New exhibition offers a glimpse behind the scenes at RAF Leuchars

At the end of this month the Royal Air Force bids its final farewells to Leuchars, bringing to an end an involvement with north east Fife that has lasted a century.

The force’s links with the area will be long remembered, and bringing back memories of those illustrious years is a special exhibition in St Andrews opening next weekend.

‘From Balloons to Typhoons: RAF Leuchars Life on Base’ is a look back at the parts of the base the public never saw - life in the mess, how the families lived, their links with the local communities.

It’s curated by a team of eight final year Museums and Gallery Studies students from St Andrews University, who have developed the exhibition as part of their studies.

Lorna Weir, who has lived with the air force’s presence all her life, hailing from Kilconquhar, and Tylar Napolitano, from New Jersey in the USA, explained what visitors to the exhibition can expect to see.

“We worked with Karen Clayton, the station commander’s wife, and Squadron Leader Nobby Clark who look after the camp’s heritage, to try show the public some of the things they might never have seen relating to the camp,” Lorna said.

Programmes for RAF Leuchars Air Days

Programmes for RAF Leuchars Air Days

“We really wanted to focus on behind the scenes - more the social life of RAF Leuchars. We have things like table decorations, sports trophies, gifts from visitors and mascots.

“But we also have items that reflect the role of the base,” she added, “including a couple of flight suits.”

“And a Luftwaffe bombing plan for Leuchars!” Tylar chipped in, adding, “so there is some technology, but the focus is on what life was like on the base behind the wire.”

She was particularly taken with a series of entries in the mess book: “One person, over a few months on the base, complained about the lack of tuna.”

The focus is on what life was like on the base behind the wire

Lorna Weir

It was life in the mess that interested Lorna, too.

“I liked hearing about the dinners and the traditions,” she said.

“One person we met told us about passing the port and the RAF’s insistence that it should not touch the table.”

The team’s research put them in touch with RAF Leuchars personnel past and present, all with stories to tell.

Tylar Napolitano with the fighting cock - a memory of No 43 Squadron

Tylar Napolitano with the fighting cock - a memory of No 43 Squadron

A ‘Winkie’ to heroes of World War II

One of the most unusual stories in RAF Leuchars’ history - and one which delighted the ‘From Ballons to Typhoons’ team is that of Winkie the pigeon.

In 1942 Winkie was one of the crew on a badly damaged RAF Beaufort bomber that ditched in the North Sea as a result of being badly damaged by enemy fire following a mission to Norway.

With no time to radio before ditching, the crew released the blue chequered hen homing pigeon as their last hope of rescue.

Winkie made it the 120 miles back home to Broughty Ferry, where her owner George Ross alerted RAF Leuchars, from where a search and rescue mission was launched. Using the time difference from the plane ditching to the arrival of the pigeon in the loft, and taking into account wind direction her flight speed, the RAF were able to approximate where the plane ditched and within 15 minutes the crew’s position had been located and a rescue vessel dispatched.

Winkie received the Dickin Medal - the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross - for her heroism, and she was awarded honorary membership of the officers’ mess in 2013.

Hero pigeon Winkie receives her medal from Maria Dickin

Hero pigeon Winkie receives her medal from Maria Dickin

When Winkie died, Ross donated her and her Dickin Medal to Dundee Art Galleries and Museums and she can be seen today in the McManus Galleries.