The MONAB Story

A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy

How do you speed up the building of a naval air station?


How the idea of the mobile airfield was born

Before the outbreak of World War II all operational flying from shore bases was the responsibility of the RAF, this does not mean that naval aircraft never operated from shore bases against the enemy, but when they did, they would come under RAF control at RAF airfields. There had been exceptions to this rule through operational necessity, for example operations from Dekhelia, Egypt during the most critical periods of the North African campaign. The principal however remained in force during the early part of the war; all operational airfields were the responsibility of the RAF. 

The navy found that it must provide whatever airfields were necessary to feed carriers with trained crews and serviceable aircraft, and secondly, to supply aircraft to meet the fleet's requirements. Before the war the navy had a few airfields in this country but relied entirely on lodger facilities at RAF stations when operating overseas. During the early days of the war the navy took steps to obtain its own airfields near to strategic bases abroad; some were to be built and others taken over from the RAF. 

When it looked as if a rear base for the eastern fleet would have to be set up in East Africa, airfields where hastily built in Kenya to support the fleet when using the Naval base at Mombasa. These airfields were just far enough advanced to receive disembarked aircraft when the fleet arrived. However, many of these facilities were incomplete; in fact, they were just about completed when the fleet returned to Ceylon, these airfields were now no longer required. Thus, it became necessary to devise a method for providing airfield facilities more quickly and more economically, both in labour and in materials. 

The Director Naval Air Division (D.N.A.D.) issued a memorandum outlining the requirements for mobile bases on 1st October 1942. A meeting was held on 13th November 1942, to consider departmental remarks arising from the question of how to speed up the construction of Naval Air Establishments in the eastern theatre. It was at this time that the idea of a mobile naval airfields organisation was born. 

At the meeting it was decided that the principle to adopt was that there should be a construction unit and an operational unit. Construction units should to be non-Fleet Air Arm, should be based on the American "Lions and cobs", and should not form part of any other naval construction schemes. The operational unit was to be essentially Fleet Air Arm and should provide equipment and trained personnel for the purpose of equipping an aerodrome and not any other purpose. This is what became, eventually, a MONAB.  

The Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation is formed

Early planning

Various sub committees were appointed to work out the details. Planning was to continue throughout 1943, by September of that year, Colonel Fuller R.M. had been appointed to Director of Airfields and Carrier Requirements (D.A.C.R.) staff as Senior Officer Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (S.O.M.N.A.O.). In November 1943, D.A.C.R. circulated the requirements for a proposed organisation and complement for a Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (M.N.A.O.) Headquarters; at this time the location was to be in the East, probably Ceylon.

January 1944 saw a revised schedule of transport requirements for a unit capable of supporting four squadrons. It was envisaged that one set of vehicles would be required for trials and exercise in the U.K. by 1st February 1944. The War Office accepted the principle that the M.N.A.O. should, as far as possible, be equipped on Army lines with unit equipment from War Office sources and that a form G.1098 be prepared, to list the items necessary.

Advanced planning

By the spring of 1944 it had been decided to form a British pacific Fleet and plans ware now being switched to shift the centre of M.N.A.O. operations from the Indian Ocean to Australia. An Admiralty Mission was sent to Australia to decide, in conjunction with the Americans and the Commonwealth Government, what logistic support would be necessary for a British Pacific Fleet and also what facilities would be made available by the U.S. and Australia.

Several snags now appeared; very little man power would be available for the Far East until the defeat of Germany, and it appeared unlikely that the Army would operate in the Pacific Theatre - meaning that the M.N.A.O. would have to find some other agency to build airfields. A third and continuing snag was the lack of priority for the M.N.A.O. project.

It was visualised at this time that there should be two types of units, Mobile Naval Airfield Units (M.N.A.U.s) for forward areas, and semi-static units and Transportable Air Bases (T.A.B.s) for rear areas. The idea was that as the war moved on, airfields manned by M.N.A.U.s and still required would gradually turn out T.A.B.s. By June things were getting desperate, as a centre for formation had still not been found.

At a meeting on 1st August 1944, the formation in the U.K. of the H.Q. for the M.N.A.O. and the first two MONABs was considered (it is not clear when the name was changed from Mobile Naval Airfield Units to Mobile Operational Naval Air Bases, but the name was in use when assembly of the first two units began). Similarly, the term Mobile Naval Air Base was used in official documents promulgating the arrangements for forming and commissioning the units- so with or without the 'operational' appears to be a valid title.)

It was decided to accept the Air Ministry's offer of the loan of Ludham, a fighter station in Norfolk, as an M.N.A.O. H.Q. and forming centre. The decision to proceed with the formation of only two MONABs was caused by the manpower shortage. It was agreed that S.O.M.N.A.O. (i.e. the C.O. of Headquarters station) would be responsible for the formation, training, equipment and despatch of the MONABs. The format of the mobile units had been changed from that proposed in the earlier planning stages; a MONAB with a Mobile Maintenance (MM) component was the equivalent of the previous term MNAU, and one with a Mobile Repair (MR) component was the equivalent of the previous TAB. Each MONAB would hold its own accounts and commission with a ship's name.

The Navy started moving into Ludham on 23rd August 1944, and commissioned the station on September 4th 1944 as HMS Flycatcher, Headquarters Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation.

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