Aerodrome History

We are indebted to the late Geoff Pell for this history of the Airfield. He said:

Whilst serving in the Royal Navy I spent three happy years at Lee from 1993 until 1996….indeed, I had the sad duty of closing it on 31st July 1996.   I therefore have a fairly detailed knowledge of what went on there. 

Secondly, as a committee member of the Gosport Aviation Society, I was one of a team of three who conducted exhaustive research into the base’s history as a pre-cursor to a major public exhibition mounted in Gosport during 2001. During recent years I have been associated with a group operating  DC-3s/C-47s and flew from Lee (and elsewhere) prior to the aircraft being re-located to Lelystad, Netherlands.

The principal sources of information were the Station’s Operational Record Book, Imperial War Museum, Fleet Air Arm Museum, local libraries and museums, private memoirs, personal recollections and photo collections.

Geoff Pell

Lee-on-the-Solent Airfield (1917-1996)

The Genesis….

In the summer of 1917, there was a grave shortage of seaplane pilots for anti-submarine patrols and an urgent need arose to augment the limited training facilities at Calshot.  As a temporary expedient (whilst a permanent facility was being built off the Northumbrian coast) it was decided to provide facilities at a suitable location on the Solent.   The coastal strip at Lee was chosen with the intention that “…the station was to be strictly temporary, with an absolute minimum of permanent construction….aircraft to be housed in portable Bessoneau hangars….officers to be billeted, men to live under canvas….”

Very early photo of an amphibian biplane
Very early photo of an amphibian biplane

​30th July 1917 – HM Naval Seaplane Training School, Lee-on-the-Solent (a unit of the Royal Naval Air Service), officially opened under the command of Squadron Commander Douglas Evill DSC Royal Navy*.   A number of properties were requisitioned amongst which was Westcliffe House – originally the private residence of the owner of the estate and visible to-day directly to the north of the Fleet Air Arm Memorial situated on Marine Parade.

* It is of interest that Evill was deputy to Dowding during the Battle of Britain.

November 1917 – it was decided that Lee should become a permanent base and construction began on the five sea plane sheds still in evidence by the slipway (these form part of the most complete seaplane station still in existence in the UK to-day).

A trio of Walrus amphibians on the slipway at Lee-on-Solent
A trio of Walrus amphibians on the slipway at Lee-on-Solent

​In the interim period before the present day slipway was completed (September 1918), the aircraft  were transported by trolley from their canvas hangars in the vicinity of of King’s Road (by St Faith’s Church) along Richmond Road where, opposite the current-day FAA Memorial, they were hoisted by crane and lowered on to another trolley on the beach and rolled in to the sea.

1st April 1918 – RNAS and RFC (Royal Flying Corps) amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force. Following the armistice in November 1918, facilities were gradually run down and in December 1919, the station (by now known as the RAF Seaplane School, Lee-on-the-Solent) was placed into care and maintenance.

1st June 1920 – following policy changes, station re-activated for seaplane flying and aerial navigation training.   A month later HQ 10 Group (the forerunner of the group responsible for the south-western sector during the Battle of Britain) was established to control all air units working with the Royal Navy. 

30th August 1920 – the title School of Naval Co-operation and Air Navigation, RAF Lee-on-the-Solent  was adopted. Uncertainty regarding the exact role of Lee continued and on 21st April 1921, the title was again changed this time to RAF Seaplane Training School, Lee-on-the-Solent.

May 1923 – further policy changes resulted in the station being renamed yet again!   On this occasion it became simply the School of Naval Co-operation. 

By January 1924, the station at Lee was a hive of aviation activity – in both the training and operational sense – with a variety of both seaplanes and flying boats forming ship’s flights, training squadrons and experimental units.   In addition, it became a centre of attraction for numerous naval missions from abroad e.g. Spain, Chile, Greece, France, and even Japan!

On 1st April 1924, the title of Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force – soon to be abbreviated to Fleet Air Arm was adopted universally for naval flying elements of the RAF.

30th June 1931 – command of the station was upgraded to Group Captain level.   In furtherance of the RAF Expansion Scheme, a committee recommended the development of Lee involving the acquisition of 120 acres of land to the north of the existing site for use as an aerodrome.   This land was bounded to the west by Stubbington Lane; to the east by Milvil Road (in those days it ran due north from its present, truncated state, to Peel Common) and to the north by a road (aligned east-west) joining these two.

​18th January 1932 –  HQ 10 Group was disbanded on the arrival from London of HQ Coastal Command (re-designated RAF Coastal Command  in 1936).

28th September 1932 – En-Tout-Cas Ltd was awarded the contract for the aerodrome and began to clear trees and hedges prior to levelling and grading the ground for seeding.   Additionally, work began on erecting a number of aeroplane ‘sheds’ (Swann & Esmonde – just to the south of the existing control tower) as well as a multiplicity of stores, barrack blocks, offices, galleys, sick quarters, dining halls etc.   All of the latter can be found behind the southermost perimeter fence.

​7th  April 1933 – the designation of Flight in relation to formations of aircraft aboard ship was dropped in favour of Squadron. 

​25th June 1934 – a date of great significance saw the arrival of the embryonic aerodrome’s first customers when two Queen Bee ‘drones’ – K.4225 & K.4227 – in essence, Tiger Moths, arrived from Farnborough for conversion to radio-controlled floatplanes for service aboard HMS ACHILLES (later to see service in the Battle of the River Plate).

​Later in the year, construction began of the Officers’ Mess, certain parts of which – mock tudor frontage, facing bricks, roof tiles – were designed to mimic Westcliffe House.

​Throughout 1935, work continued apace on various additional buildings, mostly for accommodation and administrative purposes.   Operationally, the station was host to no fewer than seven Flights/Squadrons as well as being the focus for ceremonies associated with King George V and Queen Mary’s Silver Jubilee.

​In May 1936, HQ Coastal Area became RAF Coastal Command with Air Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore establishing his Headquarters at Lee on 14th  July.  Longmore was one of the first four airmen selected for training at Eastchurch on the formation of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps in 1911.  He achieved great fame in 1914 when he became the first man to drop a torpedo, successfully, from an aeroplane in flight.   He retired as an Air Chief Marshal during WWII.

​21st July 1937 – the ‘Inskip Award’ recommended that the Royal Navy should no longer be an adjunct of the RAF but should have full control of its air assets.   This led, some two years later to the official founding of the Fleet Air Arm.

​1st December 1937 – the School of Naval Co-operation moved to Ford, near Arundel and Lee became simply, RAF Station Lee-on-the-Solent.

1938 – Dunning Hangar – the largest of those to the south of the airfield perimeter – was constructed.   Until closure in 1996, this hangar was reputed to be the largest ever built for the FAA.

​24th May 1939 – the modern day Fleet Air Arm was established and HMS DAEDALUS was commissioned under the command of Captain T Bulteel Royal Navy.  Of the four stations commissioned as the nucleus of the FAA on this day, the others were at Worthy Down (north of Winchester), Ford, Sussex and Donibristle in Fife.  During this year, Overlord Hangar (a Bellman type) was constructed.  

​A fact worthy of note and astonishment….between November 1917 and May 1939, no fewer than 847 different seaplanes, flying boats and land-based aircraft were based at Lee!

​Lee-on-the Solent was one of the first stations to have hard runways and the construction of concrete runways along the centre line of two flight strips began in May 1939.   One of these heading 13-31 and 2,250 feet in length only had restricted use and was eventually abandoned in 1941 when construction of hutted accommodation extended northward.   The other runway heading 24-06 had a length of 3,000 feet.

​By the beginning of 1942, land to the east of Milvil Road (what is now the Eastern Dispersal site) was requisitioned and a third runway (18-36) constructed.   At this stage the abandoned runway was completed but on a different axis of 11-29.   Final runway lengths and orientation in 1942 were: 3,000 (18-36), 4,290 (24-06) and 3,300 (11-29). To coincide with the construction of the runways in 1942, a new Admiralty designed control tower was built to replace the Watch Office lost in the air attack mentioned below.

781 Squadron
781 Squadron

​In 1939/1940, four Bellman Transportable Aeroplane Sheds were erected close to the north-western perimeter track.   Two of these were destroyed on 16th August 1940 when twenty JU-87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers attacked the airfield.   Of the remaining two BN Aviation currently occupy Bellman 1.  It is not known if Bellman 2 is in use.  Dispersal hangar construction continued throughout 1941,1942 and 1943.   These comprised 11 hangars (A,C,D,E,B,G,K,J,U,T & Q) designed and built by A&J Main & Co Ltd and 8 hangars (F,O,N,M,L,H,R & P) designed and built by Fromson-Massillion. 

Although it is impossible in this shortened history to record all of the air activity during the years 1940-1943, suffice to say that Lee was at the very forefront of fighting activity.   During 1943, no fewer than 10 front line squadrons were formed at Lee with the base having the capacity to operate 5 front line and 3 second line squadrons at any one time.

​In the lead up to Operation Overlord in June 1944, DAEDALUS became the base for 10 squadrons and 1 flight.   These comprised 6 FAA and RAF squadrons on Spitfire/Seafire; 3 on P-51 ‘Mustang’; 1 on both ‘Mustang’ and ‘Typhoon’ and uniquely in the annals of United States Naval Aviation, 1 squadron (VCS-7) on Spitfires whose pilots had converted from their shipborne spotter aircraft.   On D-DAY itself DAEDALUS was the busiest air station on the south coast involved principally with gun-spotting and fighter-reconnaissance. In all, between 1939 and 1945 some 81 squadrons operating 21 aircraft types were based at Lee.

WG625 Sea Fury normally at Fleetlands bu
WG625 Sea Fury normally at Fleetlands but engine running at Lee

​Post war, Lee remained active on the fixed wing scene albeit immediately after the cessation with second line squadrons.   In May 1946  front line squadrons returned.   The last to be based at Lee – 826 equipped with the Fairey Gannet – disbanded in November 1955 although several Sea Hawk squadrons deployed to Lee at later dates.   The final based-squadron to depart Lee after 40 years, was 781 on 31st March 1981.

Beech Expediter CII KP110 of 781 Sqn at Lee-on-Solent in 1951.

The last operational unit to form at Lee was 845 squadron on Whirlwind HAS.22s on 14th November 1955. 

In 1956, the Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club (formed in 1949) became based at Lee and has played an important role in the selection and testing of potential aircrew candidates ever since in addition to providing recreational flying and air experience for a vast number of people.

​The advent of an all jet inventory in the mid 1950s, saw a major diversification in the role of Lee as an air station.   Although heavily involved with helicopter work and trials, the establishment of the Air Engineering School brought a different emphasis to the base.   In later years, it was joined by the Central Air Medical School, the Naval Air Technical Evaluation Centre, the Naval Air Accident Investigation Unit and the Marine Aircraft Recovery, Transport and Salvage Unit.

​In 1959 the station was re-named HMS ARIEL as this better reflected the transfer of electrical training from the original establishment of that name, Worthy Down, which by then, had closed.   The name DAEDALUS was re-adopted in 1965 in recognition of the fact that the station was considered the spititual home of the FAA.

​During 1962 the slipway adjacent to the seaplane sheds was brought back into regular use upon the formation of the Joint Service Hovercraft Trials Unit.   By 1968 this unit had 6 hovercraft of various specifications on its strength.

​In 1973, the closure of RAF Thorney Island saw responsibility for Search and Rescue transferred to Lee with 3 x Whirlwind Mk 9 helicopters affectionately known as Faith, Hope and Charity.   Operated by 781 and ultimately by 772 squadrons, the RN retained this role at Lee until the award of the contract to Bristows in 1988.

​The Hampshire Police Air Support Unit arrived at Lee in 1985.   Initially operating an ‘Optica’ aircraft, this was replaced in 1990 by the first of successive ‘Islanders’.   HPASU were based in a now demolished complex of buildings on the eastern dispersal until 1996, when they took possession of the existing control tower.

Between 1987 and 1996, the Southampton University Air Squadron was either based at Lee or deployed there regularly for its training ‘camps’.

​In 1991 the decision was taken to de-commission the air station and finally on 29th March 1996, HMS DAEDALUS closed after seventy-nine years of continuous operation.   As the spiritual home of the Fleet Air Arm the station had played a vital role for most of its time in commission.  It had made the transition from RNAS through RAF to FAA and in so doing had made a vital contribution to two world wars not to mention the variety of conflicts with which the country had been involved since the station’s humble beginnings.   In addition it had been central to both the training of personnel and the development and introduction of both tactics and systems which have enabled the air services to remain at the forefront of military aviation.

More detailed information is available in the Fleet Air Arm Archive.