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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Kent’s Airfields

Whenever one thinks of Kent during the Second World War, invariably one iconic image stands out above all others: the Spitfire. It is this aircraft that, contrary to the actual history of the Battle of Britain in which the Hawker Hurricane deployed in greater numbers, symbolises the struggle during the early years of the war. Fuelled by romantic images conveyed by films such as the 1969 movie The Battle of Britain, this epic struggle is symbolised by images of tired but jovial pilots relaxing in deck chairs between sorties on hot, sunny days on rural airfields, with the gentle drone of spitfires in the background. Consequently, these airfields are almost as celebrated as the aircraft based there.


The list is by no means complete, although it does include the main airfields, which invariably played their part in both world wars.


Becksbourne
Biggin Hill
Dartford
Detling
Eastchurch

Gravesend
Hawkinge
Lympne
Manston


RFC Bekesbourne, was established in 1916 as an emergency landing ground. It saw little action until the late period of WW1 when SE5a’s and Sopwith Camels were deployed to defend London against bombing raids. The station is significant because a certain Major Arthur Harris served there in December 1918 commanding 50 Squadron. He was later to achieve notoriety as ‘Bomber’ Harris, the main architect of the RAF’s strategic bombing campaign against Germany’s major cities in the later years of WW2.

Two Belfast Truss hangars were constructed in 1918, and they survived in situ until their roofs were ripped off by the great storm of 1987. During WW2 Bekesbourne' was mainly used for deploying Westland Lysander aircraft in support of the Dunkirk evacuation. Some original buildings remain in use as residential properties.


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RAF Biggin Hill is also famous for its role in the Battle of Britain, being used as one of the primary fighter bases and a major command centre. Spitfires and Hurricanes, deployed from the station, claimed 1400 enemy aircraft shot down at a cost of some 453 personnel killed. Biggin Hill opened during WW1 as a Royal Flying Corps base, with its main function being for wireless experiments. In 1917, it became part of the London Air Defence Area. The 141 squadron, equipped with Bristol fighters, were based there to defend the capital against attacks by German zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers.

Between the wars, the station was used for instrument testing, anti-aircraft and night flying training. It was closed for redevelopment, and the construction of new hangers between 1929 and 1932. During the Battle of Britain, the base was attacked twelve times with numerous buildings including workshops, stores, barracks and a hanger being completely wrecked.


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Originally, Joyce Green Aerodrome, RFC Dartford was used prior to WWI by the Vickers aircraft company for testing prototype planes. During the war, it was used for training the RFC, and defensive operations against the zeppelins. It was not a popular airfield, being situated primarily on marshland, and Air Vice Marshal Gould Lee wrote:

‘To use this waterlogged field for testing now and then was reasonable and to take advantage of it as an emergency landing ground for Home Defence forces was credible, but to employ it as a flying training station was folly and as a Camel (i.e. Sopwith Camel aeroplane) training station was lunacy. A pupil taking off with a choked or failing engine had to choose, according to wind direction, between drowning in the Thames (half a mile wide at this point), crashing into the Vickers TNT (explosives) Works, sinking into a vast sewage farm, killing himself and numerous patients in a large isolation hospital, being electrocuted in an electrical station with acres of pylons and cables; or trying to turn and get back to the aerodrome. Unfortunately, many pupils confronted with disaster tried the last course and span to their deaths.’


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The former RAF station at Detling is now occupied, in part, by the Kent County Showground. It was established as a Royal Naval Air Station during WW1, although used by both the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the RFC between 1916 and 1919. It became a satellite airfield within No. 11 Group during WW2, and used by aircraft as and when necessary. There were a number of temporary hangars of the Blister and Bellman types erected. The Blister hangar was of a transportable design patented by Miskins and Sons in 1939, and constructed of steel or wooden ribs with metal sheet cladding on the outside. It was anchored to the ground by iron stakes. The Bellman hangar was similarly transportable and consisted of rolled metal sheets. The Bessoneau Hangar was even more flimsily constructed using timber and canvas. It could be erected quickly within 48 hours. Following the war Detling was used jointly by the army and the RAF. It has subsequently been developed by Kent County Council as the Kent County Showground.


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RAF Eastchurch dates back to 1909 when it was known as Stonepits Farm. It was leased to the Royal Aero Club and was one of the first centres of aviation in Britain. C. S. Rolls used the airfield to test his glider, which had been built by the Short brothers at Leysdown. It was a popular destination for a number of celebrated aviation enthusiasts including Moore-Brabazon and Tom Sopwith. In 1911, it hosted the Gordon Bennett Air Race which had previously been held at such locations as New York and Rheims.

The RNAS moved on to the site in 1911 with hangars, which are still there today, being built the following year. During the WW1, it became known as ‘HMS Pembroke II’, and was used by the RFC. Following the war, it became an air gunnery school.

During the Battle of Britain as RAF Eastchurch, became a fighter station and subsequently an intelligence and debriefing centre. HMP Eastchurch was established in 1950 as an open prison, the name being changed to HMP Standford Hill in 1975.


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In 1932, Gravesend was selected as the site for a new airport by Gravesend Aviation Ltd. The company’s aim was to attract major airlines such as KLM and Lufthansa by presenting the airfield as a possible emergency landing ground.

A control tower, clubhouse and two hangars were built. Flight Lieutenant P. H. Smith replaced Mr A. D. Goodall as Chief Flying Instructor. The Board of Directors expanded to include the record-breaking aviator Mr Jim Mollison, husband of the celebrated trans-global flier Amy Johnson who two years earlier had flown solo from Britain to Australia. In October 1932, the opening ceremony was attended by the National Aviation Air Days display team who gave demonstrations with their 3-engined AS4 ‘Ferry’ aircraft.

In November 1932, KLM landed a Fokker X1 airline at Gravesend carrying ten passengers. The aircraft landed there again in February 1933, probably due to a snowstorm in the region. This benefited the airport enormously because, on this occasion, the airliner was carrying £52,000 worth of gold bullion, which had to be transported under armed guard to a local site of safe storage. The successful conclusion of this arrangement encouraged other airlines to use Gravesend as an emergency landing ground, and on 17th March 1933, a three engine Armstrong Whitworth Argosy airliner landed there. Unfortunately, this landing was beset by strong winds, which tore the aircraft's tail plane off. The Argosy was, however, quickly wheeled into a nearby hangar and the damage repaired.

The first military aircraft to visit Gravesend landed in August 1933 in the shape of three Hawker Audaux aircraft accompanied by an Armstrong Whitworth Atlas. In September, negotiations began with KLM to establish the airfield as the Dutch airline’s London terminal. This plan ultimately fell through, but two of the hangars were subsequently occupied by the Percival Aircraft Works which remained there until 1936 when the occupation of the hangars was taken up by Essex Aero Ltd.

By 1937, the Air Ministry had announced Gravesend as the site for a training school under the national rearmament programme, and with the outbreak of war in 1939; the airfield became a satellite fighter station for RAF Biggin Hill. 501 (County of Gloucester) and 66 (F) Squadrons, both equipped with Spitfires, played a major part in the Battle of Britain, although by October 1940 they had been replaced with 141 Squadron, flying Boulton Paul Defiants, in a night-fighting role. This unit was joined by a squadron of hurricanes and subsequently 264 Squadron, who also flew Defiants. In 1941, the Defiant squadrons moved elsewhere and were replaced by various units flying Spitfire IIa’s and Vb’s. In December 1942, 277, (Air Sea Rescue) Squadron arrived and from this period onwards the station moved towards more offensive operations with the aircraft involved in fighter sweeps across mainland Europe. Numerous squadrons flying Hawker Typhoons and McDonnell Douglas Mustang III’s used the base for this purpose. In 1944, three Mosquito squadrons arrived in order to take up night operations against enemy defences in Northern France. From June 1944, the first V1 flying bombs in the area made the base too dangerous to be used for flying operations and so Gravesend was instead used as a command station for barrage balloons.

After the war, Essex Aero, which had continued occupation throughout the war years making self-sealing fuel tanks for the aircraft, carried on the use of the base for limited aircraft work, but this ceased in 1956 when the company went into liquidation. For a while, the airfield remained in civilian use as Gravesend airport, however, by 1958 it was stating to be developed for private housing. In 1990, a number of the occupants were evacuated due to the discovery of pipe bombs, a form of area denial weapon consisting of high explosives concealed in pipes and buried beneath the tarmac of airfield perimeter tracks. All that remains of Gravesend airfield now is a commemorative plaque in the town sports centre to mark the deaths of fifteen pilots killed in action.


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RAF Hawkinge was selected in the 1960's as the main location for the film The Battle of Britain, but by then the original hangars had been demolished, and the film crew had to erect mock-ups using scaffolding. Hawkinge was originally established in 1915 with three Bessoneau hangars and expanded in 1918-19 to include several of the Belfast Truss type, the classic design regularly associated with WW2 airfields. Many of these buildings were destroyed by Luftwaffe raids during the Battle of Britain. The airfield finally closed in 1962, but some of the surviving buildings remain in use as the site of the Kent Battle of Britain History Museum.


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Lympne is another Battle of Britain airfield to be almost destroyed by the Luftwaffe. This airfield remains in use as Ashford Airport, but the damage inflicted during the war was so extensive that the buildings and infrastructure had to be completely rebuilt from scratch.


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Cebrated RAF station at Manston owed its foundation to a series of accidents which took place at the original airfield at St Mildred’s Bay, Westgate during the early years of WWI. The landing strip was situated on top of chalk cliffs, below which was a promenade that had been used as a base for seaplane operations. At least one aircraft, attempting to land at this site, failed to stop in time, and toppled into the sea.

During the winter, of 1915, pilots began to use open farmland at Manston, and it was not long before a training school was established. By the end, of 1916 Manston had become a training centre for pilots flying the Handley Page bomber and the headquarters of the Operational War Flight Command.

During 1917, four underground hangars were constructed, together with an electricity generating station, accommodation for some 3000 personnel and a railway line, which terminated at Birchington. It also had an indoor swimming pool. Although most well-known for its role in the Battle of Britain, in which it was heavily bombed, Manston was also involved in the development of Barnes Wallis dam busting bouncing bomb, which was tested at nearby Reculver. The base was also used by Gloster Meteor and Hawker Typhoon squadrons and as an emergency landing ground for bombers hit by anti-aircraft fire, thereby giving it a reputation as a graveyard’ for heavy bombers and a valuable source of spare parts.


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