Kent and the Battle of Britain
PUBLISHED: 11:23 08 November 2020 | UPDATED: 09:28 10 November 2020
In August the country remembers those brave RAF Fighter Command pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain 75 years ago – and nowhere carries more haunting memories of that time than Kent. Article originally published in July 2015.
To Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding they were his ‘dear Fighter Boys,’ but Prime Minister Winston Churchill called them quite simply ‘The Few.’ This summer we remember the 3,000 or so members of RAF Fighter Command who put their lives on the line in the summer of 1940 to foil Nazi plans for a full-scale invasion of the British mainland.
Nowhere carries more haunting memories of what became known as the Battle of Britain than Kent. Biggin Hill, on its blustery North Downs plateau, is synonymous with the time, although housing estates now dominate much of the area, and the disused RAF station buildings look gloomy from the A233.
But the airfield from which fighter craft took off is now the location of Biggin Hill Airport and, among the private flying clubs and corporate operators, the red-painted Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar ensures the link with the past is not lost.
“Biggin Hill was one of the sector stations during the Battle of Britain, also controlling the airfields at Lympne and West Malling,” explains Robin Brooks, publicity officer and aviation historian, whose Kent Airfields in the Second World War is recommended reading.
“The station had six really bad raids and several minor ones during the period of the battle, which ran from 10 July to the end of October 1940. But at no time was the airfield rendered un-operational.”
More than 454 known aircrew from the station died during the conflict. But their resilience, and that of the ground support staff, ensured that Hitler’s Operation Sealion – which, after Britain’s air force had been disabled, envisaged a 190-mile coastal assault from Ramsgate to Lyme Regis – was postponed and effectively abandoned.
The Heritage Hangar is owned by former Ryanair pilot Peter Monk, who turned his hobby of restoring ‘crashed aircraft’ into a full-time enterprise, with the concentration on Spitfires.
“We rebuild about three Spitfires a year here,” says Robin, who reckons that the total number of airworthy survivors of these most celebrated of the Second World War fighter planes currently numbers around 25 in Britain.
The hangar also houses a fully restored Hurricane, a plane often overshadowed by the Spitfire because it was slower and flew at a lower altitude but which actually took out more enemy planes during the battle, and an old Harvard, an American-designed plane used by the RAF to train fighter pilots.
Pride of place goes to the Spirit of Kent, a Spitfire Mk IX and regular of the flying shows, in which it participates in memory of the Kent Squadron. Kent was the only county to have its own Spitfire squadron during the war, paid for by the people of Kent. Robin allows me to sit in its cockpit and it’s hard to put into words the emotive feelings the experience provokes.
This is followed by the spectacle of seeing a second, which shot down a Messerschmitt over Arnhem in 1944, now restored as a two-seater, taxiing down the runway, the roar of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine deafening.
With prior arrangement, anyone can visit the hangar, with a tour and the chance to sit in a Spitfire costing £50. For those after the ‘ultimate experience,’ a fee of £2,750 will get you around 20 minutes airborne in a Spitfire, while flying in the Harvard comes in a little cheaper at £430.
In contrast, a minute up the road, despite the Spitfire and Hurricane replicas at the entrance gate, St George’s Chapel, the RAF Chapel of Remembrance, is a place of great serenity.
Many of the exquisitely detailed stained-glass windows designed by Hugh Easton (who also designed the Battle of Britain Memorial Window in Westminster Abbey), commemorate various RAF squadrons, and individual pilots. Even the wooden floor is believed to have been made from old plane propeller blades.
Each day custodian Laurie Chester turns a page in the Book of Remembrance to show the casualties sustained on that date. On the wall next to it is a framed list, on vellum from a calf born in 1940, of the names of lost aircrew from Biggin Hill station.
“All sorts of people come here,” says Laurie. “One man in this morning was from the USA, and we get lots whose relatives are on the role of honour.” Increasingly rare are visits from the fighter pilots themselves, Laurie reflecting on how few now survive from the Battle of Britain itself. It seems incredible that the Ministry of Defence recently announced that funding the chapel was “not the most appropriate” use of its budget, casting its future in doubt.
If Biggin Hill was the ‘strongest link’ among the chain of Kent airfields, Hawkinge was the nearest to enemy occupied France, just 10 minutes flying time from the Luftwaffe airfields.
Not only the most heavily bombed airfield, the area was also subjected to long-range, cross-Channel shelling from German shore batteries. No wonder this part of Kent was dubbed ‘Hellfire Corner,’ a fact commemorated by the National Memorial sculpture of a lone airman high up on the Downs at Caple-le-Ferne.
Hawkinge airfield closed in 1961 but some of the buildings, still bearing the scars of fighting, remain as part of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum, which opened in 1982, its collection previously kept in several temporary locations. It’s the largest and oldest-established visitor attraction dedicated to the subject.
Dave Brocklehurst, museum chairman and historian for the trust-run museum, began as a volunteer at the age of nine and, 36 years later, is still here. Awarded an MBE for his efforts in 2013, his knowledge of his subject is extensive and he is involved in the search, location and recovery of aircraft artefacts in the Museum.
It was from Hawkinge that the celebrated Dover-born pilot Keith Gillman flew his last flight. By the time the inspirational photo of his face had appeared on the front of Picture Post in August 1940, he’d already been shot down in action over the Channel. Some of the most poignant items here are the group photos of young airmen, sprawled out on the grass at Hawkinge, months, days, perhaps only hours before they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Many exhibits reflect the way planes came down in parishes across Kent, giving places like Eastry, Ash and Swingfield their own bit of wartime history. “There’s always a connection to you own life, whether it was a pilot who was killed in a crash in your local hamlet, or an airman who went to the local school,” says Dave.
Alongside original aircraft, many others are replicas used in the film Battle of Britain, (1969), whose action scenes painstakingly recreated the aerial combat and brought it vividly to life.
Some of the displays relate to the war on the ground and civilian life. Claustrophobic Anderson and Morrison shelters, a hulking great Vickers anti-aircraft gun which could shoot 28ibs shells 25,000 feet up into the sky, and a searchlight are among many fascinating objects.
There’s so much here that current facilities can hardly contain them and Dave plans to expand the current three-acre site to 15 acres, adding two more hangars. You could spend hours here and you’d just skim the surface, reflecting the fact that, the more time passes, the more our fascination with this period of history deepens.
FIND OUT MORE
Visit www.bigginhillheritagehangar.co.uk to arrange a visit. Details of its varied flying experience packages: www.flyaspitfire.co.uk
St George’s RAF Battle of Britain Chapel of Remembrance is open Tuesday to Sunday 11am-4pm, 01959 570353
Kent Battle of Britain Museum is open Tue-Sun until 31 October: www.kbobm.org.and keep up to date with activities via its Facebook page.
For details of the National Memorial to the Few, and its recently opened visitor centre: www.battleofbritainmemorial.org