Known at the time as West Fenton, there was a landing ground at Drem during the First World War, used by No. 77 Squadron for Home Defence in 1916 and 1917. Between April and August 1918 the American 41st Aero Squadron was based at West Fenton and on 15 April 1918 No. 2 Training Depot Station formed here, with Sopwith Pups, Camels and SE 5as until being disbanded in 1919, by which time West Fenton had been renamed Gullane.
Early in 1939 No. 13 Flying Training School (F.T.S.) formed at the aerodrome, by now renamed again as Drem, using Airspeed Oxfords, Hawker Harts and Audaxes, which could be seen day and night doing circuits of the aerodrome. The bulk of No. 13 F.T.S. left Drem early in 1939, the unit being formally disbanded on 27 October, by which time war had broken out.
No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron was an Auxiliary Air Force unit, which had been allocated Drem as its ‘War Station’, although the occupation of the aerodrome by No. 13 F.T.S. meant that it was not until 13 October that the squadron moved its Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is to its new base. The auxiliaries arrived just in time, for it was only three days later that the first air battle took place in the skies above Britain in the shape of an attack on the afternoon of 16 October by twelve Junkers Ju 88 bombers against ships of the Royal Navy in the Firth of Forth. Spitfires of Nos. 602 and 603 Squadrons were scrambled from Drem and Turnhouse respectively, it being the Edinburgh Auxiliaries, No. 603 Squadron, who got the first kill, off Port Seton, followed ten minutes later by Flight Lieutenant Pinkerton of 602 Squadron. These two German aircraft were the first to be shot down over Britain since the First World War and resulted in a message being sent to Drem from the Commander-in Chief of Fighter Command, Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, “Well done. First blood to the Auxiliaries!”
Drem aerodrome was in an ideal position for the defence of Edinburgh and Rosyth from the continent and therefore saw a succession of day fighter squadrons. No. 609 (West Riding) Squadron arrived the day after the auxiliaries had achieved their first kills, and was followed by 72 and 111 Squadrons later that year. German aircraft continued to meet their end in the vicinity of Drem, 602 Squadron having a hand in the shooting down of the Heinkel 111 at Humbie as well as several others in late 1939 and early 1940 from the Isle of May to St. Abb’s Head.
Events were equally exciting on 28 February 1940 when His Royal Highness King George VI, accompanied by Air Marshall Dowding and the Air Officer Commanding No. 13 Group (responsible for the fighter defence of Scotland and northern England) Air Vice-Marshal Saul, visited Drem. During his visit, the King presented the Commanding Officer of 602 Squadron , Wing Commander Douglas Farquhar, with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 saw a succession of squadrons based at Drem, with some moving south to take part in the battle, whilst others came north for short rests. Whilst resting at Drem these squadrons would carry out convoy patrols, watching over the shipping steaming up the east coast, work which was uneventful and largely boring.
A number of night fighter units were based at Drem, beginning with No. 29 Squadron in April 1940. No. 600 (City of London) Squadron saw itself here in April 1941 and one of the squadron’s Blenheims shot down a German bomber during the bombing of Clydeside that month. No. 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron used Drem as a forward aerodrome for Mosquito intruder flights, the unit’s home base being Castle Camps on the Essex/ Cambridgeshire border. One success was achieved from Drem on the night of 16 June 1943, when an enemy aircraft, believed to be a Heinkel He 177 four-engined bomber, was shot down over Denmark.
The aerodrome gradually saw a great number of night fighter units based here, the longest resident being not an R.A.F. but Fleet Air Arm unit, No. 784 Squadron. The squadron moved to Drem on 18 October 1942 where it carried out its work as a night fighter school, training naval aircrews in the techniques necessary to fly and fight by night. Ground control for this training, which would guide the fighter under training into its target, was provided by Dirleton Ground Control of Interception radar station, with another station at Cockburnspath handling interceptions at low level out to sea.
Drem was, in fact, to be taken over completely by the Royal Navy on 21 April 1945 and was commissioned as H.M.S. Nighthawk two months later, in conformity with the naval policy of allocating names to all naval shore establishments.
In the meantime however, another night fighter unit, No. 1692 (Radio Development) Flight formed at Drem on 5 July 1943. This was a most interesting unit and was part of No. 100 Group, which was responsible for countermeasures to German radar and radio equipment. The work of No. 1692 Flight involved trials of a considerable number of airborne radar sets and various jamming equipment, as well as the techniques best suited to their use. The flight was equipped with a wide variety of aircraft including the main types used as night fighters.
Drem was also a pioneer in another field: aerodrome lighting. When No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron carried out patrols from Drem during 1940, it was found that the flare from the exhaust made the pilot’s view on final approach to the runway very poor indeed at night. However, it was discovered that if dim lamps were placed in alignment with the curving approach of a normal landing in a Spitfire, it was much simpler for the pilot to stick to the correct approach path and make a successful landing. This system was such a success that the so-called ‘Drem lighting’ system became the basis of all R.A.F. aerodrome lighting.
The Q-site, a dummy landing ground with electrical lighting set up to represent the runway flarepaths, intended to deceive enemy night bombers into believing they had found Drem, had been set up at Whitekirk and Halls Farm, and had attracted quite a number of bombs. The decoy was not intended to work during the daytime and thus Drem found itself the target of unwanted attention on 12 August 1942 when a Junkers Ju 88 bombed the aerodrome. Luckily, there were no injuries but the control tower and several Spitfires were damaged.
Drem was to be witness to one of the most dramatic scenes at the end of the war in Europe when, on 11 May 1945, Spitfires of No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron intercepted three Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft which were flying from Stavanger in Norway to Drem, the fighters escorting the German aircraft into the aerodrome. These three aircraft, painted white, carried a German delegation to arrange the surrender of German forces in Norway. The German officers were driven in a great variety of staff cars, with a very large motorcycle escort, from Drem to Edinburgh Castle. The Junkers Ju 52s were later flown away from Drem and it is very likely that they were used in the early post-war period as commercial airliners.
On 15 March 1946 Drem was returned to R.A.F. control, although it is not thought that the R.A.F. used the aerodrome after taking it over again.