The Lullingstone Decoy
PUBLISHED: 09:21 24 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:47 20 February 2013
Set in beautiful countryside between Eynsford and Shoreham, Lullingstone Country Park is a favourite with walkers, but little is known of the wartime secret it hides. Kent Life delves into the archives
Words by Robin J Brooks
Although the wartime airfield decoy scheme had been settled in early June 1939, it was to remain dormant until three months later when war was declared. When it did begin, it soon became obvious that 11 Group of Fighter Command covering an area from Portsmouth to South Norfolk would bear the brunt of fighting in the Battle of Britain.
One airfield, Kents Biggin Hill, was the sector C station encompassing the area from Hawkinge to Eastbourne on the coast and inland from the coast to Croydon. Being the controlling station for several other Kent fighter airfields, Biggin Hill was one of the stations selected to receive the ultimate form of deception by way of a decoy airfield. This was to be sited in a beautiful section of the Darenth Valley between Shoreham and Eynsford.
The site chosen was at Lullingstone, already famous as the locality for Lullingstone Castle and the home of the Hart-Dyke family. The castle for many years previously had been more commonly known for the habitat of silkworms which had produced silk for numerous Royal occasions.
Lady Zoe Hart-Dyke, in residence at the time, had seen a thriving business in silk continue throughout the 1930s. Even the proposal to build a new London Airport at Lullingstone in the same period to replace Croydon did nothing to stop it flourishing.
The idea of using the Darenth Valley for another aviation-linked purpose came to the attention of the Air Ministry when Colonel Turners Department became responsible for the siting of decoy airfields. Lullingstone fitted the criteria exactly.
By September 1939, specifications for day and night decoys had been submitted and Colonel John Turner, an ex-First World War Royal Engineer now head of the decoy programme, outlined the general principles on which his decoys would work.
Day sites would consist of two kinds, representing either a grass flying field or a more specialised runway type airfield. These were to be classified as K sites and would contain dummy aircraft and buildings. For night decoys, or Q sites, the original plan to use paraffin flarepaths was discarded in favour of electric lighting.
They were to be colour coded: yellow lights simulating the T-shaped wind indicator, red lights to simulate obstructions, white to indicate a runway and car headlamps to suggest a taxiing aircraft. All these lights would be controlled from a single bunker.
The first two K sites were in service towards the end of February 1940, reaching 25 by the third week of April. Situated opposite Beechen Wood and to the west of the castle, Lullingstone was ready for operation by March. The natural level plain of the Darenth Valley needed little work for it to become the perfect decoy.
Buildings for some accommodation, stores and all the equipment needed to ensure the decoy was effective were put up in a coppice. Several companies had been given tenders to produce dummy aircraft and in Lullingstones case, the Hurricanes were built on site by Green Brothers, from Hailsham.
The six Lullingstone Hurricanes became the forerunners of more than 100 eventually built by Green Brothers for other decoys.
By April 1940 the site was ready for occupation. One of the first airmen to arrive was Leading Aircraftsman Eric Lever, who had been called up at the beginning of the year and after basic training for groundcrew at Blackpool, was sent to Biggin Hill only to be seconded to the decoy at Lullingstone.
Now aged 88 and living in Eynsford, he is the only known survivor from the group of airmen stationed at the site.
When I knew I had been posted to Biggin Hill, I thought how lucky I was to be going to a Fighter Command airfield, he recalls. However, after three weeks I was told I was going to be detached to a place called Lullingstone, and having never heard of either place you can imagine how I felt! I was detached to Northampton for a few weeks and it was here that someone informed me that it was not an airfield at all, but a decoy site.
While at Northampton I learnt the basics of electrical wiring and how to lay a dummy flarepath. At the end of the course I passed out as an LAC and duly arrived at Lullingstone with about 12 other airmen under the command of Flt Sgt McGee.
We were gathered together in one of the hastily built huts and told that we would work to a shift system. With no proper accommodation on the site, we were to be billeted in the neighbouring villages of Eynsford and Shoreham. I and another LAC named Fred Carter stayed with Mrs Wiles at New Barn Cottage, which was situated just at the entrance to Lullingtone Villa.
I became very friendly with the daughter of the house, Peggy, and eventually married her after the war. Of course, living on a farm we were not really affected by rationing as the farm food was plentiful and good.
The local farmer, James Alexander, used his tractor and farm equipment to flatten out some of the large humps in the valley to make it look even more like an airfield.
The airmen were not the only servicemen to be billeted in the villages. With several anti-aircraft guns situated in the Darenth Valley and several other army transport units close by, over 300 gunners from the 15 and 16 Batteries of the 5th Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery had to be accommodated.
By September 1940 the K site was operational. At the same time Biggin Hill was receiving daily raids by the Luftwaffe and suffering badly from bomb damage. In Eynsford village two bombs fell on farmland at West Lane on the 10th with further bombing on September 15 and 25. These were not attacks intended for Biggin Hill but more the jettisoning of bombs by the enemy on their way back to France.
As the Battle of Britain faded out and the German attacks became the nightly blitz, many decoy airfields were upgraded to Q sites. These were night decoys requiring dummy lit flarepaths and associated airfield lighting. The lights and all the other equipment was installed by engineers from the Air Ministrys Directorate of Works, after which the airmen controlling the sites were given instruction on how to operate them.
Eric recalls: When the Q site was installed, a lot more service personnel came to Lullingstone to set it all up. Lady Zoe Hart-Dyke came up from the castle to see what was going on. She had shut down the silkworm farm in early 1940 when we first arrived, but was curious to see what was happening to her land.
With the Q site we became under total control from Biggin Hill and had a direct telephone link with the airfield. It was only when the air raid siren sounded or the early warning radar forewarned of an attack that Biggin Hill called and instructed us to fire up the generator and light the flare-path.
This instruction was set out by Colonel Turner in a circular sent to all station commanders: The operations staff at the parent station will ring up the night dummy. Here there will be two men provided each night by the parent station taking watch.
One will probably be asleep. The man on watch wakes his companion and starts up the generator. When the generator has been started up, one man goes to the control panel and switches on the correct T, the obstruction lights and the head lamp. The two men take it in turns to manipulate the head lamp until an aircraft is heard approaching near enough to pick up the landing T. They will then switch it out and stand on watch. If the aircraft is a friend and signals by a Very light he wants to land, ie mistakes the Q lighting for a real aerodrome, the lights are switched off.
If it is an enemy who starts to attack, the obstruction lights only are switched off and the T flare-path is left because on stations and satellites T flare-paths cannot be extinguished in a sudden attack without great risk to personnel. The two men then take cover in their dugout and report.
It was the devastating enemy raid on Coventry on the night of 14-15 September 1940 that prompted Winston Churchill and his scientific advisers to once more confer with Colonel Turner on the question of decoy fires. The Colonel himself had been devising plans regarding deception fires for large cities, aircraft manufacturing plants. These were christened Starfish sites and although mainly intended to protect large cities, some were shared with existing decoys.
Such was the case at Lullingstone where in spring 1941, a civil Starfish site became part of the airfield decoy complex. Over several weeks, large tanks were hidden among trees from which oil was directed along troughs to stacks of wood and coal augmented with grease-impregnated wadding.
Although some distance from London, the Starfish site was erected primarily for the defence of the capital and with the proximity of the Starfish to the KQ airfield decoy, Lullingstone now became classified as a QF decoy.
Eric says: I can only recall two or three occasions when Starfish was fired up. The site saw little activity, but the night of 17-18 January 1943 did see the fires burning.
That night saw the heaviest attacks on London since July 1941. They came in two waves, with about 40 aircraft in the first phase, 50 in the second their target King George V Docks and the West India Docks.
At Lullingstone the order was received at 04.41hrs on the 18th to light the fires. The Starfish site had recently been converted to electric ignition and so by 04.50hrs the fires were burning brightly. Although enemy aircraft were heard in the vicinity, no bombs were dropped on Lullingstone.
The official report of the nights activities, however, states that intense searchlight activity on the approaches to the capital, decoy fires and other defensive measures ensured that out of 115 tons of bombs dropped, only 43 tons fell on or near London. The rest were dropped all over the countryside.
A similar incident occurred over the night of 20-21 November. Instructed
to light the Starfish at 20.23hrs, it was burning within five minutes but due
to the lack of enemy aircraft in the immediate area, was doused by 21.00hrs. The Starfish was to be lit twice more during 1943, but there is no record of bombs being dropped on it.
The year 1944 was to bring a resurgence in enemy attacks by night. Commencing in January, the new offensive by the Germans which was to last until late spring became known as The Little Blitz.
Code-named by the Luftwaffe as Operation Steinbock, it was in retaliation for the Bomber Command attacks on the German cities. The night of 13-14 February saw attacks on London commence with a new ferocity as waves of enemy aircraft droned overhead Eynsford.
Forewarned of an attack, Biggin Hill had instructed the dummy
flare-path to be lit at 20.32hrs. On duty that night was Eric Lever. It was a lovely clear night and we somehow knew that it was going to be a night for enemy attacks, he remembers
By 20.51hrs the decoy was well lit and minutes later, about 20 to 30 aircraft were heard overhead. Suddenly they dropped flares which lit up the entire area. Looking out from our control bunker we could see right down the valley.
Minutes later we heard the whistle of bombs and saw what turned out to be high explosive bombs dropped north east of the site. The noise of the explosions was deafening, but they landed some way from the decoy. Minutes later several other explosions were heard as further bombs landed, again some distance away.
To most of us this was our first baptism of fire and it certainly was frightening as trees and bushes within the area burst into flame. We were then told to extinguish the flare-path lights, leaving just the bad black-out ones on to confuse the enemy. Several aircraft appeared to fly low over the site, but no further bombs fell.
Once the aircraft had gone, Biggin Hill instructed us to switch the lights on again. Nothing else happened and we switched all the lights off at 21.55hrs. It was quite a night."
Next morning bombs were reported as having landed at Shoreham Castle Farm and close to Eynsford/Sevenoaks road. This was the last incident and final use of Lullingstone decoy.
The Starfish site today is an area in the Lullingstone Country Park while the QF decoy is a golf course. In the coppices are concrete hardstandings and large areas of bricks, evidence of the control bunker area. Today, the site is one of peace and pleasure.
Since writing this article, sadly Eric Lever passed away. Kent Life whould like to dedicate this article to his memory.