RAF Kenley

There used to be a golf course on the common which is why there is Golf Road nearby. It was described as a very pretty course that roved over the chalkland and between the many copses. That was until June 1917 when the area was commandeered for use by the RFC under the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. The first most people knew about it, and this included the Head Keeper, was when a gang of Canadian Forestry Corps started to clear the ground making way for airfield construction. History will show that this was not the only time that Canadians would make an impact at Kenley.

The commotion that this caused can almost be measured against the thunder of battle that occurred year's later, questions in the House about the violation of public access and the rape of trees that were protected by the City of London. Public opinion changed quite quickly. German bombers began attacks on London and caused over 160 deaths, bombs from Zeppelins caused another 15 in Croydon and Purley. The existence of an airfield at Kenley became a source of comfort in defence.

Quite quickly seven double hangars were constructed, this was to be No 7 Aircraft Acceptance Park to where the country's pioneering aviation manufacturers would send their aircraft to be assembled from kits and ultimately be fitted with their wartime role equipment, armaments and instrumentation. A much larger shed was built in 1918 to accommodate the Handley Page 0/100 and 0/400 bomb dropper; it had a 100ft wing span. The peace and tranquillity that we enjoy now almost as much as then was to be shattered by the roar of these primitive machines, these included 300 Sopwith Camels and the DH9a bombers that were either being tested or flown out to France for duty with the Royal Flying Corps by the end of the war in 1918. Resident RFC squadrons that had a variety of aircraft began to appear in 1918 as did No 1 (Communications) Squadron which regularly conveyed officials to and from the peace conference that was taking place in Paris. It flew those Handley Page aircraft that were converted to become the civilian HP42.

Four years of war were finally at an end and hopes were raised that peace would go hand in hand with peace at Kenley. Mr Winston Churchill responded in the House that Kenley was too important to London to be given up. Cynics say that it was maintained as an operational unit because Mr Churchill was learning to fly here! Further development to the airfield took place in the early 1920's and throughout the twenties a healthy turnover of squadrons was maintained. One of these Squadrons was No 23, it arrived in early 1927 and stayed until late 1932. 23 Squadron was equipped with Gloster Gamecocks and was joined in 1930 by Douglas Bader, the following year he was involved in the tragic accident that lost him his legs. The station closed for further reconstruction, reopening again in 1934 with the arrival of No's 3 and 17 Squadrons both flying Bristol Bulldogs.

To celebrate the reopening Empire Air Days were held annually from 1934 right the way through to 1939. These events drew tens of thousands of people to the airfieild where they were also permitted access to the peripheral workshops, motor transport yards etc. With a watchful eye on the growing unrest in Europe the Air Days were a significant aid to recruitment as well as providing considerable reassurance to the public of RAF strength.

Of further significance in this period was the formation of No 615 Squadron at Kenley. The Squadron was later to be adopted by the county of Surrey, but in truth it became Kenley's home Squadron. Today 615 Squadron veterans still celebrate their reunions annually. The RAF Volunteer Gliding School has nominated itself 615 in honour of this quite famous squadron and shares its fighting badge.

No 3 Squadron had been issued with the Mk1 Hurricane which had a fixed pitch wooden propeller; in that form it required a long run to become airborne, after some accidents the squadron moved elsewhere. A reappraisal led to another reconstruction of Kenley. Runways, perimeter track and blast pens were constructed. Hayes Lane was diverted; three pairs of the original 1917 hangars were demolished as was that big Handley Page shed. Kenley was getting ready for war. It now had 35,000 gallons of aviation fuel storage, 8,000 gallons of petrol and 2,500 of oil storage. The armoury had space for 1.25 million rounds of small arms ammunition. Defending an airfield was not an exact science in those days; it was, however, strictly an army matter. Various units manned four 40mm Bofors emplacements, two 3 inch guns and some Lewis guns. A slab of concrete on some of the remaining blast pens indicates a Lewis gun emplacement and sometimes the odd shell case can be found. A parachute/cable installation was installed on the north side of the airfield and was responsible later for bringing down a Dornier on the 18th August.

Over six months into the war Kenley was reactivated, we were on the retreat from the continent and Squadrons were returning. 615 Squadron, although now equipped with Hurricanes had a particularly tough time in Belgium, and, with the withdrawal of 3 Squadron as well the Station Commander was faced with a huge logistical problem of where to accommodate these and more returning Squadrons prior to their dispersal to other airfields. Kenley's Squadron's played a great part in providing cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk; it was becoming clear, however, that operating from home reduced the dominance that the Luftwaffe clearly had when the Squadrons were operating from forward bases on the Continent.

Kenley grew in status as it took on the role of Sector HQ in 11 Group, Shoreham, Gatwick, Redhill as well as Croydon airfields were earliest under its control. The Germans now had the run of mainland Europe and were increasingly turning their attention to England and particularly Kenley. In the years leading up to the war Luft Hansa airliners were regularly flown over Kenley en route to Croydon Airport as part of familiarisation training for ‘passenger’ aircrew.

Kenley's finest hour was the day of its greatest bombardment by the Luftwaffe on 18th August 1940, three days after Croydon was hit, surprisingly in error for Kenley. Sixty-three factory workers were killed in that raid (Croydon Airport Industrial Estate). The ‘early warning’ radar had picked up a lot of enemy activity across the channel that sunny Sunday lunchtime and at about 12.45pm, the perceived threat resulted in 615 and 64 Squadrons being scrambled but targets were still unclear. At 1pm some sixty aircraft crossed the coast and all the local air raid sirens were sounded, fifteen minutes later the onslaught began; some pilots were still strapping themselves into their machines. Damage to the airfield and its facilities is well documented, three of the hangers were well alight, the equipment stores was a write off as were four Hurricanes and a Blenheim destroyed on the ground. Damage was sustained to another four parked aircraft and the station's medical facilities. No communications now existed, nine were killed including the station's much loved Medical officer and local GP, Flt Lt Robert Cromie, a further ten were injured. 64 and 615 Squadron's valiant pilots did not allow the Hun to escape unpunished claiming a mixed bag of enemy fighters and bombers. There was mayhem in the surrounding area as targets were missed, Valley Road, Kenley was badly hit.

Apart from the deaths and injuries the Germans paid a far higher price than they imagined Kenley suffered. The hangars were mainly surplus to requirements, the equipment stores was mainly dispersed to the squadrons, the sick bay was relocated and we were in a fortunate position of having a surplus of aircraft over crew. Runway craters were filled in from mounds of rubble located around the airfield and, most of all, the Operations block remained intact. It was a lesson learnt about vulnerability and soon Operations was moved out to a vacant butcher's shop in Caterham, however it was a bit tight for space and alternative arrangements were being made. Alterations were being made at the Grange, Old Coulsdon, to accommodate an Ops room which had more up to date equipment as well as space.

The Battle of Britain had well and truly begun, and the battle was entrusted to many young twenty and twenty-one year old pilots whose experience was often limited to training. Nevertheless Squadron's operating from Kenley claimed pro rata success as an increasing amount of Bf109's arrived over the south-east, there were bad days as well as good, one day 616 (County of Yorkshire) lost seven Spitfires as well as 615 who lost four Hurricanes. Three pilots died as a result. Looking at the accounts of the Battle the rotation of Squadrons was exceptional, you can imagine battle weariness, not only is the pilot in charge of a major piece of kit he is also on constant alert for the Hun who will arrive from any angle and will show no mercy.

The Battle of Britain is an immense subject and how it was operated from Kenley, but this is primarily about Kenley, suffice to say that Kenley's contribution to the Battle is of great and important significance. After this battle was won, three months into 1940 the course of the war changed but it was still five years before the war came to an end. By 1941 Kenley was on the offensive operating against enemy targets on the continent or by escorting Blenheims to their targets. The influx of Allied and Commonwealth airmen started in 1941 with two Polish Squadrons, a Czech, an Australian, and a New Zealand Squadron arriving. After a Belgian Squadron arrived in 1942, six Canadian Squadrons, who were on rotation through to 1944, swiftly followed.

Probably Kenley's most famous CO was Gp Capt. Victor Beamish whose demeanour earned him the respect of everyone. As C.O he also commanded the Sector and despite being almost 40 still flew operationally, sometimes leading the Kenley Wing, and it was on one of these occasions that he was shot down over the channel. A road is now named after him. The ‘Big Wing’ concept was developed by Bader whilst at Duxford (12 Group). It was not favoured by 11 Group until it was proved. Wg Cdr Johnnie Johnson, a protégé of Bader, took command of the Wing itself in 1942 when it took on the name Kenley (Canadian) Wing. Johnson is probably the best known ace stationed at Kenley, he survived the war and recorded the greatest amount of ‘kills’; for most of the Battle of Britain period however, he was recovering from spinal injuries.

As the war moved further away from Kenley, command and control was restructured and as 421 Squadron left for Tangmere in April 1944 the era of glory was ended and Sector Control was taken over by Biggin Hill. But, by 1945 the war was over and Kenley ‘had done its bit’. What Kenley had borne witness to during this war was a rapid acceleration in the development of aviation. Don't forget that at the outset of war Kenley was still flying bi-planes. The end of the war and jet engines were beginning to power flight. As there was little scope for extension of the runway that these jet fighters needed it was perhaps another nail in the coffin as far as Kenley was concerned.

Apart from some low key aerial activity since the war the station was placed in care and maintenance for the most part. The Station finally closed in 1974 leaving 615 Volunteer Gliding School to represent the RAF. There was to be another spectacular event however. This occurred in October 1978 when sadly the last remaining 1917 hangar went up in flames, with it went the entire stock of 615's gliders and ground equipment. No flying took place the following year but in 1980, using a Bessonneaux portable hanger, training was able to resume. The hangar is the same type as that first erected in 1917 so a circle is drawn. Now that 615 have splendid new premises the Bessonneaux derivative is still used by the Surrey Hills Gliding Club. 615 VGS provides training to ATC wings throughout the south-east, and many cadets take up flying careers in the RAF as a result.

With the exception of the air shows held in 1976, 1978 & 1980, prompted as the result of the IRA pub bombing in Caterham, the area has not since been graced by the distinctive sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Six Merlins overflew in a fascinating display to mark the unveiling of the Tribute in 2000 in the shape of the BBMF Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire. Only on one year since 2000 has this sound not echoed over the airfield on the unveiling anniversary.

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