RAF Cluntoe is a former Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force airfield in Co. Tyrone. On the western shore of Lough Neagh, situated 1 mile to the west of Ardboe, Co. Tyrone, it is 8 miles east of the larger town of Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.
Throughout 1940, rumours spread that the Royal Air Force were planning an airfield in Co. Tyrone. They chalked up boundaries covering 640 acres. This took in the townlands of Kinrush, Sessiagh, Killygonland, and Mullinahoe. Thirty-five families would have to move.
This was the most populated area of Ardboe, containing shops, two blacksmiths, a shoemaker, and a railway carriage. Life in the quiet, rural village of Ardboe would change forever. Before the war, houses in the area belonged to farmers who used horses and carts. The thatched, whitewashed houses had no electricity.
Some residents remembered Ardboe being small but homely. The families had little money but the small farms survived. Others remembered it being not very prosperous, run down with narrow roads and lanes surrounded by fields and meadows.
The authorities informed the local clergy who kept the population up to date with plans for the airfield. At first, locals and the parish priest protested, not wanting the redevelopment of their farmland. The amount of money offered from the authorities may have swayed opinions. A Compulsory Purchase Order from the Royal Air Force bought up land worth less than £5 per acre for £50 per acre. Added to this was compensation for disturbance and moving expenses.
Construction of Cluntoe Airfield
Construction of the Cluntoe airfield began on 9th December 1940. The Royal Air Force purchased properties and farmers auctioned off livestock and equipment. Some of the population bought other farms nearby. Others left the area and never returned.
John Howard and Co. the English contractors ripped out hedges and trees, flattening the land and making three runways (2,600 yards, 2,200 yards and 1,300 yards). A 3 mile perimeter taxiway lead to 30 hard standings for parking up planes and 50 fighter pads. The Royal Air Force built two T2 hangars, each covering half an acre. They added four communal buildings, offices, a hospital, a cinema, a church, and Nissen huts for accommodation. As well as this, there was a sewerage works, shooting range, and fuel and bomb dumps. In total, there were over 500 buildings.
The new Cluntoe airfield split the parish of Ardboe in two. People had to go out of their way to get from one side to the other as there was no longer a direct route. These divisions still exist. RAF Cluntoe brought employment to the area, providing good wages for those working there. Estimates suggest that it brought around £1.5 million into the local area.
Construction completed in July 1942. The intention was to use the airfield for an RAF Operational Training Unit. Between October 1942 and August 1943, it saw use as an emergency landing ground.
Locals employed on the airfield took on many different jobs. Many had gained work as labourers during construction both on the site and offsite processing materials such as stone, sand, gravel, and bricks. On the base, some would tend to the Nissen huts, making beds, cleaning out stoves, and keeping things neat and tidy. Others found work as cooks, drivers, secretaries, and in maintenance.
Employment opportunities were attractive to many outside of Northern Ireland. Many arrived from England and Republic of Ireland in search of work. Work permits protected local jobs as non-locals would return home once their temporary work was complete.
USAAF at Cluntoe
The United States Army Air Force arrived on 30th August 1943 and RAF Cluntoe became USAAF Station 238. By 1943 over 3,500 US Army Air Force troops were on the Cluntoe base, tripling the population of Ardboe. The troops had plenty of money compared to locals and pumped this into the local economy.
The Americans got on well with the locals. Farmers would boil up buckets of eggs and bring them to the base, selling them to the servicemen. Drink was also a popular commodity. Locals would sell whiskey and poitín to the Americans who socialised on the base and also in the local pubs.
In November 1943, No. 4 Combat Crew Replacement Center opened. Around 57 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crews trained there. Consolidator B-24 Liberator crews arrived in February 1944. The site became No. 2 Combat Crew Replacement Center in March 1944. May through to August 1944 were the busiest months on the airfield. In July 1944, the base produced 330 heavy bomber crews.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator FK224 crash landed at the Cluntoe airfield on 5th July 1944 at 1200hrs. The plane overshot the runway, lost its undercarriage and came to rest in a ditch. There were no casualties.
Back Row: Technical Sergeant William Bento (Radio Operator), First Lieutenant Paul W Perry (Pilot), Flight Sergeant Joseph R Kelly (Co-Pilot), Second Lieutenant Lloyd K Randolph (Navigator), Technical Sergeant Gerald D Camp (Flight Engineer). Front Row: Staff Sergeant Jack F Towner (Nose Gunner), Staff Sergeant John F Durtsche (Ball Turret Gunner), Second Lieutenant Oliver J Rauch (Bombardier), Staff Sergeant Robert L Traeger (Waist Gunner), Staff Sergeant Arel A Bye (Tail Gunner).
Life after the war
USAAF 238 closed in November 1944. The Cluntoe airfield transferred back to the Royal Air Force until it closed in June 1945. After this, refurbishment took place and the site reopened in February 1953 for use by No. 2 Flying Training School in preparation for the war in Korea. They stayed until June 1954 and the airfield closed in 1955.
There are lots of buildings remaining on the Cluntoe airfield site. Among these are the control tower, operations block, Norden Bomb Sight Building, and other buildings. The runways and perimeter taxiway also remain. Locals removed lots of electrical equipment and metalwork from the site in the years immediately after the site closed. Part of the site is now used by Ardboe Business Park.