Kent's important links to the RAF and WWII
PUBLISHED: 13:28 27 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:28 27 March 2018
Celebrating its centenary this year, Kent's links with the RAF go back to its early beginnings as famously during the Second World War, much of the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies over our proud frontline county
The Royal Air Force is 100 years old this year, and it’s the cue for celebratory events the length and breadth of the land.
The RAF was the first air force in the world to be formed without reference or subordination to an army or navy. Under the command of Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard in its initial years, it quickly became a powerful element of the British defence forces, supporting ground troops on the West Front and in Palestine.
But Kent’s association with early flight and the development of air power goes further back than that. Although it is the skies above Hampshire that can claim to have witnessed the first recognised powered flight in Britain, undertaken by the American Samuel Franklin Cody at Farnborough in October 1908, Kent can boast of having the first official airfield.
Leysdown, near Shellbeach, on the Isle of Sheppey has that honour, although this was a short-lived site for an aircraft manufacturing company, run by the Short Brothers Eustace and Oswald, who’d initially been involved in the manufacture of gas-filled balloons at their plant in Hove, Sussex.
Even though Leysdown closed as a manufacturing unit in 1910, it continued to be used for RAF training into the late 1930s and as a bombing and firing range in the Second World War.
From Leysdown, the Shorts quickly moved to nearby Eastchurch, which offered better landing facilities for planes. Perhaps more significantly for the long term, the Aero Club, which had also been at Leysdown, had followed the Shorts to Eastchurch and in 1911 they offered the Admiralty – which was beginning to explore the potential of air power in warfare – the use of the airfield as a pilot training school.
One of these was Charles Samson, who in 1912 became the first British pilot to take off from a ship, anchored in the Medway. Eastchurch would continue to play a major part in the training of airmen though the First World War, as the Royal Naval Air Service expanded, eventually merging with the Royal Flying Corps to form the RAF as the war drew to a close.
For anyone interested in the history of Kent’s airfields, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust has an excellent website where you can search for a site by area, type, or airfield name (www.abct.org.uk).
The Trust seeks to educate the public in the history of British airfields, partly by establishing and supporting the establishment of museums and interpretation centres, as well as by the preservation of historical details and records of airfields. Kent, of course, is fortunate in that some of its most famous airfields retain a tangible presence today, very often thanks to small museums which have established themselves within or near the airfields.
Lashenden Aerodrome was first used for aviation in 1927 but was requisitioned for operational use in 1942. The following year two squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying Spitfire IXbs, were briefly stationed there.
Although closed after the war and then put back into agricultural use, the airfield was re-opened for private aviation in the 1950s and is now home to several flying schools.
In addition, the Lashenden Air Warfare Museum, which claims to be one of the oldest aviation museums in the country, having been established in 1970, holds items – including sections of fuselage – recovered from plane wrecks from all over the world, as well as more than 200 British, German and American uniforms and flying suits.
On the last weekend of June this year the airfield is staging the Battle of Britain Air Show as part of the RAF centenary celebrations, featuring an air display from vintage craft including Spitfires, Hurricanes, a Tiger Moth and a Harvard T6, all courtesy of the Aero Legends.
While Lashenden is one of Kent’s somewhat lesser-known airfields, Manston can track its RAF connections right back to the earliest days. In fact, airmen were flying from here in the days when they took to the skies almost literally on just a wing and a prayer.
But in the First World War, Royal Naval Air Service pilots taking off from Manston helped repel the menace of German Zeppelins on their way to attack London.
It was the Second World War which truly brought Manston to national attention. The Battle of Britain took place over the southern counties, with the Luftwaffe aiming to bomb radar stations and coastal airfields. Manston was inevitably caught in the fire and took a massive pounding, as did Manston village and the neighbouring farms and houses.
When Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited in August 1940, he found massive craters and markers which indicated unexploded bombs all over the site.
Yet the airfield recovered and by the end of the war the station commander was able to report that the Manston squadron had made an important contribution to the Allies’ success, sinking 123 enemy ships, 234 aircraft and 161 V1s.
This April, to coincide with the RAF centenary, Manston’s Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum will be offering visitors the chance to experience something of the sensation of flying a wartime aircraft with the unveiling of its Spitfire simulator.
With donations from the local community and thanks to funding by Kent County Council and Thanet Council, the museum was able to raise £15,000 to install the simulator, built to Spitfire cockpit scale size, and sited directly next to a TB752 Spitfire on the museum floor.
Two of the other major RAF bases in Kent, Hawkinge and Biggin Hill, which took a fearsome battering in the Battle of Britain and whose names are forever linked with the force’s history, are also still rewarding places for the history seeker to visit.
Down at Hellfire Corner, along with the National Memorial to the Few, the strikingly located sculpture of a solitary airman high on the hills above Capel-le-Ferne, some of the original airfield buildings have been incorporated into the Kent Battle of Britain Museum at Hawkinge.
RAF Hawkinge was the most heavily bombed airfield of the war, and it’s fitting that it is probably the most painstakingly and lovingly run of museums. Dave Brocklehurst, who started here as a boy of nine, is still there nearly 40 years later. For the lover of the nitty gritty of World War Two aviation, this is the place to visit.
Meanwhile, Biggin Hill, on a plateau of the North Downs, remains one of the most emotive of names. Today it’s the home of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, where not only are old Spitfires restored, but you can also book a flight in a Spitfire or a Harvard.
At this year’s Biggin Hill Festival of Flight in August, along with the Red Arrows, the Hangar’s very own Spirit of Kent Spitfire will be participating in memory of the Kent pilots who fought in the War.
And as well as joining the celebrations around the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, the Battle of Britain Memorial here in Kent will be marking an important anniversary of its own.
This summer will see the 25th anniversary of the unveiling of the National Memorial to the Few by Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on 9 July 1993.
While the Trust has since added a range of features to the clifftop site at Capel-le-Ferne, just outside Folkestone, the stone carving of a seated pilot carved by Harry Gray looking out over The Channel (above) remains at the emotive heart of this place of pilgrimage and reflection.
In contrast, The Scramble Experience offers hands-on interactivity for younger visitors and those who want to know more about the background to the Battle that changed history in 1940. The newest exhibit invites would-be pilots to sit in a replica Hurricane cockpit and take on the Luftwaffe in realistic video game style.
The Trust will welcome the RAF 100 Baton Relay on 14 April, when the Aston Martin Red 10 arrives at 2pm. Its own celebrations will centre on this year’s Memorial Day, on 1 July, when the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will once again add to the occasion.
Find out more
30 June-31 July: Lashenden Airfield’s Battle of Britain Air Show, www.headcornevents.co.uk
1 April: RAF 100 Baton Relay at the Battle of Britain Memorial, www.battleofbritainmemorial.org
To book a flight in an Aero Legends vintage aircraft, visit: www.aerolegends.co.uk
For details of the Spitfire simulator at the Spitfire and Hurricane Museum at Manston, visit: www.spitfiremuseum.org.uk
For details of opening times at Hawkinge’s Kent Battle of Britain Museum, visit: www.kbobm.org
To book a flight in a Spitfire or a tour at the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, visit: www.bigginhillheritagehangar.co.uk
18-19 August: Biggin Hill Festival of Flight, www.britishairchows.com/biggin-hill-festival-of-flight-airshow
For details of the RAF’s nationwide centenary celebrations, visit: www.raf.mod.uk/raf100
Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust: www.abct.org.uk/airfields
With thanks to Ken Delve, an ex-RAF aircrew officer, aviation author, and Trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust