On the 26TH of September I939 No. 200 group was formed using ﬂying boats. Group Captain Harrington carried out extensive operational programmes with these aircraft. No.202 Squadron belonging to this group, were equipped with London flying boats. It was not until 21ST of December I941 that RAF Gibraltar was formed as a Station. More details will be included in the chronological history that follows. The history of aviation in Gibraltar goes back to 1889, when the SS Boklcara arrived in Gibraltar with Professor Dale, Major General Brine and a 40 foot by 60-foot balloon with a capacity of 30,000 cubic feet, using coal gas as a lifting medium. On December 7TH 1889 Professor Dale with the four officers and a dog called Charlie, attempted to cross the Strait to Ceuta in the balloon called Victoria. They reached a height of 5600 feet, but the wind took them over Algeciras, and they touched down 1000 feet up a mountain south of the town. They returned to Gibraltar the following day and gave up the attempt, leaving for Tangier some days later.
Towards the end of the 19th century, experience in various combat zones in Central and Southern Africa indicated that the use of balloons for observation and artillery spotting had some merit. In 1884 the Royal Engineers set up a Balloon Unit in Aldershot. The District Engineer in Gibraltar wrote a letter to the War Office in London, without the Govender’s knowledge, suggesting that a captive balloon would be of great value to the forces in Gibraltar. In May a letter was received by the Governor asking for his views on the matter. The Governor, Field Marshal Sir George White, of Ladysmith fame, replied “my experience has shown me the difficulty of making accurate observations from a captive balloon, but the nature of the information which might be obtained by this means from the top of the Rock, would not require great accuracy of detail and would be of great advantage to the defence.” he later added “it would also raise the observer above the Levant Cloud”
The Assistant Quarter Master General replied on the 4th of July 1901 that the War Office proposed to send an officer and 25 men with their balloon and the necessary equipment. A problem arose with the accommodation of the extra men. Troops in Gibraltar were already sleeping in tents for lack of proper accommodation. By August a solution had been found at Bruce’s Farm. Various options were proposed including training local engineers, this was rejected, and it was not until December I903 that two officers and I6 sappers belonging to the Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers. arrived with all the equipment, including that for manufacturing hydrogen. On the 1ST of April 1911 the unit was renamed the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers which later became the Royal Flying Corps. I5 volunteers were selected from the local regiments, but had to be light, intelligent, of medium weight and height and not afraid of height. The volunteers were given a special allowance for the period they were attached to this unit. The weather on the Rock was not conducive to balloon operations due to the high wind especially during the Levant. The whole operation closed down by 1905. In the years up to the beginning of World War One, aviation had advanced in leaps and bounds. The Royal Navy, based in Gibraltar and Malta, had developed the use of seaplanes carried on capital ships. The Royal Naval Air Service, later to become the Fleet Air Arm, set up a base in the south eastern corner of the neutral ground. This had been preceded by lengthy discussions between Gibraltar and the War Office on the use of the Racecourse on the neutral ground in Gibraltar as an emergency landing ground for aircraft. A great deal of attention was given to the sensitivities of the Spanish. By 1911 a fence had been built, dividing the neutral ground into two, the British had developed their side of the fence which included the Victoria Gardens and the Racecourse among other things. Following heated negotiations with the Gibraltar Jockey Club it was agreed to allow aircraft to land on the Racecourse in an emergency. During the joint Mediterranean and Channel Squadron exercises, the Navy had negotiated for the Racecourse to be available in case of need. This required adapting the ground by making some of the racecourse equipment movable, to the annoyance of both the Governor and the Jockey Club. Most of the aviation activity at this time was by ﬂying boat, although a number of lands borne aircraft had used the emergency strip. Flying conditions around the Rock, made flying in these primitive machines, very dangerous, especially during the Levant. Wind in the harbour could be in opposite directions within a few yards of each other making take off virtually impossible. In May l9l5, the German U Boat U21, was seen in the Strait, she was intercepted by Torpedo Boat No.92 close to the African coast, the submarine dived and escaped unharmed, she was heading for the Dardanelles. The U21 created havoc during the campaign there. This prompted the Director of the Department that same month, to propose establishing an Air Station in Gibraltar. His proposal was for a landing ground for aeroplanes in the vicinity of the Racecourse, with a light railway track at both sides of the isthmus to enable seaplanes to be pulled from the sea. His plan included the erection of two Bessoneau tent portable hangers from Paris, and a wooden shed to accommodate the aircraft. This was to be followed by two Atlantic type ﬂying boats from Felixstowe. A seaplane carrier was suggested, until the station was established and a kite balloons ship should also be employed to watch the Strait. In April 1912 the Royal Flying Corps had been established to support the army, On the 1st of July 1914 the Admiralty established the Royal Naval Air Service to support the Royal Navy. In June 1915, an air station was set up in Gibraltar, the commanding officer of the new air station was Station Commander Charles Barnby.
During 1915, five land planes and four seaplanes were sent to Gibraltar. The land planes were BE2, numbers 975 and 1123, Caudron GIII numbers 3286, 3287, 3288, the seaplanes were Atlantic numbers I236 and 1237, Short Admiralty Type 74 number 183.
The seaplanes initially operated from the boathouse in the dockyard. According to one source, the land-based aircraft, did not operate from the racecourse, but from the reclaimed land south of Chatham Counterguard. This would be the area from the foot of the American War Memorial to Kings Bastion. which at one time housed the Naval Cinema and football grounds opposite the War Memorial steps. Since at this time, the old Naval Cinema was in fact a hangar, there is some logic in this argument, to date, there is no evidence that this was true, but merits further investigation. Apart from the officers and warrant officers, there were 53 ratings all were accommodated on HMS Cormorant and Hart. Three additional pilots and two warrant officers were appointed to the station in June and two more in July. During January 1916, four replacement aircraft arrived in Gibraltar, these were Admiralty type 840 Wight seaplanes numbers l353, I354, l406. and 1407
Squadron Commander Arthur Gaskell took over the Station in February l9l6. Further replacement aircraft arrived in April they were again Wight type 840, numbers 9021 and 9022. These aircraft were found to be unsuitable for the conditions in Gibraltar, they had a tendency to flip and the ﬂoats were a constant source of problems. in May 1916, Gaskell requested replacements using Curtiss ﬂying boats from the United States, as a result four Curtiss H4 ﬂying boats, numbers 3551, 3552, 3556 and 3558 arrived in Gibraltar. As Italy entered the war in May l9l5 on the side of the Allies, it was decided to move operations to the Eastern Mediterranean. In February 1917, the Air Station in Gibraltar was temporarily closed down leaving only a skeleton maintenance crew. The four Curtiss flying boats were transferred to Malta by October. The United States entered the war in April I917 and were allocated the hangar, as a sick bay, workshop and stores, until the end of the First World War. In the l920s, the Governors of Gibraltar and Algeciras discussed the possibility of an airfield on the Spanish side of the fence, however this was rejected by both the British and Spanish Authorities in Madrid and London.