17th May 2016 | Stories

“All hell let loose” August 1940

When I am asked “Did you take part in the Battle of Britain?” I usually reply “Yes — but I did not know it ’til it was all over.”

I was a 19-year old Scot who had never spent much time away from my home town of Forfar, in the heart of Angus, when in early 1940 I joined the Royal Air Force and found myself with two other lads from the north posted to Royal Air Force Kenley. Alighting at Whyteleafe railway station, wearing full kit and carrying our gas masks, tin hats and kitbags, we were informed, by what appeared to be the only official on duty, that the way to Kenley was ”past the church and up the hill.” Off we set on foot to ascend what seemed to us, laden down like pack horses, an endless climb. Exhausted, we eventually arrived at the guardroom to the airfield where we found, contrary to the usual confusion with RAF postings, we were expected.

After depositing our kit in the billets we had been allocated, which turned out to be the married quarters occupied by the regular staff prior to hostilities, we reported to the Sector Operations Room where, as Clerks (Special Duty), we were to spend what turned out to be the most exciting months of our young lives.

Being young and far from home is always a difficult time in one’s life but I found Kenley, with its proud pre-war record, to be a most friendly station. Even today, as I attend the annual reunions, there is a certain magic about the place and the feeling that I am returning home.

The Operations Room, which, alas, was demolished some years ago, was situated behind the Officers’ Mess and was manned around the clock by three watches of WAAFs and airmen. It was from here that the aerial battle in our part of south east England was directed. The enemy was only too aware of the vital part Kenley, together with Biggin Hill, Tangmere and the other four Sector Stations in No.11 Group of Fighter Command, were playing in the destruction of its battle fleet during its campaign to secure air superiority — an essential prerequisite to its plans to invade our homeland. Kenley’s success rate, although achieved at great cost in human lives, was extremely high. So on Sunday 18th August 1940, the enemy decided that this airfield should be made the object of a direct attack to destroy all the key facilities and render the airfield non-operational for some time to come.

I had been on duty in the Ops Room overnight and, after breakfast, attended Station Sick Quarters at 11.15am for dental treatment. I had not been there long before the message came over the Tannoy system, “Attack Alarm, Attack Alarm. All personnel not servicing aircraft take cover”. This broadcast came from the Ops Room when enemy aircraft were in close proximity. The Sick Quarters building was immediately evacuated and I joined my colleagues outside the covered slit trench which was directly behind our billets.

We were enjoying a chat and a smoke outside the shelter as we had done in the past weeks for, although there was plenty of air activity, nothing much up to now had happened. However, on this day, not many minutes had elapsed before we realised we were being attacked by machine gun and cannon shell fire as three Dornier aircraft, at low level, flew over the rooftops of our billets. There was a mad scramble to get underground and, from then on, all hell let loose.

Our trench had a near miss at one end and a few of our colleagues were partially buried. However, no serious casualties were sustained and we emerged into the daylight about 1pm to survey the damage.

The sick quarters where I had been earlier, was in flames and the shelter adjacent to this building had received a direct hit where, we learned later, three of our Medical Officers had been killed, including a well-known local physician. Of the seven hangars on the airfield, only one remained intact and a pall of smoke hung over the area. Strangely, although communications were severely damaged, the Operations Room had not been hit, but it was decided that the building should be abandoned and staff transferred to the “Emergency Operations Room” which had been constructed inside a converted butcher’s shop in Caterham Village, owned pre-war by Messrs Spice and Wallis and now the site of a funeral director’s office, W. A. Truelove & Son Ltd, at 11 Godstone Road. This move took place at the beginning of September and operations were conducted from this building until early November when a house three-quarters of a mile west of the airfield at Old Coulsdon, known as “The Grange” situated behind St. John’s Church, was taken over and converted to meet operational requirements.

Incidentally, I was on duty in the old butcher’s shop Ops Room on the evening when we were visited by the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. I recall, too, that on many occasions, Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, C-in-C Fighter Command, spent the evening with us.

I left Kenley in March 1941 as a member of the crew manning the radar station at Wartling on the marshes, east of Eastbourne, and I came back after the war to settle in this lovely town.

I am now 83 years of age and until quite recently, have attended the Kenley reunion of all those who were on duty on the airfield on Sunday the 18th of August 1940, the day of the big raid. During the service which is held at “Airmens’ Corner” in St.Luke’s Churchyard, Whyteleafe, where those killed on the airfield on that fateful day were laid to rest, my mind goes back over the years and I find that the months I spent at Royal Air Force Kenley in 1940, which proved to be one of the most momentous periods in our great and glorious history, are still vivid in my memory.

This story was added to the People’s War website by Steve Gothard with the permission of the author, Jim Crofts, who understands the terms and conditions of the website. ‘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‘ – Steve Gothard