The MONAB Story

A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy

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The Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation



The Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (MNAO) came into existence in September 1943 with the appointment of Colonel Fuller R.M. as Senior Officer Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (SOMNAO). Prior to this date the organisation existed as a scattered collection of staff officers at various offices within the Admiralty, under the control of the Director of Airfields and Carrier Requirements (DACR).

 The speed with which the war progressed and theatres of operations changed required the original planned location for the H.Q. to be revised. At the beginning of 1944 the invasion of Europe was in the advanced planning stages and MNAO. planning changed to focus on operations in the European theatre. This change meant that the H.Q. and assembly/dispatch centre should be located in the UK. An airfield would be ideally suited for the purpose but no Admiralty airfields were available; the Admiralty turned to the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Ministry of Aircraft Production to see if a suitable site could be loaned, only one site was offered, LUDHAM in Norfolk.

Planning the Mobile Units

By April of 1944 the MNAO's program was for a projected 15 Mobile units; outline planning was for two separate types of mobile units comprised of interchangeable components which could be added or removed to meet individual unit requirements.

The first type of mobile unit was a Mobile Naval Airfield Unit (MNAU), this was proposed for use in forward areas, following up behind the advancing forces, occupying captured airfields where possible or creating a limited airstrip using a construction component were necessary. The second type of unit being a Transportable Air Base (TAB), a larger unit designed to operate in the rear providing facilities normally found in an aircraft repair yard and expected to remain in siitu for prolonged periods.

The modular "component" system meant that an MNAU could be upgraded to a TAB where the need arose. An example of this could occur when the distance between an MNAU and the front-line made its primary role untenable. The addition of extra components upgrading the MNAU to a TAB would alleviate the problem; a new MNAU would then be established in the new forward area. In effect the mobile units were envisaged as 'leap frogging' each other as their operational requirements changed.

By the time the MNAO was ready to begin operations (Summer 1944) the titles and tasking of the mobile units had changed: The Mobile Naval Airfield Unit was renamed Mobile Operational Naval Air Base (MONAB); there were to be two classes of MONAB, type A (Small) & type B (Large). Type A MONABs would be equipped with Mobile Maintenance (MM) components, supporting up to 50 aircraft, and would be equivalent to the proposed MNAU. A type B MONA B would be additionally equipped with Mobile Repair (MR) components, supporting up to 100 aircraft - this would be the equivalent of a TAB. The decision had also been taken to create a new unit to provide mobile aircraft repair facilities comparable to an aircraft maintenance yard; these units would be titled Transportable Aircraft Maintenance Yards (TAMY). Planning went ahead for one such unit to be ready by early 1945, with the requirement for a second unit for possible deployment by early 1946.

Each MONAB was to be fully independent, responsible for its own administration and provision of Air engineering, Air Stores, flying control, Motor Transport, Royal Marine detachments (airfield defence), RME (Royal Marine Engineers) construction party {only included in MONABs were no prepared strip existed}, Medical, Catering, etc. All these elements were to be either self-propelled or easily transportable with the minimum of fuss. Vast numbers of Motor vehicles were converted/adapted to facilitate this requirement, special portable aircraft hangers were also employed, these being of canvas with steel frames.

The MNAO headquarters station is established

Royal Air Force Station Ludham was transferred from RAF No. 12 Group to Admiralty charge on August 24th 1944, an advance party of the MNAO arriving to occupy the airfield the day before. The station commissioned as HMS FLYCATCHER, Royal Naval Air Station Ludham on September 9th 1944 under the command of Commander (A) J.B. Wilson, Senior Officer Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (SNOMNAO).

Work began immediately on assembling Mobile Naval Air Base No. I, a type A MONAB, simultaneously with the establishment of Ludham as a naval facility and the MNAO headquarters; this would prove to be a serious mistake

A change of direction

It had been decided soon after Ludham opened that the units would not be needed for operations in the European theatre, instead they would form the shore-based air support facilities for the new British Pacific Fleet. A major consequence of this was the need to change all of the stores and equipment from temperate to tropical operations. The operational bases selected for the first five units were all to be in Australia, these to be ready to support the newly formed British Pacific Fleet upon its arrival there in February 1945.

 The time scales laid down for formation and work up of each unit needed to be severely condensed, a problem in itself, but to have to assemble, formate and work up on a station that was at the same stage in its life was to compound any problems even further.

The drawn-out planning of the MNAO and the mobile units, together with the need to 'beg, steal or borrow' even basic elements of the proposed scales of equipment, meant that the MONAB program was dragging its heels somewhat. At the time when the MNAO began operations all key resources were still ear marked for the war in Europe.

The task of assembling this equipment was quite formidable; many essential vehicles were in short supply, in particular MONAB I experienced problems with their Radio & Radar vans, these were being assembled at HMS w3-theme-d2SLING, RN Air Establishment Risley, in Yorkshire. Shortages of materials and vehicles lead to serious delays, the result being some vehicles arrived just prior to departure for the port of embarkation, and the remainder had to follow on with MONAB II.

Unit formation begins

 MONAB I began assembling within days of Ludham commissioning, assembling along the lines of an earlier trial MONAB which had been assembled at RNAS Yeovil ton in June of 1944. The unit would be able to offer full support, training and maintenance for disembarked squadrons and its own second-line squadron, this taking the form of either a Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU) or a training unit.

Despite short falls in both equipment and manpower availability MONAB II began to assemble on October 1st. MONAB II was originally planned as a type A, MONAB however it was decided to change its task to that of a Receipt & Dispatch Unit, a very much larger unit in line with the proposed type B MONAB This was a completely new type of unit, not envisaged in the original planning. The originally allocated Maintenance and repair (Air) elements, Mobile Maintenance, Mobile Servicing & Mobile Repair components, were withdrawn; instead an Aircraft Erection Unit, an Aircraft Equipping & Modification Unit, and an Aircraft Storage Unit were substituted. The originally drafted compliment of ratings was to be made almost totally redundant by this change of task, a further batch of 997 ratings arrived in due course, this raising the total number of personnel at Ludham to an unacceptable level.  

To overcome this problem, it was decided to split MONAB II and to ease the overcrowding by sending the technical components, comprising of 600 ratings, to RN Air Establishment Risley, where they would complete assembly. This decision was to lead to further problems; the large distance between the two stations hampered many of the formation stages, co-ordinating even the most basic operations proved difficult; completing check lists and ensuring everyone had received personal kit issues and pre-embarkation training to name but a few examples

MONAB III commenced formation on October 18th; this was also a type A MONAB. All units forming at Ludham faced one common problem, the MNAO was severely under manned; this was mainly a shortage of ratings. To overcome this shortage manpower was poached from the assembling units. Another handicap to the smooth formation of mobile units was Ludham itself; being a fully dispersed airfield spread over a wide area the distance between the Headquarters., forming areas and stores issuing points was very prohibitive, especially in the winter months; in short Ludham was a less than ideal station for the task allotted.

MONAB I was complete enough to commission as an independent command on October 28th bearing the ships name HMS NABBINGTON, Commander E.A. Nunnerley in command. At the start of November personnel for MONAB IV began arriving at the station; this was to be another standard, type A MONAB

HMS FLYCATCHER and the MNAO received a new commanding officer on November 1st 1944, Captain L.J.S. Ede relieving Commander Wilson as SOMNAO. MONAB II commissioned as an independent command on November 18th bearing the ships names H.M.S. NABBERLEY, Commander E.P.F. Atkinson in command.


 First MONAB dispatched overseas »

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Planning, assembly, equipping, and formation of mobile airfield units in the UK, and their despatch to their operational locations.

Initially on books of 'PRESIDENT'

commencing 10 September 1943 occupying dispersed offices within the Admiralty

Commissioned as independent command

04 September 1944as 'FLYCATCHER' at RNAS Ludham

16 February 1945 as 'FLYCATCHER' at RNAS Middle Wallop

Paid Off as independent command: 10 April 1946 

Accounts carried on books of 'FULMAR'

7 Jul1y 946  as M.N.A.O., later renamed M.D.U. (MONAB Development Unit) Accommodated at RNAS Lossiemouth, disbanded c.1955


Commanding Officers

Colonel J.M. Fuller R.M. (S.O.M.N.A.O.)
10 September 1943 to 04 September 1944

Commander (A) J. B. Wilson (S.O.M.N.A.O. & C.O.)
04 September 1944 to 01 November 1944

Captain L. J. S. Ede (S.O.M.N.A.O. & C.O.)

01 November 1944 to 10 April 1946





Related items

R.N.A.S. Ludham 
R.N.A.S. Middle Wallop
R.N.A.E. Risley
R.N.A.S. Lossiemouth
R.N.A.S. Milltown
R.N.A.S. Henstridge
Histories of these establishments and other information are part of the Fleet Air Arm Bases web site





Memories of those who served with MONAB III during the formation period at Ludham

Leading Air Fetter (E) Ernest Chamberlain




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The reminiscences of Leading Air Fetter (Engines) Ernest Chamberlain .

Extract from the war-time experiences of Ernest Chamberlain, submitted by his daughter Amanda West in 2014

Joining MONAB II

I returned from leave to HMS Condor at Arbroath. When I handed in my leave pass, the master at arms handed me my new drafting chit for drafting to Ludham near Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads. I was instructed to complete my drafting routing by 2pm. I had travelled from Grantham overnight on the 9.24pm the Aberdonian, and arrived at Arbroath at 11.30am the following day. Thirteen and a half hours on trains and I did not get a seat.

On completion of drafting routine which involved going to various departments and getting signatures etc, I reported back to the guardhouse for transportation to Arbroath station to catch the same train I had travelled up on which had been up to Aberdeen, back south to Kings Cross in London. I still did not get a seat. This was not unusual at the time. We were billeted overnight in London. I slept on a snooker table. Although it was hard, I was very tired and slept well. The previous night we had been to a nearby pub for a pint or two, and during the night this pub received a direct hit from a flying bomb. Although it was quite close, I never heard a sound.

We resumed our journey the next day from Liverpool Street to Wroxham and again I did not get a seat. I calculated I had been travelling on different trains a total of 33 hours and sat on luggage in the corridors the entire journey.

Life at RNAS Ludham

On arrival at Ludham we were billeted in Nissan huts with tin roofs and coke stoves in the centre. It rained most of the 3 months we were there and we called the place ‘Mudham’.

There we were trained and instructed on the erection of canvas hangars able to accommodate 3 Seafire planes or their equivalent size. We had to be able to erect these hangars in 8 hours. Construction was simple, comprising steel tubes and canvas sheets, and ropes to secure the hangar to stanchion ground plates in turn secured by 2-feet long stakes driven into the ground. Our personal accommodation was to be tents. The best part about it was the number of leaves we were allowed. My last one from there was a few days before Christmas 1944.

We were given embarkation leave just before Christmas 1944, although we were not aware that it was embarkation leave. After this leave I fully expected to be home for Christmas, but it was not to be. We left suddenly one night for Liverpool and we were at sea on the SS Athlone Castle in convoy on Christmas Day 1944 [bound for Sydney, Australia].

Ernest Chamberlain