RAF Toome, on the northern shore of Lough Neagh, Co. Antrim, opened on 1st January 1943. The three runway airfield lay 40km north-west of Belfast, Co. Antrim. In the beginning, the airfield saw use as an emergency landing ground.
Construction of the RAF Toome airfield began in January 1942. The plan was to construct a satellite site for RAF Cluntoe that comprised around 150 buildings including two pairs of T2 hangars. There would be space for 30 planes on hard stands.
The surrounding taxiway was 3 miles long, connecting three tarmac-reinforced runways. Runway 1 measured 1300 yards, number 2 was the largest at 1780 yards and a third ran to 1385 yards. Each tarmac runway was 50 yards wide.
On 5th July 1943, 104 Operational Training Unit moved into RAF Toome. They operated Wellington bombers at the nearby RAF Nutts Corner.
It is county Derry in the early 1940s. The American bombers groan towards the aerodrome at Toomebridge, the American troops manoeuvre in the fields along the road
26th July 1943, saw RAF Toome renamed USAAF Station 36. On 23rd August 1943, it became No. 3 Combat Crew Replacement Center under command of the US Army 8th Air Force Composite Command. The first trainee airmen arrived two days earlier on 21st August 1943. From then until November 1944, twin-engine A-20 Havoc and B-26 Marauder bomber crews trained at the Co. Antrim airfield.
The Toome base was dispersed with billets, mess halls, classrooms, and offices spread throughout farms and buildings in nearby villages. Many airmen used bicycles to get around, some finding it difficult to get used to British style bicycle brakes. Cycling accidents involving fast-paced American airmen were common and many bikes ended up in hedges or stone walls. Local residents suggest that many old destroyed bicycles are buried around the airfield perimeter.
Crews at Toome learned to work together and train as a unit. After completing training, the airmen joined operational squadrons. They often replaced pilots lost in combat. Short training time at airfields such as Toome was their only opportunity to train before joining the battle.
Crews spent around 8 hours per day training in navigation, bombardment, airmanship, tactics, ditching procedure, gunnery, formation, and evasive action. Gunnery and bombing runs took place over Lough Neagh at Scady Island around 4 miles south-east of the airfield. The American airmen would then spend evenings in nearby towns such as Magherafelt.
3rd Combat Crew Replacement Center was not the only group to make use of USAAF Station 36. Other United States Army Air Force groups included:
- 18th Weather Squadron.
- 34th Station Complement Squadron.
- 556th Service Squadron.
- 1056th Quartermaster Company.
- 1110th Signal Company.
- 1253rd Military Police Company.
- 1561st Ordnance Supply and Maintenance Company.
- 2050th Engineer Fire Fighting Platoon.
We departed on 17th August (1943) by train for Warrington, where we spent the night. The next day we flew from Burtonwood in the back of a B-17 to Toome where the 9th Air Force had a Combat School. We did a lot of flying, mostly formation flying, for several weeks. I had a couple of flights in the old short-wing B-26. On Tuesday 12th September, we went from Belfast to Liverpool on the SS Borinquin, a Cuban ship.
Colonel George T James – 391st Bomb Group, USAAF.
In winter 1943, the US Army Air Force added 50 concrete standings to accommodate planes. The following March and April of 1944 saw the airfield operating at full capacity training 100 crews.
On 28th March 1944, Martin Marauder B-26 “Chickasaw Chief II” (41-17990) crashed while taking off at Toome. The plane was part of HQ Squadron, 3rd Combat Crew Replacement Center.
August 1944 was the busiest month in the history of the Toome airfield. 158 medium bomber crews left the Northern Irish site to go into battle.
On the base, the airmen celebrated occasions such as Christmas with large parties with music and dancing. Local residents from nearby towns and villages were invited. There was also a picture house showing American movies.
On completion of training, many American airmen gained an overnight pass to visit Belfast, Co. Antrim. For some, this was their first experience in a foreign city and they enjoyed the hospitality, in particular, the Irish whiskey.
As the airmen walked around in uniforms, boots, and flying jackets, many local children aspired to join them in the skies. They could get up close to the planes remembering those named after movie stars and those with pin-up girl portraits. Some of the local children earned pocket money shining the Americans’ boots and shoes.
The Combat Crew Replacement Center deactivated and closed in early November 1944. The Royal Air Force regained command of RAF Toome on 24th November 1944. Training of replacement American crews then moved to English airfields. No other Allied planes used the site for the remainder of the war. RAF 257 Maintenance Unit used the base for storage until March 1947.
The Toome airfield then transferred back to the RAF but remained unused by Allied planes for the rest of the war. 257 Maintenance Unit made used the site to store equipment until March 1947.
The Royal Air Force resurfaced the three runways in 1953 but they were not used again before the airfield closed in 1954. The Royal Navy took over the site in 1959, using it for turret repairs before selling it off in 1961.
Some buildings remain on the site although run down and derelict after being left to decay after almost twenty years of military use. Part of the perimeter track now makes up a new road and the control tower, converted to a private house, has now been demolished. The bridge in the photo from October 1943 lies on a minor road and is now a picnic area.
Other buildings that have since been destroyed included a motor transport building with vehicle inspection ramp, an electricity generator building, a gun camera workshop, and a latrine block.
One remaining building on the RAF Toome airfield site is a Norden bombsight building within the headquarters complex. Dutch-born American Carl Norden invented the bombsight. Security of the bombsight was critical. Bombardiers signed a document saying they would protect bombsights with their lives and destroy them before baling out if required. The fortified building at Toome was a store for this valuable equipment.