While major developments were taking place in the north of the Isle of Man during the early part of the war, the aerodrome at Ronaldsway saw little activity during the winter of 1939/40 apart from the skeleton service operated by Isle of Man Air Service, one of the few civilian routes to be maintained under the Joint Air Service Committee. Like all commercial aerodromes Ronaldsway had been commandeered by the Air Ministry in September, 1939, but it was not until the following March that a function was found for it. Here would be based No. I Ground Defence Gunnery School which had been formed the previous December at North Coates on the east coast of England. Personnel from a similar unit in Northern Ireland - the Armament Training School at Aldergrove - would also transfer to Ronaldsway which would then accommodate the only school of its kind. It's purpose was to train airmen in gunnery for the defence of airfields against air attack. Many of the men would see action when later in the year, the Luftwaffe launched their attacks on fighter stations during the Battle of Britain. At this time the R.A.F. Regiment had not been formed so training was given to non-specialised ground staff by Technical Training Command.
The Empress Hotel in Douglas became the unit's Headquarters though all personnel involved in the training were accommodated in Castletown, use being made of the boarding houses along the Promenade and houses within the town itself including Bridge House. The Fort Island (Golf Links) Hotel became the school where instruction was given on the mechanics and operation of Lewis, Browning and Bofor guns. Practical experience was gained by firing at drogues towed by aircraft and even by a high speed motor boat in the early months. The whole training was something of a crash course lasting ten days so there was constant movement in and out of Castletown. Officers also took the course accommodation for them being found in the Peveril Hotel, Douglas.
To provide shelter for the aircraft arriving at Ronaldsway, the hangar of I.o.M.. Air Service was joined by a canvas Beconneau hangar and three blister hangars. All maintenance was carried out by ground crew and the Booking Office of pre-war days became Flying Control. By far the most numerous of the aircraft were the Westland Wallaces, there being about twelve at one time. The Wallace, powered by a 750 h.p. Bristol Pegasus IM-3 engine, was a development of the Wapiti general purpose reconnaissance biplane which had given many years of service in the Middle East and the North West Frontier. The Wallace first flew in 1931 could cruise at 140 m.p.h. and had few vices. Many were adapted as target tugs m 1939, a hole being made in the floor of the fuselage through which the drogue attached to a cable was lowered. The cable operator needed a certain amount of dexterity in judging when to apply the brake to the cable drum when the drogue was trailing 70 or 80 yards behind the aircraft. To release the drogue the drum was allowed to run free so that the cable, attached by string, would snap off Wallaces, such as K 6073 and K 6083, were constantly in the air on two hour sessions flying figures of eight out to sea off Langness. Two positions were used by the gunners - one on Fort Island and the other at the southern tip of Langness peninsula. Each gunner had his rounds of ammunition dipped in paint so that his hits on the drogue would be recorded. The drogues were released onto a field at Knock-e-Vriew on the St. Mark's Road, about three miles from Ronaldsway
One of the pilots flying from Ronaldsway was Sergeant F. C. Beagle who arrived in December, 1940, flying under various flight commanders including Flt. Lt. Clark, Flt. Lt. Brown, P.O. Young and P.O. Harvison from Australia. Officer Commanding flying was Squadron Leader A. Hawood. There were always about ten pilots present and Sgt. Beagle's log book records on many pages the types and serial numbers of the aircraft he flew.
Apart from the Wallaces there were three or four Gloster Gauntlets which had replaced earlier Hawker Harts. The Gauntlet was the forerunner of the more famous Gladiator but was 'a beautiful aircraft and a dream to fly.' The Gauntlets were used for exercises with the cine-guns that were positioned on top of Creggan's Hill to the west of the aerodrome across the Castletown Road. Because of its smoothness the hill was given the delightful name of 'Bishop's Belly'! The daily routine was for the Gauntlets. in one hour flights, to dive and zoom round the gunners as they 'fired' the cine-guns. In November, 1942 the first of the Westland Lysanders arrived to supplement the dwindling number of Wallaces which by May of that year, according to one local observer, numbered three. On the same day two Gauntlets were present together with a visiting Wellington.
During three years of flying two Wallaces were lost in flying accidents. Though the flying was localised it was maintained in all but the worst weather conditions. It was on a stormy day in January, 1941, that a Wallace on target towing duty, crashed off Fort Island into the sea with the loss of the pilot, a Pole, and the drogue operator. The following year, in March, a member of King William's College flight of 506 A.T.C. squadron was flying in a Wallace piloted by Sgt.. A. G. McGill. Another Wallace approached and came too close when flying m formation. With a smashed elevator the first Wallace went into uncontrollable loops and crashed into Quayle's Orchard, Malew, killing the pilot and the pupil of King William's College. More fortunate was the pilot of a Gauntlet which, when coming in to land over Derbyhaven, hit the top of a Road Service bus. The Gauntlet landed tail first and upside down. For this, the badly shaken pilot was reprimanded by the unit's CO, a marine colonel, for 'a flagrant case of low flying'!
1943, saw the Gunnery School disbanded when it was absorbed by the R.A.F. Regiment which had been formed to take over airfield defences. Most of the personnel moved to Douglas where the Empress Hotel had become the Headquarters of the R . A .F. Regiment training establishment. Ground staff continued to be trained in gunnery for which purpose a large black concrete dome was constructed in the grounds of the Villa Marina near the Broadway entrance. Projected on the inside of the dome were the shapes and paths of aircraft which the gunners tracked with cine-guns, thus simulating the work of the Wallaces and Gauntlets which now disappeared from Ronaldsway
Manx Aviation in War and Peace published by kind permission of: The Manx Experience