Ballyhalbert Airfield, Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

Ballyhalbert airfield operated as RAF Ballyhalbert, RNAS Ballyhalbert, and HMS Corncrake throughout World War Two between 1941 and its closure in mid-1946.

RAF Ballyhalbert

1-5 Woodlark Link

Ballyhalbert

Co. Down

BT22 1BB

United Kingdom

Ballyhalbert Airfield also known as RAF Ballyhalbert, RNAS Ballyhalbert, and HMS Corncrake is on the Ards Peninsula, Co. Down. Near the town of Newtownards, the former airfield was approximately 32km east-south-east of Belfast, Co. Antrim.

Construction began on the airfield at Ballyhalbert in late 1940 and continued into early 1941. During the process, destruction of a historic windmill belonging to the Magilton family at Clydesburn took place.

Royal Air Force service began in May 1941 before completion of work on the Fighter Command airfield. The RAF held an official opening on 28th June 1941. The airfield featured 3 tarmac runways, 2 Bellman hangars, and 12 Blister hangars.

The first operational planes to fly from RAF Ballyhalbert were Hawker Hurricanes of RAF 245 Squadron on 14th July 1941. They came under the control of No. 15 Group and remained until 1st September 1941. With the transfer of Fighter Command No. 15 Group and RAF 245 Squadron to RAF Ballyhalbert, RAF Aldergrove, Crumlin, Co. Antrim became a Coastal Command base. A new Fighter Command unit, No. 82 Group formed in Northern Ireland in September 1941 based in the Senate Chamber, Stormont Buildings, Belfast, Co. Antrim.

Ballyhalbert Airfield, Co. Down

A Royal Air Force religious service where blessings were said. The buildings in the background are the control tower of RAF Ballyhalbert, Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. Public domain photo.

RAF at Ballyhalbert Airfield

On 24th October 1941, RAF 153 Squadron reformed at RAF Ballyhalbert flying Boulton Paul Defiants. In May 1942, they switched to Bristol Beaufighters and remained in Co. Down until leaving for North Africa in December 1942.

On 26th October 1941, RAF 504 Squadron arrived at Ballyhalbert. They damaged 7 of their Hawker Hurricanes while landing in strong crosswinds. Soon after arriving, RAF 504 Squadron converted to Supermarine Spitfires. They remained at the Ballyhalbert airfield until 22nd January 1942 before moving on to the nearby RAF Kirkistown.

Crash of the "Down" Spitfire

On 7th January 1942 Pilot Officer Walter McManus of the Royal Canadian Air Force crashed on a routine flight from RAF St. Angelo, Co. Fermanagh to RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. Flying with RAF 504 Squadron, his Belfast Telegraph funded “Down” Spitfire came down at Derrymacash, near Lurgan, Co. Armagh. His grave is in Ballycran Beg Churchyard near Ballyhalbert, Co. Down.

Spitfire in Portrush

The Ulster Aviation Society's replica "Down" Spitfire on display at the Portrush Airwaves Airshow 2016. Photo taken on 4th September 2016.

Night Fighters arrive in Co. Down

The departure of RAF 504 Squadron made way for RAF 25 (Night Fighter) Squadron in Bristol Beaufighters. This squadron had already downed many German bombers in British skies. They arrived on 24th January 1942 to combat the threat of enemy reconnaissance planes over Northern Ireland. Regular operations and consistent poor weather around the airfield lead to a lot of accidents and a drain of pilots.

On 9th February 1942, three planes from RAF 25 (Night Fighter) Squadron took off from RAF Kirkistown, a satellite of RAF Ballyhalbert. One ditched in a field near RAF West Freugh, Dumfries and Galloway, a second landed in a field near Ballyhalbert with only 6 gallons of fuel remaining. The third of the planes disappeared without trace. The body of pilot Sergeant Cannon washed ashore in a dingy in the Mull of Galloway, Scotland. He died of exposure despite extensive searches from Avro Anson planes from RAF West Freugh, Dumfries and Galloway. In mid-May 1942, RAF 25 (Night Fighter) Squadron left the airfield.

RAF 504 Squadron returned to the Co. Down airfield on 19th June 1942. That Autumn, USAAF 5 (Fighter) Squadron joined them in Supermarine Spitfires. 1493 Gunnery Flight also arrived at the airfield soon before RAF 504 Squadron once again left Ballyhalbert in October 1942. Their replacements on this occasion were RAF 501 Squadron operating a day defence fighters. They remained until 30th April 1943.

Spitfires at Ballyhalbert

Supermarine Spitfires prepare for take-off at Ballyhalbert airfield near Newtownards, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Photo from Forgotten Airfields. Copyright unknown.

Downing a JU88

A scramble from RAF 504 Squadron on 23rd August 1942 resulted in Sergeant Francis downing JU88 (4U+KH) of 1(F)/123. He shared the victory with Pilot Officer Boleslaw Sawiak of RAF 315 Squadron based at RAF Valley, Anglesey, Wales and Flying Officer Sizzer of RAF 152 Squadron based at RAF Angle, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Blue and Green Sections of B Flight scrambled ay 0735hrs.

Francis attacked the JU88 in a 400mph dive causing it to take evasive action and stop returning fire. Hits caused damage to the Luftwaffe plane’s engines and cockpit. Sawiak scored several hits to the JU88 but broke away from combat, crashing at 0840hrs at Rathoath, Co. Meath. He died 2 hours later in St. Bricin’s Military Hospital, Dublin, Ireland. Authorities returned his body to England on the 1320hrs Dun Laoghaire ferry.

Sergeant Lisowski, wingman to Pilot Officer Sawiak of RAF 315 Squadron, diverted to RAF Ballyhalbert while running low on fuel. Meanwhile the JU88 continued south until coming under attack at 0900hrs from Flying Officer Sizzer and Flight Sergeant McPherson. It came down around 0920hrs at Carriglong, Tramore, Ireland. Hauptmann Gottfried Berndt, Leutnant Paul Stormer, Oberfeldwebel Karl Hund, and Unteroffizier Joseph Reiser were interned.

Polish Airmen at Ballyhalbert

By early 1943, conditions at the airfield had deteriorated. Heavy rain throughout the winter caused water to pour into many of the hastily constructed buildings. There were many complaints about the state of the site. On 30th April 1943, RAF 130 Squadron arrived with Supermarine Spitfires. They remained until 5th July 1943 when they traded places with RAF 315 (Polish) Squadron. RAF 26 Squadron joined the Poles at Ballyhalbert airfield on 19th July 1943 in Mustangs.

One VIP visitor to the airfield during this time was the Commander-in-Chief of Polish Armed Forces. General Kazimierz Sosnkowski arrived on 14th August 1943, meeting Polish pilots, and watching a flying display. He also presented the Cross of Virtuti Militari to Squadron Leader Sawicz, Flying Officer Blok, Squadron Leader Popawski, and Flying Officer Malczewski.

On 11th September 1943, three Supermarine Spitfires of RAF 315 Squadron took off from the Ballyhalbert airfield. The Polish airmen were Flight Sergeant Kolek, Flight Sergeant Zygmund, and Warrant Officer Grondowski. The three planes were on a practise formation flight.

They lost sight of each other in bad weather over Co. Antrim and all three Spitfires came down. Grondowski came down near Plantation House, Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Kolek crashed near Ballyutoag, Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, and Zygmund survived his crash at Glengormley, Co. Antrim. Warrant Officer Grondowski and Sergeant Kolek’s graves are in Ballycran Beg Churchyard, near Ballyhalbert, Co. Down.

In November 1943, RAF 315 Squadron left to join RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force. Another Polish outfit, RAF 303 Squadron, took their place at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. Night defence in November 1943 fell to another new arrival at Ballyhalbert, RAF 125 Squadron in Bristol Beaufighters.

February 1944 saw the arrival on 24 Fighter Wing, comprised of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm 887 and 894 Squadrons. The following two months saw RAF 125 Squadron, FAA 887 Squadron, and FAA 894 Squadron leave the airfield. Early March had seen the arrival of Fairey Fulmars of Fleet Air Arm 784 Squadron. The Polish airmen of RAF 303 Squadron left to join RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force on 30th April 1944.

Another high-profile visitor visited RAF Ballyhalbert around this time. General Dwight D Eisenhower made a stop at the Co. Down airfield on 19th May 1944 while en route to RAF Bovingdon, Hertfordshire.

Several other Squadrons used the Ballyhalbert airfield as a base between 30th May 1944 and April 1945.

Polish airmen at Ballyhalbert

An accommodation block at RAF Ballyhalbert, near Newtownards, Co. Down during the time when Polish airmen were based on the site with RAF 303 and RAF 315 Squadrons. Photo from Forgotten Airfields. Copyright unknown.

In April 1945, control of the Ballyhalbert airfield transferred to the Admiralty and became a Royal Naval Air Station. RAF 1402 Meteorological Flight remained at the airfield. On 17th July 1945, the Admiralty commissioned RAF Ballyhalbert as HMS Corncrake. By 13th November 1945, decommissioning saw the site return to the control of RAF Coastal Command. The Royal Air Force managed the site until selling it at auction in March 1960.

During the conflict from 1939-1945, RAF, WAAF, USAAF, and Royal Navy personnel served at the Ballyhalbert airfield. In the nearby St. Andrew’s Church of Ireland lie the graves of Canadian, Australian, and Polish men who lost their lives in and around the airfield.

For many years after, the Ballyhalbert airfield was a popular spot for Northern Irish holidaymakers. The runways and perimeter track made a great location for a caravan park on the Ards Peninsula, Co. Down. By 2010, work had begun on creating several large housing developments meaning that little now remains of the airfield.

The name Ballyhalbert comes from the Irish Baile Thalboid, meaning “Talbot’s Townland”. The Talbot family settled in the area following John de Courcy’s 12th century conquest. Other historic sites in the Ballyhalbert area include an 800-year-old castle mound, a standing stone, and ruins of an old church.

Royal Air Force and Royal Navy at Ballyhalbert

The following units all operated from Ballyhalbert airfield between 1941 and 1946. If you have any further information on these squadrons, please get in touch.

ForceUnitStart DateEnd DatePlanes Operated
Royal Air ForceNo. 13 Group Anti Aircraft Cooperation FlightMay 1941November 1941
Royal Air ForceNo. 245 Squadron14th July 19411st September 1941Hawker Hurricane
Royal Air ForceNo. 81 Group Communications FlightSeptember 19415th January 1942
Royal Air ForceNo. 153 Squadron24th October 194118th December 1942Boulton Paul Defiant / Bristol Beaufighter
Royal Air ForceNo. 504 Squadron26th October 194122nd January 1942Hawker Hurricane / Supermarine Spitfire
Royal Air ForceNo. 82 Group Target Towing Flight2nd November 194124th November 1941
Royal Air ForceNo. 25 Squadron24th January 194216th May 1942Bristol Beaufighter
Royal Air ForceNo. 504 Squadron19th June 194219th October 1942Supermarine Spitfire
Royal Air ForceNo. 501 Squadron19th October 194230th April 1943
Royal NavyNo. 887 Naval Air Squadron19th October 19424th November 1942
Royal Air ForceNo. 256 Squadron29th November 1942
Royal Air ForceNo. 130 Squadron30th April 19435th July 1943Supermarine Spitfire
Royal Air ForceNo. 315 Squadron5th July 194313th November 1943Supermarine Spitfire
Royal Air ForceNo. 26 Squadron19th July 19433rd March 1944North American Mustang I
Royal Air ForceNo. 125 SquadronNovember 194325th March 1944Bristol Beaufighter
Royal Air ForceNo. 303 Squadron12th November 194330th April 1944Supermarine Spitfire
Royal Air ForceNo. 63 Squadron26th April 194425th May 1944Hawker Hurricane
Royal NavyNo. 1840 Naval Air Squadron30th May 1944Grumman Hellcat
Royal Air ForceNo. 63 Squadron4th July 194429th August 1944Supermarine Spitfire
Royal NavyNo. 1840 Naval Air SquadronOctober 1944October 1944Grumman Hellcat
Royal NavyNo. 1840 Naval Air SquadronNovember 1944November 1944Grumman Hellcat
Royal Air ForceNo. 1402 Meteorological Flight1st December 1944August 1945
Royal NavyNo. 812 Naval Air Squadron5th January 1945February 1945
Royal NavyNo. 1846 Naval Air Squadron13th January 194515th February 1945Chance Vought Corsair
Royal NavyNo. 3 Naval Fighter Wing (No. 808 Naval Air Squadron)Supermarine Seafire
Royal NavyNo. 3 Naval Fighter Wing (No. 885 Naval Air Squadron)Supermarine Seafire
Royal Air ForceNo. 1480 Anti Aircraft Cooperation Flight
Royal Air ForceNo. 1493 Target Towing Flight
Royal Air ForceNo. 1494 Target Towing FlightApril 1945
Royal Air ForceNo. 2707 Squadron RAF Regiment
Royal NavyNo. 718 Naval Air Squadron17th August 19451st November 1945Supermarine Seafire / Supermarine Spitfire
Royal NavyNo. 725 Naval Air SquadronMartinet
Royal NavyNo. 768 Naval Air Squadron28th August 194516th April 1946Supermarine Seafire
Royal NavyNo. 784 Naval Air SquadronFairey Fulmar
Royal NavyNo. 787 Naval Air SquadronSupermarine Seafire
Royal NavyNo. 800 Naval Air Squadron
Royal NavyNo. 827 Naval Air SquadronFairey Barracuda
Royal NavyNo. 880 Naval Air SquadronSupermarine Seafire
Royal NavyNo. 882 Naval Air SquadronGrumman Wildcat
Royal NavyNo. 894 Naval Air SquadronSupermarine Seafire
Royal NavyNo. 899 Naval Air SquadronSupermarine Seafire / Supermarine Spitfire

Aviation accidents at Ballyhalbert

Featured image for Corsair JT357 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

Corsair JT357 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

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8th September 2017

On 8th September 1945, the pilot of Chance-Vought F4U Corsair JT357 crash landed and burned out 5 miles south-by-southwest of RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down.

Spitfire BL852 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

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8th July 2018

On 8th July 1943, Supermarine Spitfire BL852 belly-landed at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. The Polish pilot was Sergeant Malczewski of RAF 315 Squadron.

Featured image for Spitfire BL922 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

Spitfire BL922 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

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9th September 2017

On 5th October 1943, Spitfire BL922 came down about a mile away from RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down. The Polish pilot had crash landed less than a month before.

Featured image for Spitfire EP280 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

Spitfire EP280 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

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5th September 2018

On 5th September 1943, the airfield at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down was the site of the crash of Spitfire EP280. The Polish pilot escaped alive but injured.

Featured image for Spitfire W3937 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

Spitfire W3937 crash at RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down

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9th September 2017

On 9th September 1943, RAF Ballyhalbert, Co. Down was the site of the crash of Spitfire W3937. The same Polish pilot would crash again under a month later.