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With the start of World War One in 1914 the aeroplane became a weapon of war and not just a new amusing machine for military officers and wealthy civilians. Initially they were very slow and fragile and used only in the reconnaissance role, flying over the German positions and spotting for the Army’s guns. Because the Germans used the same tactics, aircraft became armed in an attempt to shoot down each other’s aircraft, so the fighter plane was born.
As WW1 progressed the performance, role and the type of aircraft expanded rapidly. Up to 1918 there were two air arms, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), employing both land-based planes and seaplanes. With the great expansion in the use of aircraft there was an urgent need to build a large number of airfields throughout the country, with the highest concentration in southern England.
On 30 July 1917 H M Naval Seaplane Training School at Lee-on-Solent on the south coast of England, situated just west of Portsmouth, was commissioned to train pilots for anti-submarine patrols.
Lee-on-Solent between the Wars
When Lee-on-Solent base was first opened it was intended that it would be strictly of a temporary nature, aircraft were housed in portable hangars, officers billeted and men were housed under canvas. There was no slipway and seaplanes had to be transferred to and from the cliff edge by means of a crane.
In November 1917 it was decided to develop the station on permanent lines and construction of a slipway and hangers began. On 1st April April 1918 the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Air Station became Air Ministry property. The school was designated No.209 Training Depot and producing thirty trained seaplane pilots each month using Short 184 aircraft and by the end of the war there were 8 seaplane sheds, 8 canvas hangers and 4 slips.
Throughout the early 1920’s seaplane pilots and observers were trained at the base, the standard training aircraft was the Fairey111 D. Under the RAF, the training of Naval Observers began in 1921 in what was the RAF Seaplane Training School, this continued until 1923 when it was changed to no more RN officers were trained. In addition to normal training also had The RAF School of Naval Co-operation, seaplane flying training ended and the school concentrated on observer training.
After 1925 other tasks were undertaken, such as the first experiment with automatic control of aircraft using the Fairey 111D. Lee was also responsible for Fairey Flycatcher trials in April 1924 and with flying-off trials with a Fairey111D float plane from HMS Argus. Catapult trials involving operations from battleships and cruisers used Lee’s float planes.
Fairey111Fs replaced the 111Ds in 1931, re-equipment being completed in June 1931.
January 1932 was very important for the base because it became The Headquarters of Coastal Command and later that year construction of the airfield, hangars, workshops, stores, and accommodation began. The station became a full airfield with seaplane facilities instead of just a seaplane base. The first aircraft to use the airfield were two Queen Bees intended for the cruiser HMS Achilles. In the 1930s a wide variety of aircraft were used from Lee including Seals, Harts, Ospreys, Shark, Walrus, Seafox and Swordfish. In addition to Observer training a flight was designated for the training of Telegraphist Air Gunners (TAG).
From 1936 to 1938 nos. 15, 16, 17, and 18 groups RAF Coastal Command formed at Lee-on-Solent and in 1937 the Naval Co-operation school moved to Ford in West Sussex. On 24th May 1939 the Air Station was handed over by the RAF and commissioned as HMS Daedalus, becoming a Royal Naval Air Station.
Lee-on-Solent in World War Two
The name Daedalus comes from classical Greek mythology, he was a cunning craftsman, who with his son Icarus, flew from Crete to Italy using wings fastened on their shoulders. Daedalus arrived safely, Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.
With the declaration of war in September 1939, the aerodrome was enlarged; the use of south coast airfields meant the difference between defeat and victory in the Battle of Britain. Fortunately, it was put out of action only once during the entire war; a force of 25 Stuka dive-bombers made a heavy daylight raid in September 1940. There was sufficient warning for personnel to reach cover, although there was heavy damage to aircraft and installations, casualties were light.
Apart from Operation ‘Overlord’, the D-Day invasion, there was little operational flying from Lee. It was often used as a deployment airfield for bomber and fighter squadrons. Lee’s main function was as a base for carrier borne front line squadrons when they were in harbour and seaplane training. Later the slipway was used for seaplane ‘search and rescue’ (SAR) for ditched crews.
Post World War Two
After the war, the station became a barracks and depot and further improvements were made to the airfield and accommodation. On June 13th 1953 the airfield was open to the public for the rehearsal of the Queen’s coronation flypast, over 200 aircraft participated There were helicopter demonstrations, formation aerobatics, pleasure flights, and individual Naval aircraft displaying such as the Wyvern, Gannet, Seahawk and the Swordfish.
With the reduction of the task of the Fleet Air Arm in 1957, it was decided to move the Royal Naval Air Electrical school at Worthy Down into the station in 1958. The Air Engineering school was re-formed in 1970 when the HMS Condor (Arbroath) closed and the Air Mechanical Engineering school moved into Daedalus. RNAS Lee-on-Solent has always been named HMS Daedalus except between 1959 and 1965 when it was HMS Ariel. Although the main function of Lee was the Air Engineering School there were many other units within the establishment and nearby Seafield Park:
Air Engineering Department
FAA Field Gun Crew
Southampton University Air Squadron (SUAS)
Naval Air Trial Installation Unit
HM Coastguard-Search and Rescue Flight
Mobile Aircraft Repair Transport and Salvage Unit
Accident Investigation Unit
Hampshire Constabulary Optica Flight
Naval Hovercraft Trials Unit
Naval Aircrew Advisory Board
Royal Naval Air Medical School
Royal Naval Survival Equipment School
Central Air Medical Board
Lee was a very busy place in its heyday, in addition to the many courses, many officers, ratings, wrens and civilian staff were occupied in the day-to–day running of the establishment the size of HMS Daedalus.
Tasks were varied as cooks, stewards, writers (pay office and secretarial work), photographers, medical assistants, stores accountants, meteorological observers, air traffic controllers, and physical training instructors were needed to ensure the efficient running of the establishment.
The Air Engineering School was responsible for all career and advanced specialist training for the Fleet Air Arm.
The Schools main task was to provide technical and character training for officers and ratings, male and female. The three main streams of career course trainees were Mechanics, Artificers and Air Engineering Officers. The technical content would be recognised by civilian qualifications such as City and Guilds and Ordinary National certificate.
The Naval Air Squadron provided the Royal Navy’s air communications passenger/freight service with its Sea Devon and Sea Heron aircraft. The Squadron’s two Wessex V helicopters were fitted out for VIP transportation, the Chipmunk aircraft was used for training.
From 1981 the gradual reduction of activities at the airfield started with 781 squadron being disbanded and the RN SAR flight being handed over to civilian SAR flight in 1988.
The airfield continued with the SUAS, Bristow’s SAR flight and the Hampshire Police helicopter until April 1993 when the SUAS moved to Boscombe Down. Routine Naval flying operations ceased apart from occasional exercises. Air Engineering continued until Christmas 1995 then transferred to HMS Sultan in nearby Gosport. Lee finally closed in April 1996.
Aircraft of the Royal Navy since 1945: David Hobbs
Fleet Air Arm Handbook 1939-1945: David Wragg
An illustrated Guide to Naval Aircraft of World War 1 and 11 published by Southwater books.
David has also provided his regular item from
NAVAL AVIATION NEWS
which, as always, is reproduced with permission.
PAGE UPDATED : 16.04.18