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.
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.
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
Between the wars, the station was used for instrument testing, anti-
Originally, Joyce Green Aerodrome, RFC 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.’
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.
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-
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.
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-
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-
After the war, Essex Aero, which had continued occupation throughout the war years making self-
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-
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.
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
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-
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