Northern Ireland

Uncovering Omagh's little known RAF airfield

Strathroy airfield Image copyright Ernie Cromie collection
Image caption Strathroy became the home of 105 Squadron, RAF, in 1918

Drive down a lane outside Omagh in County Tyrone and you will come to Strathroy House, a family home where the land stretches out in a long field inside a tight turn of the River Strule.

Cattle graze peacefully on the 40 acres for most of the year, but in the winter the land is wet and prone to flooding.

Few people passing have any idea that almost a century ago, for just a few months, the area echoed to the sounds of rudimentary aero engines and bustle of a busy Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield.

Image copyright Gordon Dunn
Image caption Cattle graze peacefully on the 40 acres for most of the year, but in the winter the land is wet and prone to flooding

In 1918, the year of the Armistice and the end of World War One, Strathroy became the home of 105 Squadron, RAF.

They flew RE8 reconnaissance aircraft, biplanes, in which they patrolled across vast areas of Ireland.

Among the pilots was Capt George Bowen, who made his first test flight there on 19 May 1918, lasting 45 minutes.

A day later his log book records that he flew over "Omagh, Derry, Aldergrove, Dungannon" on what he called a "NE Patrol".

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption Strathroy became the home of 105 Squadron, RAF, in 1918

Many more patrols followed, taking him and his colleagues over most of the island.

The cover story was that the squadron was looking for German U-boat activity along the Irish coast.

'Conscription crisis'

But new research by the aviation historian Guy Warner has uncovered the real reason for their wide-ranging patrols over inland areas.

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption The RAF squadrons were used to carry out reconnaissance duties, and also to harass Sinn Féin rallies by flying low over them

"The Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin had seen an upsurge in their activity following the conscription crisis of 1918," he said.

"The Lord Lieutenant, Field Marshall French asked for a couple of RAF squadrons for reconnaissance duties, and also to harass Sinn Féin rallies by flying low over them."

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption When the officers were not flying they enjoyed activities with local families, such as egg and spoon races

It is unclear how effective these tactics were in the north of Ireland at that time.

When they were not flying it is clear that the officers and aircrew enjoyed quite a busy social life with local families.

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption A group of officers, including the squadron commander Major D.G.Joy with the Scott family, posing outside Strathroy House

There were group photographs during an open day and even an egg-and-spoon race for local ladies.

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption Major D.G. Joy looks rather bemused sitting on this donkey

One shot shows a group of officers including the squadron commander Maj DG Joy with the Scott family, posing outside Strathroy House.

In another shot, Maj Joy is looking rather bemused as he sits on the back of a donkey.

The Omagh historian and author Dr Haldane Mitchell has researched the airfield for some years, and believes few locals would have known about the airfield but for a tragedy just after Armistice Day.

Image copyright Dr Haldane Mitchell
Image caption Canadian Lieutenant Lawrence Booth, whose plane collided with another near Omagh, was buried in the town with full military honours

On 13 November 1918, two aircraft collided a few miles south of the town, and crashed to the ground killing two pilots and an observer, and badly injuring another passenger.

One of the pilots, a Canadian lieutenant called Lawrence Booth, was buried in Omagh with full military honours.

Brought to light

His grave can still be visited in the town's Dublin Road cemetery.

"I'm convinced that it was only the accident that brought the fact to light that there were planes flying in and out of Omagh," Mr Mitchell said.

In all two RAF squadrons were based there, 105 and 106, but within a few months the RAF had packed up and left, even taking the aircraft hangars with them.

Few passing today are aware of its past as a base, never mind the secret missions to observe republican gatherings in the last few months before the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922.