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‘Battlebags and Blimps’–uncovering our lost WW1 aviation heritage

In our latest Blog Post, Keith Lilley talks about the impact of military flying during WW1, their flying stations and Ireland’s rich history of such establishments that include aerodromes and airship stations.

In this, the final year of the Centenary of WW1, one of the more significant commemorative acts in the UK has been to mark a hundred years since the foundation of the Royal Air Force. It’s an appropriate time, then, to reflect on the traces left behind in our landscapes of the formative years of the RAF, and of local impacts across Britain and Ireland that military flying had during the war.

During the Centenary much attention has been given rightly to identifying the sites of WW1 training camps and practice trenches and studying their remains. This has been aided especially by the excellent Home Front Legacy (HFL) project led by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), begun in 2014. A search of the HFL online database also reveals the locations of the many ‘flying stations’ that saw service during the war under the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Visiting these sites today, a hundred years on, often reveals few tangible remains, since many were not intended for long service, had temporary buildings and runways, and have since been reabsorbed into the landscape from which they were formed.

The relative ‘invisibility’ of WW1 aerodromes and airship stations in today’s landscape does not mean of course that these sites should be overlooked or ignored, but it does pose a particular challenge to those researching their remains. This challenge is one that the Living Legacies 1914-18 WW1 engagement centre has been addressing through working with community partners in Northern Ireland, using modern-day state-of-the-art technologies to open up the hidden heritage of WW1 military aviation. The key to this is to combine archaeological and historical research methods, and through the ‘Battlebags and Blimps’ HLF-funded community project, the RNAS airship station that once existed at Bentra, just near Whitehead, is being brought to light.

A view of RNAS Bentra taken in 1917 showing S.23 and airship hangar. Image courtesy of Guy Warner (D&N Calwell Collection).
A view of RNAS Bentra taken in 1917 showing S.23 and airship hangar. Image courtesy of Guy Warner (D&N Calwell Collection).

Ireland has a rich heritage of WW1 military sites including aerodromes and airship stations. So far though, none of these landing grounds has been surveyed in the field. Photographs of the airship out-station at Bentra taken in 1917 reveal deep in the Ulster countryside a large but ‘portable’ airship hangar, plus air crew huts, in a field close to Larne Lough. The location is almost forgotten today, but a hundred years ago this was very much a ‘front line’ in the British war effort, for Bentra was a key part of the coastal defence of these islands, protecting military and merchant ships from enemy attack, especially by German submarines. Bentra was closely linked to the airship station at Luce Bay, in south-west Scotland, and provided the RNAS with a means of seeking shelter when the weather turned. Airships were vulnerable craft.

Recognising the important wartime role Bentra airship station played in protecting British military interests, and addressing its relative obscurity as local WW1 heritage, the ‘Battlebags and Blimps’ project was formed through a partnership between Carrickfergus Museum and Living Legacies. Participants from the local community have come together to work with the museum and centre to research Bentra, particularly through using field evidence. A series of workshops involving the community and professional researchers have taken the group through from a desktop study to field survey. Visits to WW1 coastal defence sites have enabled the group to test out new skills, including using Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) technologies for surveying the sites, for recording features, and then using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and digital mapping to plot them out. The results of this fieldwork have already fed into the Northern Ireland ‘Defence Heritage Project’, led by the NI Historic Environment Division.

At the site of Bentra airship station on a wet and cool August Friday, the project team gathered to survey the field to see what might be revealed of this once important part of Ireland’s coastal defence network. Out came the GNSS survey equipment, laptops with maps and aerial imagery, metal detecting and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) kit, and the group set to work, surveying the unassuming field beside the Larne-Whitehead main road. The local landowner had kindly granted permission to access the site, and slowly but surely the field was surveyed, looking not only for above ground features, such as earthworks, but also, by using the GPR and metal detector, seeing what lay below the surface. These non-invasive techniques opened up from the ground what our eyes could not see, and the fruits of the labours on that damp day have now been plotted out in a GIS and shared with the group using online mapping (see

Working in the field - the project group surveying at Bentra (Photo - Keith Lilley)
Working in the field – the project group surveying at Bentra (Photo – Keith Lilley)

Bentra is just one of many such ‘lost’ legacies of the air war of a hundred years ago. ‘Battlebags and Blimps’ has begun to show what might be found by using digital survey methods and mapping, contributing to our better understanding, appreciation and recognition of our nation’s early aviation heritage. As important in all this is the project’s engagement with the local community, forging a closer and stronger connection between academics, heritage professionals and ‘community researchers’, to mark the Centenary of the formation of the RAF from the RFC and RNAS in 1918, and to create a new legacy of an overlooked yet vitally important aspect of the war and its impact on the ‘home front’.

Plotting the survey data, the GPR and metal detector hits at Bentra. Image by Alastair Ruffell.
Plotting the survey data, the GPR and metal detector hits at Bentra. Image by Alastair Ruffell.

Prof Keith Lilley is PrincipaI Investigator and Director of ‘Living Legacies 1914-18’ Arts and Humanities Research Council Funded (AHRC) WW1 Public Engagement Centre and Shirin Murphy is Collections Access Officer, Carrickfergus Mid and East Antrim Borough. Project assistance from History Hub Ulster, 2062 Carrickfergus Squadron Air Cadets, Conor Graham, Rebecca Milligan, Heather Montgomery, Laura Patrick and Alastair Ruffell. ‘Battlebags and Blimps’ is HLF-funded with support from Living Legacies 1914-18 and Carrickfergus Mid and East Antrim Borough.

Details regarding all the engagement centres can be found via the AHRC Website.


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