Royal Naval Air Station, Eastleigh came into existence in 1939 as World War Two broke out in Europe. Before then the site already had an impressive aviation and military pedigree. Although Southampton Airport is one of the smallest in the UK, it was once an important site. Eastleigh Aerodrome boasted four grass runways and was one of the five largest outside London.
The United States Navy built hangars on the airfield in 1917 on their entry to the First World War. Up to 4,000 naval men occupied tents along the London to Southampton railway line. Between wars, Russian refugees fleeing to the New World made use of the hangars. Cunard, White Star Line and Canadian Pacific Railway formed the Atlantic Park Hostel Company. Although intended to be a short-term solution, many refugees found themselves stranded for years. The “hostel” closed in 1931.
Royal Naval Air Station Eastleigh
In 1932 the Southampton Corporation purchased the site as Southampton Municipal Airport. From 1st October 1935, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force used the site facilities. Then known as RAF Eastleigh, it became RAF Southampton on 1st April 1936.
The airfield transferred to Naval command on 24th May and became HMS Raven from 1st July 1939. Through the war, the Navy operated the airfield as Royal Naval Air Station, Eastleigh. HMS Raven became a ground and air training centre for the most part and returned to civilian use in April 1946.
The Royal Naval Air Station site occupied a 10-acre area in the north-east of the airfield. Accommodation consisted of wooden huts. Hangars of First World War Bessaneaux wood and canvas construction housed planes on site.
World War Two in Eastleigh
In the lead up to war, a factory on the Eastleigh site fitted spy cameras to planes. Construction of Lockheed 12A planes for British Airways was the cover story. Only the British Secret Service and the French Deuxieme Bureau for high altitude photography knew the truth. These planes flew across Germany, Italy, the Middle East and North Africa taking crucial photos.
According to Royal Navy customs, bases are ships. This is why the Royal Naval Air Station became HMS Raven on 1st July 1939. To the amusement of the RAF, German propaganda later reported HMS Raven had sunk. Actors Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier both served at HMS Raven.
HMS Raven under attack
During the war, Southampton was the ninth most attacked city in Britain. The Luftwaffe attacked the Eastleigh Aerodrome ten times between 1940 and 1944.
The first attack on the Cunliffe-Owen factory on 21st August 1940 inflicted little damage. The Luftwaffe hit it hard on 11th September 1940 and claimed several casualties.
In comparison, bombs on 8th October, 18th, 22nd and 23rd November made little impact. Raids on 17th April and 26th June 1941 were just as unsuccessful for the Luftwaffe.
Two men lost their lives on 22nd June 1942 as German bombers attacked. Timely air raid warnings prevented a much higher loss of life. A final flying bomb attack in June 1944 overshot the airfield and neither caused damage nor hampered factory work.
The famous Supermarine Spitfire
The Spitfire was the most famous plane prototyped in the area but it was not the first. From 1910 to 1912, pioneer pilot Eric Rowland Moon used the fields to test his Moonbeam Mark II. He went on to serve in The Great War receiving the DSO and Bar.
In 1936 Supermarine opened its test facility on the Eastleigh site. Shortly afterwards, the Cunliffe-Owen factory opened at the southern end of the runway. Both companies later closed their Southampton/Eastleigh operations. Supermarine moved production to Chilbolton. Briggs Motor Bodies in 1949 – and later Ford in 1953 – took over Cunliffe-Owen. The Ford factory is now cut off from the airport site by the M27 Motorway.
Southampton Airport commemorated the Spitfire test flight by unveiling a small statue in 2005. The model of K5054 stands at a roundabout leading to the airport. Despite its small stature and German construction, the statue commemorates a proud aviation story.