RNAS Portland (HMS Osprey)

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RNAS Portland (HMS Osprey)
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Near Portland, Dorset in England
RNAS Portland is located in Dorset
RNAS Portland
RNAS Portland
Shown within Dorset
Coordinates 50°34′08″N 002°27′02″W / 50.56889°N 2.45056°W / 50.56889; -2.45056Coordinates: 50°34′08″N 002°27′02″W / 50.56889°N 2.45056°W / 50.56889; -2.45056
Type Royal Naval Air Station
Site information
Owner Ministry of Defence
Operator Royal Navy
Site history
Built 1917 (1917)
In use 1917-1999 (1999)
Airfield information
Elevation 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) AMSL
Number Length and surface
03/21 230 metres (755 ft) Asphalt

RNAS Portland (ICAO: EGDP) was an air station of the Royal Navy, situated at the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. It was established in 1917 on the western edge of Portland Harbour, close to the naval dockyard. From 1959 the station shared the name HMS Osprey with the anti-submarine shore-based establishment located at East Weares, which used the air station's helicopters for research and development in anti-submarine techniques. The establishment originally operated at Portland between 1924 and 1941, and was recommissioned there in 1946, until its closure in 1995. RNAS Portland remained operational until it too closed in 1999.


HMS Sarepta and role in First World War (1916-19)[edit]

Osprey Quay, the site of the former RNAS Portland, seen in 2006.

Within the early stages of naval aviation, in May 1912, saw the first ever instance of an aircraft to take off from a ship which was underway. Lieutenant Charles Samson flew a Gnome-engined Short Improved S.27 "S.38" from HMS Hibernia as the ship steamed at 10.5 knots at the Royal Fleet Review in Weymouth Bay, close to Portland Harbour.[1]

The original seaplane base was first built during World War I, and opened on 28 September 1916 as HMS Sarepta, within the confines of Portland Harbour; the aircraft operating from the base's slipways. The site was situated to the east of the RNAS Osprey site, at Castletown, and the original hangar was erected immediately above the Target Slipway, between Camber Jetty and the Loading Jetty. This slipway was used for quick take-offs and recovery. The station used floatplanes, i.e. a water aerodrome, and initially four short floatplanes were based at HMS Sarepta. A number of Short 184s, Fairey F16 Campania 2-seat coastal patrol seaplanes and a few converted Wright seaplanes flew coastal patrols to protect shipping from German U-boat attacks. The harbour at Portland was one of a chain of Royal Naval Air Service seaplane bases established by the Admiralty to protect British shipping from U-boat attacks. Much British coastal shipping was being attacked and destroyed by U-boats.[2] The base, Portland's first shore establishment, was built at a time when the harbour was increasingly being used by the surface fleet.[3]

When the RAF was formed in April 1918 from the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps, in August 1918 HMS Sarepta was taken over by the RAF, and a larger unit of 12 aircraft was formed as No. 241 Squadron RAF.[4] Operational flights were made by both Royal Navy pilots and also by U.S. Naval personnel. On 25 March 1918 it was reported that Ensign John F. McNamara, flying out of RNAS Portland, made the first attack on an enemy submarine by a U.S. Naval Aviator. For his attack, which was deemed a success by Admiral Sims, Ensign McNamara was commended by the Secretary of the Navy for his "valiant and earnest efforts on the occasion. Following the Armistice in November 1918, No. 241 Squadron RAF was disbanded and aviation operations ceased by June 1919. Although no permanent units were based at Portland again until before the Second World War, RAF flying boats were a regular sight in the sea.[5]

Role in Second World War (1939-45)[edit]

In September 1939, 772 Squadron, a Fleet Requirements Unit, arrived at Portland and stayed for ten months, until July 1940. After the inactive inter-war period the base once again became an active flying station. Equipped with Fairey Swordfish and Supermarine Walruses, this Squadron towed targets for naval gunners to train on. With the fall of France early in the war, the Naval Base at Portland became a prime target for the Luftwaffe. As a result the continued presence of Portland's anti-submarine school was infeasible. The school moved to Cambeltown in July 1940, and took 772 Squadron with it. After these floatplanes departed there were no permanent units based on the site for the remainder of the war. Instead the base was held under Care and Maintenance and did not participate on active operations.[6]

Establishment of RNAS Osprey (1946-1993)[edit]

The former headquarters building, operations centre and control tower.

After the war the anti-submarine school returned to Portland and as such a helicopter base became an important centre for the school to perform experiments and development. In 1946 Sikorsky R-4Bs moved in, initially operating from the slipway at the Naval Base for development work. The helicopters paved the way for the use of helicopters in the fleet, and success with these trials, and with aviation activities on the increase, the Admiralty decided to replace fixed-wing anti submarine aircraft with helicopters, heralding a major building programme at Portland. The base's playing fields were soon taken over as a landing ground and the site became a modern heliport. A landing ground, two blister hangars, operations centre and control tower were established on this field.[7] The two hangars were erected below the old fleet canteen, and the canteen itself was selected to be converted into the headquarters building, operations centre, workshop and control tower.[8]

The continuing success of the helicopter operations inevitably led to the need for better and purpose built facilities over the years. During the late 1950s the marshy area known as the Mere was filled in and built over, and later expansion meant that this tidal lagoon was completely covered. This created a large concreted area to produce a large helicopter facility, to the west of the original HMS Sarepta site.[9]

Upon the completion of the work, 815 Naval Air Squadron flew its 12 Westland Whirlwinds in from RNAS Eglinton in Northern Ireland to the new Portland Heliport on 14 April 1959. Led by Lieutenant Commander Hayes, the squadron were met at Portland by Captain Pound and the new Commander Air, Commander Henly.[10] Only a week into arriving, one of the Whirlwinds had ditched off the Shambles Sandbank near Portland Bill, and Lt Gill, the pilot, was fished off by HMS Keppel. The station was formally commissioned as HMS Osprey on 24 April 1959. This perpetuated the Osprey name, that the shore-based research establishment at East Weares held. RNAS Osprey was officially opened by the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Manley L. Power.[11]

For the next 40 years RNAS Portland was one of the busiest air stations on the south coast, with helicopter operations taking place 24 hours a day. As a helicopter development and training base, it was largely responsible for training aircrew in anti-submarine operations. The site of the base was gradually improved over the years, with the addition of a (short) main runway and landing spots. It has been the home of the small ships' flight Westland Wasp, Westland Wessex and Westland Lynx fleet and at one point, the slipway was used by hovercraft.[12] In particular the base was home for ship's Wasp flights and the local Search and Rescue helicopter service.

The airfield was greatly expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, notably between 1967-70, with new hangars, workshops and fuel storage tanks being constructed.[13] The hangars and workshops were built along the southern edge of the airfield adjacent to the fuel storage tanks, while a further 12 acres of land was reclaimed from the harbour.[14]

In the 1980s Defence Estates decided to dispose of the Naval ratings married quarters at Weston's Westcliff estate, used by personnel from RNAS Portland. As a result the first disposal took place in October 1986 with the sale of Pride, Sullivan and Taylor Courts to the Roger Byron-Collins company The Welbeck Estate Group. Following on Mitchell and Shepherd Court were sold in April 1987, also to Welbeck Estate Group. In February 1988 the two remaining blocks Hinkley and Odgers Court, were sold to the same company. Welbeck would also acquire similar married quarter facilities from the Royal Navy at RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron).

Closure of base (1993-1999)[edit]

The former RNAS, seen in September 2003, when much of the site was being redeveloped for academy, and a new hangar planned for the adjacent coastguard helicopter.

However, with the gradual reduction in the size of the armed forces, it was announced in 1993, as part of defence spending cuts, the closure of both the naval base and the research establishment on Portland. Royal Navy operations ceased on 21 July 1995 and the harbour closed as a naval base on 29 March 1996, with the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) moving to Plymouth's (HMS Drake). With this the RNAS became surplus to the new requirements, and led to its eventual closure on 31 March 1999. The gates to the Air Station were finally "locked" on the 31 October 1999. When HMS Osprey closed, the RN School of Helicopter Control moved to its new premises at HMS Heron (RNAS Yeovilton) and the Fleet Target Group moved to HMS Seahawk (RNAS Culdrose) and became 792 Naval Air Squadron in November 2001. The combined closure of all Portland-based establishments was believed to have cost the area 4,500 jobs, along with a loss of £40 million in the area's economy, according to a study carried out for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in 1995.[15]

RNAS Osprey held its final open day for the public on 17 October 1998.[16] A souvenir guide was published in September 1998 by Resort Marketing & Publishing Ltd, titled HMS Osprey: End of an Era - RNAS Portland 1959-1999. On the day a wide range of historic and current aircraft were displayed, and all buildings were made open to the public. A recruiting trailer and simulator were on site, as well as events such as Fire Fighting Demonstrations, Field Gun Runs, Parachute displays, Combined Search and Rescue displays, flying demonstrations, and performances from the Royal Marine Band. At midday HRH Prince Andrew arrived, where he gave the salute at 14:50 hours, to Beat Retreat by the Royal Marine Band.[17]

Redevelopment and current use (1999-)[edit]

Following the closure of the base, the site was renamed Osprey Quay, and much of the space was given over to small boat use. The Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy was established as a not-for-profit company in 1999. With the air station closed this gave the academy the opportunity to develop a centre for water sports. The Royal Yachting Association had expressed interest in securing a suitable site locally for a number of decades, in order to make use of the harbour's natural advantages. The academy originally operated from various disused military buildings and facilities. In 2003 the academy was able to start redevelopment of the site. In 2005 WPNSA was selected to host the sailing events at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.[18] In 2005 the HMS Osprey shore establishment at East Weares was demolished.[19]

However part of the landing area of the air station still remains in use. A SAR helicopter operated by Bristows for the MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) is based there, and in addition, some traffic is generated by oil exploration in the English Channel. In February 2003 it was announced that the SAR Flight will remain at Portland for the foreseeable future, and a new hangar was soon built.[20] However this helicopter is due to be removed from Portland in 2017. Portland is famous for having one of the shortest runways (03/21 at 230 m) in England.[21]

Osprey Quay became an 80 acres regeneration project commissioned by South West Regional Development Agency in 2001. By 2012 Osprey Quay had been transformed with huge investment, offering over 11 hectares, a total of 60,000 square metres of business space. The Royal Yachting Association constructed its brand new training headquarters on site, and another significant development of Osprey Quay was the construction of the new Dean & Reddyhoff Marina with its associated business park offering chandlery and marine services.[22] The redevelopment area an ECO residential development Officer's Field, and the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy's Osprey Quay campus.

In November 2007, the Regional Development Agency had signed a deal with Sutton Harbour Group to construct a 3-hectare (7-acre) year-round tourist and leisure complex in Osprey Quay, between Portland Castle and the academy. The £30 million scheme, called Castle Court, was planned to feature a hotel, apartments, public areas, a restaurant, shops and other employment space, and is expected to create 300 jobs.[23] However this planned leisure and tourism development is still to be completed. It aims to provide up to 1,400 jobs by 2016, and a further number of development zones on serviced land which together with over 500 jobs already supported, will support many more by the time it is fully developed. This includes the redevelopment of the former RNAS Portland Helicopter Control Tower, initially the Naval Base Canteen.[24]

Military defences[edit]

During World War II two light anti-aircraft gun emplacements were situated at the site. One was located where Portland Marina now stands, while the ot her was located between the coastguard helicopter runaway, and Portland Castle.[25][26]

Three Cold War Norcon-style pillboxes were located at the site. They were made of pre-cast reinforced concrete circular rings, approximately 3-4 rings high. One was situated on the causeway on the west perimeter of HMS Osprey base, close to where a roundabout on Portland Beach Road now stands. The second was located on the causeway just inside the perimeter on the north edge of the base, and the third located by the main guard room/gatehouse on the south edge of the perimeter to the base, just off Victoria Square. A field visit in 1998 found the pillboxes to be in a good condition, however amidst redevelopment of the site all three were demolished.[27][28][29]

Squadrons (1959-1999)[edit]

  • 737 Naval Air Squadron (August 1959 — February 1983)
  • 771 Naval Air Squadron (July 1961 — December 1964 and June 1967 — September 1974)
  • 829 Naval Air Squadron (December 1964 — March 1993)
  • 703 Naval Air Squadron (January 1972 — January 1981)
  • 772 Naval Air Squadron (September 1974 — September 1995)
  • 702 Naval Air Squadron (July 1982 — January 1999)
  • 815 Naval Air Squadron (April 1959 — August 1959 and July 1982 — February 1999)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  2. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1487063&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  3. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  4. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  5. ^ Dave Fagan. "PORTLAND R.N.A.S.". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  6. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1487063&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  7. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1487063&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  8. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  9. ^ Dave Fagan. "PORTLAND R.N.A.S.". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  10. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  11. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  12. ^ "EGDP Portland Heliport - Helicopter Database". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  13. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1487063&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  14. ^ http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/portland-s-deep-sea-harbour/86-hms-osprey
  15. ^ "Portland's naval history ends as last warship sails". The Independent. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  16. ^ http://www.fleetairarm.com/exhibit/westland-whirlwind-har3-xg574/1-29-78.aspx
  17. ^ Ross, Iain (September 1998). HMS Osprey: End of an Era - RNAS Portland 1959-1999. Resort Marketing & Publishing Ltd. p. 41. 
  18. ^ "History of WPNSA - Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy". Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  19. ^ http://www.geoffkirby.co.uk/Portland/700730/
  20. ^ Dave Fagan. "PORTLAND R.N.A.S.". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  21. ^ "EGDP Portland Heliport - Helicopter Database". Retrieved 5 October 2014. 
  22. ^ "Osprey Quay, Portland". Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  23. ^ http://www.rya.org.uk/newsevents/news/Pages/OfficialhandoverofnewRYAPortlandHouse.aspx
  24. ^ "50 homes, shops and a 60-bed hotel planned for Osprey Quay on Portland". Dorset Echo. Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  25. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1413287&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  26. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1413291&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  27. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1420492&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  28. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1420493&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=
  29. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1420494&sort=2&type=&typeselect=c&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=None&place=osprey&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=

External links[edit]