RNAS Dale – a Fleet Air Arm ‘time capsule’

On Saturday 23 March 2019, I took a trip to Dale in Pembrokeshire with Fairey Barracuda Project volunteer Tony Jupp to see a remarkable ‘time capsule’ of life on a Royal Naval Air Station just after the Second World War.

We were visiting Dale on the trail of a mystery involving a Barracuda, of which more is revealed in the current issue of The Aviation Historian. While researching this Barracuda-related matter, Tony discovered that a historical society, the Coastlands Local History Group, looked after a former barrack block on the old airfield, which held some remarkable evidence of life there in the late 1940s.

In fact, a good deal of the infrastructure of the airfield remains, despite the fact that it closed 71 years ago. Runways, hangar floors, hardstandings and many buildings remain, now used as workshops or for storage. Access was arranged through the group, who gained approval from the owner (as Dale is now in private ownership, split among several parties).

The airfield opened as RAF Dale in June 1942, as a satellite landing ground for RAF Talbenny, but the following year was transferred to the Admiralty. For most of the war, Dale was a hive of activity in training aircrew, with target-towing, operational training and twin-engine conversion taking place there.

To reach the airfield, it’s necessary to drive up out of the valley on winding, single-track lanes until you reach the gates. Just outside, the skeleton of the last remaining hangar can be seen. Within is a collection of typical 1940s barrack rooms, each with their own water tower. Inside one of these was a remarkable artefact of the station’s operational career. Three interior walls of the barrack block were decorated with a mural made up cartoons of aircraft – the end wall with the main entrance, and the two longer side walls. Of these one is mostly unbroken by windows and more than half of it is covered by cartoons, which are drawn directly onto the distemper wall paint with what appears to be India ink. For the most part they are still bright and clear, though wear is worse in some parts. The Coastlands group has done much to preserve and record the cartoons, although inevitably they are gradually degrading.

The mural is a collection of cartoons of aircraft, along with a ‘frieze’ along the base, the sea with ships, including an aircraft carrier, on one of the long walls, and the coast, cliffs, village and airfield, on the other. The aircraft comprise a fascinating collection, most but not all of which were roughly contemporary to the life of the airfield. Most are British or British-operated, but with one or two German types and some operated only by the US services. Wartime naval types include Seafires, Swordfish, Walruses, a Sea Hurricane, Wildcat, Hellcat (in postwar night-fighter variant as indicated by the wingtip radar pod) and a Barracuda. Postwar types include a Blackburn Firebrand (issuing puffs of smoke!), and a dual-control Fairey Firefly Trainer (the presence of which dates the mural to no earlier than 1946) as well as early jets, a Gloster Meteor and a DH Vampire – the Sea Vampire that ‘Winkle’ Brown landed on HMS Ocean, perhaps?

The mural was created by Sub-Lieutenant (A) ‘Dax’ Dashfield RNVR, an engineering officer with 790 Squadron, whose art also appeared in the station’s magazine. Dashfield’s identity as the artist was confirmed by his family, as ‘Dax’ always ‘signed’ his cartoons with a representation of a winged angel in a flying helmet and goggles. The group believes that the mural is likely to have been painted shortly before the station was due to close, in late 1947 or even 1948, or it would most likely not have been left.

The Coastlands group maintains a small museum in the village to commemorate the airfield’s history, which they have painstakingly pieced together with archival research, memories of local people and those who served at the station, and a study of the site itself. If you’re in the neighbourhood, a visit is recommended, and tours of the airfield can be arranged when circumstances permit.

A Vought Corsair fighter, demonstrating that some of the cartoons were coloured, which has survived less well than the black ink outlines. This picture also shows one of the threats to the long-term future of the mural – the thin-walled concrete blocks that the building is constructed with, and which in some places are wearing through

 

An electic assemblage of aircraft including, on the top left a pre-war Blackburn Blackburn gunnery spotting biplane, beneath it a German wartime Junkers Ju88 bomber, in the centre a postwar Blackburn Firebrand torpedo fighter, on the top right a Consolidated Catalina flying boat, and middle-right, a four-engined, twin-tail aircraft, such as a Consolidated Liberator

 

The centre of the main wall of the mural, showing an angel in flying gear, the signature/self-portrait of Sub-Lieutenant (A) ‘Dax’ Dashfield RNVR who created it, flanked by a Grumman Wildcat and a Grumman Hellcat night-fighter

 

One of the more unusual aircraft depicted on the mural is the prototype Firefly Trainer (as identified by its black upper deck). Did the prototype trainer visit Dale? Is the ‘near miss’ with a Gloster Meteor based on a real event, as other parts of the mural are?

 

This Hawker Sea Hurricane is on the end wall, which is sadly subject to greater wear than the two side walls. It’s not clear if the pilots shown on some of the cartoons are based on real people, but they display such character it’s easy to conclude that they might

 

Part of the frieze around the edges of the mural, showing Dale itself; the village, valley, and airfield – note the flare being fired from the clifftop to the right for the attention of the Percival Proctor aircraft overhead

 

The ‘frieze’ around the edge of the mural includes small images such as this aircraft carrier, with an aircraft about to make a landing on it. Other images on this wall include merchant ships and ‘coastal forces’ motor boats

 

An Avro Anson collides with the towing cable of a Miles Martinet target-tug – a genuine occurrence which sadly ended in the loss of the Anson

 

With thanks to Tony Jupp of the Fairey Barracuda Restoration Project and the Coastlands Local History Group

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