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The RAF Wig Bay ShoreDIG got underway in March with the survey of the remains of the flying boat base.
Set up in 1942, this was Britain’s main wartime base for the maintenance of flying boats. It specialised in converting American-built Catalinas to RAF standards and in servicing other flying boats, including the enormous Sunderlands, which were to play a vital role in convoy protection during the Battle of the Atlantic. After the end of the war, the base remained in use until 1957; servicing, testing, and ultimately scrapping the now-redundant machines.
A diverse group of volunteers including engineers, archaeologists, electricians and a couple of ex-RAF personnel joined us to record the remains of the base, all bringing useful knowledge to help unravel the remains of the base.
The basis of our survey work was a wonderfully-detailed RAF plan dating to 1945 and redrawn in 1957, when the base was being decommissioned. This includes labels for most of the buildings and structures, which has helped us to understand the different functions of different areas of the base.
A great series of RAF aerial photos, held by the Welsh Government, were another vital tool for planning the survey. Whereas wartime maps and plans may show what was planned and not what was actually constructed, as they say ‘the camera never lies’ – so these photos from 1953 are a more accurate record of what the base actually looked like towards the end of its working life.
Starting at the south of the base (on the right of the aerial photo above), we recorded an area of flying boat pens and maintenance hangars.
Little survives of the pens other than terraces in the slope and piles of rubble. Stamps on the bricks told us that they had come from Ayrshire’s Dunaskin brickworks at Dalmellington 50 miles away.
Volunteer Bill Sandiford, who spent part of his childhood living at RAF Wig Bay in the 1950s while his father served as a flight engineer there, pointed out the site of his family home at the roadside.
Although the site of Bill’s old family home is now completely overgrown, the boiler house next door, which heated the whole base, survives well.
The next group of interesting remains is at Loch Ryan Sailing Club – in fact the club was established here to take advantage of the RAF’s slipway. A well-preserved workshop next to the slipway contains some great original features, including steel-topped workbenches and light fittings.
Volunteers Steve and Matt brought their professional electricians’ knowledge to bear on the original fuse boxes and wiring, even finding a working light switch.
We were particularly intrigued by an area the RAF plan calls a “compass base”. There’s not much to see here except a flat area of concrete, so exactly what it was used for was a mystery to us until RAF man Ian explained that this is where the accuracy of navigation instruments was checked by towing the flying boats in a circle and checking their compass readings against measurements taken by a surveyor standing on the concrete.
Returning to Wig Sands, the area of RAF Wig Bay which first caught our interest two years ago, we looked at two concrete slipways which were used to haul flying boats out of the loch; initially for servicing, later to stand on the grid of concrete awaiting scrappage.
The survey of the remains of Loch Ryan’s flying boat base is nearly finished, and the next step is to celebrate its history. Local people have shared some great photos of the base when it was in use and when we return to RAF Wig Bay in the summer, we plan to work with local young people to recreate some of these photos and make a short video telling the story of the base and its flying boats.