You can still fly from RAF Sydenham, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Now, of course, it's known as George Best City Airport. The small East Belfast airport has changed identity many times through the years.
Under the Royal Navy it operated as HMS Gadwall, HMS Gannett III and the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard, Belfast. The Royal Air Force knew it as RAF Sydenham. From here some of the force’s most prestigious flyers operated. Sydenham was, at a time, home to Bomber Command 88 Squadron.
The airfield was first opened by the wife of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. A ceremony on 16th March 1938 revealed the new Belfast Harbour Airport. Built on reclaimed land near the docks, the airfield occupied a prime location near the city. Its positioning made it easy to access by road and rail. This was essential to the Royal Air Force and Royal navy who used the site between 1939 and 1945.
Bomber Command at RAF Sydenham
Both the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy trained at the Sydenham site. The Royal Air Force occupied the site from 1939 to 1943. From 21st June 1943 the site became the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard and HMS Gadwall until the end of the war.
RAF Sydenham was home to two squadrons of the Royal Air Force’s famous Bomber Command in 1940 and 1941.
88 Squadron had returned from the Battle of France in their Fairey Battles on 23 June 1940. As well as Battles, they flew Boston I and Blenheim IV planes and they occupied the seaward perimeter. 88 Squadron remained at RAF Sydenham until 8th July 1941. 226 Squadron were also based on the East Belfast airfield stationed on the inland side of the base.
Both squadrons carried out patrols, as far as the Giant’s Causeway and Carlingford Lough. As well coastal patrols, they took part in training exercises at bombing ranges.
Nazi Bombs fall on Belfast
On 5th May 1941, a Luftwaffe Raid devastated the docks area of Belfast. There had already seen bombing in the earlier Easter Blitz. Thirty-five craters caused extensive damage to the airfield perimeter putting it out of action.
Flight Sergeant Alan Bailes observed the destruction of planes and buildings. He remarked on the lack of defence provided by RAF 88 Squadron. Bailes claimed their planes were obsolete, under-armed and under-powered. In his opinion, they were no match for the German Heinkel III.
Today, a memorial stone stands near the current airport. You can find it between the car park and terminal building. On it is an inscription to the memory of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who served at Sydenham.