In mid-1940, low-lying farmland on the shore of Lough Foyle to the north-east of Derry was approved for the construction of an airfield. The main concrete runway was 1,600 yards, while a second was 1,400 and a third, 1,100. Even before the runways were completed, the airfield was under surveillance of the Luftwaffe.
RAF Ballykelly opened as a Royal Air Force station in June of 1941. It was built as a base for RAF Coastal Command, but no units would be based at the airfield until December of 1941. That month, the Coastal Command arrived at the airfield. From here, they sent out aircrafts to sink U-boats, thousands of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Coastal Command remained at RAF Ballykelly until June of 1942. RAF Ballykelly remained a Coastal Command base, but now they had a operational mission. RAF B-17 bombers of the No. 220 Squadron moved in to RAF Ballykelly, using it as a base. Shortly after they arrived, they were followed by No. 120 Squadron with Liberators. Much like the Coastal Command, their duty was to hunt and sink U-boats.
Their first U-Boat kill came in October of 1942 by Squadron Leader Terence Bulloch. He was continued his success in November, when he attacked and damaged two U-89. Then in December, he attacked eight more, successfully sinking one of them.
In February of 1943, the two units were moved to RAF Aldergrove.
Later that year, the main runway at RAF Ballykelly was extended. The extension was unique because it crossed an active railway line that ran between Belfast and Derry. The runway needed to be extended to accept larger aircraft, such as B-24 Liberators. This was unheard of, and rules needed to be put in place so that it did not result in a disaster. Trains were given right of way over any aircraft coming in to land, unless it was an emergency. The crossing was controlled with a small signal-box.
In September of 1943, two Liberator squadrons arrived. No. 86 Squadron sank two U-boats during October. In March of 1944, the unit was moved to Iceland, but the other squadron, No. 59, remained at RAF Ballykelly. They continued flying escort duties, and made occasional attacks on U-Boats.
No. 120 Squadron returned to RAF Ballykelly in March of 1944, and they began operating along the Norway coast in May of that year. Around the period of D-Day, they flew night sorties over the Western Approaches.
When WWII came to an end, No. 120 Squadron had been the Coastal Command’s top-scoring squadron, with 16 confirmed U-Boat sinkings.
With the war complete, RAF Ballykelly closed, but it opened once again in 1947. It was the home of the Joint Anti-Submarine School RAF, which was a training flight flying Avro Shackleton aircrafts MR1 and MR2. The purpose of the Joint Anti-Submarine School RAF was for intensive training of the crews on ships and aircrafts in anti-submarine warfare. The training lasted three weeks which included classroom lectures followed by mini exercises at sea and then an exercise which lasted several days.
RAF Ballykelly wouldn’t become an operational airfield again until five years later, when No. 269 Squadron was formed. A handful more Squadrons followed. The Joint Anti-Submarine School RAF disbanded in 1957. Six years later, in 1963, the runway at the airfield was once again extended. This time, to enable the V-bomber force to use the airfield as a dispersal site.
In 1972, RAF Ballykelly closed and was handed over to the British Army. It was renamed “Shackleton Barracks” as homage to the Shackleton units that had operated the airfield for the past 20 years. Flying operations continued at Shackleton Barracks, and between 1971 and 1972, it operated as an interrogation centre. Interrogation techniques allegedly included torture. Then in 1982, the village of Ballykelly suffered with the Droppin Well bombing. 18 people died during the bombing, including soldiers from Shackleton Barracks.
On 29th March 2006, an Eirjet Airbus 320 mistook RAF Ballykelly as Londonderry airport which was 6 miles west.
In 2008, the Army pulled out of the airfield, and then in 2011, the Ministry of Defence handed it over to the Northern Ireland Executive for free. In 2016, almost all of the land was sold to the family-owned MJM group in Newry, which specialises in the fit-out of cruise ships and yachts. Since then, however, there has been very little development.
In April of 2022, Kevin Hart was filming scenes for the new Netflix comedy, Lift, at the derelict airfield.
Today, quite a handful of buildings at RAF Ballykelly remain, including the air traffic control tower as well as the three runways which are now heavily overgrown.