In the early months of the First World War, Britain was constantly threatened by U-boats that slipped through the English Channel and sunk many ships, despite the use of anti-submarine defenses, patrols made by destroyers and the use of depth charges.
When an effective anti-submarine boom was stretched between England and France, U-boat commanders began coming through the Fair Isle Channel to sink the food ships coming from America to Britain. This was having a devastating effect on Britain, with food shortages becoming a reality.
U-boats came to the surface just off Fair Isle to check their compasses before making their way into the channel. This was done at dawn and dusk, so the decision was made to establish a seaplane base on Orkney. Planes would fly over Fair Isle during these times and look for submarines.
On 15 August 1914, the first of the fleet’s aircraft arrived in Orkney. Three seaplanes and two aeroplanes were dumped in a field of still green oats belonging to the farm of Nether Scapa.
At first the aircraft were covered over with an assortment of tents and marquees borrowed from a variety of sources in the nearby town of Kirkwall. A severe gale in early November caused destruction to some of the site and some of the planes were damaged. Permanent buildings were erected, but almost immediately condemned as being unsuitable owing to the large area of beach that was uncovered at low tide, and the difficulty of launching the seaplanes.
However the hangars remained in place. These were in use throughout the war and were mainly used for maintenance, repair and storage. By the end of 1916 hundreds of airmen and pilots had arrived to mount a counter-offensive to the U-boats.
After the First World War, the seaplane station was converted into a tuberculosis sanatorium which was opened in 1924. One of the buildings was later used as a tuberculosis hospital.
It provided a base for Nos 306, 307 and 430 flights to undertake North Sea anti-submarine and seaplane defence duties, as well as housing short flying boats and seaplanes. In addition, a kite balloon station was located on the west side of the Bay of Houton and more than 20 huts and maintenance buildings were established here. In the Second World War the accommodation camp on the east side of the Bay of Houton was replaced by an anti-aircraft battery.
While Houton was operational, there was still a need for a better site and Swanbister was finally selected. Building work started and was ongoing when the Armistace was declared. Although the war had ended, building work continued, which caused a great deal of anger from people who though it should be abandoned due to the cost. However, the buildings were finished. Almost as soon as they were completed, the buildings were sold off.