The airfield dates back to December 1933 when the 7th Marquis of Londonderry, himself an enthusiastic aviator and Secretary of State for Air from 1931 to 1932, announced that an aerodrome would be constructed on a fifty acre portion of his estate (formerly a racecourse) adjoining the Comber Road in Newtownards.
The first recorded landing took place in June 1934 and the new Ards Airport was officially opened on 31 August 1934 by the Duke of Abercorn, the Governor of Northern Ireland. Probably the largest aircraft to visit the airport was a German three engine black and silver Lufthansa Junkers JU52 (named the WilhelmSiegert) which landed on the 26th May 1936. It conveyed the German Ambassador to Britain, Joachim Von Ribbentrop who together with Frau Ribbentrop were guests of the Londonderrys at Mountstewart. Lady Londonderry and members of the family met the ambassador on arrival.
With the outbreak of WW2 private flying came to a temporary halt as the airfield was requisitioned as a suitable base for training and Army Co-Operation flying.
Construction work was carried out by the Royal Engineers and was largely completed by 1940. The first resident RAF unit was 231 squadron operating Lysander aircraft largely engaged on Army Co-Operation duties which consisted of patrols over Army convoys and general support for tactical exercises.
During the night of 14/15 April 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed the centre of the Belfast City/shipbuilding areas and dropped land mines on the airfield killing thirteen young soldiers (one aged just 16) from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who were too young for active service overseas but given responsibility for defending the airfield.
As the war progressed, the role of the airfield changed and it came under the control of No 82 Group, Fighter Command, which had been formed as an umbrella organisation for all RAF fighter units in Northern Ireland. It became a centre for drogue towing units to facilitate air gunnery practice and by the middle of 1942 it had 22 aircraft and just over 600 personnel.
By the beginning of 1944 the demands of the war changed and the airfield became a relief landing ground for 24EFTS (Empire Flying Training School) operating at Sydenham. A new squadron was formed, No290 whose role was to provide all anti-aircraft training and practice flying for the whole of NI. This posting was short lived as the airfield’s grass surfaces were so badly deteriorated by the intensity of use that the squadron were posted to Long Kesh and Ards put into care and maintenance. Apart from the establishment of No 203 Elementary Gliding School in early 1945, aircraft made little use of the field until its reversion to the Londonderry Estate shortly after the end of WW2.
RAF in Kircubbin During WW2
Thanks to Ernie Cromie (Ulster Aviation Society) for providing the following information.
By the autumn of 1941, an RAF fighter group, No 82, had become operational with exclusive responsibility for the defence of Northern Ireland, with group Headquarters at Stormont. The bunker at Kircubbin (No.2 on trail) was the operations room for the Belfast sector, However, there is speculation that it might have been designed to accommodate ‘last ditch’ defence requirements in the event that Great Britain had been invaded and Westminster had ceased to be the seat of government.
In October 1942, No.82 Group was abolished and the and the Senate Chamber became the location of the HQ of the Royal Air Force in Northern Ireland. All operational personnel, including those who had been at Kircubbin from the outset, were transferred to Stormont and Sector operations rooms at Kircubbin were closed. The Stormont facility was operational until the end of the war.