RAF Kenley 1939 – 1945

RAF Kenley 1939 – 1945

RAF Kenley was reactivated about six months into the war. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops were on the retreat from the continent as squadrons were returning to England. No 615 Squadron, although now equipped with Hawker Hurricanes, had a particularly tough time in Belgium, and along with the withdrawal of No 3 Squadron, Kenley’s Station Commander was faced with a huge logistical problem of where to accommodate these returning squadrons prior to their dispersal to other airfields. Kenley squadrons played a great part in providing cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Map of Fighter Group 11 - Kenley Revival

It soon became clear following this withdrawal that Britain faced the danger of being attacked itself. As Churchill said: “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” However, for a seaborne assault on the south coast of England, the German war machine needed complete mastery of the air. Therefore, Fighter Command had to be taken on. The Germans increasingly turned their attention to the airfields in the south-east, and particularly Kenley, whose importance had grown as it took on the role of a Sector HQ in 11 (Fighter) Group – Shoreham, Gatwick, Redhill and Croydon airfields were the earliest under its control.

Kenley would not have long to wait before it became a target for Luftwaffe bombers.

German Luftwaffe photograph of bombing of Fighter Blast Pen KC52 on 18th August 1940 (Stabler Heritage, RAF Museum, Hendon) Kenley Revival
A German Luftwaffe photograph shows the machine-gunning of one of RAF Kenley’s fighter blast pens located on the northern edge of the airfield on 18th August 1940: Hayes Lane can be seen in the background (Stabler Heritage, RAF Museum, Hendon). The photographer’s account of the raid can be read here.

On 18th August 1940, the airfield sustained major damage following a heavy bombing raid by the Luftwaffe.

The ‘early warning’ radar had picked up a lot of enemy activity across the channel that sunny Sunday lunchtime. At around 12.45pm, the perceived threat resulted in No 64 and 615 Squadrons being scrambled, although the Germans’ targets were still unclear. At 1pm, some sixty Luftwaffe aircraft, comprising of a high-level and a low-level raiding force, crossed the Sussex coast as air raid sirens sounded around Kenley and Caterham. Fifteen minutes later, the onslaught began from the south with nine Dornier Do17 bombers of the low-level raiding force flying across the aerodrome at about 100 feet, followed up several moments later by a raid from the high-level bombers.

RAF Kenley 15 August 1940
Pilot of No.6 Squadron RAF running towards his Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1A as the Squadron is scrambled at Kenley, 10.45am on 15 August 1940. © IWM (HU 54420)

Damage to the airfield and its facilities is well documented; three of the hangers were well alight, the equipment stores were a write-off, as were four Hurricanes and a Bristol Blenheim bomber that were destroyed on the ground. Damage was sustained to another four parked aircraft and the station’s medical facilities. No communications now existed. Nine airmen were killed including the station’s much loved medical officer and local GP, Flight Lieutenant Robert Cromie, and a further ten were wounded. Substantial damage was also suffered to houses surrounding the airfield as targets were missed: Valley Road in Kenley was particularly badly hit.

Hurricane of 615 Squadron, badly damaged by bomb blast at RAF Kenley
A Hurricane of No 615 Squadron, badly damaged by bomb blast at RAF Kenley (Unknown)

However, No 64 and No 615 Squadrons’ pilots did not allow the enemy to escape unpunished as they claimed several enemy fighters and bombers in the process.

While the German raiders appeared to have inflicted substantial material damage, the practical reality was somewhat different. The hangars destroyed were mainly surplus to requirements. The equipment stores were dispersed to the squadrons and the sick bay was relocated. Runway craters were filled in from mounds of rubble located around the airfield, and most importantly of all, the Operations Room remained intact. Kenley, despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe, was ready for action within hours of the raid ending – except for one glaring issue.

Ops Room, RAF Kenley 1943 Lilian Ruth Antrobus Buchanan
Ops Room, RAF Kenley 1943, Lilian Ruth Antrobus Buchanan

The raid had identified how vulnerable RAF Kenley was to having its communication system destroyed – and the same was true for other Fighter Command bases. Lacking contact with Bentley Priory in North London – the headquarters for Fighter Command, Kenley was effectively blind to what was going on across south-east England. To rectify this, and ensure that there were never a re-occurrence, a new communications centre was found away from the base in an empty butcher’s shop at 11 Godstone Road in nearby Caterham Village where it was assumed it would be safe from attack – the site is now the premises of a funeral director’s office, W. A. Truelove & Son Ltd. On 1 November 1940 the centre moved again, about three-quarters of a mile west of the airfield to an old house called ‘The Grange’, standing at the rear of St. John’s Church in Old Coulsdon, which offered more space and up-to-date equipment.

The Battle of Britain, which was to rage between 10 July and 31 October 1940, had well and truly begun, and Kenley’s pilots were very much in the firing line.

Squadrons operating from Kenley claimed successes as an increasing number of Luftwaffe aircraft were now operating over the south-east. There were bad days as well as good – in one day No 616 (County of Yorkshire) Squadron lost seven Spitfires and No 615 Squadron lost four Hurricanes where three pilots were killed. Yet Kenley’s pilots inflicted significant damage on the attacking bombers and fighters, many of them gaining “ace” status as a result. By the end of the epic Battle of Britain there was no doubt that Kenley had played a highly significant role.

Kenley Revival, No 253 Squadron RAF in 1940
Kenley Revival, Hawker Hurricane and members of No 253 (Hyderabad) Squadron RAF in 1940 (Unknown)

In 1941 Kenley was on the offensive again, operating against enemy targets across the English Channel and escorting Bristol Blenheim bombers to their targets. An influx of Allied and Commonwealth airmen started that year with two Polish squadrons, a Czech, an Australian, and a New Zealand squadron being based at Kenley. After a Belgian Squadron arrived in 1942, six Canadian Squadrons, on rotation through to 1944, swiftly followed.

Belgian 350 Squadron RAF Kenley 1942
Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs and pilots of No 350 (Belgian) Squadron RAF lined up at Kenley. Photograph by Flying Officer F W Crouch, RAF. © IWM (CH 6345)

RAF Kenley’s most famous Commanding Officer (CO) was Group Captain Victor Beamish DSO & Bar, DFC, AFC, whose demeanour earned him the respect of everyone. As CO he also commanded the Sector, and despite being almost 40 – considered very old for a fighter pilot, still sometimes flew operationally, leading the Kenley Wing which comprised of three fighter squadrons. On 28 March 1942 he was leading the Wing and flying with No 485 Squadron (New Zealand) when they sighted a formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke Wulf Fw 190s just south of Calais. He was shot down and killed in the ensuing engagement.

Wing Commander Jonnie Johnson
Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson CB, DSO & two bars, DFC & Bar (Unknown)

In 1943 Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson, who ended up with a CB, DSO & two Bars, DFC & Bar, one of the RAF’s best known aces, was stationed at Kenley commanding No 144 (Canadian) Wing; during the course of the war he was credited with shooting down 34 enemy aircraft as well as seven shared victories, three shared probable, 10 damaged, three shared damaged and one destroyed on the ground. This score made him the highest scoring Western Allied fighter ace against the German Luftwaffe.

Other famous RAF pilots flew from Kenley. As a young flying officer posted to No 23 Squadron at Kenley, Douglas Bader’s Bristol Bulldog aircraft crashed on 14 December 1931 while on a visit to the Reading Aero Club; badly injured Bader survived the crash but lost both legs. He rejoined the RAF in November 1939 having regained full flying status and was shot down over France on 9 August 1941, becoming a prisoner of war (POW). Wing Commander Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane DSO, DFC & Two Bars, who flew on No 452 Squadron from Kenley in 1941, was killed whilst leading the Hornchurch Wing on a ground attack operation against a German Army camp at Etaples on 15 July 1941. Aged 21, he was the RAF’s youngest wing commander.

As the war moved further away from Kenley, command and control was restructured. No 421 Squadron left for RAF Tangmere in April 1944 leaving the airfield’s role diminished, while Sector Control was taken over by nearby RAF Biggin Hill.