17th May 2016 | Stories

My Path to a Battle: Childhood Memories of RAF Kenley

The paths of my contribution to The War began on 14th May 1927 – just a couple of weeks before Charles Lindbergh set the magic air alight when he flew over my nearby pram at Purley to land in front of the exited crowds awaiting his tumultuous arrival at Croydon Airport. His world stirring ‘Spirit of St Louis’ had quite providentially arrived on the very doorstep of my part of Surrey.

Flying was really sensational in the 1920s and thirties and the ‘Spirit’ had entered into many peoples’ hearts and minds – and which was to rub off on me in due course. In fact it started a few days after Charles landed at Croydon, for with estimates running at over 100,000 people clamourously crowding around the arriving silver monoplane, it was deemed too dangerous to depart from there so he secretively ‘spirited’ St Louis to nearby RAF Kenley prior to his official departure back to his ecstatic, awaiting USA.

RAF Kenley was to become my local Battle of Britain fighter station for, at 4 years old, we moved from my Purley birthplace to live among the North Down denes and country fields a couple of miles west of the soon famous ‘Battle’ airfield. It was at pre-war Kenley that air displays in the form of the ‘Empire Air Days’ were to make firm inroads to my aeroplane interests for I didn’t miss out on these ‘Open Day’ events in fine summer weather.

Aeroplanes were wonderfully smelly in those days too, and the oil-fried exhaust air of the sprightly Hawkers and Gloster biplane fighters in dazzling coats of silver paint and red, white and blue, ‘stung’ a boy’s snitch till the day he could get his hands on the controls of his first flight.

So when the War finally started – after the months and years of wrangling and talk – I had reached the great age of 12 years and 4 months, been inside a plane’s cockpit at Kenley, looked into gun-sights, fondled the anti-aircraft guns, marvelled at the searchlights, watched the lone parachutist make his ‘daredevil’ crowd adoring descent, and, via a fabric tunnel, actually explore the vast inside of an inflated silver barrage balloon. It was marvellous!

And little did I know then that all that I’d seen and felt at Kenley was in due course coming my way, for a year later – in my 13th year I was too see the first overhead Battle of Britain, the bombing attacks on Kenley, and then the nightly blitz as the bombers bound for London overflew our country bungalow. And from our road we could watch that great firework display of flashing guns and millions of shells, the flash of bombs the strings of incandescent flares, the fascinating shafts of penetrating searchlights, and the great red glow of London burning. It was all quite awesome and unforgettable.

April 1941 saw me prematurely discarding my little school shorts for some undersized long trousers and begin work at a Reigate hotel of high rating. I was nearly 14 years old and off for the daily grind. This was to last ’till I was 17½ when I made off to Croydon in mid-December 1944 to sign the enlistment papers and join the army. The RAF was full and needed no more recruits – good or dud. The recruiting officers said: “Join the army, then volunteer for the parachute regiment- that way you’ll see some flying and real action.” And so it proved, for I started army training in January 1945, got into my flying – albeit via the back door of the most favoured aeroplanes – Dakotas- at Ringway, Manchester, in July. All that had so impressed me at Kenley a few years before was now mine: I was a trained soldier, knew all about our guns, had flown in the aeroplanes, jumped from cages hanging beneath the ‘flimsy’ great barrage balloons, and ‘toyed’ with the ‘daredevil’ parachutes. And all my parachute ‘wings’ sown on a month before the war ended! How remarkable!

So, a boy born in mid 1927 was 12½ at the outbreak of the war, saw the B of B at 13, spent several teenage years envying everybody flying in planes, then was old enough to enter military service as a soldier before the war ended. Had I been a year older I might have got shot at Arnhem or the Crossing of the Rhine! And incidentally, because I volunteered at 17½ instead of waiting for ‘call up’, I proved to be the youngest Para boy training in the Isle of Wight in 1945: I had my 18th birthday at the Albany Barracks (Parkhurst Prison) and a pint with pals at Newport. “Schoolboys!!” The training sergeant gasped glaring at my 8 stone and 8lbs. Yet I reached the course boxing finals at lightweight and got a good hiding from a Scotsman who knew the ropes and spots to punch. There was however a standing ovation and impressive words from the CO for, as he put it, “… standing up and carrying the fight to a superior opponent, this man (me) has set an example of the requirements of all our parachute soldiers”.

My army ‘Active Service’ was with the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine 1946-1948, but all those trials and frights caught between Arab and Jewish factions is another story of my five-year army affair. These stories are recorded in my manuscript ‘From Cherry Trees to Nazareth’; the trees of my Surrey garden.

My local history booklets include an account of the 18th August 1940 German air raid on Kenley. This was an anniversary 1990 publication called ‘Kenley’s Open Door’ and copies were in New Zealand two days after going on sale. Known as “The Hardest Day” is a book by Alfred Price; Dorniers of an elete Staffel came within a hundred feet of our bungalow roof.

My 70th birthday publication covers all sorts of adventures escapades as a lover of planes, the flying and parachuting as a skydiver, the war events in my part of Surrey and Kenley, and many other stories and mentions of my village from my boyhood days to the present times of glider flights over our fields and woods from the winch launch at Kenley. “The Spirit and The Dragon” is mainly a local history book with abridged stories from my autobiography ‘Twig in Heaven’ and other works. De Havilland Dragon Rapides are a feature of the ‘Spirit’ that began in May 1927, and were seen frequently at Croydon and overflying our houses and fields, and served as my jumping freefall platform while parachuting in Wiltshire.

“WW2 People’s War” is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar– Author -*Swallow*