was to be built directly in the centre of Ardboe, in the townland of Kinrush. At the time Kinrush was the most populated area of Ardboe and the largest townland. It contained shops, two blacksmiths, a shoe maker and a railway carriage!

The building of the airfield began on 9 December 1941, properties were forcibly purchased and livestock and equipment auctioned off. Some people bought other farms locally but many left the area never to return.

mary forbes
 
robert wilkinson
Mary Forbes
Robert Wilkinson

Mary Forbes tells how she remembers Kinrush:

“A lovely homely place. They had all good farms and at that time there wasn’t much money, but they were all surviving all right. All small, all farmers, good homes. A lot of houses on it you know, so many houses on it, lovely houses.”

Although Robert Wilkinson remembers it differently:

“Not a very prosperous looking place, meadows and fields, wee small roads, horses and carts. It would be hard to picture. And a blacksmith man’s shop in the middle of it. Thing’s wasn’t good I can tell you. Wee small roads and lanes, you couldn’t have got a donkey up them.”

LOCAL REACTIONS

Robert Wilkinson tells how people were informed about the airfield:

“I think the authorities or the ministry contacted the local clergy, and it came off the altar. Everything came off the altar in those days, for there was no radio or no other way. There was a terrible hullabaloo and a protest. The local people all met and had a big how do you do.
‘ No, no, no we don’t want this’ – the parish priest didn’t want it. They fussed about an awful lot but eventually the people DID want it.

And the reason why – as usual - was money! Money came into the picture. Along came your ministry and offered them 50 pound an acre for their land. You wouldn’t have got five pound an acre for your land. Times were that bad, it was that poor.”

Guard House, ivy covered with a glimpse of a urinal
 
Outlying building used as a byre
Guard house, still complete with urinal.
 
Airfield building, use unknown

DESTRUCTION & CONSTRUCTION

All hedges and trees were ripped out, the land flattened and three runways built (2,600 yards, 2,200 yards and 1,300 yards long) with a three mile perimeter taxi way, leading to 30 hardstands (plane parking areas). Two hangars covering a half acre each, were built, as well as four communal buildings, headquarters, hospital, cinema, church, sewage facilities, shooting range, fuel and bomb dumps and nissan huts for living quarters; over 500 buildings in all. In less than two years John Howard and Co, the English contractors employed, had demolished Kinrush and rebuilt it as Cluntoe Airfield, bigger, better and bomb proof.

Rubble strewn runway
 
Derilict runway
The runway today
 
The perimeter taxi way today

The airfield forced people to go miles out of their way to get from one side of the parish to the other. The parish was sliced in two, and each half was virtually isolated from the other. There was no direct route from upper Ardboe to lower (Moortown). Even today these divisions still exist, with the ruined airbase splitting the parish.

It was not all doom and gloom. The building of the airfield brought employment to the area and a good wage for those employed. It is estimated that £1.5 million was brought in to the Ardboe area as a result of it being built.

There is a local tale of one enterprising cart owner who, getting paid per load delivered, would check it in at one point, exit through a gap in the hedge, wait a period of time and check it in at a second point further along. There is a further rumour that the man kept this up so long that he was only caught when grass started growing from his load!

RAF and USAAF salute stars & stripes
RAF hand over Cluntoe Airbase to the Americans

THE YANKEES ARRIVE

Initially the airfield was occupied by the RAF but was quickly given over to the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces). The airfield was used as a training base. Experienced pilots leaving the European theatre would meet with new recruits to pass on the benefits of their experience. The airfield was also a rest stop for bombing crews.

By 1943 over 3,500 American troops were stationed on the base, effectively tripling the population of Ardboe. Coming from a country not affected by war and rationing, money was in abundance, again providing a boost to the local shops and other businesses.

 
 

As Robert says of relations between Americans and locals:

“Oh, they got on very well. Yankee dollars again came into the picture. There used to be a farmer called Devlin. Well he used to have hens and ducks and things and he would boil a bucket full of eggs and arrive at the picket post or get permission to go down. And he would have sold the bucket of eggs in ones and twos and threes to the soldiers. And the same with the drink of course, bottles of whiskey and that, they bought that up. Good whiskey, poitín too. They didn’t socialise an awful lot. Well they did but there was no social life, there was only the local pubs. It was a wee small place, they wouldn’t have sat in that talking to old local farmers with their old fashioned jargon. They had their canteen and their own social place, which was built to their standards and their way of going.”

Many people such as Robert worked as civilians at the airfield.

Robert tells of his daily duties:

“The duties were keeping these huts tidy. There was a pot bellied stove in the middle with a chimney up through. I had to clean the ashes out of that, leave coal for them, generally tidy up the beds if they wanted them made. Sweep up and all. That was all I had to do. I don’t know what way you would describe it. It wasn’t really work at all. Two hours in the day. There was a lot of Nissan huts, wee round huts – I was given the job of attending to about four of these wee round huts. In these round huts was what they called combat officers – they were trained pilots and navigators and all. They would come over, take on the bombing over Germany for 10 days and then come for 10 days rest, which sounds a silly thing to do but anyway. I was given the job of cleaning out these four huts, but whenever I went the airmen chased me out – ‘get out to hell out of here!’ They wouldn’t let me work! For they wanted to sleep.”

Headstone of DC Preston Killed in  a flting accident

The grave of Pilot Officer
DC Preston in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone

THE END OF THE AIRFIELD

By 1946 the war was over and the Americans had left. The RAF had returned but there was no need for a training ground. It was kept ticking over and was reopened in 1952 as a training base for pilots going to Korea. During that time a young RAF pilot was killed in a flying accident: Pilot Officer DC Preston, aged 19, was killed on the 6 May 1953 and buried in a local church yard. The RAF use of the airfield was short-lived and by 1955 it closed for good, leaving Ardboe quiet once more.

Robert Wilkinson remembers this:

“The war was over and the yanks went home, that was them finished. The admiralty and the RAF took it over and set it up as a training base. Then suddenly somebody invented the plane that rises up, the harrier, the jump jet and there’s no more call for an air base.

Suddenly everyone vanished and there wasn’t a creature about it and the locals fell to it and knocked the buildings all down. There was a whole load of electric cable and they started to dig and take lintels out of buildings and take roofs off. There was no one to stop them. Of course the police didn’t want to come to this area anyway.

Then they appointed an auctioneer from Cookstown, to sell the whole thing. One particular building up here, the walls are still standing, well the roof went to a bus depot in Thomas St, Dungannon. They left the walls. They’re grown over now so it’s not as bad looking, but it was a terrible sight. ”

The construction of the airfield had a massive impact on the area and its inhabitants. An entire townland was buried under its runways, but it dragged Ardboe into the 20th century. It brought electricity, water supplies, communication and wealth to an area which had barely changed in at least one hundred years. Ardboe was finally on a map even if it was Hitler’s.

Do you have memories of Cluntoe Airfield or did you serve there during the forties or fifties?
Do you or did you know PVT JG Peluser or PFC Cooley? Can you help identify any of the buildings? You can share any information you have about the airfield by filling in the form at the bottom of the page. - Editor

Derelict WWII Control Tower
 
Dusty interior of WWII Control Tower
The Control Tower as it is today.
The interior of the Control Tower is in a surprisingly good condition.
Squat Stocky Building with barred windows.
 
1943 preserved in wet concrete
Possibly the Detention Centre, with bars still on the windows.
The year 1943 written when the concrete was wet.
PVT J G PELUSE (PELUSER?)

PVT J G PELUSER (PELUSE?)
+
PFC MW COOLEY
APRIL 17 1944
(Can anyone identify these soldiers?)

 

YOUR RESPONSES:

Ac Harrison from Derby - July 2008
I was stationed at cluntoe 1954 to 1955

Peter Phillips - June '08
I served at RAF Cluntoe in 1957. We were the last airmen there as it was being closed down. There were only a total of 18 staff there and we were in run down billets. The local population were not friendly toward us and I remember walking into a pub with a couple of mates and a deadly hush ensued. Whilst I was there the pumping station which supplied us with water was blown up and we had to be supplied with a water bowser from the parent station, RAF Aldergrove.
After the place closed I heard that a local policeman had been injured or killed removing a flag from the flagpole but cannot verify this story

Ann-Maree Dorman - Dec '07
My father Michael Dorman and his twin Brother Peter found the body of the young girl down at Blake' farm. The story goes that men were using a thrashing machine in the middle of the field , Peter and Michael went to the middle of the field and found the young child murdered near a haystack. Both Michael and Peter (aged 18) both were called to testify in the Cookstown courthouse. The U.S soldier was executed in Somerset, England one year later.

The next day the soldier called at Dormans' pub for a drink, my father Michael asked the soldier what were the marks on your hand. The soldier replied he had a fight with a soldier down at the Kilycolpy Post Office. Little did he know at the time that he was the murderer of the child.

Chris Lynn - Jan '07
The small building illustrated as 'possibly a detention centre' is marked on the official airfield plan (copy available by post from the RAF Museum, Hendon) as 'Bomb site [sight] storage and repair'. It is beside the large Operations Block. Bomb sights were top secret. Some of the instructional buildings surviving at the site (one now an attractive dwelling) were for training in the use of bomb sights.

Ciara Gribb - Jan '07

In realtion to Hugh Wilkinson. Patricia Wylie court case was coveyed in full detail in a newspaper of the time. Pamla Wilkinson (né Wylie) has a copy of this document.

George Manson - Aug '06
I was stationed at RAF Cluntoe in the 50,s and was there at the closure. The aircraft used then were Harvards (B flight) and Percival Prentice (A flight).

I remember the good times meeting very nice and friendly people, I also remember the not so good and some very unfriendly people, on the whole the good wins hands down.

I would love to go back and have one of your 'Ulster fries' in Cookstown.

The photograph of the detention centre could well be one of the parachute storage rooms.

Alan Judge - June '06
The comment by Quinn is harsh and indicative of someone blinkered by too much xenophobic brain input by local sectarian sources. Not everyone in Tyrone is so narrow-minded. There were obviously benefits and hardships. Bringing the term ‘Occupying Brits’ into it only divides and polarises opinion where it needn’t be, the writer has clearly been as objective as possible.

James Stewart - March '06
William Harrison was found guilty and was hanged at the American Military prison at Shepton Mallet. A terrible crime for which Harrison justly deserved to hang. Cluntoe was a Combat Crew replacement Centre , aircrew were trained here to flying operations over Europe. Like all aircrew it taught them the basics , the real learning took place facing the very able and effective fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe. A nice place to take a walk and ponder what once took place here so many years ago.

Quinn - March '06
This article is very biased, the occupation by the Yankees just like the occupation by the Brits was not good for Ardboe or the surronding area.
It was bad, very bad.

Hugh Wilkinson - Mar 06
The girl who was murdered by the American serviceman was Patricia Wylie. The serviceman's name was private William Harrison and was from somewhere in Ohio. His court martial was held in Cookstown N.I.
Does anyone have anymore information on this incident i.e., the outcome of the court martial etc.?

Hugh Mc Kenna - November '05
I remember the murder (see Maura Byrne reply below ) as I was only young at the time and worked on delivering minerals and guinness for Tyrone Mineral Waters. We were at Dormans Pub when the Jeep with the childs body on back stopped. The childs name was Wylie.

Victor Best - October '05
Hi, a couple of questions:
Are there any preservation orders on this site?
What type of aircraft used this airbase?
It would be a shame if the developers got their greedy hands on what remains, especially the control tower.

Any details gratefully received, thanks, Victor Best .

Maura Byrne - September '05
My father recalls a story from this time of a local six years old girl being murdered by one of the soldiers. He remembers it being covered up and the soldier responisble being whisked back to America. Anyone with any more information on this.

Reggie Barr - July '05
I was born in Manchester, Conn. USA and due to my father dying there in Feb 1934 my mother returned to N I bringing my brother and I with her I had a pal in Manchester, a little older than I was, who was called up for service with the USAAF and was stationed in Clontoe I think it was in 1943. During his time there he contacted me and we met up a few times before he moved on. Unfortunatly we lost contact with each other and I have not heard from him since. His name was Eddie Cavagnaro.

John Hagan - December '04
My grandfather died from injuries received in an industrial accident when building the airfield. Samuel Hagan was mixing concrete when the mixer toppled over shattering his leg. He later died from gangrene in Omagh Hospital.

The airfield did bring a lot of prosperity and excitement to the area. Few of the residents of Coagh and Ardboe had ever met with foreigners. The construction and maintenance work created valuable income as farming or working in Duff's mill were the main sources of employment. The black market trade between the Americans and locals also helped build relationships. Silk stockings were a valuable commodity during the war years - the yanks could get them and the locals couldn't - this opened up a whole new economic enterprise.

A few local girls made new friends which turned to wedding bells as they set out for a new life on the far side of the Atlantic.

Sadly too racism raised it's head when a young coloured soldier had his throat cut on Coagh's Main Street by a white American serviceman. A fight with the locals ensued and Coagh was made out of bounds for many white servicemen. On another occasion a few drunken American became loud and aggressive at a dance in the Memorial Hall on the Urbal Road, Coagh, again the locals brought the Americans down to size.

Charles Friel - November '04
Does anyone remember the contractor, Howard, using a narrow gauge railway in the building of the base? I am told that the railway was two foot gauge and that Howard had either two or four steam locomotives in use. Any details, memories, or photographs (however poor) would be very welcome - all costs fully met, of course. Thank you.

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