'Wings over the Lough Part I'
On 2nd January 1943, the Royal Air Force began operations from Toome Airfield on the northern edge of Lough Neagh in Co. Antrim. The United States Army Air Force soon expressed an interest in the site. By July that year, 3rd Combat Crew Replacement Center was in place at the Ulster airfield. Hundreds of American bomber crews received training in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Some of the buildings used as classrooms, mess halls, and billets remain to be seen today.
Hello, I'm Scott from WartimeNI, and I'm in Toome, Co. Antrim. The village lies on the northern edge of Lough Neagh, in close proximity to the Bann and Moyola rivers. Although low lying, and often water-logged, this did not stop wartime authorities from earmarking the land, planning, and constructing an airfield about a mile west of the village.
Construction began in January 1942, and the following year on 2nd January 1943, the airfield became operational with the arrival of the Royal Air Force. Within a few months, however, the United States Army Air Force had expressed an interest in the site.
The completed airfield site consisted of three concrete runways, 30 pan-type hardstandings, around 150 buildings, and two pairs of T2 hangars. A taxiway of 3 miles long connected the tarmac-reinforced runways. At around 1,780 yards by 50 yards, Runway 2 was the largest. Runway 1 measured around 1,300 yards by 50 yards, and the final runway ran to a length of around 1,385 yards.
The Moyola River split the airfield in two. The functional part of the airfield lay on one side with domestic buildings on the other. A narrow bridge connected the two. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote about Toome in his work ‘A Drink Of Water’.
The American bombers groan towards the aerodrome at Toomebridge, the American troops manoeuvre in the fields along the road, but all of that great historical action does not disturb the rhythms of the yard.
The formal handover of R.A.F. Toome to the 8th U.S.A.A.F. took place on 26th July 1943. The airfield then operated as U.S.A.A.F. Station 236 until October 1944. Under American control, the site was a training and storage facility. American engineers constructed additional finger-type standings for up to 50 further planes.
From 23rd August 1943, during occupancy by the United States military, Toome Airfield saw use as a Combat Crew Replacement Center. The U.S.A.A.F. used a total of four sites in Northern Ireland to train bomber crews between 1942 and 1944. Toome was the first of the four to become operational with the arrival of Martin B-26 Marauders and Douglas A-20 Havocs of 3rd C.C.R.C.
By August 1944, American activity at Toome was at its peak with 158 medium bomber crews trained. Although 3rd C.C.R.C. fell under 8th U.S.A.A.F., these crews joined operational units within 9th U.S.A.A.F. The training courses were a 2-3 week refresher session to add to training already received in the U.S.A. Subjects included navigation and communications on-site and gunnery and bombing runs over the waters of Lough Neagh.
During its time as U.S.A.A.F. Station 236, Toome was a series of dispersed billets, mess halls, classrooms, and administrative buildings. American aircrews used British bicycles to navigate the site, and local anecdotes suggest there were many accidents as fast-pedaling Americans grew used to the British braking systems. Some locals still suggest there is a wealth of old destroyed bicycles buried around the perimeter. There were other incidents at Toome too. Not all those who left on training exercises returned. Tragically several crews would find themselves victims of fatal incidents on high ground around Ulster having taken off from the Co. Antrim airfield.
The American military handed the airfield back to the R.A.F. on 7th November 1944. There was little flying activity from Toome during the following years and Toome ended its days as a Naval Repair Yard before closing in 1959.